<
>

Rankings: Should you be patient with Justin Upton, Dallas Keuchel, Sonny Gray?

My third-round pick is batting .218. He stinks!

For many of us, our emotional side influences our fantasy baseball thinking, sometimes all too often. If you've ever uttered the phrase, "Player X is dead to me," or, "I'll never draft Player Y again," you're such an owner.

Frustration is understandable in this game, but it often clouds our judgment. Some of us are too quick to abandon a slow starter, others too blinded by the personal investment to make a rational judgment about the player's short- and long-term future. It's these underperformers who routinely serve the subject of the majority of feedback to my going-forward rankings: "How could you rank Mark Teixeira so high? He's 482nd on the Player Rater!"

I'm not immune to such personal attachment -- Monday's Fantasy Focus Baseball podcast serves as good an example of this as any -- but a key benefit I get from crafting weekly rankings is the demand for me to objectively evaluate the value of each player, and I mean every player, going forward, which usually leans heavily upon formulating a rough rest-of-year projection. There's no option to declare Teixeira "dead to me" and merely delete him -- the effective equivalent of your cutting him in a standard league -- as his value needs to be put into context relative to every other player.

The truth is that not every slow-starting player is officially done as a productive major league player, and it's always a good idea to, instead of discarding him, critically analyze what's behind his struggles as well as his chances of recapturing past magic.

Case in point: On this date last season, Carlos Gonzalez, a sixth-round pick entering the year, possessed .197/.258/.342 triple-slash rates, four home runs and 10 RBIs.

You can call me the apologist for these players if you wish; perhaps that's what I am. Below, let's share what it is -- what small glimmer of hope -- that I see in these players with Player Rater numbers so outrageously out of whack with their rankings.

Justin Upton

He has looked simply awful all year, leading the majors in strikeouts (62, seven more than anyone) with a seasonal pace of 258, which would shatter the single-season record by 35 (Mark Reynolds, 223 in 2009). In fact, Upton probably swung and missed three more times while you read that sentence. Never before has he started this poorly; his .218 batting average, two home runs, nine RBIs and .575 OPS are all easily personal worsts through his teams' first 39 games in any of his nine big league years.

The apologist: Well, gee, this one's a toughie. Upton's best defense has to be adapting to new circumstances as a highly paid free-agent addition, specifically changing leagues (National League to American League) for the first time in his career. That means an entirely new set of pitchers he hasn't seen before, and it's true, 77 of his 165 plate appearances have come against pitchers he hadn't previously faced. His splits, though, don't back up the argument:

Pitchers faced pre-2016: 88 PAs, .174/.193/.256 rates, 2.3 BB%, 37.5 K%
Pitchers never before faced: 77 PAs, .271/.325/.400 rates, 7.8 BB%, 37.7 K%

Perhaps a better defense of Upton is the fact that he has been facing an unusually large percentage of high-velocity pitches. He already has seen 81 pitches clocked 95 mph or faster, a pace of 336, which would easily shatter his since-2009 high of 235 (set in 2015); it would also be the fifth most by any player since 2009 (and the other four were Mike Trout in 2014 and Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen in 2015, all of whom are higher profile). Granted, Upton's career numbers against such offerings isn't that far beneath the league's average (.296 wOBA; average is .300), but perhaps the greater volume of them is what's complicating the league adjustment?

Based upon his career numbers entering 2016 (.271-27-85, 16 steals, 96 runs per 162 games), Upton certainly warrants at least a shred of patience.

Dallas Keuchel

The American League's reigning Cy Young Award winner, Keuchel has taken a significant step backward this season, his walk rate nearly doubling (from 5.6 to 10.0 percent) and his well-hit average allowed rising by more than 40 points (from .093 to .126). What's more, Keuchel's already-wide home/road career split has widened in 2016, as he has a 6.57 ERA and 1.68 WHIP in six road starts.

The apologist: First off, two of Keuchel's three worst starts thus far came facing treacherous matchups, the April 21 game at Texas' Globe Life Park (27 game score, tied for his second worst) and May 12 game at Boston's Fenway Park (21, his worst). He also made a trip to hitter-friendly Milwaukee's Miller Park, to face a righty-heavy Milwaukee Brewers team, in his fifth-worst outing of the year (47) on April 10. The schedule has influenced his numbers, but so has anticipated regression in the strikeout department, his 2015 having been artificially inflated by the game's most favorable rate of favorable calls. He's neither as good as he was at home in 2015 nor as bad as he has been on the road since the beginning of 2015, but he's also no longer a clear-cut top-20 starter.

Troy Tulowitzki

A player who averaged .297-29-101, nine steals and 103 runs per 162 games during his first 10 big league seasons, Tulowitzki has severely slumped thus far, batting .200 with easily the highest strikeout rate of his entire professional career (26.3 percent of his plate appearances). Most remarkably, he has collapsed against left-handed pitching, batting .114 without an extra-base hit against them after possessing career rates greater than .300/.400/.500 against them entering 2016.

The apologist: Tulowitzki's BABIP is an absurdly low .217, and while a lower line-drive rate has contributed, that still speaks to his having suffered some significant misfortune on balls put into play. To that point, if you're a believer in exit velocity, his hasn't suffered that much, going from a 90.3 mph average number in 2015 to 89.8 this season. He has eight home runs and is of greater concern in fantasy due to his injury history than the likelihood he'll continue with these batting average/RBI paces.

Sonny Gray

In his past four starts, Gray has a 10.31 ERA, the highest of any pitcher to have made at least four starts since April 25. That ruined what was a promising start previously, four consecutive quality starts to begin his year, and causing at least a small handful of his owners in ESPN leagues to cut him.

The apologist: Well, first off, this is a mere four-start slump, so "small sample size" is the simple, albeit lazy, retort. That said, Gray does have one aspect of his game that has been alarmingly problematic: He has served up a .536 batting average, .697 wOBA and .464 well-hit average on the first pitch of a plate appearance. In all other counts, he has afforded .228/.317/.145 numbers, which aren't a far cry from his .214/.267/.101 numbers in those categories from 2013-15. Gray hasn't been leaning on his breaking pitches early in counts this season, and while that often seems to spawn the "injury" question, this looks like just as much a case of a mechanical (read: fixable) problem as anything. He might, in fact, be the best buy-low of this bunch.


New ESPN position eligibility

The following players added new position eligibility within the past week. As a reminder, position players need to appear 10 times at a new position to gain in-season eligibility, while pitchers need to make three starts to earn starting-pitching eligibility or five relief appearances to earn relief-pitching eligibility.

Scott Feldman (RP), Ryan Flaherty (3B), Junior Guerra (SP), Miguel Rojas (2B), Logan Verrett (SP)

The following players are within two games of earning new eligibility, with their total games played noted at the listed position:

Gordon Beckham (2B, 8 games), Billy Butler (1B, 8 games), Daniel Castro (3B, 9 games; SS, 8 games), Steve Clevenger (C, 9 games), Christian Colon (2B, 8 games), Josh Rutledge (3B, 9 games), Ronald Torreyes (3B, 8 games)


Going-forward rankings: Week 7

Listed below are my updated, going-forward rankings. These are based upon an ESPN standard league of 10 teams and Rotisserie 5x5 scoring. Click here to see these rankings sorted by position.