This column will be posted on Underdog Network every Monday throughout the 2022 season. The goal is to shed insight on the latest happenings within the sport, which can hopefully be of interest to season-long fantasy enthusiasts, DFS players, bettors, and analytically-minded fans.
Conversation is always encouraged. I can be reached on Twitter @toomuchtuma. Now let's dive in.
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Juan Yepez has started all 11 games since being recalled by the Cardinals. He hit 5th during the 5 first games and cleanup over the past 6. He also has 6 starts in the outfield.
Whit Merrifield twice hit 8th early last week. Since then he has started 4 straight as Kansas City's leadoff hitter.
Bobby Witt Jr. has started 5 straight games against lefties as the Royals' shortstop. He's on track to retain dual-eligibility next season.
DJ LeMahieu has hit leadoff for the Yankees in 17 of their past 21 games.
Giancarlo Stanton has already started 15 games in the outfield.
Eric Hosmer has hit 3rd or 4th in each of the Padres' past 9 games.
Julio Rodriguez hit 3rd for the Mariners 3 times during their past 7 games. This was mainly due to injuries and facing lefties, but he should continue moving up the order if he plays this well moving forward.
Kiké Hernandez has hit leadoff for the Red Sox in 6 straight games. Boston has gone back to him atop the lineup with Trevor Story moving back to a middle-of-the-order role.
Owen Miller has hit cleanup for the Guardians in 14 of his past 15 starts.
LaMonte Wade Jr. has hit leadoff for the Giants in 5 straight.
Royce Lewis has played in all 9 games since being recalled by the Twins.
In my "3 Breakout Pitchers to Target" piece from this past offseason I used Dylan Cease as an example of a player where development isn't always linear. He was a breakout pick entering 2021, performed fine-not-great, and therefore a lot of folks moved on. This made him a wortwhile target in 2022 and so far he's showing us that real progress can take multiple years.
Enter Skubal, who has decreased his season-long ERA from 5.63 to 4.34 to 2.50 since debuting in 2020. His FIP during these campaigns are 5.75, 5.09, and 2.10 respectively. It has taken some time, and some patience, but we're currently getting the best version of the young southpaw.
There are two keys to his newfound success. First, he's simply throwing his four-seamer less, at 28.3%. It was 42.8% in '21 and 58.9% (!!) in '20. Here we have a young pitcher who found out the hard way that his fastball doesn't work that well. He has since adjusted, upping his slider usage while developing a sinker.
The change in pitch mix has completely altered his batted ball profile - in a good way. Skubal's GB% is up to 48.1% in 2022. It was at 27.7% in 2020. His fly ball rate is 35.6% this year. It was 54.2% during his debut season. The K-BB% is at an all-time high this year as well.
By every single metric we trust to evaluate pitching, Skubal is posting a clear trend line in a positive direction. The final reason to believe in his early-season breakout is the location of his four-seamer, which he used to leave directly over the heart of the plate. He's now spotting it in a more favorable location at the top of the strike zone.
(2021 is on the top, 2022 is below.)
"Strikeout minus walk rate" is generally seen as one of the best metrics to evaluate pitching performance. Is it absolutely everything? Of course not, and pitchers can succeed without rating highly in this stat, but striking out a lot of batters while not walking many almost always leads to good results. Let's look at some of the 2022 leaders to see if we can learn anything.
(min. 30 IP)
1. Shane McClanahan, Rays, 31.6% -- Kid's a star. A must-have player in 2022 drafts.
2. Shohei Ohtani, Angels, 30% -- He has simultaneously increased his K% while lowering his BB% since last season. Incredible.
T3. Kevin Gausman, Blue Jays, 29.7% -- Just when everyone thought he would regress post-Giants, he has only gotten better.
T3. Eric Lauer, Brewers, 29.7% -- He's throwing harder and it's working. I'm buying.
5. Corbin Burnes, Brewers, 28.8% -- Stud.
6. Carlos Rodon, Giants, 27.7% -- Stud.
7. Dylan Cease, White Sox, 27.4% -- Blossoming ace.
8. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers, 26.6% -- Stud when healthy.
9. Max Scherzer, Mets, 26% -- Stud.
10. Nestor Cortes, Yankees, 25.2% -- The master of messing with timing is throwing his cutter a lot more in 2022. The K% is up. The GB% is up. The K-BB% is top-10 in baseball. What an amazing story. Ride the wave if you have him.
11. Aaron Nola, Phillies, 24.9% -- Just like last year the underlying numbers say he has been unlucky. The Phillies' defense will likely prevent him from reaching SP1 status in fantasy, but he's a proven workhorse who should remain plugged into starting lineups.
12. Pablo Lopez, Marlins, 23.5% -- 2.47 ERA with a 2.94 FIP since the start of 2021.
Let's starting bouncing around to see which names catch the eye.
25. Steven Matz, Cardinals, 19.9% -- 6.40 ERA with a 4.06 FIP, 2.95 xFIP. Buy low in deeper leagues.
30. Jameson Taillon, Yankees, 17.1% -- He has a 2-start week against the Orioles and White Sox coming up. I believe in NYY's pitching development and think Taillon is universally under valued.
37. Robbie Ray, Mariners, 16% -- This mark is way down from his 25.4% rate in 2021.
40. Bruce Zimmerman, Orioles, 15.4% -- A useful streamer in deeper leagues.
43. Walker Buehler, Dodgers, 14.5% -- This number was 24.2% back in 2019 and has fallen each year since. His strikeouts are down despite a career-best swinging strike rate, and the run prevention results have been fine. Weird.
61. Michael Kopech, White Sox, 11.7% -- The 1.54 ERA is shiny, but Kopech's K-BB% has fallen from 27.7% last year (when he was primarily a reliever) to the 11.7% mark this season. He has also yet to allow a homer in 2022, which will regress. The fastball velocity is down. I wonder if he's better off as a super-RP.
91. Ian Anderson, Braves, 4.7% -- Strikeouts are down and walks are up. I think he's a sell in dynasty formats.
I don't have much statistical insight here other than noting that Lewis hits the ball hard (96th percentile max exit velocity) and runs well (79th percentile sprint speed). Otherwise, the sample size is too small to take much from his numbers.
Yet judging by the eye test, Lewis looks the part of a big leaguer, which is incredible considering he didn't appear in games over a 28-month span from 2020-22. He was lighting it up in Triple-A before Carlos Correa's injury this year (.310/.430/.563) and the question now is if Minnesota will keep him int he majors once their star SS is back?
Lewis is athletic enough to play anywhere in the field, but would the Twins rather Lewis continue his development at shortstop? We'll be finding out soon since Correa isn't expected to be sidelined much longer. Until we see how this play out I think Lewis should be rostered everywhere on upside alone.
On Friday I posted a blog to the Underdog Network analyzing baseball's top rookies 1 month into the season.
On Sunday I completed a massive update to my rest-of-season redraft rankings. Along with a change log noting all the biggest moves, they can be found on my Patreon page. Access is just $5.
Similar to last year, Charlie Morton looks to be rounding into form now that we're over a month into the season. On Saturday he posted a 9:1 K:BB while allowing just 1 earned over 6 strong innings. He totaled 15 whiffs on just 83 pitches.
Jarred Kelenic, Paul DeJong, Alex Kirilloff, and Niko Goodrum were all optioned to Triple-A this past week.
For fun, here are the K-BB% leaders for relief pitchers: Ryan Helsley, Edwin Diaz, Erik Swanson, AJ Minter, David Bednar, Jhoan Duran, Will Vest, and Kenley Jansen.