Cockcroft’s fantasy baseball players to grab, avoid in 2020

We’ve gone through the basics of fantasy baseball, discussed auction strategy and how to build a cheat sheet. We’ve also provided trade and free-agency tips for in season, dug deep into the advanced stats, including those provided by Statcast, and examined the latest trends around the league. But even with all those tools, there’s no greater truth to fantasy baseball success than this:

The key ingredient to winning a championship is an extensive knowledge of the player pool itself.

The final edition of the Playbook provides a window into my own Playbook, a file containing notes on hundreds of players, which I create throughout the offseason as I do my own player research. It’s from this file — a Word document, in this case — that I craft, and often adjust, my player rankings and ultimately drive my own cheat sheets.

This is an exhaustive process, one for which I’m grateful to have the time. It is not one that is easy for everyone to do in detail, which is why I consider this space a good place to share some of my more unusual findings. They’re things you might want to consider when drafting any of the listed names, though my rankings ultimately provide you my best estimate of the player’s current-season worth.

Players are listed in the order I rank them within my top 300 overall (and beyond):

Ronald Acuna Jr.: The grain of salt I’ll throw is that his 30.7% K rate from July 1 forward was ninth-highest among qualifiers, and he had a 33.7% rate in September. Combined, the 14 hitters who struck out in at least 30% of their trips to the plate from July 1 forward batted .249; Acuna batted .261. By the way, at the time spring training paused, Acuna had struck out in 14 of his 31 trips to the plate. Just be aware of the potential batting average pitfall, should he not improve his contact substantially when play resumes, if you’re angling for Acuna No. 1 overall.

Mookie Betts: He’s a perennial favorite of mine, and many of the things that plagued him statistically in 2017 also did so in 2019. During that unbelievably unlucky 2017, he managed a mere .268 BABIP (batting average on balls in play), and in 2019 his number was .309, far cries from the .322 or .368 he enjoyed in 2016 and 2018. Statcast’s “expected batting average” tells a compelling tale: Betts’ .311 xBA in 2019 was only three points off 2018’s .314, in a season when his .346 batting average paced the majors by 16 whole points. In addition, Betts produced a batted ball of 95 mph or greater — the threshold for Statcast to grade it “hard hit” — 47% of the time in 2019, within range of his 50% in 2018. Last season, however, 47% of those resulted in outs, whereas in 2018 only 36% did. Betts just hasn’t been catching breaks in his odd-numbered seasons, but outside of Mike Trout and Christian Yelich, I don’t think there’s a better bet in the game for a .300-30 campaign in 2020.

Rafael Devers: What most impressed me about his 2019 was the fact that he boosted his contact rate to 81.6%, from 73.5% in 2017-18 combined in the majors, putting it right on line with the career 81.4% rate he posted from Double-A ball down in the minors, while not surrendering a hint of quality in his contact or showing any discernable shift in batted-ball distribution. In fact, Devers’ average exit velocity (92.1 mph in 2019) and hard hit rate (47.5) increased, fully supporting the breakout. I know that the instinct among us is to assume that huge spikes in production will inevitably regress the next year and that Devers had less superhuman .271/.321/.509 rates and 11 home runs in the final two months. I’m still all-in on this youngster, hailed a future MVP candidate at the time of his big league debut.

Joey Gallo: The Texas Rangers’ installation of Luis Ortiz as hitting coach before last season paid immediate dividends for Gallo, despite the injuries that plagued the final four months of his season, dampening enthusiasm surrounding him somewhat. Here was my key takeaway: Through June 1 — that was the date of his final game played before the injuries struck — Gallo’s chase rate, or the percentage of pitches judged as outside the rulebook strike zone, was 19.3%, 14th lowest among 167 qualified hitters. That was a monstrous improvement over the 28.7% rate he had in 2017-18 combined, and he did it without any significant loss in fly ball or hard-contact rates. Gallo was essentially shaving a lot of outs he was giving away, which is why his batting average soared by more than 40 points. He probably can’t maintain a .368 BABIP, but he’s much more likely to bat .240 than .200 considering his new approach.

Josh Bell: He draws an unwarranted amount of criticism for the “Home Run Derby Curse” that supposedly afflicted him during the second half of last season, but dig deeper into the numbers and you’ll realize he straightened things out by mid-August.

