What Chas McCormick, Yusei Kikuchi and three more second-half surgers could offer in 2024

The first few weeks of the season can seem like an eternity, but if we think back to April 17, we’ll be reminded of how small a portion of the season had been played at that point. Patrick Wisdom was tied for the major league lead in home runs with eight. Jorge Mateo was batting .372 and on pace for 30 home runs and 80 stolen bases. Nick Lodolo ranked third in strikeouts and eighth in ERA in the NL.

The season was just 19 days old, and that’s how many days are left before we close the curtain on the 2023 regular season. What happens from here on out could be critically important to how you finish out this fantasy season, but aside from serious injuries, these final days should not be that important to the offseason decisions you’ll make in your dynasty leagues. That’s all the more reason why we should start trying to make sense of 2023 performances now.

One group of players that always intrigues me during the offseason are those who appear to reach another level in the previous year’s second half. It’s all too easy to get burned by putting too much weight on a performance that covers less than half of a season’s games, yet breakouts do have to start sometime — why not in the latter portion of the most recent season? In this column, I’ll be taking a close look at five players who appear to have made dramatic improvements since the All-Star break. Will it be a bargain to keep them for next season? Or are they still who we thought they were just a few months ago? Let’s take a look at how each one has managed to surge in the second half.

Chas McCormick, OF, HOU

  • 2023 first half stats: 197 PA, .257 Avg, 8 HR, 21 R, 27 RBI, 9 SB
  • 2023 second half stats: 198 PA, .314 Avg, 12 HR, 35 R, 36 RBI, 7 SB
  • 2023 5×5 Roto value to date: $10 in 12-team mixed leagues (per FanGraphs value calculator)

McCormick has emerged as one of the top fantasy outfielders in the second half, yet it’s hard to find any real sign of a breakout. His 12 home runs over 198 plate appearances have fueled much of his fantasy value, and his 94.1 mph average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives (EV FB/LD) is a substantial upgrade over the 91.2 mph average he registered in the first half. However, that level of of raw power is not unprecedented for McCormick, as he finished with a 94.4 mph EV FB/LD in 2021. Granted, he has struck out far less over the past two seasons (26.2 percent rate) than he did then (32.5 percent rate), but fewer strikeouts and a higher BABIP (.378 in the second half) only go so far to explain McCormick’s surprising surge.

McCormick entered this year’s All-Star break with a career 16.7 percent HR/FB, but since then, he’s ranked fifth in the majors with a 29.3 percent HR/FB. Even taking his increased exit velocity into account, something looks off about that high ratio. In the table below, I have included McCormick’s second-half EV FB/LD, fly ball pull rate and HR/FB along with those stats for the three qualified hitters who have an EV FB/LD between 94 and 95 mph and a fly ball pull rate between 19 and 2o percent for the season. With a similar profile on flies and liners, Bryan Reynolds, Tyler Stephenson and J.D. Davis each has an HR/FB below 20 percent for 2023.

Hitter Year EV FB/LD (mph) FB Pull% HR/FB
Bryan Reynolds 2023 full 94.4 19.3% 14.8%
Tyler Stephenson 2023 full 94.6 19.8% 12.3%
J.D. Davis 2023 full 94.8 19.8% 19.8%
Chas McCormick 2023 2H 94.1 19.5% 29.3%

Even if we give McCormick credit for the exit velocity he has produced in the second half, we should be skeptical of him replicating his full-season 22.2 percent HR/FB in 2024. While he has been a $10 player in 12-team 5×5 Roto leagues this season, that could represent the ceiling of what he could produce for all of next season.

Triston Casas, 1B, BOS

  • 2023 first half stats: 291 PA, .225 Avg, 9 HR, 34 R, 27 RBI, 0 SB
  • 2023 second half stats: 194 PA, .319 Avg, 15 HR, 31 R, 37 RBI, 0 SB
  • 2023 5×5 Roto value to date: $3 in 12-team mixed leagues

It’s not implausible for Casas to be helpful in the batting average category in the years ahead given the line drive tendencies he has shown since playing at Triple-A Worcester and getting to play home games at the BABIP haven that is Fenway Park. The .319 ISO he has amassed in the second half was harder to see coming, given that he had put up a .200 ISO at Double-A Portland in 2021, a .208 ISO at Worcester in 2022 and a .211 ISO in last season’s debut with the Red Sox. As with McCormick, Casas has a high second-half HR/FB (27.3 percent) that is hard to comprehend, especially since his EV FB/LD (93.5 mph) and fly ball pull rate (23.6 percent) are lower than they were in the first half (97.0 mph and 26.0 percent, respectively).

While the first- and second-half numbers don’t make a lot of sense, Casas’ overall stats for 2023 look about right, and maybe even a little short on batting average (.263). At 23, there is still plenty of upside for Casas to realize in seasons to come, so it’s fair to take the over on the $3 he has earned in 12-team leagues this year for his expected Roto value in 2024.

