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Biggest Surprises in Two Weeks of Fantasy Baseball

We are now through two weeks of the MLB season, and it seems like things are finally starting to slow down. By now, we have a solid idea of where we have holes on our fantasy teams and where we should be set for the season. The biggest struggle is sorting through the data and separating which statistics are significant and which are just noise. There are plenty of early-season surprises such as the Pirates being above .500 and Victor Robles batting above .300. Are either of those surprises sustainable? In this article, I break down some of the biggest surprises from the first two weeks of the season and try to decipher what is real and what is not.

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Biggest Fantasy Baseball Surprises

Team Performance Surprises

Philadelphia Phillies

The reigning National League champs are off to an extremely slow start to the 2023 season. They were swept by the Rangers and lost two of three to the Yankees before finally showing some signs of life against the Reds. Injuries are playing a significant role here as the team is obviously without Harper and lost Rhys Hoskins for the season. Darick Hall is now out for a couple of months in addition to the losses of Ranger Suarez and Andrew Painter in the rotation.

One of the biggest issues has been the long ball. Known as a slugging team, the Phillies rank toward the bottom of the league in home runs hit and toward the top in strikeout rate. The other issue has been the bullpen. Viewed as a strength going into the year, they have had a huge issue with walks. They are surrendering walks at the highest rate of any bullpen.

The reason I am preaching patience with this team is the success of the lesser-known players. Everybody knows about Aaron Nola, Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner, and JT Realmuto. However, some of the most successful players early on for this team have been Matt Strahm, Bryson Stott, Alec Bohm, and Brandon Marsh. The stars are going to start performing and the long ball will come. The success of younger players is what makes this Phillies team so encouraging and one to be patient with in 2023.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Well, I cannot say I expected the Pirates to get off to such a hot start to the 2023 season. An important thing to look at is who the Pirates have beaten. Three of their wins come against the Red Sox while their other wins have come against the Reds and White Sox. None of those teams are projected to make the playoffs or be powerhouses for the 2023 season. The Pirates have benefited from an easy early season schedule, but at least they have made the most of it.

Mitch Keller and Johan Oviedo have been pleasant surprises in the rotation while Colin Holderman and Dauri Moreta have been strong coming out of the pen. The issue is Moreta is walking over seven batters per nine and Holderman is averaging just half a strikeout per nine. Johan Oviedo has a 6.32 FIP and there is a strong chance this pitching starts to fall apart as the season moves along. On the offensive side, the loss of Oneil Cruz is significant and will be a major blow to their offensive production. Bryan Reynolds has carried the team on his back so far and will need to continue to do so if Pittsburgh wants to keep winning.

I do not believe in their strong start and expect them to struggle more as the season moves along.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Are the Diamondbacks a real threat to make the playoffs? They had the pleasure of drawing two series against the Dodgers sandwiched around a series with San Diego to start the year. With that schedule, nobody would have blamed them for starting slow but instead, they took five of eight from the Dodgers and are proving that they belong in the same conversation with San Diego and Los Angeles.

Statistically speaking, Arizona is only doing one thing particularly well; that is, they are stealing bases at the highest rate in the league. We all knew that with Corbin Carroll, Jake McCarthy, Josh Rojas, and Alek Thomas that they would be one of the fastest teams in baseball. They are using this speed to help generate runs and are top ten in terms of team batting average. Small ball is the name of the game in Arizona, and it is propelling them to victory.

The issue is, they rank in the bottom half of baseball in almost every other major category. They are not hitting for power or pitching particularly well. I struggle to believe they are a playoff team with the state of their starting rotation. The lowest FIP in their starting rotation is 4.25 and they do not have the offensive firepower to win shootouts on a consistent basis. The early results are encouraging for organizational growth, but I am not expecting a playoff run in 2023.

Tampa Bay Rays

Only two teams have ever started the season 13-0. The Rays are trying their best to beat that record thanks to a dominant pitching staff. Led by Shane McClanahan, the rest of the rotation has been just as impressive. Zach Eflin looks to be a great pickup while Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen are picking up right where they left off in 2022.

The biggest surprise has been their offensive production. They lead the MLB in home runs and runs scored with the second-highest average in baseball. Wander Franco looks like an early MVP favorite and Rand Arozarena must have his calendar flipped permanently to October. They are getting solid production across the board and have the rare depth to be able to handle the injuries that arise during a 162-game season.

