Tout Table: Early Surprises

This week, the Touts were asked, “What is the biggest surprise so far (big picture, not individual players)?

Here is what we had to say.

Justin Mason (Friends with Fantasy Benefits, Fangraphs, Fantasy Alarm, @JustinMasonFWFB): The amount of hitter injuries. I think many of us thought going from a 60 game to 162 game season would increase pitching injuries, but the amount of early hitter injuries has been higher than expected.

Jim Bowden (Fantasy Alarm, @JimBowdenGM): The amount of star players hitting under .200 to start the year: ie Stanton, Torres, Hiura, Chapman Semien, Tucker, J Polanco, DeJong Blackmon, Yaz, Baez, Swawnson, Moncada, Robles, Laureano etc.

Brad Johnson (Patreon/BaseballATeam, @BaseballATeam): Honestly, maybe I’m just jaded, but I’m having a really hard time finding a general surprise. The injuries, increased strikeouts, decreased homers, closer committees, and piggyback starters were all predictable. Probably the one thing that’s shocked me is teams postponing games for 40-degree weather. I figure even that’s because they can sell more tickets to games later in the season. It shouldn’t be surprising, I simply didn’t anticipate it.

Matt Williams (NBC Sports Edge, @MattWi77iams): The incredibly poor start on offense. The league wide batting average was hovering near .230 with a vast amount of all-stars batting below the .200 mark. It’s early in the season, there is a new ball, and the weather has not been perfect, but it’s still a bit of a surprise. The talk of lowering the mound and moving it back may startle some, but the year over year decline on offense is hard to ignore at this point.

Michael Rathburn (Rotowire, @FantasyRath): Injuries, slow starts by big name hitters and the increased defragmenting of saves.

Jason Collette (Rotowire, @jasoncollette): The drag on NL offense by the loss of the Universal DH. Start of play Wednesday, NL ERA was 4.04 vs 4.48 in AL and strikeout rate was 25.4% to 24.8%. NL teams are hitting .225 vs the .243 their AL counterparts have hit so far. Pitchers hitting is a pox on this game.

Todd Zola (Mastersball, @toddzola): Call this pleasantly surprised, but with all the talk about more teams deploying bullpen games, there have been very few true opener/primary pitcher contests. Granted, they’ll pick up with more injuries, but the party line was there would be more in general. I like what the Rangers are doing with their tandem pitchers, letting the opener serve as a true starter, simply announcing in advance who the first reliever will be.

Nando Di Fino (The Athletic, @nandodifino): This might be a little granular, but I’m impressed with how people are quoting their TGFBI teams and leagues a lot (on podcasts, radio, twitter, etc) as reference points, and how many people on twitter are showing NFBC bids. It’s cool to see some of these competitions go mainstream and help other players out.

Perry Van Hook (Mastersball, @): I think the biggest surprise so far is the team performances. Especially those teams that were not expected to compete. Look at the league leaders in the AL West and Central. Also Detroit, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh, who were all projected to be very bad teams, are winning several early games. Is it the management and deployment of those teams or has the parity level risen more than we would have expected?

Jeff Zimmerman (Fangraphs, The Process, @jeffwzimmerman): That several MLB won’t be making the 85% threshold so some teams will be working with one set of isolationg protocals (e.g. contact tracing) and others with different ones.

Ray Flowers (Fantasy Guru, @BaseballGuys): Coming into the season I was worried about all the pitchers and what their likely workloads will be (hint, they would be low). Perhaps I was remiss in not worrying more about players missing time too. The age of guys playing daily is just over. Guys rest cause it’s a day game, cause of the matchup, cause they didn’t sleep great last night, but most frequently cause they tweaked something physically. The era of playing in fantasy leagues where we set the lineup once on Monday should be over. Taking zeros every day cause players are out of the lineup just stinks.

