The 2017 WBC has been amazing must-watch television this year. I’ll admit, even as a huge baseball fan, I never followed the previous WBC’s as closely as this one. Perhaps I just have more time this year, or I’m just that excited for the regular season to start. Either way, the games and players have not let us down to this point.
Friday night, Team USA played Team Puerto Rico, in a game filled with Major League stars and fantasy baseball contributors. If you’re anything like me while you watch a WBC game, you’re evaluating and thinking about how the players on your television screen could help your various fantasy baseball teams take home championships in 2017.
Let’s break down the drama from Friday’s game while interjecting 2017 fantasy baseball thoughts and projections from the players that made the game memorable and exciting.
Team Puerto Rico jumped out to an early 4-0 lead over the United States thanks to six straight singles off starter Marcus Stroman. Of the six hitters who found grass with their batted balls, (Angel Pagan, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina & Javier Baez), five are expected to be fantasy contributors, with at least two (Lindor and Correa) projected out to be studs.
Marcus Stroman is an interesting acquisition target for 2017 fantasy baseball players. His 2016 overall line doesn’t look great: 204 IP, 166 K, 4.37 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, however, the skills remained strong for Stroman and really took off in the second half of last season. From April to June last year Stroman was hit hard, to the tune of a 5.08 ERA (3.96 xERA) and 1.39 WHIP. Stroman’s K-rate was simply not high enough as evidenced by a poor 9% swinging strike rate. From July to October Stroman pitched much better and the results showed the same: 3.56 ERA with a 1.18 WHIP over 96 innings pitched. The key was a rebound in swinging strike rate (11%), which bumped his K-rate back above the 8.0 per nine that we like to see from a mixed league pitcher. While pitching the majority of his games in the AL East could hurt Stroman, the fact he’s among one of the very best ground ball inducing pitchers in the game, could help balance this disadvantage out. Look for Stroman to be much closer to the second half pitcher over an entire season in 2017.
With Puerto Rico up early, the United States started chipping away at the deficit. This started with an Eric Hosmer single in the top of the second inning that scored Nolan Arenado. While Arenado is a first round selection, attempting to peg Hosmer’s 2017 production is somewhat tricky. We finally saw Hosmer reach the 25 home run mark last season, but at what cost? Well, his batting average dropped to .266 (.263 xBA) and his underlying power metrics call into question the sudden outburst of balls flying over the fence. There’s also the batted ball distribution issue, as Hosmer is among the lead leaguers in ground ball percentage. Except Hosmer’s power to pull back slightly in 2017 and hope for a batting average rebound - that rebound might take a change of approach from Hosmer however.
In the top of the 5th inning, Buster Posey destroyed a 1-2 pitch and put it into the left-center field stands. This cut the Puerto Rico lead to two. It’s interesting to me how quickly people have decided to move away from the stable top-end of the catcher pool and instead feel comfortable either drafting relatively unknowns such as Gary Sanchez, or just waiting completely on catcher and diving into the pool late when the talent is extremely volatile and sub-par. Sure, Posey had a down year in 2016, hitting only 14 home runs with a .288 batting average. That was still enough production to rank Posey as the second best catcher according to the ESPN Player Rater. More encouraging is the fact that Posey’s skills do not appear to be in major decline. A few fewer fly balls and slightly lower hit percentage seem to be the driver behind Posey’s down season in 2016. The contact rate, hard hit rate and underlying power metrics all point towards another solid season from the veteran backstop.
In the top of the 6th inning Adam Jones once again took center stage for Team USA, this time blasting a 2-1 pitch to left-center field as well. Jones is another player who was a first round consideration just a couple of years ago and is now being drafted around pick 75. Much like Posey, the skills remain for Jones to be an above-average player, but in a deeper outfield pool, as compared to the catcher pool that Posey inhabits. The days of stealing 15 +/- bags for Jones are gone, but a so-so batting average, coupled with 25-30 home runs appears safe for the Orioles centerfielder going forward.
In the bottom of the 6th inning, multiple gold glove winning Nolan Arenado made a throwing error on a tricky chopper to third that allowed Puerto Rico to score two more runs, making the score 6-3.
Fast forward to the top of the 9th inning when Brandon Crawford came to the plate with Nolan Arenado and Eric Hosmer on base. Up 2-0 in the count, Crawford roped a hit to the left field wall. Crawford decided to go for a triple and was called safe. Had instant reply been available for this round of the WBC, he would have clearly been called out, but as it stood, Crawford was on third base and the game score sat at 6-5 Puerto Rico.
Crawford is another player that I feel fantasy owners are overlooking as they build their rosters. Not every pick can be or should be a flashy upside or value selection if your league is deeper than 10-teams. Crawford’s top-shelf defense ensures that he’ll remain in the lineup and rack up the counting statistics for both the Giants and fantasy teams alike. Crawford is more than just a compiler however. The main difference between Crawford’s 2015 season when he hit 21 home runs and his 2016 season when he hit only 12, was simply an adjustment in his HR/FB rate. Crawford’s home ballpark offers no help in this area, so a return to 20+ home runs is probably out the window. That said, 14-17 long balls, with a respectable batting average, a handful of steals and solid run+RBI production make Crawford a great option at either shortstop of middle infield (MI) in 12+ team mixed fantasy baseball leagues. Crawford is definitely worth his current ADP of 249.
Unfortunately for Team USA, the comeback would be cut short. Electric young Closer, Edwin Diaz then struck out Josh Harrison for the final out to record the win for Puerto Rico. It was the third strikeout of the inning for Diaz, who also fanned Buster Posey and Paul Goldschmidt (who could be seen talking to himself as he walked back to the dugout).
Edwin Diaz is already an elite fantasy reliever, but could take yet another step forward in 2017. Last season Diaz appeared in 49 games (52 IP) and recorded 13 holds to go along with 18 saves. His 2.79 ERA is impressive, as is the 2.22 xERA (expected ERA). If Diaz could throw strike one a little more often, he could vault into the top-3 at the position. As it sits now, Diaz was 4th among relievers with at least 40 innings pitched in K% at 40.6 - this mark puts him just behind Andrew Miller (44.7%), Dellin Betances (42.1%) & Kenley Jansen (41.4%) and just ahead of Aroldis Chapman (40.5%) & Craig Kimbrel (37.7%). Diaz is truly elite.
While the Team USA versus Team Puerto Rico game was an amazing watch from both an enjoyment standpoint and a fantasy baseball scouting standpoint, Saturday’s matchup and elimination game between Team USA and the star-studded Dominican Republic team could be even better. Don’t miss it.