With the labor negotiations in the MLB still on going, I'm hopeful that we can see pitchers and catchers report on time, or at the very least, for normal spring training. With that in mind, this week I continue my offseason series on players who broke the mold in 2021, and aspects of their game we can buy and sell on for fantasy purposes in 2022. I started with pitchers in both leagues, looking at players like Jon Gray in the American League and Blake Snell in the National League. Last week, I turned my attention to hitters, starting with American League Infielders. I'll change leagues again this week, and take a closer look at five National League infielders, and what we should expect to see out of them moving forward. 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 Fernando Tatis or Trea Turner on your teams.
Buy: Francisco Lindor as a Disappointing Fantasy Asset Since 2019
No matter how you cut this up, Lindor has been a disappointment over the last two campaigns. After posting top numbers for Cleveland in 2018 and 2019, we've seen his OPS drop more than 100 points over the last two seasons, mostly due to a lack of power numbers. Making matters worse, his OBP number has dropped in three consecutive seasons as well. What's gone wrong? After excelling against fastballs at a high rate for most of his career, each of the last two seasons have seen successive drops to both his batting average and expected average while seeing his whiff rate rise by more than 5% over that same span. With that, he's also seen a drop of 100 points in his slugging and expected slugging with a falling exit velocity against fastball offerings. The climbing whiff rate corresponds with a falling zone contact rate as well, as Lindor's zone contact percentage has fallen to the lowest marks of his career. Adding on to his struggles, Lindor hit for weak contact at the highest rate of his career as well, more than 5% of the time.
Sell: All Hope is Lost for Lindor
Let's start with the basics - Prior to 2020, Lindor had a career .300 BABIP, which is in line with the Major League average. Over the last two seasons, his BABIP has dipped to .260, so some of this is almost certainly correlated to a fair amount of bad luck at the plate. Though a heighted fly ball rate has changed his profile slightly, the .260 mark is unsustainable, even for hitters known for this type of contact. Lindor was in the 70th percentile for barreled rate last season, and his expected weighted on base average was right in line with his career mark, yet he underachieved by almost 30 points. Lindor also maintained an exit velocity on batted balls last season that was above the league average. Though his expected totals have fallen off since his high water marks in 2018-19, they also suggest that Lindor should have been better last season than he actually was. Lindor posted a career low in line drive rate, and though his fly ball rates were likely induced by a higher launch angle on the season, data does not suggest that this is a change in his approach at the plate. Despite seeing a spike in his strikeout rates, Lindor was more patient at the plate 2021 than ever with a walk rate that was more than 11%. The developing holes in Lindor's swing, particularly against fastballs in the zone, are something that can be fixed, and if he can make strides in this area over the coming year, he could be well worth a buy low.
Buy: The Resurgence of Josh Bell
After a 2020 season that saw Bell struggle to hit his weight, he continued his struggles at the beginning of 2021. After the calendar turned to May, however, Bell turned it on hitting at a .279 clip with 25 HR over the final five months of the season for the Nationals. While it was promising to see the average and power come back, it was even more telling that Bell's strikeout and walk rates normalized last year as well, returning to his career norms. Though he's always been able to punish fastballs, the most telling sign of a turn around here was Bell's success at adapting to breaking balls and offspeed pitches - something we saw him do regularly in his breakout 2019 campaign. Bell was better from both sides of the plate last year, be we especially saw strides when facing left-handed pitchers, as he hit .357 with an .821 slugging percentage against breaking balls last year. In addition to the standard numbers, advanced stats liked Josh Bell last season too, as he returned to the 80th percentile in many of the expected triple slash numbers and saw his hard hit rate reach a career high.
Sell: Josh Bell Returning to 2019 Form
Though Bell was an improved hitter in 2021, there are a few questions on how good he'll be moving forward. Though we noted his improved walk rate, back to 11% last season, Josh Bell saw his pitches per plate appearance fall for the fourth consecutive season, well below the major league average. Bell had a noted improvement against breaking balls last season, but the number he posted is far from sustainable over a larger sample size as he struggled against this pitch type from the left side of the plate. On top of that, Josh Bell has continued to see off-speed pitches at higher rates than ever before, a pitch that he has struggled to hit consistently over the course of his career. Bell also had a considerably exaggerated hard hit rate in 2021 that we should expect to regress as well, as he was more than 10% over his career rate last season, and nearly 17% over the MLB average. Though much of the advanced data suggests that his current play is sustainable, he doesn't project to return to anything close to the form he had in his lone all-star campaign.
Buy: Luis Urias Had a Good 2021 Fantasy Season
Urias, acquired from the Padres at the end of the 2019 season, had a breakout campaign last season when he hit 23 HR with a .789 OPS over 150 games for the Brewers last year. Despite an uninspiring batting average, he boasted an 11% walk rate - above the league average. His strong plate discipline is backed by a whiff rate and chase rate near the 70th percentile as well. In addition to his plate discipline, he makes good contact too, limiting his strikeout potential in points leagues. Urias was at the heart of a strong Milwaukee offense this year, and he had 75 RBI and 77 runs scored to his credit as well. He was also a nice surprise, chipping in for 5 steals, though he shouldn't be considered a strong source of these moving forward. Though Urias is below the league average in exit velocity, he has done his part to change his profile, and now hits regularly to the pull side - a 42% rate last year up from a 31% career line. This is relevant because the easiest source of power with the shortest porch is down the lines - giving Urias' newly found power at least a little bit of staying ability.
