Welcome back to the 3 Things We Learned Series for the 2022 MLB season! This weekly piece will look at the trends, patterns, and interesting statistical touchpoints of the MLB season in order to help you make actionable fantasy decisions.
Baseball fans love their stats. We devour them, dissect them, and build our fantasy rosters around them. Each week of the 2022 baseball season, we will be gifted with another statistical sample size of pitches, plate appearances, and playing time. Knowing it often takes hundreds or even thousands of pitches or batted-ball events for trends to normalize, how should fantasy managers adjust to the ebbs and flows of weekly player performance?
Each week during this season, this piece will look at trends that have emerged over the past week and determine if it is signal or noise moving forward. What is prescriptive in helping build winning fantasy teams and what can be ignored as small sample size noise? Hopefully, we can make sense of what has just happened to help us make smarter roster and free agent budget decisions.
Let's take a look at some of the data from the fourth scoring period of the 2022 MLB fantasy baseball season.
The Changeup Is the New Pitch Du Jour
Much digital ink has been spilled on the great demise of the fastball and how its usage is the lowest on record. As batters work more and more toward a launch-angle batting stroke, pitchers are adapting and counterstriking by throwing pitches that are harder to hit and have more movement.
But if fastballs are becoming rarer and rarer, what pitches are being thrown in their place? Certainly much has been written about the prevalence of the slider in today's game. And the new "sweeper" pitch has come front and center in the baseball lexicon in 2022. But some pitchers are finding tremendous success because of a different pitch: the changeup.
Here is the last nine years of MLB pitch usage for fastballs, sliders, and changeups, with velocity for changeups included.
The usage of the changeup has increased slightly over the last nine seasons, but the velocity of the pitch tells an incredible story. While slider velocity in 2014 (84.0 mph) is largely unchanged from 2022, changeups have gotten faster by almost two full miles per hour over that same span. In this era of a new dead ball that is already suppressing offense, a pitch coming that looks like and spins like a fastball only to fool the hitter at the last moment is allowing some unheralded pitchers to have profound success because of their mastery of the pitch.
The top 30 pitchers with highest usage of changeups this year reads like a who's who of late-round or undrafted pitchers who are off to great starts: Merrill Kelly, Tylor Megill, Kyle Wright, Daniel Lynch, and Joe Ryan.
Another name on the list with a wicked changeup is Patrick Sandoval. After two meh seasons to start his career in 2019 and 2020, Sandoval showed signs of life in 2021 with a 3.55 ERA and 9.72 strikeouts per nine (K/9). Now he is using his changeup on almost 25% of his pitches and has a 0.00 ERA with 12.0 K/9 through his first three starts. Sustainable? Certainly not. But he is one of many fantasy pitchers who might reach a new level of success this year because they have mastery over 2022's mostly lethal pitch.
Daniel Lynch, the Latest Post-Hype Pitcher to Succeed
For former top prospect Daniel Lynch, his 15-game debut in 2021 was nothing like what he -- or the Royals -- had hoped for. After his final start on September 29th, Lynch had accumulated just 68 innings pitched in those 15 starts with a 5.69 ERA and 7.28 K/9.
After Lynch blew through the minor leagues since he was drafted in the first round in 2018, the inconsistency had to be maddening for him and those who rostered him in fantasy. His season looked like an inverted bell curve of fantasy points. He allowed 15 runs in his first three starts, then allowed no more than one run in five of seven starts and wrapped it up with 21 runs given up over his final five games.
But after an abysmal first start to the season that surely had everyone thinking "here we go again," Lynch has settled down and has allowed just three runs over his next three starts. Those games were against the New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, and Minnesota Twins -- not exactly the easiest matchups you can find. What has led to this quick turnaround, and is it sustainable for our fantasy teams?
The biggest change that jumps out when you look at Lynch in 2022 compared to 2021 is the massive jump in first strike percentage (FS%). In 2021, Lynch's 55.6% FS% ranked 155th out of 164 starters with at least 60 innings pitched. This year, that number is 63.6%, tied for 30th among all starters in the early season.
For many of the reasons we just learned above, Lynch is using his elite changeup and slider more. He has limited the number of fastballs he throws and essentially eliminated the curveball and sinker from his arsenal (only 4% of his pitches thrown this year). His changeup and slider generate an abnormally large amount of swinging strikes. Here is the data from the past two years, courtesy of Baseball Savant.
|Season||Pitch||% Usage||Velocity||Whiff Rate|
|2022||4-Seam Fastball||41.6%||93.8 mph||20.3%|
|2021||4-Seam Fastball||40.5%||93.8 mph||12.2%|
With the increased usage of the changeup and slider, Lynch is using more of the pitches that have the largest swing-and-miss rate in his arsenal. In fact, FanGraphs ranks Lynch's slider as the 12th-best in baseball this year. Assuming Lynch keeps up this type of pitch mix, there is no reason to think he can't match the hype many attached to his name when he was drafted four years ago.
Add Max Kepler
Max Kepler (30% rostered in Yahoo Leagues) - Max Kepler is one of the rare players who has seemingly had two breakout years since his debut.
His rookie season in 2016 was a revelation as he blasted 17 home runs and stole six bases in just 113 games. As a rookie, he posted just a 20% strikeout rate and walked slightly more than 9% of the time. The .235 batting average was disappointing but still acceptable for a rookie. Then in 2019, he had what many considered his next-level breakout. In just 134 games that year, he hit 36 homers, drove in 90 runs, scored 98 runs, and stole 10 bases. His .252 average and .519 slugging percentage were career-high marks, and fantasy analysts were quick to anoint the 26-year-old as one of the next stud outfielders.
Then 2020 happened, and Kepler didn't build on the 2019 success. And then in 2021, Kepler lost 30 games due to a bout with COVID and a strained left hamstring. Over those two years, Kepler gave back much of the gains from the breakout 2019 season, which led many to wonder what would happen this season -- causing his ADP to fall to close to pick 300 in drafts.
But in 2022, with an even better batting eye than he had before and a hard-hit approach that is giving Kepler the best Statcast numbers of his career, Kepler has climbed the ranks of the best hitters over the last two weeks.
Over the past eight days, Kepler is a top-10 rotisserie bat, as he hit .421 with four home runs and eight RBI. In 2022, his walk rate (12.8%) and strikeout rate (15.4%) are the best they have ever been, and his .245 BABIP shows he has actually been a bit unlucky at the plate.
Kepler has never been a high-average guy. His average always seems to fall in the .220s to .240s. But this year, he is at .258 with an expected batting average of .306, according to Fangraphs. For the Statcast data, it's also been a very impressive first few weeks. His barrel rate (11.1%) and hard-hit rate (42.6%) are both career highs, and he has dropped his whiff rate to 23% (from 30% three years ago).
As Ron Shandler always says, "once you display a skill, you own it." Kepler has shown us flashes before across various seasons. But there are signs this year that he is putting it all together, and this could be a very special campaign for the Minnesota outfielder.