Baseball is a grind — and the fantasy version of the game is no different. And because it’s a grind, baseball features streaks. Hitters can get hot at the plate, seemingly seeing beach balls thrown at them. Pitchers can get hot on the mound, too. And of course, both can get freezing cold.
In this space, we’ll take a weekly look at who’s hot and who’s not — and whether you should believe in the streak.
(Editor’s note: All stats derived before game action on Sunday, April 18)
Corbin Burnes is really doing his best to make all those sleeper and breakout articles written about him in the offseason look like prophecy.
You would be hard-pressed to find a better National League pitcher in the early going than the Milwaukee right-hander. Burnes owns a sterling 0.49 ERA and a 0.218 WHIP through three starts — three starts in which he’s only allowed four hits. He’s also the first pitcher since 1906 to have 30 strikeouts and zero (!!!) walks in first 3 starts (read that again).
Obviously, this won’t last; this is professional baseball, after all. Burnes will eventually allow more than four hits and he’ll walk a batter or two but upon deeper inspection, this doesn’t seem like just a hot start against weaker opposition.
Burnes’ velocity is up nearly two miles per hour than his previous highs — and we like that. He’s pounding the zone (19.7 percent swinging-strike rate), but he’s also getting batters to chase, as evidenced by his 39.2 percent swing rate on pitches outside of the zone. So, he’s overpowering opponents with his newfound velocity but he’s also fooling them, too.
The long story short on Burnes: Expect regression, expect a bad outing; it’s baseball. But as long as his velocity remains up and he continues to dominate his control, Burnes is set to be one of the best fantasy starters in 2021.
Justin Turner is 36, and yet he seems younger than ever, as evidenced by his three homers in four games (he’s 9-for-17 in that span).
At what point will Justin Turner slow down? Who knows; it’s hard to slow down when you’re insulated by the championship-winning Dodgers lineup and you’ve always hit for average throughout your entire career (or at least, since 2012).
His current BABIP is an atmospheric .450 right now, so some regression is coming. With that said, he’s actually striking out way more than he is walking in the early going — not a common occurrence with Turner, who has maintained a career BB/K ratio of 0.60 — yet is slashing a ridiculous .426/.467/.815 with a 1.281 OPS. So, will regression come in the form of, say, less home runs, but more walks? Less strikeouts and more fly-outs?
Seems like the bottom line won’t change much — Turner’s aging like fine wine.
Carlos Rodon, SP, Chicago White Sox
The White Sox seem to attract no-hitters like mosquitos to summer, and the latest belongs to Carlos Rodon, who is one of the better comeback stories of the young 2021 season.
After being a highly touted prospect, Rodon never lived up to expectations, thanks in no small part to some freak injuries, not to mention Tommy John surgery in 2019. He returned in 2020, suffered through a couple of appearances, and hit rock-bottom when the Sox non-tendered him.
But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it seems like Rodon has come back stronger than ever.
After re-signing with the Sox in the offseason, Rodon, armed with 2.5 more MPH than he had in 2020, dominated in Spring Train ing and has carried that success into the regular season. Rodon is 2-0 with a nonexistent ERA and, of course, the aforementioned no-hitter (which should have been a perfect game, but he hit a batter with two outs in the bottom of the ninth).
The first place we look for a potential breakout from a pitcher is velocity, and Rodon’s has ballooned all the way up to 95.5 this season; in fact, he was touching 96 late in that no-hitter.
Rodon isn’t the first pitcher to return from Tommy John and succeed, but I don’t think anyone expected this start. Even if he regresses (like, I don’t know, give up a run) — which he will — consider the fact that he wasn’t even drafted in most fantasy leagues. So when the hot streak ends, via a subpar outing or a blow-up game where he allows a plethora of runs and doesn’t make it past the third inning (to be apocalyptic), don’t cut bait.
We could be seeing a brand new, dominant version of Carlos Rodon.
And now, some words on Ronald Acuña Jr. …
I won’t waste too much of your time here; Acuña was probably the No. 1 overall pick in your league, so you expect him to be good. But I don’t think anyone expected him to start off this good.
