(The full, nine-inning Playbook was originally published during the spring of 2020. The following 2022 analysis is new.)
We've gone through the basics of fantasy baseball, discussed auction strategy and how to build a cheat sheet. We've also provided in-season trade and free-agency tips, dug deep into the advanced stats (including those provided by Statcast) and examined the latest trends around the league. Still, even with all those tools at your disposal, 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, although my rankings ultimately provide you my best estimate of the player's current-season worth.
Players are listed in alphabetical order:
Ozzie Albies: One thing that strikes me about his career trend is how good a player he has become despite an 84-point wOBA split between his performances as a right- (.401) and left-handed (.317) hitter. Albies did boost his launch angle as a left-handed hitter over the last two years, though, hitting 25 of 36 homers from that side of the plate, and Statcast's expected metrics said his performance from that side was awfully close in true value from 2020-21, despite the wide-at-first-glance look. The 2021 version of Albies should statistically lock in for the next half-decade.
Pete Alonso: After returning from a hand injury on Memorial Day, he hit 31 homers and had 234 total bases, which prorates to 43 and 327, or 10 homers and 21 total bases shy of his 2019 rookie-year marks. Alonso re-established himself as one of the game's premier power hitters, and I see a big year coming from him in 2022.
Josh Bell: The sting of his terrible 2020, which came on the heels of a "disappointing" second half of 2019 -- if a stretch in which a player batted .270/.384/.557 with 10 home runs over his final 33 games can really be described as that -- might remain fresh in his fantasy managers' minds, but Bell made key gains last season that hint he'll be a relative value. He enjoyed career-bests with his 92.5 mph average exit velocity and 52.0% hard-hit rate, kicked his contact rate up to a big-league, full-season best of 79.7%, and finished his 2021 on a .285/.384/.512, 18-HR high note over his final 87 games. Bell's biggest knock is his over-50% groundball rate, but he's quite the value for every pick he goes outside his position's top 10.
Jake Cronenworth: While his contact-oriented, line-drive ability, plus multi-position eligibility (second base, first base and shortstop) will make him an appealing fantasy pick, I worry that those factors plus his (by far) career-best 21 home runs will cause him to be overrated for our purposes. Cronenworth just isn't that pure power bat that the homer total hints at, he's not in a great ballpark for power, and his contact-quality metrics on the whole were below league-average. He also finished 2021 batting .244/.321/.444 in the 71 games from July 1 forward, with season-ending stats that showed skills declines in most pertinent categories. Cronenworth is one of those guys I love to draft when people aren't fully aware of him, but that's not true entering 2022.
Wander Franco: To give you an idea of how incredibly talented he is, consider that from Aug. 1 through the season's conclusion, his 6.1% strikeout rate was easily the league's lowest. This 21-year-old is arguably already baseball's best contact hitter, and his 60-grade power potential and speed should surface as he gains experience.
Max Fried: He rarely gets the credit he deserves for being a solid, if not spectacular, pitcher. Fried is the only pitcher in baseball to have been ERA-qualified in both 2019 and 2021, while posting at least a 50% groundball rate, a sub-7.5% walk rate and an average fastball velocity greater than 93 mph. Call them arbitrary thresholds if you wish, but I see them as signs of a high statistical floor and pretty solid raw stuff.
Sonny Gray: As mentioned in the league trends Playbook inning, Gray's spin rate was one of the ones to suffer the most as a result of last June's reinforcement of the rules against applying foreign substances to the baseball. Both his four-seam fastball and curveball lost spin from June 21 forward, the former declining by 82.5 revolutions per minute and the latter by 189.1 rpm. As Gray's curveball effectiveness has typically had the most bearing upon his fantasy performance throughout his career, its decline from a 14.4% to a 10.3% swinging-strike rate was troubling. His case for a top-40 fantasy starter's season is a tough one to make, in light of the current rules.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr.: A sluggish start to his 2021 can probably be attributed to his playing through a knee injury, but in his final 100 games, he batted .290/.344/.521 with 18 home runs and 71 RBIs, despite generally occupying a bottom-half lineup spot. He has improved his contact rate in back-to-back seasons and has solid contact-quality metrics, making him a potential bargain in the middle rounds.
Rhys Hoskins: The groin injury that cut his 2021 season short was frustrating if you rostered him, but it also might have helped keep his 2022 price point in check enough that he'll be a great mid-round value. Hoskins' Barrel rate, expected slugging percentage and expected wOBA were all in the 90th percentile or better, and he was on a .323/.439/.785, 10-HR tear in the 29 games he managed to play from July 1 forward.
Francisco Lindor: After a miserable first two months with the New York Mets, he finally seemed to be straightening out his season by June, only to suffer an oblique injury right after the All-Star break that cost him five weeks of action. He hit nine home runs with 27 RBIs and a .500 slugging percentage in 37 games thereafter, signs that the fantasy superstar he was pre-trade is still hidden beneath. I look at Lindor's first year in New York and can't help but recall another switch-hitting, 28-year-old who struggled initially: Carlos Beltran. In Year No. 2, Lindor seems likely to rebound, and the chances that he approaches his former form makes him a great value in the fifth round.
