Fantasy

ESPN Player Rater Retrospective

Travis Shaw

The All-Star Break seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the performances that we have seen so far this season. Using ESPN’s Player Rater, we can see which players have performed at the top of their respective positions across the league this season, noting those whose performances have been surprising or remarkable in some way.

Catcher

1. Salvador Perez
2. Buster Posey
3. J.T. Realmuto
4. Gary Sanchez
5. Yadier Molina
6. Willson Contreras
7. Alex Avila
8. Evan Gattis
9. Brian McCann
10. Yasmani Grandal

Salvador Perez sits atop the catcher rankings at the unofficial halfway point of the season, with his 18 home runs and 57 RBI the primary explanation. Starting in 2016, Perez seemingly became focused on pulling fly balls. In a league that increasingly embraces that profile, Perez is nonetheless exceptional, ranking in the top six of qualified hitters in both pull percentage and fly ball percentage. Where Perez differs from the ideal big-league hitter, however, is in his lack of plate discipline, as he chases nearly half of all pitches that he sees outside of the strike zone. Despite that seemingly damning flaw, Perez has managed to run a well above-average line at the plate, with good enough contact skills to avoid striking out at untenable rates and enough power on contact to lead all catchers in home runs. One potential red flag: Perez is a notoriously fast starter whose career .283/.313/.471 line in the season’s first half dwarfs the .263/.293/.410 line that he has produced in second halves. Certainly, this is not a reason to sell Perez for cents on the dollar, but as a big-bodied catcher who has played in at least 138 games every season since 2013, he may be more susceptible than most to fatigue as the season wears on. Somewhat overshadowed by the Yankees’ newer, although not necessarily younger, well-regarded players, Gary Sanchez is a 24-year-old catcher with a career .285/.366/.568 line, somehow underrated despite having hit 33 home runs in his first 473 career plate appearances in the Bronx. Sanchez’s career 32% HR/FB is still due for regression, and he appears to be more of a 25-30 home run per year bat than someone who will consistently threaten the league lead, and his contact profile looks remarkably similar in 2017 to the one that he produced in 2016, when he was one of the most productive hitters in baseball. He is chasing pitches slightly less often, making slightly more contact, and, while his extreme pull-heavy approach would seem to make him susceptible to off-speed pitches, Sanchez has seen the 28th lowest rate of fastballs among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances this season and has been stellar regardless. Given his home park, age, positive statistical indicators and lineup around him, Sanchez is likely the top catching option of the second half.

First Base

1. Paul Goldschmidt
2. Joey Votto
3. Daniel Murphy
4. Travis Shaw
5. Ryan Zimmerman
6. Cody Bellinger
7. Justin Smoak
8. Mark Reynolds
9. Jose Abreu
10. Anthony Rizzo

Paul Goldschmidt’s well-rounded game has unsurprisingly placed him atop the positional Player Rater for this season. Seemingly excellent at everything, Goldschmidt has combined an elite bat with surprisingly exceptional baserunning ability and plus defense for a first baseman. Always one of the more patient hitters in the league, Goldschmidt has become a bit more aggressive this season, bumping his in-zone swing percentage by six percentage points from 2016. That increased aggressiveness, however, has not come at the expense of his vaunted plate discipline, as his chase rate and walk rate have remained mainly steady. Goldschmidt makes hard contact to all fields, draws walks at a high rate to run an elite on-base percentage, steals bases better than any other first baseman and plays in a park and lineup conducive to racking up runs scored, home run and RBI totals. In short, there are not many players safer bets for a productive second half than Goldschmidt. Ryan Zimmerman’s comeback first-half was rewarded with a start over Goldschmidt in the All-Star Game. While that honor may not have been justified, Zimmerman’s stellar production undoubtedly deserved recognition. After running a .218/.272/.370 line despite a wealth of hard contact in 2016, Zimmerman has made that contact count in 2017 through some combination of natural positive regression from a very unlucky 2016 and a concerted effort to slightly elevate the baseball. Zimmerman’s line drive rate has ticked up six percentage points from last season, and while line drive rate is a noisy statistic, it is nevertheless encouraging to see it bounce back from its near career-low mark last season. With his BABIP and HR/FB rates both ripe for regression, Zimmerman will not hold on to his .330 season batting average, but his days of hitting .218 feel like an eternity away as well. The other All-Star starter at first base, Justin Smoak’s story is actually quite similar to Zimmerman’s, albeit with one major distinction. Smoak also had recently been a merely pedestrian hitter despite fantastic contact quality, although that contact quality and his former prospect status caused the Blue Jays to offer him a much-maligned two-year contract extension last season. Suffice it to say, Ross Atkins has to be thrilled with how that has turned out. Smoak is not actually hitting the ball any harder or to any different areas of the field this season (his 42.2% fly ball is actually an exact match to last season’s figure) – he is simply hitting it a lot more. Smoak’s contact rate has improved by a massive nine percentage points, helping him to nearly halve his strikeout rate without a substantial drop in walks. Other than a slight decrease in his chase rate, there are not any obvious indicators as to the cause of this decline in strikeouts, and Smoak may very well regress to being a high-strikeout, low on-base hitter in the second half. However, the upside has always been present, and Smoak now has half a season of stellar production to make him more worth dreaming on than ever.

