Buy and Sell - American League Infielders

Over the last couple of weeks, we've looked in depth at starting pitchers in both the American and National Leagues that had seasons that broke the trend in 2021, and aspects of their game that we can buy and sell on. With baseball still on the back burner as we continue to move towards reporting dates for pitchers and catchers, there is a glimmer of hope as multiple sources have pointed that the sides are closer than we expected. With that in mind, it makes sense to continue to look towards the future with an eye on the past for how players performed last year. With our tour of starting pitchers complete, we'll turn an eye, now, to infielders in both leagues, before identifying outfielders to round out our tour. As with previous installments in this series, we'll be looking at players who are on the radar for dynasty and redraft fantasy baseball, but further down most ranking lists, because you don't need me to tell you that you should try and get Jose Ramirez or Rafael Devers on your teams.

Buy: Mike Zunino as a Rosterable Catcher Again in 2022

Last season, Mike Zunino defied the odds as he went from a catcher that put up back to back sub-.600 OPS seasons to one that swatted 30+ HR for the first time in his career. There are a number of reasons for why he had a successful season, and the first reason we can point to for sustainability is a new approach at the plate. Always noted as a pull-hitter in his career, Zunino took it to the extreme in 2021 with a notable 55% pull rate, the highest in his career to date, and a 8% hike from his career average. Evidenced by a career exit velocity almost 1.5 MPH higher than league average, Zunino has always been widely regarded as a power-hitter, and a pull-heavy approach leads to more HRs as a result. Because of this, we can't say for certain that his 8.4% HR rate in 2021 was an aberration, even if it is likely inflated. Though noted for his swing and miss approach at the plate, as we'll get into, Zunino has been remarkably consistent in his career at barreling up pitches, consistently rating in the top 10% of ML hitters. Though a small sample size, we also saw Zunino draw more free passes in 2021 than in previous years. While Zunino is a likely regression candidate from the .860 OPS we saw him post last year, he's certainly a name I like in the back half of drafts, particularly in roto, where you won't be punished by his volume of strikeouts, and would put him ahead of names like Carson Kelly who many services have several spots ahead of him.

Sell: Mike Zunino to Repeat his 2021 Season

We've touched on reasons why he was able to be successful last season, but there are a number of red flags here. Though Zunino has always been able to put barrels on balls at a high rate, the 24% rate we saw year is simply not sustainable. The MLB has an average ratio of 6%, and Zunino's career average is 15%. Despite seeing an increase in walk rate, Zunino was no less patient at the plate later in counts, and instead swung at fewer first pitches this year, and while ahead in counts. Indeed, Zunino was at the bottom of the league again in whiff rate, k rate. In addition to this, despite posting a lowly .216 BA, he continued to struggle against off-speed and breaking pitches, failing to hit above the Mendoza Line against anything thrown his way that had movement. Zunino's elevated K rate, along with the likely regression we see in his power and average numbers, make him a challenge to roster in points leagues where strikeouts can kill you over the course of a week.

Buy: Jared Walsh as a Top 10 Fantasy 1B

Though he had a nice season in 2020, we really didn't have the sample size to know what Jared Walsh was heading into last season. He didn't disappoint last year for the Halos as he hit 29 HR and batted in 98 RBI, a number that could have been better, as Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon missed large chunks of the season last year. Though he's likely to hit a little regression, as his BABIP and xBA liked him for closer to a .260 average, Walsh continued to maintain exit velocities and barrel rates well above the league average proving that the power is real. We also saw a more controlled approach at the plate from the young 1B in 2021 as well, with a walk rate that was closer to the league average, while seeing more pitches per plate appearance. Though he continued to be less effective against lefties last season, we saw him hit 10 HR against southpaws last year at a HR rate equal to that against right handers, which shows some promise that he won't be platoon specific moving forward. In a lineup that projects to have Trout, Ohtani, Rendon and Walsh, look for him to take another step forward and post quality counting stats again in 2022.

Sell: Jared Walsh as the next Matt Olson

For everything we like about Walsh, there are a few reasons to take pause. While we noted that Walsh outperformed his batting average on a couple metrics, he also outperformed his expected slugging percentage as well, particularly against off-speed pitches, where he was more than 170 points higher. We also saw his batting average climb by 130 points against changeups, despite a falling expected average against the pitch. Though he showed an improved eye at the plate last year, his strikeout rate climbed back above league average, which we expect in power hitters, but we saw his whiff rate nearly triple against fastball-type offerings which is cause for a little alarm as well. Finally, when looking at some batted ball metrics, we've seen Walsh's pull heavy numbers decrease in each season. One of the most heavily shifted players in baseball (70% last season), it's promising to see him more effectively use all fields to his advantage, but we only saw him go opposite field for one of his long balls last season.

Buy: Nicky Lopez Was a Nice 2021 Fantasy Story

A nice fill in for the oft-maligned Adalberto Mondesi, Lopez emerged again in June of last year to hit .334 down the stretch for the Royals while swiping 22 of 23 bases, and having some value, at least in roto leagues. In addition to the batting average, Lopez was able to strike out 10% less than the league average, boasting a top 10% whiff and strikeout rate, while increasing his walk rate to the league average. Despite playing in a below average lineup, Lopez was able to score 78 runs while chipping in for 43 RBI, despite only creating two of each via the long ball. This is where the fairy tale sadly ends.

