Reevaluating my 2020 Love/Hate List

Sometimes it's worth taking a second look.

Way back in February, 18 Pitcher List writers, including myself, submitted their personal top 300 rankings for 2020 (rankings are based on standard 5×5 scoring, 12-team leagues). Once the rankings were all compiled together and averaged out, we could see the players we especially “loved” or “hated” compared to their consensus rankings. Now that it’s several months later and we are ramping up to a season, I wanted to check in on the players I was highest and lowest on compared to the field, to look at what the discrepancy said about my own biases and strategy, do a deeper dive of analysis on each player, and then provide an updated conclusion going into 2020 of how I would value each player based relative to his current ADP. Through unpacking my own initial biases, delving more deeply into important stats, and sharing my conclusions, I hope to critically examine my own process of evaluating players and hopefully encourage others to give a second look to their own views while preparing for the season.  Note that ADPs are based on NFBC Drafts in the month of July.

 

Love List

 

Kyle Tucker

 

Initial Bias: High skills, post-hype youngsters. Taking mid-round swings on upside players (as opposed to early rounds).

Diving Deeper: Kyle Tucker is an especially exciting young player for fantasy baseball because of his rare combination of power and speed. Not only is he fast, but even more importantly, he’s shown himself to be a savvy base stealer at all levels of competition. In 870 plate appearances over the last two seasons at AAA, he smashed 58 homers and stole 50 bases in 59 attempts, an 85% success rate. Tucker flashed in a 72 plate appearance cup of coffee with the Astros in 2019, posting an .857 OPS while hitting 4 homers and stealing 5 bases, one short of Jose Altuve’s season total (this is not a typo, Altuve stole 6 bases last season). Possibly Tucker’s most compelling stats last year came in that short big league sample when we were able to gather precious Statcast data on him. During those 72 plate appearances, he led the Astros in hard hit percentage (48.9%), logged a max exit velo of 107.7 (harder than any ball Alex Bregman hit in the entirety of 2019, when he hit 41 homers), and posted compelling exit velocity, barrel rate and launch angle numbers.

Astros Hitting Leaders

Granted, these numbers should be accompanied by a small-sample size asterisk, but they should be enough to raise eyebrows at his potential this season. While the 2019 MLB sample size is too small to make sweeping conclusions about Tucker’s 2020 outlook, Tucker’s strong Statcast numbers pair nicely with a track record of minor league success and give us yet another reason to get excited about Tucker this season.

ADP Check-In: These kinds of numbers should elicit a Pavlovian response in the fantasy baseball community, but Tucker’s ADP is just 185. Is it justified? Sure, you can pick nits about Tucker’s contact skills–he profiles initially more as a .250-.260 hitter for 2020–and his plate discipline is solid (.52 BB/K rate in 2019 at AAA) but has room for improvement, but you can make those same critiques of Luis Robert, who is going more than 100 picks ahead of Tucker this year. Concern about Tucker’s playing time is the most likely explanation for the pick difference.

Verdict: With only Josh Reddick, who has been fading to a below-average offensive player in the last few seasons (99 and 94 OPS+ in 2018 and 2019, respectively) to beat for the starting job in right field, it’s more than worth the gamble to take Tucker at his current ADP, and I would consider taking him significantly earlier to make sure I land his difference-making skill set to my team in the middle rounds of my drafts.

 

Zack Greinke

 

Initial Bias: Consistent high performers, track record of durability, SPs with broad repertoire of pitches and top-shelf command.

Diving Deeper: A lot of fantasy baseball players get scared off Zack Greinke because he has taken a very untrodden path–succeeding as a big-league starter despite poor fastball velocity and advancing age. However, Greinke’s consistent excellence, even as his velocity has eroded, shows he has evolved as a pitcher and that we have a multitude of reasons to trust him going into 2020 (MLB averages are in parentheses):

Succeeding with a Cooling Heater

Even as Greinke’s four seamer has lost 2.5 mph of velocity since 2015, he has continued to induce ground balls at a relatively high rate while limiting the hard contact you’d expect batters to get off of what is now considered a “slow” fastball. Additionally, Greinke’s sustained excellence at getting batters to chase balls and take strikes shows he’s still keeping hitters off-balance even as his velocity has fallen. Also, can we take a moment to appreciate just how consistently excellent Greinke has been over the past five seasons–just look at those end of year rankings among SPs! We don’t mention Greinke in the same breath as Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, and he’s certainly not a power pitcher like those guys anymore, but based on his overall performance, maybe we should.