Bell’s first half: 88 games, .302/.376/.648 rates, 27 homers, .315 BABIP, 20.4 K%, 50.6% hard-hit rate, 14.7% barrel/batted ball events

Bell’s final 33 games: .270/.384/.557 rates, 10 homers, .247 BABIP, 15.2 K%, 44.2% hard-hit rate, 12.6% barrel/batted ball events

You’ll want to regress Bell’s first-half numbers to the mean, but that should still make him a .285-BA, 35-homer (in this homer-friendly environment) hitter, which is a lot like what Gleyber Torres was last season. Torres, by the way, finished 69th overall on the Player Rater and scored the 64th-most fantasy points.

Eloy Jimenez: I’m a huge believer in Jimenez, calling him my “last call” dynasty-league target entering 2020. Frankly, it might be too late already, if you consider his performance during the Chicago White Sox’s final 50 games of 2019: 45 played and started, .313/.349/.604 hitting rates, 13 home runs, 37 RBIs and a 53.3% Statcast hard-hit rate, which placed him among the 10 best qualifiers.

Blake Snell: Everything that seemed to break right for him in 2018 went in entirely the opposite direction in 2019, but look to the FIPs, which were 2.95 and 3.32 in those respective seasons. Then there’s this: Snell was the only pitcher in baseball to generate at least a 20% swinging-strike rate with three different pitches that he threw at least 100 times last season (curveball 24.1%, slider 22.8% and changeup 20.5%). Perhaps he’s now an injury risk, but he should be excellent in the innings he gives you.

Whit Merrifield: For a player who generates a good chunk of his fantasy value from his base stealing, Merrifield’s two-year pattern of declining Statcast sprint speed numbers is a worry, especially as his 28.6 feet per second rate in 2019 placed only 45th among the 292 players with at least 100 competitive runs — and that number was slower than both Jorge Alfaro’s and Hunter Pence’s. Merrifield was also successful on only 20 of 30 attempts, which doesn’t bode well for a player under a new manager in Mike Matheny who rarely afforded the green light in St. Louis. Merrifield is more of a volume- than skills-driven target at this stage of his career, so be cautious not to regard him as more than a sixth-rounder.

Lucas Giolito: Skills bump! He spent the 2018-19 offseason shelving an ineffective sinker, changing positions on the pitching rubber and adjusting his delivery in the pursuit of recapturing the talent that scouts once called future Cy Young-worthy. The results were stark: a four-seam fastball that averaged 94.2 mph, up from 92.5 previously in his big league career, and a 16.1% swinging-strike rate that nearly doubled his previous 9.4% mark in the majors. He has arrived as a fantasy force, and you should draft accordingly.

Yu Darvish: One of my favorite stats of the offseason was that Darvish walked only seven batters total during his 13 second-half starts last season, which matched the number of free passes he issued in his March 30 start alone. That’s how polarizing his half-season performances were, but it’s good to see that the great efforts were the most recent ones. There’s durability risk with him, but isn’t there with any pitcher? He’s a bona fide top-20 candidate at his position.

Kyle Schwarber: The advances he made against left-handed pitchers last season should not be ignored. Schwarber slashed a manageable .229/.306/.450 against them, and .268/.333/.585 from Aug. 1 forward (in 45 plate appearances), supporting his candidacy for everyday play. The Cubs do have a deep outfield, with many better defensive choices, but the likely addition of the designated hitter this season is potentially huge for Schwarbs. He could match Matt Olson’s production for a price five full rounds (or more) later in your draft.

Corey Seager: I’m of the mind that, even on the hitting side, it’s wiser to wait to draft the player the year after his initial return from Tommy John surgery, considering the significance of the operation. In Seager’s case, his finish to 2019 showed hints of improvement that support the claim: He slashed .293/.321/.599 with 10 home runs and 40 RBIs in his final 41 games, with 39.4% hard-hit and 9.8% barrel rates that looked much closer to his pre-surgery norms. This isn’t to say that he’s due for a huge breakthrough in 2020, but at the suddenly deep shortstop position, he’s a welcome mid-round fallback if you missed out on the big names.

Edwin Diaz: What truly did him in during his disappointing 2019 was miserable luck against right-handed hitters, who batted .299 with 10 home runs against him. That was fueled by a .419 BABIP; that’s the seventh-highest allowed to right-handed batters (minimum 150 faced in the given year) by any pitcher in the 116 seasons for which has such data available. I’m willing to forgive Diaz, who should receive better bounces this time around, as both his strikeout (39.0%) and swinging-strike (19.5%) rates last season were right in line with his career numbers (19.2% and 38.9%).

Franmil Reyes: He’s extremely underrated for his raw power, which essentially matches that of Nelson Cruz or the aforementioned Schwarber. Reyes was one of only five players with at least 50 barrels and a 50% hard-hit rate last season — Cruz, Josh Donaldson, Olson and Schwarber were the others.

