Late April is one of the most fun time periods in the fantasy baseball season. With a few weeks of data in the books, now is a great time to really start feeling good about your player research. You can start identifying trends much more easily now that sample sizes are getting bigger, but it’s still early enough that there are things you can uncover that aren’t obvious from a quick glance at a player’s stats. Taking some time to really delve into these early-season standouts can give you a huge edge over your competition, letting you know whether to fully buy into these performances or to move on before the hot streak comes to a screeching halt.
Today we’re taking a deep dive into those early season numbers for two young outfielders who have seemingly broken out, plus a quick glance at two starting pitchers and a former MVP who’s off to a strong start with a new team.
James Outman, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Outman was a seventh-round pick in the 2018 draft and slowly plodded his way through the minor leagues, seemingly getting better at every stop. In his first full year in the Dodgers’ system, he posted a .729 OPS in Low-A and then took off from there. Outman raised that OPS at each new level, capping things off last year with a .946 OPS at Double-A and 1.018 OPS at Triple-A. He got a small cup of coffee with the big league team in the summer. It was only 16 plate appearances, but he showed off with a .452/.563/.846 batting line.
Although Outman posted increasingly impressive numbers throughout his minor league tenure, he never made a big impression on any top prospect lists, and over the winter and early spring, there wasn’t much buzz about him in the fantasy community either. Despite that, Outman cracked the Dodgers’ Opening Day roster and hasn’t looked back. The 25-year-old outfielder has won an everyday job in Los Angeles, slashing .311/.400/.703 to go along with seven home runs, 19 RBI, 14 runs, and two stolen bases through his first 85 plate appearances.
How has an unheralded prospect become one of the central parts of one of baseball’s best lineups? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Outman is both pulling the ball and hitting it in the air an awful lot — he has a 56% pull rate and 44% flyball rate, marks that are 15% and 7% above league-average lines, respectively. That’s the perfect recipe to create an extra-base hit machine, and not coincidentally, 12 of Outman’s 23 hits have been of the extra-base variety. When you put that type of batted ball profile into a lineup behind Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, and Max Muncy, you’re going to rack up RBI quite quickly, and Outman’s 19 runs knocked in is the 11th-best mark in the majors.
The only big knock on Outman’s profile is his propensity to punch out. He’s running a 28.2% strikeout rate right now, and he made his way through the minor leagues with strikeout rates routinely in the mid- to upper-20s. Interestingly enough, even with that high strikeout rate, Outman seems to have pretty good strike zone judgment. His chase rate of 21.3% is well below the league-average rate of 28.4%.
So Outman’s pretty dang good at recognizing balls and strikes — he’s well above the 90th percentile! But when he does swing, he misses too often. His 32.9% whiff rate is nine points higher than league average, so his strikeout rate probably isn’t going to start coming down significantly until he starts getting the bat on the ball more often.
Verdict: Legit. Outman has made major league pitchers look silly through his first 101 career plate appearances. He’s a great power threat who should tally 10+ stolen bases over the entire season, meaning he could be a legitimate five-category contributor hitting in the middle of the Dodgers’ lineup. The biggest question surrounding him seems to be how high he’ll be able to keep his batting average. It’s currently at .311, but his .372 BABIP and 28.2% strikeout rate scream batting average regression. As we’ve discussed though, he does seem to have a great grasp of the strike zone, so even if that batting average tumbles down to the .230 to .250 range, he should continue to work his walks. Outman should be rostered everywhere, but in OBP leagues his value is a little higher.
Brandon Marsh, OF, Philadelphia Phillies
Three weeks into the season and the best hitter in baseball is… drum roll… Brandon Marsh!
After a trade deadline deal sent him across the country last year, Marsh is thriving in his new home in Philadelphia. Through his first 21 games, Marsh is hitting an absolutely absurd .354/.455/.758 with four home runs, 13 RBI, 14 runs, and one stolen base. His 217 wRC+, .503 wOBA, and 1.212 OPS are all the best in baseball. What a start from what was considered a fielding-first player just a year ago!
Marsh has made a couple of major changes this year. First, his stance. When he was an Angel he stood pretty upright and tall at the plate, before crouching while loading into his swing. Now, he’s crouching the entire time he’s at the plate, seemingly simplifying things a bit as he gets ready to swing. You can see that the difference is pretty pronounced in this MLB Film Room reel.
Another big change this year is his approach. He’s swinging decidedly less often, cutting his 47.6% swing rate from 2022 to just 40% this year. This has been a big boon to Marsh’s offensive output. He’s always been a player who’s swung and missed quite often — he had a chase rate of 31.8% last year, leading to a strikeout rate of 34.3%. Swinging less in 2023 has dropped that chase rate to a much more manageable 23.9% and the strikeout rate to 28.6%, but it’s also done wonders for his walk rate. He had a career 6.7% walk rate entering this year, and he’s more than doubled that so far. It’s sitting at 14.3% at the time of this writing.
When Marsh is swinging, he’s making louder contact than ever. His 11.4% barrel rate is the best mark we’ve seen from him. Just like Outman, he’s also raised his pull and flyball rates, both great signs that should lead to more power.
