The MLB All-Star festivities have gone stale, largely because of the interminable home run derby. That’s all the Midsummer Classic offers, besides the game, of course, and it gets a little old watching guys hit batting practice homers for three hours. There has to be a way to make the whole experience better.
Baseball has one advantage over the other major professional sports in American when it comes to All-Star Games. The on-field product doesn’t change all that much, simply because it’s an exhibition game. Sure, there are far more substitutions, and no pitcher is throwing more than two innings, but the gameplay is basically the same. Contrast that with the NBA, NFL and NHL, where the All-Star Games are played at less than half speed and devoid of defense. MLB can take that advantage and combine it with an idea from the NBA to create a third game during the week that would surely grab people’s attention. It’s time for a rookie-sophomore game during the MLB All-Star break.
So let's get MLB started with this effort. There are plenty of great players entering their second year in the league, and we’ve already spent a lot of time talking about some of them, such as Jose Abreu, George Springer, Mookie Betts, Jacob deGrom, Masahiro Tanaka and Ken Giles. We want to help MLB identify some of the other sophomores who could play in this (as-yet fictional) game who we haven’t much discussed during the offseason. Below are five second-year players who are great targets for fantasy owners this year and would really help make a rookie-sophomore game fun to watch.
Matt Shoemaker, SP, Angels
Take a look back at Shoemaker’s 2014 stats, and one number jumps off the page: He went 16-4 in his rookie year. We know by now to downgrade win-loss record for pitchers, but you can’t be a nobody and rack up 16 wins in 20 decisions. Shoemaker’s peripherals show you why he was able to win so many games. He had a 3.28 xFIP, 1.07 WHIP and 124 strikeouts against 24 walks in 136 innings. A .286 BABIP and 77.5% strand rate suggest that Shoemaker’s luck was right around league average, especially when you take into account his non-threatening–batted-ball rates. In many seasons, Shoemaker would have been an easy pick as the AL Rookie of the Year, but then again, most seasons don’t feature a rookie like Abreu.
If you look at Shoemaker’s stuff, however, it seems he pitched over his head. His fastball barely gets past 90 mph on average, and he ranked 42nd in whiffs-per-swing on his slider, which is good, but hardly dominant. So how exactly did Shoemaker post a 22.8% strikeout rate and 10.7% swinging-strike rate last year? With one of the game’s best splitters.
Shoemaker didn’t throw enough innings last year to qualify for Fangraphs’ pitch value leaderboards, but if he had, he would have ranked first in runs saved with his splitter by a wide margin. He saved 2.51 runs per 100 offerings; Hiroki Kuroda, who did finish first, saved 1.52. The whiff rate on Shoemaker’s splitter, which he threw more than one-fifth of the time, was 22.38%, and hitters managed to hit just .163 against it with a .227 slugging percentage. Let’s see it in action.
With a pitch like that in his repertoire, Shoemaker doesn’t need to be throwing gas to get whiffs. He should take another step forward in his sophomore season.
Kolten Wong, 2B, Cardinals
Second base is a bit of a trouble spot for fantasy owners, though it’s not as bad as it once was. Still, about half your league is going to have to go bargain hunting at the position, and that’s when it’s best to look for players who can really contribute significantly to just a few categories. You have to understand that players of this nature may hurt you in another category or two—after all, that’s why they’re ranked this low. But if you can find one who does a few things really well, it’ll be worth it. That description perfectly fits Wong.
The second baseman is going to hit somewhere between 12 and 15 homers and steal between 20 and 25 bases. Given his minor league track record, as well as his numbers as a rookie, you can pencil those in pretty confidently. In 433 plate appearances last year, Wong left the yard 12 times and swiped 20 bags. Recall, too, that he had a stint in the middle of the season at Triple A after struggling to get it going against big league pitching. He hit just .249 with a .292 OBP, and those rates may not increase much this year. It is worth noting, however, that his .275 BABIP seems a bit unlucky, especially for a lefthanded hitter with speed. In fact, Wong’s xBABIP was a robust .334. He likely won’t turn into a .300 hitter this season, but it’s even more unlikely that he’ll hit below .250 again.
