Now that both the 2020 MLB regular season and postseason have come to an end, we can start to look ahead towards 2021 by reflecting back on what we saw in order to anticipate what we can expect. However, with it being such a short and unique situation this year, in order to be prepared for next year, we have to really dig a little deeper in order to help predict future results. There are so many variables to consider for the results we just witnessed, some of which may or may not be in play next year:
- Will the Designated Hitter remain intact for both the American and National Leagues?
- Will the divisions play only teams with the same geographical designations?
- Will we get 162 games, or something even less?
- Will teams be less willing to spend on talent long term, thus resulting in player movement into new teams?
With so much to consider, it can be overwhelming to try and make any assessments before the information becomes less murky. However, for the purpose of this, let’s use what we know already. The Designated Hitter isn’t back yet officially, but it is leaning towards the side of returning despite it still needing to be agreed upon. Obviously having it return would create a ton of opportunities. As for scheduling purposes, MLB has already released a tentative schedule for 2021 which includes games between different divisions. Keep in mind that this was released prior to the 2020 season beginning, and things could change at any moment given the instability of the world due to the coronavirus. Finally, free agency is underway, and, while no major free agent moves have been made, it’s unclear how teams will financially react after a year with no fans, a shortened season, and uncertainty for next year. What we do know is this: 2021 will undoubtedly be an interesting one.
That said, I wanted to reflect back and look at players that had a rough go around in 2020. It was an unprecedented year with so many distractions and variables that make it so much different than any other. If you’ve been following along, or if you’re new to the site, we at RotoFanatic did a mock draft back in October. I drafted out of the #2 slot, and my feelings going into this mock was to not only look back and find players who struggled this past year, but also look for those that have the track record of success. These variables are those that warrant a minimal amount of worry from me, under most circumstances, as obviously, every situation presents unique characteristics. Still, here were the final results:
My opinion going into 2021, in most cases, is to combine 2019 and 2020 into one melded season and use those numbers as a way to measure the future. I trust the analysis done before the 2020 season enough to know that there were so many things that could have caused struggles this year. These included: suffering from the disease itself, playing the same opponents multiple times, the disproportionating quality of opponents for all teams, not traveling and playing in all ballparks, finding additional opportunities for at-bats with no DH, playing doubleheaders with two less innings each game, starting extra innings with a runner aboard, and even having a slow start to the season but it counting as half of your games played. All of these are factors that aren’t usually necessary components to analysis, but here are and these are the cards we’ve been dealt. That being said, here are some hitters that I worry less about after an underwhelming 2020 than others do.
Nolan Arenado – 3B, Colorado Rockies
Heading into the 2020 season, one of the biggest offseason speculations was the wonder if Nolan Arenado would be traded. He has been known to have a voice of displeasure with management in the past, citing his feeling of being disrespected and coupled with their incompetence and inability to compete. And while he was right to do so (their pitching was and has been inconsistent and awful at times), some would argue that his salary has something to do with it. Entering the season, Arenado was being paid $35 million a year, with a combined team payroll of $133 million. That’s a lot of money for one player on a small market team, but, he got the offer, he accepted, and I’m sure most of us would too.
All that aside, what he does and has been doing on the field over the years has been nothing short of impressive. The former first-round pick in fantasy drafts from years past has been raking since 2015 when he seemingly broke out. Since that time, he’s hit no fewer than 37 home runs (including over 40 three times), driven in at least 110 runs a year, and scored at least 97 runs a year as well. Added to that, his plate discipline has always been phenomenal, as his K% – BB% rarely ran over 10%, making him an elite four-category fantasy contributor. While he gets the benefit of playing half of his games at Coors Field, the fact remains that he was a steady source for production at the hot corner. Then 2020 happened.
Early on in the shortened season, Arenado made a defensive play at third base that jarred his left shoulder, causing inflammation in his AC joint, and ultimately led to his first IL stint. The lingering effects from this injury seemed to bother him at the plate, as he suffered career lows in most, if not all statistical categories.
These are un-Arenado-esque numbers to say the least. Digging a bit deeper, he wasn’t necessarily hitting the ball any differently this year, as his ground ball, fly ball and line-drive rates were pretty similar. What he didn’t do, however, is hit the ball as hard as he usually does, and that’s probably linked to his aching shoulder. His 2020 numbers are third from the bottom.
