Fantasy Baseball: Yay, Nay, or Just Okay (July 15th)

How should you handle these three intriguing arms in your fantasy league?

Taijuan Walker
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 9: Taijuan Walker #99 of the New York Mets reacts walking off the field during the second inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Citi Field on July 9, 2021 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)

This week, we’ll be looking at three pitchers who have been put together strong enough first halves to garner All-Star recognition. All three had some things to like coming into the year, but have likely exceeded the expectations of many by representing their teams at Coors Field. But as we know, a strong first half doesn’t always correlate to post All-Star game success.

YAY: Taijuan Walker – SP – Mets

Walker has carried over his stellar 2020 into 2021 with the Mets, and is looking like a gigantic bargain both in terms of his real-life contract, and likely whenever you got him in your fantasy league.

A low BABIP (.249) against him is expected to rise, but he’s projected mostly to be a high threes ERA guy the rest of the season with slightly under a strikeout per inning. His WHIP and FIP look good as well in predicting future success, and for his career he owns a 3.82 ERA in the second half. The Mets are also good enough to give him strong chances at earning victories if you are in a league that values W’s.

Admittedly, I’m expecting at least a slight regression for Walker, whose Baseball Savant page doesn’t scream buy for the rest of the season. Most of his numbers are average to good-ish, while his spin, whiff, and chase rates are on the lower end of the spectrum. What helps Walker is the unique shapes he creates on his pitches, creating deception. (splitter breaks 2.6 inches more than MLB average, fastball breaks 2.9 inches more than MLB average horizontally) have made him a bit more difficult for hitters to master.

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Looking deeper, he’s not an outlier in percentage left on base, and if you look at his xERA through his career compared to what he’s actually put together though, you’ll find a guy who constantly outperforms those numbers (his ERA has been at least 0.78 better than his xERA in four straight seasons – five if you count this year). That makes his 3.83 xERA at the moment even more palatable compared to his 2.50 ERA. Don’t go crazy in acquiring him, but feel comfortable holding him or nabbing him in a trade.

NAY: Yusei Kikuchi – SP – Mariners

Kikuchi has shown solid stuff but hasn’t totally commanded the zone. I love the improvements he has shown from 2019 to 2020 and again now in 2021 with his velocity up (95.6 mph on average) in addition to above average to good numbers in getting whiffs, chases, and strikeouts.

The reason I’m selling Kikuchi is this: his .235 BABIP does not seem sustainable (league average tends to be around .300). His xERA and FIP are suggesting a bit of regression too (both over four compared to his mid-threes ERA). Most projections have him around a .500 record with an ERA around four and about a strikeout per inning the rest of the way.

The projection system that likes Kikuchi the least is actually my favorite projection system, THE BAT. The reason it’s not huge on Kikuchi the rest of the way is simple: he’s getting hit very hard. Currently he’s getting barreled up 9.3% of the time (in 2019 he had a 5.46 ERA and was barreled 7.7% of the time). The average exit velocity ranks and hard hit rate are the worsts of his career and he’s not going to completely avoid walks. Adding his cutter in 2020 to go with that increased velocity have definitely been a huge boon to make him a solid starter, but don’t expect a repeat of his first half the rest of the season. Now might be a good time to sell high.

JUST OKAY: German Marquez – SP – Rockies

The core-four ROS projection systems have Marquez at 5-5 with somewhere between a 4.21 – 4.37 ERA the rest of the way and around a strikeout per inning.

His BABIP is higher than the other two pitchers here, but it’s still lower this year (.270) than any other year in the past (.300 in 2020 was next best). Still, his FIP (3.26) is actually better than his ERA (3.36). His whiff and walk rates aren’t bad, but they’re not good either. What he’s done well is suppress hard contact and avoid barrels.

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Here’s a possible problem: his fastball owns a .229 average against right now with a .337 slugging percentage. Last year, opponents hit just .333 against his fastball with a .505 slugging. Despite the large discrepancy in results, last season the xBA on his fastball (.311) was still actually lower than this year (.313), which screams regression. That point gets added to considering the velocity is down a tick (95.9 to 94.9 mph), as is his spin rate as well. He has added a bit more vertical drop on it, so maybe that adjustment has helped, but certainly the expectation isn’t for that to continue.

One thing that could help is a trade to get him out of Coors Field. He’s actually been better at home this season, but for his career he’s got a 4.70 ERA on the road against a 3.55 road ERA. For that reason, he’s someone to monitor what happens at the deadline in terms of what you might want to do with him.