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MLB First Quarter Review (Part 2: National League)

As we take the turn past the quarter pole of the MLB season, we wanted to reflect on some of the major stories thus far (and by the time you are reading this over Memorial Day weekend, some teams will have played one-third of their schedule already).  Jonathan Merkel and Bob Osgood share their thoughts from both real life and fantasy perspectives, division by division. We reviewed the American League last Monday. Today, we will look at the National League.

(all stats and records as of start of day on 5/26)

NL West

Real Life:

Jonathan Merkel: The Weak Sauce Rox

The Rockies lead only the crummy Giants in an improving NL West race. That’s sad. Especially considering the majority of their 2018 squad returned, a team that won 91 games. They were narrowly edged for a division crown by the mighty Dodgers just months ago. And they did it all in spite of Ian Desmond!

Why have they fallen? For starters, DJ LeMahieu is gone. His absence at the keystone has been tough to fill. Neither Ryan McMahon nor preseason sleeper Garrett Hampson have been able to match the steady production DJ provided during his Rockies tenure. If their season will turn around, improvement will have to happen at second. Perhaps Brendan Rodgers will be the guy to do it.

On the mound, their 2018 ace, Kyle Freeland, has been humbled in a harsh way. From his lofty 4.2 WAR in 2018, he’s now slumming with a 6.02 ERA and 1.43 WHIP. It’s hard to imagine anyone having a worse time than Freeland. Everything that went right for him last season is going wrong: his walks are up, his strand rate is down, and his HR/FB% has gone from 8.5% to 18.2%. This is what we mean when we say, ‘regression.’ Colorado will need him, or really any pitcher not named German Marquez, to do something if they’re going to compete.

Bob Osgood: Dodgers cruising to a seventh straight division title

The 34-18 Dodgers continue to be a force in the NL West, and have suffered no hangover as a result of the back-to-back World Series losses. Dave Roberts takes a unique approach to his rotation and lineup decisions on a nightly basis, which at least continues to work in the regular season, while frustrating fantasy owners everywhere (see: four paragraphs down). He plays matchups, strictly enforces innings limits, and makes the most of all 25 roster spots. I expected the Rockies to take the Dodgers to the wire this season, but so far, no NL West team seems to be up to the challenge.

2017 Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger is looking to add some additional hardware, as he’s hitting .391, with 18 dingers, 48 RBI, and even a surprising seven steals. His 1.240 OPS leads all of baseball, and his current 220 wRC+ sits in a territory that only early-2000s Barry Bonds has reached over a full season in baseball history. Meanwhile, Hyun-Jin Ryu would have to be the Cy Young favorite to date, leading the National League in Wins (7), ERA (1.65), BB/9 (0.55), and K/BB ratio (15.5), and is second in WHIP (0.83) with the last two categories nearly doubling the runner-up. A Hyun-Jin Ryu / Clayton Kershaw / Walker Buehler top three can go toe-to-toe with any team in the league at this point in the season.

Fantasy:

Merkel: Luis Urias is Still in Triple-A

I made some really horrible predictions before the season. The most egregious involved Richie Martin and the words “pretty good” in the same sentence. What a fool I was! For that misstep, I feel deep and remorseful shame. However, one of my predictions–“Luis Urias will be a Top-150 fantasy player”– will be wrong even though I remain adamant that it should be true.

Urias got smoked in 29 AB to start of the season and was sent down to El Paso for extra seasoning. Since then he has torched Triple-A pitching with a team-leading 12 HR and .482 wOBA in only 120 AB. Meanwhile, 36-year old Ian Kinsler has been a disaster for the Friars. He’s hitting only .184, posting a negative WAR and .250 wOBA. Yuck. The Pads’ 4-5-6 positions will one day be Urias, Machado, and Tatis Jr. Why delay such a beautiful inevitable? The future is, or should be, now.

Osgood:  Why doesn’t Dave Roberts care about our fantasy teams?

For all of the praise that Dave Roberts deserves as a manager, he is cursed by the owners of most of his starting pitchers as they are shuffled on a weekly basis from the rotation, to the bullpen, to the Injured List, and back again. Roberts is to starting pitchers what Bill Belichick is to running backs in fantasy. For years now, the aforementioned Ryu, Kenta Maeda, Rich Hill, Julio Urias, and Ross Stripling can barely get comfortable in the rotation before an adjustment is made. Roberts uses the 10-day injured list to his advantage at every chance possible, even if his pitchers have a canker sore. This likely forced the change to a 2020 15-day injured list for pitchers only. For the most egregious example, Ross Stripling opened the season in the rotation starting six games, throwing 34 innings with a 2.65 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and opponents BA of .218. With a very reasonable workload, including pitch counts staying within a range of 76 and 94 in these six starts, Stripling was banished to the bullpen. He has since thrown only 3 1/3 innings in four appearances over the past 26 days. Even worse, a valuable roster spot needs to be saved for Stripling for when he returns at some point, and the next pitcher (Maeda?) follows suit.

