Late-sea­son call-ups come with risk

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The dog days of sum­mer of­fer fan­tasy own­ers a unique sneak peek at some of the game’s best young play­ers.

Top prospects such as Bos­ton Red Sox third base­man Rafael Dev­ers, New York Mets short­stop Amed Rosario, At­lanta Braves sec­ond base­man Ozzie Al­bies and Philadel­phia Phillies first base­man-out­fielder Rhys Hoskins have all made their de­buts in the last 30 days.

Re­sults have var­ied. Dev­ers has found a home in the mid­dle of Bos­ton’s lineup and Hoskins has bashed a few home runs, but the oth­ers are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing grow­ing pains. The level of com­pe­ti­tion and the at­mos­phere in the up­per mi­nors is no way com­pa­ra­ble to the con­sis­tency of big-league ballplay­ers and the bright lights of the ma­jor league ex­pe­ri­ence.

As ma­jor league ac­tive ros­ters ex­pand Sept. 1 and more prospects en­ter the player pool, fan­tasy own­ers have their hands full at­tempt­ing to eval­u­ate young­sters for 2018.

Over at Base­bal­, we have sev­eral tools to eval­u­ate fan­tasy prospects. Our pop­u­lar “Eyes have it” se­ries is a weekly at­tempt to project fan­tasy ceil­ings based on in-per­son eval­u­a­tion and sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis. All se­ri­ous own­ers eval­u­ate data, but here are a few key nuggets to look for while watch­ing prospects com­pete in late August and Septem­ber.


One of the old­est clichés in base­ball is “good pitch­ing beats good hit­ting.” It’s true. Look at the ca­reer num­bers of Clay­ton Ker­shaw and Max Scherzer. They con­tinue to dom­i­nate year in and year out against even the best hit­ters.

And then, there are guys who come up to the ma­jors and look like ef­fec­tive pitch­ers in a small sam­ple, lead­ing fan­tasy own­ers to jump on the pitcher’s band­wagon dur­ing the off­sea­son. Mets pitcher Robert Gsell­man was a great ex­am­ple from last sea­son.

In 44 2⁄3 ma­jor league in­nings in 2016, Gsell­man posted a 4-2 record with a 2.42 ERA, a re­spectable 8.5 K/9 rate (strike­outs per nine in­nings) and a 1.28 WHIP (walks plus hits per in­ning pitched), while help­ing the Mets to a wildcard berth.

Gsell­man also passed the eye test for both fans and ca­sual ob­servers. His low-90s, two-seam fast­ball fea­tured late, above-av­er­age move­ment that MLB hit­ters strug­gled to square up. He com­ple­mented his fast­ball with a high-80s wipe­out slider and a work­able, late-fad­ing changeup.

By this mea­sure, he looked like the next stud in the Mets’ pitch­ing pipe­line.

This sea­son has been a dif­fer­ent story, as Gsell­man’s 2016 stat line looks more like a sta­tis­ti­cal anom­aly with each pass­ing start. He has strug­gled might­ily to com­pete against big-league hit­ters.

In hind­sight, these strug­gles were fore­told by Gsell­man’s lack of fast­ball com­mand, some­thing you could only no­tice by watch­ing him pitch. While his stuff looked like big-league starter ma­te­rial, Gsell­man was wild in the strike zone. He was un­able to put pitches where he wanted to, and hit­ters didn’t catch on un­til this sea­son.

Once hit­ters learned to wait Gsell­man out, they found he was likely to bleed a fast­ball over the plate for them to smash. This ex­plains Gsell­man’s high con­tact rate and the in­crease in bat­ters’ slug­ging per­cent­age against him ( just .319 in 2016 but up to .509 in 2017). Re­lated, his strike­out rate has dropped from 8.5 K/9 in 2016 to 6.5 K/9 in 2017. Gsell­man will need to ad­just too, and his pitches are too good for him to be a sub­par per­former. But he will need to im­prove.

Which young pitcher could be a can­di­date to fall into this cat­e­gory based on a 2017 small sam­ple? Try right-han­der Luis Castillo of the Cincin­nati Reds. He is blessed with a high-oc­tane, four-seam fast­ball; a hard sinker; and two off-speed of­fer­ings that grade as av­er­age or be­low.