So how has Greinke aged like a fine wine as he pitches well into his 30’s? He’s relied more heavily on his off-speed and breaking pitches, and his outstanding command (115 Command+) has enabled him to consistently and efficiently execute his game plan. In 2019, Greinke threw his 4-seamer only 41.8 percent of the time, which was down 2.9 points from 2018, while he upped the use of his changeup and curveball 1.2 and 3.6 percentage points, respectively. These two pitches yielded outstanding results for Greinke, and probably helped his fastball’s effectiveness as well. Greinke located his changeup down and away to lefties, and it generated a ton of mild, ground ball contact, as batters generated an average exit velocity of 87.7 mph and a -1 degree launch angle off the pitch. Greinke’s curveball was even more devastating, as it reached the heralded “Money Pitch” status in 2019 with a 43.5% O-Swing, a 47.4% zone rate, and a 17.0% swinging strike rate. While his slider did not perform as well as it had in the past, Greinke still commanded it expertly (116 Command+ on the pitch) which gave batters another pitch to account for when facing him. Add in a sinker that he threw 9% of the time to righties and you have a five-pitch pitcher, and all these pitches also must contribute to keeping batters from capitalizing on his relatively low velocity.

Greinke’s efficiency (he was among the league leaders in fewest pitches thrown per inning at 14.95) allowed him to go deep into games, averaging 6.3 innings per start. With the shortened 2020, most starters will likely be on a short leash as managers seek to limit exposure to lineups the third (or second) time through the order. Greinke’s efficiency should endear him to Dusty Baker and earn him the trust needed to go deeper into games and to gain eligibility for wins, which will likely be a much rarer commodity in fantasy baseball in 2020. While he doesn’t post the gaudy strikeout rate of many of his top-tier SP peers, he should still have an advantage in innings pitched, and shouldn’t be a total liability in K’s while significantly boosting your team in ratios and wins.

ADP Check-in: 61. Although Greinke has finished 8th, 15th and 4th among starting pitchers over the past 3 seasons, he is being taken as the 18th starting pitcher off the board. Drafters are already factoring in significant regression into his draft-day price, when his track record has barely hinted at a dropoff. He’s a nice value where he’s going.

Verdict: By cultivating a broad repertoire, adapting his pitch mix, and maintaining his durability and his plus-plus command, Greinke has been able to evolve as a pitcher and sustain success, even as velocity has eroded, and he’s a great bet to outperform his average cost and perform as a top starting pitcher in 2020.

 

Brad Hand

 

Initial Bias: Clear-cut closers, pitchers with a strength of schedule advantage, betting on injury bounce-backs from otherwise durable players, and my most scientifically-backed bias: believing that players with vanilla-sounding names will be undervalued due to boring-ness.

Diving Deeper: Brad Hand was on pace to have his most valuable fantasy season yet in 2019, converting his first 22 save opportunities and ranking as a Top 3 closer, before he seemingly ran out of steam in July, and struggled with arm fatigue the rest of the way. It really does seem as simple as Hand’s workload catching up with him, as he had pitched in 223 games and 240.2 innings, an abnormally high workload for a reliever, in the previous three seasons; for comparison, Aroldis Chapman pitched 159 innings over that same time span. Like many relievers, Hand is essentially a two pitch pitcher, and average four seam velocity was down to 92.7 compared to 93.8 in 2018. Even considering his fading fastball velocity and struggles with arm fatigue, Hand still delivered strong overall numbers in 2019, landing among the league leaders in CSW and K%-BB%, signs that even in a down season he still had the tools to dominate opponents. He’s been a steady contributor in each of the seasons he’s been a closer, returning good to excellent production each year (dollars earned are from the FanGraphs Auction Calculator):

Brad Hand‘s Consistent Success

While his four seamer has historically been a good-not-great pitch, Hand’s slider has always been his pride and joy. With it’s off-the-charts movement (posting a horizontal movement 78% better than league average), the slider delivered near-Money Pitch numbers of a 37.7% O-Swing, a 41.9% Zone Rate, and a 17.6% Swinging strike rate in 2019. Hand will benefit from exclusively facing what are shaping up to be the weakest two divisions in baseball in 2020.