Second Base

1. Jose Altuve
2. Trea Turner
3. Jose Ramirez
4. Dee Gordon
5. Daniel Murphy
6. Chris Owings
7. Jonathan Schoop
8. Jean Segura
9. Starlin Castro
10. Robinson Cano

[the_ad id=”384″]Arguably the best contact hitter in baseball, Jose Altuve again finds himself atop the second base rankings, having hit .347/.418/.551 in the first half. He has always hit, although he has continued to add power and discipline to his already fantastic offensive package as he has matured. Altuve’s weak contact and ground balls are actually up this season, and his pop-up rate has doubled. Those are minor red flags, but his HR/FB rate has held around 14% from last season, supporting the idea that he is no longer a contact-only player. He remains extremely difficult to strike out, he hits in the middle of one of the best lineups in baseball and he is again on pace to steal 30 bases in a season. There are a few eyebrow-raising trends in his profile, but Altuve is well on his way to the best season of a four-year stretch of dominance. Any concerns are unquestionably minor at this point. Long seen by many as a breakout candidate, Jonathan Schoop had an All-Star level first half that has placed him at No.  7 on the Player Rater for the season. Schoop has always had raw power, although consistently translating that into games has been a problem, largely due to poor plate discipline and a high number of pop-ups. While Schoop’s results have certainly been better this season, those remain issues for him. His chase rate has been cut by nearly 10 percent, a substantial improvement in a vacuum, although it has come with a corresponding significant drop in his in-zone swing rate. While not necessarily indicative of a better awareness of the strike zone (since he is taking more balls and strikes alike), Schoop’s patient approach has resulted in an improved (albeit still well below-average) walk rate without an increase in strikeout rate, largely because pitchers have worked him outside of the strike zone more than ever this season. Whether Schoop can continue to remain patient and force pitchers to work in the zone more often will likely go a long way toward determining his second-half production, but his tools offer him more upside (particularly in the power categories) than most at this position.

Third Base

1. Jose Ramirez
2. Travis Shaw
3. Nolan Arenado
4. Jake Lamb
5. Anthony Rendon
6. Miguel Sano
7. Justin Turner
8. Marwin Gonzalez
9. Mike Moustakas
10. Kris Bryant

Jose Ramirez’ stellar June — in which he slashed .367/.405/.661 — has largely been the source of his notoriety this season. That said, Ramirez has been great for a year and a half now, refusing to strike out while hitting for more power than anyone (including the player himself and his general manager) ever thought possible. He hits the ball hard to all fields, rarely chases bad pitches, and almost never whiffs, making him a strong threat for batting average and on-base percentage moving forward. Ramirez also has tallied double digit stolen base totals in four consecutive seasons, offering rare speed for a corner player, and should rank among the runs scored leaders at season’s end. Regardless of whether this newfound power spike is legitimate (and Ramirez had never before hit more than 11 home runs in a season, while his HR/FB rate is more than twice last season’s figure, casting doubts on whether he is really a great power threat), his ability to provide at least average production in all five major categories makes him an extremely valuable asset moving forward, as does his multi-positional eligibility in many leagues. Travis Shaw has made the most of his trade to Milwaukee, edging out stars like Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon, Justin Turner and Kris Bryant for the No.  2 spot on the positional Rater. Shaw came into this season as a useful contributor in a few categories but with questionable power and speed seemingly limiting his upside. Instead, he has been one of the better hitters in the National League, thanks largely to a power spike that has seen him set a career high, seemingly like so many other players this season, in home runs by the All-Star Break. That power spike, however, has largely been fueled by a jump in HR/FB rate not entirely supported by a good but not great average exit velocity on balls hit in the air. With a roughly average strikeout-to-walk profile and average contact quality, Shaw seems to profile as an average player moving forward, likely worthy of starting for the owners who grabbed him at the onset of his April breakout, but a couple of tiers below the elite players that he currently sits above on the Rater.