Sell: Owning Nicky Lopez on any Fantasy Rosters This Year

We know that Lopez has the wheels, swiping 22 bags last year and 20 in each full minor league season before that. In fact, almost half of his career XBH have been a product of his wheels, turning singles into doubles, etc. While this can be helpful, it partially shows the woeful lack of pop in his bat as well. By advanced metrics, Lopez was in the first percentile in barrel rate, the second percentile for expected slugging, and the fourth for hard hit %. Now that I've shown Nicky Lopez has about the same pop as most National League starting pitchers, let's address his woefully inflated .300 BA last year. It's good for a player to get lucky at the plate, as that helps you stay on the field over the course of a season, and anyone who's watched Bull Durham knows that an extra dying quail a week turns you into a .300 hitter. That was Lopez last year. To that effect, however, we saw him have a BABIP 74 points higher than his previous high-water mark, and one that was more than 50 points higher than the ML average. His expected batting average liked him a whole lot less too, to the tune of a .239 average. While we can all agree he was a nice story last year, let's agree to let this particular 2021 anomaly live forever in 2021. Do I hate Nicky Lopez? No, I do not. Do I hate him in any type of fantasy format for 2022? Absolutely.

Buy: Jorge Polanco was a League Winner in 2021

Coming off a poor, shortened 2020 campaign, I'll admit that Polanco was not a player I had much hope for last year, despite his previous success. Polanco emphatically told me to sit down and be humble last year, posting 33 HRs and 98 RBIs while crossing home plate nearly 100 times as well. He even swiped a modest 11 bases last year, proving that he was a well rounded asset as well. Despite posting a 30th percentile hard hit rate last year, Polanco was in the 70th percentile or better for expected average, slugging and weighted on base average. Despite being a markedly better left-handed hitter over the course of his career, he posted an OPS of .800+ from both sides of the plate last season, though he clearly still has a better eye from the left-handed batters box where he drew 37 of his 45 walks. We saw marked improvement from Polanco against breaking balls last season, hitting 8 of his 33 HR off these offerings, a number higher than all of his previous seasons combined. Though we'd like to see him show markedly better discipline at the plate, with a walk rate in the bottom quarter of the league with a chase rate near 30%, Polanco is in the top 20% in the league for contact rate and whiff percentage. The final note I'll make here, is we definitely saw a change in batted ball profile last year that helps explain the power slightly, as we saw him pull the ball at a higher rate than any previous season. As noted with Zunino, this type of change correlates highly with power numbers, and last year we saw him pull the ball a whopping 52% of the time, a stark change from his career 40% mark.

Sell: Jorge Polanco is a top 15 Dynasty Second Baseman

While his transition from short to second last year leaves a little doubt about his long term fit, he's a better defensive fit at the cornerstone. Despite his immense success last year, Polanco still doesn't project as a top 15 guy long term for me. Though he showed improvement against breaking balls last season, Polanco still only hit .252 against these offerings last season, show that he likely outperformed expectations, even if only slightly, and had a higher whiff rate against these offerings last season as well. It's also fair to question how much staying ability his newly found power numbers have. Before last season, the Twins second baseman had never hit more than 22 home runs in a season with a career average exit velocity hovering around 87. Last season, he upped that by more than two full ticks, with only a marginal change in launch angle. Though Polanco is a player I like quite a bit, I don't see enough from him in roto to buy into him to regard him above players in the same tier like Jake Cronenworth or even a prospect like Nick Gonzales.

Buy: Matt Chapman Had a Bad Year in 2021

I'm kind of taking the easy way out here with how I'm labelling Chapman who was, by all accounts, biblically bad last year. What went wrong? Besides a climbing walk in the 90th percentile of the league last year, a little bit of everything to tell the truth. He hit 27 HRs in 2021, but his exit velocity three points lower than any season besides his rookie campaign. Despite hitting an egregious .210, his expected batting average was some how even lower in the third percentile. Despite a climbing walk rate, for the second season in a row, Chapman struck out ten percent more than the league average. Though he's always been a well rounded hitter, capable of hitting fastball, off-speed and breaking balls, for the second consecutive season he struggled against fastballs, and mightily last year against breaking pitches. With a heightened strikeout rate, he struggled to the worst full season whiff rate of his career, more than 30% on each pitch type.

Sell: There's No Hope That He Recovers

Was he bad last year? Absolutely. Are there reasons I think he can be a respectable bat once again at the hot corner? Certainly, read the header. While we saw above that his strike out rate has climbed to career highs over the last two seasons, we also see a hitter who is in the 80th percentile for chase rate. Taking that a step further, Chapman continues to see a well above average number of pitches per plate appearance, showing a walk rate that appears to be sustainable. In terms of his batting average, despite a low expected batting average, we see a guy who was more than a bit unlucky with a career BABIP near the major league average that saw him hit 24 points lower last season. We also saw Chapman in the 86th percentile in barrel rate last season, and his expected isolated power remained high. While the days of Chapman being lauded as a top fantasy asset at the hot corner are gone, he's still an exceptional talent that brings a nice mix of power and glove to the Oakland A's. I expect to see some positive regression to his game this season, though he may never hit .250 again. He should swat 30 HRs, and see his OPS climb closer to .800, and put him in the conversation again, especially if he can cut down on his swing and miss rates.

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