With the Rockies out of contention late in the year, Arenado seemingly decided to pack it in for the year, get himself right, and go on the IL to finish the year. The big question now remains: will be on the Rockies next year? For now, he’s still on the Colorado roster, so let’s assume he stays for another year. His career numbers at Coors Field are an incredible .322/.376/.609/.985 with 58% of his career 235 home runs hit. And while his underwhelming career road line of .263/.322/.471/.793 can’t be ignored, the overall package of what you get with Arenado is something that is more than fantasy-worthy.
He is an elite play when healthy and will produce. I am not worried about him at all for 2021, if he stays in Colorado. However, in a year of financial uncertainty, paying one player $35 million when you have other gaping holes in the lineup might not be the best way to do business. There’s a real shot that he does get dealt, and his value will surely drop. How much remains to be seen, but either way, the Arenado you saw play in 2020 will not be the Arenado you see next year when he is healthy. Do not panic and enjoy any discount you can get. In the 2 Early Mocks database, he had an ADP of 25.9, which equates to a third-round value in 12-Team leagues. That’s about where I got him in our RotoFanatic Mock, and I like the value there.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – 1B, Toronto Blue Jays
This one will come with a mixed bag of emotions and opinions. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. came into the majors with more minor league fanfare than most will ever receive. Some scouts and pundits called him the greatest prospect since Mike Trout and thus, insurmountably high expectations were subsequently placed alongside his career. What we need to realize as a fanbase and as fantasy players is that consistent success right out of the gate doesn’t happen right away for all prospects. And while he has now played the equivalent of a full season of baseball, he will still only be 22 years old when baseball resumes next year.
In 2020, he finished the year with a .262/.329/.462 line with nine home runs. I picked him as a dark horse candidate to be the AL MVP, and, well, I was wrong. He wasn’t nearly one of the best in either league, as his numbers dictate that he was a bit more powerful. However, digging a bit deeper, he made some significant improvements as well.
No way around it, his July was terrible. He was swinging away at pitches out of the zone, he was hitting ground balls at a rapid pace and he wasn’t his usual patient self. One could call it a slow start, and I, for the sake of my argument, will give him the benefit of the doubt. As the season wore on, he got better and better.
Now, slow down there Dave, that’s a lot of graphical data. What the heck does it all mean? Essentially, it’s this: after a slow start, it looks as if Guerrero started to hit the ball harder while elevating the ball from primarily ground balls to sending them in the air, while increasing his Launch Angle. And as someone with a powerful swing, such as Guerrero, good things are bound to happen. He hit five of his home runs over the last half of the season and subsequently drove in most of his runs too. He also finished the year with 15 non-HR extra-base hits, which I always love to see as they could be a precursor to future power.
There are some underlying off-field factors that could have led to a slower season as well. Guerrero Jr. was placed in the position of having to learn a new position, and there was definitely a learning curve in place. There were fielding blunders and miscues this season where you could tell that he was still learning about when to go for a ground ball and when to remain on base. Another factor was the fact that the Blue Jays played their home games in Buffalo. While that stadium proved to be a hot spot for bats, it took them until Game 14 to play there. Finally, there is the issue of his weight. Recently it was noted that he had lost 32 pounds since the end of the regular season, and the corresponding picture of him looks promising.
Even better than that were his comments:
“I finished the season more or less and put that in mind. I started with the slow swing and when I lost 20 pounds I started feeling better,” Guerrero Jr. said. “I learned after these months of the coronavirus that if you don’t work hard, you can’t be in the Major Leagues,” he said. “Why do [Fernando] Tatis and [Juan] Soto put up good numbers? Because they work hard. I got the hits I got because of the ability that God gave me. But I knew it from the beginning. I know I did it wrong.”
Will this frame of mind stick? Time will only tell. As someone who used to eat a massive amount of unhealthy foods while eliminating exercise in the past, transforming oneself to do the opposite is not just words, but a lifestyle change. The beginning of that transformation is the hardest part, but once the initial barriers are defeated, it becomes a way of life. I look at Rafael Devers from 2020 as a prime example. He came into camp and into the season out of shape with some weight gain, and didn’t hit above .200 until midway through the season. Once he turned things around physically and mentally, he was able to salvage a pretty decent season all around and give his owners a renews sense of hope for next year. If Guerrero Jr. can keep this train of thought going, his current ADP of 69.6 will be an absolute steal.
