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Hitter Busts Who Will Keep Junking It Up - 2023 Fantasy Baseball Infielders

Javier Baez - Fantasy Baseball Rankings, Draft Sleepers, MLB Injury News

One bust of a season can be enough rationale for fantasy baseball owners to steer clear of a player going forward. For others, it can open the door for a buy-low opportunity with hopes of a bounce-back return to form.

However, it’s realistic for us to understand that many players never come back the same. A down year can be a fluke or it may be indicative of a concerning trend. Predicting the new normal players is a crucial part of the draft strategy, and identifying the sunk cost of a true bust when you see one is critical.

This article explores several infield players who busted in 2022 compared to their ADP and unfolds why their struggles are likely to continue. There may still be some fantasy value left to salvage but none of these players should be expected to perform at a pre-2022 level.

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Josh Donaldson, New York Yankees

It’s easy to fixate on the positives. Last season, Donaldson ranked above average with a 90.7 mph Average Exit Velocity, 43.3 HardHit%, and 9.8 Barrel %. He hits the ball hard. Those are encouraging optics until you understand how much those numbers slumped below Donaldson's career averages. In fact, 2022 resulted in many career lows for Donaldson, including a .215 xBA, .370 xSLG, 27.1 K%, and a .299 xwOBA. A major problem seems to be that he doesn’t hit the ball much at all, and an awful 33.2 Whiff % will back that up.

Plate discipline is a major indicator of Donaldson’s decline. He sported a respectable 9.9 BB% in 2022, which performed well below his 13.5% career average. He also posted a career-high 47.3 Swing %, 36.3 First Pitch Swing %, and a 29.3 Chase %, resulting in an underwhelming 94 OPS+. It’s become apparent that Donaldson is not reading pitches as well these days.

Furthermore, there’s no reason to believe Donaldson's job is secure this season. The Yankees are looking to win now and pressure from younger infielders like Oswald Cabrera and Anthony Volpe will likely put urgency on Donaldson to perform. If the struggles carry over into the regular season, he may be on a short leash before losing the starting gig altogether.

Back in 2018, Donaldson couldn’t shake the growing impression that his decline was in the works. He successfully fended off the nonbelievers with bounce-back performances in 2019 and 2021. However, following his worst season in 2022, it’s probably time to close the book on Josh Donaldson as a relevant fantasy baseball contributor. His plate discipline, power numbers, and job security are trending down in a fashion that is unlikely to rebound heading into his age-37 season.


Javier Baez, Detroit Tigers

Maybe it was simply a down year, but now Báez is on the wrong side of 30 and his legendary problems with plate discipline finally came to a head in 2022. Across 140 games, Javy hit just 17 home runs en route to a .238/.278/.393 slash line. Coming off the first of a six-year, $160 million deal, the level of concern feels heightened here.

Encouragingly, Báez’s 24.9 K%, while still abysmal, was the second-lowest mark of his career. That’s effectively the extent of positive takeaways from last year. Everything else was at or near career-worst production – 87.9 mph Average Exit Velocity, .230 xBA, .378 xSLG, .285 xwOBA, 4.4 BB %, 38 HardHit%, 8 Barrel %. Even his notorious 43.4 Chase % jumped up to a league-leading 47.5%, while his 67.9 Zone Swing % was the lowest of his career.

A major component of Báez’s struggles is a difference in approach from opposing pitchers. Most notably, he’s not seeing nearly as many fastballs as before. 2022 saw Javy’s rate of incoming fastballs drop to 44.8% (down from 53.6%) while breaking pitches spiked to a career-high 42.5%. The metrics illustrate how much worse his breaking ball production is compared to fastballs -- .215 xBA (.240 vs fastballs), .341 xSLG (.422), .253 xwOBA (.310), and 44.9 Whiff % (26.2%). In short, Báez can’t read the breaking ball well and pitchers know it.

The other identifiable problem for Báez is a harsh change of scenery. The offensive caliber of the Tigers is a massive dip from his time with the Mets and Cubs. This means pitchers aren’t incentivized to give him anything good to hit, which is only exacerbated by his willingness to swing at balls outside the strike zone. Playing in Detroit makes Báez improving from last season's underwhelming output even more of an uphill battle.

The good news for prospective Báez fantasy buyers is that he did so poorly last season that the market appears to have over-corrected heading into 2023. His 183 ADP is very approachable, and it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to draft him even a little earlier. It’s hard to imagine he performs any worse than he did last year, so there really is nowhere to go but up. That said, Báez’s problems with plate discipline aren’t going away and pitchers have seemingly figured him out. Don’t expect his numbers to approach pre-2022 production going forward.


Whit Merrifield, Toronto Blue Jays

As something of a late bloomer, we knew our time with Whit Merrifield was going to be limited. Across 2017-2021, his production was fantastic, becoming a perennial 200-hit threat who also led the league in stolen bases in three out of five years. What Whit lacked in power hitting upside, he more than made up for in other ways. That run came to an end in 2022, with Merrifield producing a dreadful .250/.298/.375 slash line across 139 games – all career-worst numbers.

Merrifield’s regression has been a long time coming. Pretty much everything in his batted ball profile suggests a mediocre hitter – 87.1 mph Average Exit Velocity, 31.1 HardHit%, 4.2 Barrel %, .288 xwOBA. The most surprising part is that those stats are not even down from Merrifield's career numbers. He’s never hit the ball hard with any consistency and his walk rate is annually below average. His expertise is putting the ball in play, though clearly, the quality of contact has declined, as evidenced by his .240 xBA (.269 career) and .356 xSLG (.410 career) last year.

Nonetheless, Merrifield’s appeal has always been his base-stealing ability, and that’s where his case gets more concerning. In short, he simply stopped stealing as much last year. He totaled 16 stolen bases in 21 attempts in 2022, down from 40 stolen bases in 44 attempts the year prior. Merrifield’s subpar OBP is partly to blame, though he only attempted to steal twice in 44 games after getting traded to Toronto, despite improved performance at the plate.

At age 33 (now 34), the stolen base regression was partially a natural occurrence. Still, the Blue Jays' strategy is not helping matters. As a team, they attempted just 0.63 base steals per game, ranking in the bottom third of the MLB – compared to the league’s fifth-most attempts (0.85/game) from Merrifield's previous team, the Kansas City Royals. It’s clear there is a difference in philosophy on the matter, and Merrifield is an unfortunate casualty of circumstance.

Whit Merrifield is not irrelevant for fantasy purposes, but it would be shocking to see him approach his pre-2022 production again. He will continue operating as a weak-contact hitter, but with diminishing stolen base opportunities and increasing age, his ceiling is limited. Merrifield’s 171 ADP feels at least a couple of rounds premature.

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