The general theme of this list is “don’t pay for last year’s steals”. We’re looking at five outfielders who I believe have a good chance of returning fantasy value considerably below their current draft price. ADP data is from Rotowire Online drafts in February and AAV data is from from NFBC auctions in February.
ADP 50, AAV $26, ATC $21, BAT X $22
Cedric Mullins was an obvious regression candidate coming off 2021 where he hit .291 and delivered a 30-30 season. The market and projection systems are generally much more comfortable predicting Mullins to essentially repeat his 2022 performance than they were to project another 30-homer year. All projection systems pretty much agree on homers in the high teens (17-19), around 30 steals, and an average in the .250-.260 range. A season like that would return value that isn’t too far off from where he’s currently being drafted. Given that you generally have to pay a bit extra for stability at the top of the draft, I’d say the market is pretty much right in line with the projections in terms of Mullins’ value for 2023. Despite this consensus, I’m concerned by a couple of key areas in which Mullins regressed in in 2022 that, when combined, could cause him to become a considerably worse hitter. These two key areas are his reduced quality of contact and his declining sprint speed.
Even in his breakout 2021 season, Mullins didn’t hit the ball extremely hard. His 39.4% hard hit rate was in the 39th percentile in the majors and his 8.1% barrel rate wasn’t exactly inspiring. In 2022, the hard hit rate fell a bit to 37.3%, but his barrel rate dipped below 5% which was in the bottom quartile of the league. His 80th percentile exit velocity clocks in at 180th out of 278 hitters with at least 200 batted ball events, so the chances of the power returning are slim to none. But nobody’s expecting that, right? The expectation out of Mullins is to contribute runs and steals to your team. Both of those, naturally, require him to get on base and hit at the top of the lineup. I have concerns about both of those.
Mullins has been able to continue to outperform his xStats (BA-xBA of .019 in 2021 and .026 in 2022) largely due to his speed allowing him to beat out grounders other hitters couldn’t. While he only turns 29 at the very end of this season, he’s already dropped from 29.4 ft/s in top-end sprint speed in 2018 to 28.4 ft/s in 2022 which represents a drop from the 95th percentile to the 80th percentile in the league. I’m less concerned about the affect this would have on stolen bases as Mullins clearly has the green light with the most stolen base attempts in the league over the past two years and the rules changes should allow him to stave off steals regression for at least one more year. I’m more concerned about the affect this might have on his OBP and his place at the top of the lineup. His xBA was just .232 in 2022 and, had he had that batting average, his OBP would have been under .300. On a team like the Orioles that has so many young, intriguing bats, how long does a guy with an OBP around .300 and an otherwise pretty average to below-average bat stick at the top of the lineup? How long until a guy like Colton Cowser looks interesting enough to want to give some run in center field? If Mullins isn’t hitting at the top of the lineup, he’s likely hitting towards the bottom with fewer opportunities for runs and a lack of power to take advantage of many more RBI opportunities.
If Cedric Mullins is seen as a bust at the end of 2023, I believe the reason for it will be that his rapidly dropping OBP forced the Orioles to drop him in the lineup which limited his counting stats, including steals, and opened the door for the team to start trying out some of their young outfielders. At this point in drafts, guys like Randy Arozarena and Michael Harris II also carry their own set of risks, but, I think they also feature upside that just isn’t there with Mullins. Given that there’s not much power potential here, the only possible path forward I see for Mullins beating his draft day price is by delivering a 40+ steal season and I just don’t want to bet on someone with questionable batted ball quality and a declining sprint speed to do that.
ADP 103, AAV $16, ATC $16, BAT X $15
Jake McCarthy was a league winner last year plain and simple. His 21 steals in the second half was six more than anyone else in the league and he was a plus contributor in average and provided a decent R+RBI total. As good as he was as a fantasy player last year, was he really that good as a real-life hitter? His 116 wRC+ and .769 OPS start to paint the picture of a guy who was a good-but-not-great type hitter and his 34 point differential in BA and xBA starts to hint that maybe some batted ball luck inflated even those numbers a bit. While it’s typical for a guy with McCarthy’s speed to outperform his xBA, 34 points is considerably higher than what we’d typically expect. Looking further under the hood, his hard hit rate was in the 16th percentile of the league and all the power indicators; barrel rate, fly ball rate, and 80th percentile exit velocity, indicate very little power potential. The consensus from projection systems is for around ten or eleven homers and 25-30 steals on an average between .255 and .265. These numbers already bake in the type of regression I’m talking about that looks closer to his true 2022 performance. So, why am I still considering him to be a bust? I think he could be actually worse than his true performance in 2022 which, as we discussed, was considerably worse than his actual performance and our very own Scott Chu hit the nail on the head for the reason why in his top 100 outfielder preseason ranks.