Shortstop

1. Trea Turner
2. Elvis Andrus
3. Carlos Correa
4. Chris Owings
5. Andrelton Simmons
6. Jean Segura
7. Corey Seager
8. Xander Bogaerts
9. Jedd Gyorko
10. Eduardo Nunez

There still appears to be no timetable for a return of the top shortstop on the Rater this season, as Trea Turner’s broken wrist likely left many scouring the waiver wire for stolen bases. Elvis Andrus has had a strong offensive season to this point, helping him reach No. 2 on the season-long Rater. Andrus’ 20 stolen bases are most of the explanation for this, although his well-roundedness has separated him from some of the many speed-only players around the league. Andrus has hit an even .300 this season despite a slight jump in his strikeout rate, as an improved home run rate (add Andrus to the list of players who has already set his career-high in home runs) has enabled him to offset the contact drop-off. He has become more of a pull-hitter in recent seasons, with this season representing an all-time high in that regard, and he has hit the ball somewhat harder this season (his 92.8 MPH average exit velocity on balls hit into the air is identical to Shaw’s, demonstrating that Andrus has shown something like league-average power this season). A version of Andrus with average power is quite a valuable player, given his speed, high batting averages (he still has a well below-average strikeout rate and makes enough solid contact without too many pop-ups to continue to be a contributor in that regard) and position. Like Shaw, while unlikely to continue to outperform some of the star players whom he sits above this season, he is at least worth owning in all leagues.

Outfield

1. Aaron Judge
2. Charlie Blackmon
3. George Springer
4. Trea Turner
5. Jose Ramirez
6. Bryce Harper
7. Marcell Ozuna
8. Mookie Betts
9. Billy Hamilton
10. Giancarlo Stanton

Unsurprisingly, given that he leads the league in seemingly every major offensive category this season, Aaron Judge is the No. 1 overall player on the season-to-date Rater. Any glance at a Statcast leaderboard will confirm the obvious about Judge’s pure power, although the most important key to his future success is likely his ability to continue to control the strike zone. Judge’s season-long chase rate is well below the league average, helping to overcome his predictable troubles making contact. His BABIP is a ridiculous .426, which will certainly not be able to continue, although, given his three true outcome profile, he will be less affected by BABIP regression than most anyone else in baseball. His below-average contact rates would seem to be a minor red flag, and will likely (along with the return of Mike Trout from injury) keep him from being the best player in the league from this point forth, but no MLB park can contain his power. So long as he continues not to get himself out (in addition to not chasing pitches, Judge never hits infield fly balls), he has as high a ceiling as anyone in the league. Marcell Ozuna is having a career season after having shown glimpses of this sort of upside before in his career. At 26 years old, Ozuna seems to be squarely in the middle of his physical prime, and, after being held back somewhat by maturity concerns, seems to be in a good place mentally as well. Ozuna’s exit velocity numbers are alongside those of Miguel Cabrera, Bryce Harper and Yoenis Cespedes, and his home run in Tampa Bay in April is visual evidence of his plus-plus raw power. Tapping into that has been a problem for him in the past, although he has already tied his career high with 23 home runs this season. An inflated HR/FB rate will likely keep him from reaching the 40 home-run mark, but Ozuna has a ton of power upside and has never had a significant problem with strikeouts, making him a threat to hit for a high batting average as well.

Starting Pitchers

1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Max Scherzer
3. Chris Sale
4. Zack Greinke
5. Alex Wood
6. Dallas Keuchel
7. Corey Kluber
8. Ervin Santana
9. Jason Vargas
10. Carlos Carrasco

Clayton Kershaw is back atop the starting pitching rankings, despite some speculation that Max Scherzer and Chris Sale could be closing the gap on Kershaw as the best pitcher in the league. His ERA is up a half-run to 2.18 due to a small home run problem, but Kershaw remains the top pitcher in MLB moving forward, thanks to his unmatched combination of stuff and command. Attempting to one-up his teammate, Alex Wood has quietly run a 1.67 ERA, combining an easy career-high in his strikeout rate with a fantastic ground ball rate. Generating ground balls with three plus pitches (and chases on both his knuckle-curve and changeup), Wood has a case for having been the best starting pitcher on a per-inning basis this season. With a dominant repertoire and a fantastic team supporting him, Wood’s only major concern moving forward is a spotty health history. Jason Vargas’ season has been quite puzzling; his results have been stellar despite a lack of strikeouts or ground balls. Oddly enough, Vargas has been unable to generate more whiffs or chases than in recent seasons, while his stuff has appeared to have regressed. Vargas’ results have been masterful, but given their seemingly inexplicable nature (an ability to suppress HR/FB rate appears to a fairly fickle skill), he seems a risky play moving forward, even as a back-end option.

Relief Pitcher

1. Craig Kimbrel
2. Kenley Jansen
3. Greg Holland
4. Roberto Osuna
5. Brandon Kintzler
6. Raisel Iglesias
7. Felipe Rivero
8. Jim Johnson
9. Christopher Devenski
10. Brad Brach

With the exception of Christopher Devenski, each of the relief pitchers on this list have been propped up by high save totals. With the exception of Devenski and Brad Brach, all seem likely to close for their teams moving forward, with team performance more important to their continued save totals than anything specific to the pitchers themselves.

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