From Daulton Varsho and Christian Walker’s breakout seasons – more on Walker in a bit – to Corbin Carroll’s promising debut, Zac Gallen’s ascension to staff ace, and Merrill Kelly’s emergence in the rotation, there was plenty to be encouraged by from a real-life baseball perspective in Arizona this past season. And that’s all without mentioning Joe Mantiply’s effectiveness, the versatility of Josh Rojas, or Drey Jameson’s late-season showing. But, it’s possible, for all the steps forward Arizona took in 2022, that their improvements were more significant from a fantasy standpoint than from a real-life baseball standpoint.
In what was a relatively fantasy-friendly environment, the Diamondbacks tied with the Kansas City Royals for the sixth-most stolen bases in the league. Once the regular season wrapped up, only 13 teams had scored more runs. Torey Lovullo’s lineup also featured a number of players capable of contributing in multiple fantasy categories, as three different hitters collected double-digit home runs with at least five stolen bases. Overall, there was plenty to like, enough so that there’s plenty of upside in much of this group where fantasy is concerned next year. However, like with all rebuilding clubs, there are probably some parts of the roster to stay away from for fantasy managers.
Here are the Diamondbacks’ sleepers and busts for the 2023 season.
2022 Stats (200.1 IP): 3.37 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 177 K, 13 W
One of Arizona’s best starters last year, Kelly enjoyed a strong turnaround season thanks in part to an increased usage of his changeup. The veteran had yet to throw it more than 18% of the time in a full season but turned to the changeup 21.9% of the time last year. It was his most utilized non-four-seamer offering, and led all of his offerings – minimum 400 pitches thrown – in whiff rate. Overall, it’s not hard to see why Kelly utilized the pitch more.
All told, the veteran pitched to a 3.37 ERA and a 3.65 FIP in 33 starts spanning 200.1 innings last season. He struck out 177 batters to go along with just 61 walks allowed. And while the strikeout numbers aren’t particularly gaudy, the fact that the 33-year-old’s innings aren’t being limited in any way speaks volumes to his potential fantasy upside – especially with his newfound effectiveness. Last season, the Arizona starter was one of just seven pitchers in the league to throw at least 200 innings. For kicks and whistles, here are the blind resumes of two of them.
Now, granted, there is a massive chasm between the two’s strikeout numbers. Cole punched out 11.53 batters per nine innings, while Kelly logged just 7.95 strikeouts per nine innings. However, if you’re constructing your pitching staffs in drafts next spring with high-strikeout options, or rather your team features plenty of pitchers who miss bats at a high rate, Kelly could make a significant impact with his ability to log a low ERA across a heavy inning workload.
The Diamondbacks hurler should also benefit from slightly fewer games against division foes. He only gave up more than four runs in a start seven times in 2022, and four of those seven outings came against division foes. Those starts included his second-to-the-last outing of the season, when the Giants tagged him for nine hits and eight earned runs in 4.2 innings, while another came two starts prior when the Dodgers got to him for eight hits and five earned runs in six innings. Los Angeles also plated eight runs on five hits and four walks in two innings against Kelly back in mid-May. And while those are isolated outings – the 33-year-old pitched well against the Giants and Dodgers on numerous other occasions – slightly fewer games against those clubs should help the veteran’s already strong ERA upside.
He won’t post strikeout rates like someone like Gerrit Cole, but if 2022 is anything to go by, he could very well log a similar ERA in a similar number of innings (this is all without mentioning the fact that Kelly logged 13 wins on a rebuilding Arizona club last season). If his current ADP holds until next spring he’ll be a certified steal in drafts.
2022 Stats (667 PA): .242 AVG, 84 R, 36 HR, 94 RBI, 2 SB
If you’re looking for one of baseball’s unluckiest hitters in 2022, look no further.
You’ve found him.
It’s Christian Walker.
