Sound the small sample size alarm, because it’s time once again to cast season-long judgment on less than four weeks’ worth of data for players. But this is the information we have, and fantasy baseball is a reactionary game. We can’t pause our waivers or our FAAB to get a better, more longitudinal look at performance. We must act now. Who is rising and falling after four weeks of games? Who has earned our waiver love and do we dump?
Taylor Ward gets the top spot in the column tonight after delivering a go-ahead moon shot over the Green Monster on Wednesday night. Even though it was a pinch-hit appearance, the home run caps off a truly elite run for Ward ever since a lineup shuffle featured him prominently for the Halos.
Ward has hit in five different lineup spots to start the season, but he led off the last nine games where he has looked like the hitting spawn of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani. In those nine games, Ward is slashing .389/.426/.861 and has scored ten runs because Trout and Ohtani are constantly driving him in. Ward looks like he has earned that leadoff spot almost every day moving forward, and his spike in zone contact rate (88.1%) should help him keep mashing. He is a top-10 hitter on the Razzball Player Rater this year and is looking like one of the steals of the draft if Joe Maddon keeps him at leadoff.
Teammate Ty France may be getting the early-season love, but J.P Crawford is starting to build his case for a career year in his age-27 season. Beyond the stellar .357/.450/.595 slash line, he also has 13 runs, 10 RBI, and a stolen base. He really has become an all-around player who contributes everywhere in fantasy, but he gets lost in the long list of talented young shortstops.
All the major projection systems see a regression coming back down to about .260/.340/.400, which doesn’t look nearly as appealing on the surface. But those numbers are all about 20% above the league average right now, thanks to the dead ball environment. The positive, sustainable signs for Crawford are an increased walk rate (12% this year), a decrease in ground balls (40%), and a nine-point drop in his first pitch strike percentage (51% this season). This breakout looks like it could be for real.
Another player in the top-12 on the Razzball Player Rater this season is Pablo Lopez. He is continuing the positive trends across his metrics from the past three seasons. His ERA of 1.61 this year marks the fourth straight year he has improved that number and his walk rate (1.93 BB/9) is also in its third year of decline. Same with HR/9 this year, where he has a minuscule 0.32 homers allowed per nine innings.
Lopez is achieving these unprecedented levels of success by going all-in on his changeup. He is following the MLB trend of minimizing the fastball (only 45.4% of his pitches thrown) and bumped up the change from 32.5% last year to 37.8% already this season. At 87.4 mph on average, Fangraphs rates his changeup as the best one in the majors. According to Baseball Savant, Lopez gets an astounding 43.8% swing and miss percentage on that pitch this season, and opponents are hitting just .171 against the pitch.
How bad is it this year for Marte? He has a four-game hit streak from April 29-May 3, and that raised his batting average from .135 to a still horrific .156. He has a .207 OBP and a .410 OPS. To put that OPS in context, there are 15 players who have an OBP higher than .410 so far this year.
Marte’s strikeout rate this season (over 25%) is approaching double that of his career average. This is a player who excelled at making contact, driving the ball, and using a strong exit velocity average for power and hits to the gaps. Now his barrel rate is three percent and his max exit velocity is seven miles per hour lower than it was in 2021. He has had some bad BABIP luck this year (.200), but even that doesn’t explain a full-on collapse like we are seeing from Marte.
Joey Votto was mercifully put on the COVID-IL this week, which could be a real thing or could be code for, “let’s get this thing fixed, buddy.” Votto is in the midst of one of the worst stretches of his entire career to start this season. In fact, according to Stathead, this is the worst batting average stretch in any 22-game sample of his entire career (.122 so far in 2022).
Even the hitting gods start to show their age at some point. Is Votto finally there just four months shy of turning 39? He still walks all the time, but his strikeout rate of 32.2% is WAY over his career norm of 24.5%. Most alarming, Votto has a 49% ground ball rate so far this year. If he doesn’t turn back into the 22%-30% line drive machine of years past very soon, he is going to be droppable in shallow leagues.
Votto may be abysmal to start the year, but at least he can’t claim the title of “worst player at his position,” like Mahle can. Mahle has the worst ERA of any qualified pitches so far this year at 7.01. He also leads the league in BB/9 at 4.91. You can see how those two things might be related, and it’s causing massive troubles for the popular breakout candidate.
After a promising 2021 campaign that saw him strike out 210 batters in 180 innings, the wheels have fallen off early for Mahle in 2o22. The walks are the biggest problem, of course, but he also has seen his flyball rate go up eight percent and the groundballs go down 10%. His fastball has lost more than a half mile per hour of velocity and his swinging strike rate has tumbled down to 10.7%. Basically the worst case imaginable for a pitcher who was a trendy sleeper coming into the season. The estimators say Mahle should have around a 3.50-4.00 ERA right now, and not a below replacement level number. I’m still holding, but it may not be for long.