The Rays are a legitimate World Series contender. They have an excellent manager, an elite pitching staff, and a well-rounded offense. There is no reason to doubt them moving forward and they should only get better once Tyler Glasnow returns.

Pitching Performance Surprises

Kris Bubic

Talk about coming out of nowhere! Kris Bubic has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the first two weeks. Bubic has been in the Major Leagues since 2020 pitching to an ERA of 4.89 across 309 innings. He spent the off-season working with a third party to help develop his pitch mix since what he had clearly was not working at the Major League level. If you do not follow Lance Brozdowski on Twitter, then that needs to change. In this tweet below, he breaks down some of the changes Bubic has made to his arsenal this year:

More velocity, more extension, a new sweeper, with movement changes on both his changeup and fastball. That is a recipe for success and so far Bubic is seeing his hard work pay off. He has struck out 13 batters across his first two starts while surrendering just one walk. He has not been facing bottom-tier offenses either as he has managed to have success against both the Giants and Blue Jays.

I am fully buying into the Kris Bubic breakout. His results have not been fluky or luck driven but are instead a direct result of intentional changes made in the off-season. Bubic has a chance to be a difference-maker in fantasy baseball and should be added everywhere he is available.

Zac Gallen

So, full disclaimer I started writing this piece right before Gallen’s third start of the season. His first two starts were rough. The strikeouts were down, the walks were up, and Gallen looked like a shell of the player we saw during the second half of last season. Flash forward to Monday night and Gallen threw seven shutout innings with 11 strikeouts against a red-hot Milwaukee offense. I still decided to include him here to help decipher which version of Gallen we can expect moving forward.

Prior to his third start, Gallen was touched up for nine earned runs in just over 10 innings of work. Although the strikeouts were down, there was actually plenty to be encouraged about. Gallen’s four-seam fastball was dominant last year, but many believed he threw the pitch too frequently to be a true strikeout pitcher. Gallen’s first two starts of the season saw a deceased reliance on the fastball with an increased reliance on both the curveball and cutter. Despite his strikeout rate being down, his whiff rate was up and his new pitch mix indicated that he should actually be generating more strikeouts instead of fewer.

This trend became even more true during his third start where he threw his curveball 42% of the time. The pitch generated a 43% CSW and helped all three of Gallen’s other pitches play up. Even before his third start, PLV still believed Gallen had excellent stuff. His PLA was a sparkling 2.28 and the only issue was inconsistencies on his curveball. Gallen put to rest any concerns over his curveball in this third start and should be considered an ace moving forward.

Gallen was unfortunate to draw starts against the Padres and Dodgers to open the season. These are two of the best teams in baseball and Gallen had surrendered a .333 BABIP against them. Simply put, Gallen was getting unlucky during his first two starts. The third start is much more in line with what we should expect from him moving forward.

Kyle Freeland

Kyle Freeland busting onto the scene with 202 innings and a 2.85 ERA in 2018 feels like forever ago. Since that season, it has been a bumpy road filled with struggles and inconsistencies for Colorado’s lefty. However, Freeland has been excellent through his first three starts and there is a high chance he is sitting there on your waiver wire. Should you be picking him up?

The simple answer is no way. Through 18.2 innings, Freeland has struck out just 11 batters with a whiff rate of just 14.3%. Opposing batters are able to make contact on just about anything Freeland throws in the zone and Freeland embraces this. In 2023, he has significantly increased his sinker and slider usage while all but ditching the four-seamer and changeup. His early season success has come thanks to a .212 BABIP. A BABIP that low is not sustainable for any pitcher let alone one that pitches half of his games in Coors Field. Pitchers do not have to have elite strikeout stuff in order to be fantasy relevant, but the floor is significantly lower for those that do not strike anybody out.

Kudos to Freeland for understanding that his best route to success is allowing batters to put the ball in play. This however is not a good recipe for fantasy managers especially when it comes with a reliance on Coors Field. The BABIP will come up and I expect Freeland’s success to be short-lived.

Hitting Performance Surprises

Brian Anderson

Brian Anderson is somebody that has always been viewed as unspectacularly solid. He has never posted a wRC+ below 90 or above 120. Anderson is consistently right around average. He played the first six seasons of his career in Miami which contributes to his underrated value. Nobody really thought twice about him signing with the Brewers, but maybe we should have. Through the first two weeks of the season, Anderson has been incredible for the Brewers. He has a wRC+ of 167 and looks completely healthy after injuries severely impacted his 2021 and 2022 seasons. From 2021-2022, Anderson hit .233 with a slugging percentage of just .359. Should we buy into this early-season breakout?