The slugger hit .242 last season, with a .327 on-base percentage, connecting on 36 home runs in 667 plate appearances. However, he also logged a career-low .248 BABIP in those 667 plate appearances, which certainly played a part in the production not being quite as good as it could have been. Walker still mashed 36 home runs to go along with 94 runs driven in over the course of 667 plate appearances for a quietly solid Arizona lineup, hitting .242 with a .327 on-base percentage and a .346 wOBA in the process.
But the .010 gap between his .346 wOBA and .356 xwOBA – paired with the low BABIP, certainly paints the picture of a hitter who should have had a more productive stat line. And while the BABIP in a vacuum was low, it was decidedly low in the context of the league as well. Among qualified hitters, only nine batters had a lower BABIP last year.
And that’s all without mentioning Walker’s superior expected numbers versus offspeed stuff. Granted, offspeed offerings only made up 10.4% of the pie in terms of the different types of offerings the first baseman saw last season, but he should have been much more productive on paper against those pitches.
Transitioning shamelessly back to the BABIP, it certainly played a part when you consider Walker’s blend of plate discipline and general ability to crush baseballs. The 31-year-old logged a 10.3% walk rate, marking the second time he’s turned in a double-digit walk rate in his career. Elsewhere, he was plenty selective at the plate with which pitches to hit, registering a 23.1% chase rate that was not only the lowest of his career but also good for placing in the 82nd percentile league-wide.
When Walker did make contact, it was generally a positive result for Arizona and fantasy managers. The first baseman’s Statcast page is awash in red and bright red, with 92nd percentile rankings in both xwOBA and xSLG, not to mention an 11.5% barrel rate that finished in the 82nd percentile in the sport. He’s not a major stolen base threat, with just two steals this past season, but like Kelly, he should also benefit a bit from more games outside the division. The slugger’s expected home run number by park in 2022 topped his actual home run total of 36 in 17 of the league’s other 29 parks. Overall, heading into next season, he’s a prime sleeper candidate. If you want to wait until the middle of drafts next spring to select a first baseman, Walker should be the first name on your list.
2022 Stats (354 PA): .282 AVG, 53 R, 8 HR, 43 RBI, 23 SB
McCarthy only appeared in 99 games for the Diamondbacks in 2022, logging 354 plate appearances. Yet in those 99 games, he finished tied for the ninth-most stolen bases in the league with 23, finishing in a tie with teammate Josh Rojas. His home run tally was also much more in line with Rojas than some of the other players above him on the stolen base leaderboard, but he nonetheless brought enough to the table in addition to his steals to warrant significant utilization by fantasy managers.
Overall, McCarthy hit .283 on the season with a .342 on-base percentage to go along with eight home runs and 23 stolen bases. His .349 BABIP seemed a tad bit unsustainable, however, he also made plenty of contact, with just a 21.5% strikeout rate that surely played a part where the BABIP was concerned. Much of the 25-year-old’s production was thanks in part to a gaudy .401 road BABIP that basically had him producing like Xander Bogaerts when he wasn’t playing at Chase Field.
Though it is worth noting that the Diamondbacks outfielder also stole 16 of his 23 stolen bases on the road as well. Even just a full season’s worth of plate appearances for McCarthy, regression or not, makes him a potential impact player with his stolen base ability. Still, he does enough elsewhere in terms of making contact and occasional home runs to provide quality fantasy value.
2022 Stats (558 PA): .240 AVG, 68 R, 12 HR, 52 RBI, 5 SB
On the surface, Ketel Marte might seem like an interesting bounce-back candidate. Despite a down year, he upped his walk rate slightly last season, maintained a reasonably solid 41.9% hard-hit rate, and logged a max exit velocity of at least 115 MPH for the fourth year running. He’s also set to play in what should be an improved Arizona lineup that will see full seasons from Carroll, McCarthy, and Stone Garrett.
While not exactly relevant from a fantasy scoring standpoint, those last three columns in the table are the most noteworthy here. Marte has a track record of providing quality production in terms of getting on base, hitting home runs, and chipping in with stolen bases. His best season came in 2019 when he hit a pristine .329 with a similarly pristine .389 on-base percentage, 32 home runs, and 10 stolen bases in 628 plate appearances.
