As the beginning of the baseball season draws near, there’s an unmistakable feeling in the air.
The most obvious is the absence of several top stars on any Major League Baseball team’s roster. As spring training camps opened, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel were among those unsigned.
That situation should eventually be resolved, but there are a few other things that aren’t so easily addressed – statistical trends that require a fair share of evaluation. Only time will tell if these twill correct themselves, but here’s a look at what we’re keeping an eye on this season, particularly as it relates to fantasy:
Where did the homers go?
Starting midway through the 2015 season, balls inexplicably started flying out of ballparks. That continued with even more regularity through 2016 and 2017, the No. 3 and No. 1 homer-heavy seasons in history.
Even an independent study commissioned by MLB couldn’t figure out what was different. But thanks to groundbreaking research by astrophysicist Meredith Wills, a culprit emerged:
The laces in the newer baseballs are different — noticeably different. Those used to stitch the seams on the 2016-2017 balls are 9.0 percent thicker than those on the 2014 balls.
Without getting too deep into the science, thicker seams make the ball more spherical and in turn reduce wind resistance. With less resistance, the ball flies farther.
(In addition, Wills’ research also offered an explanation for the dramatic increase in pitchers suffering from blisters during that two-year period.)
However, something changed in 2018.
The number of home runs finally declined for the first time in three seasons … yet at the same time, Statcast data showed batters hit the ball harder and squared up those hard-hit balls more often than they did a year ago.
- Barrel rate: 6.2%
- Hard-hit rate: 33.3%
- Avg. exit velocity: 86.7 mph
- Home runs/game: 1.26
- Barrel rate: 6.7%
- Hard-hit rate: 35.3%
- Avg. exit velocity: 87.7 mph
- Home runs/game: 1.15
(stats via BaseballSavant.com)
Certainly, there could be other factors in play. For example, the extremely wet weather last April might have affected the results.
But it seems pretty clear something was different last season. The question now becomes: What, if anything, will Major League Baseball do about the major league baseballs?
Shrinking middle class
As home runs declined in 2018, batting average and scoring followed suit. Meanwhile, the number of strikeouts continued to rise, setting a record for the 13th consecutive season.
By themselves, those numbers don’t require any major strategic changes in fantasy baseball. However, the way they’re being distributed does.
There’s a growing polarization toward the extreme ends of the spectrum. This is especially the case in three of the 10 traditional fantasy categories: stolen bases, wins and saves.
There’s been a steady decline in stolen bases as analytically-minded teams have concluded the value of an extra base often doesn’t outweigh the risk of losing an out by being caught.
The best basestealers are successful enough to continue to get the green light, but those whose percentages are lower more often stay put. As a result, 11 players stole 30 or more bases last season and 41 stole at least 15. Meanwhile, six had 30-plus steals in 2017, but 52 players had 15 or more.
After doing several early drafts, I’ve already had to bump up speedsters such as Starling Marte, Whit Merrifield, Jonathan Villar and Mallex Smith in my overall rankings.
Likewise in the pitching categories, the elite performers have become more valuable.
Thanks in part to the Tampa Bay Rays’ implementation of “the opener,” pitchers averaged 5 ⅓ innings per start in 2018, the lowest figure in major league history. As teams make greater use of their bullpens, fewer starters are going deeper into games. (Only 58 starters, not even two a team, qualified for the ERA title last year.)
There are still the same number of total wins in a season that we’ve had since MLB expanded to 30 teams in 1998. But starting pitchers, outside of the truly elite ones, aren’t getting wins in large numbers.
To a lesser extent, a shift toward bullpen committees and high-leverage relievers have reduced the importance of a saves specialist we commonly call a closer.
Fantasy owners will likely have to pay more for the projected leaders in steals, wins and saves in this year’s drafts because those top-heavy stats will be unevenly distributed throughout the player pool.
Welcome to the majors, Vlad Jr.
There’s always some degree of unknown entering any season, but part of the excitement for this one is the impending debut of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
The Hall of Famer’s son turned heads in the minor leagues last year by hitting a combined .381 over four levels. At the age of 19.
Some scouts have called him the best prospect since Alex Rodriguez. But even as a non-scout, even I could tell there’s something special about him after watching him play in the Arizona Fall League.
In the Fall Stars Game, he hit a rocket that hit the left-field wall so quickly it seemed to defy the laws of physics. I later found out it had an exit velocity of 117 mph, a figure only 11 major leaguers reached in the entire 2018 season.
The kid is ready for the majors, even if the Toronto Blue Jays choose to start him at Class AAA for a couple of weeks to keep him under contract an additional year.
Guerrero will be the most interesting player in drafts this season. Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna was last year’s hot prospect, but we had him ranked No. 113 overall at this time.
Despite his delayed call-up, Acuna still ended up as the No. 49 overall player in fantasy, well worth a 10th-round pick.
So what about Vlad Jr.? We’ve projected him at No. 37.
Unfortunately, he should be missing when opening day rolls around. All the more reason we can’t wait to get this season started.
Follow Fantasy Editor Steve Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner