Underdog MLB Picks to Click 4/18

Apr 18th 2023

Jackson Roberts

Baseball is the hottest thing in the sporting streets right now. It’s just a fact. 

The World Baseball Classic put up Babe Ruth numbers in terms of international viewership, the offseason rule changes are helping to spur a renewed domestic interest in the sport and the game is chock-full of superstars. There’s never been a better time to be a lifelong baseball fan–or to become one!

With that in mind, it’s time to talk about the players on the field. Specifically, which of them are set up to have great performances? At every position, there’s a bat heating up and a matchup ready to exploit, and it’s my task to try and find you those matchups.

In terms of what this column actually covers, it’s admittedly a bit vague, but that’s a good thing. There are so many excellent ways to play fantasy baseball nowadays, all of which you can find under the Underdog umbrella! This column will come out every Tuesday--a bit random, but a day when almost all teams are typically in action--and although it’s specific to today, it does tend to indicate my confidence in players who are set up to have good games not just once, but for a few days to come.

Got all that? Let’s dive in before Jim Wolf calls a pitch clock violation…

C - Christian Vázquez (MIN)

This one hurts a bit. If you’d asked him a year ago, Vázquez may have hoped to still be catching Chris Sale at this point in his career. But now, he’ll be facing the slender lefty in the box… which is not a bad place to be so far this season if Sale is throwing a fastball.

The eye test will tell you Sale has no command of the pitch. The numbers will tell you an even crueler tale. Sale is surrendering a .600 batting average on fastballs this season. Vázquez has always been capable of hitting lefties and catching up to velocity. And the revenge narrative is there against the team that decided they had no future plans for him despite strong progress and a World Series ring. Pay close attention if you’re heading to Fenway when Vázquez steps in the box.

1B - C.J. Cron (COL)

We haven’t heard a lot from Cron since he went deep three times in the first two games, save for this 479-foot blast that would have been out of the Grand Canyon.

However, he’s still got strong numbers through 10% of the season. And those numbers really should be better--his expected slugging percentage is at .604, in the top 10% of the league.

Enter a matchup with Vince Velasquez, who Cron has seen just once in his career. Luckily for the latter, that matchup resulted in a 3-4 outing with a home run. Any opposing pitcher coming into Coors Field is happy if they can leave with their ERA somewhat close to intact. Look for Cron to do his best not to allow Velasquez that luxury.

2B - Thairo Estrada (SF)

Are you paying attention to Estrada’s steady progress in San Francisco? If not, you should be.

After a great small sample in 2021 and a decent full season in 2022, Estrada is going gangbusters to start this season. His .965 OPS is best on the Giants and his four doubles are tied for the team lead. I’m buying this mini-breakout in an age-27 season with a starting job locked down for the foreseeable future.

Heading into Miami and facing a hard thrower in Edward Cabrera feels like a good spot as well, given that Estrada is hitting .458 against fastballs in 2023. Just an additional nugget if you wanted a little more assurance. 

SS - Anthony Volpe (NYY) 

Volpe has exactly one hit in each of his last five games. By no means is he “hot,” but he’s showing signs of figuring out big league pitching. And Angels lefty José Suarez, who Volpe will face Tuesday night, is not pitching like a big leaguer at the moment.

Only playing 16 games in a career leads to small sample sizes, so there isn’t a ton to conclude about Volpe’s splits. But he does happen to be 2-8 with a triple against lefties in the big leagues, and he killed left-handed pitching in his 2021 MiLB campaign. 

This pick isn’t about splits or past performance of any kind, though. It’s about believing Volpe has had enough time now at the big league level to start figuring it out a bit. The talent is undeniable and the results are soon going to begin following.

3B - Alex Bregman (HOU)

Bregman is still hitting just .197 on the young season, but he had a six-game hitting streak going before running into Andrew Heaney on Sunday night–a streak that also included his first two homers of the season. It’s been an undeniably slow start, but it’s bound to pick up--Bregman goes on tears each season that rival the best hitters in the game at their peaks.

Is Tuesday a good time to start a tear, you ask? Well, Bregman is facing Chris Bassitt, who seems unable to channel any of the things that made him good last year in three 2023 starts. His strikeout percentage is down 5.3%, his walk percentage is up 4.8%, his ERA is over seven and he’s allowing an expected slugging percentage of .586, sixth worst among pitchers that have faced at least 50 batters…

So to answer the question, yes, I do think Tuesday is a good time for Bregman to find the barrel at least a couple times.

