Fantasy Baseball 2017: Beware of Big Regressions for These MLB Stars

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistMarch 23, 2017

Fantasy Baseball 2017: Beware of Big Regressions for These MLB Stars

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    Boston Red Sox right-hander Rick Porcello.
    Boston Red Sox right-hander Rick Porcello.Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    In fantasy baseball, there's nothing inherently wrong with buying high. The trick? Making sure the player you buy stays in the stratosphere.

    The nightmare scenario is burning a top pick on a guy who stuffed the stat sheet the previous season, only to watch him succumb to the dreaded "r" word—regression.

    With that in mind, here's a list of perceived fantasy stars whose 2016 performances should be viewed with a healthy dollop of skepticism. 

    Some are youngsters, some are established veterans, but all are waving enough crimson regression flags to warrant caution as you assemble your fantasy roster.

Tyler Naquin, CF, Cleveland Indians

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    It might be a stretch to call Tyler Naquin a star. He's on plenty of radars, however, after posting a .296/.372/.514 slash line in 116 games with the Cleveland Indians and finishing third in American League Rookie of the Year voting.

    The lefty-swinging Naquin had extreme splits, posting an .898 OPS against right-handers compared to a .775 mark against left-handers.

    The Tribe protected him by using him in a quasi-platoon role, but here's the most telling number: .411.

    That was Naquin's batting average on balls in play, an unsustainable figure that will drag down his overall stats.

    Add the fact that he posted minus-17 defensive runs saved in center field and, as CBSSports.com' Heath Cummings put it, "there are better odds that you drop him in June than he matches last year's performance."

Michael Fulmer, RHP, Detroit Tigers

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    Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

    Speaking of touted Junior Circuit rookies, Michael Fulmer took home AL Rookie of the Year honors in 2016 after posting a 3.06 ERA in 26 starts.

    The 23-year-old Detroit Tigers right-hander skipped an exhibition turn after spraining his ankle in early March but has made a couple of appearances since.

    There are lingering questions, however, surrounding the 5.54 ERA he posted over his final five starts of 2016. 

    Some of that can be explained by fatigue, which is normal for any young player getting accustomed to the MLB grind and pitching a career high in innings (174.1). But Fulmer's 3.95 xFIP—a version of ERA that eliminates factors beyond a pitcher's control—suggests his stats could take a step back in his sophomore season.

Jean Segura, SS, Seattle Mariners

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    In his first season with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2016, Jean Segura led the National League with 203 hits while slashing .319/.368/.499 with 20 homers and 33 stolen bases.

    The D-backs shipped him to the Seattle Mariners over the winter in a trade that netted right-hander Taijuan Walker.

    The 27-year-old shortstop is hitting .333 with a 1.027 OPS for the M's in the Cactus League, suggesting he could join Robinson Cano to form one of the more potent offensive middle infield combos in baseball.

    OK, now the wet blanket.

    Segura's .353 BABIP (a stat we'll be citing a lot) was easily his highest in the big leagues. Plus, he's moving from hitter-happy Chase Field to the more pitcher-friendly confines of Safeco Field in the soggy Pacific Northwest.

DJ LeMahieu, 2B, Colorado Rockies

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    Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    DJ LeMahieu won the NL batting title by hitting .348 in 2016 and posted a .911 OPS.

    He enjoyed an extreme Coors Field bump. His OPS was 1.064 at home, compared to .747 on the road, but he's still a member of the Colorado Rockies, so that doesn't have to change.

    On the other hand, his .388 BABIP was 36 points above his career average.

    LeMahieu is a plus defensive second baseman and will provide value even if his average slides. Owners drafting him as a top-tier second baseman, however, could be in for a Mile High letdown.

Jonathan Villar, 2B, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    In his first full big league season, Jonathan Villar was a fantasy dream, slashing .285/.369/.457 with 19 home runs and an MLB-leading 62 stolen bases.

    The 25-year-old switch-hitter played primarily shortstop while getting reps at third base and will move to second base in 2017, giving potential fantasy owners defensive flexibility.

