It’s still early in the fantasy baseball cycle, but enough draft data has rolled in to allow us to make a few early observations. As we get ready to begin our fantasy baseball coverage in earnest, we’ll use the data available from drafts at Fantrax and NFBC to start planting some flags on the fantasy baseball landscape.
We’ve already looked at a hitter and pitcher who are being undervalued in early drafts. Now, we’ll check out the other side of the coin, highlighting one hitter and one pitcher coming off the board a bit too early for our tastes.
J.T. Realmuto, C, Marlins
The fantasy community has mostly weaned itself off the positional scarcity myth, which used to push players up draft boards because they played a shallow position. Production is production no matter its source, and while adding value to players at scarce positions is admittedly logical, the specific player in question still needs to put up numbers that make him worth the draft slot. In other words, positional scarcity can be a tiebreaker, but it should not artificially inflate a player’s value.
Such is the case with J.T. Realmuto, whose average draft position sits at 66.21. That places him right in the middle of the fifth round in 14- and 15-team leagues, with the hitters around him including Eugenio Suarez, George Springer, Gary Sanchez, Tommy Pham, Miguel Andujar, Lorenzo Cain and Matt Carpenter. The pitchers in his neighborhood are mostly SP2 types with major strikeout upside, including Stephen Strasburg, Mike Clevinger, Jack Flaherty and Jameson Taillon. Realmuto is arguably the best catcher in baseball, but drafting him in this range will almost certainly leave value on the table.
Realmuto had a career year in 2018, hitting .277/.340/.484 with 21 homers, 30 doubles and 74 RBI in 531 plate appearances. Over the last three seasons, during which he has been a top-flight fantasy catcher, he’s slashed .286/.338/.454, with his homer totals climbing from 11 to 17 to last year’s 21. Those are good, but not great, numbers. The rates should increase a fantasy team’s bottom line, but not by much. The homers are nice, but homers come cheap in the launch angle era. He doesn’t run at all. As long as he’s playing in Miami, he’ll be surrounded by one of the worst lineups in the majors. Now in his age-28 season, it’s safe to say that this is who Realmuto is, a good player who will contribute meaningfully, though not overwhelmingly, to four fantasy categories and likely has more real-life than fantasy value because of the position he plays. Why? Because the hitters being selected immediately before and after Realmuto dwarf his output.
Consider Pham, the hitter going right after Realmuto in a typical draft. He had a disastrous first half last year before being traded to the Rays. Even after being saddled with that sunk cost all year, Pham hit .275/.367/.464 with 21 homers and 15 steals. The year before, he hit .306/.411/.520 with 23 jacks and 25 swipes.
How about Andujar, the next hitter off the board in typical drafts? As a 23-year-old rookie in 2018, he hit .297/.328/.527, belted 27 homers, drove in 92 runs, and scored 83 more. Additionally, he’s going to hit in the middle of one of the league’s best lineups. Last season could prove to be a floor, especially with Andujar entering his age-24 season.
It doesn’t stop there. Cain hit .308 last season, posted a .395 OBP, stole 30 bases, and scored 90 runs. Carpenter slashed .257/.374/.523 with 36 homers and 81 RBI. All of these hitters are going after Realmuto in typical drafts, and it has everything to do with positional scarcity.
Realmuto absolutely deserves to be one of the first catchers selected in every fantasy baseball draft this season. The position he plays, however, should not push him up boards. It might make him less valuable, considering he’ll likely get no more than 550 plate appearances. He’s averaged 134.3 games and 551.7 plate appearances the last three years. That’s a reasonable expectation for him again this year. Realmuto is not a fifth-round pick, yet that’s what you’ll have to make him if you want to secure his services this season. Let somebody else make that mistake.
Patrick Corbin, SP, Nationals
If early drafts are indicating anything unequivocally, it’s that starting pitching will be expensive. Max Scherzer is an easy first-round pick. Jacob deGrom and Chris Sale will be drafted in the late first round or early second round. Corey Kluber, Aaron Nola, Justin Verlander, Blake Snell and Gerrit Cole are all hearing their names called before pick No. 30. A scoring boom over the last few seasons, combined with the ushering in of the age of bullpenning, has thinned the ranks of reliable mid-rotation starters, and that has made aces more valuable in fantasy leagues. No one should be surprised by the draft-day price tags attached to Scherzer or Sale, Verlander or Snell.
