KEEPERS: Postmortem: 2016 takeaways—Part 1

With 2016 regular season in the books and your fantasy races over, it's time for our first glance at some general takeaways and trends that might give owners in active winter leagues some helpful benchmarks. This week's opening of the Arizona Fall League (preview here) and the trade/free agent activity that will begin following the World Series will offer more roster-impacting fodder soon enough. But for now, consider the some of the events and trends of the season just now in our rearview. We'll have a few more thoughts next week.

​The unexpected pitching downturn ... and upside surprises. We all know the risks associated with pitching. But perhaps above all else, 2016 will be remembered for more pitching disappointments and injuries to than we've seen in a while. This can be seen partly in a 4.48 MLB RPG (runs-per-game, per team) and 4.19 ERA—both big increases from the 4.25 RPG and 3.96 ERA from 2015, and the highest numbers since 2009. Bases on balls jumped to 3.11 per game / per team, a six-year high.

The deterioration began at the top, where 2015 NL Cy Young award winner Jake Arrieta fell apart in the 2H, and his AL counterpart Dallas Keuchel offered nothing close to his prior-year excellence all season. Ten of the top 15 ADP names (including Arrieta) returned value, though some below that of recent seasons. But five notables—Keuchel, Matt Harvey, Zack Greinke, Jacob deGrom, and Gerrit Cole—dramatically underachieved, and had their seasons either interrupted or aborted by injuries.

The next pitching tiers were even more of a crapshoot littered with DL stints, lost seasons and poor performance. Names like Felix Hernandez, Sonny Gray, Tyson Ross, Marcus Stroman, Garrett Richards and Collin McHugh fell by the wayside.  And it was the tiers subsequent to these that yielded the biggest upside surprises, as names like Rick Porcello and A.J. Happ, Kyle Hendricks, and Aaron Sanchez all unexpectedly finished among the leaders in several MLB categories. Porcello and Happ ended 2015 #1-2 in AL wins, while Hendricks and Sanchez won their respective league ERA titles.

Strategic response:  ​Obviously your odds are still better if you begin the season with an ace on your staff. But particularly with the injury hangover that is likely to be in effect from 2016, pitching will will enter next season as risky as it's ever been. Given this and despite the scarcity of established MLB SPs, generally it still pays in long-haul dynasty formats to avoid hitter-for-pitcher trades until/unless absolutely necessary—and to fill your mound needs in-season. If you're determined to acquire pitching in the off-season, make sure that you target healthy performers who finished strong.

Also, be ready to speculate when spring training begins and opportunities inevitably present themselves. Unproven Aaron Sanchez's outstanding March came as he was about to begin his third MLB season—and just two years removed from elite prospect status, something that impatient owners who dealt him during the pre-season found easy to forget or overlook. Similar situations will arise again next spring.

 

​​​A silver lining, maybe, sort of...  Despite what seemed like an epidemic level of different injuries and DL stints to key pitchers, new data suggests that elbow ligament surgery AKA Tommy John surgery (TJS) may be on the decline. A recent piece at Hardball Times indicates that TJS for MLB pitchers had fallen to a total of 15 for the current 2016 calendar year to date—from a total of 78 for the previous three years. If it holds, this would be the lowest such figure of the past decade.

And while certainly some of the aforementioned might be random, pitchers are increasingly opting for newer and potential less rehab-intensive options—such as stem cell injection therapy—for partial ligament tears where feasible. The latest in-progress high-profile examples of this being Garrett Richards and Aaron Nola, with the 2015-16 comeback of Masahiro Tanaka and recent success of MIL closer Tyler Thornburg being two of the most encouraging stories to date. Now 42 years old and still producing, it's easy to forget that Bartolo Colon had stem cell treatment following a 2009 torn rotator cuff injury. Are the times a-changin'? 

Strategic response:  Though this route can certainly contract the standard 14-18 month TJS rehab period with the potential to deliver rapid results, the verdict remains out as to success rate, how long it is effective, and for whom. Obviously Richards' high-effort delivery isn't the same as Colon's clean mechanics and consistent release point, and their injuries have been different. But the recent successes all suggest that if the need is there and the price is right, there's plenty of precedent upon which to speculate. The rehab-over-surgery may not be a sure thing, but it's no longer just a shot in the dark, either. An ongoing story that bears watching.

 

HR spike fuels scoring another surge; BA and running games stagnate. ​Last season in this space, we mused as to whether the first big MLB scoring bounce in years suggested that a long run of uninterrupted pitching dominance had come to an end—and the 2016 RPG bump seems to be answering in the affirmative. Home runs per game spiked from 1.01 in 2015 to 1.16 this past season—the second consecutive annual .15 bump. It's the second-highest HR mark in MLB history, surpassed only by 1.17 in year 2000 during the PED golden age. Overall, 5,610 HR were hit this past season, which averages out to an astounding 187 HR per team. 111 players hit 20 or more HR, and fantasy owners had little difficulty in finding bench players like Sean Rodriguez (18 HR) and Jefry Marte (15 HR) who could help fill their power needs if necessary.

In context with 2015, HRs look here to stay. The bigger question is where BA and SBs—both still limping along near modern-day lows—go from here. Those clocked in at .255 and 0.52 SBs per game, as opposed to .254 and 0.52 in 2015. Just a slight uptick in either or both could yield more scoring. The ramifications of this year's pitching injuries and the trend toward giving younger, athletic players their MLB debuts at an early age off a chance that this could happen.

Strategic response: ​If anything near the past two seasons repeats in 2017, power won't be difficult to find. The key is roster construction that that won't kill your batting average or on-base percentage (depending on league format) in the process. If you haven't yet made this strategic turn, consider building your minor league hitting contingent around athleticism, speed and in particular good plate skills—as opposed to the names that are leading their respective leagues in HR.  

Prospects like outfielder Austin Meadows (PIT) is just one example of this. Meadows and (decidedly less speedy) Dominic Smith (NYM) have long been considered to have good bat-to-ball skills that should result in high MLB BAs. Both have reached the high minors at relatively young ages without big power years to their credit. But scouts and analysts have long projected that the power will come for both of them—and now both are coming off coming off their first double-digit HR performances in their first high-minors efforts. Outfielder / first-baseman Jake Bauers (TAM) is a more under-the-radar name, but another prospect with plate skills who has just finished his first Double-A season at age 20. Bauer also finished with a career-high 14 HR that projects to improve as he grows and advances. 

A reminder left over from last year with respect to stolen bases: Keep an eye on the opportunities that might be given to young legs and new names. With SBs still in short supply, punting this category in deeper leaguers is a viable option, particularly if you don't own Jonathan Villar, Starling Marte or Billy Hamilton. But collecting a handful of players who can project double-digit steals with decent playing time—and I'm looking at you, Andrew Toles and Nick Franklin—is a worthwhile effort. If successful, it at least gives you a shot at leading that middle-of-the-pack owner group that doesn't own one of the very few big SB names. 


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