FACTS/FLUKES: Bellinger, Tanaka, Ahmed, Upton, Davies

Was Bellinger's breakout for real?... After a promising rookie season and a somewhat disappointing sophomore follow-up, Cody Bellinger (OF, LA) turned in a breakout, MVP season in 2019, making him a sought-after fantasy asset this spring. Can he do it again in 2020?

Year   PA   BA    xBA  bb%  ct%  HctX  GB/LD/FB   PX/xPX HR/F  Spd/SBO  HR/SB
====  ===  ====  ====  ===  ===  ====  ========  ======= ====  =======  =====
2016^ 477  .248   N/A   10   75   N/A     N/A    124/N/A  N/A   86/ 8%  23/ 7
2017  548  .267  .271   12   70   121  35/18/47  186/178  25%  128/11%  39/10
2018  632  .260  .250   11   73   108  40/20/40  128/129  15%  142/10%  25/14
2019  660  .305  .306   14   81   137  31/26/42  155/165  25%  119/11%  47/15
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19-1H 351  .346  .330   15   83   152  30/32/38  161/187  29%  133/12%  27/ 8
19-2H 309  .259  .280   14   78   121  33/19/47  148/139  21%  105/ 9%  20/ 7
^Double-A/Triple-A MLEs

For the most part, yes:

  • Bellinger broke out in 2019 thanks to three key developments: a career-high contact rate, a career-high line-drive rate, and a return to the elite hard contact and HR/F levels he owned in 2017. (Our own Greg Pyron detailed some of the changes Bellinger made to achieve this in a terrific F/F Spotlight article in July 2019.) Of those three skills, the ct% and LD% seem the most likely candidates for some regression in 2020, seeing as how both were well above his previously-established skill levels.
  • And in fact, both of those skills regressed in the second half of 2019, possibly as pitchers made adjustments against him. His power still held up quite well, but the impact on his batting average was noteworthy, as his xBA dropped 50 points. So while his overall xBA was .306, he's really only owned a .300+ xBA for three months; his .280 mark in the second half was much closer to his career xBA of .274. It might be wise to expect a sub-.300 BA from him in 2020.
  • His stolen base ability remains a nice addition to his overall value, and not only does he have the Speed skill to support, he has proven to be quite efficient during his time in the majors, going 39-for-48 (81.3%) over his three seasons. There's no reason to think he can't post double-digit steals again.

Bellinger is only 24, which adds even more optimism to his sky-high outlook. He's been a consistent first-rounder in drafts so far (5 ADP), and deservingly so—our current BaseballHQ projection for 2020 has him with an R$ of $34, and his 15-team projected value ranks fifth among batters, and eighth among all players. And our projection includes a .287 BA, which factors in some regression, and leaves room for potential upside. All in all, he's looking like one of the better big-ticket items for 2020.

 

For Tanaka, everything hinges on the splitter... Masahiro Tanaka (RHP, NYY) suffered through career lows in Dom, Cmd and xERA in 2019, as he posted one of the least valuable fantasy seasons of his career. He blamed the drop in strikeouts on changes to the baseball that negatively affected the grip on his signature pitch, his splitter, saying, "You grip the ball, and it feels a little bit different. And then when you’re throwing with that difference in hand, obviously the movement of the ball becomes a little bit different, too. It’s not giving you the vertical drop." What do his skills tell us?

Year   IP   ERA  xERA  Ctl  Dom  Cmd  GB/LD/FB  H%/S% HR/F xHR/F Ball%    SwK
====  ===  ====  ====  ===  ===  ===  ========  ===== ==== ===== =====  =====
2015  154  3.51  3.34  1.6  8.1  5.1  47/19/34  25/73  17%   18%   33%  11.7%
2016  200  3.07  3.69  1.6  7.4  4.6  48/21/31  28/76  12%   11%   33%  11.4%
2017  178  4.74  3.53  2.1  9.8  4.7  49/18/33  32/68  21%   18%   33%  15.5%
2018  156  3.75  3.44  2.0  9.2  4.5  47/20/33  29/74  18%   17%   33%  14.4%
2019  182  4.45  4.38  2.0  7.4  3.7  48/20/33  30/69  15%   15%   33%  11.1%

There are metrics that support his observations:

