Knowing which players to draft is the most important part of preparing for a fantasy baseball season. But knowing which players not to draft is a close second. It’s easier to lose a league than to win one in March, and a series of misfires can doom a fantasy campaign before it even begins.
Some drafting mistakes are unavoidable, like taking a star who later suffers an injury, but often they’re the result of a simple unforced error: paying for past rather than future production. Fantasy drafters suffer from recency bias and tend to pick the previous season’s surprise performers too high. Way too high.
Writing for The Hardball Times last year, Mike Podhorzer quantified this phenomenon and found that “breakout” fantasy players lose a large percentage of their value in their first post-breakout year. “The bigger the breakout, the bigger the fall” in the subsequent season, Podhorzer wrote, concluding, “Be very, very careful when investing in last season’s breakouts. They rarely take another step forward and the regression that’s already baked into their draft day cost is usually not enough.”
Let’s apply that history lesson to 2019. Based on their change in fantasy value from 2017 to 2018, 53 players qualified as breakouts—many of them top targets in 2019 drafts. (This list includes only position players and starters. Like Podhorzer, we didn’t examine relief pitchers because their value changes are often the result of a new role—thus opportunity for saves—rather than new skills.) That full list is available here.
Not everyone on the list is doomed to poorer performances in 2019, of course. Some players appear only because they didn’t record enough playing time to accrue much value in 2017—for instance, Noah Syndergaard because of injury, Starling Marté because of suspension, Walker Buehler and Jack Flaherty because they collected mere cups of coffee in advance of their full rookie campaigns. Others were returning to a previous level of performance after a down 2017, like Manny Machado.
But within that group of 53, 10 players in particular stand out for the regression they might—and probably will—experience in 2019. This piece isn’t a warning to entirely avoid drafting any of those players, but rather a plea to think twice before making an investment. There’s no guarantee their positive momentum will continue into 2019. (Draft data refers to a player’s average draft position on Yahoo, as of Thursday.)
Christian Yelich, Brewers OF (ADP: first round, eighth overall)
Last year’s National League MVP homered on 35 percent of his fly balls, the third-highest rate on record (dating back to 2002). The rest of the top five is filled out by Ryan Howard, Aaron Judge, Jim Thome, and Giancarlo Stanton. Yelich is an excellent hitter, but not the kind of titanic slugger those peers might suggest. And even Judge and Stanton saw their ratios dip below 30 percent last year, so minimally expected regression from Yelich would see him lose in the range of 10 homers. In that case, he’d still be a perfectly useful fantasy outfielder—a 20-20 player with high average, run, and RBI totals—but drafters expecting him to produce at a first-round level may be disappointed.
Javier Báez, Cubs 2B/SS/3B (second round, 21st overall)
It’s hard to trust that a player with Báez’s lack of plate discipline will maintain the kind of numbers expected of a top-25 pick. The approach worked for the Cubs infielder in 2018, when he finished second to Yelich in the MVP vote and developed into a fantasy star, joining Yelich and José Ramírez as the only players with 30 homers, 20 steals, 100 runs, and 100 RBIs. But Báez also swung at nearly half the pitches he saw that were outside the strike zone; he rarely walks; and he both strikes out a lot and hits a high rate of infield pop-ups. A hitter like Paul Goldschmidt, who’s going in the same draft range as Báez, has a much firmer foundation based on his plate discipline, and that’s even before considering the amount that Báez’s power and speed numbers—which both represented career highs by a wide margin—might fall from their 2018 peaks.
Trevor Story, Rockies SS (second round, 22nd overall)
The Colorado shortstop stole 27 bases last year after nabbing just 15 total across his first two seasons. That change might be the start of a new trend; it also screams regression. Story made legitimate improvements at the plate by increasing his contact rate to cut down on strikeouts, but his numbers from last season were a result of just about everything going right. Like Yelich, Story will still be a strong fantasy presence in 2019, but in this draft range, owners are grabbing far more potential for disappointment than upside.
Blake Snell, Rays SP (third round, 30th overall)
Let’s talk about fantasy aces. Among the dozen highest-ranking fantasy starters last season, eight qualify as breakouts, and a ninth was St. Louis’s Miles Mikolas, who doesn’t qualify for this exercise only because he didn’t pitch in the majors in 2017. The three holdovers were Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, and Corey Kluber—widely considered the most dependable fantasy starters for a reason.
This turnover arrives amid a tumultuous fantasy landscape for starting pitchers, as wins shift ever more to relievers and 200-inning hurlers disappear. Starters collected just 62 percent of all wins last season, down from the previous single-year low of 67 percent, and the “opener” strategy by itself doesn’t come close to accounting for such a large drop.
To buy an ace in 2019 almost certainly requires assuming plenty of potential for regression. Still, there are gradations among the group, and Snell slots toward the riskier end. The 2018 American League Cy Young winner posted a 1.89 ERA and won 21 games, but he also benefited from a pair of tremendously lucky statistical trends.
Snell allowed a .241 batting average on balls in play, the second-lowest mark of any qualified starter. He also stranded 88 percent of runners he allowed to reach base in 2018; out of nearly 9,000 qualifying pitcher-seasons in MLB history, that’s the second-highest mark. So either Snell turns into a pitching deity with runners on base—here, it’s worth noting that his strand rates in his first two seasons were in the low 70s—or he’s bound to allow many more runs in 2019. This kind of analysis is all very Sabermetrics 1.0, but, well, Snell is still being picked this high, and there’s a reason Sabermetrics 1.0 helped win fantasy leagues.
