Two Weeks in

April 19, 2017

 

 

After one spends hours and hours of preparation for draft season, it can be difficult to change speeds and not do anything for a few weeks. But two weeks into the season is simply not enough time to be making decisions about a roster. Even as certain samples - like fastball velocity - begin to become large enough to gain an understanding of whatís going on, there are still too many variables in play to consider trading away underperformers or trading for the surprise players.

 

For example, batting average on balls in play is a huge part of the success (or lackthereof) of a number of surprise hitters. One player who is getting a large amount of media play is Eric Thames. He returned from a three-year stint in the KBO and has been an unstoppable force thus far, hitting .426 with 7 homers. His walk (9%) and strikeout (21%) rates suggest that heís a solid bet to be productive through the rest of the year and beyond, but his .448 BABIP also suggests that his current production is way beyond his capacity. By the end of the year I think weíll be looking at a player with a .276/.340/.500-ish slashline with 25-30 homers.

 

It canít be avoided that some players enjoy good luck out of the gates but what can help divine which ones will sustain their production and which ones will fall off dramatically are the walk and strikeout rates. Significant improvement in the ability to determine which pitches are hittable and which arenít can mitigate the inevitable decline of an extraordinary BABIP. Avisail Garcia, for example, is hitting everything in sight and being aided by a .543 BABIP, but his walk and strikeout rates are very closely aligned with his career rates, suggesting this is not the breakout season everyone had hoped for. In all likelihood, heíll be recognizable as the old Avi Garcia by the All-Star Break. Similarly, Yasmany Tomas (.400 BABIP), Howie Kendrick (.433), Ryan Zimmerman (.419), Jake Lamb (.419), Welington Castillo (.433), Chris Davis (.440) and Cesar Hernandez (.415) are due for huge drop-offs from where they are now because their ability to control the zone is either unchanged or actually gotten worse.

 

However, there are some players who have shown significant improvements who might not give back so much of their good luck. Zack Cozart (.516 BABIP) will obviously not hit .425 the rest of the way, but his walk rate has doubled over his career rate so we might be seeing a different hitter. Others who have made significant improvements are Chase Headley (.485 BABIP but also doubled his walk rate), Lorenzo Cain (.457), Steven Souza (.417) and Robbie Grossman (.393) all of whom have significantly improved their walk and/or strikeout rates.

 

On the flip side are the ones who have been massively unlucky. I donít think anyone doubts that Manny Machado (.156 BABIP) will eventually get back to being a star player, but what they might not realize that this could be a huge buying opportunity as his walk rate has nearly doubled. Although it might not look like it now this might turn out to be his best year yet. Other players who have struggled but have maintained or improved their control of the strikezone are Jose Reyes (.139 BABIP), Maikel Franco (.143), Russell Martin (.158), Carlos Gomez (.176) and Joey Votto (.195).

 

Players who should warrant come concern, however, are Jonathan Villar (.147 BABIP), whose walk and strikeout rates have gone significant in the wrong direction, Dansby Swanson (.167) and Byron Buxton (.167). The latter is beginning to look more and more like the second coming of Melvin Upton Jr rather than Eric Davis. Leonys Martin (.176) has always been on the cusp of being relegated to the bench, but this year it might happen because Seattle has other options with Guillermo Heredia and a couple of highly regarded prospects who are close.

 

There are two notable power hitters whose starts are concerning. Jose Bautistaís (.188) walk rate is fine but his strikeout rate has increased by 50% over his career average and his power has been noticeably absent (.040 isolated power). The warm air of Texas has not helped Mike Napoli (.182), whose walk rate has cratered as has his isolated power. Bautista appears the safer of the two as Toronto doesnít have any ready-made replacements. Once Adrian Beltre returns from the disabled list, Napoli might end up on the bench because cause celebre Joey Gallo has dramatically improved his ability to make contact. Yes, a miracle may have happened as his contact rate on pitches in the zone has improved from around 60% last year to a Russ Branyan-esque 72% so far this season. Should he be able to maintain or continue to improve that contact rate, he could easily push for 550-600 plate appearances this season.

 

As for clues about pitching it is way too early to be making any prognostications as many starters havenít even made their third start. However, significant increases/decreases in fastball velocity are often a decent indication of what is yet to come regardless of what their line score looks like. Those samples should be large enough to support initial conclusions by the end of the month.