Is It Legit?: Kerry Carpenter, Cole Ragans, and Jake Burger

Can these three players power your fantasy team to the finish line?

The finish line is in sight! Whether you’re gearing up for the start of head-to-head playoff matchups or trying to eke out every point you can in the roto category standings, the fantasy baseball season is winding down. By this point, many managers have either checked out entirely or let their attention wane as they shift their focus to fantasy football. That means you have an excellent opportunity to capitalize and set yourself up for a shot at a championship over the next five weeks.

In this article, we’re diving into three of the best performers over the last month to see if their strong performances can be trusted over the stretch run. Let’s take a look.

Kerry Carpenter, OF/DH, Detroit Tigers

When you think of the top hitters of the 2023 season, does Kerry Carpenter come to mind? If he doesn’t, he probably should. The Tigers’ 25-year-old right fielder has been one of the breakout bats of the summer.

Carpenter sprained his shoulder in late April after he crashed into the outfield wall making a home-run robbing catch, and since he returned to Detroit’s lineup on June 9th, he’s been one of the best hitters in baseball. Over that period, Carpenter is slashing .313/.378/.567 with 16 home runs, 35 runs, and 46 RBI. His 157 wRC+ is the 12th-best among all hitters since his return, a mark even better than stars like Bobby Witt Jr. and Rafael Devers.

The path Carpenter took to fantasy relevance is not a common one. He was drafted in the 19th round of the 2019 MLB draft out of Virginia Tech and quickly had a strong showing in Rookie ball. The canceled 2020 minor league season meant Carpenter was stuck at Detroit’s alternate site, but a return to play in 2021 brought a mediocre 102 wRC+ in High-A. That’s when Carpenter took off. In the 2022 season, he posted a 1.005 OPS in Double-A, somehow got better with a 1.064 OPS in Triple-A, and then made his big league debut late last year. The good times continued against top-level pitching, as he slashed .252/.310/.485 in 113 plate appearances at the big league level.

Consistently strong at-bats this year have further cemented Carpenter as a building block for the Tigers. One of the few hurdles in Carpenter’s profile was his propensity to strike out. He punched out 28.3% of the time last year but has shown a remarkable improvement in his sophomore season, dropping his strikeout rate to a near-league-average 22.8%. Take a look at this beautiful downward trend showcasing Carpenter’s continual improvement.

Carpenter is putting the bat on the ball more and more often, and when he is the results are very good. His 11.5% barrel rate is in the 75th percentile of batters, and each of his xBA, xSLG, and xWOBA are 80th percentile or better as well.

A lot of Carpenter’s contact is pulled – his 49.5% pull rate is 91st percentile. We didn’t get to see much of him in the big leagues before the shift ban, but as a pull-happy lefty, he’s the prototype of the player who has benefitted from the lack of stacked infields on the right side.

An area that may be a concern for Carpenter going forward is how he adjusts to hitting the breaking ball. He’s absolutely scorching fastballs and offspeed pitches with .454 and .360 wOBAs against them, respectively. When it comes to the breaking ball though, he hasn’t been able to lock in. His wOBA against them is just .300, although he’s slightly underperforming his quality of contact which gives him a .327 xwOBA.

As pitchers try to find new ways to get Carpenter out, it wouldn’t be surprising if the rate he sees breaking balls skyrocket. Not only has he been mediocre against that pitch type, but as a hitter who swings much more often than average, he’ll be prone to chasing them out of the zone. His 36.3% chase rate is already well above the 30.8% league average mark.

Verdict: Legit. I’m fully bought in on Carpenter over the rest of the 2023 season. He’s been one of the best hitters in the game recently, and underlying metrics support what he’s doing. As a long-term asset in a dynasty league, I’d be a little more cautious in how I handle him. The strikeout rate has improved quite a bit, but his issues with breaking balls could easily be exploited. Baseball is a game of adjustments and Carpenter could very well work on his approach against breakers and be just fine, but only time will tell.

Cole Ragans, SP, Kansas City Royals

Not a lot of players get traded to Kansas City and immediately become a fantasy ace, but not many players are Cole Ragans. He’s gone from an afterthought in the Rangers’ bullpen to one of the most exciting starters in the game in almost no time at all.

Ragans is pumping absolute gas. He’s routinely touching the upper 90s deep into his starts with his four-seamer, and it’s hard to communicate just how rare that is to see from a southpaw. Going all the way back to 2008 – the earliest year I can select in Baseball Savant’s search feature – Ragans is one of just eight left-handed starting pitchers to throw 10 or more fastballs at least 99 mph. Here’s the entire list:

That’s some pretty nice company! Plus, Ragan’s spinning the ball better than anyone else on this list (although that data wasn’t available back when David Price and Danny Duffy were tossing this hard.) With five weeks left of the season, Ragans will quickly climb this leaderboard. Just seeing that he has this skill that catapulted so many other hard-tossing lefties to stints of fantasy stardom has me dreaming of his potential. Although his four-seamer puts him in rarified air, it’s not even his best pitch.

