I’m doing something a little different this week by taking a look at some of 2019’s underachievers and trying to figure out what’s in store for them, both for the rest of this season and 2020.
Bryce Harper (OF Phillies): Harper doesn’t need to carry the Phillies on his back to justify his $330 million contract, but something more than a 116 OPS+ and a league-leading strikeout total was expected in year one. Harper has already set a career high with his 137 strikeouts, and he’s managed a relatively modest 22 homers despite moving to a ballpark that’s friendlier in that regard. His career OPS+ coming into this year was 139.
On a positive note, Harper has some of the best Statcast numbers of his career. His average exit velocity and barrel rate are both new highs for the five years that Statcast has covered. It’s making contact that’s been a problem; he’s chasing bad pitches early and often, especially from righties. Also, some of the balls he does hit hard are being lined for doubles instead of taken out of the yard. With 30 two-baggers to date, he seems assured of finishing a season with more doubles than homers for the first time since 2013. His average launch angle is a new low for him.
I was pretty optimistic about Harper in the August rankings, for which I caught some flack. I like the Statcast numbers overall, and I like that he’s been a whole lot more effective defensively than he was last year. Of course, the defense doesn’t matter for fantasy purposes, but it signals to me that his bat issues probably aren’t health related. It’s also kind of encouraging that he’s been so good in bigger situations; he’s hitting .170 and slugging .336 with none on this year, compared to .345 and .635 with men on and .381 and .660 with RISP. Surely some of that is a fluke, but from what I’ve seen, he isn’t chasing bad pitches nearly as often with men on. If he can have those at-bats with ribbies on the line, there’s no reason he can’t do it with the bases empty as well. I still think he’ll have a little tear before season’s end, but if that doesn’t happen, I’ll be all over him next year when he’s slipping into the 25-30 range in drafts.
Chris Sale (SP Red Sox): This seems like a pretty easy one: Sale’s velocity has undergone wild fluctuations, leading to incredibly inconsistent results. When it comes to velocity, most starters have around a two-mph spread of their best and worst days (judged by average four-seam fastball velocity). Sale came in at 89.1 mph on April 2 and 95.5 mph a mere two weeks later. Nothing since has been so extreme, but he’s still gone back and forth plenty. Some of this seems to be by choice; he’s throwing harder against strong offenses than weaker ones. Consequently, his results are often better on his lower velocity days.
Of course, velocity discussion is mostly focused on fastballs. However, Sale’s ups and downs have carried over to his slider and changeups, and those pitches don’t have quite the same movement when the velocity changes. Sale might get great results with an 80 mph slider one day, but then he has to adapt on the fly when he’s down a couple of mph the next time out.
Sale’s most consistent velocity stretch this year came from May 3-June 21. In 10 starts, he was never below 93 mph with his average fastball and peaked at 94.5 (against the Yankees and Astros). It’s no coincidence that he had a 2.34 ERA and a 41% strikeout rate during that run.
It seems likely that we’ll just have to live with the current version of Sale this year. It’s hard to say what to expect of his velocity next year. His velocity dipped in 2016 with his final year in Chicago, but he was still plenty effective and his fastball jumped back up in his first year with the Red Sox. This year, his current 93 mph average is down about 1.5 mph from last year. If he can stay there and be more consistent about it, I believe he’ll still be an elite pitcher. Still, there’s always the chance he’ll dip further next year, as is true with pretty much everyone. While there’s reason for concern, there are still only two or three pitchers who definitely seem like better bets for 2020.
Paul Goldschmidt (1B Cardinals): For a few weeks anyway, Paul was the Goldschmidt of old, hitting 11 homers in a 21-game span from July 5-30. Apart from that outburst, Goldschmidt has been a below average first baseman in his first season in St. Louis. He’s batting .262, which is 35 points below his career mark. His OBP has seen an even bigger drop, from .398 in his career to .340 right now.
The trends weren’t in Goldschmidt’s favor entering the season. His strikeout rate jumped to 25.1% last year after hovering in the 21-22% range most of his career. His OBP had already dipped three straight years. For fantasy anyway, it was discouraging that he had stopped doing much basestealing (32-for-37 in 2016, 18-for-23 in 2017, 7-for-11 in 2018). Also, he was going to a ballpark in St. Louis that suppressed right-handed power. Chase Field was no longer an outstanding offensive environment since the humidor had been introduced, but Busch Stadium was sure to be even more of a problem.
Still, even with things working against him, it was really surprising to see Goldschmidt sporting a .246/.336/.405 line after three months, especially since there was no further spike in his strikeout rate. However, that Goldschmidt wasn’t striking out was mostly a function of him being more aggressive earlier in counts. Instead of feeling like he could wait for his pitch, he became far more aggressive than usual. Goldschmidt is swinging at 47.2% of the pitches he sees, putting him right in the middle of the pack among major leaguers. Usually, he’s somewhere in the lowest 10-15 percent.
