KEEPERS: Postmortem—2017 takeaways, part I

With another fantasy season in the books, it's never too early for keeper and dynasty league owners to take stock and reflect on some of the general trends that impacted 2017—and that could provide benchmarks for 2018 preparations. Arizona Fall League news / performances along with the offseason's free agent / trade activity (that seems to be commencing earlier each year) will divert our attention soon enough. But for now, let's consider what just happened and the instruction it might offer. This week, we'll take a snapshot of the offensive landscape; next week we'll cover the pitchers.

 

HRs dominated MLB scoring.  ​MLB hitters set a single-season HR high of 6,104, besting the previous high of 5,693 set during the steroid era in 2000, and heading up for the third consecutive year. Runs-per-game were up by almost 4% over 2016, which pales next to a 7+% HR jump (1.26 HR per game/team, over 1.16 in 2016). Combined with record-setting MLB strikeouts, the runs mark speaks to the long-ball-fueled scoring in 2017. In terms perhaps more relatable to fantasy owners and even the average fan, a record 117 MLB players finished with 20 HR more, while 41 players blasted at least 30 HR. Whereas once a 200+ HR season would MLB elite powerhouse offenses, the average AL team finished with 211 HR, DH-less NL teams with 196. 

We can point to plenty of reasons for this, some that change at least slightly from player to player and some that apply across the board, including a sudden dearth of reliable quality pitching. Some of the slugging onslaught was fueled by improved health, as in the case of Giancarlo Stanton (OF, MIA), whose ability to avoid injury and the DL for the first time in seemingly forever resulted in a career-high 600 AB and 58 HR. One-time prospect-with-pedigree Justin Smoak (1B, TOR) fueled an unexpected late-age (30) breakout, seemingly via improved contact and an unanticipated surge vL.

Plate-mechanics and swing-path / launch angle changes from Yonder Alonso (1B, SEA) fueled a career-high 28 HR (over a previous mark of 9) and a 135/124 PX/xPX mark. Apart from some H% and hr/f fortune, a 10% bb%—up from 4% in 2015 and 2016—and a 4% uptick in FB% suggest that Marwin Gonzalez (U, HOU) BPIs made a concerted effort to wait on his pitch and drive the ball, resulting in his first 20+ HR season.

Obviously some splashy first-year names will make pitchers adjust in 2018, and these rookies will need to show that they weren't flukes. And some observers are convinced that the baseball is livelier than in previous seasons, as a spike in pitcher blister issues at least offering anecdotal evidence that something may have changed. But the bottom line is that in general, many hitters are consciously trying to hit more HR, and succeeding.

Strategic responses: Obviously fantasy teams will have to adjust their thinking on the number of HR necessary for a fantasy championship. But even if your team fell short on power of in 2017, it will be plentiful next year (particularly if you have pitching to trade), suggesting that in most cases you shouldn't have to overpay. 

​It might be worth paying a bit more attention to some of the noise coming out of MLB camps in February and March. For instance, Alonso's efforts were chronicled in advance and in detail by both local and national news and analytics sites. Josh Donaldson (3B, TOR)—during his 2H 2012 breakthrough—and with J.D. Martinez (OF, ARI)—from the spring of 2014—have similar narratives. Neither ever produced a 20-HR year in the minors, nor were projected to be All-Star MLB sluggers—and both had plate approach changes that were well-publicized before their breakouts. 

And finally stay vigilant on teams that attempt to reduce their HR dependency, something that could fuel at least a few trades and free agent signings this winter and produce some interesting playing time opportunities. Even with power trend, all-fields, shift-neutral hitters will remain sought-after commodities.

 

Rookie sluggers came up big.  Almost unsurprisingly in this type of season, the AL and NL ROYs slugged 91 HR between them. And as noted above, they both have a lot to prove. But Aaron Judge (OF, NYY) and Cody Bellinger (1B/OF, LA) were emblematic of a rookie crop—including legit prospects like Josh Bell, Andrew Benintendi, Ian Happ and Yuli Gurriel along with unexpected names like Paul DeJong, Rhys Hoskins, Trey Mancini and Matt Olson—for whom slugging was a unifying calling card. Of the aforementioned names, only Hoskins—who blasted 18 HR in 170 AB following an August call-up—failed to crack the 20-HR mark.  

Obviously these things run in cycles, and we're can't anticipate more Judge/Bellinger-type performances immediately in 2018. But major leaguer hitters aren't the only ones making adjustments and utilizing new technologies—and we do expect to see additional power bubble up from the minors in 2018.

Strategic responses: ​Sluggers like Eloy Jimenez and Willie Calhoun that are expected to emerge in 2018 or soon thereafter are already off the board in most leagues. But fantasy owners should look beyond these top names to unearth high-minor-leaguers who may be onto something. For example, though previously noted more for their plate skills than power, both Collin Moran and Tyler White produced career-highs in HR and hinted at some MLB carryover in very small samples. Another HOU prospect, A.J. Reed, belted 21 long-balls at AAA-Fresno during July and August on his way to finishing as the minor league's overall HR leader. Yeah, these names look blocked for now (the Astros organization is obviously loaded), but they're being used anecdotally here to the larger point—and their particular situations could change over the winter.

 

Running games continues to stagnate. ​ Along with historically mediocre BAs, stolen base totals continued to languish at modern-day lows, making zero gains over 2016. MLB clubs averaged just .52 SB per game, the lowest mark since 1973. The SB success rate has inched up only marginally in each of the past two seasons, giving us little reason to expect any notable change in 2018.

Obviously for owners in leagues that count steals, prevailing conditions continue to create wide disparities between Billy Hamilton / Dee Gordon owners and the rest of the field. They also continue to inject value into otherwise mediocre offensive performers like Cameron Maybin and Delino DeShields, and even part-timers like Ben Revere.

Strategic responses: ​Same old, same old. Do not underestimate the 10-12 stolen bases contributed by the plus offensive names on your roster or your league's free agent list, and be willing to take flyers on SB-only providers if their owners undervalue that contribution. Disappointing Jonathan Villar could be one of these, particularly after his drop-off from 2016. His speed (23/8 SB/CS), age (26) and versatility (despite sub-par defense) in the right situation could still offer value in our game.

As you scour the minors for SB sources, obviously defense should be a factor, particularly in skill positions where it could produce playing time. The 2017 HR outburst suggests that now more than ever centerfield is one of these—and that more MLB clubs may resort to prioritizing speed and defense as a neutralizer, particularly given the current scarcity of healthy and dependable pitching. Even with his career .258 BA, no power and continued misery vL, free agent Jarrod Dyson's 300+ AB and 30 SB / double-digit earning value will likely remain intact until further notice.

 


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