Fantasy Baseball: Shane Bieber Highlights Big Selling Pitchers As The Weather Warms Up

If you’re playing fantasy baseball right now, chances are you’re pretty comfortable with your pitching team. We have breakout pitchers all over the place, to the point where I’m not 100% sure I have enough room on some of my teams to get a flyer about the likes of Josh Winder and his 1.61 ERA through his first 22.1 innings of work. If I wanted to take a flyer on him, I’d have to drop someone with a significant advantage of their own, like Hunter Greene.

Offense is down in the league and I’ve covered why and the impact it’s having on fantasy hitters here, but the impact is being felt on pitchers as well. In the past, a 3.00 ERA was considered a potential ace mark; Now we get questions about why Sandy Alcantara and his 3.03 ERA weren’t that convincing.

And that’s not necessarily an overreaction. Out of 56 qualified pitchers, Alcantara ranks 30th in ERA, and if you lower the threshold to at least 20 innings, he’s still 52nd out of 129 pitchers; not bad but pretty mediocre. Strikeouts remain at or near all-time highs — especially when you factor in no pitchers hitting — and home runs are way down, making for one of the worst runs-scoring environments we’ve seen in a while — I’ve written here about the impact this has on hitters.

However, this environment is not static. The new, less bouncy ball that was introduced last season (sporadically, it turns out) has led to a drop in home runs, but it seems the biggest difference between 2021 and 2022 will be the introduction of humidifiers to store baseballs in each was parking for the first time. About a third of the league used humidifiers last season, and Coors Field has been known to have installed a humidor for years, resulting in a significant decline in offense at the park.

So you might think that the ubiquity of humidifiers will lead to a reduction in offense in the future, just like we’ve seen so far, but that might not be the case. Humidifiers now appear to result in fewer attacks as balls are stored in a wetter environment than during matches. As the weather warms up, the relative humidity during games will likely be higher than where the balls are stored must result in a livelier ball that keeps moving.

(If you want more detail on this whole situation, this article by Eno Sarris from a few weeks ago explains it all well.)

That said, you might not want to become too friendly with your pitching staff. In an environment where the ball doesn’t go that far, someone like Merrill Kelly could be successful without getting a lot of strikeouts because he restricts base runners and keeps the ball on the ground well enough. He’s benefited greatly from not allowing homers, however, and when the ball flies out more easily, Kelly seems an obvious candidate for injury, and he’s not alone — other relatively low strikeout-rate pitchers like Miles Mikolas are out Jordan Montgomery and possibly even Logan Webb and Walker Buehler could expect worse results.

That could also apply to players like Triston McKenzie and Bruce Zimmerman, pitchers who have struggled with hard contact homers in the past. Balls that die on the warning lane could turn into homers and doubles in the future and that could really hurt them.

Here are four pitchers I might want to sell high based on this early offensive environment:

Shane Bieber

Bieber is one of the pitchers I worry about the most. Partly that’s because I was quite worried about him coming into the season and the reasons I was worried have been confirmed. He hasn’t regained the speed he lost last season, averaging 90.6 mph with his fastball compared to 92.8 a year ago (and 94.1 in 2020), and his speed was at his actually dropped to 89.9 mph last start.

A few weeks ago, Bieber told reporters he wasn’t worried about the drop in fastball speed: “I’m feeling good. I’m getting good results. Do I want to throw harder? Yes. It’s coming.” Bieber speculated it could be due to the shortened spring training session, and he and the team’s pitching coaches identified mechanical changes caused by his shoulder injury last season and, while he may still be figuring it out, the fact that his speed even since the conversation has dropped about it is worrying.

And it’s concerning because Bieber’s fastball has always been a pitch he gets along with most of the time. He allowed a .347 xWOBA with the pitch in 2019 and a .320 mark in 2021; the outlier was 2020 when it was 0.290. He also had a career-high puff rate of 25.4% while averaging 94.1 mph and a spin rate of 2,356 rpm; This season, his spin rate has dropped to 2,184 rpm along with speed. Bieber’s cutter hasn’t been an acceptable fastball substitute over the years either, so he could be left with a really bad fastball that he’s trying to overcome with his slider and curveball.

