SPECULATOR: Spring training tea leaves, 2020

Here at BaseballHQ, we warn against putting too much stock into spring training numbers. The samples are small, the Arizona air is thin, and the competition is uneven—veterans are tinkering with new pitches, minor leaguers and split squads are commonplace, etc. But if we were to take a "what if"-type gander at the early returns, the Speculator space (note our disclaimer at the end!) is the perfect place to do so.

At this point, we have a few weeks of spring ball under our belts, and while we don't dive too deep into the stats themselves, we'll look to extract value from all areas of the player pool: from the potential changes to the ball to early stat leaders, velocity readings, and injuries that could open up spots for under-the-radar types. Should we speculate on these spring takeaways in our drafts? You be the judge. (Stats through games of March 8).

THE BALL

We'll preface this with an important note: we don't know if the spring training ball = regular reason ball, and we won't know until a couple of weeks into the season what we're dealing with. However, a few pitchers have noticed an improved grip on the seams this spring, most famously highlighted in an interview with PHI pitcher Zach Eflin:

“I think it’s awesome,” he said. “To me, they feel a little softer and you can definitely notice the seams a little more. Last year, it was like throwing a cue ball.”

Last week in this space, we pegged Masahiro Tanaka (RHP, NYY) as a recency bias rebound target, mostly because he lost feel for his once-elite splitter thanks to the seams on the 2019 ball. This week, we'll hit on others who lost effectiveness on their secondary pitches last year, as they could rebound if the spring training ball carries into April:

The man himself: Zach Eflin (RHP, PHI). Eflin's change-up racked up whiffs (18% SwK) and ground balls (59% GB%) in a 2018 season that saw him post sneaky-good peripherals, but those skills eroded last year as he was sent to the bullpen in July. Eflin is back in PHI's rotation after a strong September; he's a decent bet for mid-rotation production from the endgame if he regains confidence in the change-up as a primary out pitch.

Collin McHugh's (RHP, BOS) curveball was a dominant offering in 2018 (23% SwK, 56% GB%), but he completely lost feel for it last season (7% SwK), throwing it only 8% of the time. He'll likely start the season on the IL (elbow), but BOS was confident enough in McHugh to sign him to a one-year deal, and he could be back as early as mid-April. McHugh could be a free boon if 2018's magic (4.5 Cmd, 14% SwK, 153 BPV as a reliever) translates to the 2020 rotation.

A surprise entry in the 2020 Santana Plan—Part 2, as someone whose ADP "should be about a hundred picks lower", Ryan Yarbrough (LHP, TAM) could get a boost from a grippier ball. His curveball went from elite in 2018 (21% SwK, 11% usage) to just average (13% SwK, 13% usage) last season. Even without the effective curveball, Yarbrough's 2019 skills led us to an "UP: sub-3.50 ERA" in the 2020 Baseball Forecaster. In a pitching-savvy TAM organization, that's more in play than ever if he regains feel for the deuce.

Other notable pitches with a dip in effectiveness last year: Trevor Bauer's (RHP, CIN) cutter (21% SwK in 2018 to 14% in 2019), Kenta Maeda's (RHP, MIN) change-up (27% to 19%), Noah Syndergaard's (RHP, NYM) slider (25% to 18%), and Chris Archer's (RHP, PIT) change-up (19% to 12%).


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Velocity readings

Take these with a major grain of salt—we don't know how hot certain guns are, we don't know who's going max effort and who's not, etc.—but three pitchers are still worth noting:

A steady drop in velocity the past few seasons (93.6 mph in 2016 to 92.0 last year) has kept early drafters away from Kenley Jansen (RHP, LA). The once-bulletproof closer has a 124 ADP, and after an offseason trip to Driveline Baseball—a renowned player development program—Jansen has been throwing 92-94 mph with his famous cutter this spring. The results: 10 strikeouts, 0 walks, 1 ER through 5 innings. Jansen had three straight "Vintage Eck" seasons (200+ BPV) with that type of velocity from 2015-17, so if the spring gains hold, Jansen has an easy path to once again be one of the game's best closers.

This is normally the time of year when Zack Greinke (RHP, HOU) is barely touching the upper-80s with his fastball and drafters start to get worried. Just the opposite this season, as Greinke is flashing his highest spring velocity in years, hitting 90-91 mph in his early starts. In true Greinke fashion, he credits the added zip to working out less this offseason. Our Greinke projection (3.24 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, $28 in 15-team mixed leagues) is rosier than most, but if the velocity holds for another year, he's a great bet to hit, or even exceed, our lofty expectations.