Tim Anderson: He had a .399 BABIP last season, unheard of for a player with a mere 2.9% walk rate. In fact, only six times previously had a player managed even a .350 BABIP with a sub-3% walk rate in a season with at least 500 plate appearances, and Garry Templeton (1977 and 1979) was the only one to do it twice. And it’s not like Anderson is likely to improve his patience, considering his career walk rate in Double-A ball and above is 3.4%. I think it’s much more likely he finishes outside the Player Rater top 100 overall in 2020.

Lance Lynn: Loyal listeners to the Fantasy Focus Baseball podcast know I took time to warm to Lynn, but the more I examined him this offseason, the more I believed in his 2019 breakthrough. It was skills-supported: He restored the 50%-plus (54.1%, to be exact) four-seam fastball usage that he exhibited during his 2013-15 previous best years, and boosted its average velocity to a career-high 94.6 mph while increasing its spin. It should only help that the new Globe Life Field is projected to lean more toward pitching than its hitters-heaven predecessor, Globe Life Park.

Elvis Andrus: Attribute much of his 2019 success to new manager Chris Woodward’s frequent green lights, as Andrus’ 31 stolen bases fueled more than half his fantasy production and were his most since 2013 (42). Woodward’s Texas Rangers attempted a steal on 7.8% of their opportunities (as judged by last season, up from the team’s 4.9% 2018 rate and considerably greater than the league’s 4.7% rate in 2019. Here’s the problem: Statcast had Andrus’ average sprint speed declining in each of the past four seasons, bottoming at 2019’s 26.7 feet per second that ranked 339th out of 568 players with at least 10 competitive runs. I’d pay for 18 steals, but consider each one beyond that a gift.

Brandon Workman: He’s a tough read, having walked 15.7% of the hitters he faced last season, only the third pitcher with at least 70 innings to walk at least 15% in the past decade. Still, Workman had positives: a 51.1% ground ball rate that eased some of the worry surrounding all those walks, and a curveball that generated 55 of his 104 strikeouts while affording a .132 batting average, ninth lowest among the 115 pitchers who threw at least 250. He’s a real risk/reward closer, but as he had an 8.2% walk rate in 2017-18, I’m willing to rank him a top-15 positional option.

J.D. Davis: The Mets need to do everything they can to keep his bat in their lineup every day after he broke through with .335/.395/.584 rates, 13 home runs and 32 RBIs in 64 games after the All-Star break last season. While Davis’ .393 BABIP indicated that he’ll give back a lot of those batting average gains, don’t underestimate the adjustments the fourth-year hitter made earlier in the year: His average launch angle rose to 12.6 degrees and he generated 19 barrels during the second half, bringing back the 25-30 homer pop he displayed in Class A and Double-A ball. If Davis lingers beyond the midway point of your standard-league draft, scoop him up.

Ian Kennedy: As is often the case with starters-turned-relievers, Kennedy’s average four-seam fastball velocity in 2019 soared to 94.4 mph, a full 2 mph greater than he enjoyed in any single year previously as a starter, and during the second half it was 95.0 mph. Perhaps more important, he induced more ground balls than he ever had before, his 37.5% rate more than three full percentage points greater than his previous career high (34.4%, in 2014). In short, he was a completely different pitcher than we had seen in any recent year, and one plenty capable of maintaining the Kansas City Royals’ closer role. I’d be more worried about a possible trade — he is, after all, in the last year of his deal — than skills regression.

Will Smith: While I see him having a plenty productive career, Smith is a catcher I’m fading for 2020. He’s one of the position’s best pure power hitters, but the rest of his game lacks polish. In 49 games from July 27 forward (playoffs included), he batted .240 with a 68.9% contact rate, not to mention 11% popup (ranging as high as 13%, depending upon your source and how it labels them) and 38.4% hard-hit rates. With so much of his fantasy value tied up in home runs, in a season full of them, I want to see a more complete plate approach before investing heavily.

Mark Canha: Until last season, he really had the look of a platoon man, with .240/.314/.417 rates against right-handed pitchers in his first four big league years. A huge boost in strike zone judgment, though, has made him a more complete hitter: He slashed his overall chase rate from 31.3% from 2015 to 2018 to 21.9% last season, and with it slashed .297/.418/.548 against righties. Anytime I see a player like this, I’m reminded of players like Steve Pearce, who as a 31-year-old made similar adjustments to hit pitchers who throw from both sides, and fear the one-year blip. But in Canha’s case, I’m willing to take the chance that he has arrived — at least to a point that he’s not going to cost me one of my first 15 mixed league picks or so.

