The big story in baseball this week is focused on multiple reports from some of MLB's most trusted insiders that suggest the league will now crack down on pitchers using foreign substances in an effort to increase spin rates. Some might suggest we're already seeing some of the results of a crackdown already in progress after seeing the spin rates drop for pitchers like Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer in each of their last two starts. Others are more skeptical. We'll aim to get to the bottom of this.
To kick off each week of the season, I'll be reaching out to Fantasy Baseball Today's Chris Towers, Scott White and Frank Stampfl to ask them a few big questions that can hopefully help lead to actionable advice. If you are reading this and have specific questions you'd love to see Chris, Scott and Frank answer -- please DM me @DanSchneierNFL. And remember that if you don't like any of the answers, I'm just the messenger and you know what they say about the messenger.
Let's dive into the questions now:
- What 30K-foot view impact will the MLB's coming crackdown on pitchers using foreign substances have on Fantasy?
- Scott: The stated short-term goal is to pull hitters back even with pitchers. If the spin rate on pitches is reduced, strikeouts will go down. But there's also the long-term goal of hitters maybe not selling out so hard for power if they're putting the ball in play more. Today's hitters have been conditioned to elevate the ball, though, so I don't see why they would suddenly stop, which means fewer strikeouts will likely result in more home runs. Plus, there may be only a couple dozen pitchers who fit into the "too good" category. The rest may suffer disproportionately. Will the effect be as exaggerated as in 2019? I'd bet against it, but I can't say with great confidence.
- Frank: I think we're going to see a slight increase in offense, though that's usually expected in June-August anyway. Of course there can be repercussions for anybody who is caught using these foreign substances, but I'm not sure we know what that is yet. Will players be suspended? It's a possibility. It's worth noting that the pitchers with the biggest drop in spin rates since Thursday have been Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, and Corbin Burnes.
- Chris: This might be a frustrating answer, but the biggest impact will be an injection of even more uncertainty. And we're dealing with more of that than ever this season between a much different offensive environment than expected due to the de-juiced baseball and a historic rise in injuries -- there are already more players on IL currently than at any point in 2020, and the number of IL players is up 32% over the same day in 2019. Now, add what very well could be a gigantic change in how pitchers perform at a population level and we simply know less than at any point I can remember. The impact of more enforcement of the rules on foreign substances may be mild, or it may be sporadic, or it could lead to an offensive explosion. The truth is, we just don't know, and that's the worst thing in Fantasy.
- We talk Logan Gilbert, Tarik Skubal, Patrick Wisdom and the latest with foreign substances and spin rates for starting pitchers on the Fantasy Baseball Today in 5 podcast. You can follow us to get the latest episodes on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
2. Which pitchers specifically will this impact the most and should we be looking to sell on any of them?
- Scott: More goes into making a pitcher good than spin rate, and there are ways to improve spin rate that go beyond just foreign substances, which might explain why Dylan Cease, one of the leaders in fastball spin, saw little decline in his last turn compared to others like Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and Corbin Burnes. Does it mean I'm worried about the latter three? Well, Burnes still dominated, and Cole's reduced spin rate was still much higher than in his Pirates days. I'd most worry about Bauer because that's the easy answer, but if there's a chance the entire pitcher pool blows up, should you really be trading your probable No. 1? It's also possible the decline in spin rate for certain pitchers won't be nearly as impactful as the decline in command for others, but good luck picking out the right ones if that's the case.
- Frank: My guess is any starting pitcher who ranks highly in spin rate could be susceptible to this if they have been using foreign substances. There's still a lot of assumptions at this point. For what it's worth, all of the Dodgers starting pitchers rank highly in spin, Joe Musgrove, Yu Darvish, Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, Tyler Mahle, and Marcus Stroman. I think Bauer might be the only one I shop, but I'm still looking for top-five starting pitcher return.
- Chris: I'll double down on being frustrating: We just don't know. I could rattle off a list of the likeliest pitchers to be doing something to their grip or to the ball, but the extent to which that has impacted their abilities is so hard to pin down. I wouldn't necessarily be looking to sell any of them, in part because of that and in part because, if you buy the general assumption that most pitchers are doing something, it stands to reason that the effectiveness of pitchers as a whole will likely be impacted, not just the best of them. We could be looking at a return to the 2019 environment, where the gap between the haves and have-nots at pitcher was greater than ever. Why risk selling one of the potential haves?
