Fantasy baseball mailbag: Thoughts on trading Justin Verlander, a Marcus Semien deep dive and more

Welcome back to The Athletic and my very first MLB Mailbag of the 2022 season. The immediate response from so many of you was downright overwhelming, and I thank you for interacting. I absolutely love the idea of being able to connect directly with you here in enjoying our national pastime. There’s no better feeling in the world than helping great people, except maybe a good laugh. Of course, I ended up with one of those as well.

Let me confess that I was yesterday years old when I officially learned the difference between a ”Mailbag” and a ”Q&A”.  Rather than patiently wait for the mailbag to fill like I was supposed to, I assumed the role of Tazmanian Devil, wasting no time, exploding in tornado mode through the comment section, answering questions like a madman. Today I’ll try and be a bit more organized as we take the most popular questions and answer them the best we can. Hopefully, aside from the answers themselves, you’ll pick up a thing or two about the process to get there.

I’ll be starting with a few of my favorite short answers, and then we’re getting out our scuba gear for a deep dive.  The majority of your questions centered around the same player — Marcus Semien — so that’s where our prime focus will be.  That being said, if I didn’t get to your question specifically, just keep your eye on the original post. I am going to give my very best to get back to every one of you. You have my permission to DM me anytime.

It should come as no real surprise at this early stage of the season that the most prominent overarching theme of our questions is in regards to the handling of distressed assets (struggling players), so I’d like to speak to that in general first.  I’ve noticed over time that most questions are whether or not a player should be dropped.  Now, while that’s a perfectly normal question to ask in fantasy baseball, I think perhaps it skips a few steps of a good process.  These decisions are extremely nuanced, and samples really do matter. The best player in history can have a (very) bad 40-game stretch. We’re only through roughly one-quarter of the MLB season, which is entirely too early to scrap all the work we did this winter, especially when speaking about high draft picks.  So without defaulting to a favorite tactic of lawyers everywhere and dropping a “well it depends” on you, it’s critical to recognize that the method in which we handle distressed assets is one of the finer skills in the game. I’m not saying you need to marry picks based on their cost, but recognizing the range of outcomes and being proactive in your response has to be part of the consideration before you take the leap in the draft room.

Once you spend your draft capital, part of it is knowing the top players should have earned a spot on the bench in tough times. If it’s possible to bench them first, I would always choose that route rather than prioritize <200PAs.  If there are no other options, I’m going to use all the tools we showed you right here during the offseason — using time-sorted advanced statistics in combination with rolling charts to look for trend indications in underlying skills, rather than outputs. Lastly, it’s important to remember not everyone views players the same. I will always put the player in question on the trade block before doing anything rash because, hey, you never know!

Alright, let’s get to your questions:

How long do I hold onto guys like Spencer Torkelson, Joey Gallo, and Franmil Reyes in a non-keeper league? — Andrew S.

Per the Pitch Leaderboard, there’s a lot to like regarding Spencer Torkelson: A 44% Hard Hit, 9% Barrel, 11.5mph Max EV, and .411 xwOBAcon for starters. The strikeouts, which are a concern, are also trending in the right direction (~25% rolling L15 games). He’s a must hold, for sure, but bench if you must. In fact, I’m looking to acquire him where I can.

Franmil Reyes has many of the same power traits as Tork (no surprise) but the disciplinary basket (+40%K ytd) with a .533 OPS is simply not viable right now. Try to be patient in 15-team leagues where playing time can be enough sometimes. In the meantime, work the trade block and begin targeting lesser valued pitchers for a trade.  Reyes is an easy drop at the first sign of roster stress in leagues of 12 teams or fewer.

If you have an IL spot, put Gallo there. If not, he’s the easiest drop, in my opinion.

What are your thoughts about the slow start from Vladimir Guerrero? Will he, and the whole Blue Jays offense, turn it around? — Victor H.

I think Vlad Jr. is just fine and we just see these things happen sometimes in baseball.  We saw almost this exact scenario with the Yankees struggling with RISP last year and then not showing up in the run column early on.  Guerrero’s underlying metrics are still legitimately elite (56% Hard Hit, 119 Max EV — wow!).  As far as the Jays as a whole, I think providing they keep getting healthy, they are on the path to normalcy and a monster summer.

Justin Verlander has been off to a great start this year. Is it worth it to hold on to him or sell high on his current value in a redraft league? — Tom Y.

I’m not sure you can improve from JV to be honest, in particular when it comes to workload. Verlander has gone +7 IP in three of his eight starts and maxed out at 107 pitches thrown, so we’re getting volume with the elevated stats. Houston has every intention of winning, and I think JV goes the rest of the way without restrictions in a time when that’s very rare. If you’re tempted to see the market bid on Verlander, by all means you should. Putting a player on the block doesn’t cost a thing — maybe you can get Shane McClanahan plus a good hitter? The bottom line is the list of lateral moves from JV is very short.

Rank Rowdy Tellez, Joey Votto and Juan Yepez for ROS redraft. — Kevin M.

