FACTS/FLUKES: Sale, F. Freeman, J. Gray, Dubon, Poche

Time to worry about Sale?... Chris Sale's (LHP, BOS) 2019 season was a disappointment, as he posted the worst ERA of his career (4.40) while elbow inflammation ended his season in late August and his rotisserie value dropped to single digits for the first time since he became a starting pitcher in 2012. Should we be worried about him heading into 2020?

Year   IP   ERA  xERA  Ctl   Dom  Cmd  GB/LD/FB  H%/S% HR/F xHR/F Ball%    SwK
====  ===  ====  ====  ===  ====  ===  ========  ===== ==== ===== =====  =====
2015  209  3.41  2.74  1.8  11.8  6.5  43/22/35  34/73  13%   10%   32%  15.0%
2016  227  3.34  3.47  1.8   9.3  5.2  41/21/38  29/73  12%   11%   33%  11.7%
2017  214  2.90  2.86  1.8  12.9  7.2  39/20/41  32/76  12%   12%   32%  15.5%
2018  158  2.11  2.40  1.9  13.5  7.0  44/20/36  30/79   9%   14%   32%  16.4%
2019  147  4.40  2.99  2.3  13.3  5.9  43/21/36  33/65  20%   18%   33%  14.6%
------------------------------------------------------------------------------
19-1H 101  3.82  3.00  2.1  13.1  6.2  43/19/38  33/67  15%   15%   33%  14.8%
19-2H  46  5.67  2.95  2.5  13.7  5.4  42/26/32  35/60  31%   24%   35%  14.2%

Yes, but not as much as that career-worst ERA would lead you to believe:

  • Sale got hit with a trifecta of bad luck in 2019, as his hit rate was slightly high, his strand rate was slightly low, and his HR/F was well above league average. Those unfortunate events combined to inflate his ERA nearly a run-and-a-half higher than his xERA, which held near the skill level we've come to expect from his during his career.
  • Health had an impact on his performance as well. After he suffered shoulder inflammation at the end of 2018, the Red Sox eased him into spring training action in 2019, and Sale entered the season perhaps less prepared than usual. He was also ill between his first and second starts, leading to a frightening velocity drop to 89.9 mph in that second outing. The result was an 8.50 ERA with 5 HR allowed over his first 4 GS. Likewise, the elbow inflammation that ended his season likely played a role in his second-half HR issues, as his HR/F soared 16 points higher, and, along with unlucky hit and strand rates, ballooned his ERA.
  • There's even some reason to think his walk rate was inflated by the elbow problems, as his normally consistent Ctl and Ball% both took a slight upturn in the second half. Fewer walks would have lowered his xERA for the season even further.
  • However, Sale choose to treat the elbow inflammation with a platelet-rich plasma injection rather than Tommy John surgery, and while he was cleared to begin an offseason throwing program in December, his health is now a sizable concern. (He received a D Health grade in the 2020 Baseball Forecaster.)

Sale presents a complicated value puzzle this spring. On the one hand, his performance was a fluke, and that should leave him a little undervalued; on the other hand, his injury risk would seem to cancel that out. His current average ADP of 37 seems to reflect those competing factors. The health concerns make him a little too risky to build your staff around, but if his bloated 2019 ERA is causing him to fall too far in your league, his skills remain as strong as ever, giving him nice upside for 2020 if you can acquire him at a discounted price.

 

Freeman looks to repeat career-best performance... Freddie Freeman (1B, ATL) delivered career highs in HR (38), RBI (121), and Runs (113) in 2019, good for his second straight $30 season. Did his skills back the career year?

Year   PA   BA    xBA  HR  xHR  bb%  ct%  HctX  GB/LD/FB   PX/xPX HR/F xHR/F
====  ===  ====  ====  ==  ===  ===  ===  ====  ========  ======= ==== =====
2015  481  .276  .279  18   27   12   76   130  37/28/36  133/152  16%   24%
2016  693  .302  .279  34   43   13   71   125  30/29/41  173/177  20%   25%
2017  514  .307  .300  28   32   13   78   119  35/24/41  157/156  20%   23%
2018  707  .309  .290  23   36   11   79   121  36/32/31  119/123  15%   23%
2019  692  .295  .297  38   41   13   79   128  38/28/34  128/133  24%   25%
----------------------------------------------------------------------------
19-1H 381  .312  .310  22   24   12   79   140  36/30/34  141/145  24%   27%
19-2H 311  .273  .279  16   17   14   78   112  41/25/34  111/117  23%   24%

