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Fantasy Baseball: Way-too-early observations as the season gets under way

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Patrick Corbin (AP Photo/Matt York)

It’s very early. Your teams aren’t good or bad yet, and neither are the players — at least not this season to date. But there are some developments that are noteworthy and questions we should be asking. Stats are all through Wednesday’s action.

Let’s start with the best pitcher in the early going, Patrick Corbin, who has earned the equivalent of $45 dollars of a $260 budget according to TG Fantasy Baseball. How is he doing it? Well he’s throwing 51.3% sliders (his career high was 38% last year), according to Fangraphs. He’s thrown 44 of the 98 for strikes and has gotten 30 swings and misses on them — an insane rate. Corbin really doesn’t throw anything else. So he’s the National League’s Chris Archer in that regard. He needs to have great command of the pitch obviously to be effective. He has no other offering to fall back on. But when it’s working, he’s going to be virtually unhittable. I’ve done a lot of digging around on sliders and injury risk and I’m not persuaded that even though this feels true, it actually is true. 

The real risk with Corbin is that he has a very limited repertoire and thus risks getting hammered on any day by anyone. But if you own him, you basically got Archer on a much better team and easier league for essentially nothing. So good show.

Sean Manaea was a potential first-overall pick until he got hurt before the draft. So the talent is there. Why are the results so good? One stat I wish was widely available is percentage of pitches ahead in the count and percentage behind in the count (if it exists, I’m unaware of it). You subtract the two and if the difference is 10% (actually percentage points) or greater, that’s elite. Right now Manaea is 37.6% pitcher’s counts and 17.5% hitters counts — a difference of 20.1% that’s twice as good as elite. (Last year, Chris Sale led pitchers with 100-plus innings with plus-14.6%.) Why is this so important? Last year, according to Stats, LLC and Wall Street Journal sports, hitters hit .202 with a .315 slugging in pitcher’s counts and .299 with a .532 slugging in hitter’s counts. 

By the way, Corbin this year, in that stat, is plus-19.4% pitcher’s counts. He obviously needs pitches counts to leverage that slider usage. Last year, Corbin and Manaea were both upside down in this stat — more hitter’s counts than pitcher counts at minus-2.6% and minus-3.1%, respectively.

The offseason reset hasn’t seem to have altered Alex Wood’s upward trajectory. He is a rock solid No. 3 fantasy starter and could be good at No. 2, too. Three Dodgers pitchers last year were in the top 10 of the count-differential stat (Clayton Kershaw, Wood and Rich Hill). The secret to good pitching isn’t complicated — get ahead of the hitters.

Houston Astros’ starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

This is the key stat for Lance McCullers — if he can turn the corner and just throw more strikes on key counts the results will follow and he will challenge for a Cy Young. His stuff is so good he does not need to paint corners.

Preston Tucker is the big playing time surprise and of course he’s earned more at bats in earning an absurd $84 dollars through Wednesday in fantasy. Of course, Ronald Acuna looms. And his minor league manager compared Acuna to Alex Rodriguez, who was a star by age 20. Conventional hope is that Nick Markakis will sit but I can’t see that given his veteran status. Not defending it, just saying what the expectation should be. Tucker seems like a plausible late-career breakout candidate but the playing time is going to be very sketchy.

Nothing of course is stable yet but swinging strikes stabilize quickly. Looking at pitchers with two starts, two names pop that deserve further watching for mixed league relevance. They are both about 85% owned but neither have winning fantasy stats despite elite swinging strike rates through two starts. Garrett Richards is 34.6% misses on swings and Cole Hamels, more surprisingly, is 38.7%. If you are unimpressed with the bottom lines so far and tempted to instead dive into the much safer reliever pool, don’t. Let’s see if they each again miss bats in their next start. 

Lineups are very frustrating now. Two problems for people who bet on steals are Trea Turner and Byron Buxton batting down in the order. This is a bigger problem for Trea Turner, but even more in expected runs than it is in steals. Seven and eight in the Nationals lineup are going to be below-average hitters — a big difference from having Bryce Harper behind you. 

Buxton, unlike Turner, is down in the lineup because he’s just not a good hitter. Maybe he will be but he’s below average every year. Forget about average now but you can look at walks and strikeouts and he has zero walks and eight Ks in 19 plate appearances. For his career, those numbers are now 67 and 320, respectively. And he has just 28 homers in 999 plate appearances. Buxton is very likely not going to ever happen the way his proponents think. Right now, he’s looking more like Corey Patterson than even Mike Cameron. And the next Eric Davis? Forget it. That ship has sailed. Davis had adjusted OPSes at age 22 and 23 of 115 and 117. Buxton’s were 90 and 93 (100 is exactly average), according to Baseball-Reference.