Last week's 5 biggest fantasy surprises: Can Marcus Semien adjust to Texas?

·8-min read

MLB players spend a large portion of their careers praying they reach free agency. Once they hit the open market, they can make the money they are truly worth. Every single team could hypothetically hand them $100 million to try and hit dingers in a new park.

After weeks of courting, a player signs a deal and gets to work on adjusting to their new surroundings. A month into the regular season, they are hitting .180 and looking like a massive bust.

This happens more than you think. Look at Boston Red Sox infielder Trevor Story, who is hitting .194 with no home runs. Or check out Matt Chapman, who is hitting .200 after being traded from the Oakland Athletics.

These are probably small blips. Given his history, t's still too early to write Story off, despite his clear struggles. Chapman has actually shown some positive things under the hood; he's due for some positive regression.

These guys will likely come around, it just might take a month or two.

We don't know if we can say the same for another player in a new spot, though.

Ranks are based on standard Yahoo fantasy leagues

Marcus Semien, Texas Rangers 2B, SS

Fantasy rank over the last seven days: 615

Season-long fantasy rank: 688

There are not many positives to take away from Marcus Semien's first month with the Texas Rangers.

He's hitting .178/.244/.234 and all of it seems earned. Semien's barrel rate, exit velocity and hard-hit rate are the lowest they've been since Statcast started measuring those figures in 2015.

It's possible Semien is pressing. His approach is off thus far. Semien is swinging more often — on pitches both in and out of the strike zone. He's also making less contact, leading to his swinging strike rate being up.

If you wanted to play armchair psychologist, you could guess that Semien is feeling pressure to produce with his new club after signing a 7-year, $175 million with the Rangers in the offseason. He's trying to do too much to prove he was worth that deal, and it's leading to some early struggles. You could also argue that will turn around eventually once he gets settled.

Marcus Semien's slow fantasy start with Rangers.
Marcus Semien is off to a slow start in fantasy baseball. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Problem is, Semien is now hitting in a less friendly environment. Fantasy managers knew that going in, but did not realize how the baseball would be different in 2022. With the ball not traveling as far, Semien's power numbers could take a much bigger hit than expected.

Semien isn't useless, however. His sprint speed is still high, suggesting he'll continue to swipe bags. He also hits at the top of the Rangers' lineup and is known for playing nearly every day. There's value in a guy who will get you 700 plate appearances. But this is still shaping up to be a disappointing year from one of fantasy's biggest 2021 surprises.

Michael Kopech, Chicago White Sox SP

Fantasy rank over the last seven days: 64

Season-long fantasy rank: 110

Chicago White Sox pitcher Michael Kopech debuted to high hopes in 2018. Injuries and COVID-19 delayed him from reaching his potential. Six starts into 2022, and Kopech looks like the guy prospect analysts salivated over in the minor leagues.

Through 29 innings, Kopech has a 0.93 ERA with 30 strikeouts. He hasn't given up a run over 10 innings in May.

Obviously, regression is coming; a 0.93 ERA isn't sustainable. Kopech is eventually going to give up a home run this year, especially with his 30 percent ground-ball rate. Once that happens, will Kopech still be an elite fantasy asset?

Things are looking good so far. Kopech's fastball is dominant, and he's been able to locate it better this season. Kopech is pounding the zone up and in to right-handers with his heater. Batters — both lefties and righties — haven't been able to catch up to the pitch yet. His slider hasn't been as strong this season, but things might be turning around there. Kopech struck out three Cleveland Guardians with his slider during Monday's game. With that pitch lagging behind early, Kopech has relied more on his curveball to open the year. He's given up one hit on the pitch after throwing it 68 times. Kopech's curve also carries a 25 percent whiff rate.

All of that is promising, but don't mistake Kopech for vintage Justin Verlander just yet. Kopech's command is still spotty. He carries a career-high 11.4 percent walk rate in 2022. He also isn't going deep into many starts, partially due to his command and partially due to the White Sox treating him with kid gloves after not pitching much the past 3-4 years.

