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Second Half Bounceback Candidates for Fantasy Baseball

Manoah looks more like himself in return to MLB
Connor Rogers discusses Toronto Blue Jays SP Alek Manoah's return to MLB and explains why he may be worth rostering again in fantasy leagues.

The second half of the MLB season is upon us, and while three-plus months of baseball has allowed us to believe that we know who’s playing well and who isn’t or who is emerging this season and who is fading, the truth is that there is still a lot of season left. That means there is plenty of time for players to rewrite the story of their 2023 season.

In this article, we’re going to try and identify some of those players who look poised to drastically alter their current production over the last two and a half months of the 2023 MLB season.

In order to identify players who I think are due for much improved second halves, I first checked the Statcast leaderboards to see who was under-performing their expected stats the most in the league. I also looked at quality of contact (barrel rate, hard-hit rate, etc.), and then checked the rolling windows on Statcast to see who was coming into the break trending in the right direction and compared first half production to career norms.

I settled on five players for this article; however, I wanted to mention a few others who were cut either for space or because they were strong in certain categories in the first half, but I believe a more complete performance is coming.

Some of those names are: Keibert Ruiz, Willson Contreras, Jake Burger, Matt Chapman, C.J. Cron, and Joc Pederson.

Giancarlo Stanton - OF/DH, Yankees

This first one shouldn’t be too big of a surprise, and not just because he’s the cover image for this article. The oft-injured Yankees slugger has 163 plate appearances this season. Amongst all hitters with at least 160 plate appearances, he ranks 24th in baseball with a 15% barrel rate and 21st with a 51.4% hard-hit rate. His max exit velocity of 118.3 mph is 2nd in baseball (just ahead of Jake Burger), and his 93.4 mph average exit velocity ranks 10th in the league.

All of which is to say, he’s hitting the ball incredibly hard and on par with pretty much every season over the last four years. Yes, the exit velocities are slightly below what we’re used to, but he remains a top-tier power bat and not somebody who should be slashing .203/.276/.426 with nine home runs in the first half of the season.

Stanton was off to a strong start to the season but strained his hamstring after just 13 games and was out for over a month. When he came back, it was clear his timing was a bit off, but the hard contact remained.

Stanton is also running his lowest strikeout rate since 2017, his lowest groundball rate since 2016, and his lowest O-Swing% since 2017 (excluding the shortened 2020 season). He is also being more aggressive in the zone than last year, making more contact in the zone than last year, and sporting a 44.9% pull rate, which would be his highest since 2015 (excluding 2020 again).

All of that tells me that we’re going to get a hot month coming up for Stanton where that hard contact, pulled contact, and aggressive approach leads to an 8+ home run month. He will likely still hit .230-.240, but with Aaron Judge slated to come back in August and the Yankees likely to find upgrades for Josh Donaldson and Billy McKinney during the stretch run, this could be a much improved lineup with Stanton right near the top of it.

Ryan Mountcastle - 1B, Orioles

I’ve never been a huge Mountcastle believer. In fact, there are many people who know me who will be shocked I allowed myself to put him on this list, but we’re going to let the numbers talk here.

Mountcastle jumps off the page when you look at his expected statistics. His .531 xSLG and .353 xwOBA are drastically better than his actual production and puts him among the league-leaders when it comes to under-performing his expected stats.

While it’s no guarantee he hits those expected marks, we also know he’s making tremendous quality of contact with a 15.2% barrel ate and 10.7% barrels per plate appearance. His exit velocities are in line with last season, he’s making more contact in the zone, and he’s swinging and missing less, which are all positive developments.

Mountcastle also hits in the middle of an offense that is beginning to flourish, so his .230/.267/.424 slash line looks primed for a boost, and I could easily see him equaling his 40 RBI from his first 61 games.

Here are the two concerns I have though: we know that Mountcastle was just activated from the IL after a bout with vertigo, and since vertigo is not a common muscle injury where you know for sure the injury is healed, we may never be 100% certain he won’t have a flare up later this season. The second concern is the home park. Despite Mountcastle’s quality of contact, it’s hard to see him hitting more than 10-12 home runs in the second half, but if you’re getting the .260 average and RBIs that I think you can get, he can still deliver fantasy value.

Josh Bell - 1B, Guardians

We’ll go with another first baseman here. I expect Josh Bell to pull an inverse of his 2022 season, which saw him plummet in the second half after being traded to the San Diego Padres.

A few of Bell’s underlying metrics suggest signs of life. He has a .449 xSLG and .351 xwOBA despite recording just a .381 SLG and .309 wOBA in the first half of the year. Bell is also registering his best barrel rate (9.5%) since 2019 and has seen his hard-hit rate start to spike in recent weeks, as you can see in the rolling graph below.

Bell is also sporting his highest strikeout rate of his career, if you take out the COVID-shortened 2020 season, but much of that is from a poor month of June. In May, Bell had just an 18.6% strikeout rate, and in July he registered a 14.7% rate. There’s just a bloated 26.5% strikeout rate in June smashed in the middle.

Now, we still need to see Bell lift the ball a little more, as he’s hitting too much on the ground this summer. However, he’s beginning to pull the ball more, and the weather is warming up in Cleveland, so baseballs will start to carry out of that park if he can elevate. I think it’s easy to see a second half where Bell hits .260 with 10+ home runs and 70 RBI+Runs.

Eugenio Suarez - 3B, Mariners

Weather is also a huge component in predicting a strong second half for Eugenio Suarez, who has always performed much better in the second half. For his career, Suarez is a .240/.326/.434 hitter in the first half of the season with a .760 OPS, .194 ISO, and 17.3% HR/FB. In the second half of the season, he has career marks of .259/.341/.488 with a .829 OPS, .230 ISO, and 19.8% HR/FB.

We’ve already seen him start that same trajectory, hitting .276/.421/.655 in nine July games with three home runs and five RBI.

A lot of that is just natural regression to the mean. Suarez had just a 5.9% HR/FB rate in June and 13.3% HR/FB rate in May, which is well below his career rates for both the first and second half. In July, he has a 27.3% HR/FB rate, which will obviously not maintain but shows us that natural regression and warmer weather are beginning to factor into Suarez’s results.

The strikeouts will still be there, so Suarez is unlikely to hit above .230, but he could put 15+ home runs over the next two-plus months while hitting in the middle of a solid Seattle lineup.

Seiya Suzuki - OF, Cubs

Suzuki is a bit confounding to me. His production hasn’t been awful at .259/.342/.405, and he has a 9% barrel rate and 50% hard-hit rate; yet, he has just seven home runs in 71 games. We’re seeing him pull the ball more than last year, hit the ball harder than last year, chase outside the zone less than last year, and improve his swinging strike rate to an elite 7.6%. The results just haven’t come.

Part of the problem could be that Suzuki is hitting the ball on the ground too much, with a 45.3% groundball rate. In truth, that’s really the only flaw you can find when you look at his profile. The problem for our hope of a second half bounceback is simply that the groundball rate is not trending in the right direction.

I understand that it’s tough to believe in a bounceback if we’re not seeing signs that adjustments are being made, but I think the All-Star break is perfectly timed for Suzuki. Both he and the Cubs are almost definitely aware that Suzuki is increasingly hitting the ball on the ground. However, this is not a consistent issue for Suzuki but one that has just emerged beginning in late May, so it’s likely something he worked on addressing in the four days without games.

It may be a leap of faith, but I’m buying into a second half that sees Suzuki hit .270 with 10+ home runs and 70 Runs+RBI.