I’d probably have Tellez at the top for having the opportunity of every-day playing time, plus the most established track record. Next would be Juan Yepez. St. Louis has shown infinite confidence in him, and he just gained OF eligibility. Last, would have to be Votto — returning from the IL — who we haven’t seen produce just yet in this new environment, a variable we can’t ignore. If you do have a hole at 1B/CI, don’t wait for Joey Votto to produce,  however, we know there’s potential in that ballpark.

Is it time to give up on Teoscar Hernandez? — Rick G

Of all the really great players who have disappointed, thus far, Teoscar’s peripherals are among the worst. He’s chasing 20% more than ever in his career, and it’s subsequently sunk his quality of contact. Hernandez is currently not startable. Find a spot on your bench while you put him on the trade block. That being said, you can’t cut Teoscar. If someone in your league does, even in 10-team formats, add him yesterday. My sharpest advice is to look to acquire him from desperate GMs at any discount, any way you can.  It’s still very early. Teoscar may end up winning the league for one patient GM.

The Marcus Semien Chronicles

The world wants to know what to do with Marcus Semien, so he’s getting the very special Priority First Class treatment.  On the surface, I will admit it appears to be an unmitigated disaster for Semien. Reasonable expectations for some regression after a monster 2021 campaign have turned initial frustration into wadded clumps of hair on the floor. Batting only .177, with a .465 OPS, Semien is doing the maximum amount of damage to your roster because he still plays every single day — Top 50 in overall PAs. As if that wasn’t enough to cause a visceral reaction, Semien is yet to hit his first home run and simply cannot be started in any format right now. That is first and foremost, do not be stubborn.

In trading terms, I’d be advising you to not even attempt to catch a falling knife. Allow it to hit the floor, then pick it up safely. In other words, it’s not worth eating eight weeks of bad stats in the hopes of getting the one really good one. If and when the breakout comes, it’s more than likely to stick considering the talent of the player in question. Diving into the profile, thus far, the advanced power stats are also very (very, very) bad. Even when considering the lessened offensive environment, Semien’s 27.8% Hard Hit Rate, .254 xwOBA, .269 xwOBAcon and 0.0% Blast Rate are well below where they should be. It almost feels like he’s playing below the lowest projected range of outcomes, and it’s our job to find out why.

My gut instinct was the answer may actually be a classic case of a big-ticket free agent pressing and trying to do too much all at once. As usual, I start investigating a hitter’s disciplinary metrics. They are the most in the hitter’s control and we see this materialize in their rate of stabilization. It doesn’t take a telescope to see there are some very stark and undeniable changes in Semien’s swing profile this season. His 52.7% Swing Rate is almost 15% higher than any other point in his career, and his Chase Rate is nearly 20% higher than any point since his rookie year. Unfortunately for Semien, right now I actually believe he’s become a victim of the same contact skills that made him so productive. By that I mean, since Semien habitually puts the bat on the ball even at his worst (his current five-year low 78.4% Contact Rate is still five percent better than the league average), the seemingly stagnant Outside Zone Contact Rate is actually worsened by the increasingly aggressive nature of his approach. You can see clearly how his zone has expanded year over year from 2021 (below left) to 2022 (below right).



The change of tightness in Semien’s zone-swing profile above seems apparent even at a glance. There was not a single red box outside of the strike zone in 2021, which we can’t say for 2022, having taken a pretty sharp turn for the worst. Semien has begun swinging often at pitches up, in, and a combination of both with very poor results in those particular areas of the strike zone (below)


That’s the bad news. The good news is that this still feels to me like it’s temporary and in his control. I don’t believe, at age 31, there was a total degradation of skills. Semien’s Strikeout Rate (17.7%) and +108mph Max EV are in line with career norms and after the contract he received this offseason, we already know he’s getting every opportunity to work through this slump. I ended up going back on Semien’s career to see how he performed against pitches up and in historically and it turns out the pitches he is chasing now are in his most productive zones (below),  he’s just currently being too aggressive in those sectors.


Lastly, just so I’m not leaving you purely on hope, I think there may be some technical evidence of a possible turnaround on our rolling charts (below). If you’re unfamiliar with exactly what I mean, we did a sort of primer earlier in the season that I encourage you to check out (The rolling chart: A new way to look at — and predict — fantasy baseball performance), and feel free to ask any questions in the comment section below.

I know the above chart looks pretty bearish on the surface, but sometimes we’re looking for trends within larger trends. Right at the end of April (just as the weather began to turn), we see Semien’s Hard Hit Rate create a very classic bullish pattern, the cup-and-handle (example for comparison pictured below).  As a trader who has seen this story before, I’m actually excited to see how these next two to three weeks play out.


In conclusion on Marcus Semien, given the initial draft cost and very low possibility for fair return (and ever so faint but existent glimmer of hope), I think you have to hold your nose and keep him on your roster.  If we do see the turnaround in the next few weeks, at the very least you will have strengthened your position.

I hope you enjoyed this latest installment of my MLB Notebook (here’s the archive!). If there’s anything you have questions on, disagree with, or even would like me to expand on, please leave a comment below or follow my Twitter handle @MLBMovingAvg. Don’t forget to check out the Corked Stats audio podcast, and also the Corked Stats video series on YouTube at the Mayo Media Network. If you’re interested in Daily Betting MLB, I’m currently providing 100% free content on Patreon at MLB Moving Averages. 

(Top photo: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

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