Last week's 5 biggest fantasy surprises: Rays did it again with Drew Rasmussen

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A change of scenery is a beautiful thing in fantasy baseball — just ask Gerrit Cole.

After a few middling seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates at the start of his career, Cole joined the Houston Astros and blossomed into one of the best pitchers in the game.

Sure, it's fun to yell about sticky stuff, but the Astros did bring meaningful changes to Cole's approach. He threw his sinker less and his 4-seam fastball more. He also worked higher in the zone, helping maximize his whiffs on his 4-seamer.

Cole left the Astros following the 2019 season, but he retained those gains. Even with a sticky stuff ban — it should be noted Cole never confirmed or denied using it — Cole remains one of fantasy baseball's most dependable aces. Through five starts in 2022, Cole hasn't thrown a single sinker.

It's possible none of this happens without Cole leaving the Pirates. In that alternate universe where Cole isn't traded, perhaps he's still an underachieving pitcher who fantasy managers snag in the 12th round, hoping he finally delivers an ace season.

In this universe, he's been an ace for years, and a change of scenery was the start of that rise. Another player following that path is showing up lately, too.

Here's more on him, along with more fantasy surprises for the past week.

Ranks are based on standard Yahoo fantasy leagues

Drew Rasmussen, Tampa Bay Rays SP

Fantasy rank over the last seven days: 5

Season-long fantasy rank: 147

The Tampa Bay Rays hit on this phenomenon seemingly every single year. The team is often led by previously unknown pitchers who find an extra gear upon joining the club.

Drew Rasmussen is their latest success story.

Rasmussen isn't brand new to the team. He was acquired by the Rays last season and posted a 2.44 ERA in 10 starts with the team. Rasmussen also threw 11 innings with the Rays' Triple-A club in 2021. His 2021 numbers were promising, but it was tough to trust Rasmussen after he was an unspectacular reliever.

Drew Rasmussen is a fantasy breakout candidate with the Rays.
Drew Rasmussen added a new weapon to his repertoire in 2022 and it should help his fantasy value. (AP Foto/Scott Audette)

Turns out, the Rays have done it again.

Rasmussen has a 3.13 ERA with a microscopic 5.5 percent walk rate through five starts in 2022. He's done that despite a fastball that isn't as effective. Rasmussen's fastball velocity is down nearly 2 mph in 2022, likely a result of him transitioning to starting full time after being a reliever part of last season.

Rasmussen expected this might happen and spent the offseason working on another weapon. He's now throwing a cutter or — as he calls it — a "cuttery slider." The pitch has held hitters to a .095 average thus far and has picked up whiffs at a 28.1 percent clip, per Baseball Savant. He still employs his usual slider, giving hitters two pitches that look similar but break differently.

Rasmussen isn't the next Cole. The Rays aren't going to let Rasmussen go deep into many games. He has one quality start this season and has topped out at 84 pitches. Despite his improvement, Rasmussen's strikeout rate is barely above average compared to other starters.

He's a strong asset if he's sitting on the waiver wire — just don't expect him to produce like an ace.

J.T. Realmuto, Philadelphia Phillies C

Fantasy rank over the last seven days: 369

Season-long fantasy rank: 165

The former top catcher in fantasy is off to a slow start.

J.T. Realmuto is hitting .256/.326/.346, with just one home run, through 21 games. The lack of power is concerning for Realmuto, who has a career .450 slugging percentage.

There's plenty of evidence to suggest this slow start is earned. Realmuto isn't hitting the ball as hard in 2022. His average exit velocity is down 87.8 mph, a career-worst. He's chasing pitches more, putting more balls on the ground and struggling against fastballs.

Is it really over for one of the mainstays at the position?

Probably not. There's not enough in Realmuto's stats to suggest he's completely collapsed. His swinging-strike rate hasn't moved much and he's still picking up hard hits at a decent rate. His sprint speed also remains high, suggesting he's not hiding an injury, and that he can use his above-average speed to leg out more hits when things turn around.

All of this points to Realmuto being in a slump to open the year. The fastball struggles are concerning, but there's little evidence suggesting Realmuto is cooked. A mechanical tweak could be in order to make sure Realmuto gets back to hitting fastballs with authority. Once that happens, he should return to being one of the most dependable catchers in fantasy.

