The 2020 season was the ultimate small sample size. Like it or not, each of last year’s breakouts has an asterisk and every implosion has a caveat. Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and Savant give 2020 a row like every other year, but it’s hard to know what to believe from those 60 games. Until we see it again.
Many of the players who faltered in 2020 will regress (progress?) back to their career norms, and rebound from a few bad months in the middle of a global pandemic. But for some, the warning signs we saw last year will turn into waving red flags. If any of the players listed below show signs early in 2021 that their 2020 struggles were real, it may be time to hit the panic button, jump ship, and dump stock faster than a WallStreetBets non-believer.
Chicago Cubs, 3B (FantasyPros Consensus ADP: 118.3)
The long list of players who posted a higher 2020 wRC+ than Bryant includes Albert Pujols, Freddy Galvis, and the twice DFA’d Daniel Vogelbach. You must scroll through nine FanGraphs pages to arrive at Bryant’s well below average 77 mark.
Bryant posted the lowest BA, OBP, and SLG of his career, and the quality of contact metrics weren’t kind to him either. A .264 BABIP shows Bryant could have been unlucky in the shortened season, but an increasing launch angle and declining exit velocity make the recipe for lazy pop flies, and his .202 xBA and .348 xSLG agree. The Cubs must still see significant value in their 29-year-old third baseman as they avoided arbitration with a $19.5 million deal, but his name has also been floated all offseason in trade rumors.
Bryant truthers will point to 2020 injury struggles — he battled back, elbow, finger, and wrist ailments before his season ended with a tight oblique — but there’s very little rooted in the numbers to suggest a Bryant bounceback. If he comes into 2021 healthy, raking, and with more red on his Baseball Savant page, buy in, but he shouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt.
Arizona Diamondbacks, SP (ADP: 300)
Yes, it was in just 41.2 innings pitched, but Bumgarner was arguably the worst pitcher in baseball in 2020. His four All-Star appearances and playoff dominance will draw some fantasy users to buy into the bounceback, but the workhorse history may be the very reason to avoid him.
Including postseason play, Bumgarner has logged 1989 innings pitched over 12 seasons. He averages more IP than most starting pitchers reach in any given season. After 11 seasons in San Francisco, the move to Arizona brought Bumgarner a career-low in strikeout rate (6.5) and a career-high home run rate (2.8). His barrel rate jumped from a career 6.4% to 14.9% in 2020, and his struggles centered around an across-the-board velocity drop. The former-Giant ace’s fastball was 3.1 MPH slower, his cutter dropped 3.8 MPH, and his curveball 1.9 MPH. It will be immediately obvious into 2021 if Bumgarner fears continue to become reality, and his velocity will be the primary indicator.
Boston Red Sox, DH (ADP: 88)
Unlike Bumgarner and Bryant, and perhaps most concerning, there were warning signs for Martinez’s abysmal 2020 in 2019. Martinez’s .680 2020 OPS was the culmination of three years of decline in the statistic that peaked with a 1.066 mark in 2017. Because of the ceiling we know Martinez has, there is a wide variance in how projection systems see the Red Sox DH in 2021, but they are all scared. THE BAT is highest on Martinez projecting a 129 wRC+, but ZiPs sees him as being just a slightly above-average hitter.
Like Bryant, Martinez’s .259 BABIP shows signs of tough luck, especially when compared to his career .326 mark, but batted-ball luck doesn’t explain the rising strikeout rate, lowering walk rate, and his lowest isolated power since before his infamous swing change.
New York Yankees, C (ADP: 168)
Like the crew above, Sanchez posted career lows in just about every major rate statistic. He hit .147, had an OBP of only .253, and struck out over three times as often as he walked. But unlike the others, Sanchez’s statistics aren’t the primary cause for concern. His hard-hit rate was above his career norm and his batting average was plagued by an unsustainable low .159 BABIP (even with his 12th percentile sprint speed). Play out a full 2020 season, and Sanchez likely normalizes to the three true outcomes catcher he’s been his entire career.
The potential cause for panic for Sanchez drafters is Aaron Boone, or more specifically his lineup card. Sanchez started 49 of 60 regular-season games in 2020, but when the contests mattered most, the Yankees put Sanchez on the bench and Kyle Higashioka behind the plate. Higashioka is a better framer, caught more runners stealing in 2020, and, in a 48 PA sample size, was much better offensively than Sanchez. Of the Yankees’ seven playoff games, Higashioka started five.
“Another close call for me,” Boone told the media after turning to Higashioka in the playoffs. “It comes down to more Kyle earning these opportunities. I feel like he’s providing enough for us offensively and doing a great job behind the plate.”
Those banking on a Sanchez bounceback should keep an eye on Boone’s early-season lineups, because if El Gary can’t even secure playing time, any offensive bounceback won’t matter.
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