Verdict: Legit. No, he won’t run a 1.212 OPS over the course of the entire year. Pretty much no one does that. His numbers will regress a bit as his .500 BABIP comes back down to Earth, but even then, Marsh has made meaningful changes that should make him worth a spot on your fantasy team throughout the course of the year. If you roster Marsh — congratulations! You can sit back and enjoy what should be a fun ride with the man who has the wettest hair in baseball, or you can shop him. If someone in your league wants to give you a top player back for Marsh’s ridiculous early season stat line, I’d consider it, but don’t feel like you have to move him because there’s enough good here that he will likely be an asset all season long.
Graham Ashcraft, SP, Cincinnati Reds
Ashcraft was a fun sleeper pick for a lot of fantasy managers this draft season, and he’s flashed some of that upside early this year. Through his first four starts, he’s 2-0 with a 1.88 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 21.6% strikeout rate. Those are all lovely numbers and things look pretty good…until you see his walk rate: 11.3%! That’s the ninth-highest among starters, and his 10.3% K-BB% is the 12th-worst mark in the majors, putting him just ahead of Kyle Freeland and Patrick Corbin.
The Reds’ 25-year-old righty has never run a walk rate that high at any of his stops in the minor leagues, nor in his 19-start MLB debut in 2022. It seems that hitters may be making the right adjustments to Ashcraft’s arsenal, as he’s generating fewer swings overall (down from 49.4% to 45.1%), especially in balls out of the zone — his chase rate is down from 28.2% to 24.7%. Ashcraft is throwing 15.4% of his pitches behind in the count this year, compared to an 11.7% league average mark.
On the plus side, his slider is looking better than ever. He’s bumped up its usage from 26.7% to 39.5%, and it’s gotten excellent results. Hitters are hitting just .167 against the pitch with a .214 wOBA. The slider’s PLV is up as well to 5.18, as is his entire arsenal across the board, but it isn’t generating any more swinging strikes. His 9.2% SwStr% is exactly the same as it was in 2022, and is 1.5% below league average.
Verdict: Not Legit. Man, this is such a tough call. Ashcraft has better stuff on his pitches, but it isn’t generating more swinging strikes and his walk rate is actually up. I could honestly see this going either way, so take that “Not Legit” very loosely here. He could iron things out over the course of the season and make this analysis look silly, or he could stay what he is right now: a guy you want to stream in good matchups. That makes it hard to have much faith in Ashcraft right now, especially with his home games coming in the hitters’ paradise that is Great American Ballpark. He hosts the Rangers this week and follows that up with a visit to the Padres; those are two matchups I don’t really want to roll the dice on.
Sonny Gray, SP, Minnesota Twins
Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks. Gray has looked like a revitalized pitcher during his first four starts. He’s dropped the usage of his fastball and sinker — his two most used pitches last year — and made them his second and fourth most used pitches, bumping up the rates at which he’s throwing the curveball, slider, and cutter. He’s also working in a changeup 10.4% of the time that he’s barely used since 2017. The results have been great so far for Gray, as he’s sporting a 2-0 record with a 0.82 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 28.3% strikeout rate.
Gray’s pitches haven’t really changed shape much, but he is tossing everything harder. Most notably, he’s gained four ticks on the cutter and one and a half on the slider. Overall, it seems he’s really taken the idea of throwing your best pitch more often to heart. His best pitches according to PLV have been his curveball, slider, and cutter, and those are the ones that he’s really throwing more often in the early going.
Verdict: Legit. Gray’s raised his PLV in each of his starts so far, and it’s sitting at 5.15 total, which is the best mark he’s posted in the four seasons in which PLV data is available. His 12% swinging strike rate is a career-best for him as well, and he should be a great strikeout guy to roster as long as he stays healthy, which has all too often been his undoing.
Cody Bellinger, OF, Chicago Cubs
A former MVP has a new home, and the good times seem to be back. Bellinger is making a great impression in Wrigleyville, slashing .300/.380/.550 with five home runs, 15 RBI, 18 runs, and 4 stolen bases for the surprisingly good Cubs’ offense. He’s cut his strikeout rate nearly in half, taking it from 27.3% last year to 14.1% this year, and he’s also upped his walk rate from 6.9% to 9.8%. That’s not where the good news stops, though. When he’s putting the ball in play, Bellinger’s elevating more than he ever has before with a 55.9% flyball rate.
Perhaps the best news for Bellinger is that he’s starting to hit the four-seamer well again. Back when he was one of the best players in the league, Bellinger absolutely rocked four-seamers; he had wOBAs against them of .413 and .457 in his incredible 2017 and 2019 seasons. Then things got ugly for Bellinger, and those wOBAs against the hard stuff fell to .267 and .301 in 2021 and 2022. This year? That four-seamer wOBA is back up to .423.
Statistics aside, baseball is an incredibly mental game. Bellinger is getting a new start on the North Side of Chicago, and he seems to be embracing it. It’s almost sacrilege to talk the non-statistic side of fantasy baseball, but it sure seems like finding a new team away from his past struggles is really helping Bellinger.
Verdict: Legit. Bellinger isn’t back to his MVP form, and I don’t know if he ever gets back there, but his days as a below-league-average bat look to be over. He’s looking to be on pace to finish the season around 25 homers and 15 stolen bases, numbers that Bellinger’s fantasy managers would surely be happy with.
Featured image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)