Early Fantasy Baseball Bargains

It’s still just January, but enough data from early fantasy baseball drafts has rolled in to allow us to make a few early observations. As we get ready to begin our fantasy baseball coverage in earnest in February, we’ll use the data available from drafts at Fantrax and NFBC to start planting some flags on the fantasy baseball landscape.

We at SI.com like starting seasons on a positive note, so we’ll do that by highlighting one hitter and one pitcher who are undervalued as the earliest portion of draft season gets underway.

Kris Bryant, 3B/OF, Cubs

Kris Bryant’s average draft position sits at 34.34, which places him early in the third round in 14- and 15-team leagues. That’s a natural reaction to a down year triggered by left shoulder woes that plagued him for most of the season. It is, however, too great a reaction. If the fantasy community wants to push Bryant to the middle or end of the second round behind players like Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman and Giancarlo Stanton, I understand. For him to be going later, on average, than Whit Merrifield and Clayton Kershaw is a bridge too far.

Let’s quickly review Bryant’s 2018 season. He got off to a quick start, going 6-for-15 with three doubles, a homer and four RBI in his first three games. He ended the April hitting .291/.441/.506, though with just two home runs. Bryant started to find his power stroke in May, leaving the yard six times in the first two weeks of the month. On May 25, he went 2-for-4 with a pair of RBI in a 6-2 Cubs win. At the end of play that day, Bryant was hitting .301/.419/.564 with eight homers, 15 doubles, 26 RBI, 29 runs and 25 walks against 32 strikeouts. He was on a 162-game pace for 31 homers, 101 RBI and 112 runs. Unfortunately, he also hurt his left shoulder in that game, jamming it while sliding headfirst into second base. It didn’t appear serious at the time, but it would ultimately derail and define his season.

From May 26 through June 22, a stretch covering 24 games, Bryant hit .248/.319/.347 with seven extra-base hits, one of which was a home run. He went 25-for-101 in that time, striking out 34 times while earning just nine non-intentional walks. On June 23, the Cubs finally put him on the DL. He returned on July 11, but was only able to start nine games before going back to the DL with shoulder inflammation. It would be another six weeks before Bryant rejoined the team.

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Bryant has had all offseason to rehab his shoulder injury, the first time he has been able to devote all his efforts to getting his shoulder back to 100% without an active season hanging over his head. He’s expected to be comfortably back at full strength by time the Cubs start spring training, and will be 10 months removed from the incidence of the injury on Opening Day. It’s hard to believe it possible, but it seems the fantasy community has forgotten that Bryant hit .288/.388/.527 with seasonal averages of 31 homers, 91 RBI and 106 runs over the first three years of his career, covering his age-23 through age-25 seasons. Oh, right, he also won Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in that span. A fully healthy Bryant is one of the 15 best hitters in baseball.

Joe Musgrove, SP, Pirates

Quick, guess how many pitchers struck out more than 20% and walked fewer than 5% of the batters they faced last season? Two: Corey Kluber and Joe Musgrove. Sure, those may be arbitrary endpoints, but the idea here isn’t just to rig the parameters for a club to make Musgrove look more impressive by the company he keeps. Rather, it’s to set the foundation for why a breakout is on the horizon for the 26-year-old pitcher. Arbitrary endpoints or not, when the only other pitcher to do something you’ve done is Kluber, you’re likely on the right path.

Musgrove missed the first two months of last season due to injury, but started with a bang, tossing seven shutout innings with seven strikeouts and zero walks in a win over the Cardinals. It set the tone for the rest of his season. He’d ultimately throw 115 1/3 innings across 19 starts, totaling a 4.06 ERA, 3.92 xFIP, 1.17 WHIP and 100 strikeouts. The further removed Musgrove was from his recovery, the better he was. He made 10 starts in the second half, pitching to a 4.04 ERA and 1.01 WHIP with 50 strikeouts against seven walks.

Musgrove thrived on pairing enough swing-and-miss stuff with a knack for inducing soft contact. His 20% soft-hit rate tied him for 14th in the majors, while his 45.5% ground-ball rate ranked 22nd. He mixes five pitches—a four-seamer, two-seamer, slider, cutter and changeup—effectively, with all having usage rates between 13.9% and 32% last season. This is key for a pitcher who isn’t going to overpower hitters. Musgrove’s heater sits in the mid-90s, with an average velocity of 94 mph. No one would call him a soft tosser, but in today’s game he isn’t exactly blowing hitters away, either. A pitcher with his repertoire needs to live down in the zone, mix up his offerings, and have more than his fair share of deception if he is going to keep hitters off his hard stuff. One last stat suggests that Musgrove was a step ahead of hitters, more often than not.

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Fangraphs measures the frequency with which a pitcher gets hitters to swing at pitches outside the zone with a stat it calls o-swing rate. Musgrove’s o-swing rate last year was 37.7%, third in the majors behind just Patrick Corbin and Jacob deGrom. Check out the o-swing rate leaderboards from the past few years, and you’ll find the names Scherzer, Sale, Kluber and Verlander over and over again. Pitches outside the strike zone are generally pitcher’s pitches. Getting hitters to swing at them is a great thing. Musgrove did that with the best of them last year.

Musgrove’s ADP is 256.75, which makes him the 88th pitcher off the board in a typical early draft. You’re not going to find too many pitchers available in his draft-day neighborhood with top-20 upside, but he has that without question.

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