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Champ or Chump: Nate Pearson

The MLB season is finally underway, and a lot of what fantasy owners "knew" before the first pitch has already fallen apart. Juan Soto has tested positive for COVID-19, leaving both the Nationals and a lot of fantasy rosters without a superstar talent for the foreseeable future. Clayton Kershaw was scratched from his Opening Day start, while both Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer were credited with rain-aided complete games while Mike Soroka started his season with a QS. So much for pitchers not being ready!

That said, the most interesting developments to this author have been the Toronto Blue Jays and their quest to play anywhere but Buffalo. All of their plans fell apart though, so most of their home games will reportedly take place in their Triple-A affiliate's home park. Buffalo's Sahlen Field does not have major-league amenities, so it's easy to understand why Toronto's players might be bummed out. The park also has a very pitcher-friendly reputation, hurting players like Bo Bichette and Vladito in fantasy.

Of course, those same pitcher-friendly tendencies make Blue Jay pitching more attractive for our purposes. Both Hyun Jin Ryu and Tanner Roark now project as plus fantasy arms, while Trent Thornton and Matt Shoemaker offer intriguing upside. The show-stealer, however, looks to be Nate Pearson. The soon-to-be 24-year-old has been clocked as high as 104 mph, with excellent strikeout rates and low ERAs in the minors. He also ranks as the eighth-ranked prospect in the game per MLB Pipeline, giving him the type of prospect pedigree fantasy owners love. Is he worth a significant FAAB bid?

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An Outstanding 2019

Let's start by examining how Pearson fared in the High Minors last season. He pitched primarily for Double-A (New Hampshire), posting a 2.59 ERA and 3.12 xFIP in 62 2/3 IP with a 28.3 K% and 8.6 BB%. He was definitely a fly ball pitcher with a FB% of 44.4%, but his 6% HR/FB meant that the long ball was not a problem. He also induced a ton of pop-ups (26.9 IFFB%), helping him post a BABIP of .250.

The Blue Jays were impressed enough to give him a shot at Triple-A (Buffalo), where he posted a 3.00 ERA and 4.45 xFIP over 18 IP. His K% declined precipitously to 21.7%, but he cut his BB% to 4.3% to make up for it. His FB% also declined to 36%, though he maintained most of his pop-ups with a 22.2 IFFB% and improved his BABIP allowed to .208. His 11.1% HR/FB was significantly higher than his Double-A mark, but was still better than average considering what the MLB ball did to minor league statistics last season.

It's worth noting that Pearson benefited from pitcher-friendly home parks in both of the stops above. Double-A (New Hampshire) ranked in the 37th percentile for homers and 14th percentile for BABIP in 2019, relative to all MiLB parks. Triple-A (Buffalo) finished in the 38th percentile for BABIP and 88th percentile for HR, but that latter number is deceiving. Since only Triple-A had a nitro-charged ball, all Triple-A parks looked power-friendly compared to the rest of MiLB.

MiLB.com updated its three-year park factors after 2019, and Buffalo had a 94 HR factor (six percent below the Triple-A average) from 2017-19. It appears as though Pearson benefited from his home parks last year, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he didn't contribute to his contact suppression.

 

Tantalizing Skills

If you're going to be a fly ball guy, you want a high-spin fastball that can both generate whiffs and induce weak airborne contact when batters put it in play. It also helps to have plus secondary offerings so that you can pile up strikeouts to make up for the occasional home run you'll inevitably allow. Both Scherzer and Justin Verlander follow this general game plan, and Pearson appears poised to follow in their footsteps.

Scouts love Pearson. Here are his scouting grades according to FanGraphs:

All of these are on the 20-80 scouting scale, which means that his heater gets the highest grade possible while both his slider and change are already above-average by MLB standards. His curve is also a significant weapon, generally being used to steal a strike early in counts per scouting reports. You'd like to see more control, but this is the kind of arsenal that fantasy owners find scintillating.

Lest you think that the FanGraphs grades aren't representative of the industry consensus, here is what MLB.com thought of Pearson in 2019:

They reverse the roles of his curve and change, but we're still looking at a ridiculously-plus fastball that sits 98-101 most starts and two above-average secondary pitches, with an average fourth pitch. The one thing we can't get from scouting reports or grades is Statcast data. Does Pearson's heater spin like those of Verlander and Scherzer?

Luckily for us, Pearson is a Driveline guy who is just as interested in the analytics of his pitching as we are. According to this article, Pearson's heater averages 2,400 RPM, a number that would have ranked 20th in MLB last year among starters with at least 2,000 pitches thrown. That's high enough to generate both the whiffs and pop-ups we would expect from Pearson's fastball, while also limiting his HR/FB.

The Rogers Centre would have made drafting Pearson risky, as it posted a 109 HR factor for RHB and a whopping 122 for LHB in 2019 according to Baseball Prospectus. Every mistake could have left the yard! We aren't sure how Buffalo plays by MLB standards, but it's safe to assume that it'll be pitcher-friendly and even safer to assume that it won't inflate power numbers like the Rogers Centre. Between Pearson's natural contact-suppression skills and a friendly home park, he could be a league-winning add in the 56 percent of Yahoo! leagues where he is currently available.

 

Parting Thoughts

With his eye-popping velocity and elite prospect pedigree, Pearson is going to ignite a bidding war in every fantasy league where he is available once he's called up. Industry speculation is that the Blue Jays are only holding him down to get the extra year of service time, something that should only take about a week in a shortened season. As such, the time to put in a claim for Pearson is right now: before the Blue Jays make the announcement that puts him at the forefront of everyone's mind.

Pearson has the physical tools and mental acumen to be an immediate force, so betting on him is almost certainly the right play. Why not jump the gun by a week and save some FAAB for future moves?

Verdict: Champ (based on strong MiLB resume and outstanding stuff)



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