FACTS/FLUKES: Buehler, Olson, Bohm, Hiura, R. Stephenson


Look for Buehler’s ERA to rise … Walker Buehler (RHP, LA) finished 2021 with a stellar 2.47 ERA in a career-high 208 IP. He has yet to post an ERA of 3.50 or higher in a MLB season aside from 2017’s cup of coffee working out of the bullpen (9 IP). Can he keep it rolling in 2022?

Year   IP   ERA/xERA  BB%/K%  xBB%   Vel   SwK  GB/LD/FB  H%/S%  HR/F  BPX
====  ===  =========  ======  ====  ====  ====  ========  =====  ====  ===
2018  137  2.62/3.14  7%/28%    6%  96.2   12%  50/18/32  26/77   11%  162
2019  182  3.26/3.45  5%/29%    5%  96.6   13%  43/23/35  31/73   12%  177
2020   37  3.44/3.92  7%/29%    8%  96.9   13%  35/23/42  22/75   18%  142
2021  208  2.47/3.56  6%/26%    6%  95.4   12%  45/20/35  26/79   10%  140

There are a couple chinks in the armor:

  • Buehler’s velocity took quite a tumble in 2021 and his K%/SwK% also waned (25% xK%). 
  • Free passes haven’t been a problem (lifetime: 6% BB%) as he typically pounds the strike zone.
  • He did a better job of inducing GB in 2021. A tweak to his pitch mix, including scaling back four-seam fastball usage from 54% in 2020 to 45% in 2021 and adding a change-up to his repertoire in May, played a part in that. Change-up usage increased with each passing month with him throwing it 11% of the time in September (2021: 5% usage; 82% GB%; 17% SwK%).
  • The ERA/xERA chasm is unsustainable. 

Buehler has been fantastic from his first full MLB season in 2018 through the 2021 campaign, posting a 2.74 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 563 IP. Only three qualified starting pitchers have a better ERA over that span and just two have a better WHIP. However, as noted above, the 27-year-old has benefited from some good fortune, so don’t expect a repeat of 2021. While this is a strong collection of skills, a 3.25+ ERA is likely in 2022.


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Olson moves to the NL … 2021 was a breakout season for Matt Olson (1B, ATL) as he batted .271 with 39 HR in 673 PA with the Athletics. The Atlanta native now heads home following a March 14 blockbuster trade to the Braves. Can he repeat in 2022?

Year   PA HR/xHR    BA/xBA  bb%/ct% GB/LD/FB  h% HctX   PX/xPX HR/F ZCt%  vL
====  === ======  ========= ======= ========  == ====  ======= ==== ==== ====
2017  216  24/16  .259/.278  10/68  38/16/46  24  111  215/178  41%  73% .758
2018  660  29/37  .247/.247  11/72  36/21/43  29  125  132/140  16%  76% .701
2019  547  36/38  .267/.271   9/71  31/24/45  30  124  151/161  24%  73% .767
2020  245  14/13  .195/.220  14/63  35/21/44  23  110  136/143  24%  70% .696
2021  673  39/41  .271/.279  13/80  40/16/44  28  119  145/129  19%  82% .962

The breakout came with full skills support:

  • Elite power has never been in doubt and another run at 40 HR is likely based on the underlying metrics.
  • A more aggressive approach on pitches in the strike zone and jump in Zone Contact% contributed to the ct% spike and xBA backs the BA. As noted in the 2022 Baseball Forecaster, Olson’s dramatic leap in ct% from 2020 to 2021 was the largest among MLB hitters with at least 150 PA.
  • He did that while maintaining patience and that top shelf bb% gives his OBP a nice boost.
  • Though it’s a small sample, it’s worth noting that he was much better vL in 2021, sporting career-highs with 79% ct%, .270 BA, 22 HR, and 171 PX in 254 PA vL. 

Olson’s age-27 season was his best yet. The move from Oakland to Atlanta puts him in a more hitter-friendly environment (RingCentral Coliseum: -19% LHB HR; Truist Park: +11% LHB HR) and could help him reach and possibly even exceed the 40-HR threshold. Even if he gives back a little of the ct%/BA gains, he’ll have plenty of value.

 

Bohm disappoints … Alec Bohm (3B, PHI) made his MLB debut in August 2020 and batted .338 with 4 HR in 180 PA. His 2021 season didn’t go to plan, as he missed two weeks in July with COVID, spent most of the final two months at Triple-A, and ended the season with a .247 batting average and 7 HR in 417 PA. What’s going on here?

Year   PA  HR    BA/xBA  bb%/ct% GB/LD/FB  h% HctX   PX/xPX  HH%  xHR/F  Spd
====  ===  ==  ========= ======= ========  == ====  =======  ===  =====  ===
2019# 263  14  .252/ N/A  10/82     N/A    25  N/A  107/N/A  N/A   N/A   100
2020  180   4  .338/.259   9/78  53/21/25  42   87   89/ 73  47%   22%   105
2021  417   7  .247/.235   7/71  53/25/23  33  110   64/ 78  50%   18%    88
#-Double-A MLEs

There’s a lot of work to be done, but there are positive signs beneath the surface:

  • Bohm’s typically good ct% tumbled and brought BA/xBA down with it. Of course, his 2020 xBA and unsustainable h% warned of BA downside going into 2021. Four-seam fastballs were a problem for him in 2021, as he saw them 64% of the time and mustered a puny .384 xSLG, according to BaseballSavant.com.
  • He made lots of hard contact (90th percentile HH%), but far too much of it was on the ground. His xHR/F hints at HR upside, if he could hit more balls in the air.
  • Right-handed pitching gave him fits in 2021 (71% ct%, .228 BA, and 49 PX in 280 PA). We must keep in mind that he fared better in 2020 and it’s still a small sample.
  • He possesses decent speed and a lifetime 83% SB%, so a handful of SB are possible.