Rarely can you find a hitter with Wong’s power-speed combo at a shallow position still available as late in a draft as you can get the 24-year-old. That makes him a great target at second for the bargain-hunting set, as well as a potential starter on our mythical sophomore team.
Travis d’Arnaud, C, Mets
The thinking with d’Arnaud is very similar to that with Wong: Catcher is one of the shallowest positions in fantasy baseball, and d’Arnaud brings legitimate 20-homer potential to the table. Once you get past a certain threshold at the catcher position, it makes sense to start looking for specialists. With power at a premium, a cheap catcher who can circle the bases 20-plus times should be quite attractive.
D’Arnaud, who’s entering his age-26 season, has always had plenty of pop. He hit 21 homers at Double A when he was still in the Blue Jays’ system, then belted 16 in just 67 games the next year at Triple A. Last year, he managed 13 bombs in just 421 PA, a number he figures to surpass by 100-to-150 this season. If his fly-ball rate and HR/FB ratio remain flat, he’d hit 22 homers. Take into account his age and experience, and there’s reason to believe he could increase that ratio as he grows into his power and becomes more comfortable against major league pitching. On top of that, we’re talking about a guy who has this club in his bag.
So yeah, d’Arnaud’s power is for real. Don’t be surprised if he’s the breakout star at the catcher position this season.
Shane Greene, SP, Tigers
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A Yankees pitcher in a new role used a cutter to reach a level of success he had previously yet to attain. Everyone knows that as the David Robertson story from last year, but he wasn’t the only one who picked up the mantle of Mariano Rivera in 2014. Greene, too, had a great half-season by relying on his cutter, which quickly became one of the best in the league. That pitch alone has him primed for a monster second year.
Greene spent most of the first half in Triple A, but he joined the Yankees’ rotation right before the All-Star break. In 14 starts covering 78 1/3 innings, he had a 3.79 ERA, 3.31 xFIP, and 23.5% strikeout rate. He walked too many batters (3.32 per nine innings) and surrendered a lot of hard-hit balls, but he also excelled at keeping the ball on the ground, evidenced by a 50.2% ground-ball rate. There are still some kinks to work out, but last season’s performance suggests he can miss bats and induce grounders.
And that cutter. Oh, that cutter.
The Yankees dealt Greene to the Tigers in the three-team deal that sent Didi Gregorius to New York. He’ll be Detroit's fifth starter, so understand that any struggles could knock him out of the rotation. Having said that, Greene showed enough swing-and-miss stuff last season, especially with the cutter, to expect him to be able to stick in the Tigers' rotation. Add in a decent slider that had a 14.6% swinging-strike rate on more than 16% usage, and Greene has two pitches to play off his four-seamer and sinker that result in plenty of empty swings. He can help backfill both Detroit’s and fantasy owners’ rotations this year.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pirates
There was plenty of good and bad in Polanco’s 2014 season. Let’s start with the good. He absolutely dominated Triple A as a 22-year-old, slashing .328/.390/.504 with seven homers and 17 doubles in 305 PA. After forcing his way to the majors (once those pesky service-time concerns were out of the way), he hit .288 with a pair of homers, 10 RBIs and 11 walks in his first three weeks with Pittsburgh, making it look like the team might regret keeping him down until early June.
From there, the wheels came off. Polanco didn’t hit better than .225 in a month for the rest of the season and even spent a week back in the minors in late August. All told, he ended up hitting .235/.307/.343 with seven homers and 14 steals in 312 PA during his rookie year.
Even if Polanco doesn’t grow at all as a hitter this year, which would be remarkable for a 23-year-old player with gobs of talent, he’s going to get somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 more plate appearances than he did last season. As such, anything short of 12-to-13 homers and 25 steals would be a major surprise. If he does make some strides at the plate and hits in the .260s rather than the .230s, he turns a huge profit for fantasy owners at his 158.6 average draft position. With an expected price like that, there’s no downside in buying into an undeniably talented, if flawed, young outfielder.