Each season, a bunch of players produce way above or below expectations, and we spend the entire winter arguing over whether or not the improvement or decline was genuine. Separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to last year’s performances can be the difference between a championship season and bitter, abject failure for your fantasy team. After all, if you ain't first, you're last.
Throughout the month, I've looked at last season’s surprises, be they breakout or bust, and offered my thoughts on each player’s fantasy outlook for this year. Today, we'll finish the series with players whose disappointing 2016 campaigns were a sign of things to come.
Editor's note: Be sure to also check out our 2017 fantasy baseball rankings dashboard. It's already loaded up with tons of great rankings articles and draft analysis. Aside from our tiered staff rankings for every position, we also go deep on MLB prospect rankings, impact rookies for 2017, and dynasty/keeper rankings as well. Bookmark the page, and win your drafts.
Busts Again in 2017
Jacoby Ellsbury, New York Yankees
Eric Temple Bell once said, “Time and baseball make fools of us all.” I’m paraphrasing there, but you get the gist. Anyway, that quote applies both to Ellsbury’s like-clockwork, age-related decline and why it’s nice, as a fantasy analyst, to be able to say, “I told you so,” every once in a while. Ellsbury was being drafted in the top 100 on average last season, despite my best efforts.
While Ellsbury managed to log a full season of plate appearances, he wasn’t especially productive. After averaging 44 steals per 600 PA in his first eight seasons, Ellsbury has swiped only 41 bags total the last two years. During that time, he’s also hit only .261. He hasn’t scored more than 71 runs since 2013. His current ADP of 250 might be a slight overcorrection, but entering his age-34 season with a lengthy injury history, Ellsbury isn’t likely to outperform it by a sizable margin.
Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs
Heyward has had a fairly weird career. He broke into the majors back in 2010. Just 20 years old with 200 plate appearances above High-A to his name, Heyward hit .277/.393/.456 with 18 homers and 11 stolen bases. It was tough to find anyone who didn’t believe he’d be a superstar. After a sophomore slump, he bounced back with what still stands as the best season of his career in 2012 – 27 homers, 21 steals, and elite defense in right field. He got his face broken by a pitch the following year, but was coming off back-to-back seasons with at least 10 HR and 20 SB when he signed with the Cubs last winter.
2016 ended with his first championship ring, but otherwise, it couldn’t have gone much worse for Heyward. He provided his usual fantastic glovework, but at the plate he was an unmitigated disaster. Rather than rattle off his numbers, I will simply point out that he was a worse hitter than Jose Iglesias, Freddy Galvis, and Avisail Garcia.
Heyward is still just 27. We’ve seen him bounce back from a terrible season once already, and the Cubs will again have a star-studded lineup. But anyone who watched him play this year – particularly in the postseason, when “Heyward pops it up” became Joe Buck’s most uttered phrase – may have a hard time trusting him. Dude just looked broken at the plate. His swing mechanics have been referred to as “high maintenance” and that was on full display.
The crazy thing is, Heyward’s peripherals barely budged. He made a lot of soft contact, but he always has. He hit a lot of infield flies, but not that many more than usual. His spray chart doesn’t look terribly different. He did lose a few ticks off his average exit velocity from 2015, but otherwise the numbers just don’t seem to add up.
At the end of the day, though, we’re talking about a guy who has only ever once hit more than 14 home runs, only once hit above .280, only once scored or driven more than 85 runs, and never stolen more than 25 bases. A rebound may be coming, but Heyward’s never been the fantasy stud we hoped for.
Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
You might see Wainwright as the No. 62 pitcher off the board and think he’s a potential bargain. After all, he has a long history of being an excellent pitcher. One bad year shouldn’t drop him into Matt Shoemaker territory, right?
Not so fast. Wainwright is 35 years old, with Tommy John and ACL surgeries on his record in this decade. Over the last three seasons, he’s run a 7.16 K/9 and 13.3 K-BB%. He posted his worst walk rate in a decade and his highest Hard% and home run rate ever.
Even at his most effective, Wainwright has never been a high-strikeout pitcher. He hasn’t needed to be to succeed previously, but if you can’t count on him for the elite ratios of yesteryear, it makes him a middling fantasy asset. If you want to bet on a return to form, the price certainly justifies that. Just don’t overlook all the red flags that suggest a pitcher on the decline.
Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros
Keuchel was highly sought after in fantasy drafts last year, as reigning Cy Young winners tend to be. Everything went wrong in 2016, though. He suffered the twin killing of a rise in BABIP and a drop in strand rate, while simultaneously striking out fewer batters and allowing more walks, homers, and hard contact.
Early on the season, Keuchel was getting fewer calls on the edges of the strike zone and fewer hitters were chasing pitches off the plate. His end of year metrics didn’t end up too far afield from previous years, but as a command/control pitcher, Keuchel has a lower margin for error. He also can’t really afford to lose over a full tick on his average velocity. Hopefully that was a symptom of the shoulder injury and not an ongoing concern.
Even during his Cy Young season, Keuchel was susceptible to the long ball. If his velocity loss sticks, that problem becomes magnified. Given his limited strikeout upside, Keuchel doesn’t seem like the best rebound candidate.