Fantasy baseball managers are always looking for an edge over their opponents. Part of finding that edge is engaging in player analysis to help predict future player performance.
Early in the MLB season, it can be difficult to sift through which trends have some truth to them and which trends are due for regression. That is also where the fun lies in fantasy sports. Managers want to receive the satisfaction of buying low on a player they were high on going into the draft.
The numbers come in a small sample size, as we are less than two weeks into the MLB season. However, this is when managers can pounce on some slow starts or, in some cases, hot starts to the season. This article should help provide some clarity on a few pitchers and hitters who you might want to target in your fantasy league.
I tried to target pitchers with an established track record and proven performance who might be underperforming relative to expectations. I also considered the player’s team and how that factors into their ability to get the win when they take the mound.
There are several metrics I use to attempt to predict pitcher performance. Quality of contact metrics, expected statistics, and batted-ball data can provide valuable context for players. Is something wrong mechanically with a pitcher, or are they going through a period of some bad luck? These metrics can help paint that picture.
*Note: All stats are through games completed on April 12th.
Logan Webb – Starting Pitcher / San Francisco Giants
2023 Stats: 3 GS, 17.0 IP, 6.35 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 22 K, 3 BB
At a high-level glance, Logan Webb is not off to a great start in 2023. He started the year recording a loss in all three of his starts, and his ERA sits over 6.00. However, advanced metrics indicate he may be the victim of some bad luck to start the year.
Expected statistics suggest it hasn’t been all that bad of a start for Webb. According to FanGraphs, he has an xERA of 3.99, an xFIP of 2.61, and a SIERA of 2.85. There is a glaring difference between his true ERA and his expected statistics. Part of the reason there is such a stark difference in the metrics is Webb’s ability to limit free passes and strike out batters effectively so far in 2023.
Through three starts, Webb has a career-high strikeout rate of 31.4% and a strikeouts per nine (K/9) of 11.65. Additionally, he is limiting walks at a career-low rate. He has only allowed three walks, giving him a walk rate of 4.3% and a walks per nine (BB/9) of 1.59.
Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, accounts only for what the pitchers can control. Therefore, if Webb has been successful in the areas he can control, i.e. walks and strikeouts, the advanced numbers are going to reward him for it. Where the issue lies with Webb is his susceptibility to the long ball in 2023.
Webb has already allowed four home runs on the season. His 2.12 home runs per nine (HR/9) is a career high by a wide margin. Granted, it is early, but Webb only allowed 11 home runs in his 32 games started last season. When looking at his pitch arsenal, nothing stands out as a glaring red flag that would suggest this long ball susceptibility will continue.
The first thing I looked at was Webb’s sinker, which is his primary pitch. Both the velocity and spin rate on his sinker are up from 2022. Additionally, he is getting similar, if not better, movement on the pitch from a season ago. These are positive signs that he hasn’t lost a step with a pitch he throws most frequently.
Where Webb can look to improve is his secondary pitches. While he has had success with his changeup and/or slider in the past, he hasn’t had that same success this season. Whether or not he can establish a reliable slider or changeup to play off his sinker will play a large role in what his ceiling as a player will look like in 2023.
With that being said, I do believe Webb’s home run numbers should stabilize. He has faced two of the top teams in the league in terms of home run totals in 2023: the Dodgers, who have the second most homers (21), and the Yankees, who have the fifth most homers (17).
Better days are ahead for Webb. He’s still just 26 years old, and his arsenal has not diminished. While expected stats are not necessarily predictive of future performance, they do imply he has been pitching better than his 6.35 ERA suggests. This may be the window to acquire Webb as his next start comes versus Detroit, one of the league’s worst offenses in 2023.
Zac Gallen – Starting Pitcher / Arizona Diamondbacks
2023 Stats: 3 GS, 17.2 IP, 4.58 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 21 K, 5 BB
I believe we have already seen Zac Gallen’s worst two starts of 2023. He opened the year against the Dodgers and the Padres and got roughed up a bit. Pitching 10.2 innings across his first two outings, Gallen allowed 13 total hits, nine earned runs, and two home runs. However, he bounced back against Milwaukee in his most recent outing.