NL East

Real Life:

Merkel: The Nats are More Disappointing than Ever

Count me as one who thought the Nationals would be fine without Bryce Harper. I believed in the “he’s not a winner” narrative and figured they might even be better off with Rendon, Soto, Turner, Robles, Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin as their core. Except for an overmatched Robles and an injured Turner, those players are performing at very high levels. It’s everyone else not named Howie Kendrick who isn’t. Brian Dozier continues to decline, Ryan Zimmerman is injured again, the bullpen bridge to Doolittle is nonexistent, and they have no real fourth or fifth starter. So they sit behind the Mets and only above the Quad-A Marlins. As for Bryce? His Phils lead the East. Nats fans are used to disappointment, but this season has to really sting.

Osgood: It’s not too late for the Mets

After an embarrassing three-game sweep at the hands of the Marlins, quite a few well-deserved articles came out questioning the Mets roster and management, top-to-bottom. The week started in even stranger fashion when Yoenes Cespedes, already on the DL, fractured his ankle in a “violent fall” at his ranch. Their season can go one of two ways at this point, and the “Mets” thing to do would be to keep losing in ugly fashion, not run out ground balls, mishandle their pitching staff to the point of injury, fire their manager, and start all over again next offseason. Luckily, so far they’ve decided to fight back with a quick five wins out of six to get back near .500 at 25-26. The team was not counting on Cespedes anyways, so that is a footnote on the season, but the bigger concern is the number of injuries that are beginning to pile up. In the past ten days alone, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, Robinson Cano, and Jeff McNeil have all found their way to the IL, and their late-inning heroes are arriving in Ubers in the third inning.

It looks for now like the Mets will find a way to tread water in a tough NL East, and if Syndergaard, deGrom, Wheeler, and Matz can keep some low scoring games in line, they can stay out of MLB ridicule and, instead, in the NL wild-card race.

Fantasy:

Merkel: Pivetta the Terrible

Nick Pivetta entered the year as a sexy sleeper pick. Hype carried the Philly starter to an ADP of about 150. And why not? The 26-year old looked to possess legit upside after 164.0 innings with over 10 strikeouts per 9. While his ERA and WHIP were a bit unsightly at 4.77 and 1.30, his peripherals eased concerns and encouraged many to take the plunge. Then came the season.

The “Pivetta for Sleeper Jesus” hype didn’t last long. He started four games before being demoted to Triple-A. In that span he earned an ERA of 8.35 and saw his luscious K/BB ratio crumble. And this time around even his peripherals hated him. There’s still time for the kid to climb back into the Phillies’ rotation, in fact, he’s expected to be recalled as the probable starter today, but it’s quite surprising that he even has to.

Osgood: Waiting and waiting on Bryce Harper

This isn’t to say Bryce Harper stinks. It’s just that I think it’s time to lower expectations. He’s a wildly talented, charismatic player, a deserving 2015 MVP, worthy of a significant contract this past offseason. However, since 2015, he simply has not met the standards that we all expect from him. From 2016-2018, Harper averaged 139 games, a .267 BA (.391 OBP), 29 HR, 91 RBI, 13 SBs, and 94 runs, with a .897 OPS. This season, the power numbers are consistent with the past three seasons, but with only two steals and a .230 average. His age 23, 24, 25, and 26 seasons are simply not first round caliber in fantasy, and Harper cannot continue to be drafted in that range.

If you’ve built your dynasty team around Harper, it likely hasn’t gone as expected and is turning into a conundrum. If you trade Harper, he’s going to go off and some point and you’ll wonder “What have I done?” Certainly, don’t sell low. But maybe there’s another owner out there who also needs a change of scenery and would move Manny Machado or Aaron Judge, or feels they’re selling high on Trevor Story or Cody Bellinger. Either way, as the perceived start of summer begins on Memorial Day Weekend, Bryce is running out of time to hit his stride, before the Philly fans start a 12.5-year countdown clock in left field.

NL Central

Real Life:

Merkel: The Cubs Lead their Division?

The Cubs are surprising to me because, in a loaded division, they stand at the top. The Brewers, I thought, would be the class of the NL Central, and it seemed like the Cardinals would take a huge step forward as well. The Cubs, or so I thought, would live above .500, but somewhere in the ether of mediocrity between 2nd place St. Louis and 4th place Pittsburgh. Once again, and as usual, I’m wrong.