Home run barrage or no, it feels like Goldschmidt is truly in decline. He’s not getting around on fastballs like he used to, and that’s not an issue that figures to reverse itself in future years. Instead of being one of the game’s most well rounded hitters, he’s transitioning into a second career as a guy who sells out for homers. Fortunately, that’s a pretty good strategy at the moment and Goldschmidt should still project as a top-10 fantasy first baseman next year. But I won’t be expecting much of a rebound.
Khris Davis (DH Athletics): It’s still possible that Davis will heat up enough to finish with a .247 average for the fifth straight season – he’s at .228 right now – but with his power production so far down, it’s too late to totally salvage his campaign. After four straight 40-homer season, including a league-high 48 homers last year, Davis is stuck on 17 homers in 98 games this season. He’s also managed just eight doubles after finishing with 28 each of the previous two years.
A down season for Davis didn’t seem nearly as likely when he homered in five of his first seven games. However, he suffered a hip injury in a collision with the wall in left on May 5. He was only in the field because the A’s were playing in Pittsburgh; he’s been used exclusively as a DH in AL parks. He tried playing through it after a couple of days off, but he only made things worse. Eventually, he spent 10 days on the IL. He still hasn’t been himself at any point since returning. In his last 38 games, he’s hit just one homer.
Because his decline can be so clearly linked to an injury, Davis would seem to be a prime bounce-back candidate next year. However, it should be noted that Davis was a late bloomer and will be entering his age-32 campaign. He’s always thrived on hitting fastballs, especially sinking fastballs, and with his bat speed probably beginning to decline some, it’s unclear how he’ll adapt. Also, pitchers are throwing fewer sinkers these days, a trend that seems destined to continue.
I’ll most likely project Davis to get his 35+ homers next year, but barring some incredible turnaround down the stretch here, I don’t think I’ll put him down for close to a .247 average. I’ll probably be lower on him than most.
James Paxton (SP Yankees): Paxton has always had the stuff to be great, but while he’s had more luck in the health department as his career has progressed, the numbers have been disappointing the last two years. In 2017, he had a 2.98 ERA and a 2.61 FIP in 24 starts in Seattle. Last year, he had a 3.76 ERA and a 3.24 FIP in 28 starts. This year, he has a 4.40 ERA and a 4.37 FIP in 21 starts. His home run rate is up, of course, but so is his walk rate, and he’s giving up plenty of non-homer hits despite notching 137 strikeouts in 108 1/3 innings.
I remain confident that Paxton will rip off a Cy Young-quality season at some point, but to do it, he needs to trust his secondary stuff more. He’s one of the league’s most predictable pitchers when he’s behind in the count, and the league has been able to feast on him when it knows he’s not going to throw his curve. Left-handers are especially fortunate in that regard; he hardly ever uses his curve versus lefties, instead relying on his slider/cutter.
Paxton has probably had some bad luck this year. His .341 BABIP is 50 points higher than the Yankees’ mark as a whole and 40 points higher than where he finished the last two years. But, mostly, I think he just needs to become less predictable, which is something the Yankees might especially want to talk to Gary Sanchez about. I don’t want to put a ton of stock in it, but Paxton has a 78/15 K/BB ratio in 221 PA throwing to Austin Romine this year and a 52/25 K/BB ratio in 220 PA throwing to Sanchez. Even with Yankee Stadium and the AL East working against him, Paxton will still be a top-20 SP for me next year.
Daniel Murphy (1B Rockies): Expectations were that Murphy would contend for a batting title in Coors, if he could remain healthy. However, while he’s managed to stay on the field since returning from a fractured finger in late April, he’s hit just .285/.331/.466, which amounts to a 90 OPS+ in 355 plate appearances. He came in at 155, 136 and 108 the previous three years, with the 108 coming in an injury-plagued 2018 season in which he finished quite strong.
I expect the finger, which he hurt while making a diving stop in the second game of the regular season, has a fair amount to do with Murphy’s struggles. Murphy has never been a big exit velocity guy, but he’s in the bottom quarter of the league this year. Even when the count is in his favor, he seems to be going for singles instead of driving the ball. That’s especially the case in Coors Field with its huge gaps; Murphy is batting .344 at home this year, but he has just two homers in 157 at-bats. On the road, he’s hitting .231 with nine homers in 169 at-bats.
Murphy’s numbers have picked up some as the season has gone along, and it makes sense that the further removed he is from the finger injury, the better he’s getting. Unfortunately, his leg issues are less likely to go away, and even if he remains off the injured list next year, the Rockies are probably better off penciling him in for 120 starts than 150. He will be 35 after all. I can see him batting over .300 next year, but the power production probably won’t be there. His second base eligibility is leaving him, too, so he’s probably just going to be a fringe option in mixed leagues in 2020. I’d be fine with owning him for the rest of this season, though.