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 rest of this month, I’ll be taking a look at last season’s surprises, be they breakout or bust, and offering my thoughts on each player’s fantasy outlook for this year. Having covered last year's breakouts yesterday, it's time for last season's disappointments. Today, we'll talk about players who should rebound in 2017.
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.
2017 Bounceback Candidates
Carlos Correa, Houston Astros
After a sensational debut that garnered him Rookie of the Year honors in 2015, Correa was drafted in the first round in many fantasy leagues. While his sophomore season was by no means bad, it didn’t live up to the hype he’d generated. Despite logging 228 more plate appearances, Correa failed to improve upon his HR or SB totals and had slightly worse run production on a per-game basis. It’s important to keep a few items in mind, however.
First, Correa didn’t even turn 22 until the end of the season. The fact that his .274-76-20-96-13 line qualified as a disappointment speaks volumes about his talent. Most guys are still trying to figure out Double-A at that age. Second, Correa managed that level of production despite playing through injuries to his ankle and shoulder. Third, despite the results, some of his underlying metrics suggested improvement. Correa bumped his walk rate up by a few points, made hard contact at a higher rate, and hit fewer infield flies.
Add to the above that the Astros are likely to feature a better lineup than a year ago, and it’s no surprise that fantasy owners are doubling down on Correa in 2017.
Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates
McCutchen had the worst season of his career in 2016, though he remained useful to fantasy owners, hitting .256/.336/.430 with 24 homers, 160 R+RBI, and six stolen bases. Of course, there’s a yawning chasm between “useful” and “justifying a first-round draft pick.” After averaging a .313-96-25-90-19 line over the previous four years, Cutch seemed like one of the safest bets in baseball. So what happened?
We know that McCutchen dealt with a nagging thumb ailment, and there were reports (albeit unconfirmed) that McCutchen was playing through wrist issues for much of the year. Taken in tandem with his strong finish, it’s easy to construct a narrative that 2016 was an aberration thanks to injuries, and McCutchen should resume being one of the best hitters in the game. After all, he only turned 30 last month, and it’s incredibly rare to see a player like Cutch decline this suddenly. Case closed, right?
Would that it were so simple. McCutchen also looked much slower than usual for most of last season, which we can’t blame on hand injuries. Perhaps his knee issues from 2015 flared up again. Either way, his stolen base total has dropped every year since 2013, as has his batting average. It’s been a steady and precipitous drop since 2014 for his slugging percentage, hard contact rate, and BABIP.
McCutchen should definitely be better in 2017. However, assuming he’ll be back to business as usual seems a bridge too far. Most likely, he’s a good player rather than an elite one at this stage.
Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays
Archer was a mess for most of the first half of last season. Despite maintaining a gaudy strikeout rate, struggles with command led to inflated walk, home run, and hard contact rates. Drafted as an ace in most formats, Archer entered the break with a 4-12 record and hideous ratios (4.66 ERA, 1.44 WHIP).
Fortunately for fantasy owners who showed patience or bought low, Archer was spectacular down the stretch. After the break, he posted a 3.25 ERA and 1.01 WHIP, thanks largely to chopping his walk rate in half and allowing big flies at a much more reasonable rate. As a result, his overall peripherals wound up not too far afield from the previous year even if the surface stats (9-19, 4.02 ERA) were still a bit rough.
According to Hit Tracker, nine of the 30 homers Archer allowed in 2016 were classified as either “just enough” or “lucky,” and his 16.2 HR/FB% was over five points higher than his career mark entering the season. While we can’t just write off his early struggles, Archer’s performance down the stretch and his previous track record of success should be encouraging to fantasy owners.