    BABIP, however, rears its head once again. Villar's .373 mark was the fourth-highest in baseball and more than 50 points higher than the already-robust .322 career BABIP he carried into the season.

    Then there's the fact that his defense is somewhere between passable and atrocious. If his numbers dip, it's possible to imagine the Brewers cutting his playing time.

    That's a worst-case scenario. Villar offers value with his wheels alone. As with LeMahieu and Segura, though, he should be viewed as a mid-round gamble rather than an early-round lock.

Adrian Beltre, 3B, Texas Rangers

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    Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    Adrian Beltre turned back the clock in 2016 for the Texas Rangers, clubbing 32 home runs and tallying 104 RBI, his highest totals in both categories since 2012.

    In fact, while he eclipsed 140 games played in both 2014 and 2015, Beltre hit just 19 and 18 homers in those years, respectively. 

    Now, entering his age-38 campaign, it seems risky bordering on foolish to expect the Texas Rangers third baseman to produce elite power stats again.

    Could Beltre, who is putting the finishing touches on a legitimate Hall of Fame resume, stave off Father Time once again? Sure.

    Should you break the fantasy bank to find out? Probably not.

Kyle Hendricks, RHP, Chicago Cubs

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    Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

    Kyle Hendricks led the majors with a 2.13 ERA and 188 ERA+ and was the second runner-up for the National League Cy Young Award in 2016.

    He drew favorable comparisons to Hall of Famer Greg Maddux from Clayton Kershaw and Maddux himself, per ESPN.com's Jesse Rogers.

    Like Maddux, Hendricks is a control artist who relies on finesse and location. That alone doesn't equal regression, but his 3.59 xFIP could.

    Partly, that mark was due to the Chicago Cubs' league-best defense. As with LeMahieu and Coors, Hendricks should benefit from that unique advantage again.

    He's been strong in the Cactus League, posting a 2.63 ERA in 13.2 innings without allowing a walk or a home run.

    "Numbers-wise, I don't focus on that too much," Hendricks said, per Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. "It's more the pitches I'm making, and if I do that, the numbers will come."

    The point isn't that he'll be terrible or even mediocre. It's that he might not be an ace, despite what last season's stats and the lofty comps insist.

Ryan Braun, RF, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

    Sorry, Brewers fans. I'm not picking on you, I promise.

    Still, it has to be said: In addition to Villar, Ryan Braun is due for some backsliding in 2017.

    The 2011 NL MVP bashed 30 homers and hit .305 last season, his most robust totals since 2012.

    At the same time, his 17.8 percent soft-contact rate was his highest since 2011, while his league-leading 28.8 percent HR/FB ratio was the highest of his career.

    Translation: Braun's home run total should dip significantly in his age-33 season and take his fantasy value down with it.

Rick Porcello, RHP, Boston Red Sox

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    Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    With David Price battling arm trouble, the Boston Red Sox are counting on reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello. 

    Yes, they traded for that Chris Sale fellow, but he can't do it on his own.

    The bad news for the Soxand any fantasy owners planning to target Porcellois that the sinkerballer is unlikely to duplicate his 2017 success.

    To recap: Porcello won 22 games and set career bests in innings (223) and ERA (3.15). 

    That's all good. Here's what's not: He induced less soft contact than at any point in the last four seasons and yet endured the lowest BABIP against (.269) in his big league career.

    That screams unsustainable luck and suggests Porcello's 2017 is the aberration, as opposed to his lifetime 4.20 ERA.

J.A. Happ, LHP, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    As with Porcello, some fantasy owners will be drawn to the Toronto Blue Jays' J.A. Happ by the antiquated allure of 20 wins.

    Happ also set a career high with 195 innings in 2016 while posting a 3.18 ERA and finishing sixth in AL Cy Young Award voting.

    Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you find a pedestrian 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings that's slightly below his career average and a 4.18 xFIP that exceeds his career 3.98 ERA.

    If you nab the 34-year-old as a late-round, double-secret reverse sleeper, fine. Picking him as a rotation anchor, on the other hand, is pure fantasy folly.

       

    All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.