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2021 Fluke or Fact: Fantasy Afterthought or Return to Relevance?

Updated: May 31

An evaluation of poor fantasy performances in 2021 to determine if you should reinvest in 2022

Written by: Jake Floriolli

What separates the ordinary fantasy managers from the extraordinary is the ability to put feelings aside and be willing to reinvest in a player who disappointed them in the past. However, deciphering if a fantasy player just had an unlucky season or started a true decline in production can be difficult. Here’s a look at a few players who had disappointing 2021 seasons and whether or not a rebound in production next season should be expected.

Cody Bellinger, First Baseman, Los Angeles Dodgers

One early rounder that disappointed fantasy managers in 2021 (and 2020 for that matter) is Dodgers first baseman, Cody Bellinger. Bellinger’s production first started to slip in 2020, but most fantasy managers were willing to give him another chance after the shortened season as he was named the National League MVP in 2019 with an astounding slash line of .305/.406/.627 and 47 homers with 15 steals.

In 2020, Bellinger’s poor play limited him to 95 games where he hit just ten home runs with a .165/.240/.302 slash line. To make matters worse, Bellinger also gave us a career-low walk percentage and career-high strikeout percentage last season. Not to mention that Statcast data isn’t a fan of Bellinger’s 2021 production either as he ranked in the 20th percentile or worse in hard-hit percentage, expected wOBA, expected SLG%, and expected batting average.

The underlying metrics indicate a decline in production over the last season or so for Bellinger, nothing that could be deemed as unlucky. Looking at the graph below, it’s clear that after a spike in production in early 2019, Bellinger has been declining in major statistics such as wOBA, hard-hit percentage, and both in-zone and out-of-zone contact percentage. In other words, Bellinger is chasing more and hitting fewer line drives when he does make contact.

Heading into 2022, Bellinger is just 26 years old and coming off a postseason where he slashed .353/.436/.471 in 12 games with five stolen bases. However, with just five walks to 11 strikeouts in those 12 games and playing time questions in 2022, I am not convinced that Bellinger will even be worthy of starting in your corner infield spot next season.

2021 Performance: Fact

Aaron Nola, Starting Pitcher, Philadelphia Phillies

In 2021 Aaron Nola was coming off a season where he finished with a 3.28 ERA and had a career-high strikeout rate earning him a late second-round average draft position. But disappointment would ensue in 2021 as Nola finished the season with an ERA of 4.63 and WHIP of 1.13.

With more than a 1.30 jump in ERA from 2020 to 2021, it’s reasonable to believe that a fantasy manager might be skeptical about reinvesting in Nola. However, looking further into his underlying metrics paints a picture of someone who mostly suffered from some bad luck last season.

In 2021, Nola had both his highest BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and lowest LOB% (left on-base percentage) in four years to go along with a career-high fly ball percentage. Even if these metrics don’t return to Nola’s career average, positive regression can be expected, resulting in better stats for fantasy managers next season.

Additionally, per Statcast data, Nola maintained his velocity (shown below) and spin rate on all of his pitches last season while ranking in the 86th percentile or better among pitchers in both strikeout and walk percentage.

By all expected statistics, Nola did not show any signs of regression last season and should fully rebound in 2022 with an ERA close to 3.30, a WHIP of 1.10, and more than 225 strikeouts given a healthy season. Look to draft him in the late second or early third round of drafts this season.

2021 Performance: Fluke

Dominic Smith, Outfielder, New York Mets

Dominic Smith was one of the more hyped-up players last off-season after hitting ten home runs in 50 games with a slash line of .316/.377/.616 in 2020. It seemed that Dom Smith had officially broken out and that he was ready to be an early-round draft pick for years to come.

But alas, 2021 proved to be a different story when Smith hit just 11 homers in 145 games for the Mets. With an uninspiring slash line of .244/.304/.363 Smith fell from potential fantasy stud to waiver-wire fodder. So what went wrong?

In essence, Smith’s 2020 season is starting to look like a real outlier. But the fascinating thing is that there are only really two metrics that stand out in 2020 compared to 2021: barrel rate and launch angle.

As you can see below, Smith posted a career-high barrel percentage and nearly a career-low launch angle in 2020. In simpler terms, Smith hit more line drives and squared up the ball often which resulted in better contact being made, more home runs, and an improved batting average.

If Dominic Smith is not somehow able to lower his launch angle and increase his barrel percentage like he managed to do in 2020, expect Smith to struggle yet again in 2022. And even if the designated hitter position is added to the National League this season, Smith may not be a full-time starter. Expect around 15-20 home runs with a batting average close to .270 next season making Dom Smith a late-round lottery ticket at best.

2021 Performance: Fact

Eduardo Rodriguez, Starting Pitcher, Detroit Tigers

Eduardo Rodriguez started 31 games in 2019 for the Boston Red Sox while posting a 3.81 ERA with 213 strikeouts in just over 200 innings pitched. However, 2020 was a different story for the Venezuelan lefty as he was unable to play due to developing a heart condition as a result of COVID-19.

With a clean bill of health in 2021, Rodriguez was unable to maintain his success from previous seasons as he finished with an ugly 4.74 ERA and 1.39 WHIP in 31 starts. Now with the Detroit Tigers, will “E-Rod” be able to get back to fantasy relevance? Or was 2021 the beginning of the end?

At first glance, Rodriguez’s stats show a career-high BABIP and LOB% which certainly played a role in his inflated ERA and WHIP. In addition, a relatively poor infield defense in Boston may have also affected his production.

However, there were many positives in Rodriguez’s profile last season that gives reason for optimism in 2022. For one, his xERA (expected ERA) and FIP (fielding independent pitching) were 3.50 and 3.32, respectively. In 2021, Rodriguez also tied his career-high in swinging strike percentage while simultaneously posting a career-low walk percentage.

Additionally, when MLB began cracking down on foreign substance use in July of last season, some pitchers saw a decrease in spin rate, making their breaking pitches less effective. However, Rodriguez was able to increase his spin rate in the second half of 2021, as shown below, which may have correlated to his increased swing and miss percentage on his changeup, sinker, and cutter. As a result, Rodriguez finished the 2021 season with a 3.26 ERA in his final 58 innings pitched.

The metrics indicate that Rodriguez should have been better last season. With the combination of moving to a pitcher’s park in Detroit and expected positive regression with statistics such as BABIP and LOB%, Rodriguez should be counted on for a 3.55 ERA, a WHIP of 1.25, and at least 200 strikeouts in 2022.

2021 Performance: Fluke

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