They did, and there's reason to think there could be a little more:

  • Freeman has demonstrated some terrific skill consistency over the last three seasons, with steady plate discipline, plus power skills, and an xBA between .290 and .300. That gives reason for confidence that he can maintain this level of performance. The upside potential is with HR, as both xHR and xHR/F have suggested for five years that there's even more untapped power.
  • He was on pace for a 40 HR season until bone spurs in his right elbow flared up in September. After a 2 HR game on Sept. 1st, he hit just .235 with 0 HR and a .625 OPS over his last 81 PA of the season. That dragged down his second half stats and skills a bit; looking at his first half skills, not only was he on pace for 40+ HR, but the increased power helped support an even higher batting average.
  • The only red flag in his 2019 skills came vs. LHP, where his numbers were the weakest they've been since 2015: a .255 BA, .750 OPS, 6% walk rate, 73% contact rate, 0.25 Eye, and 100 PX. But as with his overall numbers, there was a drop-off between the first and second halves: .293 BA, .917 OPS, 76% contact, 137 PX in the first half; .215 BA, .575 OPS, 70% contact, 58 PX in the second. And again, his performance vs. LHP over those last 81 PA seemed to also be affected by the bone spurs: 4-for-16 (.250) with no extra base hits and a 56% contact rate.

Freeman underwent arthroscopic surgery in mid-October to clean up the bone spurs in his elbow, and is expected to be ready for spring training. All indications are that he should be good for another elite performance and a shot at his third straight $30 season, with the possible upside of a new career high in homers to go along with it.

 

Stay patient with Gray... It seems like fantasy owners have been waiting forever for Jon Gray (RHP, COL) to break out, and while his 3.84 ERA in 2019 represented a solid rebound from a miserable 2018 season, it was still a frustrating year as his season was ended in mid-August by a recurrence of the stress fracture in his left foot that has plagued him since 2017. Do his skills give reason to keep the faith?

Year   IP   ERA  xERA  Ctl  Dom  Cmd  GB/LD/FB  H%/S% HR/F xHR/F Ball%    SwK
====  ===  ====  ====  ===  ===  ===  ========  ===== ==== ===== =====  =====
2016  168  4.61  3.59  3.2  9.9  3.1  44/24/32  32/65  13%   13%   35%  12.4%
2017  110  3.67  3.62  2.4  9.1  3.7  49/23/29  34/74  11%   10%   35%   9.4%
2018  172  5.12  3.64  2.7  9.6  3.5  47/22/30  34/65  18%   15%   36%  12.9%
2019  150  3.84  4.02  3.4  9.0  2.7  50/23/26  32/76  17%   17%   36%  12.3%

Apart from some explainable fluctuations, yes, they do:

  • For a pitcher who has proven so frustrating, Gray has had remarkably consistent skills—it's rare to see three straight seasons of xERA only five points apart like his run from 2016-18. And while his 2019 xERA went up due to a higher walk rate, his Ball% was largely unchanged, which gives reason to think his Ctl and xERA will move back toward 2018 levels.
  • His Dom dipped a little in 2019, but that could be traced to the stress fracture. In the first half, he posted a 9.7 Dom and 12.7% SwK; in the second half, those numbers fell to 7.5 and 11.5% SwK. It's reasonable to think his foot pain might have been flaring up in the weeks before the Rockies shut him down, and that that drove the drop in strikeouts.
  • He remains a viable pitcher at Coors Field. For his career, he has a 4.36 ERA and 3.6 Cmd at home, compared to a 4.56 ERA and 2.9 Cmd on the road. And in 2019, his home ERA was 3.46.

At 28, Gray is still in his prime, and after being shut down last August, he finally underwent surgery to correct the stress fracture in his left foot, which he said had caused him off and on pain since 2017. His F Health grade in the 2020 Baseball Forecaster needs to be heeded, but if he's truly pain-free after surgery, that might allow him to build upon the consistent skill base he's already established.

 

Dubon's debut offers hint of upside... Mauricio Dubon (2B/SS, SF) made his rookie debut in 2019, batting .274 with a handful of home runs and steals over 111 PA, most of it with the Giants following a deadline trade from Milwaukee. He appears to have a shot at San Francisco's second base job—should he be on your radar this spring?

