Welcome all to the first edition of a new weekly article where we’ll highlight some of fantasy baseball’s most (un)lucky players based on the gap between their actual stats and their expected stats.
If you swat a bee nest you should expect to be stung. Touch a hot stove and expect to be burned. Launch a baseball 100.7 MPH at a 28-degree angle and expect to take a leisurely home run trot.
If The Crying Game taught us anything though, it’s that we don’t always get what we expect. How was that Stanton blast not a home run? In baseball, we have ways to quantify what the result of a batted ball should have been based on variables like exit velocity and launch angle when compared to the actual outcomes of similar batted balls in the past. Those are expected stats.
The nicest thing about expected stats is that they boil down components of batted ball quality into easily understood numbers. We all know what a .300 AVG or .500 SLG means, so there’s no translation needed to understand what an xBA of .300 or xSLG of .500 means.
Expected statistics can be helpful in fantasy to show us which players have been hurt or helped the most by luck, and which are playing to their true skill level. This can impact trade decisions, add/drops, start/sit choices and more, so expected statistics are yet another helpful tool to help us navigate in-season roster management decisions.
The danger though is that expected stats are descriptive, not predictive. If that .300 xBA is attached to an actual AVG of .250, it does not mean that player will hit .300 the rest of the year. We need be careful not to rely on expected stats too heavily as proof that a player’s fortunes will inevitably reverse. What’s more important to consider is the sustainability of the skills behind the stats.
With a seemingly deadened baseball in play and humidors now in every park, not to mention only three weeks’ worth of 2022 batted ball data to evaluate, we’ll need more time and adjustments before this year’s expected statistics become more useful for fantasy purposes. Until we have more data to work with, the early iterations of this article will primarily be centered around the theme of “Don’t panic!” (conversely, be ready to act if your league mates do). It doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with the small-sample outliers though, and sometimes even small samples are the seeds of greater breakout growth or the harbinger of an aging star’s demise.
All stats via baseballsavant.com thru 4/26
Early xStat Underperformers: Hitters
Kyle Tucker has easily been one of fantasy baseball’s greatest disappointments through the first few weeks of the year. A 1st/2nd round pick all offseason, through his first 61 PA Tucker hit just .127/.213/.236 with 2 HR and 1 SB. Based on his quality of contact though, the results should have been much better than they were. He’s often hitting the ball hard but too few are falling in for hits. With so few games played, now is not the time to panic about Tucker’s poor start. Look at how closely Tucker’s 2022 thus far compares to his similarly awful beginning to the 2021 season, when he hit .181/.238/.372 thru April:
Luis Robert hasn’t been nearly the disappointment that Kyle Tucker has thus far given his fantasy-friendly 5 SB, but the .205 AVG, 3 RBI, and current mild groin injury leave a lot to be desired. Holy forkballs though, that xAVG and xSLG! We must continue to remember that the sample size so far is tiny, but it’s hard not to like Robert’s fantastic 13.3% K rate, 15.8% barrel rate, and career-best contact rates. With health, he is one of the few major leaguers able to provide a 30/30 season and there is no reason to be concerned about the depressed AVG and RBI total since he’s the #2 hitter in a strong lineup when he plays. All he needs is to stay healthy to return a fair value for his high draft price.
Trey Mancini hasn’t been the unluckiest hitter in MLB so far, but for fantasy purposes he may be one of the more easily acquired upside bats right now. Even if a league mate is frustrated with the slow starts of a Kyle Tucker or Luis Robert, it would be a tall task to pry away someone’s 1st/2nd round pick in trade; however, a power-hitting corner infielder like Mancini that cost far less on draft day is more easily parted with. If you have him, keep him. If you don’t, why not make an offer if he could upgrade your current roster?
There was a lot of preseason talk about the fantasy deaths of Mancini, Ryan Mountcastle, and other Orioles hitters due to the left field fence moving back in Baltimore, but anyone getting regular at-bats hitting 3rd/4th with the batted ball quality of Mancini and likely to gain OF eligibility soon is worthy of a roster spot as a CI at least. If your team has surplus pitching to trade, he’s the kind of target who can fill out your starting hitters and be an excellent CI/Util with the possibility of a .270/30/90 season still in play.
Early xStat Underperformers: Pitchers
isn’t a sexy name in fantasy baseball circles, but any time a veteran pitcher with success in his past comes to spring training throwing everything 2 MPH harder than he ever has before, it’s worth taking notice. This is especially true when the team that signed him over the offseason offers one of the best environments for pitching in terms of both coaching and home ballpark.
Thus far, Cobb’s 4.82 ERA and 1.29 WHIP haven’t matched the preseason love he was getting on Twitter, but the underlying skills are mightily impressive and the offseason velo bump has persisted into his first two starts of the year. With the usual caveat that his 9.1 IP sample so far is too small to draw any concrete conclusions, Cobb’s 30% K-BB rate, 13.5 K/9, and 69.6% GB rate are elite. They’ve been offset so far by an unlucky .417 BABIP and 50% strand rate.
None of those numbers are sustainable over the course of a full season, but if you’re holding Cobb on your roster during his current IL stint for a slight groin strain, the upside for the remainder of this season is no less than it was a few weeks ago. Should you need pitching help, now is the perfect time to float a trade offer to Cobb’s current team in hopes that they already think he won’t match the preseason hype. He may yet.
Chris Paddack has done very little to inspire confidence since his fantastic rookie debut in 2019 which saw him post a 3.33 ERA and 0.98 WHIP over 140.1 IP. Since then, he has produced a 4.95 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 167.1 injury-plagued IP. Traded from the Padres to the Twins in the offseason, the proverbial change of scenery, divisional opponents, and coaching staff, along with a distinct change in pitch mix, could help coax better results for 2022. While the early ERA (5.00 before his Tuesday start) wasn’t inspiring, the batted ball metrics so far look more like 2019 than 2020/2021.
Paddack is now throwing a slightly slower cutter (16% usage, up from 2%) and has dropped his 4-seam fastball usage under 50% for the first time in his career. He’s also reduced the changeup usage in favor of more curveballs. The guy once thought of as a two-pitch pitcher (4-seam and changeup) is now showing hitters a more well-rounded repertoire of four pitches with >15% usage. Combine the pitch mix change with favorable expected stats and Paddack may once again offer upside we haven’t seen since his 2019 debut. He’s worth a roster spot early on to find out.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)