After arriving in Kansas City, Ragans started breaking out a slider and it’s a PLV darling. It has a 5.71 PLV which is in the 98th percentile of sliders. Eno Sarris’ Stuff+ model loves Ragans’ breaking pitch too. Since he was recalled to the majors on August 2nd, his slider has a 131 Stuff+, the 13th best among starters during that period.

It’s not just pitch modeling that loves Ragans’ slider either. It’s getting excellent results. Batters have whiffed at the pitch 45.1% of the time, a 92nd percentile mark. When the ball is put in play, it’s not causing a lot of damage. Opposing hitters have just a .185 batting average and a .222 slugging percentage against the pitch. Since Ragans didn’t start using the slider until he became a Royal, we’re talking about a really small sample size, though. In his six starts in Kansas City, he’s thrown it 14% of the time which comes out to just 80 total pitches.

The rest of Ragans’ repertoire includes a changeup, curveball, and cutter. The changeup is by far the most notable of those three pitches. He tosses it 25% of the time to the tune of a 27.9% CSW% which is in the top quartile of all changeups league-wide.

All together as a Royal, Ragans is 3-1 with a 2.08 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and a 33.3% strikeout rate. Other ERA estimators like what he’s doing too – he has a 1.80 FIP and 3.05 SIERRA. In 29.2 August innings, he’s accumulated 1.4 fWAR, the most of any pitcher.

Verdict: Legit. Ragans is one of the most exciting breakouts we’ve seen so far this year, and I am fully bought in to what he’s doing. There will surely be bumps in the road for the 25-year-old starter, but if he’s still sitting on your league’s waiver wire, please pick him up. He has nasty stuff and could legitimately threaten to be a top-10 starter down the stretch. He’s currently available in 82% of ESPN leagues, 50% of Yahoo! leagues, and 21% of CBS leagues.

Jake Burger, 3B/DH, Miami Marlins

Burger was one of the lone bright spots on the Southside of Chicago this year, and he was rewarded with a trade to Miami. Burger’s acclimated pretty quickly to the beach life, so much so in fact that he’s gone from barely keeping his batting average above the Mendoza line to hitting well above .300.

In 323 plate appearances with the White Sox, Burger slashed .214/.279/.527 and in 91 plate appearances with the Marlins, those numbers are at a much more impressive .333/.389/.471. You’ll trade 50 points of slugging for a 120-point bump in batting average and on-base percentage every day of the week.

We know Burger won’t hit .330 the rest of the way. That’s just not the kind of player he, or almost anyone else for that matter, really is. But let’s see if there’s anything going on that could point to him not being a drain on your team’s batting average going forward.

The first thing that jumps off the screen when you pull up Burger’s player page is that his BABIP has skyrocketed during his time in South Beach. It’s risen from .225 in Chicago to .409 in Miami. That gaudy number clearly isn’t sustainable long-term, but perhaps his batted-ball profile has changed a bit to support at least a somewhat higher BABIP. Let’s take a look.

We know that groundballs and line drives are much better for BABIP than flyballs and pop-ups. Hitting the ball hard is also a great indicator that BABIP gains can be sustainable. Unfortunately, as you can see looking at that table, Burger hasn’t done any of that. In fact, it’s the polar opposite. He’s hitting the ball less hard and in the air more often (especially pop-ups) which means his BABIP should not be increasing dramatically, yet it is.

Another change we’ve seen to Burger’s profile in Miami is a big reduction in strikeouts. He went from punching out 31.6% of the time in Chicago to just 20% of the time in Miami. That’s a gigantic improvement! We’re dealing with a small sample size with less than a month of games, but let’s see how his plate discipline numbers are trending.

For reference, Burger’s first game as a Marlin was game 89 — think smack dab in the middle of the 80th and 100th game played on the chart above.

This is more encouraging than the batted ball data is. His contact rate has fluctuated quite a bit but overall has been higher than we’ve seen from him prior to his time in Miami. On a really positive note, he’s chasing way fewer pitches outside of the zone than he has done in the past. It’s ticked back up a bit in recent games, but it’s still an encouraging trend.

Verdict: Not Legit. I’m still a fan of Burger as a power threat in deep leagues, but the positive movement we’ve seen in batting average and strikeout rate seems rather hollow. I think we can chalk this one up to a small sample size variance, although there is at least a little evidence that he’s shown better plate discipline as a Marlin. It’ll be interesting to see if it sticks long term, but I wouldn’t count on his sudden 10% drop in strikeout rate to be his new normal.

Featured image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Mark Steubinger

Mark loves everything talking and writing about baseball - from every fantasy league format you can imagine to the unending greatness of Mike Trout. Mark has a degree in Sports Communication from Bradley University and works in radio production. He lives in central Illinois where his TV is permanently tuned to Chicago Cubs games.

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