Jake McCarthy got considerably more aggressive with his swing decisions over the course of the year. While that’s sometimes a good thing, being too aggressive eventually cratered his decision value meaning he was swinging at bad pitches that generally lead to bad results for hitters like misses or weak contact. As of right now, it’s looking like he’s going to be asked to hit in the middle of a lineup that, frankly, doesn’t look too strong. The Diamondbacks will be counting on him to both get on base and drive runners in rather than taking anything he produces as a bonus like they were last year. This shift already seems to be affecting his swing decisions in a negative way and I think that only gets worse in 2023 as McCarthy adjusts to being more than a surprise producer later in the lineup. As pitchers treat him like a middle of the lineup bat, I think he continues to swing at bad decisions and slumps at the beginning of the year as this increasing aggressiveness he showed starts to eat at his strikeout rate and batting average. His swinging strike rate of 13.3% was already in the bottom quintile of the league, so an increase in strikeout rate could certainly be in the cards in 2023. In a mediocre-to-bad lineup, a new role, a lack of power, and troubling trends with his swing decisions, McCarthy quickly becomes a one-dimensional fantasy player who you hope provides enough steals to make him relevant. For me, this is too much draft capital to spend on a guy like that. If you want to chase steals upside on the cheap, I’d rather wait and take a guy like Esteury Ruiz and put my money towards safer bets.
ADP 76, AAV $20, ATC $21, BAT X $19
Speaking of changing roles, Teoscar Hernández suddenly finds himself in a considerably less friendly environment. He goes from the fairly balanced, somewhat homer-friendly Rogers Centre to potentially the most pitcher-friendly park in the league in T-Mobile Park in Seattle. He also goes from hitting in the middle of the Blue Jays lineup often being surrounded by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Alejandro Kirk to, if you believe Roster Resource, being protected by Kolten Wong. Now, before I go any further, we need to recognize that projection systems, by and large, are taking into account the change in park. I should also recognize that his xHR for T-Mobile Park were actually higher than for the Rogers Centre in each of the past two seasons. Teoscar hits the ball extremely hard, so there’s an argument to be made that he should be somewhat immune to discussions of park factors when it comes to home runs as the man simply hits bombs, not wall-scrapers. My main argument for his bust potential has nothing to do with the balls he hits, but rather the ones he doesn’t. Yes, we’re going back to his old nemesis from before his 2021 breakout, strikeout rate.
In his first two full seasons with Toronto, 2018 and 2019, Teoscar Hernández struck out 32% of the time in 987 plate appearances and sported a zone-contact percentage that was among the worst in the league. He didn’t necessarily swing at bad pitches, his o-swing was fine, there were just certain pitches in the zone that he couldn’t time up. Historically, the pitch that, even in the zone, gave him problems was the slider. His performance on fastballs was always exceptional relative to the league, but in 2018 and 2019, his performance on sliders was around league average (by xwOBA) with a healthy dose of strikeouts. The big breakout for him in 2021 was starting to hit the slider. His xwOBA against the slider jumped to the top 10% of the league and this was a big reason he was able to reduce his strikeout rate to 25% and nearly hit .300. Well, in 2022, he performed worse against the slider than he did even before 2020. His xwOBA against sliders dropped to the bottom 15% of the league and, thus, his strikeouts went back up and his average went back down, although not as far as 2018-19. He also saw the highest percentage of sliders compared to other pitch types which goes along with league trends, but also, when combined with the lack of lineup protection, creates a plausible and very scary narrative.
Teoscar Hernandez xwOBA against sliders:
2018: .274 (60th percentile) ?
2019: .239 (30th percentile) ?
2020: .208 (15th percentile) ?
2021: .355 (92nd percentile) ?
2022: .209 (15th percentile) ?
More sliders are coming with less lineup protection in SEA. Can he handle it?
— Eric Dadmun (@EricDadmun) February 22, 2023
With less lineup protection, what’s stopping teams from just giving Hernández a steady helping of sliders and going after whoever the next batter in the Mariners lineup ends up being? If he sees even more sliders than in 2022, we could see his K-rate climb back up above that frightening 30% plateau and bring his average back down into the .230 range. Keep in mind that the current projections are baking in double-digit steals as well which, for a guy who just turned 30 on a team that absolutely needs his bat to stay in the lineup, seems like a bit of a stretch given that most systems aren’t factoring in rules change related increases in steals. I think a line similar to last year with 25 homers, six steals, and around 150 R+RBI with an average closer to .230 could absolutely be in the cards for Hernández if he doesn’t figure out how to hit the slider and that would represent considerably lower value than what he’s currently being drafted at.