Garrett Hampson: He has been a bit overvalued in my estimation this preseason, but if the price remains fair in your league, he’s one of the best discount speedsters you can find. Hampson’s Statcast sprint speed was fourth fastest among players with at least 10 competitive runs in 2019 (30.1 feet per second), and among players with at least 300 plate appearances, his 20.1% chase rate was 20th best. Who doesn’t love a speedster with good strike zone judgment?

Jose Urquidy: Given the choice, I’d prefer to pay for the upside of rotation mate Josh James, but Urquidy’s range of outcomes is tighter and I’m tempted to go the “safe” route in any league where I’m limited on how I can manipulate my pitching matchups. Urquidy’s strength is his changeup: He threw it more than one-third of the time to left-handed hitters, who batted just .143 with a 17.7% swinging-strike rate against it. There’s a pretty good chance that, with an extended opportunity, he could find himself a member of the top 60 fantasy starters come season’s end.

Pablo Lopez: Injuries cropped up just at the point he seemed to be breaking through last season, but his small-sample success shouldn’t be forgotten. At the time of his June injured list stint, he was riding a streak of 7 of 10 quality starts with a 3.65 ERA, but more important, he had 3.3 K-to-walk and 52.2% ground ball rates — and bear in mind that included a 10-runs-in-three-innings disaster against the New York Mets in May. A “Kings of Command” sleeper choice entering last year, Lopez still has the ability to be a strong back-of-your-rotation fantasy pick.

Dylan Cease: I want to believe but can’t get past his 10.7% big league walk rate last season, which was 9.9% during his final seven starts, 10.5% in Triple-A ball to begin the year and 11.4% during his minor league career. Cease’s four-seam fastball might have a lot of life to it, but he threw it in the strike zone only 43.8% of the time, second least among pitchers who threw at least 500, and surrendered a league-worst .356 batting average with it. Yes, he’s working on his mechanics this preseason, but I want to see some evidence of greater control before investing much.

Aristides Aquino: You probably remember his record-setting early home run pace, but what about his .194 batting average, 29.7% strikeout or 39.5% chase rates (the latter 11th highest among 149 qualifiers) from Aug. 31 forward?

Worse yet: Aquino was 2-for-26 (.077 batting average) with zero extra-base hits and 11 strikeouts when spring training paused in March. Pitchers seemed to have figured him out, and I anticipate his need for some major adjustments in the near future.

Danny Jansen: I’m a firm believer that the learning curve at catcher is the lengthiest in baseball at the big league level, and it was just a year ago that many of us were forecasting Jansen to be the position’s next star. He struggled through a disappointing 2019, but I also think inconsistent opportunity contributed. Here’s what I saw: Only 47 starts (and 50 total appearances) in the Toronto Blue Jays’ final 81 games, during which he hit 11 home runs with .234 isolated power and an 8.0% barrel rate. Jansen will be one of my preferred go-cheap catcher options.

Austin Voth: He’ll be a common “final pitcher on my staff” choice for 2020, after an impressive five-start September audition during which time he flashed a 26.5% swinging-strike rate with his curveball, third best among the 106 pitchers who threw at least 50 during that timeframe.

Tyler Mahle: There’s a pretty good chance that we’re going to see more six-man pitching rotations in an abbreviated season, and Mahle would be one of those most likely to benefit. He’s a preferred late-round sleeper of mine for these reasons: During his eight second-half starts in 2019, his average four-seam fastball velocity spiked to 94.1 mph and he walked only 5.4% of the hitters he faced; those compare favorably to his 92.6 and 8.9% numbers in his 44 previous career starts.

Justus Sheffield: When spring training eventually resumes, he’s one of the names you should be most closely following. While extremely inconsistent last season, both across his minor league and major league tenures, Sheffield flashed a healthy ground ball rate (52.3%) and a slider that could be a quality big league pitch with improved command. He generated a swinging strike with 23.0% of the sliders he threw last season, sixth best among pitchers who threw at least 200 breaking pitches (note that I’m lumping curveballs into the ranking, making it all the more impressive). What’s more, Sheffield struck out 12 of the 28 spring batters he faced before the pause.

Willians Astudillo: If I’m going the dirt-cheap, pay-$1-for-my-second-catcher-at-the-end route, Astudillo remains an attractive choice because of his extremely high batting average floor; in short he really can’t hurt you in the category. He has now posted nine consecutive professional campaigns of at least a 95% contact rate.

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