Bohm arrived in MLB as a highly regarded prospect. He has flashed a few intriguing components at times at the MLB level and showed signs of life in July prior to being sidelined with COVID (.296 BA, 3 HR, 13% bb%, and 74% ct%). The 25-year-old is certainly a work in progress who will need to restore pre-2021 ct% and increase his launch angle in order to reach his potential. He has spent time during the offseason working on adjustments to his swing and approach, so it will be interesting to see how he looks in spring training. There’s risk for sure, but he’s not a bad gamble at his 287 ADP.

 

Hiura aims to rebound … Keston Hiura (1B, MIL) was a top-100 pick in most 2021 fantasy leagues after batting .266 with 32 HR and 12 SB in 594 PA in 2019-20. That proved to be a bad call as he struggled mightily and spent a good chunk of the season in the minors. Is there reason for optimism?

Year   PA  HR/SB    BA/xBA  bb%/ct% GB/LD/FB  h% HctX   PX/xPX  Spd/SBO% Brl%
====  ===  =====   ======== ======= ========  == ====  =======  ======== ====
2018^ 300   6/10  .264/ N/A   7/78     N/A    32  N/A   92/N/A  112/ 22%  N/A
2019* 579  35/14  .298/.262   7/66  38/24/38  39  101  170/140  110/ 16%  14%
2020  246  13/ 3  .212/.211   7/61  43/20/37  28   72  124/111  100/ 11%  13%
2021* 388   9/ 4  .185/.183   9/53  37/22/41  31   81  125/133   87/  7%  15%     
^-AA MLEs
*-Includes MLEs

Yes, cautious optimism:

  • His Brl% was better than ever and xPX was in line with his fine 2019 performance. He also hit a few more flyballs in 2021, which bodes well for HR capabilities.
  • The most glaring issue is the dwindling ct% and BA/xBA. Declining Zone Contact% has been the culprit, falling from 75% in 2019 to 64% in 2020 to 56% in 2021.
  • His patience hasn’t wavered.
  • He owns near-average speed and a lifetime 75% SB%, so he’s capable of chipping in several SB.

Hiura struggled mightily in 2021, but we’re willing to give him a bit of a mulligan, as his mother was diagnosed with lymphoma in February 2021. Thankfully, she is now in remission. While the 25-year-old clearly needs to counter adjustments made by opposing pitchers, he is no doubt aware of that and spoke recently about mechanical changes he made during the offseason. He’s also slated to get some OF reps this spring, which would create another potential avenue to playing time. Given his age, power skills, and circumstances surrounding his 2021 season, he’s well worth a flyer near his 452 ADP. 

 

Stephenson in the closer mix? … In his first season with the Rockies, Robert Stephenson (RHP, COL) posted a 3.13 ERA in 46 IP. Despite the recent signing of free agent Alex Colomé (RHP, COL), Stephenson is expected to compete for the team’s closer role this spring. Is Stephenson worth monitoring?

Year   IP   ERA/xERA   BB%/K%  xBB%  SwK  GB/LD/FB  H%/S%  HR/F  BPX   Vel
====  ===  =========  =======  ====  ===  ========  =====  ====  ===  ====
2017* 125  4.73/4.74  13%/23%   11%  13%  38/22/41  29/73   13%   62  93.7
2018* 125  4.27/4.45  14%/23%   12%  11%  33/28/40  28/75   13%   67  93.2 
2019   65  3.76/4.03   9%/31%    6%  20%  32/22/46  25/69   13%  134  95.0
2020   10  9.90/4.54   7%/30%    6%  19%  23/15/62  16/50   50%  157  94.8
2021   46  3.13/4.10   9%/27%    7%  12%  38/24/38  32/80   11%  114  96.5
*Includes MLEs  

Yes, this is an interesting skill set:

  • The big decline in SwK% was due to decreased usage of his slider and diminished SwK on the slider. His usage rates and SwK% on the slider by year are as follows: 2019: 55%/28%; 2020: 65%/24%; 2021: 45%/15% according to FanGraphs.com. (BaseballSavant.com has his 2019-21 slider usage falling from 57% to 52% to 13% with a curveball checking in at 37% usage in 2021.)
  • Meanwhile, his fastball velocity was at an all-time high.
  • He has focused on throwing more strikes in recent years and has a little BB% upside, per xBB%. 
  • The gap between ERA/xERA shows that he was aided by some S% luck. 
  • It would behoove him to limit FB, especially given his home stadium (Coors Field: +15% LHB HR; +13% RHB HR), so it’s good to see his FB% retreat after spiking in 2019-20.

Stephenson tallied another triple-digit BPX despite the dropoff in K%/SwK% and a 38-day IL stint (upper back tightness) that shelved him from late-June to early-August. However, the 29-year-old will need to regain at least some of that lost K%/SwK% in order to reach his full potential. As is, he’s worth a dart throw on the chance he winds up in the closer role, particularly in deeper leagues, and there is some additional upside if the SwK/K% returns.

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