  • Tanaka's splitter has long been his best strikeout pitch, generating a 29.0% SwK rate with it in his MLB debut in 2014 (a season in which his Dom was was 9.3). His SwK rates with the pitch fell to 20.6% and 17.6% in 2015 and 2016, respectively, and his Dom rates fell accordingly. Perhaps not coincidentally, those were two seasons where he pitched through elbow inflammation and a forearm strain. His splitter bounced back to 23.8% and 23.0% in 2017 and 2018, and the strikeouts returned. In 2019, the SwK on his splitter cratered to 12.0%, and once again, the strikeouts went with it. It appears that Tanaka is right about what happened.
  • Losing effectiveness with his splitter had the biggest impact on his results vs. left-handed batters, who hit .285 with an .839 OPS against him in 2019. He posted a career-worst 6.7 Dom and 2.6 Cmd vs. LHB.
  • The good news is that the rest of his skills remained intact. His control remained elite, thanks to an astoundingly consistent Ball%, and his batted ball splits have been remarkably consistent as well.

If Tanaka can get his splitter back in 2020, whether through tinkering or changes to the baseball, there's reason to believe he can return to his previous skill level. But that's a huge unknown to face in drafts and auctions this spring, with nearly a run of difference in xERA hanging in the balance. Getting him at a price that reflects his 2019 performance is the key, as that would reduce the overall risk and leave room for the upside that would come with a bounce-back season.

 

Can Ahmed build off of career year?... Nick Ahmed (SS, ARI) enjoyed a career-best season in 2019, with new highs in BA, R, HR, RBI and SB, resulting in his first-ever double-digit R$. Is he a good bet to repeat the performance in 2020?

Year   PA   BA    xBA  bb%  ct%  HctX  GB/LD/FB   PX/xPX HR/F  Spd/SBO  HR/SB
====  ===  ====  ====  ===  ===  ====  ========  ======= ====  =======  =====
2015  459  .226  .242    6   81    77  46/17/37   82/ 78   7%  145/10%   9/ 4
2016  308  .218  .239    5   80    88  48/21/30   50/ 92   6%  111/11%   4/ 5
2017  178  .251  .261    6   77    99  48/20/32   96/ 91  15%  123/19%   6/ 3
2018  564  .234  .270    7   79   113  41/24/35  107/124  11%   97/ 8%  16/ 5
2019  625  .254  .272    8   80   104  48/20/32   95/ 99  13%  123/ 7%  19/ 8
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19-1H 332  .258  .266    7   79    92  49/20/31   88/ 75   9%  118/ 7%   7/ 5
19-2H 293  .248  .279   10   81   118  48/19/33  104/127  17%  128/ 8%  12/ 3

His skills offer reason to think he will be:

  • First and foremost, many of Ahmed's new counting stat highs in 2019 were aided by the highest plate appearance total of his career. His HctX, PX and xPX were down a little in 2019, but his xHR (19) and xHR/F (13%) marks were exact matches for his output, lending support to the idea that his power was not a fluke. His HctX, PX and xPX also rebounded to 2018 levels in the second half of 2019, with xHR (11) and xHR/F (16%) again supporting his output, suggesting that 20+ HR is a real possibility in 2020.
  • His .254 batting average could've been even better, according to xBA, which indicated the same thing about 2018. And his second-half power boost lifted his xBA to new heights—you can't pay for a level of BA he's never reached, but the potential for additional value in that category looks promising.
  • His career high in steals was definitely helped by his high PA total—he had a 10 SB pace going in 2016 and 2017—but it was also driven by a career-best .316 on-base percentage. His walk rate hit a new high in 2019, and really showed growth in the second half; if he can pair his BA upside with a higher walk rate in 2020, another new career-high OBP would be the result, and that could lead to his first season with double-digit steals.

Obviously these are a lot of "what if ..." possibilities with Ahmed; his draft/auction value should remain tied to his 2019 performance rather than what he might do in a best-case scenario. But if you're looking for reasons to go an extra buck or a round or two higher on him this spring, there's plenty of them to be found in his skills. It's enough to make him stand out among the mid-level options at shortstop for 2020.