Against the Brewers, he went seven strong innings allowing only three hits and striking out 11 batters. The Brewers went into that matchup with a red-hot offense, and Gallen handled them with relative ease. Like Logan Webb, Gallen has limited walks and struck out batters quite efficiently thus far.
His strikeout rate and walk rates are both well above average. He has posted a strikeout rate of 29.2% and a walk rate of 6.9%, and this should provide optimism for fantasy managers. While Gallen’s ERA isn’t what we might expect to see from a pitcher of his caliber, his peripheral statistics are more promising.
He still has a low barrel rate of 4.3%, and his xwOBA, xSLG, and xBA all fall in the 70th percentile or higher. He is limiting hard contact, and like Logan Webb, his expected statistics suggest he has pitched better than his 4.58 ERA indicates.
There are two numbers that could be due for positive regression moving forward for Gallen: his BABIP and his Left On Base Percentage (LOB%). Through three starts, Gallen has a BABIP of .318 which is well above his career average (.265). While BABIP numbers might rise this season due to the limitation of the shift, a jump from his .237 BABIP in 2022 would be a significant increase. Judging by his batted ball data, I don’t see his BABIP number remaining this high all season, especially with the speed and defensive talent around him in the field.
Gallen has a LOB% of 60.4% which is equally noteworthy. For comparison, the league average LOB% is 71%, and Gallen’s career average LOB% sits at 78.3%. In general, an abnormally low or high LOB% will tend to regress towards the mean over time. I believe this will be the case for Gallen. This would lead to more runners being stranded on the basepaths and fewer runners scoring in the future, lowering his ERA.
Gallen is striking out batters efficiently, limiting free passes, and not allowing strong contact. As mentioned, I believe we saw Gallen’s worst two starts of his 2023 season and he will soon get back to putting up Cy Young-caliber numbers. We may have seen the beginning of the bounceback with his start versus Milwaukee, and his next start is scheduled to come against Miami – one of the worst offensive teams in the league in 2023.
Pablo López – Starting Pitcher / Minnesota Twins
2023 Stats: 3 GS, 20.0 IP, 1.35 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, 26 K, 5 BB
The first two names on this list fell more into the buy-low bucket. Pablo López, however, is a player I am willing to buy high on. López has been spectacular to start the season. It appears Lopez has reached a new level with his pitch arsenal, and he should continue to perform well all season long.
López has only allowed eight hits and three earned runs across his first three outings. He has also struck out at least eight batters in each of those outings while minimizing walks. In his most recent outing against the White Sox, López was particularly impressive.
He started off the game by getting into a bases-loaded jam with no outs in the top of the first inning. After allowing two to score, López bounced back and retired the next 20 consecutive batters. He went on to strike out 10 batters in the game, and his stuff looked elite. López checks all of the boxes to start the 2023 season, including making hitters uncomfortable in the batter’s box.
He is in the top 10 percent of the league in chase rate (37.1%) and whiff rate (37.2%), which are both up a good amount from his 2022 numbers. Additionally, the velocity on his four-seam fastball, his main pitch, is up nearly two miles per hour from 2022, yielding a whiff rate of 34.2%.
López primarily utilized a fastball-changeup combination in years past. However, in 2023 he introduced a sweeper into his pitch arsenal, which has done wonders for him so far, specifically against right-handed batters.
His sweeper has a whopping 60.6% whiff rate on the year. Hitters are not touching the pitch, as opponents have a .071 batting average and a .090 wOBA against the sweeper. This pitch gives him a new way to attack righties, and it has been efficient in this small sample size.
López still utilizes his changeup, which has performed well in 2023. Opponents are only hitting .059 against the pitch. However, now he has a nasty trio of pitches that gives him new leverage against batters on both sides of the box.
López has revamped his pitch arsenal and has been nearly untouchable to start 2023. I am willing to buy the hot start and reap the benefits while it is still early in the season.
Graham Ashcraft – Starting Pitcher / Cincinnati Reds
2023 Stats: 2 GS, 13.0 IP, 2.08 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 13 K, 4 BB
Graham Ashcraft is a fascinating development. The trio of pitchers atop the Reds’ starting rotation is shaping up to be a great one. Ashcraft was overshadowed by his teammates Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo heading into fantasy drafts, but it has been a hot start for the 25-year-old in 2023.
