Checking in on Jake, Marcus, Lance, and Touki

Making sense of early outliers in The Year of the De-Juiced Baseball.

The Braves have played 18 games so far this season and the Cardinals have played just five.  This is 2020, so we’ll call it close enough to declare the 60-game season one-quarter complete.

In a season where it’s coming closer and closer to resembling the topsy-turvy world of fantasy football, it is fair to wonder if we should have just let the computer auto-draft our teams for us, or drafted a team entirely composed of players with tremendous facial hair—here’s looking at you, Randy Dobnak!  Alas, you still cling to the desperate hope that thoughtful analysis and logic have a place in our world, and that is unquestionably what has brought you to this article.  Let’s dive in and try to make sense of the chaos!  Please note: Statistics cited in this article are through Sunday, August 9.


Hot Starts


Jake Cronenworth, San Diego Padres


While most fantasy GMs probably didn’t give a second thought to Jake Cronenworth when he was included in “the Tommy Pham trade” that sent Hunter Renfroe and Xavier Edwards to the Rays, Cronenworth looks like he could stick with San Diego for years to come.  Flashing as a hitter and playing sparkling first base defense as Eric Hosmer missed time with injury, Cronenworth has slashed .357/.379/.821 over 10 games and 29 plate appearances.  Looking across his skillset, there aren’t many weaknesses to Cronenworth’s game.  His small big-league sample, as well as his body of work in the minor leagues, suggests a plus hit tool and contact skills.  Cronenworth never struck out more than 20.6% at any stop in the minor leagues since 2016, and his modest K rate of 17.2% is supported by a tiny 6.4% swinging strike rate.  Cronenworth possesses excellent sprint speed (he rates in the 95th percentile so far this season) and while he has yet to record a steal with the Friars, he has shown credible base-stealing ability in the minors (36 steals in 44 attempts in 2018-19).  Perhaps most impressive so far has been Cronenworth’s hard hit ability: He is leading all Padres in barrels per plate appearance and has a hard contact rate of 52.2%, which ranks second on the team to wunderkind Fernando Tatis Jr.  Cronenworth has more of a line-drive stroke than a fly-ball lean, which caps his home-run upside, but he should contribute in all categories while standing out especially in batting average.  The Padres have shown a willingness to be aggressive and ride the hot hand, so look for them to keep finding ways to get Cronenworth’s bat in the lineup.  Now that Hosmer is back, Cronenworth seems headed to a strong-side platoon at the keystone, but he also has the versatility to sub in at short and first as the Padres rest starters or cycle hitters through the DH spot.

Verdict: Legit.  Cronenworth looks like the player we hoped Scott Kingery would be this season: a multi-positional, toolsy hitter who can contribute in all offensive categories.  He would be an excellent first bench bat in a 12-team league and should be rostered everywhere in 15-teamers right now.


Touki Toussaint, Atlanta Braves


While you hate to see all the injuries the Braves have sustained, the silver lining is that those injuries have cleared a rotation spot for Touki Toussaint.  A heralded prospect with highly-rated stuff, Touki has been hot since his first appearance of the season replacing the shell-shocked Mike Foltynewicz, firing a scoreless four-inning start versus the Mets and going 6.2 innings with three runs and nine strikeouts against the Blue Jays.  The underlying numbers are most impressive so far: a dominant 28.1% K-BB%, an elite 16.1% swinging strike rate, and miniscule xFIP and SIERA ratios (2.41 and 2.56, respectively).   What’s behind his success?  In general, it appears Touki is improving both in commanding and trusting his stuff.  Touki’s Command+ is up significantly, from a fringe-starter realm of 87, to 98, which is quite solid considering the quality of his pitches.  Aggressively throwing strikes early in counts, Toussaint’s 68.4% first-pitch strike is up dramatically from his last two stints with the Braves, when it was an identical 52% both seasons.  In his two successful starts, Toussaint dropped the usage of his new slider, which was hit hard by the Rays, in favor of his devastating splitter.  Speaking of the splitter, it’s been an official Money Pitch thus far for Touki, generating a 46.4% chase rate, a 47.2% zone rate, and a 18.9% swinging strike rate.  That splitter zone rate is up considerably from past seasons, which indicates his comfort not just using it as a put-away pitch but also as a change-of-pace offering to generate strikes early in the count.  When many pitchers are seeing a velocity decrease, Toussaint has seen a slight increase in fastball velocity (to 93.9 from 93.7) and spin, and is seeing better results with the pitch.  We haven’t even gotten to how filthy Toussaint’s curveball is, a sweeping hook that has generated whiffs a whopping 55.2% of the time.  All of these factors combine to paint a picture of a pitcher who, in the words of Morpheus, is “beginning to believe.”

Verdict: Legit.  Toussaint has made significant strides so far that should bring fantasy GMs in all but the shallowest leagues calling.  I don’t think I have the guts to start him against the Yankees on Tuesday, but I would feel comfortable rolling with him against anyone else in the East right now.