That uptick in ace ADP, however, has trickled down to the next rung on the pitching ladder. Second- and third-tier pitchers are more expensive this season which will lead to a few of them being overvalued. After all, not every pitcher in this class can hit. If they could, they’d be aces, and while they’re all very good, and some of them great, they aren’t quite at that level.
Take Patrick Corbin, for instance. Seemingly on the verge of a breakout after an All-Star campaign in 2013, he lost the entire 2014 season due to Tommy John surgery. He made 16 starts in 2015, 24 in 2016, and 32 in 2017, slowly but surely improving along the way. Still, the improvement was minor, as he finished 2017 with a 4.03 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 3.89 xFIP, and 178 strikeouts in 189 2/3 innings. Suddenly, just when it seemed his frontline potential was gone, he took off last year.
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Corbin pitched to a 3.15 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 2.61 xFIP, with 246 strikeouts in 200 innings last season, and was one of eight pitchers with a strikeout rate north of 30%. Given that monster season, it’s not a surprise that he’s climbing up draft boards this winter. Yet seeing him ranked 15th among starting pitchers, and 49th overall, by ADP, however, is surprising. He’s going about a round earlier, on average, than Realmuto, which means he, too, is ahead of Springer, Suarez, Pham and the other hitters we discussed earlier. The pendulum has swung too far in Corbin’s favor.
Whenever we see a leap that dramatic, we want to look for a substantive change that could be responsible for it. Did he add a new pitch? Did he change his pitch mix? Did he increase his velocity. In Corbin’s case, the answer to the first two questions is yes, but there’s no indication that there’s any causation to go along with the correlation.
In 2017, Corbin relied heavily on his slider, four-seamer and two-seamer, and mixed in an occasional changeup for good measure. He was just as slider dependent last year, but flipped the usage rates of his two fastballs. Meanwhile, he added a curveball and all but scrapped the changeup. Here are his usage rates by pitch for the last two seasons, with 2017 listed first.
2017 Usage Rate
2018 Usage Rate
Corbin didn’t get many whiffs with either fastball in 2017 or 2018, so we can safely ignore those for this exercise. His change was never a swing-and-miss offering, but he did get a 13.4% whiff rate with the curve last year. That’s meaningful, but not capable of moving the needle in a statistically significant way when the usage of the pitch is less than 10%. Just as the slider did the heavy lifting in his repertoire generally, it was mostly responsible for spiking his strikeout rate specifically.
Corbin got whiffs on 30.2% of his sliders last season, up from 21.8% the year before. His strikeout rate, meanwhile, jumped to 30.8% from 21.6%, almost the same increase. The pitch, however, remained exactly the same otherwise. In shape, velocity and movement, there was no difference between Corbin’s 2018 slider and the 2017 version. Is it possible that the increase in whiff rate on the pitch was anomalous? Certainly possible enough to make Corbin a bigger risk at his inflated ADP than he appears at first glance.
What’s more, when hitters did put Corbin’s pitches in play, they regularly did so with authority. His 41.7% hard-hit rate was second highest in the majors, behind only Cole Hamels. His 24.3% line-drive rate was the league’s fifth highest, and it was accompanied by a 48.5% ground-ball rate. Grounders typically do less damage than line drives and fly balls, but they also find more holes than the latter. As such, it’s common for ground-ball pitchers to have higher-than-average BABIPs. Corbin’s BABIP last year was .302. Given his batted-ball stats, he got lucky on balls in play.
If you’re going to buy Corbin at his expected draft-day price, ahead of all those hitters as well as James Paxton, Stephen Strasburg, Mike Clevinger and Zack Greinke, you have to believe that his slider is not only an elite swing-and-miss pitch, but potentially the best offering in the game. If it isn’t and his strikeout rate comes back to earth, he’s going to be a value bust at his ADP.