Fantasy Baseball Stock Watch: Week 10 Risers & Fallers plus lessons learned from reviewing Week 1
Looking back at whose stock was up and down at the start of the season offers some reminders of the value of pedigree.
The baseball season will be two months old Tuesday. With that nice round number in mind, I thought it would be a useful exercise to look back on the first Barometer of the season, both for some accountability and to check in on how those players have been doing. Here are the players I wrote up that week, along with a quick blurb about whether their rise or fall has continued.
Week 1 Risers
Josh Hader, RP, Brewers: No longer striking out 77.8 percent of opposing batters, but Fantasy owners will be quite happy with his 54.4 percent mark, as well as his 12 saves (already tied for a career high).
Greg Holland, RP, Diamondbacks: Still in the closer role and owns an excellent 1.53 ERA and a 2.82 FIP.
Chris Paddack, SP, Padres: Possibly even better than advertised, posting a 1.93 ERA, a 2.76 FIP and a 28.7 percent strikeout rate through nine starts.
Pete Alonso, 1B, Mets: Remains the unquestioned starter at first base, hitting 17 homers (tied for third in the league).
Pablo Lopez, SP, Marlins: A 5.40 ERA isn't good, but his 4.04 FIP hints at better (if not particularly great) things to come.
Week 1 Fallers
Chris Sale, SP, Red Sox: Took his time getting out of an early-season tailspin, doing damage to many Fantasy teams in the process, but is back to looking like Chris Sale again.
Zack Greinke, SP, Diamondbacks: Has looked as good as ever since his awful first start of the season, posting a 2.89 ERA while keeping his velocity right where it was last season.
Walker Buehler, SP, Dodgers: See below for a full write-up.
Wilmer Flores, 1B, Diamondbacks: Doesn't have a regular role and has just two homers, though there's nothing wrong with his .281 batting average.
Raisel Iglesias, RP, Reds: Has 11 of the Reds' 14 saves despite early reports of a more unconventional bullpen plan, posting a 3.20 ERA and a 32.7 percent strikeout rate.
What are the lessons here? We're dealing with just 10 hand-selected names, so any sweeping judgements likely will be incorrect. It does seem to be true, however, that a player with a promising track record (of past success like Holland or minor-league numbers like Alonso or Paddack) moving into a more important role early in the season is certainly a good value. A good player in a good situation is likely to remain good and remain in that good situation for as long as he remains good. Yes, that's hardly cutting-edge analysis, but it's worth noting that some of this season's breakouts were visible right away and worth jumping on right away.
On the other hand, it's also wise to trust the track record when it comes to early strugglers. Our ever-improving advanced stats do allow us to dig into smaller and smaller samples, but we're still stuck mostly describing what we've already seen. The best stats we have access to can do an excellent job explaining why pitchers like Sale, Greinke and Buehler got off to poor starts. They can help us tell whether those poor starts are primarily due to poor luck or if those pitchers were genuinely pitching at a lower level than we know they're capable of. No stat can say with any certainty, however, that a player with an established history as an elite player won't suddenly remember how to pitch, as that trio appears to have done.
Week 10 Risers
Walker Buehler, SP, Dodgers: Buehler had a slow start to camp and stumbled out of the gate in the regular season, allowing 11 runs in 12 innings in his first three starts and striking out just nine batters. He's looked like himself since, posting a 2.28 ERA in his last seven starts. His four starts in May have been particularly strong, as he's struck out 27.7 percent of batters (a near match for his 27.9 percent from last season) while walking 2.0 percent, en route to a 1.73 ERA. It now seems as though Buehler's slow start was nothing but an early blip, the remnants of whatever unspecified minor injury delayed the start of his throwing program in spring training, and he's a good bet to live up to his draft-day predictions.
Shane Bieber, SP, Indians: Bieber was a popular sleeper during draft season due to peripherals during his rookie season that far outpaced his mediocre 4.55 ERA. His 24.3 percent strikeout rate wasn't elite but was certainly above average, while he walked just 4.7 percent of batters. FIP, xFIP and SIERA agreed that he deserved an ERA somewhere in the realm of 3.20 to 3.50, but he's done even better than that through 10 starts this season, posting a 3.11 ERA. His walk rate isn't quite as low as last season, coming in at 6.6 percent, but he's struck out an impressive 30.6 percent of batters, including 15 in one game May 19 against the Orioles. There's little reason to think that the 23-year-old won't continue to live up to the hype.
Brandon Woodruff, SP, Brewers: Woodruff recorded a poor 5.81 ERA through his first five starts of the season but has been on fire since, posting a 1.18 ERA in his last six outings. He fired an absolute gem Sunday against the Phillies, allowing a single baserunner while striking out 10 batters in eight innings. His 3.22 ERA is even more impressive when considering his tough home park, and it's been well supported by his 29.1 percent strikeout rate and 6.6 percent walk rate. Those numbers aren't totally out of nowhere, as Woodruff did approach them with a 3.61 ERA, 26.7 percent strikeout rate and 8.0 percent walk rate last season, but that came mostly in relief. To see the 26-year-old take a step forward in his first full season as a major-league starter is quite encouraging, and he appears set to be quite a bargain for those who kept faith with him during his rough early stretch or who picked him up off waivers in mid-April.
