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We’re now a few days away from September 1st. Despite all the general unrest and unease in the world right now, MLB has almost managed to play a full season with no real setbacks. How things will go next season remains to be seen, but baseball fans and players have been treated to another entertaining season so far in 2021. With the MLB playoffs kicking off in a few weeks, most fantasy leagues’ playoffs have already begun or will begin within the next couple weeks.
With that being the case, if you’re preparing for the playoffs, you should continue doing what’s likely gotten you to this point: remain active on the wire, remain disciplined, and continue having fun. The fantasy baseball season is a long season, so unless you’re enjoying yourself, you’ll likely feel burnt out a few months in. Now, in this week’s piece, I’ll once again be highlighting a handful of players who could help you in the fantasy playoffs. Let’s get into it!
Points League Options
(Players rostered in under 50% of ESPN leagues)
Nick Solak OF/2B, Rangers (47% rostered)
From breakout candidate, to demotion, to waiver wire pickup option, Nick Solak’s fantasy value has fluctuated all season long. Before his MLB debut in 2019, Solak’s offensive profile was always seen as one that was going to play at the MLB level. In his 2019 minor league season playing between Double-A and Triple-A, Solak had a .289/.362/.532 slash line with 27 home runs, five stolen bases, a 9.4% walk rate, and a 22% strikeout rate over. Above all else, his hit tool has always been, and will always be, his strongest tool (.297 batting average over 1,687 minor league at-bats). His ability to control the strike zone, hit to all fields, and demonstrate strong overall instincts at the plate means Solak will likely be a solid offensive contributor at the MLB level for years to come.
Unfortunately, his 2021 campaign took a turn for the worse after a strong month of April. In April (99 at-bats), Solak slashed .293/.375/.535 with seven home runs and two stolen bases. Fantasy managers who decided to draft him this past offseason were understandably ecstatic, as a breakout seemed imminent. But over his next 235 at-bats leading up to his demotion, he slashed a paltry .196/.260/.277 with two home runs and two stolen bases. Both of these sample sizes represent two different players. So the question remains, what caused Solak’s dramatic falloff?
His quality of contact decreased substantially. His ability to barrel and make hard contact against all pitches decreased and as a result, he struggled to produce. To be more specific, from May 1st to his demotion on July 23rd, he had a poor 30.6% hard hit rate and a 4.9% barrel rate. Match this with his tendency to hit a lot of ground balls and there was just no avenue for him to succeed at the plate. The cause of his drop in quality of contact skills could be tied to his career worst 35.5% outside of the zone swing rate. If a batter starts chasing more pitches out of the zone, that batter is lowering their chances of consistently making satisfactory quality of contact.
Luckily, Solak rebounded in Triple-A after his demotion. Over 93 at-bats in Triple-A, he slashed .353/.409/.459 with a home run and this success has continued carried into the big leagues. Since returning to MLB on August 21st, he’s 8-for-21 with a home run and a stolen base. He hasn’t been chasing pitches nearly as much and his hard hit rate is back up. This is a microscopic sample size, but the potential reasons behind his past struggles matched with the improvements he’s made to said struggles over this small sample size makes this production seem real. More than likely, Solak will remain up with the big league club through the end of the 2021 season, meaning he could be a helpful pickup for playoff teams who are searching for free offensive production.
Edward Cabrera SP, Marlins (18% rostered)
In his MLB debut on August 25th vs the Nationals, he completed 6 ⅓ innings while allowing four hits, three earned runs, three walks, and two strikeouts. His K/BB ratio was not ideal and he only induced four whiffs on 33 swings (12% whiff rate), but the highlight of this start was his efficiency: he only threw 79 pitches. What fueled this efficiency was his ability to throw his pitches in the zone and for strikes (64% strike rate.) More specifically, he threw his changeup and curveball for a lot of strikes, as his spotty four-seam fastball command continued to be an issue for the talented 23-year-old righty.
Originally signed as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2015 by the Marlins, Cabrera has been a true homegrown product for a club that’s looking to compete sooner rather than later. Despite his natural talent, he struggled to the tune of a 4.43 ERA (3.92 FIP) and 11.5% K-BB over his first 183 career innings, pitching between rookie ball and Class A. Then in 2019, he had his breakout campaign. Over 96 ⅔ innings pitched playing between High-A and Double-A, he earned a 2.23 ERA (3.06 FIP) and 116:31 K:BB (22.2% K-BB). Armed with a four-seam fastball that can reach triple digits, a strong slider, a curveball, and a changeup, he’s always had the tools to eventually succeed as an MLB starter. Free pitching upside is a gift in points leagues, so don’t hesitate if you need pitching help for the playoffs and you see Cabrera sitting out there.