Castillo has had suc­cess by chang­ing eye lev­els and be­ing ef­fec­tively wild in and out of the strike zone. But his best pitch, a hard low to mid-90s sinker, is hard to con­trol and rarely ends up in the strike zone. His four-seam fast­ball, though high in ve­loc­ity, doesn’t move much, and hit­ters could very well stop swing­ing at his sinker. If Castillo doesn’t ad­just and find bet­ter con­trol of his pitches, he is a can­di­date for re­gres­sion in 2018.

Oth­ers to keep an eye with this in mind dur­ing the fi­nal six weeks of the sea­son: the Colorado Rock­ies’ Jeff Hoff­man, At­lanta’s Sean New­comb and the Chicago White Sox’s Lu­cas Gi­olito.


Pre­dict­ing young hit­ting is also hard to pin­point into the fol­low­ing sea­son. Take Braves short­stop Dansby Swan­son. The her­alded 2015 No. 1 over­all pick was solid out of the gate in 2016. In 38 games, Swan­son bat­ted .302, got on base at a solid .361 clip and 28% of his hits were for ex­tra bases. He show­cased an abil­ity to work counts, drive the ball and cre­ate runs.

But this sea­son has been a dif­fer­ent story. While Swan­son’s walk and strike­out rates have im­proved slightly, his av­er­age was .222. Pitch­ers ad­justed to Swan­son by sup­ply­ing a steady diet of break­ing balls early in his at-bats.

As he caught on, pitch­ers brought back the fast­ball, catch­ing Swan­son “in be­tween” on many of his swings. For the first time in Swan­son’s base­ball life, he faced fail­ure, and the Braves even­tu­ally de­moted him for a stretch in the sec­ond half.

Most fan­tasy own­ers don’t con­sider that most elite prospects such as Swan­son will face their first real strug­gle some­time dur­ing their first 350 ma­jor league at-bats.

Ex­cep­tions al­ways tempt own­ers into be­liev­ing the best prospects will quickly ad­just. Play­ers such as Los Angeles Dodgers out­fielder-first base­man Cody Bellinger and Red Sox out­fielder An­drew Ben­in­tendi have suc­cess­fully ad­justed to pitch­ers chang­ing how they at­tack them, much like vet­eran hit­ters do. This is not nor­mal, and many of even the elite hit­ting prospects will likely run into rough patches at the plate.

Dev­ers, for in­stance, has en­joyed tremen­dous suc­cess since his de­but in late July. But there are a few in­di­ca­tors, beyond his high .392 bat­ting av­er­age on balls in play com­ing back down to earth, that sug­gest Dev­ers could strug­gle in 2018.

Dev­ers’ spray chart has ab­so­lutely flipped in the big leagues. Through­out his mi­nor league ca­reer, Dev­ers incorporated an all-fields hit­ting ap­proach. But since be­com­ing a big-lea­guer, he has gone the other way twice as much as he has pulled the base­ball.

Dev­ers has re­sponded to pitch­ers work­ing him away, and he has gone with that pitch time and again. But when pitch­ers have at­tacked him in­side, Dev­ers has strug­gled to get the bat head out for solid con­tact. You’ll see this pat­tern de­velop as you watch his at-bats: hard stuff in on his hands and break­ing balls that dive out of the zone.

It will be up to Dev­ers to ad­just when more pitch­ers com­ing in to him be­comes a more fre­quent oc­cur­rence.

Among the other young hit­ters who are worth track­ing for the re­main­der of the sea­son: Philadel­phia’s Nick Wil­liams, Colorado’s Raimel Tapia and the Oak­land Ath­let­ics’ Matt Chap­man.

In con­clu­sion, don’t avoid all rook­ies or young play­ers when do­ing your prep for 2018 drafts this off­sea­son and next spring. Rather, dig deeper be­fore mak­ing in­vest­ments in a player sub­set with a vari­able fre­quency of fail­ure.


Since his June de­but with the Reds, Luis Castillo has a 3.45 ERA in 12 starts, but that doesn’t mean fan­tasy own­ers can rely on him for 2018.

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