Since then, the veteran has logged 28 home runs in 1,127 plate appearances in the last three seasons. And while he enjoyed a bounce-back season in an injury-shortened 2021 campaign, Marte’s quality contact has dropped at a worrying rate.
And while it’s true that he actually sported a better hard-hit rate in 2022 (41.9%) than he did back in 2019 (40.0%), Marte’s power was nowhere near as prominent. The reason for this, first and foremost, is the sudden decrease in barrels. The veteran’s barrel rate was 9.3% in 2019 and 8.9% in 2021, however, it dropped to 6.1% this past season. Furthermore, he had one less total barrel last season compared to the 2021 campaign.
Elsewhere, he simply wasn’t doing the same type of damage at the plate, with his xwOBA dropping to .315 this past season and his xwOBAcon falling to a .341 metric. He’s not exactly someone to totally shy away from if he falls to the last few rounds of drafts. After all, despite the down season, Marte did collect double-digit home runs and at least five stolen bases for the third time in the last four full seasons, but expecting him to reach anything resembling his 2019 fantasy heights might be a bit of a stretch heading into the 2023 season.
2022 Stats (56 IP): 4.46 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 35 K, 3 W, 18 SV
Joe Mantiply was, far and away Arizona’s best reliever last season. He logged a 2.85 ERA, a 2.83 FIP, and a 1.2 fWAR while finishing in the 94th percentile or better in barrel rate, walk rate, and chase rate. Simply put he was, far and away one of the best relievers in the sport last season. Arizona, however, didn’t utilize him all that much in the ninth inning. The 31-year-old logged just two saves during the 2022 campaign. It was the smart move from a real-life standpoint, but it wasn’t ideal for fantasy managers who wanted to see an elite, walk-limiting reliever thrust into a ninth-inning role.
Outside of Mantiply’s pair of saves, the Diamondbacks primarily relied on Melancon and Ian Kennedy in the ninth inning. The veteran duo accounted for 28 of the National League West’s franchise’s 33 saves. Melancon is under contract next season, while Kennedy had his mutual option for the 2023 season declined by the club. At this point in the offseason, it would seem to set up Melancon to potentially inherit more ninth-inning chances; of course, that’s purely speculative, however. On the surface, that might be cause for celebration among fantasy managers searching for saves in the later rounds of drafts.
In reality, it should be a cause for concern. The veteran’s strikeouts all but evaporated in his first season with the Diamondbacks. The 37-year-old’s strikeout per nine-inning rate dropped to 5.63, the lowest it’s been in a full season since he was a rookie back in the 2009 campaign.
Part of that may have had to do with the reliever’s curveball. His best bat-missing weapon over the years, Melancon’s curveball topped out at a career-best 45.7% whiff rate in 2014 and had a whiff rate north of 38% as recently as the 2019 season. However, that number plummeted to 30.3% this past season. It was the second-lowest of the veteran’s career where his curveball was concerned.
And while the longtime closer limited barrels in a vacuum with a 6.8% barrel rate that was in the 60th percentile league-wide, it certainly wasn’t up to his standards, checking in as the second-highest barrel rate the veteran has posted in the last eight seasons. Combine that with the decrease in strikeouts and you have a recipe for unideal numbers, which is why it shouldn’t be incredibly surprising that Melancon struggled at times, logging a 4.66 ERA and a 4.20 FIP in 56 innings this season. He also was on the hook for 10 losses in 62 appearances. Kevin Ginkel, who had the second-most high-leverage appearances after Mantiply and also had one of the five non-Melancon or Kennedy saves, could be a dark horse option for some save chances, but right now it looks like Melancon will be part of the ninth-inning mix once again in Arizona.
Now, granted, things could change drastically between now and Opening Day, but if Melancon is a candidate for saves in Arizona, you’re probably best looking elsewhere for save options later in drafts. Perhaps, if he can regain some of his past bat-missing ability, but the lack of strikeouts and increased barrels are definite reasons for concern, even if he accumulates some saves here and there.
Photos by Hayden Schiff/Flickr & Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)