Jake Meyers OF, Astros (12% rostered)
Metrics can tell us a lot about a player. If a player were to have 45th percentile sprint speed with a 106.9 max exit velocity in their rookie season, you’re probably not going to pay them any mind. But, if a player were to have 97th percentile sprint speed with a 111 max exit velocity in their rookie season, you’re probably going to be interested in learning more about that player. The latter metrics in this quick example belong to 25-year-old rookie outfielder, Jake Meyers.
Meyers has been receiving regular playing time in centerfield given the departure of Myles Straw and over his first 61 MLB at-bats, he has a .311/.338/.525 slash line with three home runs and one stolen base. And as aforementioned, his speed and raw power are evident. Although these raw tools are fun, his plate discipline has been problematic. Over 65 plate appearances, he’s sporting a discouraging 30.8% strikeout rate and 3.1% walk rate. Not only is his strikeout rate high, but it’s an outlier compared to what he did in the minors. Over 1,430 career minor league plate appearances, he had a solid 19.3% strikeout rate. He never had a strikeout rate 22% in any of his minor league seasons, so what gives?
I believe this is simply the case of a young -- but experienced -- hitter trying to do everything he can to prove that he belongs in the big leagues. His 49.2% swing rate is above average, meaning he could be just trying ‘too hard’ at times. Given his strikeout% as a minor leaguer and the factors that have led up to him receiving regular playing time, I believe that his strikeout will gradually decrease. This isn’t to say he’ll be a 19.3% strikeout rate guy as his MLB career progresses, but I don’t expect him to continue to have a strikeout rate north of 30% as his sample size increases. To further back this point, two of Meyers’ three home runs have come against sliders. He’s already showing the ability to hit breaking pitches over the wall despite his current tendency to swing and miss at a high rate. I don’t believe his plate discipline will improve much this season, but given his lower rostership, solid track record, and strong raw tools, he’s the type of waiver wire lottery ticket that you want to bet on.
Jeimer Candelario 1B/3B, Tigers (38% rostered)
These days, making the case for a Tigers player is no easy task, but over his last 600+ at-bats, Jeimer Candelario has proven to be a solid -- albeit tedious -- fantasy option. He played most of his minor league career in the Cubs’ system before being traded to the Tigers in July 2017. Between 2018-2019 (874 at-bats), he had a middling .216/.312/.372 slash line with 27 home runs, six stolen bases, a 10.8% walk rate, and a 25.8% strikeout rate. He’s not a stolen base threat, so at that point, he needed to start to demonstrate the ability to get on-base at a higher rate. Fortunately, since the start of 2020, he’s been getting on-base at a higher rate. Over his last 632 at-bats, he has a much improved .282/.359/.453 slash line with 17 home runs, a stolen base, a 10.3% walk rate, and a 22.2% strikeout rate.
The biggest change has been his improved quality of contact, which could be the result of a more aggressive approach. Between 2018-2019, he had just a 62.1% zone swing (around 65% is league average) and a 33.5% hard hit rate (621 batted ball events). However, his 114.2 max exit velocity over this time span was your sign that there was more untapped potential in his bat, potential that he’s beginning to tap into. To be more specific, between 2020-2021, he has a 68.9% zone swing and a 40.8% hard hit rate. There’s likely more going on here, but swinging more in the zone does increase your chances of making more contact. As the seasons winds down, I expect Candelario to continue to get on-base at a career best clip. He’s not the most fancy option available, but the improvements he’s made to his profile have transformed him into a more useful fantasy asset.
Kyle Freeland SP, Rockies (25% rostered)
As a starting pitcher, calling Coors home can be challenging. Kyle Freeland knows this personally, as he currently has a career 3.98 ERA away from Coors (314 ⅔ innings pitched) and a 4.36 ERA at Coors (309 ⅓ innings pitched). All in all, it’s rather unfortunate that Freeland ended up being selected 8th overall in the 2014 MLB draft by the Rockies. He would’ve likely been a more trustworthy fantasy asset with another organization, but Freeland is still capable of being a valuable asset when healthy.
He’s never had a strikeout rate higher than 22%, as he’s relied mainly on inducing ground balls at a high rate while also limiting hard contact using his solid command skills. And so far in 2021, all his skills have been on display after a rough start to the season. Since June 22nd (70 innings pitched), he has a 2.57 ERA (3.64 SIERA) and a 68/12 K/BB (24.8% K). The biggest difference? It seems like the average spin rate on almost all of his pitches have increased since 2020, and now this is resulting in him striking out more batters and his curveball inducing more whiffs (curveball has a career high 41.6% whiff rate).