Howard Bender (Fantasy Alarm, @RotobuzzGuy): Have you noticed just how thin the outfield is right now? Doesn’t matter if it’s a 12 or a 15-teamer, the help for your outfield on waivers is atrocious. If you look at composite ADP across the industry, 43 of the top 200 picks were outifleders and there are roughly 18-20 of them either on the IL or have already spent time on the IL, so obviously injuries come into play. But you also have a number of players like Dylan Moore and Tommy Edman, for example, who qualify in the outfield and are taking outfield at-bats right now, but fantasy owners are using them in the infield where they qualify as well. If your league requires you to start five outfielders, make sure you’ve got proper depth at the position or you’ll be seeing a lot of zeroes day in and day out.

Mike Podhorzer (Fangraphs, @MikePodhorzer): League average exit velocity, Barrel%, and HardHit% are all at their highest marks during the Statcast era (since 2015), yet HR/FB rate is well down from the last two seasons and only ranks fourth out of seven seasons. That’s a really strange outcome given the underlying drivers, and most certainly says something about the ball we heard so much about during the preseason.

Craig MIsh (FNTSY Radio, @CraigMish): Surprising that getting a strikeout per inning from your starter seems about league average. in a 5×5 that uses straight strikeouts, you simply can’t even start guys who don’t get swings and misses. Used to be find a couple of guys at the top of your fantasy rotation that get massive K’s and just fill out the rest. In some cases having TWO guys like that in your starting 5/6 doesn’t even add up if they aren’t generating whiffs. Strikeouts have become what Home Runs are on the offensive side. Get a ton of em or finish at the bottom.

Alex Fast (Pitcher List, @AlexFast8): That offense is THAT down. It’s normal to expect some regression in the winter months for certain but this is still a bit shocking to me. We knew that the ball would introduce some form of regression but, even still, I didn’t feel it would be this bad. Also, INJURIES (which could also be a factor in suppressed offense). There are always a slew of various ailments that occur to begin the season but ’21 is featuring more injuries than we’re typically used to seeing to start a season and I think I can speak for everyone when I say it’s causing a lot of headaches.

Patrick Davitt (BaseballHQ, @patrickdavitt): How genuinely terrible the TOR offense has been, and how surprisingly good their pitching. The regular hitters have combined for a .678 OPS, and that’s with Vladdy raking to a 1.125. Starting catcher Danny Jansen has a .244 BA… wait, my bad, that’s his OPS. Five of the nine regulars have BAs under .200, and three have Slgs under .300 (including my pre-season pick to click, Rowdy Tellez, at .178/.213/.244). Meanwhile, the rotation has two guys with ERAs under 2.00 (Matz and Ray), the five main relievers have given up 6 ER in 25.2 IP … what a team.

Eric Karabell (ESPN, @karabelleric): I think the biggest surprise is that there are so many new hitters emerging as reliable options so far, players that seemed so far from relevance but are anything but that. Yermin Mercedes, Akil Baddoo and Zach McKinstry, among others, are becoming household fantasy names, but there was little indication of true relevance six weeks ago. And it’s not just bad teams giving opportunity. It’s fun to see new players shine.

Tim McLeod (Prospect361.com, @RunTMc59006473): The Dodgers have actually lost four games. What’s up with that? If they keep this up, they won’t clinch a playoff spot until sometime in mid-August.

James Anderson (Rotowire, @RealJRAnderson): It’s not necessarily a shocking development, but I did think there’d be a chance that COVID would be closer to a non-factor. We all knew injuries would be prevalent, but the COVID-related absences have certainly introduced more luck into the equation than anyone wants. Hopefully we’ve seen the worst of it.

Ryan Bloomfield (BaseballHQ, @RyanBHQ): Having to recalibrate (yet again!) to our changing game. MLB-wide exit velocity from 2017-21: 87.3, 88.4, 88.7, 88.4, and now 89.0. Even bigger jump for Barrel rate: 5.7%, 6.2%, 6.8%, 7.6%, and now 8.4%. Keep that in mind when seeing “Player X has an increase in barrel rate this year but HR rate is down” and square that with the league-wide trends first.

Fred Zinkie (Yahoo! Fantasy Sports, @FredZinkieMLB): Maybe this shouldn’t shock me, but I’m surprised that so many “good” hitters are doing so poorly so far. I assume they will all come around as the weather warms up and teams have to plunge even deeper into their pitching depth chart. But at this point I’m shocked at the poor returns (performance and injury) among many of the top hitter picks.