The Cubs are looking amazing behind the dynamic Javy Baez, a healthy Kris Bryant, and a badass Willson Contreras. Baez, in particular, is playing fantastic. He’s on pace to be even better than he was last year when he posted a 5.3 WAR. (You were right, Kyler!) On the mound, their rotation and bullpen have both been rock solid. When Yu Darvish is easily your worst pitcher, how bad can life be? For the Cubs, life is looking pretty good.

Osgood: Time for changes in Saint Louis

With a Vegas over/under of 88.5 wins, only the Dodgers (93.5) and Phillies (89.5) had a higher number than the Cardinals heading into 2019. Just past the one-quarter turn, the Cardinals sit at 26-25, including 4-9 in their last 13. The starting pitching is to blame so far, and I anticipate major changes coming through as the talent in the bullpen seemingly far exceeds the ceiling of those in the rotation.

Jack Flaherty’s peripherals are good, and he should get back to a fringe-ace pitcher rest of season. However, Miles Mikolas’s 4.76 ERA (4.80 FIP), Adam Wainwright 4.82 ERA (5.05 FIP), Michael Wacha 5.59 ERA (5.61 FIP), and Dakota Hudson 4.22 ERA (5.27 FIP) can’t last for much longer. Jordan Hicks, Andrew Miller, John Gant, and John Brebbia will be just fine on the back end of the bullpen, so it seems time to make starting pitcher adjustments. Carlos Martinez is back from a nearly two-month IL stay, and should slowly be ramped up to a second-half rotation spot. While Daniel Ponce de Leon did not have a huge prospect pedigree or elite stuff, he is effective every time he’s called up to St. Louis and is holding his own with a 3.48 ERA at Triple-A this season. When Alex Reyes gets out of timeout, and off of the IL for breaking a finger punching a wall, he may be an option as well. Memorial Day weekend is a great milestone to evaluate what you have, and what other options are out there, and for a Cardinals rotation that has started 50 of 51 games so far, this isn’t working.

Fantasy:

Merkel: Kyle Hendricks Is Breaking the Models

Kyle Hendricks entered 2019 after another year of consistent production. Lo and behold, The Professor is once again proving himself to be a valuable fantasy arm. Surprise, surprise! With an ADP behind Mike Foltynewicz and Robbie Ray on Fantrax, Hendricks suffered once again from finding success as a pitcher in a way that is outside of our understanding. “His velocity is too low!” “He doesn’t strike out enough batters!” “Home runs will catch up to him eventually!” “Just look at his advanced stats!” Stop me if you’ve heard it all before.

What he does on the mound continues to work even if the periphs can’t see why. After all, Hendricks is now 851.0 innings into his professional career, and all he has to show for it is an ERA of 3.09 and a WHIP of 1.12. That includes 62.0 innings of 3.34 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 2019. Along the way, he has outperformed his FIP and xFIP five out of six seasons. If only Nick Pivetta could say the same.

At some point we need to stop denying him credit because of what we think he should be. I’m excited for the baseball world to look closer at what he is. It’s the only way to understand why everything we know about pitching is wrong when it comes to Kyle Hendricks.

Osgood: A surprise MVP candidate in Pittsburgh

The excitement of Josh Bell’s first full season in 2017 with 26 home runs and 90 RBI led to high hopes in 2018. He followed this up in his second full season with a walk rate that increased from 10.6% to 13.2%, a strikeout rate that decreased from 18.9% to 17.8%. Even his Statcast metrics increased across the board, with an exit velocity ticking up from 87.7 to 90.0 MPH and a slight uptick in barreled balls. The breakout one would think came with these improvements did not appear on Bell’s final stat line as his power numbers decreased to 12 home runs and 62 RBI, albeit with an improved BA and OBP.

These final numbers led to an average draft position of 258 in 2019 (based on March NFBC drafts). Despite these improvements, it’s unlikely that anyone saw this coming, the bargain of the draft season. It’s rare to tune in each night and not see Josh Bell hitting a tape measure home run at this point. He has the number one hardest hit rate (58.5%), 2nd highest exit velocity (95.8 MPH), sits 6th in barrels per event (19.0%), and hit the second longest home run of the season (474 feet). Bell sits seventh on the player rater thanks to his 16 home runs, 47 RBI, and .341 BA (despite a .260 career average entering the season). Similar to Joey Gallo in the American League, the average may not be sustainable, but watching Josh Bell on a nightly basis is a pleasure.

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Bob Osgood

Bob Osgood

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