Year   PA   BA    xBA  bb%  ct%  HctX  GB/LD/FB   PX/xPX HR/F  Spd/SBO  HR/SB
====  ===  ====  ====  ===  ===  ====  ========  ======= ====  =======  =====
2016# 269  .328   N/A    3   85   N/A     N/A    110/N/A  N/A  112/13%   5/ 5
2017^ 545  .247   N/A    6   83   N/A     N/A     61/N/A  N/A   87/40%   8/31
2018+ 114  .283   N/A    1   79   N/A     N/A    109/N/A  N/A  107/37%   3/ 4
2019+ 427  .257   N/A    4   85   N/A     N/A     83/N/A  N/A   88/15%  13/ 8
19MLB 111  .274  .287    5   81    88  48/27/26   82/ 74  18%  121/16%   4/ 3
#Double-A MLEs
^Double-A/Triple-A MLEs
+Triple-A MLEs  

Depending on the size of your league, he could provide some value:

  • Dubon's minor league batting averages have been impacted by fluctuations in hit rate, but his contact skills have been pretty consistently above average, and during his time in the majors, a high LD% helped drive up his xBA. That's probably a bit of a small sample size fluke, as his line drive rate in Triple-A in 2019 was 22%, but if the rest of his skills hold up, he should be good for a .270ish BA.
  • His power skill has mostly been below average, with the exception of two small sample seasons, and his 40+% ground ball rate—a figure that tracks with his rates in the minors—presents an obstacle to more power. His 4 HR in the majors did not come with support from xHR (2) or xHR/F (9%), so you might want to hedge your bet a little on double-digit HRs in 2020.
  • Dubon tore his ACL in 2018, and while he recovered to return to play in 2019, that injury seemed to take a bite out of his running game. He's shown the ability to run more frequently in the past, though his success rates have not been very encouraging after Double-A—he went 24-for-41 (59%) in Triple-A. So while he has the speed for more steals, he may have to earn a green light on the basepaths.

The 25-year-old Dubon was an 8C-rated prospect, and could have double-digit HR and SB upside if everything breaks right for him. But his MLB sample is very small, and his skills raise some question about how quickly he'll be able to reach that upside. Exercise patience with him, and keep him on your late-round/end-game watchlist.

 

Could Poche be a speculative saves source?... With a 4.70 ERA, Colin Poche's (LHP, TAM) major league debut didn't seem all that impressive on the surface, but he did pick up two saves and earned a Leverage Index of 1.63. Does he have the skills to move into saves consideration in 2020?

Year  IP   ERA  xERA  Ctl   Dom  Cmd  GB/LD/FB  H%/S% HR/F xHR/F Ball%    SwK
====  ==  ====  ====  ===  ====  ===  ========  ===== ==== ===== =====  =====
2018^ 66  1.02   N/A  2.7  13.1  4.9     N/A    29/91  N/A   N/A   N/A    N/A
2019+ 28  7.55   N/A  3.1  13.1  4.3     N/A    47/46  N/A   N/A   N/A    N/A
19MLB 52  4.70  4.03  3.3  12.5  3.8  18/19/62  25/58  13%   11%   33%  17.6%
^Double-A/Triple-A MLEs
+Triple-A MLEs

He's definitely worth keeping an eye on:

  • Poche's ERA was inflated a bit by a low strand rate, but his 4.03 xERA wasn't all that much better. What was impressive was his strikeout ability—among American League pitchers with at least 50 IP in 2019, his Dom ranked 15th, and his SwK ranked 9th. That SwK and his minor league Dom rates suggest he might be able to add a few more strikeouts going forward.
  • There were two factors that kept his ERA and xERA from matching the elite level of his strikeout ability. The first was his walk rate, which was slightly below average. But his Ball% was above average, and gives reason to think he might be able to shave off a few more walks. As his Cmd history shows, even a small decrease in walks would pay great dividends.
  • The second, and biggest, factor holding back his ERA/xERA was his ridiculously high fly ball rate. Among pitchers with at least 50 IP, it was the highest FB% in the majors. His minor league fly ball rates in 2018-19 ranged between 40-51%; still high, but not nearly as extreme. As with walks, any reduction in fly balls will help improve his outlook.

The 26-year-old Poche has already worked his way up the bullpen ladder in Tampa Bay, as evidenced by his excellent Leverage Index in 2019, and the recent trade of Emilio Pagan moved him up yet another rung. He still has areas that need improvement, but that elite strikeout rate gives him a lot of leeway. If you're looking for cheap speculative saves sources this spring, he deserves to be on your list.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.