Greg Jewett (Fantasy Alarm, @gjewett9): Since everyone’s speaking about the league wide hitting issues, how about closers or just saves in general? We knew it would be volatile this year targeting closers or trying to find them on the waiver wire, but it’s been even more tumultuous than originally thought. Match-up based bullpens, workload management and in the case of the White Sox, just flummoxing usage patterns. It’s much too early to panic about saves but trying to stay ahead of the game remains tantamount to making up ground in the standings. In trade leagues, it’s easier to find teams who may be able to trade them off to hot starts in the category, but in formats without trades, be sure to focus on evolving roles. Which seems like a daily news cycle.

Scott Engel (Rotoballer, @scotteTheKing): I have been pleasantly surprised by how some players on teams that were lowly regarded are performing. Adam Frazier and J.T. Brubaker have been quality fantasy assets from the Pirates roster. The Tigers have given us Akil Baddoo, no matter how long that lasts, and Jeimer Candelario has continued to play well. Jake McGee has looked like a top closer so far.

Lou Blasi (Fantistics, @LouBlasi): This might be anecdotal, but the amount of dominace by starting pitching so far has been surprising. ERA is down among SPs, xFIP is way down, Ks are up, SwStr% is up, CSW is up, Sliders are up, HR/FB is down. Lot’s of small sample, weather, and early season noise of course, but the number of dominant starts has been an eye-opener. Still, Barrel% is up, 95+ (HardHit%) is up, and EV is up too, so I’m thinking you should enjoy it while you can, pile up the IP for the ratios and buckle up for a rebound by the hitters.

Jeff Erickson (Rotowire, @Jeff_Erickson): I expected pitcher injuries to be a prevalent storyline, and while there have been a few, it’s the hitter injuries that have been the prevailing story. On Tuesday, the top-four hitters in BA leagues were out of the lineup and all had missed at least a couple of games due to injury. Twelve of the top 80 hitters have missed time with injuries, with three more Astros missing at leasat one series with a COVID issue. Were teams more prepared to deal with the fallout of last year’s abbreviated season for pitchers but didn’t pay enough attention to the hitters, or is this a statistical anamoly?

Charlie Wiegert (CDM Sports, @GFFantasySports): The Yankees at 5-10 are the worst team in baseball. While it does my heart good to see it, it’s hard to believe the team with one of the highest payrolls are at the bottom. I’m sure they’ll get going soon and capture a playoff spot, but the performance of their millionaires leaves a lot to be desired right now!

Larry Schechter (Winning Fantasy Baseball, @LarrySchechter): The Covid situation…on the one hand many players have been held out of games and even a few games postponed, but on the other hand the outbreaks haven’t been as massive and long lasting as last year. Couldn’t MLB have figured out a way to get all players vaccinated earlier?

Ariel Cohen (CBS Sports, @ATCNY): Of the first round players … all of the pitchers look fantastic. Every single one of them. So many of the first round hitters are injured.

D.J. Short (NBC Sports Edge, @djshort): I was going to mention all of the notable hitter injuries, as well. But otherwise, I’d also note that there seems to be more reaction (or overreaction) to early-season production. I’m not sure how much of this is struggling to adjust to the way we managed fantasy rosters during the 60-game season last year where you would be more inclined to just run with a hot hitter or pitcher. I think it could also be the increased information we have — Baseball Savant is a gift and you can pick up on things sooner — but in general, it feels more like the wild west these days.

Tristan H. Cockcroft (ESPN, @SultanofStat): Not that I was a big fan of their introduction in the first place, but I’m surprised at how much I genuinely loathe the runner-on-second-in-extras and seven-inning-doubleheader rules now that we’ve got a 162- rather than 60-game schedule. Both are gimmicky, they’re altering teams’ pitching strategies in an exaggerated way and they’re creating unnatural statistics, which just doesn’t feel like baseball. I don’t think there should ever be a way that a team should ever win a game on a pair of outs, and that rule about the man starting on second being the batter before the pitcher if the pitcher’s spot was the last one up — ugh, that exposes flaws in the rules. For all of these other things baseball has introduced over the years — six divisions, wild cards, the wild card playoff game, etc. — I’ve been patient and come to enjoy each. These? My feelings are going in the other direction.