Luis Rengifo, 2B/3B/SS/OF, LAA

  • 2023 first half stats: 247 PA, .219 Avg, 5 HR, 29 R, 22 RBI, 5 SB
  • 2023 second half stats: 198 PA, .318 Avg, 11 HR, 26 R, 29 RBI, 1 SB
  • 2023 5×5 Roto value to date: $1 in 15-team mixed leagues

Rengifo was already experiencing a power breakout in the first half, putting up a 92.8 mph EV FB/LD after not having exceeded 91.0 mph in any of his previous four seasons. The increase in exit velocity did not translate into an uptick in power production, as Rengifo mustered only five home runs and a .107 ISO in the first half. Since the All-Star break, Rengifo started getting better results, and he helped himself by hitting flies and liners even a little harder (93.2 mph) and increasing his fly ball pull rate from 16.1 percent in the first half to 25.4 percent in the second half.

The 99-point upward swing in batting average from the first to second half is harder to explain. Rengifo had been striking out only slightly less often (17.7 percent, as opposed to 19.0 percent in the first half), and a paltry 13.7 percent second-half line drive rate makes him an unlikely candidate to be batting .341 on balls in play.

While Rengifo underperformed in the first half, and likely overperformed in the second half, his overall numbers look sustainable and maybe a little less robust than they should be. Rengifo’s season is over due to a biceps tendon rupture sustained last Thursday, but as long as he is fully recovered by next spring, he should be better in 2024 than the replacement-level player he was for 15-team leagues this seasons.

Yusei Kikuchi, SP, Blue Jays

  • 2023 first half stats: 93.1 IP, 4.24 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 96 K
  • 2023 second half stats: 55.1 IP, 2.44 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 64 K
  • 2023 5×5 Roto value to date: $3 in 12-team mixed leagues

If Kikuchi had simply maintained the 4.24 ERA he compiled in the first half, it would have been the lowest mark of his five-year major league career. Still, it would have been hard to get excited about the Blue Jays lefty given that he was allowing home runs at a high rate (2.1 HR/9), just as he had done over his previous four seasons (1.7 HR/9). Remarkably, Kikuchi has allowed only two home runs over 10 second-half starts covering 55.1 innings (0.3 HR/9). He has been inducing more grounders (44.4 percent rate, versus a 37.0 percent rate in the first half), and a second-half 91.2 mph EV FB/LD has made a huge difference, especially after Kikuchi allowed a 94.7 EV FB/LD in the first half. The lack of hard contact on flies and liners is a major departure, as Kikuchi averaged above 95 mph in EV FB/LD in each of his previous two seasons.

Back in August, Blue Jays manager John Schneiuder told The Athletic’s Kaitlyn McGrath that improved curveball and slider location against right-handed hitters had been key to the success that Kikuchi was already having at that point. Since then, Kikuchi has used the curve sparingly, but there continues to be a marked difference in his slider location. Prior to the All-Star break, he was leaving a lot of sliders towards the center of strike zone against righties, as shown by the heat map below.

Screen Shot 2023 09 12 at 1.19.31 PM

However, since the All-Start break, Kikuchi has been locating his slider more consistently near the bottom of the strike zone when facing right-handed hitters.

Screen Shot 2023 09 12 at 1.20.11 PM

It’s probably no coincidence, then, that Kikuchi has allowed an .089 ISO on his slider overall in the second half after yielding a .217 ISO on the pitch in the first half. His four-seamer has been an even tougher pitch to notch extra-base hits against, as opponents have an .012 ISO against it in the second half. As long as the cost of keeping Kikuchi is minimal, it’s worth carrying him over to your 2024 squad in 12-team leagues.

Dean Kremer, SP, Orioles

  • 2023 first half stats: 98.0 IP, 4.78 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 92 K
  • 2023 second half stats: 61.0 IP, 3.39 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 49 K
  • 2023 5×5 Roto value to date: -$3 in 15-team mixed leagues

Kremer’s outing against the Cardinals on Monday night (five runs allowed in 4.1 innings) snapped a streak of eight consecutive starts in which he allowed no more than three runs. Since that streak began on July 24, Kremer has posted a 3.04 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP after recording a 4.80 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP over his 20 prior starts.

Kremer’s story is similar to Kikuchi’s in that he has tamed a high home run ratio (1.8 HR/9 through July 19) in his most recent run of starts (0.7 HR/9 over 50.1 innings). His ground ball rate has increased from 36.2 percent through July 19 to 45.7 percent since then. In Kremer’s case, it’s his four-seamer that is the primary source of his increase in grounders. Through July 19, he induced grounders at a mere 18.8 percent rate on his four-seamer, but since then the rate has more than doubled to 39.6 percent.

Without the increase in grounders, Kremer was not even viable in 15-team leagues, but if he can keep this up, he could be worth protecting as an inexpensive keeper in those formats. It is worth noting that Kremer has been aided by an 80.5 percent strand rate since July 24, so it’s probably not realistic to expect him to maintain a low- or mid-3.00s ERA, even with a higher ground ball rate. Also, with a 95.3 mph EV FB/LD over his past nine starts, he could still be a future home run risk, especially away from Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Note: Season-to-date stats are for all games played through Monday, September 11

Statistical credits: FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball

(Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

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