Cold Starts


Marcus Semien, Oakland A’s


After putting up a career year last season and finishing third in the American League MVP voting, Marcus Semien is struggling mightily to begin 2020.  In addition to a rough slash line to start the season, the notoriously difficult-to-strike-out Semien has been punched out a disturbing 29.7% of the time.  Semien’s issues appear to stem from an issue that is trending among slumping hitters to start of the year: decreased production against fastballs.  Whereas Semien hit .302 with a .599 slugging percentage in 2019, he is slashing .250/.313 (.206 xBA/.292 xSLG) against heaters in 2020.  Seeing a hitter struggle like this against fastballs opens the floodgates for pitchers—it’s as if the Rebel Alliance has just learned that the Death Star shield is finally, truly down—and pitchers have judiciously increased their use of fastball firepower against Semien four percentage points to 61.1%.  Just like decreased fastball velocity can sabotage an aging power pitcher’s whole game plan, an inability from a batter to catch up to, or get good wood on, a decent fastball makes his entire approach start to crumble around him.  This is likely what we’re seeing right now with Semien, who is experiencing an across-the-board drop-off in his plate discipline, contact, and quality-of-contact metrics.  While it’s of some small solace that Semien is not alone in his struggles, there is another factor working against him: The 2020 baseball is “de-juiced,” according to Rob Arthur of Baseball Prospectus.  If the ball is seeing similar drag to 2018, Semien’s power may not materialize to levels we’ve been expecting.  While Semien hit an impressive 33 homers in 2019, it took him 162 games and 747 plate appearances (the most in baseball) to get there.  Semien’s HR/FB rate was 15.3% in 2019, but only 7.8% and 9.2% in 2018 and 2017, respectively.  If Semien drops back to a HR/FB rate in the 9-10% range, we could be looking at a very different player to the one we saw in 2019.

Verdict: Legit.  I want to be wrong about Semien.  He’s a team leader and hard worker who’s maximized his talent to reach stardom at the highest level.  But right now I just don’t see him rebounding to the point where he’s a much more than a replacement-level shortstop for fantasy purposes.  I would look to trade Semien (perhaps for a slumping pitcher such as the next guy on our list?) and find a serviceable Shortstop replacement on the waiver wire.


Lance McCullers, Houston Astros


What a difference it makes when your best pitch becomes your worst!  Lance McCullers’ curveball has been absolutely crushed this year, to the tune of a .381 BA and .952 SLG against the pitch.  While McCullers’ velocities on his sinker and change-up are down somewhat (0.7 and 0.8 mph, respectively), his curveball is a substantial 2.2 mph slower than it was in 2018.  As could be expected, he’s not getting the performance he wants at this velocity—the pitch is generating an 11.1% swinging strike rate this season, versus 17.6% in 2018.  On the flip side, his horrendous 9.22 ERA is coming on the heels of a blow-up start against the Diamondbacks when the roof was retracted in the fourth inning and everything went sideways for him.  Barred from licking his fingers due to baseball’s current health and safety protocols and facing the 102-degree dry heat of the American Southwest, McCullers wilted.  The Diamondbacks put up hard hit after hard hit and chased him from the game, but not after charging him with eight earned runs.  Assessing the damage in the aftermath, there are a few factors keeping me from calling McCullers an instant drop.  McCullers has actually scored better in terms of Command+ this season than his last, posting a 102 so far this year and a 92 in 2018.  Also, McCullers has upped the usage of his changeup 10 percentage points, and the pitch has been fairly effective for him so far, with the pitch getting significantly better than average movement and with batters hitting just .200 against it (.300 SLG).  He’s only throwing the changeup in the zone 19.7 percent of the time, however, so he could stand to up the zone rate on the pitch to previous levels (roughly 30%) in order to steal more strikes and get ahead in the count.  Another potential fix is making sure he’s not tipping his pitches, after the D-backs teed off on his curveball as if they knew it was coming (insert Astros cheating joke here).

Verdict: Not Legit.  Eight earned runs in 2/3 of an inning was a huge body blow for your fantasy team to absorb, but McCullers has the command and stuff to straighten himself out, even with a drop in velocity.  While his upside is lower than we may have expected going into the season, he’s good enough to stick in your rotation and improve his numbers going forward.


*Late Monday night update*: I solemnly promise that I only peeked at McCullers’ stat line against San Francisco AFTER writing this article.  His ERA remains bloated at 6.10, so hopefully you can still buy low on him.

(Photo by David John Griffin/Icon Sportswire)

Brian Holcomb

Charlotte-based outdoor educator and Philly sports fan whose Pitcher List involvement stems from a decades-long fascination with baseball statistics, trading cards, and debates about player valuation. When not thinking about fantasy baseball, can regularly be found exploring the trails, rivers and rocks of North Carolina.

4 responses to “Checking in on Jake, Marcus, Lance, and Touki”

  1. Triumph the Dog says:

    Not sure how relevant this might be for this topic of conversation but thoughts on Framber and Bielak? Potential breakouts?

    • Brian Holcomb says:

      Initial thoughts are that they look like solid streamers moving forward. Both have a third pitch (Bielak actually has four) that they throw at least 10% of the time, have enough velocity, and they both score better than average, at 104, in Command+ so far this season. Framber looks kind of like a Randy Dobnak-style throwback pitcher with all his sinking action. He hasn’t gotten the chase rate of Dobnak or much in the way of swinging strikes, so I would expect a drop-off in his strikeout numbers, but his approach can work. And Bielak has a nice matchup tonight against the Giants…

  2. Mike Tauchman SZN says:

    Would you drop a guy like Minor for Touki?

    • Brian Holcomb says:

      If you’re feeling the upside play, I’d go with Touki. Minor’s fastball velocity is down significantly, which really limits his strikeout potential, and the Rangers are going to put him on a limited pitch count today against the Mariners. We’ve seen other pitchers go down with injury after seeing significant fastball drop-offs, so that’s another concern for me with Minor right now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Account / Login