Sell: Urias as a Consistent Yearly Fantasy Contributor
I showed above that a newly found approach at the plate has helped Urias' profile as a hitter over the last year, but there are some red flags that follow him. Firstly, Urias ranks in the 25th percentile for average exit velocity - while this isn't everything in power hitting, as evidenced by his 2021 season, this can be an indicator for how sustainable the power truly is. Josh Bell, a noted power hitter mentioned above, had an exit velocity last season nearly 5 MPH higher last season for instance. Several expected metrics, chiefly xWOBA, show that he overproduced by a wide margin last year, especially against breaking balls and off-speed pitches, where he was more than 40 points better in xWOBA and almost 100 points better in xSLG. Based on his pull profile, I expect to see more teams shifting on Urias this season, and that could have a significant impact on his batting average as well. As a player who is no longer noted for hitting to all fields, and in an albeit small sample size, his career xWOBA against the shift is below .250.
Buy: Eugenio Suarez Was a Whole Lot of Bad Last Year
Unless you used Suarez to stream for power in roto leagues last year, he was a hugely disappointing asset posting career lows in average, OBP and his lowest slugging percentage since he was a rookie with the Tigers. Though he still boasted a 30 HR season with 31 long balls last season, he saw a decline in exit velocity for the third consecutive season, and a strikeout rate that climbed for the fourth consecutive season. Suarez ran into some bad luck last season, to his credit, particularly against fastballs where he underperformed compared to his expected average and expected WOBA by almost 50 points. This was the case, to a dramatic fashion, against sinkers last year where he underperformed by almost 100 points. Suarez had a climbing chase rate with declining chase contact and climbing whiff rate last season as well, which doesn't help his case when it comes to strikeouts either.
Sell: Suarez's Struggles Are a Product of Bad Luck
Has Suarez had bad luck? With a pair of seasons with a BABIP below .225 after spending the entirety of his career above the .300 mark, certainly. Lets look a little deeper though - Suarez's struggles began in his storied 2019 campaign when he hit 49 HRs with a .930 OPS. That year his batting average was .271, but his expected batting average was a lowly .243, and was ballooned by a high BABIP. A falling BABIP is negatively correlated to a climbing flyball rate, a rate that has climbed by more than 10% over four seasons for Suarez along with a launch angle that has increased by almost 5 degrees over the same period of time. Suarez also had a career low line drive rate last year which is also a contributing factor to his declining average. As Eugenio has become one of the most pull happy hitters in the league, at a rate of more than 50% over the last three years, he has become one of the more shifted hitters in the league, and has struggled regularly to beat the shift with a wOBA significantly lower than against an unshifted alignment. As Suarez continues to sell out more aggressively for the power approach, his underlying number continue to diminish, and while he's certainly going to continue to be a source of power while he's in the lineup, it remains in question how long he can stick in the Reds' lineup if they consider themselves to be contenders.
Buy: Brandon Crawford Was a League Winner in 2021
For where he was drafted in redraft (if at all), or acquired via free agency in dynasty leagues, Brandon Crawford was the level of a league winner last year with an OPS more than 100 points higher than his previous best, with career bests in every counting stat on the board. Crawford's season was bolstered by a career high barrel rate, his best exit velocity since 2016, and a career high launch angle - more than three degrees higher than his career average. What did Crawford do well last year? He destroyed fastballs. Crawford had a .341 average against it this year, and slugged 19 of his 24 long balls to the tune of a .639 slugging percentage. Expanding his appeal, he also drew walks at a career high rate last season, eclipsing the 10% mark for the first time.
Sell: Brandon Crawford Will Ever Duplicate This Success
Let's start with the basics - while Crawford tattooed fastballs last season, he was only able to do this against right handed pitchers. Against left-handed pitchers last season, Crawford hit a meager .250, and struggled mightily against breaking balls - a pitch he had 5 career HRs on before last season. Brandon Crawford enjoyed the best BABIP of his career last season, a .334 mark that was more than 40 points above his prior career average. This suggests strong negative regression, certainly on the batting average front. The heightened BABIP is especially surprising considering that Crawford hit more flyballs last season than any prior season as well. Though Crawford hit .341 against fastballs last season, he had an expected average of .295 suggesting regression here as well. Crawford is in the bottom half of the MLB in average exit velocity, despite his spike last season, and isn't a strong pull hitter which will make it harder to sustain any type of power. By any measure, Crawford doesn't have a chance to put up numbers like this again in his career, though he can still enjoy some success similar to the numbers he posted in 2015 - numbers that his current advanced analytics suggest he more closely mirrored than the gaudy stats he posted this season. For this reason, I'm selling Crawford high wherever I can, or if I'm keeping him, tempering expectations for the campaign ahead.