Ah, the sophomore slump. We see it all the time. The game’s best and brightest fall off in their second year after electrifying as rookies. Sometimes, they never recover (see: Miguel Andujar). Usually, it’s a blip in an otherwise successful career. Which will it be for three of our game’s most exciting young players?
Michael Harris II, OF, Atlanta Braves
Harris’ 2023 was off the rails almost immediately. After a slow start through 7 games, Harris was on the injured list for three weeks with a lower-back strain before returning on April 28th. In the week or so since his return, he hasn’t lived up to his rookie production.
Harris graduated from FanGraphs’ 2022 prospect rankings as the Braves’ top prospect and the #37 prospect in baseball. He was immediately a fantasy darling. Combining power, average, and speed, Harris hit .297 with 19 home runs and amassed 20 stolen bases over 114 games on his way to National League Rookie-of-the-Year honors. 2023 has been far less kind to the young star, batting a mere .222 with 1 home run and 4 RBI in 51 plate appearances.
The torrid output of Harris’s 2022 was not produced without signs of regression. His .297 batting average outperformed his xAVG of .263, bolstered by an unsustainable .361 BABIP. His very low 22.1% flyball rate points to a lack of legitimacy in his home run output even with above-average exit velocity on those flyballs. Strikeouts weren’t an issue at a roughly average 24.3% clip, but he walked only 4.8% of the time.
None of this is to say there aren’t signs of positive regression in Harris’ sluggish start to the season. His barrel rate is up from 9.4% to 11.1%, improving on an already strong number. His hard-hit rate has jumped from a solid 31.6% to a gaudy 41.2%. These metrics coupled with a weak .258 BABIP indicate some tough luck for Harris. He’s also cut down on strikeouts and improved his walk rate.
Verdict: Patience. This is a really small sample size and the underlying metrics are very encouraging. I’d like to see Harris elevate the ball more; he’s still only hitting flyballs at a roughly 28% clip, but expect him to be much closer to what he was last year than what he’s been so far this year.
Nick Lodolo, SP, Cincinnati Reds
I briefly touched on Lodolo two weeks ago and chalked up his struggles to running into two scorching hot offenses in Tampa Bay and Texas in back-to-back starts. In his two starts since, he’s surrendered 6 earned runs in 8.2 innings to the A’s and the White Sox. This warrants a deeper look.
Most of Lodolo’s underlying metrics appear pretty encouraging. He generates a lot of whiffs at 14.2%, an improvement against last year’s mark. His CSW% is an elite 32.2% and his 28.3% K-rate is in the 87th percentile of pitchers. When the ball is put in play, he’s only giving up hard contact at a 24.7% clip. Unfortunately, the strikeouts are pretty much where the fun ends for fantasy players holding onto Lodolo. His ERA is an unsightly 6.29 and his WHIP is a sky-high 1.75.
Looking past the glaring ERA and WHIP, the first numbers that jump off Lodolo’s profile are his 2.62 HR/9 and 34.5% HR/FB ratio. When he’s not giving up home runs, hitters are generating a ridiculous .440 BABIP against him. This number will surely regress, but the xBABIP still isn’t pretty at .334. These problematic trends don’t seem to align with the low hard contact levels against Lodolo, so what gives?
2023 has been a tale of two pitches for Lodolo. He throws his 4-seam fastball 45% of the time and his curveball at a 36% clip. The fastball has been punished to the tune of a .292 xAVG-against, 33.3% hard contact rate, and 11.4% barrel rate. The curveball, on the other hand, gets hit hard only 10.8% of the time and has an xAVG-against of .180. The 23.4% whiff rate is absolutely elite. Remarkably, though, the pitch’s .480 BABIP-against is double its xBABIP-against of .240.
Verdict: Hold Your Breath. It is tough to deny the bad luck Lodolo has fallen victim to, at least with regard to his curveball, and there is too much upside in such a young arm to drop him. However, I’m very concerned about the fastball. His third pitch, a changeup, has been hit even harder than the fastball, so there’s not much to fall back on. He’s in line to face the Marlins and the Yankees next, so tread lightly.
Julio Rodríguez, OF, Seattle Mariners
Rodríguez’s unattractive start to the season probably has Mariners fans more concerned than fantasy players. The reigning AL Rookie-of-the-Year dazzled baseball fans as the most exciting player on an exciting Seattle team in 2022. In 132 games, he hit .284 with 28 home runs, 75 RBI, and 84 runs. He added 25 stolen bases for good measure.
The early part of 2023 has been a bit less rosy for the young slugger. His slash line of .216/.286/.410 is hardly superstar material and, given his .167 average and 35% K-rate over his last 9 games, Mariners fans could be forgiven for panicking. The feeling among fantasy managers is probably more like that of mild concern. His raw ability and team context have kept him a valuable fantasy player, with 6 home runs, 6 steals, 21 runs, and 15 RBI.
There are a couple of dynamics at play here. One, we’re probably expecting a bit too much from Rodríguez. He posted an unsustainable .345 BABIP in 2022 against an xBABIP of .272. In a similar vein, his .284 average far exceeded an xAVG of .235. He hit the ball very hard with an average exit velocity of 92.0 MPH, but he put it on the ground at a 47.9% clip, driving the expected statistics down.
Interestingly, the advanced metrics between his two seasons paint pretty similar pictures. His xwOBA of .337 is actually improved against his 2022 mark of .325. A 2023 xAVG of .250 is also improved against the aforementioned .235 from last year. Perhaps the most encouraging sign that the average will tick up is his .264 BABIP against a .313 xBABIP thus far this season. He continues to hit the ball hard, to nobody’s surprise.
Verdict: Patience. Nobody is rushing to drop the most exciting young player in the game. The average is a thorn in the side at the moment and probably won’t return to the .284 mark from 2023, but it will improve.
Brady Singer, SP, Kansas City Royals
When I applied to write for Pitcher List, I submitted a piece detailing how Singer’s strong back half of 2022 was more like the Singer we’d see going forward. After he was shelled by the Sultans of Swat themselves, the mighty Oakland A’s, I fear I must eat crow.
He’s giving up hard contact at a ridiculous 40.4% clip and owns an xERA of 7.96. At least it’s better than his actual ERA of 8.82. I’ll be watching Singer struggle to do anything for my best ball squad for the rest of the year. Do what I can’t and dump your shares.
Lance Lynn, SP, Chicago White Sox
The White Sox have been an unmitigated disaster in 2023 and Lynn has done little to make things better. Through seven starts, he’s 1-4 with a 6.86 ERA and 1.53 WHIP. He’s actually improved his strikeout rate from a year ago but it has come at the expense of his command, walking batters almost 5% more frequently than last year.
His 14.9% whiff rate is still elite and a .360 BABIP coupled with an average exit velocity of 87.6 MPH indicate brighter days ahead for the 35-year-old.
Brandon Lowe, 2B, Tampa Bay Rays
Lowe got off to a screaming hot start in 2023. Through the first two weeks of the season, he hit .333 with a .523 wOBA, scoring and driving in runs at a clip greater than 1.0 per game. Since, he’s batting .143 with a .215 wOBA and 2 home runs in 18 games. In that stretch, he’s struck out at an ungodly 34.7% clip. He’s also missed a couple of games in the past week with a minor back injury.
There’s some reason for hope, however, as he’s still managed to hit the ball hard with an average exit velocity of 90.2 MPH. Still, he’s hit the skids hard and should find your bench for the time being.