Ashcraft has an arsenal that features both velocity and movement. His sinker and cut fastballs sit upper-90s with impressive movement. The heavy sinker/cutter combination gives him a nice floor with his high ground ball rate (GB%) of 58.8%. However, the main difference for Ashcraft has been the development of his slider.
Batters are hitting just .150 and slugging .200 against the slider, and it has a whiff rate of 28.2%. If he can add a high movement slider to work off of his fastball combination, it greatly elevates his ceiling and he becomes a very intriguing fantasy option. He has looked like a brand-new pitcher in 2023.
After carving up the Pittsburgh Pirates in his first appearance of the year, he handled himself well versus a star-studded Atlanta Braves lineup in his most recent outing. Going six innings, allowing two earned runs, and striking out seven batters, I believe he pitched even better than the stat line indicates.
I’m not sure how many wins Ashcraft will be in line to receive pitching for the Reds, nor do I know if he will maintain this new level he seems to have unlocked. However, that is the fun of taking gambles in fantasy baseball.
Ashcraft was likely undrafted in your fantasy leagues, and it may not require significant compensation to acquire him. The risk is fairly low, and the reward could be significant if he continues to see success with his fastball/slider combination.
I like to use similar metrics to analyze whether or not a batter is just in a slump or if they have a larger issue at the plate. There are several things I look for when attempting to buy low on a hitter: speed, approach, and quality of contact numbers. The players on this list have some sort of combination of the three, generating intrigue for their 2023 season outlook.
*Note: All stats are through games completed on April 12th.
Bobby Witt Jr. – Shortstop / Kansas City Royals
2023 Stats: .229/.288/.396, 2 HR, 6 R, 6 RBI, 5 SB
There is a reason Bobby Witt Jr. was being drafted as high as he was. He has game-altering speed and as much potential as anyone at the shortstop position. However, the offensive production just hasn’t been there at the start of his 2023 season.
While the Kansas City Royals have one of the most lackluster offenses in the entire league, Witt finds himself hitting leadoff most days with some solid bats behind him. Unfortunately, Witt hasn’t had many opportunities to score as he has struggled to get on base in the early goings of 2023.
With that being said, it’s promising to see Witt’s walk rate rising from a season ago – up to 7.7%. On the season, Witt’s hard-hit rate (43.6%) and average exit velocity (90.6 mph) look encouraging. However, he just hasn’t gotten many balls to fall for hits.
His BABIP of .243 is curiously low for a player with his caliber of speed. Witt has never had a BABIP lower than .295 throughout his career in the major and minor leagues. That number is all but guaranteed to increase moving forward if he continues to put that bat on the ball.
Witt checks all the boxes that I look for when searching for buy-low candidates. There are several areas of his game where he is likely to see positive regression while demonstrating intriguing quality of contact numbers. Managers were required to spend a high draft pick on Witt this year, and we are not even two weeks into the 2023 season. So, he may be tough to pry away from teams. However, this slow start has given fantasy managers a small window to pounce if you were high on Witt heading into drafts.
Cedric Mullins – Center Fielder / Baltimore Orioles
2023 Stats: .178/.260/.333, 2 HR, 8 R, 9 RBI, 5 SB
Cedric Mullins was an All-Star in 2021 and has yet to bounce back to that same form. Yet, he still demonstrates the tools to be an appealing fantasy option in 2023.
Mullins is off to a slow start through his first 51 plate appearances, posting an OPS of just .593 and a wOBA of .266. However, he had 30+ steals each of the last two seasons, and he already has five in 2023. He continues to be a threat on the basepaths, advancing successfully on each of his five steal attempts. Where Mullins has struggled this season is hitting against right-handed pitching.
Being a left-handed batter, Mullins has had success hitting against right-handed pitchers historically. In his career, Mullins has an .803 OPS and a 120 wRC+ versus righties. However, it has been a different story so far in 2023. Mullins has a .445 OPS versus right-handed pitching in his 33 plate appearances. Conversely, he is slashing .267/.353/.533 in 18 PA versus lefties this year. Mullins has never been a reverse-splits hitter, and I don’t expect that to continue in 2023.