In fact, for the first time in his career, his curveball has been his best strikeout pitch. If he can continue to utilize his slider effectively, he could now be armed with two solid breaking pitches along with a four-seamer that he can command. Given his increased spin rates, solid command, and experience, Freeland could be a vital part of your playoff run.
Ian Happ OF, Cubs (39% rostered)
It’s been a rough season for the 27-year-old. After his solid showings in 2019 and 2020, not many saw his struggles this season coming. Over 353 at-bats, he’s slashing a paltry .201/.302/.380 with 16 home runs and two stolen bases. He’s still not striking out as much as he did earlier in his career, but you could argue that this has been the most unproductive campaign of his MLB career.
Looking at his profile, it’s possible some of his struggles started prior to the beginning of the 2021 season. To be more specific, since the start of 2020, his ground ball rate has been gradually increasing and his average launch angle has been decreasing. When you hit ground balls at a high rate, it usually becomes more difficult to consistently hit extra base hits. Now, when these trends started, it appears another one started simultaneously: his production against off speed pitches took a huge hit. The below chart helps us visualize how he’s produced against off speed pitches as his career as progressed:
|Whiff Rate||xwOBA||Average EV|
As we can see, his production against off speed pitches has only gotten worse. Given the fact that these struggles began around when his aforementioned batted ball tendencies started to change, you can’t help but wonder whether or not there’s a correlation between the two trends. Fortunately for Happ, as of late, his ground ball rate has been decreasing, his launch angle increasing, and his production against off speed pitches has been on the rise. More than this, his overall production has been on the rise. Since August 10th (60 at-bats), he has a .317/.369/.650 slash line with five home runs. Trends are here to help us and while Happ has truly been inconsistent this season, it’s fair to bet on him finishing the season on a high note. Go grab him if you need some offensive assistance.
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Deep Points League Options
(Players rostered in under 10% of ESPN leagues)
Reynaldo Lopez SP/RP, White Sox (8% rostered)
Despite possessing a fun high-90s four-seam fastball/slider combo, Lopez hasn’t been much of a strikeout artist as a major leaguer. He was initially signed as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in June 2012 by the Nationals and was a part of the deal that saw Lucas Giolito become a member of the White Sox in December 2016. He performed at a satisfactory level as a minor leaguer and coming into this season, he had just a 10.5% K-BB over 87 career MLB starts (490 ⅔ innings pitched). He started 2021 as a relief pitcher and over 34 innings pitched, the 27-year-old righty has a career high 24.8% K-BB (30.6% strikeout rate). This is still a small sample size, but Lopez’s career high spin rates on his four-seamer and slider seem to be helping him.
Back in March, Lopez stated that, “With the new arm action, all my pitches are better...they’re going to have better action, more life, especially my fastball. I’ve been more consistent with it. But all my pitches are going to be better.’’ We’ve been seeing better arm action and more life on his pitches and at this point, how he finishes 2021 will be telling. He hasn’t used his changeup or curveball much this season, so it remains to be seen if he sticks to being primarily a fastball/slider guy going forward. Carlos Rodon has returned to the rotation, pushing Lopez back to the bullpen for now. However, it isn’t hard to imagine Lopez getting a couple more starts while continuing to work as a multi-inning reliever over the last few weeks of the season. His low rostership makes sense, but there’s reason to believe that Lopez is a different pitcher this season.
Corey Dickerson OF, Blue Jays (9% rostered)
It can be easy to forget, but Corey Dickerson has had a strong major league career up to this point. Over 3,180 career at-bats, he has a .283/.327/.490 slash line with 127 home runs and 27 stolen bases (53% steal rate). His plate discipline has always been acceptable and all in all, he’s had a career to be proud of. Sadly, since 2018, his durability has been an issue.
From shoulder injuries, to foot injuries, to groin injuries, Dickerson has dealt with numerous ailments over the last few seasons. With these injuries holding him back and the 2020 sample size limiting everyone’s opportunities, he hasn’t had over 300 at-bats in a season since 2018. His luck could change in the future, but him playing for four different organizations since 2018 is no coincidence. Regardless, he’s healthy now and has been receiving regular playing time in the outfield with George Springer sidelined.
Since returning from the injured list on August 3rd, he’s slashing .292/.333/.523 with three home runs, a stolen base, a 5.8% walk rate, and a 13.0% strikeout rate. His ability to barrel pitches has remained down -- capping his home run upside -- but he’s still been making a good amount of hard contact. We likely won’t see too many home runs down the stretch, but Dickerson will surely be a useful points league asset for as long as he’s healthy.