It’s not all sunshine and daisies for Hand; he’s had some control issues in the past and his Command+ is a “meh” 94. If that walk rate spikes and fastball velocity underwhelms again, he could be prone to some volatility. If the Indians get off to a slow start, maybe they trade him to a contender. But really, it comes down to a question of health: how much is a bet on Brad’s health worth?

ADP Check In: I was surprised to see that Hand’s ADP is 94 overall in July NFBC drafts, which is up a whopping 30 spots above where he was being taken in early March. Despite the dramatic ADP increase, Hand still only ranks 8th among relievers, so this indicates the relative cost of relievers has gone up, not that fantasy players are suddenly falling in love with the Cleveland closer.

Verdict: With health, Brad Hand is a good bet to bounce back in 2020, and even if he doesn’t fully return to his pre-2019 skills, he is good enough to hold the closer’s role and finish among the league leaders in saves for the Indians. While I think Hand’s current ADP represents a modest value relative to the other closers, I might pass on his tier of closers altogether at their current price.

 

Lance Lynn

 

Initial Bias: “old and boring” pitchers who get it done, unsung 2019 stars, pitchers who can re-invent themselves

Diving Deeper: Lance Lynn seemed an afterthought going into the 2019, but his changed pitch mix, bolstered velocity, and health all led to a standout season in which he finished fifth in AL Cy Young Voting. Lynn’s decision to significantly reduce the usage of his sinker in favor of a re-tooled four-seamer worked wonders, and led to a career high in strikeouts. Lynn threw the four-seamer harder than ever before and with a better spin rate (90th percentile), and these two factors helped the pitch excel even as he threw it 54.1% of the time. Lynn’s other pitches, and especially his curveball and cutter, played off of the potent fastball, and his strong tunneling increased his deception and overall success. Although Lynn’s sinker yielded a much higher batting average than his other pitches, it only allowed an 86.8mph exit velocity, so it probably helped him suppress home runs in the year of the rabbit ball.  While many fantasy baseball players see the value in pitchers who are now free from innings limits in a shortened season, there should still also be value in rostering pitchers who can go deep into games, and Lynn should be a rare pitcher who consistently pitches into the 7th inning in 2020. Lynn has four pitches which he throws at least 9.5% of the time, and this variety was likely a major factor in helping Lynn avoid a significant third time through the order penalty. While he wasn’t super efficient on a pitch per inning bases, Lynn was exceptional in logging high pitch counts each start, averaging 107.7 pitches in 2019, and this led to him averaging 6.3 innings per start, which was among the league leaders in 2019. With many teams resorting to bullpen games, openers and followers, many non-ace starters should see their per game volume decrease. Consider two starters being drafted about one round ahead of Lynn: James Paxton and Sonny Gray. Both had slightly higher strikeout rates than Lynn in 2019, but much lower innings pitched per start numbers (Paxton at 5.2 and Gray at 5.6 innings pitched per start). This volume advantage should help Lynn outpace most pitchers in strikeouts and wins while generally holding serve in the ratios categories.  While Lynn really reinvented himself and took his career to another level in 2019, he is not free of concerns going into 2020. Lynn posted a career-high four-seamer velocity in 2019 of 94.6 mph during his age-32 season, but due to his post-peak age, the smart money is against him repeating that performance. Eno Sarris has indicated that 94mph is the threshold for good fastball velocity in today’s game, so if Lynn loses a tick off of that fastball velo in his age 33 season (which is basically where he was sitting in his 2018 season) it could damage his mid-career renaissance.

ADP Check-in: 112 ADP in July, 29th among SPs. Lynn has seen his ADP rise in recent weeks, but that is likely as much due to injury attrition in the ranks of the player pool, and he still seems like a nice value where he’s going.

