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5 shortstops to target in deep fantasy baseball leagues

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You’re ignoring guys like Willy Adames and Nick Ahmed, and you shouldn’t be.

Getty Images/Pete Rogers Illustrations

On Sunday, I explored Fangraphs leaderboards in search of some sneaky starting pitching options. I came up with Joe Musgrove, Marcus Stroman, Cole Hamels, and Spencer Turnbull. You can check that out if you feel so inclined.

For simplicity’s sake, I pored over 2019 leaderboards for home runs and stolen bases. I wanted to see if any names surprised me in the shortstop ranks, and there were a few that I chose to dig into a bit more.

The home run leaders at shortstop from 2019 weren’t surprising through the first six names:

Alex Bregman (41), Gleyber Torres (38), Trevor Story (35), Marcus Semien (33), Xander Bogaerts (33), and Francisco Lindor (32) are the top six.

Three of these (Lindor, Story, and Bregman) are first round picks in 2020. Torres (pick 30) and Bogaerts (38) aren’t far behind. Semien (pick 90) is the “cheapest” in this grouping. But the next guy was interesting...

League Championship Series - St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals - Game Four
Nope, that’s not Matt Carpenter.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Maybe we should bank on this guy, like the Cardinals are...

Paul DeJong (30) was next on the list (7th) among all shortstops in homers last year. That’s interesting, as he’s the misfit according to NFBC ADP right now, at pick 196. I’ll confess, I didn’t know he was only 26 years old. Feels like he’s been around longer. He’s posted seasons of 25, 19, and 30 home runs in his three big league stints. He has also trimmed his strikeout rate over that stretch, at 28.0%, 25.1%, and 22.4%. It’s a concern that his BABIP and batting average marks have dropped each year, but in his first two seasons he did post healthy line drive rates of 23.5% and 24.2%. Last year he traded those line drives for more ground balls, but at least we’ve seen two years of being a plus in the line drive department.

DeJong also stole nine bags in 2019, after swiping only one in each of his first two years. His 27.6 ft/s sprint speed ranked in the 67th percentile—not elite, but enough to do a little damage if he keeps getting attempts. He’s spent the most time batting third in the order in all three of his big league seasons. So opportunity doesn’t seem to be an issue, especially not in this watered down Cardinals lineup.

One potential problem is his performance against southpaws, as in Year 2 he batted only .198 with three of his 19 homers. In Year 3 (last season) he batted .221 with only three of his 30 homers. His strikeout rates against lefty pitching began ghastly, but have improved over his three years (33.0%, 29.1%, and 25.4%). At least they are dropping! I could live with 25% in his worst split if he was raking against righty pitching. Against righty pitching, DeJong has strikeout rates of 26.8%, 23.7%, and 21.7%. These trends are obviously positive.

DeJong’s walk rate over his three seasons is similarly encouraging, at 4.7%, 7.3%, and 9.3%. Currently, he’s projected to bat cleanup for St. Louis, after Dexter Fowler, Kolten Wong, and Paul Goldschmidt. He’s all but guaranteed a top four spot in this lineup. Even if Tommy Edman slides up in the order, I think that would affect Fowler adversely, not DeJong.

The overall improvement with the stick is encouraging, as DeJong also ranks in the 98th percentile for Statcast’s new OAA index for infielders. In short, he should be afforded plenty of opportunity to continue improving with the bat based on his strong defense.

Divisional Series - Houston Astros v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Three Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

If the Rays let him play...

Willy Adames (20 homers) ranked 12th on the list, but slashed a really pedestrian .254/.317/.418. However, his swinging strike rate dropped from 12.0% to 11.4%, as he improved both his contact rate and zone contact rate to within a percent of league average. His chase rate was again better than average (27.6% and 27.5% in his first two years) and his Z-Swing% was again over 70% (league average in 2019 was 68.5%). Okay, new paragraph...

Adames’ hard hit rate jumped from 34.7% to 42.1% last year. His soft contact rate fell from 17.3% to 13.4%. He beefed up his line drive rate, from 17.5% to 22.9%. And his fly ball rate stayed intact, at 30.4% and 30.3%...meaning he traded out ground balls for those line drives. We like that.

Per Statcast, Adames’ barrel rate improved from 6.6% to 8.4%. His exit velocity jumped from 86.5 mph to 87.8 mph (MLB average was 87.5 mph). His average launch angle rose from 8.6 degrees to 10.0 degrees (so maybe we can trust those line drives). His xBA rose from .225 to .249. His xSLG had a massive jump, from .363 to .433. Last year’s .433 mark only puts him in the 40th percentile of the MLB, but at least the trend is positive. He’s hitting the ball harder and with more loft, and making more contact. Seems like a good recipe...

I wonder how much playing time he’ll get in 2020? He could be a dirt cheap bench guy to cover your MI slot when you need it. With an ADP of 312, he’s going after guys like Jon Berti (261) and Carter Kieboom (288), neither of whom have starting jobs promised to them. Or maybe the Rays will sign Troy Tulowitzki off the street. I mean, we can’t just give the young guy full-time at-bats, can we? That would just be insane.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Colorado Rockies Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Further improvement for this everyday fixture in Arizona?

There was one other bat on the home run leaderboard I wanted to scope out, and that’s 29-year-old Nick Ahmed. Ahmed’s 19 homers were tied with Trea Turner and Corey Seager for 13th in the MLB in 2019. Ahmed also hit one more homer than Tim Anderson. Quality company, right? And unlike Freddy Galvis—who popped 23 homers—Ahmed actually has some on-base skills, with an 8.3% walk rate last year. Ahmed also swiped eight bags. And despite the modest steals output, he’s pretty fast. His 28.2 ft/s sprint speed ranked in the 79th percentile last year.