Scott Swanay (FantasyBaseballSherpa, @fantasy_sherpa): To me it’s how many hitters are off to miserable starts. The MLB batting average has hovered close to .250 in recent seasons, so the fact that it’s currently around .235 suggests it’s due to more than early season cold weather in many parts of the country.

Chris Towers (CBS Fantasy Sports, @CTowersCBS): The number of apparent pitcher outbreaks, which is of course tied very closely to the dramatic increase in strikeout rates across baseball. We’re up to 24.7%, the highest in MLB history, and it’s coincided with an MLB record-low batting average. We’re seeing apparent early-season star turns from the likes of Joe Musgrove, Trevor Rogers, and Carlos Rodon, plus returns to relevance for guys like Sean Manaea and Danny Duffy. How sustainable are these hot starts? And how much do we need to recalibrate our expectations for what a good start is in this new landscape? We’ll need a few more weeks for the numbers to stabilize on both counts, but this looks like it could be The Year of the Pitcher Part Two.

Tim McCullough (Baseball Prospectus, @TimsTenz): I’m surprised that there has been so little complaining about what I call the “training wheels rule.” You know, the one that puts a runner on second base in extra innings. I haven’t seen any research or statistics that indicate whether this dumb rule actually helps to keep extra innings games shorter, but I suspect that it does not. Considering the drop in BABIP so far, can we expect the next dumb rule to just put a runner on base to start every inning? It would be great if the fans would really express their disdain for this so MLB dumps this rule. I’m not opposed to anything that truly improves the game. This rule doesn’t even come close and we need to protest its continued existence. That aint baseball!

Shelly Verougstraete (Dynasty Guru, @ShellyV_643): Maybe I was a bit naive but I am surprised we are seeing as many COVID situations as we have. Sure, we are still in a pandemic but I thought players would get vaccinated. Hopefully, we will not see many more COVID scares this season.

Doug Dennis (BaseballHQ, @dougdennis41): I don’t know if this is really a surprise, but teams are more sophisticated in deploying pitchers generally with starters going shorter and bullpens as weapons aimed at neutralizing difficult batters–and it is really working early. I expect warmer weather will bring more home runs, but I am not sure that is going to help with OBA and BA issues as balls in play are dropping and dropping. I am starting to advocate a major shift in rosters–from 14 batters and 9 pitchers to something closer to 2021 reality–perhaps 11 batters and 12 pitchers for the future. Because as MLB evolves, fantasy baseball is lagging behind and like it or not, our games get further and further away from roster construction for real life GMs.

Anthony Aniano (Rotoballer, @AAnianoFantasy): My biggest surprise this season is how teams are struggling offensively. Currently threre are 17 teams with a team batting average under .240 and 9 teams with a team batting average under .220. Although slow starts are to be expected to see this many teams struggling to make contact is a surprise and will most likely lead to changes in the game which will increase offensive production.

Derek VanRiper (The Athletic, @DerekVanRiper): I’m with Tristan…I think I was pretty open-minded about some of the rules tweaks for 2020 in part because I was just grateful that anything resembling a baseball season was happening. I hope this is the last time we see a runner on second base to start each inning in extra-innings situations, but if we’re stuck with some modification in an effort to move the game along, I would love to see the runner start at first base instead. Giving the team on the field a chance to turn a double play and flip the inning would be huge, and it might actually speed up finding a winner. Some teams might elect to use a pinch-runner and steal second anyway, but that’s at least puts a little more of the onus on the team hitting to do something in order to get a decisive run.

Michael A. Stein (Fantasy Judgment, @FantasyJudgment): Injuries are always a big part of the game, but it just seems that there is an overabundance of injuries to star players very early in the season. I can’t point to any specific reason why, but offensive players like Acuna, Soto, Betts, Yelich, Tatis and Bellinger have all missed time already. I am also surprised at how impossible it has become to predict saves. Bullpens by committee are nothing new, but generally teams had an established closer that we could reasonably expect to get most of the closing opportunities. That does not seem to be the case anymore. Finally, adding onto some of the previous comments, I hate the extra inning rule of starting with a runner on 2nd base. I really hope it goes away next year with a new CBA and when COVID issues are in the rearview mirror.