 

Upton hopes to rebound from down year... Justin Upton (OF, LAA) suffered through the most injury-plagued campaign of his career in 2019, compiling just 256 plate appearances over 63 games. He had a platelet-rich plasma injection in his right knee just after the 2018 season, and the knee began hurting again in mid-winter, and cost him nearly all of spring training in 2019. Then a turf toe injury kept him out until June, and finally, he was shut down in mid-September for yet another PRP injection in his knee. What was the impact on his skills?

Year   PA   BA    xBA  bb%  ct%  HctX  GB/LD/FB   PX/xPX HR/F  Spd/SBO  HR/SB
====  ===  ====  ====  ===  ===  ====  ========  ======= ====  =======  =====
2015  619  .251  .240   11   71   108  39/17/44  140/131  15%  120/16%  26/19
2016  626  .246  .242    8   69   106  39/18/43  144/127  18%   90/10%  31/ 9
2017  631  .273  .263   12   68   112  37/20/44  176/151  21%   68/13%  35/14
2018  613  .257  .239   10   67   108  42/22/36  132/137  23%   96/ 7%  30/ 8
2019  256  .215  .211   13   64    92  38/16/46  120/114  18%   73/ 3%  12/ 1

About what you'd expect:

  • Upton posted the lowest contact rate and xBA of his career, and his hard contact rate was the lowest it has been since 2013. The contact loss raises more concerns, since his rate was already on the decline in the years prior to 2019, creating BA downside. A high PX helped him in 2017, but for the most part, he's been looking at a .240ish xBA lately, and that might be his likely rebound target.
  • His power held up better through the injuries, thanks in part to a restoration of his previously high fly ball rate after a sudden dip in 2018. If we assume his hard contact will rebound somewhat with health, there's a good chance his xPX and HR/F will look more like 2018.
  • The biggest impact of the injuries was on his running game, which disappeared in 2019. However, even prior to 2019, his Speed scores had been below average, and his SBO was in steady decline. And given his recent knee problems, it's unlikely he'll be getting back to double-digit steals in 2020.

Upton's long run of healthy seasons offers reason to hope he can stay in the lineup more often in 2020, and he has a reasonable shot at getting back to the 30 HR mark, but the batting average and stolen base problems that surfaced in 2019 have skill roots that pre-date the injuries. At 32, he's now best viewed mainly as a HR and RBI source, and a fantasy contributor unlikely to return to the $20 seasons he's put up in the past.

 

Davies carries sizable risk...  Zach Davies (RHP, SD) is coming off of the lowest ERA (3.55) of his career and as a new member of the San Diego Padres, will be pitching half of his games in one of the most pitcher-friendly stadiums in the league. Is he an arm worth targeting for 2020?

Year   IP   ERA  xERA  Ctl  Dom  Cmd  GB/LD/FB  H%/S% HR/F xHR/F Ball%    SwK
====  ===  ====  ====  ===  ===  ===  ========  ===== ==== ===== =====  =====
2016  163  3.97  3.99  2.1  7.4  3.6  45/22/33  31/72  12%   10%   36%   8.8%
2017  191  3.90  4.48  2.6  5.8  2.3  50/23/27  31/74  12%   11%   38%   7.8%
2018   66  4.77  4.28  2.9  6.7  2.3  48/22/30  30/66  13%   13%   38%   8.5%
2019  160  3.55  5.30  2.9  5.7  2.0  40/24/36  28/77  11%   13%   39%   7.4%

There are several red flags worth noting:

  • Davies' 2019 ERA got a big assist from low hit and HR/F rates, and a high strand rate. His xERA was more than a run-and-a-half higher, creating some serious potential downside and a high risk of someone overpaying of his services in 2020.
  • In addition, his Dom, Cmd and SwK all hit the lowest levels of his MLB career. And his previously dependable ground ball rate fell below league average in 2019, while his fly ball rate rose. All of this added to the xERA explosion.
  • And while his control has been consistently above average, his Ball% has not, creating risk that his skills could deteriorate even further. And while PETCO Park is very pitcher-friendly, the one area it is not is walks, where the three-year park factor is +9%.

At age 27, coming off what might seem like a career-best season and moving to San Diego, Davies seems destined to be overvalued heading into 2020. This is a skill set with far more downside risk than upside potential; if you're going to roster him, it would be advisable to do it on the cheap.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.