Roughly a month into the regular season, it’s rarely a good idea to start jumping to conclusions. Yet many fantasy managers with teams off to slow starts are already out on the edge of the diving board contemplating a full-on cannonball into the still chilly waters.
One thing we do know (and likely should have expected): Pitchers are ahead of the hitters.
Strikeout rates are once again on a record pace, with 24.6% of all plate appearances ending with a K in the score book.
We’ve already seen nine-inning no-hitters from Joe Musgrove and Carlos Rodon, plus another seven-inning no-no from Madison Bumgarner. The leaguewide batting average at the beginning of the week was a lowly .232. That’s five percentage points lower than the worst full season in history – the .237 mark in 1968 that led to MLB lowering the height of the pitcher’s mound the following season.
San Diego Padres starting pitcher Joe Musgrove gestures to fans after pitching a no-hitter against the Texas Rangers in a baseball game Friday, April 9, 2021, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez) (Photo: The Associated Press)
Speaking of not hitting, who had the New York Yankees as the team with the lowest slugging percentage in the majors after the first 21 games? General manager Brian Cashman even had to hold a news conference to state for the record he wasn’t panicking and skipper Aaron Boone wasn’t on the hot seat.
If you have multiple players on your fantasy team scuffling offensively, you’re not alone. Unlike last year’s abbreviated 60-game season, there’s still plenty of time to overcome a dreadful start. For inspiration, just look at the Oakland Athletics: They lost seven of their first eight games but then reeled off 13 consecutive wins to take over first place in the AL West. A similar turnaround could happen in fantasy leagues just as quickly.
Most of the complaining about fantasy teams so far in 2021 is on the hitting side. Even if their teams are lagging in the pitching categories, fantasy managers generally seem to be happy with the results.
Despite some horrible outings by starters and several injuries to closers, there’s always someone else ready to step in and assume the role. Conversely, a top slugger who’s in the lineup every day is much harder to replace.
And the list of injuries to top players has been overwhelmingly hitter-heavy in the early going. Just last week, each of the top five hitters in this year’s drafts (according to the NFBC's average draft position data) had some sort of injury concern.
Ronald Acuña Jr. (ADP: 1) missed two games with an abdominal strain.
Fernando Tatis Jr. (ADP: 2) hit the injured list with a slight labrum tear in his shoulder.
Juan Soto (ADP: 3) went on the IL with a shoulder strain.
Mookie Betts (ADP: 4) missed a game after being hit by a pitch on his forearm.
Mike Trout (ADP: 6) did not have an official at-bat during a four-game weekend series in Houston after getting hit on the elbow.
In addition, Christian Yelich (ADP: 11) and Cody Bellinger (ADP: 15) also went on the IL with back and leg injuries. That’s seven of the top 11 overall hitters.
While none of these injuries may turn out to be anything serious, losing a five-category first-round pick for any length of time would be disastrous to their fantasy teams.
Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom, left, struck out a career-high 15 batters in an April 23 blanking of the Nationals that lowered his ERA to 0.31. (Photo: Wendell Cruz, USA TODAY Sports)
Meanwhile, the top pitchers in this year’s drafts are all off to sizzling starts. Jacob deGrom (ADP: 5) is sporting a 0.31 ERA and is fantasy’s top-ranked pitcher. Gerrit Cole (ADP: 7) has a 1.71 ERA and is third among pitchers. Shane Bieber (ADP: 9) leads the majors with 57 strikeouts and ranks seventh at the position. And Trevor Bauer (ADP: 14) has three wins, a 0.56 WHIP and ranks fourth.
It seems like ancient history when hitters were considered a far safer first-round option because pitchers were so much more susceptible to injury. The early returns also seem to validate what was perhaps this spring’s hottest draft trend, the “pocket aces” strategy of taking back-to-back starting pitchers in the first two rounds.
It worked especially well for draft slots in the back half of the first round, where a possible Bieber-Bauer combination looks especially dominant right now. Even getting one of those top starters to pair with Yu Darvish (ADP: 16), Aaron Nola (ADP: 22) or Max Scherzer (ADP: 26) in the second round has been extremely beneficial.
While pitchers may be ruling the Roto roost right now, that doesn’t necessarily mean their dominance will continue.
The Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton leads the majors in hard-hit percentage, according to FanGraphs, at 66.0%. However, his .186 batting average and .414 slugging percentage (through Sunday's games) are far below where his underlying metrics say he should be – .244 average, .516 slugging.
Teammate Aaron Judge is also among the top 10 in hard-hit rate but hitting just .246 and slugging .449. His expected stats: a .331 average and .580 slugging percentage.
Other early-season underachievers include Jorge Soler, Avasail Garcia, Willy Adames, Alec Bohm, Gregory Polanco, Tommy Pham, Dansby Swanson, Joey Votto and Kyle Tucker.
And Rafael Devers of the Boston Red Sox is off to a perfectly respectable start, hitting .269 with six homers and slugging .559. But with the majors’ highest barrel rate in the early going (25.4%), his expected slugging percentage is a ridiculous .819.
April is notoriously difficult for some hitters, but it does seem like it’s taking a little longer this season for the bats to thaw. There could also be another contributing factor to pitchers having the upper hand.
The new baseball.
We’ll need a lot more data in hand before jumping to any conclusions here, but MLB did reveal it was making slight changes to the structure of the ball in 2021.
Eno Sarris of The Athletic found earlier this season that the average fly ball distance in April was down compared to previous years on batted balls with an exit velocity between 95-100 mph and a launch angle of 20-25 degrees. Updating his results through this weekend’s games, this year’s average distance of 342 feet on those fly balls was lower than it’s been in any April going back to 2015 when Statcast data first became available.
However, April’s barrel rate (8.5%) is the highest we’ve seen in the Statcast era. Batters are hitting the ball harder but aren’t necessarily seeing a corresponding jump in results. It’s entirely possible that things will start to even out as warmer weather arrives.
But if you’re worried about your hitters’ slow starts, perhaps a shallow dive below the surface stats is all that’s needed to calm your fears.
Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner
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