Lance Lynn: One of the reasons for my Playbook notes files is to jot down pertinent information to track, with Lynn being one of the best examples. The knee issues that bothered him late in 2021 are something I've jotted down to check back on during spring training. The problem with that? With the lockout delaying -- and probably ultimately shortening -- spring training, pitchers like this won't have quite the time to ramp up to an Opening Day workload, not to mention will have a smaller spring-game sample from which to draw conclusions regarding their health. It's simply something to keep in mind with Lynn, who had generated a good amount of his fantasy value in recent seasons from durability.
Tyler Mahle: Another spin-rate concern pitcher, à la his teammate Sonny Gray, Mahle saw his fastball lose 163.7 rpm after June 21, the pitch losing a great deal of effectiveness (.275 wOBA before, .369 after). Additionally, he's an often flyball-oriented pitcher who calls a homer-friendly environment his home, in a season where the designated hitter will return to the National League. Mahle is still a worthwhile pick on raw skill (and better than Gray at this stage in my estimation), but I think he has ratio gains to give back in 2022.
Joe Musgrove: He was outstanding in the season's early stages, and I can only guess that his ERA swelled to 4.02 during the San Diego Padres' final 81 games because of fatigue caused by the pandemic-shortened 2020 in which he pitched only 39 2/3 innings. Musgrove ramped up the usage of an excellent curveball (.196 wOBA allowed, 63 K's) to go along with an already-elite slider, and if he's even a little more prepared for a 200-inning type of workload, he might be on a path to a 250-K, top-10 season.
Aaron Nola: He'll come at a relative discount in 2022 after a disappointing 9-win, 4.63-ERA 2021, but that masked his true talent. Nola's career xFIP is 3.37, his lifetime SIERA is 3.56, and he has finished a season with an xFIP or SIERA more than a half-run removed from those numbers only once apiece (2020's 2.79 xFIP, and 2019's 4.14 SIERA). I see no difference between the 2020 and 2021 Nolas.
Salvador Perez: I do love the guy, but there's going to be some pull-back on his 2021 numbers. What stood out most was his 18.2% HR/FB rate, the majors' third-highest among qualifiers. That's highly unlikely to repeat, especially at a venue like Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium, which historically has been a bottom-five ballpark for power.
Jorge Polanco: Suggesting that fantasy managers cut him the week before Memorial Day was one of the worst calls I made in 2021, but then, who could have foreseen the kind of immediate turnaround he made -- practically the day after I recommended it? From May 26 forward, Polanco batted .282/.330/.547 with 29 home runs, 79 RBIs, 75 runs scored and eight stolen bases in 109 games, with the kind of launch-angle and contact-quality metrics he had never previously shown in his career. Polanco's changes consistently stuck from that day forward, and I'm certainly singing a different tune about him today, one that has him a clear top-10 choice at both of his eligible middle-infield spots.
Luis Robert: Among hitters with at least 100 trips to the plate in 2020 and 250 in 2021, his 13.3% contact-rate improvement last season was the largest in the majors. Robert remains a free swinger, but cutting down on his strikeouts while boosting his hard-contact rate gives him a very real chance at an overall top-25 rotisserie season.
Chris Sale: Perhaps any optimist's approach to his 2021 recovery was asking too much, but the left-hander did show some positive signs, and even on of his "ordinary" final lines will likely keep him in the borderline top-25 SP range, providing him good profit potential. Sale's average fastball velocity was 94-plus mph in all three of his postseason outings, right there with his pre-surgery career norms, and he dominated lefties to the tune of a .149 wOBA, thanks in large part to his nasty breaking slider. They were the first hints that his former Cy Young-caliber self lurks beneath, and while he might not be ready for a 200-IP workload, he should be given 160-plus innings.
Corey Seager: That $325 million contract he signed this winter shouldn't be at all surprising, if you look closely at his Statcast expected statistics. Working around injuries, he managed a second-best-in-baseball .312 expected batting average and sixth-best .414 expected wOBA between the regular season and postseason in 2020-21 combined, underscoring the strength of his hitting skills. Seager's injuries are a legitimate question, but he has overall top-25 ability when he's on the field, which is why it's remarkable that he's going outside the top 75 in early NFBC drafts.
Will Smith (the catcher): He's the position's most likely candidate to pull off a "Salvador Perez circa 2021" stat line, with the power profile that fits and a universal-DH role that could bump up his playing time enough to get there. My hesitation with Smith is the Los Angeles Dodgers' tendency to rein in his playing time, but curiously, he started 41-of-55 games to conclude the regular season before catching every inning of the team's 12 postseason contests. There's a good chance we'll see his first career 140-game, 550-plate appearance campaign in 2022.
Blake Snell: It's a huge red flag that he pitched only marginally deeper into games in his first year for the Padres (4.77 innings per start) than in 2020 with the Tampa Bay Rays (4.55). But then there's this: He feasted upon the majors' seven lowest-scoring offenses, posting a 1.96 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP and a 36.6% strikeout rate in eight starts against them. In his other 19 starts, he had three quality starts, a 5.26 ERA, a 1.47 WHIP and a 28.5% K rate. I see a lot of downside here.
