Outfield feels as deep as it has ever been after. 2021 saw a number of big breakouts — I see you, Cedric Mullins — while plenty of fantasy managers are happy to bet on bounce-back seasons from guys like Christian Yelich. But that makes it all the more important to get OF right. Your opposition will probably have a strong OF, so who should you avoid to make sure your OF doesn’t fall flat?
Tyler O’Neill (STL)
2021 Stats (537 PA): .286 AVG, 89 R, 80 RBI, 34 HR, 15 SB
O’Neill was a stud in 2021. No question. He helped you across the board, putting up a very good average and great counting stats, especially given he played only 138 games. Put in another 24 games of another OF to fill in for the time he missed, and you are over 100 R, 90 RBI, and maybe pushing a 40/20 season. Oh, and he plays great defense too (82nd percentile in Outs Above Average, 7.4 UZR/150, and 11 DRS). That may not help his fantasy line, but it keeps him in the lineup.
O’Neill managed that performance despite real swing-and-miss issues, because when he does make contact, he makes loud contact. Among 132 qualified hitters, his barrel rate was fifth. When you look at Barrels/PA, punishing him for all those strikeouts, he falls … all the way to eighth. Big power plus elite speed makes him a fun player to watch and a fun player to draft.
But I am going to be staying away, as I expect almost all of those numbers to take a hit in 2022. Average is the most obvious, perhaps. Since 1990, 52 players have had 500 PA with a strikeout rate over 30%, and only three have put up an average over .280 (O’Neill in 2021, Aaron Judge in 2017, and José Hernández in 2002). Only 13 hit over .250. There is some room for optimism, as we have seen recent players repeat this kind of high-K, high-BABIP approach to high averages, notably Judge and Teoscar Hernández. But it’s very much an exception — if you can’t put the bat on the ball, you can’t get hits.
The rest follows from that — if O’Neill hits .250 instead of .286, that is something like 20 fewer times on base, about a 10% hit to his opportunities to steal bases or score runs. It also means fewer runs driven in. And if his sweet spot, hard-hit, or barrel rates regress even a little bit, he stands to take an even bigger hit, as his HR numbers might fall as well. The upside is real, and I don’t blame anyone betting on a repeat, but with his limited track record and high draft cost, this isn’t the bet I want to make.
J.D. Martinez (BOS)
2021 Stats (634 PA): .286 AVG, 92 R, 99 RBI, 28 HR, 0 SB
Martinez had a rough go of it in the shortened 2020 season, but bounced back nicely in 2021. While the season represented a sizable step down from his peak, it was a welcome sight for both the Red Sox and his fantasy managers. Even better, he managed to find 35 starts in the outfield, a nice boon to his fantasy value for 2022. Who knows when he will enter the UTIL-Only Club (Club President: Nelson Cruz).
But what if his line looked like this: .273 AVG, 82 R, 83 RBI, 23 HR, 0 SB? That looks quite a bit worse, but it is what he did after April 11. We aren’t talking about cutting off a month or even weeks — this is just looking at everything after his first eight games of the season. That’s not a bad line, by any means, but it is a lot worse. For eight games, he had a .542 BABIP and a 29.4% HR/FB rate with a 95.2 mph average exit velocity, a 57.1% hard-hit rate, and a 12.3% barrel rate. The rest of the way, he had a .329 BABIP, 14.3% HR/FB rate, 91.9 mph average exit velocity, 48.7% hard-hit rate, and 11.6% barrel rate.
At 34 years old, we would expect some decline, but I expect that decline will leave him below those April 12 onward numbers, rather than his season-long line. Based on early ADP at NFBC, rather than taking Martinez, you can have Giancarlo Stanton (1o picks later), Mitch Haniger (16 picks later), or Bryan Reynolds (17 picks later).
Nick Castellanos (FA)
2021 Stats (585 PA): .3o9 AVG, 95 R, 100 RBI, 34 HR, 3 SB
Only a handful of OF outproduced Castellanos in 2021, as he provided big value in four of five categories. Among 132 hitters (all positions) who qualified for the batting title, Castellanos was tied for seventh in AVG, 22nd in R, 18th in RBI, and 20th in HR. The only player to finish at least that high in all four categories was Vladimir Guerrero Jr. That’s some fine company to keep.
Before the season, I predicted we could see a big year from Castellanos, so why is he showing up in my “busts” list after proving me right? Mostly because I think he’s unlikely to repeat what he just did when he leaves Cincinnati. Since joining the Reds before the 2020 season, he has had 410 PA at Great American Ball Park with a 153 wRC+. He has 417 PA on the road with a 104 wRC+. He has a 29.4% HR/FB rate at home; 17.0% on the road. For his career, prior to Cincinnati, his line is a bit better — 112 wRC+. But he clearly loves hitting in Cincinnati and he won’t get to do that nearly as often in 2022.
On top of that, the Reds offered him a nice spot to score and drive in runs. He primarily hit third, sometimes second, in a lineup that finished ninth in MLB in runs scored and fourth in the NL. He had Jesse Winker and Jonathan India in front of him and Joey Votto behind him. The Reds had the highest leadoff OBP in baseball and the highest second-hitter OBP. They were second in clean-up spot ISO. There was no better spot in baseball to drive in runs or be driven in than sandwiched between those spots.
We don’t know yet where Castellanos will land, but we can be almost assured that the lineup spot will be less advantageous and the park will be less friendly. This isn’t like Martinez, who I am actively avoiding — I will be happy to have Castellanos — but I suspect the price will be too high and he won’t earn his cost.
George Springer (TOR)
2021 Stats (342 PA): .264 AVG, 59 R, 50 RBI, 22 HR, 4 SB
Springer was his usual excellent self when he played in 2021. And hitting at the top of that lineup is a pretty fun place to be, even with Marcus Semien (who often hit second when Springer hit first) now in Texas. He set career highs in max EV and barrel rate. His walk and strikeout rates are close to career norms. Basically, there are no obvious red flags. So why is he showing up in an OF busts article? Two reasons:
First, and this is probably the less important concern for now, digging deeper into his plate discipline stats I see a couple things I don’t love. His chase rate has been up since the start of 2020. For a guy who gets value from a high walk rate, that’s a bit concerning. In addition, he has put up wOBAs of .400, .379, and .381 in 2019, 2020, and 2021. The first two, his xwOBA nearly matched his wOBA (.390, .397), but in 2021 his xwOBA was just .358. Combined, those two things give me pause. They aren’t glaring red flags and they don’t mean he’s done, but they could be early signs of decline.
Second, and more importantly, Springer has missed 22, 22, 40, 9, and 84 games the last five years (and that 9 is really closer to 24 games missed, since it came in the 60-game 2020 season). As early as he is going in drafts, you need a pretty full season from him to justify the cost, but betting on more than 140 games from Springer has been a losing proposition every year except 2016 when he (somewhat inexplicably given the rest of his track record) played all 162.
I think it is unlikely Springer declines dramatically, and I suspect he plays more games in 2022 than he did in 2021, but even a small decline, coupled with 20-40 missed games, will make it hard for him to return value on his price.
Photo by MLB.com/Adapted by Shawn Palmer (@PalmerGuyBoston on twitter)