The Fantasy Baseball Numbers Do Lie: Is the best yet to come from Shohei Ohtani?

Los Angeles Dodgers dh Shohei Ohtani (17)
Shohei Ohtani is off to an incredible fantasy start — and things could get even better. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A simple look at a box score or a study of fantasy categories doesn't always tell the whole story of how a player is performing. Dalton Del Don attempts to identify misleading numbers that are worth a closer look.

Yes ... The Numbers Do Lie.

Shohei Ohtani’s 10 RBI are a lie

Ohtani is arguably off to the best start of his career, hitting .360/.400/.640 with a 178 wRC+ while striking out at a career-low rate (17.7%) by a wide margin. He’s been a top-10 fantasy player anyway, but Ohtani doesn’t rank top-50 in RBI this season. He’s sporting a .360 batting average but is hitting .053/.048/.053 with runners in scoring position. He has one single, no walks, four strikeouts and two sacrifice flies in 21 plate appearances with RISP.

Ohtani batted .314 in 2022 and .317 last season in those situations, and it’s typically easier to hit when the pitcher is out of the stretch with runners on base. He’ll continue to see plenty of RBI opportunities hitting directly behind Mookie Betts, who currently sports a .470 OBP. Ohtani will start racking up RBI in bunches soon, and he’s running more than ever while able to focus solely on hitting. Ohtani looks like a top-three fantasy player for managers who gambled on him.

Bobby Witt Jr.’s four home runs are a lie

Witt’s blistering start would look even better if not for his being caught stealing three times and suffering unfortunate luck in the home run department. He has the biggest difference between HRs and expected homers (6.9) among hitters so far this season while leading the league in barrels/PA% and contact quality.

Witt entered Wednesday with one of the highest barrel percentages and average exit velocities in the Statcast era, and he’s hitting more fly balls than ever, so it’s safe to say he has been unlucky with homers. Witt clubbed 16 home runs over just 279 at-bats after the All-Star break last season as a 23-year-old, so he’s capable of 30-plus the rest of the season. Given the (minor) concerns surrounding Ronald Acuña Jr., Witt is currently the top fantasy player on my board.

Blake Snell’s 12.86 ERA is a lie

Snell has been roughed up in his first two starts, but fantasy managers have no reason to be concerned. His 12.86 ERA comes with a 3.89 SIERA, and Snell sports the biggest difference in ERA and expected ERA among all starters in the young season. He also has a .234 expected batting average against that’s accompanied by a .368 BABIP (.289 career) despite the Giants fielding one of the league’s best defenses.

Snell’s velocity has been the highest of his career, and some early struggles are understandable, given how late he signed in spring training. Oracle is one of the most favorable pitcher’s parks in baseball, so Snell should still be treated as a top-10 fantasy starter moving forward.

George Kirby’s 6.64 ERA is a lie

Kirby already started righting the ship with a strong outing earlier this week, and his inflated ERA should continue to decline (though he’s a bench candidate during his next scheduled start at Coors Field). Kirby has somehow improved last season’s league-best BB% (2.2), having not walked a batter since his first start of the year. Kirby will always be more reliant on his defense given his modest K rate, but he has suffered significantly poor luck to open 2024. His .354 BABIP is the eighth-highest in the league and comes with a .290 expected BABIP.

Kirby’s LOB% (51.6) is the second-worst among 76 qualified starters after he finished top-20 in the category last season. This is purely small-sample noise mostly out of his control, so expect Kirby to post an ERA in the mid-threes over the rest of the season. Throwing in the league’s most extreme pitcher’s park will help, too.

Jonathan India’s .159 batting average is a lie

India entered Wednesday with the biggest difference in BA and expected batting average in baseball. His .280 xBA is in the top quarter of the league. He has struck out a bunch recently, but his season K% (21.5) remains the same as his career mark.

Meanwhile, India’s BB% (16.5) and Contact% are both easily career highs, and his .213 BABIP is toward the bottom of the league and sure to regress. Great American Ballpark is one of the most favorable hitter’s venues in MLB, so expect India’s BA to rise significantly moving forward. He’s locked in playing time and capable of going 20/20, so India looks like a clear buy-low candidate.

Dylan Cease’s 1.99 ERA is a lie

Cease saw a significant jump in fantasy value with the move to San Diego, but he has experienced incredibly good fortune to open 2024. Every pitcher with an ERA this low is due for some sort of regression, but Cease somehow has a sub-2.00 ERA while recording the second-highest BB% (12.2) among qualified starters. He sports a lowly HR/FB rate (3.6%) despite allowing six barrels and pairs that with a GB/FB ratio (0.61) that ranks bottom-five among starters.

His .176 BABIP is the second-lowest in the league (it was .330 last season), which is obviously unsustainable for any pitcher, but it seems certain to regress hard for one allowing an average exit velocity in the bottom 13% of the league. Cease has a strong K% and can easily finish as a top-15 fantasy starter this season with the help of Petco Park and a strong San Diego defense, but his ERA is going to jump.