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The Toughest Players to Rank for 2023 Fantasy Baseball, Part 2

aaron ashby fantasy baseball rankings pitchers draft sleepers MLB injury news

Welcome to part two of my mini-series on the toughest players to rank. I have been in the numbers for months now, and there are plenty of players I really don't know what to think about for next year. These post series help me get a little bit of clarity on how to view them, and hopefully, they'll help some of you out there as well.

In the first post, we looked closely at Michael Harris II, Vinnie Pasquantino, Hunter Greene, and Steven Kwan. You can check that out here.

The nature of this gravitates me toward looking at young players. We have a lot more information to use about players that have been in the league for a couple of years, so they are naturally much easier to rank. We will be looking at a few more young (one isn't young, but he is NEW) guys here and giving some thoughts, so let's get it started.

Be sure to check all of our fantasy baseball lineup tools and weekly lineup resources:

 

Bryan De La Cruz, Miami Marlins (ADP 228)

De La Cruz won plenty of people their leagues last year by slashing .388/.419/.718 with six homers and 22 RBI in September (93 PA). However, that hot finish was a far cry from his season line of .252/.294/.432 and 13 homers.

So who is the real De La Cruz? He's 26 years old and has been in professional baseball since 2014 when he joined the Astros organization as a 17-year-old. He struggled to work his way up the ladder for several years there, but in 2021 he broke through and finally made his way onto a Major League roster with Miami (it's a little easier to make the Marlins big league team than the Astros, after all). In 219 PAs in 2021, he slashed a decent .296/.356/.427 with five homers and one steal. He struck out 24% of the time, a slightly worse-than-average number, and had a low 5.4% barrel rate. So not a ton of power and not even a stand-out in putting balls in play.

In 2022, however, he looked like a different player. He put up an 11.9% barrel rate with a 47% hard-hit rate and kept the strikeout rate modest at 25%. Even if we take out that good September he had, he still showed a 9.7% barrel rate with a 45% hard-hit rate – he was hitting the ball very hard all year long. He also provided a very appealing launch angle profile with a 42.4% GB%, a 30.5% LD%, and a 24.7% FB%.

When you're looking at these histograms, you really want to see the high bars around the 20-30 range, and we almost see that here with De La Cruz. His angle profile plays more toward a line-drive hitter than a fly-ball hitter, which means fewer homers – but more base hits. That gives us confidence that De La Cruz can post a good batting average.

One thing I like to do here is to look for similar hitters in Statcast history, and then see how they performed in their next season. In this case, I was looking for hitters that went for a barrel rate between 9% and 13% while keeping their strikeout rate between 24% and 28% across 350+ plate appearances. This puts De La Cruz right in the middle. I then took those hitters and checked what they did the next year, getting rid of the guys who did not reach 350 PAs in the following year. Here are the full results:


The average barrel rate in the results was 10.7% and the average K% was 24.7% – and again, this is when we look at the following year. Barrel rates and strikeout rates tend to stick around year over year; all of this is really good news for De La Cruz – and especially so when you realize that he's still just 26 years old.

Right now, my projection system is giving De La Cruz a 10.3 Brl% and a 25% strikeout rate. Given 500 plate appearances (a pretty conservative number), that turns into this season for him:

500 PA, 63 R, 18 HR, 60 RBI, 5 SB, .279 AVG

That R+RBI projection is a little bit underwhelming, but that comes from the assumption that De La Cruz only sees 500 PAs and hits #6 in the lineup (that's what Roster Resource has at this point). There are plenty of pathways to De La Cruz seeing 600+ PAs and moving up in the lineup. Over the last couple of weeks of the season, they were regularly hitting De La Cruz #3 or #4 – so they are willing to do it.

I think the floor is higher than some people might think here, and the ceiling is pretty fantastic. You could see a 70 R, 25 HR, 80 RBI, 12 SB, .285 season from De La Cruz, and that would be a smash as his ADP  of 220.

 

Lars Nootbaar, St. Louis Cardinals (ADP 197)

Nootbaar took the fantasy baseball game by storm last summer, hitting .317/.420/.610 with a 15.6% barrel rate in July.

