• Cody Bellinger will get you home runs, but is he really worth a pick in the mid-20s? He looks like a prime fantasy bust candidate.
By Michael Beller
March 09, 2018

The definition of sleeper may have changed over the years, but bust means today what it did 10 and 20 years ago, and what it will 10 and 20 years in the future. There are two types of busts. Those that completely flop, and those that play well enough, but don’t come close to justifying their draft-day price tag. We’ll feature both types in our look at NL busts for the 2018 season.

Two notes before we get going. A player needs to be a high- or middle-round pick to bust. No one cares if your 14th-rounder falls flat on his face. Given that, we set an average draft position cutoff of 100 to qualify as a bust. Pick No. 100 comes in the ninth round of a 12-team league, eighth round of a 14-teamer, and seventh round of a 15-teamer. Second, given that the potential bust pool is much shallower than that of sleepers or breakouts, there will be fewer players in these columns than those ones.

Cody Bellinger, 1B/OF, Dodgers (ADP: 24.35)

Bellinger is a prime value bust. He’s too good to be a true bust. The power is for real, he hits in the middle of a strong lineup, and he’s going to play every day. Even if he experiences maximum regression, he’s likely to give his owners 30 homers and 10 steals while pushing 100 runs and RBI. That’s a great fantasy asset.

The problem, however, is that his price strips out all possible profit while not accounting for the possibility of regression. Bellinger had an excellent debut season, hitting .267/.352/.581 with 39 homers, 97 RBI, 87 runs and 10 steals, while cruising to the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Even with that, he was the No. 37 overall player in standard 5x5 leagues, and the No. 27 hitter. The Dodgers successfully manipulated Bellinger’s service time, which cost him a few weeks at the beginning of the season, but he still played 132 games and racked up 548 plate appearances. His counting stats didn’t suffer much, if at all, because he spent the first three weeks of the season at Triple-A Oklahoma City.

All of that is to say that Bellinger essentially just put up a best-case scenario season, and it resulted in him being the No. 37 fantasy player. His ADP this year, however, requires you to make him one of the first 25 players selected in your draft. Again, there’s almost no room for profit, and it ignores the holes in Bellinger’s game. He struck out in 26.6% of his plate appearances last season. His 13.5% whiff rate was the 19th-highest in the majors. Opposing pitchers seemed to exploit that as the season wore on, with Bellinger losing 60 points of OPS in the second half despite gaining 33 points of BABIP.

Bellinger is undeniably great and he has a bright future ahead of him. His 2018 ADP, however, forces him to have another best-case scenario season to justify the price. I’d rather opt for Anthony Rizzo, J.D. Martinez or Stephen Strasburg.

Madison Bumgarner, SP, Giants (ADP: 25.99)

Bumgarner suffered 2017’s most bizarre injury when a dirtbike accident cost him three months with a banged-up left shoulder. He came off the DL right after the All-Star break and turned in a solid season, totaling a 3.32 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 1.09 WHIP and 101 strikeouts in 111 innings. He is being drafted as an ace this season, ahead of Stephen Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard, Luis Severino, Jacob deGrom and Carlos Carrasco. That might turn out to be a grave mistake.

Bumgarner did not look like himself after he returned from the shoulder injury. Bumgarner’s four-seam fastball was once a work of art. It wasn’t necessarily the hardest in the majors, but it was the most effective. Most starters are thrilled to get 7% or 8% whiffs on a four-seamer. Bumgarner got double-digit whiff rates with his for four straight years from 2013 through 2016, topping out at 13.5%. Last year, his four-seam velocity fell to a career-low 91.3 mph, while its whiff rate fell off a cliff to 7.3%. His cutter, another key offering, also fell in whiff rate to 12.25%, its lowest mark since 2014.

Bumgarner has always had an effective curveball, but he lives on the interplay between his four-seamer and cutter. Those two offerings have accounted for at least 76.7% of his total pitches for the last seven years, and they were never less effective than they were last season. Was it a blip on the radar caused by his dirtbike injury, or was it the start of a skills decline? Given that I can get Strasburg or Syndergaard in most leagues if I’m in the market for a starter, or that I can turn to hitters and grab Josh Donaldson or George Springer, I’m letting someone else take the risk on the big lefty.

Rhys Hoskins, 1B/OF, Phillies (ADP: 45.92)

There’s no doubting Hoskins’s power. He hit 38 homers at the Double-A level in 2016, 29 with Triple-A Lehigh Valley in 115 games last year before getting the call to the majors, and 18 in just 212 plate appearances with the Phillies. In the span of two years, which covered his age-23 and -24 seasons, Hoskins hit 87 homers in 1,276 trips to the plate. That’s one homer for every 14.7 plate appearances, which comes out to about 40 homers in a typical 600-PA season for a regular in the majors.

Hoskins is going to hit for power and he’s going to drive in runs. The thing is, that doesn’t necessarily mean what it used to. Sure, 35-homer guys with the potential to hit 40 or, if everything breaks right, push 50, are always going to have plenty of value. Still, with power easier than ever to find, guys who provide extreme pop and not much else aren’t as valuable as they used to be.

The question for Hoskins is can he be at least batting average neutral and a plus in OBP, like he was in his 212 plate appearances last year? He did so in the two highest levels of the minors, and he posted a 17.5% walk rate with the Phillies last season, but there is always rate risk tied to a slugger who strikes out in more than one-fifth of his plate appearances and is likely to hit about 1.5 fly balls for every ground ball.