OF - Ryan Mountcastle (BAL)

Don’t be surprised if Mountcastle’s name appears in this space on multiple occasions. The 26-year-old is already a solid hitter who has the capability to leap into the upper echelon of right-handed power bats–if the game ever decides to be fair to him.

Last season, Mountcastle was the single most victimized hitter in terms of expected statistics. His 86-point difference in xSLG vs. slugging percentage and 46-point difference in xwOBA vs. wOBA ranked tops in the league by a wide margin. Yet somehow, this season, he’s had it worse! His .536 slugging percentage is already very good, but it’s 152 points shy of where Statcast believes he should be based on quality of contact. And he ranks 33rd in xWOBA among qualified hitters, yet 150th in raw wOBA.

All of this is to say, Mountcastle’s luck is bound to change at some point. If you were to draw up ideal conditions for that to happen, it would probably be away from the giant left field cavern at Camden Yards, facing a pitcher who has given up more homers than anyone in MLB since the start of 2022. It’s not wishful thinking, it’s his Tuesday matchup--heading to Nationals Park to face Josiah Gray.

OF - Brandon Marsh (PHI)

The last pick was a flier on a player vastly underperforming his expected stats. So to be safe, let’s also go with a player blowing those parameters of expectation out of the water!

Marsh has the single greatest difference thus far between his xWOBA and his actual wOBA: .499 vs. .361. While his quality of contact has still been very strong, he’s riding a high right now that simply isn’t sustainable… but why not sustain it for one more day? A day which, by the way, features double the baseball for the Phils.

Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito will get the ball on the other side, which is good for Marsh because both have given up a ton of hits so far this season–41 in just 31 innings of work. Neither of those two are particularly prone to the home run ball, so it's about sustaining rallies with lots of singles and doubles. Among all Phillies hitters, that matchup seems to set up best right now for Marsh, who ranks fifth in baseball through 50 plate appearances with a .378 batting average.

OF - Seiya Suzuki (CHC)

Suzuki was just 1 for 13 since returning from an IL stint to start the season… until he went 3-5 with a pair of RBIs Monday night in the Cubs' 10-1 drubbing of the A's. Luckily, he'll see those same A's Tuesday night, with Ken Waldichuk sporting an ERA in the double digits.

Suzuki also has nine strikeouts thus far in his four games this season, which could scare you off depending on the format you might be playing. The truth is that Suzuki has been boom-or-bust since the start of his big league career in 2022, but why not bank on him to boom for a second straight night against Oakland? After all, everyone else has so far this season.

DH - Yordan Álvarez (HOU)

Look, this column needs at least a couple superstars, doesn't it? Sure, you could pencil Álvarez into this spot on any given day, but today happens to be a day I really, really like his odds to go deep.

Remember what I said about Chris Bassitt getting hammered so far this season? Álvarez does that to everyone, all the time. His .974 career OPS would rank third among active players if he had the 500 games played to qualify--behind some guys named Trout and Judge. And in particular, he hammers Chris Bassitt! Álvarez is 4-10 with three bombs in his career against his one-time division rival.

It still blows my mind every time I look at his stat page and remember that Álvarez is only 25 years old. He's already had a Rookie of the Year, a top-three MVP finish and a game-winning home run in a World Series clincher... and I get the sense he's still barely begun to flex his greatness.

P - Marcus Stroman (CHC)

Is this column starting to turn into an A’s bash-fest? Sure, maybe a little bit. But if you’re looking for a pitcher who might turn in a win, it’s not a bad plan to go with the guy with a 1.00 ERA through three starts facing the team who has lost more games than any other in 2023.

The current state of the Oakland Athletics hits home for this East Bay native. I’m sure to write about it more at length sometime soon for you all. For all the jokes one can make about the Coliseum falling apart, the duct tape on the steps, the possums in the booth, the empty stands, it mostly is upsetting to observe from across the country.

The one thing I will insist upon right now: Don't for a second think about blaming the residents of Oakland for the current state of affairs. I attended the 2012 ALDS when Coco Crisp walked it off against Jose Valverde and if you don’t think that city can support a major league team, listen to this crowd reaction.

But for now, suffice it to say that I don’t fear many hitters in the Oakland lineup and I believe Stroman will mow them down. I’ll save my institutional anger for another day.

Well that was fun, wasn’t it? I can’t wait to be proven wrong by Chris Sale, Ryan Noda and whomever else I affronted by writing this column. Be sure to follow @Underdog_MLB for all your lineup needs and we’ll all see each other back here again next Tuesday!