Aaron Nola, Phillies SP (third round, 32nd overall)
Nola is a right-handed, less-risky version of Snell: Both pitchers built off early success to take even greater steps forward in 2018 but might not perform quite as well in 2019 as fantasy drafters expect.
Nola’s 2.37 ERA last year relied in part on a .251 BABIP, and he overperformed his fielding-independent pitching ERA estimation by 0.64 runs per nine innings. While Nola’s batted-ball profile makes it seem like these trends are repeatable—he avoids hard contact, for one—from 2015 to 2017, he ran a .313 BABIP (105th out of 123 qualifying pitchers in that span) and underperformed his FIP by 0.56 runs per nine (116th of 123). Maybe Nola was just extremely unlucky in those early seasons and 2018 is the new norm, but it’s more likely his true talent falls somewhere in the middle of those extremes.
Ozzie Albies, Braves 2B (fifth round, 53rd overall)
Few young players generated more fantasy excitement last season than Albies, who sought to build off a strong 244-plate-appearance debut in 2017. And for the first month of the season, that preseason anticipation looked warranted, as Albies hit .293/.341/.647 through April—except from May 1 on, Albies hit just .254/.296/.409.
Albies will still provide some homers and steals, but he might not be better than a league-average hitter at this point, which makes him a risky bet this high in the draft. Plus, with Josh Donaldson now on the Braves and manager Brian Snitker suggesting that center fielder Ender Inciarte will lead off, Albies will be pushed toward the bottom of Atlanta’s lineup, which could further affect his run total (105 last year, tied for eighth in the majors) and stolen-base opportunities.
Miguel Andújar, Yankees 3B (eighth round, 88th overall)
Andújar, who recorded just eight plate appearances in an abbreviated 2017 call-up, barely qualifies here. And perhaps it isn’t fair to include him among players who experienced boosts at the MLB level specifically last season—but given the contours of his profile, he’s still worth highlighting. Andújar wasn’t supposed to shine as brightly as more highly touted prospects like Ronald Acuña Jr. and Gleyber Torres; his emergence as a Rookie of the Year contender was a pleasant surprise.
But Andújar’s offensive downside is a lot like Báez’s. He’s another free swinger who rarely walks—his 4.1 percent walk rate ranked 134th out of 140 qualifying hitters, while Báez’s 4.5 ranked 131st—and thus could find himself more prone to slumps than a hitter who utilizes more ways to reach base. Andújar’s defensive struggles could also push him to the bench more often than other top third basemen, either via his losing a few late-game at-bats for a defensive replacement or via the occasional benching entirely, as the New York infield has five players to fit in four spots even before Didi Gregorius returns from injury.
Mike Foltynewicz, Braves SP (10th round, 116th overall)
Foltynewicz is perhaps the player in this piece least likely to match his 2018 production, and that assessment—plus a barking elbow—already appears somewhat priced into his average draft position. The Atlanta ace enjoyed a true breakout campaign in 2018, tallying a 2.85 ERA after never finishing below 4.31 in a previous season, and his FIP also improved by nearly a full run over any past result.
But all three pillars of that 2018 success seem ripe for regression. First is his luck on home runs, as his HR/FB ratio reached a career low without much underlying evidence pointing to a reason for that change. Second is his luck on batted balls in play, as his allowed BABIP—which exceeded .300 in every previous season—fell to .251 last season. This drop came despite Foltynewicz allowing the same hard-hit rate as always.
And third is a flukily high strikeout rate. A strong underlying correlate to overall strikeout rate is swinging-strike rate, which makes sense—generate more swings and misses, and more strikeouts will follow. Yet based on his middling swinging-strike rate, Foltynewicz should have “expected” a strikeout rate around 22 percent, instead of the 27 percent he actually posted. Out of 140 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings last year, only Chris Sale (whose K rate was so high it basically broke the model) posted a better differential between actual and expected.
Lose any one of those three patches of luck in 2019, and Foltynewicz’s overall numbers could collapse. It’s more likely he loses more than one. Stay away unless his price drops even further.
David Peralta, Diamondbacks OF (10th round, 119th overall)
Another HR/FB outlier appears. Peralta homered on 23 percent of his fly balls last year, versus a career average of just 13 percent prior to 2018, and that increase came despite the addition of an offense-suppressing humidor in Chase Field. Peralta also hits more than half of his balls on the ground—an alarming sign for a prospective home run hitter—and these are particular concerns because he doesn’t run much, so almost all of his fantasy value is tied up in how many times he leaves the yard. Add the fact that Goldschmidt’s trade to St. Louis makes Arizona’s lineup worse than it was last season, and Peralta should lose some peripheral run and RBI opportunities, too.
José Peraza, Reds SS (13th round, 148th overall)
It’s unclear where Peraza’s 2018 season came from. Long considered a speed threat, the Cincinnati shortstop’s fantasy rise last season resulted more from improved power numbers (14 homers vs. five the previous year, 58 RBIs vs. 37) than a change with his speed, as he recorded 23 steals in both 2017 and 2018.
Yet that power spike doesn’t make much sense, even granting Peraza a friendly home park. His hard-hit rate ranked 316th out of 332 qualifying batters last season, and his average exit velocity on balls hit in the air ranked 323rd. Based on those underlying characteristics, his “expected” batting average, slugging percentage, and weighted on-base average were all essentially unchanged from earlier in his career. Without any structural changes, it’s hard to envision how Peraza repeats or builds on his 2018 line.