3. Who is the most valuable player in Fantasy moving forward?
- Scott: I don't see why it wouldn't be Ronald Acuna still. Maybe Vladimir Guerrero has closed the gap as a hitter, but he doesn't run like Acuna does. Fernando Tatis probably belongs in this discussion, but his balky shoulder is just one bad follow-through from landing him on the IL. And I suppose the scenario I outlined in the first two questions could move a pitcher like Jacob deGrom so far ahead of the middle class at starting pitcher that he becomes the most valuable player. But I'm sticking with Acuna.
- Frank: In Roto I think it's about a tie between Ronald Acuña and Fernando Tatis. What those two provide in all five categories is just spectacular. In a points league I'll go with Jacob deGrom. He lowered his ERA to 0.62 this weekend, the lowest through nine starts... ever. DeGrom is currently averaging the most Fantasy points per game and rightfully so.
- Chris: I think it's between Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Ronald Acuña, and Fernando Tatis, especially in Roto leagues. Tatis is playing through a shoulder injury, deGrom was already on the IL once this season, and Cole has the whole first-two-questions thing hanging over him, so I'll go with Acuña. He's suddenly become a plate discipline God and he's on pace for a 40-30 season.
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4. Who is the likeliest RP with single-digit saves now to finish the season with double-digit saves?
- Scott: The easy answer is Ryan Pressly, who's still at nine saves even though he has been the Astros closer all year and hasn't created any drama. But keeping with the spirit of the question, I'll say Kendall Graveman comes off the IL and never looks back, securing the closer role in a Mariners bullpen that presents few alternatives. He may enter at times before the ninth inning just because the stakes are so high, but by now, manager Scott Servais has to recognize he can't rely on Rafael Montero as his Plan B.
- Frank: Hector Neris has nine saves at this point and is fully entrenched as the Phillies closer but he's an obvious answer. It seems the Reds have finally turned things over to Lucas Sims who picked up two saves this weekend. Sims is averaging 13.5 K/9 though he needs to work on the walks. He's only 27% rostered right now in case you're in need of saves.
- Chris: Ignoring the obvious -- Hector Neris only needs one to reach double-digits -- I'll go with Lucas Sims. He got his sixth save Sunday and now has five of the last six for the Reds, all coming over his last six appearances. Sims had a 7.20 ERA as of May 4, but after Sunday's game, he has a 2.77 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 13 innings over his last 11 appearances. He won't be among the league leaders in saves, even from this point on, because the Reds do like to use him in multi-inning spots and will turn to Tejay Antone for the occasional save, but Sims looks like a must-roster reliever moving forward.
5. What major change can we expect in Fantasy as we reach the heat of the summer months?
- Scott: At the risk of repeating myself, I'll say that offense is likely to go up. It was bound to happen anyway. The crackdown on grip enhancers may exacerbate the issue by elevating home run, walk and contact rates, but even without intervention, it's typical for league-wide BABIP to rise every month before dropping in September. This April's BABIP was historically low, but May's was closer to typical. And the biggest rise from one month to the next tends to be May to June. Hold your pitchers close, everyone.
- Frank: More home runs. As a result, I think that struggling mid-tier of hitters should get better. I'm looking at DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Soler, Dominic Smith to be better than they have been, albeit not as good as we hoped. On the contrary, I think that mid-tier of starting pitchers will regress. As good as Alex Wood, Kyle Gibson, and Taijuan Walker have been, they won't remain this good.
- Chris: Given the aforementioned uncertainty, it's especially hard to give an answer to this question. I think a lot of the trends we've seen so far will continue -- especially injuries, which tend to have a reinforcing feedback loop kind of effect -- but I'll say we're going to see an offensive explosion. Not because of the heat of the summer months, but because if the league truly does crack down on foreign substances by pitchers, we could see a drop in the record-high league-wide strikeout rate, and that's going to mean more and more home runs. Teams are averaging 4.37 runs per game right now: I wouldn't be shocked if that was over 5.00 from July 1 through the end of the season.