 

Unfortunately for Lars and the Cardinals, he didn't do a ton outside of that month. For the year, he hit .228/.338/.445 with 14 homers in 346 PAs. That's a pretty good home run pace there (about a 26-homer pace), and it came with a strong 20.5% strikeout rate. The batting average was brought down by a .248 BABIP, however, we should expect a lower BABIP from him given that he hits a lot of ground balls (48% in 2021, 46% in 2022) and pulls the ball a lot (43% vs. league average 37%) – and all of this as a lefty which makes things tougher for BABIP. He was shifted on about half the time, so there may be a little bit of BABIP growth here with the ban of the shift, but you're still not going to get many knocks on pulled ground balls as a lefty.

He spent a little bit of the 2022 season in AAA, where he hit .222/.325/.476 with four more homers in 77 PAs. Same profile there – a good home run rate but not many other base hits.

Lars went for a low 4.8% barrel rate in 2021, but that was over just 123 PAs and the 48% ground-ball rate was the primary factor there. He hits the ball hard with a 90th percentile exit velocity of 106.4 (that's right around where Ryan Mountcastle, Franmil Reyes, Patrick Wisdom, Bo Bichette, Ketel Marte, Luke Voit, and Christian Walker are – for comparison), and the max velo of 113 is pretty encouraging as well.

The man is just 25 years old, so we have this age upside present here once again. As for steals, he swiped six last year across 424 PAs in the minors and Majors, so there are some steals here but he's definitely not a reliable steals source.

We don't want to get too into the weeds here. Nootbaar is a guy who hits the ball very hard and strikes out at a better-than-average rate. He posted a hard-hit rate of 46% with a K% of 20.5%. If we look at hitters with hard-hit rates above 45% and strikeout rates below 22% – it's a really impressive list. Most of the league's best hitters are here, although there are some guys that are able to do that without putting up much fantasy greatness (Yandy Diaz, Rowdy Tellez, Andrew Vaughn, Matt Vierling, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Michael Brantley all made that list last year).

Lars will need to hit more balls in the air, benefit from some better BABIP, and steal a few more bags next year to really bust out at his draft cost. It's certainly possible, but I'm not overly excited to draft him. He's currently penciled in as the Cardinals' #7 hitter – and he'll have to perform to keep his everyday reps with plenty of talented hitters on that bench (one more positive note is that he hasn't struggled against left-handed pitching with a career wRC+ of 137 against them in 94 PA).

Projection: 476 PA, 54 R, 16 HR, 54 RBI, 8 SB, .243/.340/.407

 

Aaron Ashby, Milwaukee Brewers

Aaron Ashby put me through the wringer last year. I started out not buying into him at all, and then I thought he was a poor man's fantasy ace for a while there, only to end up completely off of him again by the end of the year. Here's a little picture of the rollercoaster ride we went on with him:

 

 

It was nuts. He had a 21-whiff, 12-strikeout game against the Cubs on May 30th, but then he had eight other starts with single-digit whiffs. He had five starts with eight or more strikeouts, but he had four starts with four or more walks.

When all was said and done, he posted a 4.44 ERA with a 1.43 WHIP in 107.3 innings while maintaining a strong 26.5% strikeout rate, a bad 9.9% walk rate, and one of the league's best ground ball rates of 57.4%. The 13.1% SwStr% shows a guy that can be awfully tough to hit, and he limited quality of contact well with a 6.8% barrel rate and a .292 xwOBA allowed as well. Clearly a talented arm, but with lots of inconsistency and trouble throwing strikes. His pitch arsenal:

Pitch % CSW% SwStr% GB% xwOBA
Sinker 34.0% 30.7% 8.9% 56.7% .359
Slider 29.2% 35.9% 18.6% 43.5% .251
Changeup 20.7% 30.8% 15.4% 68.2% .267
Curveball 12.7% 43.5% 10.5% 73.9% .237
4-Seam Fastball 3.3% 9.7% 3.2% 33.3% .392

 

The sinker: Great GB%, that's very important for anybody but especially a guy pitching in Milwaukee. The SwStr% is also two points above the league average for that pitch type.

The slider: The 18.6% SwStr% is two points above the league average slider, and he kept it away from the barrel of the bat as well and earned a ton of strikes with it (league average CSW% on a slider is 31%).

The changeup: About a league-average changeup, but again you see just a ton of ground balls.