Final Ruling: Even with a clear-eyed sense of how it could go wrong, it’s well worth the price to see if Lynn’s mid-career resurgence continues.

 

Hate List

 

Rafael Devers

 

Initial Bias Against: players coming off their first outstanding season, using a top pick on a hitter with less-than-stellar plate discipline

Diving Deeper: I’ve probably spent more time thinking about Rafael Devers than anyone else on this list. As a fantasy baseball player who strongly espouses the notion that “you can’t win your draft in the first round, but you can lose it” I have an aversion to using a top round pick on players who’ve only had one standout season, so I was initially fairly dismissive of Devers in my February rankings. But when I dove into the numbers behind Devers’ excellent 2019, he had such an emphatically strong season at the plate it became harder to doubt him going into 2020.
From a skills perspective, Devers’ 2019 stood out in the areas of contact and exit velocity, when he led the league in batted balls over 95mph while cutting his strikeout rate significantly; to 17.0% from 24.7% in 2018. Devers’ average launch angle is ideal for line drives, and this should buoy his batting average for years to come.  I was also impressed by how well he performed against every type of pitch.

Devers’ Lack of Weaknesses

Batters usually perform significantly worse than Devers did on breaking and offspeed pitches, so the fact that he held his own against breaking stuff and simply crushed offspeed pitches points to a developing hitter who is quickly minimizing his weaknesses.  Furthermore, Devers increased his contact rate on pitches outside of the zone, while still gaining exit velocity overall. To hit the ball with authority on pitches outside of the zone brings the great Vladimir Guererro (Sr.) to mind, a player who could essentially golf a pitch that came in inches of the plate over the fence.  Finally, Devers’ team context, hitting in the middle of Boston’s strong lineup, means that he should continue to log excellent counting stats.

While critiquing Devers is mostly nitpicking, there is enough concern for me to keep him below perennial sluggers such as Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, and JD Martinez, and I would also draft “1A” type aces such as Mike Clevinger, Jack Flaherty and Shane Bieber ahead of him in 2020.  Despite Devers’ elite exit velocity, his home run potential is limited somewhat by his below average launch angle of 10.3 degrees (MLB average 11.2 degrees), and he recorded a “good-not-great” barrel rate of 9.0 in 2019.  Throw in the fact that Boston is actually one of the toughest home ballparks for lefty homers, and Devers is more of a 30 home run threat than 40 at this point until he can make launch angle gains.  The third base position is stacked this season Manny Machado, for example, has similarly strong exit velocity numbers, good contact skills, and a line-drive stroke, and he’s going more than 40 picks later (ADP: 65). Even looking at other third basemen, you can see other compelling choices for a much lower cost. Justin Turner has a similar skillset to Devers, and is being drafted around pick 151. Matt Chapman is going almost 70 picks later and, while he doesn’t have the same contact skills as Devers, his launch angle combined with similar exit velocity point to more homers.  From a stolen base perspective, I’d be concerned that Boston will put the red light on him on the bases, and that Devers will experience a stolen base dropoff similar to Machado from 2015-2016, when he went from 20 steals to 0. Machado put up a 27.4 ft/s sprint speed in 2015, when he stole 20 bases. Machado saw his sprint speed drop over 1 ft/s the next season, and he went 0 for 3 on the bases that year.  Devers is not particularly fast (55th percentile sprint speed at 27.1 ft/s in 2019, which was 290th in MLB.  Additionally, while Devers did cut down his strikeout rate, he did so through aggressiveness rather than making dramatic improvements in his bat-to-ball contact skills and plate discipline. Devers’ swinging strike rate (12.0%) and reach percentage (40.5%) were both higher than league average. He was able to make up for these weaknesses by hitting the ball with authority, but he’s likely due for some regression as pitchers seek to exploit his aggressive approach in 2020.

ADP Check-In: Devers’ ADP has been remarkably steady, and he’s had an ADP of 24 in July NFBC drafts.

Verdict: My deeper dive into Devers stats revealed a hitting machine who has room for more growth and who is definitely not deserving of my initial “hateful” ranking. Since I’m not convinced Devers is a lock for 30+ homers or the chip-in speed that buoyed his value last season, I would draft him slightly below where he’s going, taking Bieber and Rendon over him.

