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Cal Raleigh: Champ or Chump for Fantasy Baseball?

fantasy baseball prospects MLB prospects rookies call-ups

Did you know that catcher Cal Raleigh has hit 25 homers for the Seattle Mariners this season? Drafted in the third round of the 2018 amateur draft, Raleigh once had some prospect pedigree but saw it fade when his MiLB numbers weren't special. He made his big league debut in 2021 and hit .180/.223/.309 with two homers in 148 PAs, a performance that didn't garner much fantasy interest even in the wasteland that is the catcher position.

Nobody had any idea who Raleigh was in April, but his 25 HR have been worth rostering even if his .207/.283/.482 line is a bit lopsided. Raleigh is likely to be a polarizing name in next year's drafts for that reason, but it says here that 2023 will be even better for the 25-year-old catcher than 2022 was.

Raleigh is also rostered in just 28% of Yahoo! leagues as of writing, so if you need a bit more pop to put the finishing touches on your fantasy season you might want to check your waiver wire (provided his thumb injury isn't too serious). Let's take a closer look at what Raleigh brings to the table:

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Cal Raleigh's Underappreciated MiLB Work

Most fantasy managers look for eye-popping numbers on the farm when evaluating minor league talent and Raleigh never really did that. His breakout season occurred in 2019 when he hit .261/.336/.535 with 22 HR in 348 PAs for High-A (Modesto). His 17.6% HR/FB suggested solid raw pop but nothing fantasy managers have never seen before, and his plate discipline looked good with a 9.5 BB% and 19.8 K%. If anything, his .267 BABIP suggested possible upside in a larger sample size.

The performance earned Raleigh a ticket to Double-A (Arkansas) but his performance cratered to .228/.296/.414 with seven homers in 159 PAs. His 8.8 BB% was comparable to his work at the previous level, but his K% spiked to 29.6 while his HR/FB fell to 14%. His .286 BABIP didn't increase by anywhere near enough to save his season, leaving a bitter aftertaste to a campaign that started so promisingly.

Raleigh didn't get into any game action in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Mariners decided to start him at Triple-A (Tacoma) in 2021. He did very well, slashing .324/.377/.608 with nine homers in 199 PAs with great plate discipline (7 BB%, 12.6 K%) and an above-average .327 BABIP for the first time in his career. His HR/FB declined to 12.3, but his performance was good enough to earn a shot at the Show. Unfortunately, it went poorly as noted above.

Raleigh put together some nice MiLB statistics but performed poorly when challenged by a higher level each time, meaning that fantasy managers never had an offseason of prospect hype to learn his name. His MiLB numbers were also hampered by some of the most pitcher-friendly environments in the minor leagues.

Modesto is where offense goes to die, with a 54 HR factor and 97 hits factor from 2017-2019. Arkansas is somehow a worse place for hitters with a 50 HR factor and 83 hits factor in that time frame. Tacoma is the fairest of the bunch but is still solidly pitcher-friendly with a 90 HR factor and 88 hits factor. Raleigh likely would've hit more homers with better HR/FB rates in a fair environment, making him more of a fantasy prospect given his position.


Digging into the 2022 Season of Cal Raleigh

Looking at Raleigh's season numbers begs two questions. First, is the power legit? Second, is there any hope for his batting average?

The answer to the first question is a definitive yes. Raleigh has very strong Statcast contact quality numbers with an average airborne exit velocity of 95.3 mph (40th in MLB among qualified hitters) and 15.3% rate of Brls/BBE (12th), making his 18.7% HR/FB feel sustainable. Raleigh also pulls 29.1% of his flies, allowing the switch-hitter to take full advantage of the shorter distances to the power alleys.

Better yet, Raleigh understands the benefits of elevating the baseball. His 55.4 FB% is firmly in Joey Gallo territory, giving him plenty of opportunity to take advantage of his raw power. His minor league history suggests that he'll keep hitting tons of fly balls as well. He posted a 51.9 FB% at Modesto, 51.5% at Arkansas, 47.4% at Tacoma, and 45.5% in his first taste of big league action. All of the elements are here for a big power guy for years to come.

All of those fly balls hurt his BABIP long-term, but there are three reasons to expect that his batting average could improve a little. First, Raleigh's LD% is due for positive regression. His current 15.7% rate is far below the league average of around 21% and requires an extremely long sample to become predictive. Raleigh managed an 18.2% rate last year and eclipsed 20% at both Double-A and Triple-A, so more liners should contribute to a higher average next season.

Second, Raleigh is the definition of shift bait with a 74.3 Pull% on grounders against an Oppo% of 4.3. He has only 21 ABs all season without the shift, preventing him from taking full advantage of his 86.3 mph average exit velocity on grounders. Rob Manfred has decided to give a boost to pull hitters in an effort to create more Tony Gwynns for some reason, so more of those grounders are likely to find holes in 2023.

Finally, his plate discipline is trending in the right direction. While not great, his 15.2 SwStr% is a substantial improvement over last year's mark of 19.5%. Similarly, Raleigh's Z-Contact% increased from 74.3 to 79.5. Raleigh has also improved his batting eye with a 35.8% chase rate down from 46.7 the year before. Raleigh's plate discipline was generally solid in the minors, so there's real hope for future improvement too.


What Does the Future Hold for Cal Raleigh?

Raleigh probably won't ever hit for a high average due to the swing-and-miss and extreme flyball tendency in his profile, but he should be able to get into the .220-.230 range with enough walks to post an OBP north of .300. Combine that with 30+ homers a season and catcher eligibility, and he should be a fantasy asset for years to come. He's a Champ both this year and in 2023.

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