It’s not impossible, but even at his best, Bieber has spent more time outside the strike zone than most pitchers. That’s why he gets so many puffs with his slider and curveball, his primary putaway pitches, but he has his lowest call strike rate yet, making it harder to get to the point where he can put away hitters.

Bieber gets hit hard when hit. So if he’s going to fight to become an elite strikeout pitcher, things could get ugly in a hurry. I’m not giving up on Bieber, but I have less confidence in him than any other pitcher in my top 24, and he’s dropped to 16th in both H2H points and Roto. I’m not far from putting the likes of Pablo Lopez and Clayton Kershaw ahead of me, and Dylan Cease and Shane McClanahan might not be far behind either. I’ve got to see some positive signs over the next few launches, and Bieber is one I’d like to sell based on brand equity — before that name loses value.

Walker Buehler

Buehler had his best season ever in 2021 despite recording his lowest strikeout rate, and he’s doing the trick again in the early stages. He’s always been very good at limiting hard contact, and that’s how Buehler has managed to outperform his peripherals fairly consistently.

There are some real warning signs here, however, as Bühler’s fastball looks like it could be a real disadvantage at this point. He’s lost almost 200 RPM of spin off the court since 2021 – almost 300 from 2020 – and he’s seen his metrics deteriorate with the court: He had a 26.1% breath rate and 0.201 expected wOBA with the Fastball in 2020, but those numbers are 13.9% and .476 this season. And the actual results weren’t great either; Hitters have a .359 average and a .563 slugging percentage against the fastball.

Buehler was able to survive that because he has an extensive, diverse arsenal, but his CSW% (called-plus-swinging strike rate) is down to a career low of 27.7%, which is the career low strikeout rate declared by 21.8%.

Buehler boasts a likely unsustainable 86.4% beach rate and 5.6% HR/FB rate that have helped cover up those shortcomings, but it’s fair to wonder how long he can hold out. I bet against Buehler and I was wrong, but there are more worrying signs here than we’ve seen so far.

Merrill Kelly

We saw a similar stretch from Kelly in 2020 when he posted a 2.58 ERA with a K-Rate of 23.2% and a BB-Rate of 4.0%; He has a 1.22 ERA this season with a 23% K-Rate and a 6.1% walk rate. Kelly has since made some notable changes, making his changeup his most-used secondary playfield while limiting his use of curveball and sinker, which are interesting adjustments that could make his current strikeout rate a bit more sustainable. Given his groundball tendencies, that could give him pretty high ground, but I still think there’s a ceiling to how good Kelly can be with a roughly average strikeout rate if the home run rate changes even slightly normalized. Kelly is definitely not a sell-by-any-means player, but I think he’s probably very close to an average ERA when things look a little more normal.

Josiah Gray

I really like Gray and he’s been one of the final round picks for me in some of my leagues, so I’m happy with what I’ve gotten from him so far. And I really like the skills, with one exception: he has a bad fastball. His four sailer had allowed a .409 expected wOBA last season and he gave up 12 home runs in 13 starts with it; He has a .404 xwOBA on the court this season but has given up four homers in six starts. Expected stats are currently out of balance due to the offensive environment – they are calibrated to historical norms. So if the ball doesn’t go that far, historical expectations don’t matter that much. However, if the ball is likely to be moving forward with more vigor than it has been so far, it still hints at potential struggles for the talented youngster. He’s already throwing it less than half the time, and I’m not sure he can limit its use much more considering he’s already struggling with control at times.

Gray is by no means doomed – he’s young and talented, and I don’t mind getting him into Dynasty leagues because he could have some Bieber-like runs ahead of him. But based on his current abilities, I think things are likely to go wrong for him. I moved him to a league for Ramon Laureano to give context to the kind of return I would be happy with. Fantasy Baseball: Shane Bieber Highlights Big Selling Pitchers As The Weather Warms Up

Justin Scacco

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