Hoskins is going to play the outfield this season, with new Phillie Carlos Santana holding down first base. For what it’s worth, Hoskins slashed .213/.359/.585 in 117 plate appearances as an outfielder last year, and .316/.442/.658 in 95 plate appearances as a first baseman. For the time being, we can chalk that up to the random nature of baseball, but Hoskins is far from a natural outfielder. It’s possible the physical and mental strain of the outfield affected him at the plate a year ago, and it’s something to keep an eye on this season.

As is the case with Bellinger and Bumgarner, this largely comes down to a risk/reward analysis. Hoskins has massive power, and he could find another level this season. At the same time, he carries unquestionable risk and is coming off the board at the stages of a draft where you can’t afford a whiff. His ADP neighborhood includes Jose Abreu, Marcell Ozuna, Justin Upton, Robbie Ray and Yu Darvish. All are better picks in my estimation.

Buster Posey, C/1B, Giants (ADP: 60.79)

Posey’s price has come down in recent years, and that’s good because it reached dizzying heights despite clear evidence that he’s a far better real-life player than he is in fantasy. Still, the false idol of positional scarcity is still driving this runaway train. Posey is not worth the 60th or 61st overall pick in fantasy drafts.

Posey hit .320/.400/.462 with 12 homers, 67 RBI, 62 runs and six steals last year. The rates are elite, and he gives you a little bit of contribution everywhere else. For the time being, we’ll consider just last year’s numbers, even though there’s reason to believe the batting average and OBP come down this year. Let’s do our best to find a few comparables for Posey.

What would you say about a hitter who posted a .318/.385/.498 slash line with 25 homers, 94 RBI, 98 runs and six steals last year? He’s easily a better fantasy player than Posey, right? The rates are, for all intents and purposes, identical, and this player is clearly superior in three categories. Not only should he go earlier than Posey, it shouldn’t be much of a contest. This player is Eric Hosmer. His ADP is 77.51.

Here’s another real line from last year that belongs to a real player: .314/.363/.484 with 13 homers, 82 RBI, 77 runs and seven steals. Posey’s rates may be the most attractive asset between the two, but this one is neck and neck. Even if you think Posey is the better bet, this player clearly belongs in the same neighborhood in terms of draft-day price. So, who is he? Josh Reddick. His ADP is 282.86, sandwiched between Stephen Piscotty and Starlin Castro.

I rest my case. If Posey weren’t a catcher, he’d be nowhere near the top-60 players by ADP. Positional scarcity is nowhere near that important, especially early in drafts. Let someone else make that mistake.

Corey Knebel, RP, Brewers (ADP: 69.55)

Knebel is the No. 4 closer by ADP, just two picks behind Aroldis Chapman. That is unbridled lunacy. Are you really going to pass on the likes of Jose Quintana, Daniel Murphy, Jean Segura and a host of others for Knebel? Quintana is a 200-inning starter with a top-25 floor. Murphy has hit .334/.387/.569 the last two years, with 162-game averages of 28 homers, 51 doubles, 112 RBI and 104 runs. Segura hasn’t been quite as good in that same time, but has slashed .310/.359/.467 with 162-game averages of 19 homers, 42 doubles, 33 steals, 64 RBI and 107 runs. But sure, take Knebel, the 60-inning closer with serious cause for concern this season.

Knebel enjoyed a breakout 2017 campaign, racking up a 1.78 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 2.53 FIP and 126 strikeouts in 76 innings, all while converting 39 of 45 save opportunities. He was a solid reliever in the first two seasons of his career, posting a 3.80 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 3.85 FIP with 96 strikeouts in 83 innings. He had a 27.1% strikeout rate, 9.3% walk rate, and allowed 1.2 homers per nine innings. Those are all above-average numbers, but none suggest the star turn he took in 2017.

Substantive change is the key to a breakout with staying power. Knebel didn’t show that in terms of repertoire or velocity. In 2016, Knebel threw his four-seamer 72.3% of the time and his curveball 27.6% of the time. Last year, those offerings were at 71.8% and 28.2%, respectively. His fastball velocity ticked up to 97.8 mph from 96.2 mph, but that’s not the sort of change that would drive the leap that he made.

And yet, Knebel’s strides were enormous. He had a 40.8% strikeout rate last year, which ranked fourth among relievers, and was one of 10 bullpen arms with a strikeout rate better than 35%. We should expect a pitcher with that high a strikeout rate to generate a lot of empty swings and to post a high o-swing rate, which measures how often hitters swing at pitches outside the strike zone. Among those 10 relievers with a strikeout rate of at least 35%, only Dellin Betances had a lower whiff rate than Knebel’s 14.1%. Betances and Chad Green were the only ones with a lower o-swing rate than Knebel’s 28.8%. In fact, among the top-30 pitchers in strikeout rate, Knebel ranked 19th in whiff rate and 25th in o-swing rate.

I’m not sure what drove Knebel’s breakout last season, but I am sure that I don’t want to bet on it this season. His underlying stats point to a strikeout rate that’s merely above average, not one that’s among the best in the league. If that ends up being the case this year, he won’t come anywhere near justifying his draft-day price.

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