Jordan Montgomery (LHP, NYY) is coming off two straight lost seasons (Tommy John surgery; shoulder), but is now a shoo-in for NYY's rotation thanks to injuries to Luis Severino and James Paxton. Montgomery, whose fastball consistently sat in the low-90s from 2017-18, is shaking off the rust with a heater sitting 93-95 mph and an 11/1 K/BB through seven innings this spring. Our projected 3.49 ERA for the 27-year-old would play just fine at his 450+ ADP.

Injuries

An unfortunate run of injuries for Mitch Haniger has opened up a spot for Jake Fraley (OF, SEA) in left field. Fraley was one of our "what if" full-timers back in early February, and has been leading off for a SEA team interested to see where he fits in their future. The 24-year-old posted an impressive line across Double-A and Triple-A (.298 BA, 19 HR, 22 SB), has considerable power/speed upside, a full-time gig, and is readily available late in drafts.

In our recency bias hitters column two weeks ago, we mentioned Miguel Andujar (3B, NYY) as a major rebound target "should NYY run into even a fraction of the injury luck they had last year". Well, that's happening again. With Aaron Judge (ribs) and Giancarlo Stanton (calf) likely IL-bound to start the year, it's time for Clint Frazier (OF, NYY) and Mike Tauchman (OF, NYY) to step in.

Frazier's lack of defense and interview gaffes were well documented last year, but GM Brian Cashman has held on to him, so perhaps there's still hope. Frazier was a Top 20 prospect on our 2017 HQ100 and posted a reasonable blend of BA/power skills (.243 xBA, 132 PX) over 225 AB in 2019. He's 6-for-17 this spring with some excellent plate numbers (7/1 BB/K), so Frazier's certainly not playing himself out of an Opening Day gig.

Tauchman doesn't have the pedigree of Frazier, but he put up more impressive skills in 2019 (0.48 Eye, .272 xBA, 129 PX) and projects for more playing time. His 400+ ADP will likely shoot up in late drafts, but our .267 BA, 21 HR, 11 SB projection over just 402 AB says he's worth taking a shot anyway.

Stat Leaders

Home runs: The HR leaderboard is rather sparse—only four hitters (Orlando Arcia, Nolan Arenado, Paul DeJong, and Cody Thomas) have more than three HR—so we'll cherry-pick Lewis Brinson (OF, MIA), who has three through 25 AB. Better yet, Brinson also has 10 hits and just two strikeouts in that span. One of the main pieces in MIA's return for Christian Yelich two years ago (gulp), Brinson was our #14 prospect on the 2018 HQ100 and has been stuck on the 10-step prospect path to stardom for years now. The market has given up on this toolsy 9C prospect (689 ADP), but if Brinson can cut down on the Ks, this could all click rather quickly.

Stolen bases: Monte Harrison (OF, MIA) has been active on the basepaths this spring, going 5-for-6 with 8 hits and 4 walks in 26 plate appearances. Another piece in the infamous Yelich trade (gulp again), Harrison's 20/20 upside led us to an "8D" prospect rating in our MIA Org Report. The strikeout woes are a concern—he posted a 66% ct% in 215 AB at AAA-New Orleans last season—but his intriguing power/speed combo on a team with nothing to lose puts an age-24 breakout in Harrison's wide range of outcomes.

Strikeouts: A bunch of names jumbled together near the top, but a couple quick ones worth sharing:

Jesus Luzardo (LHP, OAK) leads all pitchers with 13 strikeouts (one walk) this spring, putting the 22-year-old 9B prospect on stable ground for a spot in OAK's rotation. Luzardo's starting to rise up draft boards with a 110 ADP over the past week (125 throughout draft season) and will be on some sort of innings limit, so you'll have to pay up for a partial season of potentially dominant production.

Justus Sheffield (LHP, SEA) is shining through three appearances (12/0 K/BB, 2 ER in 8 IP), all but locking up a spot in SEA's rotation. Though he posted a 5.50 ERA in seven MLB starts last season, Sheffield's 13% SwK and 52% GB% put him on a recent SP Buyers Guide, where Stephen Nickrand tabbed him with "intriguing post-hype appeal". Sheffield's a deep league/AL-only stab with a 425+ ADP, but he's one with skills and momentum as Opening Day approaches.

 

The Speculator is not designed to make definitive assertions about the future; rather, it is designed solely to open reader's eyes to possibilities they may not have previously entertained, and in doing so, provide a different perspective on the future. Many of the possibilities will be of the "out on a limb" variety. All are founded on SOME element of fact. But none should be considered any more than 20% percentage plays.


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