Acuña has been making a mockery of the batter’s box in the last week-and-change, 8-for-his-last-18 with three homers and EIGHT RBIs. The 20-year-old (!!!) is slashing .433/.493/.917 with a hilarious 1.409 OPS on the season.
Perhaps most impressively, however, has been Acuña’s patience in the box. A knock on him early in his career (imagine referring to someone’s career who can’t even legally drink yet as “early”) were the strikeouts. His K percentage in his first three “seasons” was over 25 percent; it’s only 13 percent through this year’s 15 games. His swinging-strike percentage has been cut in half, yet he’s maintained an 84% contact rate on pitches in the zone. Basically, Acuña is picking his spots and making the most of them when he does.
Of course, this must all be taken with the caveat of the uber-talented outfielder playing just 15 games (and being buoyed by a lofty .422 BABIP) — but can you imagine the havoc Acuña can unleash if his batting eye has matured at a rapidly exponential rate?
Hide your opposing pitchers.
Max Fried, SP, Atlanta Braves
As someone who drafted, started, and subsequently rage-cut Max Fried, I can sympathize with fantasy managers who still have him on their team and are wondering what is going on.
Seriously, what the hell is going on?!
*takes deep breath*
While Fried’s high school compatriots, Lucas Giolito and Jack Flaherty, are flying high, Fried has run into some tough times. Before landing on the IL with a hamstring strain, Fried holds an unseemly 11.45 ERA, having allowed 23 hits (yuck) in three starts, with 12 runs in his last two (double-yuck). The walks, which have haunted him throughout his career, have continued in 2021.
But as bad as it seems, there are signs for hope with Fried.
For one, he has yet to suffer a velocity drop this season. He’s also been dealing with a horrifyingly high .513 BABIP (compared to a career mark of .330), which is undoubtedly helping in Fried being a walking embodiment of Murphy’s Law. Just take a look at his left-on-base, his ground-ball, and his home-run-to-fly-ball ratios. The pitching gods have not been kind to Fried in the early going.
But look back at his first start of the season: 5 IP, 2 ER, 8 Ks. More of what we would expect from Fried, right? So perhaps, after his batted-ball luck changes, we could see more of the old Fried.
Final advice: Don’t be like me and rage-drop Fried. He could come back when healthy and level things out.
Gleyber Torres, SS, New York Yankees
The entire Yankees team is struggling (to put it nicely), but few of their hitters are having a rougher go of it early on than Gleyber Torres. One of New York’s youngest, brightest stars, Torres is slashing a mere .213/.339/.255 through 13 games (and he went 0-for-4 on Sunday) with zero home runs.
The zero home runs is probably the most alarming part of this cold spell. Torres’ BABIP is .303 — just one point under his career mark, which isn’t the greatest of news. His strikeout rate has remained high, but his hard-hit percentage is a dismal 12.1% through 13 games, which is nearly 25 points less than his career mark. Basically, when he does make contact, the balls aren’t getting much air time.
It’s probably too early in the season to give up on Torres, but his situation is one to monitor, especially if games continue to pass and the balls he hits aren’t going anywhere.
Patrick Corbin, SP, Washington Nationals
Earlier this week, the incomparable Scott Pianowski wrote on Patrick Corbin’s nightmare start, ultimately saying, “If you complete a fantasy season without making a regretful cut or decision, you’re either having a charmed-life season or more likely playing far too conservatively.”
This doesn’t seem like a cold streak for the Nationals starter; this seems like a true decline in skill. Currently sporting an obscene 21.32 ERA and 3.00 WHIP, Corbin has allowed 15 earned runs (12 hits, four of those homers) through two starts and, perhaps most alarmingly, he has just six total strikeouts in those outings. Corbin has never blown anyone away with his velocity, but his 2020 decline in pitch speed has carried over into this season — and we all remember that his 2020 wasn’t great either (2-7 record, 4.66 ERA, 1.57 WHIP.
We must always be put on guard when one of our pitchers sees their velocity decline and, subsequently, their results. This is no streak or small sample for Corbin; we now have 13 starts to mine data from, and the data doesn’t look good.
He’s now lost nine straight starts.
Suffice it to say: If you feel you have to cut Corbin, it probably won’t be the end of the world.