Patience or Panic 4/10: Sale, Marte, Wheeler
We’re just about two weeks into the 2019 season now, meaning it’s time for everyone to start overreacting to all the ridiculously good or bad starts their fantasy players are having. For every fantasy baseball manager bragging to his or her friends about each of their draft day steals, there is another manager already entering panic mode because their first round pick isn’t putting up even top-200 value. So this brings us to this year’s first edition of Patience or Panic. Each week, we’ll take a few of these struggling players, try and find the source of their struggles, and figure out whether or not you should actually be concerned. And for this edition especially, just remember that it has only been two weeks. Sample sizes are small and some players might still be working their way out of spring training mode.
Entering the season as a consensus top-three starting pitcher in baseball, Chris Sale has looked absolutely horrific through his first three starts of the year. After suffering a shoulder injury during the second half of last season, Sale never looked quite the same upon his return and that has seemingly carried over into this season. The biggest concern here is the decreased velocity on his fastball. After recording an average velocity of 95.7 mph on his fastball a season ago, the pitch has had an average velocity of 91.4 mph through the first two weeks of 2019. Where throwing heat in the upper 90s and even touching 100 on the gun last year was fairly routine for Sale, there have been several innings this year in which he has failed to reach 90 mph. This has dramatically hurt his ability to create swings and misses, as seen by his fastball managing just one swing and miss on 29 heaters in his start against the Toronto Blue Jays yesterday. Additionally, opponents are batting a robust .462 against the pitch this season, compared to just .169 in 2018. As a result, Sale has limited his fastball usage from 50.2% of his pitches thrown last year to just 36.2% this year, relying much more heavily on his slider and changeup. Unfortunately, this has allowed batters to sit on his offspeed pitches, which has led to his current 9.00 ERA. Furthermore, batters are getting hard contact off Sale a whopping 41.9% of the time — 10.2% higher than his previous career worst and 15.4% higher than last year.
While we are only two weeks into the season, Sale’s poor start is a result of much more than just bad luck. It’s pretty clear that he still has not fully recovered from his shoulder injury, meaning these problems might not be resolved in the immediate future. When asked by a reporter if he has ever felt this lost on the mound at any point in his career, Sale said he hadn’t. While I really want to believe in him and not freak out yet, it’s really hard to have faith in a guy who doesn’t even seem to have confidence in himself anymore.
Starling Marte (OF, Pittsburgh Pirates) — .200 AVG, 5 R, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 2 SB
After a career year a season ago that saw him post a .277 average with 20 homers and 33 steals, Starling Marte has left a lot to be desired in the early part of 2019. He hasn’t been hitting for any power thus far, with an ISO of .143, compared to his .182 ISO in 2018. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been hitting for average either, as his batting average currently sits right at the Mendoza line through these first two weeks of play. However, this seems to be a result of some bad luck, as his BABIP is an unfortunate .241 — much lower than his career BABIP of .345. Marte’s hard and medium contact rates are pretty consistent with his career norms, as is his ground ball to fly ball ratio, so he definitely appears to be due for some positive regression at the plate. On top of that, he has improved on his strikeout rate, which currently sits at 15.8% — 2.2% better than last year and 5.3% better than his career average. Marte’s strikeout rate has gone down every year since 2016, so this improvement from last year does not seem to be a fluke.
Marte should quickly work his way back to putting up strong numbers across the board, as this abysmal start does not appear to be a sign of things to come. Within a month’s time, this poor start will likely be forgotten by all of Marte’s fantasy owners.
Zack Wheeler came into 2019 looking poised for a breakout season, but so far that has not been the case. Facing the Washington Nationals in both of his starts, Wheeler looked completely out of sorts, walking a career-high seven batters on Sunday. Wheeler is also getting hit harder than usual, with batters having a soft contact rate against him of just 10.3%, compared to 23.4% last season. In turn, batters are making hard contact against Wheeler 25% more often than they did last year.
Things aren’t all bad for Wheeler, however, as some bad luck as also played a part in his awful start to the year. Hitters have posted a .321 BABIP against Wheeler thus far, .042 higher than his .279 BABIP from a season ago. Additionally, Wheeler’s LOB% this year is only 42.2%, a significant drop off from his 73.6% career average. With such a stark difference, some positive regression in this area seems inevitable. Finally, while a dip in velocity can oftentimes result in a pitcher’s decline, this is certainly not an issue for Wheeler, whose average velocity has actually increased for every pitch he throws. This includes his fastball, which is now being thrown at an average velocity of 97.4 mph: a good sign that Wheeler is feeling strong and healthy. I fully expect Wheeler to bounce back soon, if not in his next start, and everyone who drafted him hoping for that breakout season will likely still be rewarded.
(Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)