Juan Soto: He's the player I want to rank first overall, regardless of league format, but that 52.9% groundball rate is the thing that holds me back. Still, there's a "Christian Yelich at the time of his trade" parallel here that intrigues me, as Yelich posted a 55.6% groundball rate in his final year in Miami, only to explode for 80 home runs over 2018-19 combined, despite only modestly more lift (52.8% grounders in 2018, 42.8% in 2019). Soto is a much more selective hitter at this career stage than Yelich, however, and with better overall contact quality. I'll be watching Soto closely during spring training for any hint of a launch-angle shift, because even the slightest increase could put him on a .300-40 HR, easy-path-to-an-MVP campaign.
Giancarlo Stanton: He's a tough player to pick, year after year, and especially when you feel like you're chasing one of his healthier past seasons, such as his 139-game 2021. Stanton's underlying metrics rebounded with better health in 2021, but not to the MVP levels he displayed in 2017 or those he had in his first New York Yankees season of 2018. His two highest groundball rates have occurred in the last two seasons, and his Barrel rate didn't rebound as much as I'd hoped with expanded playing time (15.7%, compared to 17.2% career). If he's coming at a premium, I'll leave Stanton to someone else.
Ranger Suarez: Besides the 1.36-run differential between his ERA (also 1.36) and FIP (2.72), the other thing that worries me regarding the left-hander's ability to approach, let alone repeat, his 2021 effort was how much he feasted upon weak competition. He made seven of his 12 starts for the season against the seven lowest-scoring offenses, and recorded 50 of his 107 K's for the year against them. I'd like to see more success against more potent opponents over a full season in the rotation before trusting him as anything more than a late-round mixed-league pick.
Mike Trout: The injuries aren't entirely the problem. Trout's Statcast speed metrics haven't cratered, but they're showing signs of age- (and perhaps injury-) related decline, his 28.9 feet per second sprint speed of 2020 being his career worst and his 4.33 and 4.30 second "home-to-first" times since 2020 being his worst two career numbers. The Los Angeles Angels have been much less apt to give him green lights, as he has attempted only four stolen base attempts in 89 games combined over the last two seasons, after just 13 in 134 games in 2019. His contact rate is also trending in the wrong direction, culminating in a personal-worst 65.0% in 2021. Trout is an amazing, Hall of Fame-caliber player, but he's turning into more of a specialty pick -- best in sabermetrically angled fantasy formats -- than one with great value in standard rotisserie.
Kyle Tucker: He wasn't merely inching towards fantasy greatness over his first four big-league seasons, he made exponential gains in 2021 alone. Consider that, from Aug. 24 (the day he returned from the COVID-19 list) forward, he batted .359/.432/.672 with eight home runs, a third-highest-in-baseball 42.4% flyball rate and 12th-best 12.2% strikeout rate. It's picking samples, yes, but the continual gains he has made to this career stage bode quite well for what might be a first-rounder's ceiling.
Framber Valdez: He made a remarkably swift recovery from a fractured finger and continues to generate grounders as often as anyone can, but almost everything else in his profile regressed in 2021. The combination of ninth-percentile average exit velocity, 11th-percentile hard hit and 11th-percentile chase rates paints the picture of a pitcher with lackluster stuff, against whom hitters sit back and wait for their pitch. Valdez's skills look more like those of a matchups guy than a "roll him out there every time" type.
Joey Votto: There are quite a lot of reasons to expect his 2021 rebirth to continue into 2022. He made distinct changes to his approach in August 2020, elevating his launch angle by 3.8 degrees from Aug. 29 forward compared to his career average up to that date, while hitting 44 home runs with a .393 wOBA (he had a .403 wOBA in his career before the changes). Remarkably, Votto swung at a non-strike only 2.1% more often, walking 14.9% of the time -- he had walked 16.6% of the time in his career before that date -- showing how keen his plate discipline remains.
Zack Wheeler: He had a professional-low 18.4% strikeout rate in 2020, and followed it up with a career-high 29.1% K rate last year, but it shouldn't be chalked up to mere fluky results. Wheeler was much more aggressive with two strikes in 2021, throwing his four-seam fastball 46.6% and slider 24.3% of the time in those counts, both of those career-highs, with both pitches generating many more swings and misses than his sinker, which declined in usage from 20.6% to 11.8%. There's a good chance that he'll maintain a top-10 fantasy starter skill set into 2022, considering the adjustment.
Jesse Winker: An intercostal strain cost him the near-entirety of the season's final month and a half, but that might only serve to keep his draft-day price tag reasonable. Even with the missed time, Winker's 2020-21 numbers combined ranked him eighth in OBP (.392) and ninth in slugging (.552), with 84th percentile hard-contact (47.7%) and 97th-percentile Barrel rates (22.6%). Oh, and with the universal DH, the Reds no longer have to worry about his mediocre defense, meaning his playing time should be much more assured. Winker is a sabermetric dream pick and a possible overall top-40 player for 2022.