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The sophomore slump is a phenomenon that all fantasy players fear. A rookie will catch everyone’s attention after seemingly breaking out the previous season, making them a hot commodity in next season’s drafts.

After rising significantly higher in drafts than last season, you land who you think will be a star, only to have them underperform their expectations and leave you feeling like you overpaid.

While the season is still young, there are some high-tier second-year players who are giving fantasy owners a real scare. Here is a deep look at two highly-touted sophomores, Luis Castillo and Cody Bellinger, who have not lived up to last season’s hype and analysis on how concerned fantasy owners should be for the rest of the season.

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Sophomore Slumpers

Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds

Luis Castillo (SP, CIN) burst onto the scene in 2017 as a young rookie flamethrower with high strikeout upside. His performance certainly painted his profile as such; Castillo posted a 3.12 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 9.87 strikeouts per nine innings in 89 ⅓ innings pitched. This season’s numbers couldn’t be more different. Castillo has struggled mightily, posting an inflated 5.64 ERA with a 1.45 WHIP and only a 8.60 K/9 rate. Fantasy owners are likely worried about the drastic change in performance; was last year just a fluke, or can Castillo right the ship? Let’s take a look at his advanced stats for some guidance.

We’ll start with Castillo’s batted ball data. Three measures stand out: ground ball to fly ball rate, line drive rate, and hard contact rate. From 2017 to 2018, Castillo has experienced nearly a 50% decrease in GB/FB rate (2.03 vs 1.39), a 61% increase in LD rate (12.2% vs 19.6%) and a 23% increase in Hard rate (29.6% vs 36.3%). In other words, Castillo has induced less ground balls and has given up more hard line drives and fly balls; hitters are squaring up his pitches better than last season. Another indication of this is his increased number of barrels, or batted-ball events whose comparable hit types (in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) have led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage. Castillo was barreled in 3.5% of hits in 2017 vs 10% in 2018. Finally, the harder hits and more fly balls have led to an increase in home runs allowed. Castillo has already allowed 13 HR in 67 IP vs just 11 HR in 89 ⅓ IP in 2017. Overall, he’s getting hit harder and taking more damage on his hits, which could explain his inflated .309 BABIP compared to just .247 last season.

On the flip side, Castillo has failed to help himself this season, as he is striking out significantly less batters compared to 2017 (9.87 K/9 in 2017 vs 8.60 K/9 in 2018, and 27.3% K rate in 2017 vs 22% K rate in 2018). This could be attributed to several things. First, Castillo, known for his hard throwing, has seen both his fastball (97.5 MPH in 2017 vs 95.4 MPH in 2018) and sinker (96.9 MPH in 2017 vs 95 MPH in 2018) decrease in average velocity. While this may be due to the cold weather the Reds had played in to start the season, it certainly hasn’t helped Castillo. His pitches also aren’t moving as much; his sinker is dropping 4.04 inches vs 4.45 inches in 2017, and his changeup is dropping 1.04 inches vs 2.04 inches in 2017. The lack of movement on his pitches, and therefore lack of strikeouts could be attributed to a mechanical issue. Reds interim manager Jim Riggleman said that he and the team’s pitching coaches have noticed that Castillo’s arm angle has dropped slightly from last season. This means that he cannot get on top of the ball, inhibiting the vertical movement he used to induce which caused hitters to miss the ball flush.

Level of Concern: 4 out of 10

While the results have not been good to this point, it seems that the things Castillo needs to fix to return to 2017 status are within his control. It may be an overstatement to say that he just needs to tweak his arm slot, but baseball is all about small adjustments over the course of a season, particularly with pitchers. If he can get more on top of the ball, his pitches will move more, making it more difficult for hitters to make solid contact and increasing the chances of racking up strikeouts. Castillo is still throwing hard and has good secondary stuff, so the things he needs to correct seem to be minor adjustments rather than large-scale shifts compared to last season.

 

Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers

Cody Bellinger (1B, LA) needs no introduction. Fantasy players will clearly remember the Bell of the Ball (had to go for the pun), the unanimous NL Rookie of the Year who posted a ridiculous .267/.352/.581 slash line with 39 home runs in just 132 games. How things have changed. Bellinger has looked more like a lost 22-year-old than a record-setting Rookie of the Year this season, posting a .239/.320/.473 slash line with 12 HR through 63 games. What’s worse, these disappointing stats are actually bolstered by a recent four-game span in which Bellinger has hit .462 with four HR. He has been demoted to as low as seventh in the batting order, has been taken out of the lineup at times, and has even performed so poorly that manager Dave Roberts has had to quell questions regarding demoting Bellinger to Triple-A Oklahoma City. Fantasy owners most likely paid top dollar for Bellinger this season, so just how worried should they be?

We’ll first look at Bellinger’s plate discipline from 2017 to 2018. As it turns out, Bellinger’s plate discipline has not declined, if anything, it has actually improved. Bellinger posted an 11.7% walk rate and a 26.6% strikeout rate in 2017, and his numbers have minimally changed to a 10.5% BB% and a 23.8% K% in 2018. In terms of pitch selection, Bellinger has become a more patient hitter, swinging at pitches out of the strike zone 24.6% of the time vs 27.4% in 2017.

Bellinger’s plate discipline has not been the issue this season, but rather what he has done when he swings at pitches. Bellinger has made less contact on pitches in the strike zone in general, making contact 72.4% of the time vs 78.1% in 2017. Most startlingly, Bellinger’s whiff rate has gone up on fastballs (17.5% vs 14.42% in 2017), the pitch that hitters should be most comfortable with. Bellinger’s struggles within the zone have clearly manifested themselves in his batted ball profile. His ground ball rate is up (39.8% vs 35.3% in 2017), his hard contact rate (37.1% vs 43% in 2017) and barrels (10.8% vs 12.2% in 2017) are down, his infield fly ball rate has almost doubled (16% vs. 8.4% in 2017), and his HR to fly ball rate has decreased by about 35% (16% vs 25.2% in 2017). Consequently, his BABIP is lower this season (.271) vs. last season (.299) and his batting average sits at a lowly .237.

Level of Concern: 6.5 out of 10

Unlike Castillo, whose problems appear to stem from mechanical issues, a singular source of correction cannot clearly be pinpointed with Bellinger. His plate discipline has remained the same, even improved from last season, yet his production has dramatically worsened. Perhaps the game has gotten into his head, perhaps his long swing is getting the better of him, but for whatever reason, he has just not made the same quality contact this season. The talent is obviously there and Bellinger is still just 22 years old, so his future is very bright and he will undoubtedly contribute to fantasy owners’ teams for the rest of this season. However, owners may have have to lower their expectations on him, because his current batted ball profile suggests something greater than a temporary slump.

 

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