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Champ or Chump: Will Smith and Rafael Devers


The end of August is always something of a turning point for this column. Many roto leagues are basically over, while owners in H2H formats are either waiting for their playoffs to start or looking ahead to next season. Waiver wires tend to be fairly barren even if your league is still competitive, and your league's trade deadline is probably coming up if it hasn't already passed. Despite all of this, it still seems a bit too soon to start focusing on 2020.

The players profiled below represent a sort of compromise between 2019 and 2020. Dodgers rookie Will Smith has made noise by contributing anything to the catcher position, but probably isn't as good as he's looked thus far. Rafael Devers appears to be enjoying a breakout in his age-22 season, but most of his peripherals are actually trending in the wrong direction. He could be an early favorite for 2020's Bust of the Year.

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 Smith and Devers, shall we?

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Will Smith (C, LAD)

73% Owned

Smith has 98 big league PAs to his credit, slashing .321/.398/810 with 11 long balls and a steal in that time. It's too early to really dive into his big league peripherals, but his MiLB track record suggests that he will remain a productive catcher for fantasy (and real baseball) purposes moving forward.

Smith played in one Double-A game in 2017 but didn't really advance to the level until the following campaign. He hit a respectable .264/.358/.532 with 19 HR and four steals in 307 PAs that season, offsetting a somewhat elevated strikeout rate (24.4 K%) with a solid walk rate (11.7 BB%). Most of his "luck" stats were relatively neutral, suggesting that his performance was a reasonable indication of the former first-round pick's true talent.

The Dodgers asked Smith to add more loft to his profile even though his 40.8 FB% was already above average. He obliged, increasing his fly ball rate to 51.9% over 98 PAs at Triple-A. It was an unmitigated disaster, as Smith slashed .138/.206/.218 with just one homer and a microscopic BABIP (.216). Worse, his strikeout rate exploded (37.8%) while his walk rate declined (7.1%). Not surprisingly, Smith was asked to repeat the level to begin 2019.

He improved his game substantially in his second attempt, hitting .268/.381/.603 with 20 homers and a steal in 270 PAs. His 52.6 FB% was still elite, again limiting his BABIP to .253. However, his plate discipline was much better (14.8 BB%, 18.1 K%) and he managed to hit homers. Some of this may have been the result of the juiced baseball, but it's tough to argue with that FB% in an age categorized by airborne baseballs. Smith's power looks sustainable.

His batting average potential, however, seems limited. Smith's 54.8 FB% in The Show thus far is in keeping with his MiLB resume, meaning that he projects as a weak BABIP guy moving forward. His 10.2 BB% more than offsets his 24.5 K% in leagues that count walks, but owners in average-driven formats would probably like to see fewer strikeouts.

Scouts like Smith, but it would be a stretch to say they love him. The FanGraphs team sees plus power potential (40/55 Game Power, 55 Raw Power on the 20-80 scouting scale) and excellent athleticism for a catcher (55/50 Speed), but a weak Hit tool (35/40) that could limit his offensive upside. Baseball Savant largely tells the same story, with 50-Power, 55-Run, and 45-Hit. The Dodgers have given him experience at second and third despite above-average defensive chops behind the plate, suggesting that they may envision more of a utility role for Smith long-term.

That could actually be a good thing for his fantasy value, as catchers who play other positions gain a significant PA advantage over contemporaries who need two days off a week. The Dodgers have also taken to hitting Smith third, probably one of the best positions for counting stats in the entire league. Smith probably lacks league-winning upside but can produce league-average fantasy numbers that represent a win from a C slot.

Verdict: Champ (based on the likelihood he can continue to put up similar power numbers moving forward)

 

Rafael Devers (3B, BOS)

90% Owned

When you hear a 22-year old is slashing .329/.377/.592 with 27 HR and eight swipes, it's only reasonable to conclude that the kid has tapped into the potential that scouts had seen in him as a prospect. Unfortunately, Devers looks much more like a fluke career year than an All-Star for years to come.

The biggest difference in Devers's game is a dramatically-improved strikeout rate (16.2% vs. 20.9% career), but his underlying plate discipline doesn't support it. Devers has always chased out of the zone (38.2 O-Swing% career), but his 40% mark in 2019 is a career-worst. His 12% SwStr% is a career-best, but not by much (12.5% career). Worse, all of his gains have come on pitches outside of the strike zone (70.1 O-Contact% vs. 66.1% career) while his in-zone contact rate is virtually unchanged (83.2% vs. 82.7%). He's currently avoiding the K by swinging at everything, a profile that can fall apart rather quickly.

Likewise, his .356 BABIP looks unsustainable moving forward. His 23.5 LD% is the highest mark Devers has ever posted over a full season, and it's going to take a lot more than one season to accept as his baseline considering his career mark of 19%. He has also improved his BABIP by cutting down on his fly balls (33.8 FB% this year, 38.6% last), a change that figures to hurt him more in the power categories than it helps his average. Devers has also had batted ball luck on his side, as his xBA (which doesn't account for K% or LD% regression) stands at .304.

The most sustainable part of Devers's performance to date is his 19.1% HR/FB, but even it is more a continuation of his previous rate (career 17.8%) than reaching a new level. His 96.9 mph average airborne exit velocity is very good, but hitting airborne balls hard has never been his issue (95.3 mph in 2018, 95.4 in 2017). His 9.5% rate of Brls/BBE is fine, but isn't significantly better than the 9.1% he posted last season or his 8.5% from 2017. His Pull% on fly balls (22.7%) is also just shy of his career average (23.6%), so no growth there either. Baseball Savant even pegs his xSLG at .529, a drop of over sixty points from his actual mark.

Devers will keep getting a bunch of R+RBI as long as he holds a favorable sot in Boston's batting order, but that's not a given considering all of his peripherals above. His 50% success rate on stolen base attempts will also earn him a red light if the Sox get back to contention. It looks like a breakout, but there are a ton of red flags here for 2020 and beyond.

Verdict: Chump (based on nearly every advanced stat suggesting that he hasn't actually improved despite his performance thus far)

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