Like Adames, Ahmed’s overall slash line was fairly pedestrian, at .254/.316/.437. However, Ahmed has only been a regular for the past two years. His walk rate has improved from 7.1% to 8.3%. His strikeout rate dropped from 19.3% to 18.1%. I don’t like last year’s 48.3% ground ball rate, but the year prior he was at 40.8% and he hit far more line drives (24.4%). In only his third season as an everyday player, I think there’s some room for continued growth. The Diamondbacks must agree with me, as Ahmed got paid on Monday—a four-year contract worth $32.5 million.

Ahmed’s plate discipline has improved, with growth in many areas. His chase rate (34.2% down to 31.0%), zone swing rate (70.3% up to 73.4%), and swinging strike rate (13.5% to 11.7% to 10.0% last three years) are all encouraging. He’s also about 4% better than average with regard to zone contact rate, and around 3% better than average in overall contact rate. He’s expected to bat seventh for Arizona in the everyday lineup, and offers 15/10 upside. That’s not the worst, especially at his rock bottom 444 ADP. For reference, David Fletcher doesn’t even have a starting gig and is being drafted 100 picks earlier.

It should be noted that I omitted Freddy Galvis and his 23 dingers. I can’t get into him with that 4.8% walk rate and .296 OBP. Yikes. His speed output has really dwindled, too, and he’s 30 years old now. No thanks.

All right, enough on power. I feel the need...the need...for speed!

Did you know Elvis Andrus swiped 31 bags last year? Me either! I didn’t have Andrus on any of my teams, and sometimes you just miss those guys you don’t have any shares of. Looks like that 136 ADP (tied with Amed Rosario) isn’t too crazy after all. Anyway, we’d better check out the steals leaderboard.

Other than Andrus, there were no surprises early. Jonathan Villar (40), Trea Turner (35), Andrus, Trevor Story (23), and Francisco Lindor (22) were at the top of the list. The aforementioned Rosario had 19, and the underrated Tim Anderson stole 17. After that...

Pittsburgh Pirates v Colorado Rockies Photo by Joe Mahoney/Getty Images

Kevin Newman looks solid

Kevin Newman’s 16 steals ranked eighth among qualified MLB shortstops last season. His paltry 11.7% strikeout rate was also the best (read: lowest) among his shortstop peers. He’s not powerless like Miguel Rojas, either. Newman rapped out a tolerable 12 homers with his .138 ISO. He slashed .308/.353/.446, and he did so in only 130 games (531 PA). To put it differently, he ranked 22nd in plate appearances, but eighth in steals. You could add 100 plate appearances to his tally from 2019 and he’d still have only finished 11th among shortstops (one spot ahead of Nick Ahmed). So what’s up with his playing time in Pittsburgh? The Pirates just jettisoned Starling Marte, leaving a gaping chasm atop their lineup. Currently it’s the lefty Adam Frazier slotted into the leadoff role, with the righty Bryan Reynolds in the two-spot. And against righties, perhaps the Pirates will give Frazier a decent leash, due to last year’s .285/.346/.436 slash line in that split (and 9 of his 10 homers). However, Frazier only slashed .259/.307/.364 against lefties. In steps Newman.

Newman slashed .286/.348/.381 against southpaws. Yes, the .095 ISO is disturbing, but Newman was at a more robust .153 ISO against righties, against whom he slugged 11 of his 12 homers. I’m not suggesting he’ll set the world on fire, but I do think he has a chance to bat leadoff against lefty pitchers given the .348 OBP and minuscule 8.6% strikeout rate in that split. And on days when the Pirates face a righty, he’ll drop down to the middle of the order and focus on driving in runs.

The problem is we aren’t getting a huge draft day discount, at only a 191 ADP. But the 28.5 ft/s sprint speed is legit, in the 84th percentile. The barrel rate of 2.1% leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s the .291 xBA mark from last year that we like—it ranked inside the Top 10% of the MLB. You’re not taking Newman for power, but if he gets plenty of at-bats he could push for 15 or so. Add in 20-something steals, and now we’re in business. I don’t hate him at his ADP, but I do wish he’d fall just a tad.

Divisional Series - St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves - Game Five Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Dansby Swanson is a buy-low candidate...

Swanson’s 10 steals were tied for 10th among qualified shortstops, alongside Marcus Semien and Jean Segura. He also popped 17 homers, which only ranked 17th among his brethren...but there’s a caveat. Check out his splits for the first half versus the second:

1H: .270/.330/.493, 17 HR, 7 SB, 7.6% walk rate, 19.7% strikeout rate
2H: .204/.315/.254, 0 HR, 3 SB, 13.3% walk rate, 29.7% strikeout rate

Don’t get too hung up on the counting stats, as we’re comparing different sample sizes (87 games to 38). Swanson’s right heel injury in the summer derailed him, at least from a power standpoint. I for one remember stacking Braves repeatedly after he returned, hoping to buy low. Sadly, the power did not return with Swanson, something my bankroll can attest to. But overall, you’re looking at a 25-year-old whose defense is excellent, and who has given us seasons of 14/10 and 17/10 in his last two tries. And in 2019, he hit the ball harder and with more loft, trading out ground balls for far more line drives (a very healthy 25.8%). I’m taking this injury discount all the way to the fantasy promised land in 2020.

Here are these guys ranked by their respective average ADPs per the NFBC:

192 Kevin Newman
196 Paul DeJong
255 Dansby Swanson
308 Willy Adames
427 Nick Ahmed

Who do you guys like the most, considering skill set, situation, ADP?