The league average CSW% was 28.6%, and Ashby went for a mark of 33.2%. That's well above the league average, and it does make you wonder why he had a 10% walk rate. These two things don't correlate all that strongly, but CSW% does measure the rate of getting strikes so you wouldn't really expect a guy with a strong CSW% to have a high walk rate. In fact, of all of the starting pitchers with a CSW% between 32% and 35%, Ashby had the highest walk rate of the bunch with that 9.9%. The average walk rate of the group of pitchers was 6.0%. It's not a guarantee by any means, but it would seem like Ashby should improve the walk rate next year – and that's very good news.

So we have a guy with a good strikeout rate, a walk rate that could at least be league average, and one of the league's best ground-ball rates. This is a profile I love to take. The indicators on Ashby last year:

FIP: 4.06
xFIP: 3.29
SIERA: 3.48

These are also very encouraging numbers. You can see the xFIP and SIERA really beating the ERA and the FIP. That is because those two normalize HR/FB rates, and Ashby did not have a good time with his fly balls as 25% of them went for a homer (the league average was 15% – these numbers are based on the way Baseball Savant determines a fly ball).

The other important thing to mention is that Ashby threw a career-high inning total last year, but that total was just 107 innings. It was his first go at being a Major League starter, so we really can't be expecting him to be a 170-inning guy next year. That's a downgrade for sure, but at the point where he's being drafted you aren't finding a lot of innings workhorses anyways - so immediately it's less of a problem.

I have Ashby with a 27% K% and a 9% BB% to go with the 58.4% GB% next season. That's pretty solid by itself, and there's certainly room for growth given his level of experience and how appealing his arsenal is. You can draft Ashby after pick 225 right now, and I would highly recommend it.

Projection: 116 IP, 3.55 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 27% K%, 9% BB%

 

Joey Meneses, Washington Nationals

Meneses was one of the biggest surprises of the 2022 season. He has spent his long career in baseball bouncing around all over the place, first starting in the Braves organization way back in 2011. Now he's a 30-year-old who got the call-up last year after the trade of Juan Soto, although to his credit he did his way into the bigs as well.

In 418 PAs in AAA, he slashed .284/.337/.485 with 20 homers (20.9 PA/HR) and a strong 21.5% K%. That translated just fine into the Majors as he went .324/.367/.563 with 13 homers (18.5 PA/HR) and a 21.7% K%. It's not often you see a guy improve after getting the callup to the highest level, but that's what he did.

In the Majors, we're talking about 238 plate appearances. Not a ton of data is going to stabilize in that short period of time, but you could argue that his strikeout rate is at least mostly believable and his batted ball profile did have enough time to stabilize (it doesn't take very long on that front). His 76.7% contact rate was strong, his 47.1% hard-hit rate was really good, and the 9.9% barrel rate was almost two points above the league average.

His launch profile is shown below:

 

The dot closest to Meneses above belongs to none other than Julio Rodriguez – so yeah, this guy was hitting the ball extremely well with an average launch velo of 90.9 miles per hour and an average angle of 9.9 degrees.

The full distribution of his launch velocities was a bit less impressive, however, as his max velo of 110.9 ranked #163 and the 90th percentile mark of 105.4 ranked #108. He was helped a lot by having a very good average launch angle, and any tick downwards there could really end up hurting his batting average as those line drives get turned into line-outs or ground balls.

I'm having trouble here, because I know if Meneses was a 23-year-old right now, I'd be hyped. I would be raving about how he looks like a veteran already and has an excellent profile to build on. However, the fact that he's 30 years old and has taken this long to get run in the Majors makes me really distrustful of him. I'm not sure if that's really fair or not, but I can't really talk myself into being excited about him – especially in this Nationals lineup that is not going to score many runs.

Taking Meneses and seeing him bust won't kill your team since he is typically going after pick 200, but I do think that's a bit more expensive of a price than I want to pay for someone like this. I won't blame anybody for buying in, because all of the numbers point to him being a skilled hitter – but the gut reaction here is negative.

Projection: 57o PA, 63 R, 21 HR, 68 RBI, 2 SB, .265 AVG, .325 OBP, .439 SLG

 

Thanks for reading part two here! If you want more of this and have some players in mind, send them my way on Twitter! Talk to you next time!

 



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