ADP 85, AAV $18, ATC $19, BAT X $17
Unlike the other players in this list, nothing in Starling Marte’s batted ball profile or swing decisions gives me too much cause for concern. Everything from his contact rate to quality of contact to power indicators all show that he’s just as good of a hitter, when healthy, as he ever was. He’s even posted career high max exit velocities and wRC+ in each of the past two seasons. I still think he’s a good hitter when he’s healthy, but he’s not being drafted where he is solely because of his hitting. People draft Starling Marte because of speed and the unfortunate fact of the matter is that Marte is now 34 years old and his sprint speed dropped to the 68th percentile in the MLB las year. Even if rules changes allow him to approach 20 steals for one more season, other players around the league would, in that scenario, likely benefit more than a guy who has had several lower body and core injuries the past few years and who the Mets will be very interested in keeping healthy.
Speaking of injuries, I generally don’t like to talk about them as I’m not a doctor or an injury expert in any way. I firmly believe that the fantasy community is at its best when we stick to what we know and I don’t know medicine. However, I am extremely concerned by the nature of Marte’s injuries that were revealed over the offseason. Groin injuries have among the highest recurrence rates and this study shows a two to three fold increase in risk of having an identical injury in the same leg year-over-year among soccer players. Another study made similar findings for pitchers. This comes on the back of an extremely similar narrative in 2022 when the Mets were taking it easy with Marte because of an oblique injury. All of these core muscle injuries really have me concerned especially as he seems to be unable to do a full offseason strengthening routine for the second straight season. His body seemed to break down a bit as the year went on and the affects of fatigue on gait and injury risk are well known. With a second straight season spent “taking it easy” and with all these core muscle injuries building up, I just don’t feel comfortable with the 550-600 PA projection that the major outlets are giving. I think 450 is a much more reasonable projection with there being a solid chance of him getting even fewer than that. Those types of injuries would almost certainly effect his speed on the bases and make the plate appearances he does get less valuable as well. Take with as many grains of salt as you wish, but this plebian is concerned about Marte’s ability to hold up for a whole year and continue to provide steals at the rate he’d need to to provide fantasy value.
ADP 192, AAV $6, ATC $9, BAT X $9
Whit Merrifield was once one of the top producers of steals in the league and his sprint speed in 2022 was no different from 2021 where he logged 40 steals. The chances of him putting up another 40 steal season haven’t gone to nearly 0 because of a reduction of speed, but because of a declining ability to get on base and concerns about playing time. Merrifield never had much pop in his bat. His barrel rate has always hovered between 4 and 5% and his average exit velocity around 87 mph. His 80th percentile exit velocity was in the bottom 5% of the league in 2022. The guy has a bit of a noodle bat, but that hasn’t stopped him until the past two years. Despite no tangible changes in average exit velocity or launch angle, his xBA in 2020 was .292, but dropped to .263 in 2021 and .240 in 2022. He did deliver a better average in 130 plate appearances after moving to Toronto last year, but that improvement came at the expense of a sharp reduction in stolen base attempts. After attempting eighteen steals in 420 PAs in KC, he attempted just three in his 130 plate appearances in Toronto despite reaching base at a higher clip. That’s a reduction of almost half in terms of stolen base attempt rate despite the increase in OBP. For a guy no longer hitting at the top of the lineup, getting on base and attempting steals are really his only path to fantasy success and he did neither particularly well last year.
Another source of bust potential for Merrifield is losing playing time to teammate Santiago Espinal. Espinal has clearly been a better hitter than Merrifield over the past two years posting wRC+ of 115 and 99 in 2021 and 2022 compared to Merrifield’s 90 and 88. Defensive metrics OAA and UZR liked Merrifield better as a defender at 2nd in 2021, but that flipped in 2022 and both favored Espinal last year. Overall, Espinal has looked like the better player to me and I’d put my money on him getting the majority of the starts at 2B. Merrifield could also pick up some starts in a corner OF spot (I don’t think he can hack it defensively in center anymore), but Daulton Varsho isn’t going anywhere and that leaves Merrifield splitting at-bats with whoever the Jays fourth outfielder ends up being to back up George Springer. His price is currently being calculated on a projection of 500 PAs and I just don’t see him getting more than 400 without a major string of injuries. Even if he does get the plate appearances, there’s a good chance that he’s a .270 hitter with little power who doesn’t run that much anymore and that just isn’t worth space on many fantasy teams.
Starling Marte Wikicommons | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)