Kopech will be a good pitcher even after regression hits, but the innings concern could make him a strong midseason trade candidate in fantasy leagues.

Rowdy Tellez, Milwaukee Brewers 1B

Fantasy rank over the last seven days: 6

Season-long fantasy rank: 30

Milwaukee Brewers slugger Rowdy Tellez has always shown interesting batted-ball figures but never received consistent playing time to reach his ceiling. That might finally be happening in Milwaukee. Tellez has a .258/.314/.567 slash line with 7 home runs in 105 plate appearances.

The power surge could be real. Tellez has always hit the ball incredibly hard. His max exit velocity is in the 97th percentile in 2022. That's consistent with Tellez's max exit velocity over his career. That stat is often an indicator of a player's raw power, suggesting Tellez could be an elite home run hitter. His 114.2 mph max exit velocity comes in just under fellow sluggers Aaron Judge's 114.9 mph figure from this year and better than Joey Gallo's 113 mph max exit velocity. Tellez is in good company.

Let's keep the comparisons going. Similar to Gallo and Judge, Tellez plays in a park that is extremely friendly to the long ball. As long as Tellez continues to get playing time — he should play against every righty — he should provide strong power numbers for fantasy teams.

Paul Blackburn, Oakland Athletics SP

Fantasy rank over the last seven days: 127

Season-long fantasy rank: 33

Finding good players on bad teams is a sure way to get an edge on your opponents in a fantasy league. There's always so much doubt about them. It's easy to say, "Oh, that guy won't win a lot of games," or, "He won't score many runs, so I'll move on."

If you can ignore those thoughts, you could land a strong player on the waiver wire.

Oakland Athletics pitcher Paul Blackburn could be that guy in 2022. Blackburn has a 1.74 ERA over six starts with the A's. He's managed that by making a few adjustments to his approach.

Paul Blackburn with the Athletics.
Paul Blackburn could be a fantasy baseball breakout. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The biggest improvement has come with Blackburn's sinker. He's throwing the pitch slightly harder and getting more vertical drop on it. Hitters teed off against the pitch in 2021, putting up a .354 batting average against it. In 2022, batters are hitting .184 on Blackburn's sinker. He's also getting whiffs with the pitch 12.7 percent of the time, twice as much as he did last season. Location may play a role too, as Blackburn is willing to throw his sinker all over the zone in 2022.

In addition to that, Blackburn has relied more on his other pitches. His curveball and changeup have seen increased usage. The changeup hasn't been good this year but has been a weapon for Blackburn in the past. The curveball remains an excellent pitch and has more drop this season. Blackburn even went so far as to add a pitch to his repertoire: He's now throwing a slider, giving him six total pitches.

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There's nothing particularly sexy about Blackburn's breakout. He's not magically throwing harder or relying on a new, dominant pitch to fool hitters. Much like former Athletics pitcher Chris Bassitt, Blackburn just seems to have found the best version of himself, one with a big enough arsenal to keep opponents off balance.

Tommy Pham, Cincinnati Reds OF

Fantasy rank over the last seven days: 40

Season-long fantasy rank: 160

Cincinnati Reds outfielder Tommy Pham is not exciting. He's 34, plays for the worst team in baseball and hasn't hit over .230 since 2019. He's also hitting .234 in 2022, making it easy to leave him on your waiver wire.

That poor batting average is deceptive, though. After a miserable start — in which Pham went 0-for-22 to open the season — he's rebounded to hit .296 over his last 20 games. Pham is consistently making hard contact, averaging a 94 mph exit velocity, putting him in the 98th percentile.

His command of the strike zone remains strong. Pham is still walking at an elite rate. While he's reaching at pitches outside the zone more often, Pham still has a disciplined approach. Despite his age, he also still has some speed, putting up a sprint speed in the 76th percentile.

Pham isn't suddenly going to turn into a superstar fantasy outfielder at 34. But he plays in a good home park and is flashing enough skills to make him a threat to hit 20 home runs and swipe 10 bags if he can stay healthy. That's worthy of a roster spot in most leagues.