Hope springs eternal.
This is a common refrain for baseball fans as the first pitches of the season are thrown. But that hope can turn to anxiety when players scuffle out of the gate. Two weeks of April baseball does not a season make and it’s too early to abandon all hope on anyone, but we’ve seen enough for some underperformers to find themselves on your bench.
Anthony Santander, OF/DH, Baltimore Orioles
Pre-season expectations were as high as they’d been in years for the O’s, and Santander is sure to be a major factor in whether they meet them. It’s been tough sledding so far for Santander, who’s slashed .200/.250/.300 in 44 plate appearances. He’s produced only four extra-base hits, all of them doubles, and is striking out at an alarming 31.8% frequency.
There are a few interesting dynamics ongoing with Santander. It seems, for one, that he may be having timing issues. His pull rate is in the 94th percentile of MLB hitters at a gaudy 63.0% and he’s fouling off 25.3% of pitches he sees. Factor in an elevated whiff rate and it’s clear he isn’t seeing the ball exceptionally well. Adding to the precariousness is his flyball exit velocity, which sits only in the 22nd percentile of hitters, and his average launch angle, down roughly four degrees from a year ago.
Despite underwhelming results, there’s plenty of reason for optimism that Santander will rebound. Four of his fourteen strikeouts have come against Jacob deGrom and Nestor Cortes. His drop in launch angle is due almost entirely to an increase in line drives; he still puts the ball on the ground well below league average. Flyball rate has been a strength of Santander’s in years past, with a career mark of 41.8%. Thus far in 2022, he’s only hitting fly balls at a 29.6% clip; this is likely to improve based on his track record. He also continues to hit the ball hard at 93.4 MPH on average, well above his career mark and league average.
Verdict: Patience. Santander is too steady and solid a player to give up on this early. Tough pitching matchups have inflated the appearance of the severity of his struggles. He’s coming off a season where he hit 33 home runs and produced xSLG of .538 and xwOBA of .376, a true career year. It would be a surprise if he replicated that, but an even bigger surprise if he didn’t bounce back from this choppy start.
Josh Bell, 1B/DH, Cleveland Guardians
Bell is off to a brutal start. Through ten games, he’s made 48 plate appearances and mustered a dismal .079/.250/.079 slash line. His three hits have all been singles and he’s striking out at a 27.1% clip against his career mark of 18.5%. When he has put the ball in play, it’s been almost exclusively on the ground. His -7.6 degree average launch angle is in the first percentile of big-league hitters and his 80.0% groundball rate is in the 99th percentile, way up from an already-subpar career mark of 56.2%.
The major concern here is that Bell’s lack of production continues a troubling trend from 2022. Despite a K-rate, walk-rate, on-base percentage and xwOBA that were all better than his career averages, Bell’s slugging percentage regressed last year. His average exit velocity dropped from 92.5 MPH in 2021 to 89.1 MPH, and his exit velocity on fly balls plummeted from 92.1 MPH to 84.9 MPH. In other words, he displayed an improved ability to hit for contact at the expense of the extra-base power that’s made him attractive to fantasy players. He hit only 17 home runs and, more concerningly, hit only three after the All-Star break.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Bell. He’s historically been a slow starter and April has been his worst month. This was clear in 2021, when he slashed .113/.200/.264 with two home runs in 60 April plate appearances. The late-season regression is not a novel phenomenon either. In his breakout 2019 season, Bell swatted 27 home runs and slugged a torrid .648 before the break. After the Midsummer Classic, he hit 10 home runs and slugged a much more pedestrian .429.
Verdict: Panic. The combination of Bell’s miserable start and precipitous second-half drop-off last year is legitimately worrisome. More specifically, his sudden lack of power in conjunction with his inability to elevate the ball is not a winning formula. There’s still too much home run and doubles potential for Bell to be a drop candidate this early, but he should be on your bench until he rediscovers the ability to forcefully hit the ball out of the infield.
Zack Wheeler, SP, Philadelphia Phillies
If you told fantasy players with Zack Wheeler at the top of their rotation that he’d be 0-1 with a 5.59 ERA through 2 starts against the Rangers and Reds, it’s safe to say they’d be displeased. The results here, however, are not indicative of performance. His first start of the season was against the Rangers where he was dinged for 4 runs in 4.1 innings pitched. This was a classic death-by-BABIP game. Wheeler struck out seven and surrendered only two extra-base hits, a solo home run and a double with the bases empty. The Rangers produced a BABIP of .462 in the game despite a 50% ground ball rate. Things settled down in Wheeler’s second start against the Reds, as he went 5.1 innings and gave up two earned runs with five strikeouts.
Tommy Edman, 2B/SS, St. Louis Cardinals
Edman is far from a power bat, but his on-base ability combined with his base-stealing prowess have made him a popular target for fantasy players. He’s stolen more than 30 bases in each of the last two seasons and the rule changes implemented by MLB only helped his cause. As a result, he catapulted to an ADP of 71 in Yahoo Leagues and 110.9 in ESPN leagues. Edman has not hit particularly well to start the year, accumulating just eight singles through ten games. To his credit, he’s drawn walks at a strong 12.8% clip and actually improved his OBP against each of the last three years. What’s worrisome is that this improved OBP has yielded only one stolen base on two attempts. It’s early, but if the baserunning aggression doesn’t pick up, Edman’s value plummets.
Luis Garcia, SP, Houston Astros
Garcia has never had the deepest repertoire, and it isn’t getting deeper. He’s throwing his cutter at a 42.4% clip, up from 29.9% last year, and his four-seamer at a 36.2% rate. While he’s generated a strong whiff rate of 21.3% with the cutter, he’s only thrown it in the zone 38.7% of the time. Conversely, the four-seamer has served as a get-me-over with a 60.9% zone rate, but the velocity is down 1.4 MPH from last year to 92.6 MPH. As a result, the pitch has gotten rocked to the tune of a 100.1 MPH average exit velocity and .586 xwOBA. Through nine innings of work, he’s surrendered seven extra-base hits and five walks. He can’t throw strikes right now, and, when he does, they get crushed.