Mike Gianella (Baseball Prospectus, @MikeGianella): The vocal resistance or at least reticence by multiple parties to getting vaccinated. This is really something I thought would be a general relief to the vast majority of players, and something they’d recognize as a benefit to their union and the game on the whole. I certainly didn’t expect every single player to be enthusiastic about it, but I am really taken aback that for at least a few players this has become a political issue.

Greg Ambrosius (NFBC, @GregAmbrosius): I’m shocked 1) How bad hitting is (.233 league average); 2) How bad the Yankees’ offense is; and 3) That MLB really made pitchers hit this year. Really? That will grow interest in the game after not hitting last year? Stupid.

Lenny Melnick (LennyMelnickFantasySports, @LennyMelnick): As Of Wednesday….Eduardo Escobar has as many home runs as Mike Trout Tyler Naquin has the same # of RBI as Ronald Acuña. Chris Owings has only played in 7 games but leads all players in triples with 3. May be players, but… wow

Ray Murphy (BaseballHQ, @RayHQ): A lot of great answers here, but the overriding theme for me is how normal this all feels. Sure, we’ve had some COVID cases pop up, but those should get even less frequent as the players and traveling parties get vaccinated. For most of the winter, I was pessimistic that we were going to get 162 games in, now it seems certain that we will. Looking forward to another 22 weeks of taking deep dives into the issues above.

Andrea LaMont (LennyMelnickFantasySports, @RotoLady): I am real surprised to see the Red Sox leading the AL East and the Yankees with the worst record in the American League. Surprised to see the lack of hustle coming from Yankees players. I highly doubt these standings look like this in August.

Vlad Sedler (Fantasy Guru, @rotogut): Mostly surprised by how so many of the first round hitters have been hit with early injuries, curious how they’ll fare and if this is finally the year we have a NFBC Main Event winner who started their drafts off with a starting pitcher (deGrom, Cole, Bieber, Bauer, Darvish).

Phil Hertz (BaseballHQ, @prhz50): Surprised by the lack of hitting overall. Also hating the extra inning rules more and more as the season progresses. I guess within the craziness of 2020, the rule didn’t bother me, but now, oh boy.

Rudy Gamble (Razzball, @RudyGamble): I am always surprised this time of year how much the emotional part of me reacts to small samples. I don’t act on these emotions aside from grumble about things like Luis Castillo’s poor starts. I’m also shocked that Corbin Burnes suddenly has prime Cliff Lee’s BB rate.

Scott White (CBS Fantasy Sports, @CBSScottWhite): Probably that the league-wide batting average is only .233. Maybe it’s just early-season rust, but with strikeouts making another leap amid talk of changes to the baseball seam height, is it possible pitchers have gained a competitive advantage? It’s worth noting that hard-hit and barrel rates are both up (also possible effects of a ball), and yet it’s not translating to more hits.

Mike Sheets (ESPN, @MikeASheets): I’ve been surprised, or perhaps saddened, at the number of top-tier hitters suffering injuries in the early going. We sometimes expect at least a few big-name pitchers to go down, but hitters are supposed to be safe — at least that’s what we like to tell ourselves. Injuries are obviously going to happen, but within a couple of weeks, Fernando Tatis, Christian Yelich, Juan Soto, and Ronald Acuna have all missed time. And as I type this, Mike Trout just left the game after getting hit by a pitch on the elbow. God help us all.

Chris Liss (Rotowire, @Chris_Liss): Hitting production has been more or less random so far, while pitching production has been severely concentrated in the early rounds.

Zach Steinhorn (CreativeSports2, @zachsteinhorn): I expected that the saves category would be a headache to address this year, but not to this degree. Just three weeks into the season, 23 of the 30 teams have multiple relievers with at least one save. Emmanuel Clase, Yimi Garcia, Ian Kennedy and Cesar Valdez weren’t even drafted in most leagues yet they all rank among the top-9 in saves, and your co-leaders are none other than Jake McGee and Mark Melancon. I think I’m ready to start playing in saves+holds leagues.

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