Champ or Chump: Edinson Volquez & Justin Smoak

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Fantasy owners frequently limit their knowledge of the MLB player pool to only those who may be interesting from a fantasy perspective. Guys who stay in the majors without producing fantasy-relevant stats are generally assumed to have retired until we see them in a game. At that point, we say, "Player X is still active!?"

Prior to this season, both Edinson Volquez and Justin Smoak fit in this category. Volquez was once an interesting arm, but he was a replacement-level performer for years before his recent no-hitter thrust him back into the spotlight. Smoak was well-hyped as a prospect, but never produced significant value for fantasy owners until this year. Does the fantasy community care about these guys now?

Ownership rates provided are from Yahoo leagues.

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The Fantasy Jury is Out

Edinson Volquez (SP, MIA) 35% Owned

Volquez started this year 0-7, but has won his last three starts with a no-hitter in the middle. His 3.41 ERA is reasonable, and the underlying 3.98 FIP is acceptable. As the ERA-FIP discrepancy would indicate, "luck" metrics suggest a little regression for Volquez. His current BABIP against of .278 is a little south of his .299 career mark, but Miami's above average defense (11 Defensive Runs Saved as a team) could support it. His HR/FB of 11.1% is right on his career mark. His strand rate is slightly elevated (76.8% vs. 71.3% career), but an uptick in strikeouts could justify it.

Volquez has a K% of 22.8% this season, a dramatic improvement over last year's mark of 16.3%. While the latter number made Volquez completely unrosterable in fantasy, his new rate is around the league average. It looks real too, as Volquez's changeup (17.8% whiff rate, 45.7% chase rate) is a legitimate wipeout pitch. He's throwing a few more fastballs (11.5% to 18.9%) at the expense of his knucklecurve (24.7% to 17.1%), but neither offering is of interest to fantasy owners. The K-Curve's 7% whiff rate, 31.5% chase rate, and 41.6% Zone% are all mediocre or worse, while the heater's only virtue is being a strike more often than not (52.9% Zone%).

Volquez also features a sinker, but its 48.5% Zone% (51.7% career) is the biggest reason why Volquez's walks are up (8.9% BB% up to 12.3% this). Volquez's arsenal is too limited to be a fantasy force, so he should be used only in favorable situations. Thankfully, his division includes three weak teams (Mets, Braves, Phillies) you would want to use him against, making him more consistent than the average streamer. The parks in Philadelphia and Atlanta both favor hitters, but Volquez's low FB% (30.5% this year, 31.5% career) should help him do well in both locations.

If you have a slot you use for streaming pitchers, Volquez could be a reasonable option to fill it for a week or two. He lacks the upside to justify holding, but any kind of fantasy utility is an improvement for him. He gets a Champ tag as long as you deploy him intelligently.

Verdict: Champ

Justin Smoak (1B, TOR) 74% Owned

Smoak has been crushing baseballs to the tune of .291/.356/.593 with 17 big flies in 222 PAs. For comparison, he hit .217/.314/.391 with 14 dingers in 341 PAs all of last season. The outburst is kind of coming out of nowhere, leaving many owners confused whether they should trust it or not.

It looks fairly sustainable. Smoak has replaced last season's atrocious 32.8% K% with a much more manageable 18% rate. His underlying SwStr% is 8.5% (12.7% last year), with most of the improvement coming on pitches inside the strike zone (career-best Z-Contact% of 92.6%, career 86.6%). Smoak has always offered an above average batting eye (28.8% chase rate), so Smoak's newfound contact ability should produce favorable strikeout rates moving forward.

The additional balls in play should help Smoak. His current BABIP of .285 is 21 points better than his career mark (.264), but his individual marks by batted ball type do not point to anything outside of the ordinary. His LD% of 23.6% may seem inflated at first glance, but would actually represent Smoak's worst mark since joining Toronto three years ago. His line drives are even underperforming (.676) relative to their career average (.702). Smoak is also pulling far fewer of his ground balls (51.7%) than he used to (65.7% career), allowing him to handle the shift (.278 batting average).

Finally, we get to Smoak's power game. His FB% has held steady at 40.4%, giving him plenty of opportunities to homer. His HR/FB has spiked significantly (17.7% last year to 26.2% this), but his 25.4% rate in 2015 suggests that last year, not this, may have been the outlier. Smoak is also pulling more of his fly balls (20.3% last season vs. 24.6% this), making it easier to hit one out. His average airborne exit velocity has held steady (94.5 mph against 94.6 last season), but his launch angle has improved dramatically (14.3% Brls/BBE vs. 11.8% last year). Overall, Smoak looks like a worthy slugger for any fantasy roster.

The Rogers Centre is great for power hitters and Smoak generally hits fourth or fifth, so he should be able to compile plenty of RBIs to go with his pop and strong batting average. He needs to be owned in over 90% of leagues, so scoop him up if he's available. If somebody else beat you to the wire, let his current owner "sell high." Chances are you can acquire him for a fraction of his value.

Verdict: Champ

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