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Tuma: Emptying the Fantasy Baseball Notebook

Aug 8th 2022

Brendan Tuma

The 2022 MLB trade deadline has come and gone and we're entering the stretch run for fantasy baseball leagues.

If you're still competing in any of your leagues, congratulations! It isn't easy. And with summer travel still going on combined with the NFL heating up, it's only going to become tougher to remain so plugged in.

So I'm going to try and publish as many of these "notebook" articles as I can down the stretch. If you're looking for position-by-position rankings (updated every few days), they're available on my Patreon page here.

Lastly, don't ever hesitate to reach out with questions on Twitter @toomuchtuma.

Dylan Cease, SP, White Sox

On May 24th against the Boston Red Sox, Cease allowed a whopping 7 earned runs in just 3 innings. It was the low point of the season for him, but it was also the start of a pretty special run.

From May 29th through August 5th, a span of 13 starts, Cease has allowed 1 earned run or less in all of them. It's a modern day record:

During this stretch the 26-year-old has a shiny 0.59 ERA (with a 2.68 FIP), and 95 strikeouts in 76 IP. It's an incredible stretch that can be attributed to his evolving slider.

From the start of the year through May 24th, Cease threw his slider 34.4% of the time and it averaged 85.8 mph. Since? He's throwing it a whopping 46.6% of the time with an average velocity of 87.8 mph. Here are a couple of good visual (via Brooks Baseball) that show Cease's slider being thrown harder, and with more spin, as the season has played out:

Whenever a player takes a meaningful jump in performance, we want to ask ourselves "why is it happening?" Is it a fluke, or was a tangible change made? In Cease's case, we have the reason. He intentionally started holding his slider deeper in his hand to take away some of the cutter-like movement on it.

It's working, and even though he's still walking hitters at a high rate (11.1% since 5/29), he's just been un-hittable. I'm buying this newfound level of success in both redraft and dynasty formats.

Edwin Diaz, RP, Mets

As I'm writing this, I just watched Diaz make absolute tomfoolery of the heart of the Braves' order. The Metropolitans ended up winning 4 of 5 against Atlanta to take a commanding 6.5 game lead in the National League East.

It's funny to remember there was once a time when this team was relentlessly mocked for the Jarred Kelenic trade. Robinson Cano didn't work out, but Diaz's performance combined with Kelenic's big league struggles currently have New York coming out on top over Seattle on this one. Since June 1st Diaz has a nauseating 53:2 K:BB ratio. He's the best relief pitcher in the world right now.

Josh Hader, RP, Padres

Let's pivot to another closer, one who entered 2022 with the title of "best RP in baseball."

Hader was dealt to San Diego at the trade deadline, but he struggled in July. In a 6-appearance stretch from July 4th through July 16th, Hader allowed a whopping 12 earned runs in 4 1/3 frames. He was still racking up strikeouts, but something was clearly off.

Upon further review, which the above chart helps us visualize, Hader's release point on his sinker has increased throughout the summer. This is an issue because what typically makes the southpaw so dominant is his unusually low arm slot. Without it, his pitches come in from a vantage point that hitters are more used to, which makes him more hittable.

Nearly every other metric suggests Hader is fine, and he's throwing harder than ever this season. The good news about an arm slot problem is that it's quite fixable. Expect Hader to be Hader from here on out.

Bo Bichette, SS, Blue Jays

I noticed the other day that Bichette is just 7-for-14 on stolen base attempts this year. That's a high caught stealing rate with a low number of overall attempts, which isn't ideal for fantasy purposes. His sprint speed is down a tick, from 28.4 ft/s in 2019 to 27.4 ft/s this season (a career low).

Perhaps running won't be as big of a part of his game in the future, but this is only his age-24 campaign. It's times like these where it's tough to ignore that Bichette has never been considered "toolsy" (his Statcast is fine, but not eye-popping or "blood red").

The other killer of Bichette's season has been batting average. After coming into '22 with a career .301 mark, he's hitting just .262 entering Monday. Now why is that?

Bichette's BABIP isn't that far below his career norms and all of his spray charts look similar too. Perhaps the deadened ball is affecting him? Statcast has his xBA at .263. That's my theory for now. It's something to keep in mind long-term. We also know that Bichette annually ranks among the league leaders in chase rate, and that free swingers decline with age. Might we have already seen Bichette's best years?

But...Bichette won't turn 25 until next March, which is why I'm not writing him off for the upside of elite fantasy production over the next several seasons. This is still a player whose skill set was seemingly create for rotisserie fantasy baseball and who is still attached to an elite lineup. I am, however, lowering his floor. Bichette certainly shouldn't be viewed as a Round 1 pick in 2023.

Whit Merrifield, 2B/OF, Blue Jays

It's strange to think that jumping from the Royals to the Blue Jays could be a bad thing for one's fantasy value, but we're going to need to see how the playing time shakes out for Merrifield in Toronto. This is because he's been declining for years:

2018 wRC+: 119

2019: 110

2020: 106

2021: 91

2022: 91

KC was still willing to let Whit run and while hitting him atop the lineup for a large chunk of the year, but those two factors he had going for him are both in question now.

Thanks to George Springer's IL stint, Merrifield might be safe for a bit. He started 3 of his first 4 Blue Jays games in center field (including one as the team's leadoff bat). If he gets off to a hot start with his new club perhaps they will prioritize him over Santiago Espinal once Springer returns.

Triston Casas, 1B, Red Sox

Miguel Vargas was called up by the Dodgers last week, though it remains to be seen just how much he'll play down the stretch. One obvious situation for a top prospect to receive everyday at bats is in Boston, with Bobby Dalbec and *checks notes* Franchy Cordero keeping first base warm for Casas.

In a perfect world, Casas would've already been up by now. A cerebral, slugging lefty bat who relentlessly works on his plate discipline, Casas combines power and patience to torment minor league pitching.

Unfortunately, he was sidelined at Triple-A from May 17th through July 22nd due to an ankle sprain. The 22-year-old is getting hot over his past 9 games though, posting a .946 OPS entering Monday. The Red Sox might as well see what they have him in him as they close out a disappointing 2022. Since I'm considering it unlikely that Gunnar Henderson or Corbin Carroll receive a call-up, Casas could be the last impact hitting prospect we get this fantasy season.

Vinnie Pasquantino, 1B, Royals

Speaking of impact 1B prospects, "Italian Breakfast" hasn't morphed into what fantasy managers were hoping for just yet. He's batting .227/.315/.336 with 3 homers through his first 35 big league games.

However, everything under the hood looks really strong. Pasquantino displays strong plate discipline skills (15.8 K%, 10.3 BB%) and has a max exit velocity of 112.7 mph (88th percentile). It just hasn't fully clicked for him and playing for the Royals doesn't help. He's a long-term buy, though it might be time to give up in redraft leagues.

Aaron Nola, SP, Phillies

The final player we'll discuss today was a polarizing one entering the year. Nola registered an ugly 4.63 ERA in 2021, though it came with a 3.35 xERA and a 3.37 xFIP. He had the 5th highest ERA among qualified starters, but it was clear that some bad luck combined with Philadelphia's bad defense was hurting him.

In 2022, he's still under performing those expected stats with a 3.25 ERA, a 2.75 xERA, and a 2.97 xFIP. Still, the overall result is much better. The difference is that Nola has begun refusing to walk anyone. Similar to Cease, this is another case of a jump in performance that we can get behind. Those who bought low on Nola in '22 drafts have been justly rewarded.