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Champ or Chump: Spencer Turnbull and Joey Votto


If April is the month of churning through sleeper candidates to figure out who can stick on your roster, May is the month where you start to look at disappointing performers to see if it's a simple slump or something more. There are still plenty of intriguing players on most waiver wires, but the fact that they're still there after a month of games is a strong indication that they aren't as good as they look at first glance. Spencer Turnbull of the Tigers illustrates this nicely.

More importantly, it's time to take a closer look at underperforming veterans to see if a rebound is still in the cards. The present author has a number of Joey Votto shares equivalent to the number of leagues he's in, and his start hasn't been good. At all. Is the Prince of Process done at age 35?

Keep in mind, our Champ / Chump conclusions are based on whether we think a player will outperform their expectations. For example, a pitcher we view as "Tier 2" can be a Champ if they're seen as a Tier 3 pitcher, or they could be a Chump if they're perceived as a Tier 1 pitcher. All ownership rates are from Yahoo! leagues unless otherwise noted. Let's take a closer look at Turnbull and Votto, shall we?

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Spencer Turnbull (SP, DET)

38% Owned

The 26-year old Spencer Turnbull has a sterling 2.31 ERA in his 39 innings of work this season, though his 4.28 xFIP suggests that he's not as good as he's looked so far. Indeed, all of his so-called "luck metrics" have been favorable, with a .283 BABIP, 5.9% HR/FB, and 80.9% strand rate. While Turnbull projects as a competent streaming option moving forward, he lacks the upside to be anything more than that.

Strikeouts and walks should be among the first things you look at when evaluating any pitcher, and Turnbull's 23% strikeout rate and 8.5% walk rate are meh. His 4-seam fastball flashes brilliance (10 SwStr%, 59.5 Zone%), but it's been clocked as low as 89 mph this season. Yes, Turnbull has dialed it up to 97 mph as well, but that seems like a very large range.

The rest of Turnbull's repertoire isn't great. His sinker gets ground balls (65.4 GB%), but absolutely nothing else (4.9 SwStr%, 42.4 Zone%). It should probably be scrapped for more 4-seamers. His slider generates whiffs (18.7 SwStr%), but lacks the Zone% (38.2) and chase rate (35.5%) to be a consistent weapon. The same thing can be said about his curve (14 SwStr%, but 33.3 Zone% and 33.9% chase rate). He also throws an occasional change and cutter, but not frequently enough to consider them any more than show-me offerings.

Another problem with Turnbull is that he is yet to eclipse 120 IP in a professional season. According to Baseball Savant, scouts feel as though Turnbull hasn't logged enough innings to make the refinements to his command and control that were expected when he was first drafted. Even if 2019 keeps going well for him, the Tigers seem destined to shut him down early to preserve his relatively young arm.

Turnbull's largest MiLB sample size in the High Minors was only 98 2/3 IP at Double-A last season, where he compiled a 4.47 ERA and 3.45 xFIP. His strikeout (24.9 K%) and walk (9.5 BB%) were comparable to what he's done at the major league level, and they're fine. Just nothing to get excited about in fantasy.

In short, Turnbull is a nice streamer in favorable matchups but not a guy who warrants a constant roster spot in standard formats. He doesn't have K upside, is backed by a mediocre supporting cast, and figures to be shut down early. His next starts look like they will come against Minnesota and Oakland, two clubs that aren't exploitable in this author's estimation. Thus, let somebody else take the ERA hit.

Verdict: Chump (based on nearly 40% ownership rate)

 

Joey Votto (1B, CIN)

93% Owned

If 2018 was the worst full season in the future Hall-of-Famer's career, 2019 represents an even lower nadir: .218/.331/.353 with three homers in 139 PAs. Ageism is a thing in the fantasy baseball community, and this author has seen pundits drop a Joe Mauer comp on him. Ouch. While it hasn't been pretty, Votto's peripherals suggest that his goose isn't cooked just yet.

Votto is known for plate discipline first and foremost, so let's start there. He's still walking a lot (12.9 BB%), but not as often as he has over his stellar career (16.3 BB%). Meanwhile, he's striking out a lot more often (24.5 K%) than usual (17.7% career). Considering his SwStr% has increased from six percent last year to eight this, some are saying that Votto has lost it.

In truth, he hasn't. There is absolutely nothing wrong with an eight-percent SwStr% in 2019, and in fact it's just shy of his career mark (8.1%). More importantly, the SwStr% increase relative to last season has come entirely on pitches outside of the strike zone (61.7 O-Contact% this year, 78.4% last year). In contrast, his Z-Contact% is virtually identical year-over-year (86.7 vs. 87). It's not obvious what's wrong with Votto, but the weaker contact that tends to result from hitting pitches outside of the hitting zone is almost certainly not the solution.

Votto's renowned eye is also still in tact, as his 19.7% chase rate is actually better than his 21.5% career mark. All things being equal, we should expect Votto's walks to increase while his strikeouts decrease, bearing in mind that anybody with Votto's patience will strikeout a little bit more often than his peripherals suggest.

Votto's power is also down, but his peripherals suggest that it should be increasing. Votto hasn't hit that many fly balls over his career (33.5 FB%), but he's lifting the ball much more often in 2019 (44.7 FB%). His average airborne exit velocity is his Statcast Era worst at 90.4 mph, but his rate of Brls/BBE of 9.4% is significantly better than his 2018 performance (6.7%) and comparable to his 2017 (9.1%) and 2016 (9.7%) seasons.

Furthermore, it doesn't take that much oomph to get a ball out of Great American Ballpark. He should still hit 20+ HR if he keeps his FB% at a career high, even without much exit velocity behind it.

Finally, we come to Votto's average. His .280 BABIP is well off of his .351 career mark, largely because of the fly ball increase noted above and a 20 LD% (25.7% career). LD% is a fickle stat that is rarely predictive of anything, so using it to pronounce Votto dead would be silly. An increased number of fly balls would exert permanent downward pressure on Votto's BABIP, but the expected power numbers are a fine trade-off. Votto has a career-worst 5.3 IFFB% (1.2%), but that's hardly bad in the grand scheme of things. In short, there's nothing to see here.

One potential cause for concern is his 70 Pull% on ground balls that has led to Votto being shifted in 63 of 82 opportunities this season. It hasn't hurt him yet (.286 vs. shift), but prime Joey Votto didn't care about the shift at all (56 Pull% on grounders career). Votto is slow (25.2 ft./sec Statcast Sprint Speed) and always has been (25.4 ft./sec in 2015), so a pulled ground ball tendency could prevent him from attaining his .231 career BABIP on ground balls moving forward.

In summation, Votto still has elite plate discipline, has joined the fly ball revolution, and continues to hit first or second in the Cincinnati batting order. The results have been ugly to date, but Votto makes for an intriguing buy-low if his current owner is willing to sell for pennies on the dollar. If anything, his batting average is the most suspect part of his profile. There is no way Votto is in the same class as a Joe Mauer.

Verdict: Champ (based on likelihood that he will rebound to something at least resembling career norms)

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