Austin Meadows – OF, Tampa Bay Rays
This one will be short and to the point since I previously wrote about Meadows during the regular season. Since that time, his struggles continued at the plate, and obviously things weren’t right for him all year. Here were his numbers to finish the regular season (after September 8) and the postseason:
Regular Season: 5 of 23 (.218)
Post Season: 10 of 74 (.135)
All with minimal power, a lot of strikeouts, a lack of plate discipline and trepidation on the base paths. All in all, his 2020 was a mess, and he knows it. After getting diagnosed with the coronavirus, he suffered an oblique strain as well down the stretch. He wasn’t the same player we’ve known him to be, and those of you drafting him in 2021 need to remember this. He’s such a young player with minimal major league experience to look back on, so a dive into his minor league track record seems more appropriate.
Meadows came to the Pirates and then the Rays with a great sense of plate discipline. Usually batting above .300 over a minor league level, he hit for double digit power in every year of his career as well as stealing at least ten bases every season since 2015. Since his MLB debut:
He’s done the same thing, though this year, his strikeout rate did increase. My point is that Meadows wasn’t some young and inexperienced rookie when he arrived on the scene. He will be 26 years old next season, within his prime, and has a long track record of success in both the minor leagues and the major leagues. He currently has an ADP of 69, projecting him to go late in the 6th round of 12-team league drafts. In our RotoFanatic November Mock Draft, I snagged him in the 7th round at 84th overall, and I couldn’t be happier. I think he comes back fully healthy next season and gives his fantasy owners 25+ home run power and 15+ steals with a .270 batting average to boot.
Eugenio Suarez – 3B, Cincinnati Reds
The 2019 Cincinnati Reds were a fun team to watch as they hit the long ball almost as much as the Minnesota Twins did. A big part of that offensive surge was Eugenio Suarez, who finished that year with career highs in home runs (49), hit (156), runs scored (87) and 103 runs batted in (one less than his career high the year before that). All in all, he was a player trending upward in the fantasy and real baseball world for his ability to hit the long ball from the hot corner position. Then, in the offseason, he injured himself while swimming at his pool, and needed offseason surgery on his swinging shoulder. This all happened before any real threat of the coronavirus, and he was expected to play at some point toward the start of the regular season.
However, any and all injuries, though similar in procedure, all differ in recovery as everyone’s body responds in a unique way. We don’t know to any extent how Suarez really responded to it, what with a complete shut down of facilities and Spring Training due to the worldwide pandemic. What we do know is that when he did begin playing again, something wasn’t right.
You could call this a slow start to the season, but for anyone who has major surgery on the shoulder that he uses for power and contact, this was a tough sledding uphill battle for him. His bat was slow and he was trying to do too much at the plate. As a result, he was missing on pitches in the strike zone.
During the season, he was making minor adjustments to his swing and wanted to get back to the fundamentals. On multiple occasions at different points throughout the year, he reminded everyone that he needed to get back to being himself and not get out of his comfort zone. At the start of the season, here’s what he said after an 0 for 16 start:
“That’s what I try to do,” he said. “I don’t try to swing at a bad pitch. My swing is not right right now, and like I said, right now, the barrel is not on the ball, but my mind, I see the ball very good. I see the ball so good. I don’t want to swing at a bad pitch. I take my walks. That helps my team. The guy coming behind me can do something if I got on base. We play collectively. Walks, for me, is very good, because they’re good signs to tell people I don’t want to chase your breaking ball in the dirt. I just want to see the ball good and put a good swing on it.”
Almost a month later, here’s what he said after hitting his second home run of the season, but still finding himself with a .120 batting average after almost 40 at bats:
“I think that was my best swing right now,” Suárez said on Sunday morning. “I’ve just been working — not on my swing, because I still have my swing. I’ve been working on trying to swing at balls that are strikes and put my best swing on it. I just try to be Geno Suárez, to be me, to be myself, and not try to do too much,” he said. “Because when you are struggling, that’s when you try to do a lot of different things. … I tell myself, ‘Hey, Suárez. Don’t try too much. Just see the ball, hit the ball hard. See the ball every time and hit the ball hard and see what happens.’ The results come after you put a good swing on it. I’ve been thinking about results, and I haven’t been thinking about doing [my] job and hitting the ball hard.”