 

Tyler Glasnow

 

Initial Bias Against: flashy players with a small sample of success, using a top pick on a pitcher with poor command, starters with a low IP/GS

Diving Deeper: Spending more time looking at Tyler Glasnow, I had an opportunity to fall in love with his skills. While his stuff immediately passes the eye test, it should come as little surprise that Glasnow’s Statcast numbers are also eye-popping. Glasnow’s top-shelf stuff is driven by elite velocity, as well as excellent movement on his curveball. Glasnow’s velocity advantage should not be understated. In his PitchCon presentation, Alex Chamberlain showed how deserved ERA by pitch type improves dramatically as velocity increases and the “power curve” is the most devastating of all the pitches in terms of expected outcomes. Michael Ajeto’s excellent Going Deep piece shows how Glasnow’s extension and tunneling also helped his stuff play up further and enhanced his 2019 success.

While Glasnow’s stuff is tantalizing and speaks to a high ceiling on a per inning basis, his two pitch repertoire could cap his strikeout upside and cost him wins if the Rays regularly pull him after the second time through the lineup. In his 60.2 innings last season, Glasnow only threw 10 innings and posted a 4.50 ERA the third time through the order.  Still more of a thrower than a pitcher, Glasnow’s Command+ metric sat at 90 last season, which is a typical threshold where starters are converted to the bullpen. Glasnow’s approach last season of throwing his fastball up worked famously for him, but it would be surprising if he could sustain his low 2019 walk rate this season.  Glasnow’s health track record does not inspire much confidence, either. The 26 year old pitcher has faced injuries every season of his career thus far, and he has not had ample time with the Rays to prepare for this shortened season.

ADP Check-in: 70 ADP and the 21st starting pitcher off the board in July, which reflects a recent drop which is likely due to his positive COVID-19 test. Fortunately, Glasnow says he’s healthy now and has returned to the Rays, and expects to be ready for Opening Day. His ADP is creeping back up in the last few days with this positive news.

Verdict: A supremely talented pitcher with elite stuff, Glasnow should put up an excellent strikeout rate, but because of his mediocre command, limited arsenal and injury history, he’s a risky bet to log the volume of innings it will take to notch wins and return his draft day price.

 

Brandon Workman

 

Initial Bias Against: Relievers with historical control issues, without having transcendent stuff to make up for it. Relievers whose teams aren’t overly committed to using them as closers.

Diving Deeper: So Brandon Workman is on my hate list because I DID hate him in my initial rankings. I thought he got insanely lucky and was primed for complete regression, with Matt Barnes waiting in the wings to take over if he faltered. My closer look at Brandon Workman revealed a pitcher who still did get a bit lucky, but also earned most of his success through an expertly executed game plan and who had better command than I realized. Workman’s 2019 was a thing of beauty. Buried in middle relief pitched a near-perfect season, he ascended to the closer’s role and finished as the 5th best reliever in fantasy by season’s end. A quick look at the 2019 numbers reveals what I was so afraid of about Workman in my February rankings: he earned the dreaded HOTEL (HOly Trinity Equating Luck), with a meager .209 BABIP, a high strand rate and a miniscule 2.6% HR/FB rate. All three of those numbers suggest Lady Luck had smiled upon him. On top of that, Workman gave up a 15.7% walk rate, which was third highest among all relievers.