Dylan Cease, Chicago White Sox SP

Fantasy rank over the last seven days: 8

Season-long fantasy rank: 44

Chicago White Sox pitcher Dylan Cease is yet another example of prospect development being an inexact science. Big things were expected of Cease when he was shipped to the White Sox in the Jose Quintana deal. His first two seasons in the majors didn't deliver much hope.

Cease had electric stuff, but no control his rookie season. His control got even worse and his stuff stopped getting strikeouts during his second year, leading to a misleading 4.01 ERA. Things started moving in the right direction last season, and have now reached a point where Cease looks like one of the best pitchers in the game.

The biggest thing that held Cease back in 2021 was his fastball. Batters hit .264 with a .449 slugging percentage against it. It was his worst pitch.

Five starts into 2022 and Cease has the best fastball in the majors, per FanGraphs. Hitters have a .056 average against it. On the surface, it doesn't look like the pitch has changed much. Its velocity is slightly down and its spin rate is slightly lower. Its effectiveness is up, however, and Cease is getting a career-high 27.1 percent whiff rate with the pitch.

Dylan Cease with the White Sox.
Dylan Cease's fastball is much improved in 2022. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

What changed? Some of it appears to be mechanical. Cease altered his throwing motion, which could explain his improved control and command. As a result, Cease seems to be hitting his spots more with his fastball. He's been more consistent in elevating the pitch high and outside to righties.

Cease has only given up three hits on his fastball the entire season. All three pitches were low in the zone. If he can continue to elevate with his fastball, Cease should be a fantasy star.

Taylor Ward, Los Angeles Angels OF

Fantasy rank over the last seven days: 3

Season-long fantasy rank: 6

A month into the season and Los Angeles Angels outfielder Taylor Ward is the fantasy MVP — just like everyone expected. Unless you play in a super-deep league or are his blood relative, you probably didn't select Ward in your draft. But if you picked him up off the waiver wire early, you've been treated to a top-10 performance.

This is the part where we crush your dreams and tell you Ward's performance is a mirage, right? But It's not that cut-and-dry. Ward, 28, is showing some legitimate gains at the plate. His barrel rate is up, he's pulling the ball more and his understanding of the strike zone has improved. Ward has cut his chase rate by nearly 10 percent in the early going. When he does swing at pitches, he's making more contact, both on pitches in and out of the strike zone.

All of that suggests Ward is a better player in 2022. He should hit better than his career .247 average and get on base more than his .327 career on-base percentage.

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The power surge might not last, though. Ward — who already has five home runs — is not hitting the ball particularly hard thus far. His 87.2 average exit velocity is low and Ward hasn't been much of a power source over his career, outside of one season in the minors.

That puts Ward managers in a tough spot. He's an improved player, but is he good enough to be an everyday fantasy player once his power falls back to Earth? There's probably not a huge market for Ward on most trade blocks. Other fantasy managers are likely skeptical of his hot start and expect regression.

Once Ward stops hitting for power, there might not be enough in his profile to make him anything other than a replaceable third outfielder on most fantasy rosters.

If you picked up Ward, enjoy this hot start while you can. If and when regression hits, don't hesitate to move on.

Cedric Mullins, Baltimore Orioles OF

Fantasy rank over the last seven days: 430

Season-long fantasy rank: 172

Is Baltimore Orioles outfielder Cedric Mullins a one-year wonder?

After years of middling performances, Mullins burst onto the scene in 2021, smacking 30 home runs and stealing 30 bases for the lowly Orioles.

There were reasons for that breakout. Mullins dropped switch-hitting and decided to only hit from the left side. After undergoing surgery due to Crohn's disease, Mullins entered 2021 healthier than ever. All of this is to say, fantasy managers were not wrong to select Mullins in the first couple of rounds of their drafts in 2022.

Things haven't been good to open the year. Mullins is hitting .222/.307/.367, with two home runs, in 23 games. He's managed that despite barreling the ball more and picking up hard hits at a higher rate than normal. That suggests positive regression is coming.

Mullins, however, needs to put in some work for things to turn around. He's chasing more pitches out of the zone. When he does swing, Mullins is making less contact at the plate. He's still able to get around on fastballs and is performing well when he makes contact, so Mullins might be a mechanical adjustment or two away from returning to form.

The deadened ball might hurt Mullins' chances of popping 30 home runs again, but he should provide enough power and a ton of stolen bases to deliver on his high draft spot.

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