Sounds pretty similar to me, as he was going through not only the physical struggles of recovery and playing, but also the mental agony of overcoming that and getting back to his old form. Remember, he only had six Spring Training at-bats. There was no time for him to warm up his swing, tinker with mechanics, and get an eye for what was coming at him. A curious stat in his Batted Ball Profile is his Under%, which stands at 32.6% on the season. Why it’s curious is that it is 5% higher than that of his 2019 campaign, and shows that he just wasn’t connecting the way he’s used to doing. The subsequent low Flare/Burner Rate (15.9%) and Solid% Rate (5.3%) confirm that and are all lower than league average. I’d be curious to know if his awful first half had more to contribute to those poor stats compared to his decent second half where his .235 batting average alongside 12 of his total home runs after August 22.
At the end of the day, Suarez seems to be another victim of the length of an unprecedented shortened season, where had the season been a normal 162 games, he may have connected for 40+ home runs again. After all, he did finish with 15 home runs in a season with no Spring Training, a worldwide pandemic, and altered mechanics after major surgery. Baseball is such a mental game, and having to overcome so much may have led to him overthinking and less of just being what he is: a pretty darn good baseball player that should be drafted with confidence in 2021.
Scott Kingery, 2B/OF, Philadelphia Phillies
This one belongs more along the side of a hunch more than anything else. I initially wrote about his early-season struggles here, and life didn’t get much better for him afterward. While he did raise his batting average a whopping 59 points to finish off the shortened season, he still ended with an abysmal .159/.228/.283 line with three home runs and five of his season total six runs batted in and no steals. For context, he was playing rather consistently to finish off the season and wasn’t sitting, so those numbers listed are through 113 at bats. Ugly, just ugly.
While I don’t have data to support my hunch of him rebounding in 2021, I do have science. Yes, science.
Before the season began, way back in June, Scott Kingery contracted the coronavirus and didn’t do as well with it as others. Here’s how he described the entire ordeal:
“It started on a Thursday when I came down with a headache. I tried to play it off but it didn’t go away. Saturday around 10 a.m., I got chills so bad I couldn’t move without my whole body shaking. That night, my fever spiked so high that I sweated through my sheets. It left an imprint of my body. My fever broke Sunday morning and I actually felt a little better. But then three or four days later, I lost my sense of taste and smell for a few days. That was really annoying. For a week, I was so tired. Low energy. Fatigue. Then I experienced shortness of breath for a week. I felt like I laid on the couch for three weeks without moving. I was tired just going up the stairs.”
So essentially, right before the season started, he sweated profusely while experiencing body aching chills, he couldn’t taste his food, was fatigued to the point of not being able to do much of anything for weeks, and lost his breath. All of that happened and he was supposed to pout himself into game shape and be ready to go for a season to start in July? Added to that, there are a ton of lingering effects from the virus that can take days, weeks, and months from which to recover, and others that are even longer-lasting are unknown.
As if 2020 wasn’t bad enough for him, he later suffered through back and shoulder spasms which led to him being on the IL as well. So now, you’re telling me that he’s undergone a transformation physically due to an illness science knew little about, he’s subsequently underprepared for a season due to needed rest, and could potentially have some of the above symptoms all while being expected to see fastballs traveling at 90+ miles per hour and connect on them with a piece of wood? Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit here, but the general point is this: he wasn’t right this year.
Looking back at his track record, he’s had a successful, though short, major league career. Despite struggling to maintain a decent batting average in 2018, he still racked up eight home runs and ten stolen bases, showing what was to come the next year. In 2019 he improved everywhere, batting .256 with 19 home runs and 15 stolen bases, and ultimately proving himself to be fantasy relevant all over the diamond. This past season was supposed to be the year where he leveled himself as he had an ADP within the Top 170 and possessed multi-positional eligibility. It didn’t happen, and now, already, he finds himself outside the Top 300 in ADP this offseason.
Moving forward, he’s a definite buy low for me, but it depends on what the Phillies do in the offseason. Will they sign Didi Gregorius? Will they sign someone else on offense to take away possible at-bats from Kingery? He can play almost anywhere and might find himself yet again as a super-utility player much like he was in 2019. That could be another path to additional at-bats as well. He is someone I am looking to add late in drafts this offseason. He had a successful minor league career and a good run to start his career but suffered from a virus and injury in 2020. If you can get him with one of your last picks, leave him rostered to see if he can get back to his old self and regain his former glory. If so, you’ve got multi-positional gold and at a severely discounted price. If I’m wrong and he fails, then you’ve lost a late-round pick and he can be replaced with players that are on hot streaks themselves.