C.J. Cron, 1B, Twins: Cron never established himself as anything particularly noteworthy in four seasons with the Angels, but his performances for the Twins this season are proving that his 30-homer breakout for the Rays last year was no fluke. He already has 13 bombs in the Twins' first 52 games, putting him on pace for 40.5 homers. His .272/.337/.543 batting line is backed up by Statcast, which gives him a .284 expected batting average and a .548 expected slugging percentage. Cron has seen his barrel rate jump from 12.2 percent to 15.9 percent and his hard-hit rate go from 36.6 percent to 44.7 percent, all while shrinking his strikeout rate from 25.9 percent to 20.6 percent. All signs point to the 29-year-old climbing to a new talent level in his second season in an everyday role, and the Twins' significantly improved offense should continue to give him plenty of opportunities to drive in runs.
Derek Dietrich, 1B/2B/OF, Reds: Tucked away on the Marlins for the first six years of his career, Dietrich understandably didn't have a particularly strong reputation heading into the season. His lack of hype combined with his lack of a clear role in the Reds' lineup made him more or less free in draft season (649.2 NFBC ADP), but fantasy owners who picked him up early in the season are likely happy with the results. A combination of a hot start by Dietrich and a cold one by Jose Peraza has seen Dietrich move into the strong side of a platoon, and he's treated the Reds and his Fantasy owners to a .241/.357/.639 line with 13 homers. While this level of performance is certainly more than expected, it's worth noting that Dietrich had been an above-average hitter in Miami for five consecutive seasons. Moving from Marlins Park to Great American Ballpark seems to have done wonders for his power, however, as he's on pace for 40 homers after never hitting more than 16 in any previous season.
Scott Kingery, SS, Phillies: First things first: Kingery is not going to hit .357/.400/.589 the rest of the season. BABIP isn't everything, but a quick glance at his .450 BABIP and his 60 plate appearances is enough to see that he's overachieved. Still, it's hard to believe he's going to repeat his .226/.267/.338 mark from his rookie season, either. This is a player who earned an extension in spring 2018 before receiving his first big-league at-bat and who hit an excellent .304/.359/.530 across the two highest levels of the minors in 2017. The Phillies appear to have kept faith in him, a fact that is as important for his Fantasy value as his early hot streak has been. Since returning from a hamstring injury, Kingery has started six of eight games, getting the call against four of four lefties and two of four righties. With that kind of playing time, he's at least worth a look in most formats, even if his batting average falls to the range of his expected batting average (.268) the rest of the way.
Week 10 Fallers
Bryce Harper, OF Phillies: Harper was looking like smart money through the first 19 games of his Phillies career, hitting .296/.438/.549. He's been in an extended slump in the 34 games since then, struggling to a .187/.303/.374 line. His clear issue all season has been strikeouts. Harper's strikeout rate has generally been quite respectable for a slugger, sitting right around league average for most of his career, but it's spiked to 31.2 percent this season, sixth highest in the league among qualified hitters and nearly five points above his career high of 26.3 percent set back in 2014. His contact rate has dropped for the third consecutive season to a career-low 65.3 percent. There's at least some good news for Harper's Fantasy owners in that his quality of contact when he does hit the ball appears to be as good as ever, with slight increases over last season in his barrel rate, hard-hit rate and exit velocity, so there's certainly a chance he returns to looking like the good Bryce Harper at some point this season, but it's difficult to predict if and when the swing-and-miss issues will suddenly dissipate.
Daniel Murphy, 1B/2B, Rockies: Moving to Coors Field and getting another offseason to recover from the knee surgery that shortened his 2018 campaign was supposed to lead to a bounce-back season for Murphy. Through 28 games this season, exactly the opposite has happened, as he's hit a quite poor .209/.277/.396. Statcast doesn't believe his struggles are the product of bad luck, as he owns a meager .204 expected batting average, down more than 100 points from his .305 mark in the same category last season. Fantasy owners looking for a silver lining could point to the broken finger Murphy suffered early in the season as the cause of his difficulties in hopes that he'll turn things around as we get further from the date of the injury, but it's also likely that a good deal of Murphy's downturn is natural age-related decline because he turned 34 early in the season. The Rockies may look to give at-bats to younger players should Murphy continue to struggle.
Marcus Stroman, SP, Blue Jays: Stroman came out firing this season, posting a 1.43 ERA in April. He backed that number up with a 23.8 percent strikeout rate, a figure that would beat his career high by three percentage points. In May, his ERA has fallen to a thoroughly mediocre 4.31 as his strikeout rate has taken a nosedive to 14.9 percent. Batters are hitting .307/.364/.465 off him in May after hitting .197/.272/.263 in April. Stroman's season ERA still sits at a strong 2.74, but don't be deceived by some unexpectedly good luck in April. Stroman still seems to be the same pitcher he's been for several seasons: good enough to sometimes produce a low ERA, but too reliant on contact management for him to be truly reliable, and lacking the strikeouts that could give him value when the batted balls stop bouncing his way.
Joe Musgrove, SP, Pirates: Another pitcher who got off to an excellent start this season, Musgrove didn't allow a run until his fourth appearance of the season and carried a 1.54 ERA through April. The flip of the calendar hit him even harder than it hit Stroman, as his May ERA sits at an awful 8.25. An unsustainably poor 35.5 percent strand rate in May undoubtedly can be blamed for some of that high figure, but it's not as if Musgrove has been pitching particularly well. He's struck out just 12.7 percent of batters in May while walking 9.1 percent. Musgrove's two wildly different months have combined to give him a rather unexciting 4.27 ERA, a near match for his career 4.32 mark, and his low 18.4 percent strikeout rate on the season limits his upside even if he's able to drag that ERA back down in the future.
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