Mullins has shown a good approach at the plate so far this season. In the small sample size, Mullins is posting a career-low strikeout rate (15.7%) and a career-high walk rate (9.8%). However, approach isn’t the concern with Mullins, so much as his ability to tap into his power.
Mullins has been near the top of the league in doubles and triples each of the last two seasons, as well as slugging 30 home just two seasons ago. This year, Mullins has only three extra-base hits with just one home run through his first 11 games.
I also want to keep on the theme of BABIP regression for talented players. Mullins has a BABIP of .171 through his 51 plate appearances this season. That’s the eighth-worst among qualified hitters in the MLB. For reference, Mullins has a career BABIP of .298. This means that an abnormal number of balls put into play by Mullins are not falling for hits relative to his career average. With his proven speed and bat-to-ball numbers, I expect regression toward his career average.
Mullins is still young at 28 years old and will find himself batting leadoff in a talented offensive lineup in Baltimore. He will be in line to score plenty of runs and be amongst the league leaders in stolen bases, providing plenty of upside for fantasy managers while not costing premium dollar.
MJ Melendez – Catcher / Kansas City Royals
2023 Stats: .190/.292/.333, 1 HR, 5 R, 6 RBI, 0 SB
It is probably odd to see two Kansas City Royals on a list of offensive players to target. While there has been minimal excitement for Kansas City’s offense, Melendez definitely brings excitement to the conversation. However, the excitement is dampened a bit by his slow start at the plate.
Simply put, Melendez has struck out way too much to start the season. His 17 punch-outs in 43 plate appearances have led to a brutal 39.5% strikeout rate. Additionally, his 42.9% whiff rate is incredibly alarming. There are clearly kinks that the 24-year-old still needs to work out at the plate. So, buyer beware.
Now onto the exciting aspects of Melendez’s game. His power is incredibly intriguing. He is in the top one percent of the league in average exit velocity (97.7 mph). Likewise, his barrel rate of 26.1% is in the top four percent league-wide, and his 65.2% hard-hit rate is the fourth-best in the league.
Unsurprisingly, his expected stats, i.e., xwOBA and xSLG, are some of the best in the MLB due to his spectacular quality of contact metrics. The difference between his actual statistics versus his expected stats is noteworthy, at the very least. However, if he can’t put the bat on the ball consistently, then his hard contact won’t do much good for fantasy owners.
If you can bear the strikeout risk, Melendez has the power upside to offer an intriguing buy-low window. As a bit of extra intrigue, he has outfield eligibility to go along with his catcher eligibility. There will surely be ups and downs to Melendez’s game, but the upside can be week-winning if he gets on a hot streak.
Yandy Díaz – First Baseman / Tampa Bay Rays
2023 Stats: .278/.400/.556, 3 HR, 12 R, 8 RBI, 0 SB
The Tampa Bay Rays are rolling to start the year, and Yandy Díaz is absolutely crushing the baseball. In years past, Díaz has displayed a disciplined approach coupled with good bat-to-ball skills. He is an on-base machine who does not strike out. In 45 plate appearances this season, Díaz has a 15.6% walk rate and a strikeout rate of just 11.1%.
However, he has struggled with the ability to get the ball in the air historically. But in the small sample size of 2023, Díaz is elevating the baseball, and it is paying massive dividends for the Rays’ offense. His average launch angle is 13.1 degrees, up more than five degrees from 2022. Similarly, his ground ball rate is lower than it was a season ago. Both are steps in the right direction, and I think this could lead to a breakout year for Díaz – especially if his power numbers finally see a boost.
His quality of contact numbers are excellent to start the year. He is in the top six percent of the league in average exit velocity, max exit velocity, and hard-hit rate. He is finally barreling up the baseball, and it’s showing.
His .278 isolated power (ISO) to open 2023 is a significant jump from past seasons. This is a difference-maker for Díaz and gives him entirely new fantasy appeal if he can continue to drive the ball as he has this season.
Díaz is smashing the ball through his first ten games. He won’t have many holes in the eyes of fantasy managers if these power numbers are here to stay. After he added another home run on Tuesday night, the window to buy Díaz could be closing quickly.