So what skills did Workman lean on that helped him overcome my initial doubts and show that he earned much of his success?  For one, his arsenal, while not overpowering, was highly effective at keeping hitters off-balance.  As a Phillies fan, I don’t watch a lot of AL East games, and I didn’t realize that Workman’s curveball, not his fastball, is actually his most used pitch, and it’s a good one. Dropping 10 percent more than league average and with an above average velocity, the curveball allowed only a .260 xwOBA, which is very impressive for a pitch thrown 47% of the time (for comparison, Aaron Nola featured his heralded curve 35.2 percent of the time, and he allowed a .271 xwOBA with the pitch in 2019).  Workman employed “the Blake Snell blueprint” wonderfully in 2019, keeping his fastballs up and above the zone and curveballs down. But he also featured a highly effective cutter 19% of the time that was actually his most effective whiff pitch, generating misses on a whopping 42.4% of swings. Each of his pitches had a nice velocity separation, and having a strong third pitch helped Workman keep batters guessing.  When he wasn’t striking them out (which he did an elite 36.4% of the time) Workman was a magician at generating relatively harmless contact: he upped his ground ball rate above 50%, finished in the 84th percentile in hard hit rate and allowed one solitary barreled ball all year, which was the best in baseball.  While Workman’s 15.7% walk rate is not something that can be completely dismissed, it’s worth noting that Workman’s Command+ was 99, which is a tick below average for a pitcher slightly above average for a reliever. This indicates that the walks may have been more of a sign of Workman refusing to give in to hitters when he fell behind in counts rather than the mark of a Wild Thing on the mound.

ADP Check-In: Workman is at 133 ADP in July, which is 16th among closers.

Final ruling: My deep dive into Workman’s doesn’t dispel the idea that he did have some luck in his favor in 2019, but his skills and approach reflect a pitcher who has emerged as a strong closer who should keep his job and get a lot of saves for the Red Sox. He’s no longer a hate for me and I feel comfortable drafting him in the tier of closers where he’s going, and I would actually take him above Alex Colome and Craig Kimbrel.

 

Yu Darvish

 

Initial Bias Against: Snakebitten players. SPs with poor command. Pitchers with tantalizing skills but who just haven’t put it together since 2013.

Diving Deeper: Like Glasnow, Yu Darvish fits the mold of the type of pitcher I tend to avoid, high-upside pitchers who have elite stuff but who don’t consistently finish returning what you paid for them. Darvish has the stuff that jumps off the page; Darvish’s cutter and slider have 125% and 114% more horizontal break than average, respectively. He basically throws 80-something mph yo-yos up there. Unfortunately, Darvish has too many question marks to justify his price, which is creeping into ace territory as folks dream on him extending his 2019 second-half run through the shortened 2020 season. While his second half was absolutely insane, as he posted 118 strikeouts to just 7 walks, Darvish’s Command+ is 92, and pitchers with poor command are rarely able to keep up that kind of miniscule walk rate. Darvish has also struggled with injuries and battled with his own pitching mechanics. Overall, Darvish has been a player where the whole is less than the sum of the parts, and he just hasn’t shown over the last several years that he can put together a season of sustained dominance to warrant a borderline top 50 pick. Look to our old friend Zack Greinke for an example of how the Darvish’s mercurial hare has been routinely bested by the consistent tortoise:

Comparing Darvish and Greinke

Granted, these end of year dollar values penalize the player for injury, treating it as if you actually had the injured player in your starting lineup the whole time, but the fact that Darvish has not topped $5.2 in annual earnings in the past five years must still be a shock to the system when he’s being drafted like an $18-20 player this season.

ADP Check-in: Darvish has a 52 ADP, almost 10 spots ahead of Greinke, who he’s outperformed once in the last five years.

Verdict: Could Darvish put a 12 start run together like he did in the second half of last year and make me look very silly? Absolutely. But history tells us the odds are against it.

 

(Photo by John Bunch/Icon Sportswire) | Feature Graphic Designed by James Peterson (Follow @jhp_design714 on Instagram & Twitter)

Brian Holcomb

Charlotte-based outdoor educator and Philly sports fan whose Pitcher List involvement stems from a decades-long fascination with baseball statistics, trading cards, and debates about player valuation. When not thinking about fantasy baseball, can regularly be found exploring the trails, rivers and rocks of North Carolina.

2 responses to “Reevaluating my 2020 Love/Hate List”

  1. Avatar Harry Lime says:

    Steve Phillips just said Darvish is winning the NL Cy Young this year. I’m going with your take. thx

    • Avatar Brian Holcomb says:

      Thanks Harry! It’s kind of shocking to see how long it’s been since Darvish has put together a full season of dominance. It seems like his draft cost hasn’t been discounted because somebody in each league is willing to take the gamble on his upside.

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