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Red Flag Warnings - Bad Starts to Keep an Eye On

We are nearly a month into the 2019 season and bust labels are in hand ready to get slapped on particular sets of players. This piece is not here to do that whatsoever. The goal here is to inform owners with some early-season observations regarding struggling players that I have chosen to highlight.

These players worry me more than some others who may be having similar production issues. The "red flag" placed on them is not a death sentence. These are Major League players and they make adjustments throughout the season and are capable of getting hot at any moment. Until that happens though, I have my eye on this particular group because of the degree of strife they have presented owners.

I am not wholly advocating to sell anyone here, but, from what we have seen thus far, it would be more comforting to see how they progress through the rest of the year from a distance. Reaping the fruits of your draft labor is great, but so is not having a black hole on your roster. Sunk costs are never fun, and without further ado, neither are these duds.

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Jose Ramirez (2B/3B, CLE)

Monday night, Ramirez provided his most productive outing of the year. One home run, two walks, and two stolen bases. This game must have been a breath of fresh air to owners who drafted J-Ram over the likes of J.D. Martinez, Christian Yelich, and Max Scherzer. The long national nightmare is over, J-Ram is alive and well (or so we hope).

Prior to that game, Ramirez's stat line was flat-out disgusting. Through 15 games (61 PAs) he had six runs, two RBI and was slashing .140/.180/.193. We call this the Jessica Mendoza line because she for sure could have done better out there.

It is fair to excuse the Indians' offense's woes as a whole to the absence of Francisco Lindor through this first month of games. However, to be a "superstar" level player and begin a season this awful, something must be up. Maybe it is the Midwest cold, maybe it's something in Ramirez's head. All that matters is that he is not right. This is not unprecedented territory given that last year, Paul Goldschmidt went through a similar early-season funk, and fortunately, bounced back.

Ramirez's BABIP is extremely low (.155) and he is not striking out much more than he has throughout his career. This is about all the good news that can be found within his 2019 profile.

I am not here to make any serious allegations, but there were swirlings about an 80-game suspension in late-May last season. Rumors came about that Ramirez had tested or was going to test positive for PEDs. The Indians' third baseman was cleared soon after and proceeded to hit 14 home runs through June and July. However, from August until the postseason, he hit just seven total. Not that home runs are the only measure for success, but it was a bit shocking given his torrid pace through the first half. Ramirez's batting average also took a significant hit. He went from hitting just above .300 in the first half to right around .200 through the rest of the season. To his credit, he did increase his walk-to-strikeout ratio and had to deal with a low BABIP. Plenty of folks chalked the struggles up to regression or a change in how pitchers approached facing him (more breaking-balls, fewer fastballs).

However, with the awful start to this season, eyebrows should be raised as to whether the suspension rumblings were more than just smoke. Maybe the JoRam of 2018 is not who many thought he was coming into the season. As a prospect, there was always potential power in his bat, but going from full minor league seasons without double-digit jacks to nearly cracking 40 in the MLB is bizarre.

"Facts can be misleading, but rumors, true or false, can be revealing."- Col. Hans Landa, Inglorious Basterds

Francisco Lindor returns this weekend, and while he should provide a boost to the lineup with added protection, the residual effects may take a week or so to trickle along the rest of the lineup. With his speed remaining intact, even if owners get the 2017 version of JoRam, they are still getting a fine player. He just needs to focus on making good contact rather than trying to pull the ball for power.

True panic should not beset owners until around mid-May-ish if this pace keeps up. For now, my best recommendation is to cut bait if you can get relatively equivalent value. If not, hold on and pray for a bounceback.


Travis Shaw (2B/3B, MIL)

It feels like Mike Moustakas has sucked up all of Travis Shaw's power. Shaw has been a landmine for fantasy rosters this year. Although it should get better, I am concerned as to how much. His strikeout rate has skyrocketed above 30 percent for the first time in his minor or major league career and he is hitting for very little power.

Reports of Shaw's Spring Training numbers went around during draft season but some people (including myself, shamefully) ignored it. Through 52 ST at-bats, Shaw struck out 25!! times and did not walk once. His power seemed to be fine at the time with five home runs and two doubles, yet that strikeout issue just went over a lot of heads because "It's just Spring Training." The explanation for the egregious K-rate was that he faced as many lefties as possible to get him more comfortable when managers play matchups, which is understandable. However, striking out in half his ABs is still nuts despite the sample size.

Thus far, Shaw's 2019 walk rate has stayed in line with his 2018 jump, but the strikeout issue followed him into the season. He has not tapped into much of his power with just one home run and two doubles, but that could come in time. He is hitting the ball hard more often than he ever has.

A concern of mine is his BABIP. It is currently .324 while his batting average is .217. He is not getting unlucky at all here. One noticeable aspect of his game is where he's driving the ball. He is hitting more groundballs and line drives but fewer fly balls. His pull percentage is the lowest of his career, while his opposite field percentage is the highest. A simple explanation for his power shortage and struggles is that he may have altered his swing to attack the open side of the field and it is just not working yet. As a pull hitter, he drew a ton of power but hit into the shift often, leading to a lower average. The adjustment period on this swing change is unknown. Whether it allows him to tap into the same power he has displayed the past few seasons is something to watch.

Shaw has hit better since injuring his hand last weekend but still has not produced enough to mitigate worry. His walks will keep his value decent in OBP leagues for the foreseeable future. Owners in Roto or Points leagues should be inclined to move on if the situation becomes untenable in the coming weeks.


Most Starting Pitchers

Something funky is up.

The starting pitching market is brutal at the moment. Even elite pitchers are getting clobbered regularly. Noah Syndergaard, Chris Sale, Aaron Nola, Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, and various others have had tumultuous starts to the year. While it is easy to claim small sample size or early season adjustment periods and call it a day, there may be a legitimate case to be made that the baseballs are juiced again.

Between the second half of 2016 and throughout 2017, MLB hitters thrived in an unprecedented manner. Several players claimed that the seams had been tightened, leading to further suspicion. There never was definitive proof that the balls were altered, but the jumps in production across the league during that time led to mass speculation. The drop off in 2018 was suspicious after the juicing allegations gained traction and, unfortunately, the exact method of juicing was never identified although the league did admit to making "changes."

Nevertheless, if the balls in 2019 are re-juiced, the entire pitching landscape changes. The great pitchers will adjust, but the occasional mistake could be exploited enough to take a significant hit on their expected value. Margins for error become thinner and great outings can turn in a flash. Luckily, there are enough teams with poor hitting across the league (Miami, Pittsburgh, CWS, Arizona, LAA, Toronto, Baltimore) that a beach ball would not make a difference in those starts.

However, in matchups against the rest of the field, pitchers are now walking along a tightrope. Steven Matz, a respectable mid-tier starter whose peripherals were shining prior to Tuesday, just had an outing in which he gave up six runs and recorded zero outs. Part of this one game can be explained by poor fielding, a tough lineup, and ballpark, but it should not be any less eye-opening.

While it is still VERY early in the season along with the fact that this is all hearsay, my ears are perked up regardless. Pitching does not exactly get any easier in the summer when the ball carries better through higher temperatures...The MLB's home run rate grew every year from 2014-to-2017. 2018 may have been the calm before the storm that is this year's season-long derby.

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