Anderson is a career .257 hitter who is slashing well over .300 early on this year. This large of an increase would have to be driven by significant changes to be sustainable. Right now, looking at his profile there is not much that looks different. He is hitting balls with a similar launch angle and actually has a line drive rate under 10%. Despite this, his BABIP is up around .368. He has an xBA of .236 and believing his batting average will stay above .300 would be a mistake.

So, what about the power? He is currently slugging over .600 which is a dramatic improvement from the previous two seasons. His power outbreak is being fueled by an incredible albeit unsustainable barrel rate. He is barreling up balls over 30% of the time early on. Anderson has always shown an above-average ability to barrel up baseballs but we cannot expect this rate to remain so high. Looking at his other power metrics, exit velocity is right around his career average and Anderson is pulling less balls than he has previously. Pulling fly balls is an easy way to see your HR/FB% increase. Anderson’s HR/FB% is up above 30, but he is pulling less of his fly balls than ever before. Anderson is hitting more fly balls, but his launch angle has remained in line with previous years.

I think that Anderson has a chance to see a small power breakout thanks to his barrel rate and a more hitter-friendly ballpark in Milwaukee than Miami. Expecting him to continue this current level of success though is unrealistic. Anderson profiles as more of a fifth outfielder than a fantasy star this season. If you can sell high on the current helium, I would recommend doing so.

Trevor Larnach

The Twins’ first-round pick from 2018 was ignored by the fantasy baseball community entering the 2023 season. After uninspiring performances during his first two big league stints, there was little reason to believe a breakout was coming. Through the first two weeks of the season, Larnach has looked like a different player. He is batting over .300 and has been a popular pick-up off the waiver wire. Is this fast start for real?

One of the biggest issues to plague Larnach early in his career has been strikeouts. In both Major League stints, Larnach struck out over 30% of the time leading to poor batting averages. Through the first two weeks of the season, this has not changed. Larnach is still whiffing over 38% of the time resulting in a high strikeout rate. What is even more concerning is the pitch mix he is seeing. As you can see in the picture below, pitchers are just simply not throwing Larnach fastballs. They are daring him to hit breaking balls which he whiffs over 50% of the time on.

Trevor Larnach image

If anything, his quality of contact looks worse than it has in years past. His barrel rate is way down, as are his exit velocity and pull percentage. The difference fueling his success? A .480 BABIP. Larnach has the ability to run high BABIPs thanks to a swing path designed to hit line drives. However, .480 is unsustainable even for him. As the BABIP comes down so will his batting average and there is little reason to bank on a power outbreak. Sell high on Larnach if you can because his early season success appears unsustainable.

Nolan Gorman

Lost in the shuffle of St. Louis’s roster crunch was Nolan Gorman. Flashback to last season and Gorman was one of the most sought-after prospects in baseball. He was a slugging middle infielder with a strong track record of success in the Minor Leagues. After being called up last season, he did not have quite the level of success many had hoped for. A big-time strikeout problem led to a subpar batting average causing many to write him off for this season. However, through the first two weeks of the year, Gorman has been one of the biggest surprises in baseball. He is on the strong side of a platoon and has three home runs with a 199 wRC+ so far.

The power in Gorman’s profile has always been undeniable. He has a knack for barreling up baseballs and a swing path designed to launch balls out of the park. This season he is pulling the ball more, making this breakout even more believable. There is 30+ home run potential here.

The issue throughout his career has been the strikeouts. In his Major League debut last year, he posted whiff and chase rates north of 30%. While the whiff rate is still above 30% this year, Gorman’s chase rate is way lower. Gorman is demonstrating an improved ability to lay off pitches out of the zone allowing him to see more pitches he can do damage on. By lowering his strikeout rate and improving his walk percentage, Gorman has created a stable fantasy floor for managers to rely on.

This Gorman breakout is legit. Although he might not hit .321 for the entire season, a .250 batting average, double-digit walk rate, and 30 home runs are realistic possibilities. Being able to plug that production into your second base or middle infield spot is incredible. He will continue to sit against most lefties, but that is fine as long as he continues to produce at this level when he is in the lineup.

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