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 fifth scoring period of the 2022 fantasy baseball season.
Manuel Margot is Back in Our Lives
Manuel Margot has been one of the more transfixing and tantalizing fantasy assets since his entrance into the league in 2016. After a full rookie season at age 22 when he slashed .263/.313.409 with 13 home runs and 17 stolen bases in just 126 games, we thought we had a full-blown five-category stud on our hands. He didn't (and still doesn't) strike out, the walks are always around eight percent, but then something strange happened on the way to fantasy superstardom -- the dreaded inconsistency came.
In 2018, despite bumping up to 141 games, he dropped to just 8 homers, 11 steals, a .245 average, and an on-base percentage under .300. What has followed is a series of up-and-down years and a trade to Tampa Bay, which are notorious for mixing and matching lineups and handedness matchups. But primarily due to the lack of viable outfield options on the Rays this year, Margot has played 12 of the last 14 games for Tampa Bay, batting anywhere between first and seventh in the lineup. With 24 games total this year, Margot is not throwing away his shot, slashing an incredible .353/.391/.494 with 3 homers, 3 steals, and 20 RBI already.
What is this attributed to and is it sustainable? The conversation must start with playing time. With Josh Lowe crashing and burning in this year's audition with the big club, there are no true outfield bench players left for the Rays. Harold Ramirez can play the outfield when needed, but this looks like it will be Margot plus Randy Arozarena, Kevin Kiermaier, and Brett Phillips splitting the DH and outfield slots for the foreseeable future.
Margot has career highs this season in barrel rate, launch angle, hard-hit percentage, and expected slugging percentage. This is mostly due to a 92% zone contact percentage (highest in any full season of his career) and a 31.9% outside-zone swing rate, his lowest since 2019. His .353 BABIP is high for this run environment, but Margot has several years where that number was above .300 since his speed helps him generate hits where others can not.
This is the age-27 season for Margot, so this may be a full-on breakout with the playing time to support it. Margot is the fifth-most valuable player in rotisserie formats over the last two weeks and is somehow only 32% rostered in Yahoo leagues.
Go make a claim for him right now.
Eric Lauer Is Evolving Into an Ace
Speaking of players who have shifted to elite status over the past two weeks, Eric Lauer's numbers over the past few weeks are eye-popping. Since April 24, he has had 32 strikeouts in 19.1 innings with two wins and an ERA under 1.50. Plus, he's posted a WHIP under 1.00. Much has been written dissecting Lauer's surge into the upper echelon of fantasy arms, but 17% of managers in Yahoo leagues still have not made the leap. Who is right?
Those who are hesitant that this unforeseen start for Lauer is for real, or it's merely a mirage that is destined to dry up as we get closer to the numbers?
The major thing that jumps out in 2022 is Lauer's pitch mix compared to years past. His slider usage this season is at 21.6% -- almost double what it was in 2021 according to Baseball Savant. That pitch, combined with a new-and-improved four-seam fastball, is simply baffling hitters right now. Here are the performances of those two pitches between last season and his first five starts this year.
|Year||Pitch Type||MPH||BA||xBA||SLG||xSLG||wOBA||xwOBA||Spin Rate||Whiff%||Put Away%|
You can see that every single number on this chart improved for both pitches between 2021 and 2022. The velocity on the fastball is a big part of the story, but the fact that he is using the devastating slider so much this season also adds some context.
We do still have the first two starts from Lauer this year where he allowed runs in 10.1 innings and struck out 10 batters. Was that extended Spring Training for him, or do we think that he has found a new level? While we likely won't see many 11- or 13-strikeout games this year, I'm buying into this new pitch mix for Lauer and think it is for real.
Josh Winder's Promotion Isn't Getting Enough Love
While many other rookie pitchers are getting tremendous amounts of hype, the two-start debut for Josh Winder has flown somewhat under the radar despite him being a top-100 prospect overall and a top-five prospect within the Twins' organization. His two starts have produced 15 strikeouts in 12 innings, two wins, a 0.00 ERA, and a 0.50 WHIP. That's good enough to be a top-five pitcher in the last two weeks of rotisserie play.
Is this the next Johan Santana or Bert Blyleven, or should we temper our expectations for the 25-year-old rookie?
Winder is not thought of as a wipeout strikeout pitcher, so the strikeouts per nine may come down. What he is known for is impeccable control which gave him three out of four minor league stops with a BB/9 rate of 1.65 or below. His pitch velocities so far look elite. His fastball is averaging 95 miles per hour while the slider (84.7) and changeup (89.4) are both well above league average. The changeup especially is a dangerous weapon as it registers a full four miles per hour higher than the league average. It looks like a fastball but gives up its speed at the last moment. So far, that pitch has generated a 45.5% swing and miss rate at the major league level.
The question that also must be asked is, "will he keep a rotation spot." The easy answer is, "of course he will if he keeps pitching like this." But, we know no rookie is going to end the year with an ERA of 0.00 and a WHIP of 0.50. When the regression comes, can he stick with the big club?
With Dylan Bundy and now Bailey Ober all out for varying lengths of time, and Sonny Gray just coming back from injury, it looks like Winder might have a slot for weeks to come. The way I see it, Winder's competition is Chris Archer. When Bundy comes back from the COVID-IL, who deserves the last slot? I have full faith Winder can win that battle.