Late-season call-ups come with risk
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 BaseballHQ.com, 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.