May 27, 2017
As with every season the first two months are filled with surprise breakouts. This year has been especially fruitful in that regard when it comes to power hitters. There are currently 34 hitters who are on pace to hit 40 or more homers. Considering that last year only 8 accomplished that feat, this is a pretty crazy development. Obviously, some of these players are simply off to fast starts but there may be some who are actually developing into real power threats. I’ve selected a few of the more surprising names to examine and perhaps offer some insight as to whether they present buying or selling opportunities in fantasy baseball.
Ozuna was kind of a breakout player last year but is
young enough to continue to see improvements. Perhaps that’s what we’re seeing
this year, as his walk rate is up as is his hard contact rate. However, before
touting that he’s the next
Like Ozuna, Lamb was a bit of a breakout last year albeit with a less than stellar second half. Continuing with the Ozuna comparison, he’s enjoying a 30 point boost in average on balls in play and a significant spike in home run per flyball rate. However, unlike Ozuna, his swinging strike rate is down and his zone contact rate is up, meaning this is more likely a real move forward in production. He might not continue his current rampage but he’s certainly a better bet to be productive the rest of the way. At least for fantasy purposes, Lamb adds another high quality option at an already ridiculously deep position.
In a draft that produced more celebrated talents like Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner, Carlos Rodon and Aaron Nola, it might be Michael Conforto who accomplishes the most when all is said and done. Sure, he’s been lucky on balls in play so far this season but his walk rate is up and his strikeout rate is down. Additionally, his hard hit rate is up and his pull rate is down, so this is not a case of a hitter selling out for power. This is likely a real improvement in production; he’s just seeing and barreling the ball better. The power is legit although probably not quite to the extent that we’ve seen so far; no one expects him to finish the season with 48 homers. However, his career HR/FB rate is a solid 18% which puts him in the company of many 25-30 home run bats. The only concern is that his swinging strike rate has increased and his zone contact rate has decreased so he might not end up as a .300 hitter. As good as he’s been, this is still a ‘buy’ candidate.
This is the hitter I was most eager to see this year and if you are looking for a buy low candidate for this year, this is your guy. Sure, his strikeout rate is scary, but both it and his walk rate are fairly stable so what you see is what you get. OK, now the good... His BABIP on balls in play is a completely unsustainable .214, meaning his average is going to go up probably 50-60 points. Additionally, my greatest concern coming into this year – his ability to make contact with pitches in the strikezone – has dramatically improved, from around 60% to better than 75%, and his swinging strike percentage has dropped five percentage points. These are huge, almost unheard of improvements. His percentage of hard hit balls and his HR/FB rates are both stable, so what we’re looking at is a player who will continue to crush the ball but is highly likely to start getting more balls to fall in for hits. It probably sounds crazy but we’re seeing the emergence of a player whose production will fall somewhere between Chris Carter and Chris Davis, but with more power.
One of the questions coming into this season about Judge was his ability to make consistent contact. So far he’s answered it with a very loud “yes, I can hit the ball.” The question now is whether he’ll be able to keep up with the adjustments pitchers make. He entered this week with a very high .386 average on balls in play, but he’s pretty athletic so he might be someone who can maintain something better than .300. My guess is that we’ll still see a significant drop which will leave his end of year slash line closer to .255/.360/.600, which are still crazy numbers for a second year player. His K rate is high but that’s not particularly bothersome given how often hitters strike out these days. His walk rate is encouraging at around 14% so he should be reasonably productive even when he’s slumping. There are some signs that indicate the plateau he’s on will drop suddenly. For one, his HR/FB rate is 42.9%, which is absurdly high (highest in MLB among qualified hitters) and his pull rate (46%) is also quite high. Two factors that might mitigate the inevitable drop in production are his zone contact rate (84%) which is good for a power hitter, and swinging strike rate (12.2%) which is pretty decent.
Morrison has been the subject of power breakout predictions for a while and early returns this year are that he is finally realizing it. His walk rate, strikeout rate and BABIP are reasonably close to career norms. He’s experiencing a significant surge in HR/FB rate (24.5% compared to career rate of 12.8%), hard hit ball rate (42.9% compared to career 32.4%) and pull rate. His swinging strike rate and zone contact rate about what they were last year so while this might be his career year, he very well could maintain much of these gains beyond this season.
When Alonso was at U of Miami, his statistics indicated that he was going to develop into a power hitter with an excellent eye for balls and strikes. As it turned out, the power was largely derived from the aluminum bats they used, but the batting eye played as expected. Well, this year it appears that Alonso has decided to sell out for power and trade in some of that batting eye for swinging the bat as hard as he can. He still draws walks but his strikeout rate has increased by nearly 54% over his career rate. His swinging strike rate is up and is zone contact rate is down six percentage points, which is nearly as extreme as Gallo’s ridiculous improvements. The result has been that his hard hit rate has improved significantly and his home run per flyball rate has more than tripled. What’s interesting is that is average on balls in play has suffered so as good as he’s been so far, he might have actually been unlucky through the first two months. He’s a very interesting bat going forward.
Marwin Gonzalez has been a player that most people roster because of his position flexibility, but this year might be the year he replaces Ben Zobrist as the most valuable utility man in fantasy baseball. Despite his strikeout rate remaining largely unchanged, his walk rate has nearly tripled. His BABIP is very close to his career norm so the contact production is definitely sustainable. More evidence to this conclusion is that his swinging strike rate is way down and his zone contact rate is up. He’s just seeing the pitches much better and being patient enough to get something he can handle. But here is where it gets weird: his HR/FB rate is 33.3%, nearly triple his career rate (12%), but his hard hit rate and pull rates are both down. So he’s getting more home runs despite hitting the ball either to the largest parts of the park or the other way. This might be a case of improved launch angle off the bat but there’s too little data to know if that aspect is sustainable beyond this season. What we do know is that Gonzalez, only 28, is in the prime of his career and will be very valuable beyond this season.
Dickerson was a surprise name to find his way onto this list but probably the easiest to explain. There have been no significant improvements to his walk or strikeout rate but his HR/FB rate is up as is his BABIP (50+ points over his career average), swinging strikes and hard hit rate, while his zone contact rate is down. In short, he’s trying to hit the ball out of the park with every swing. The swinging strike rate and the zone contact rate have been going in the wrong direction for two seasons so these first two months are likely the last hurrah before permanent fourth outfielder-hood. Sell while you can.
I had to have one pitcher on this list and the most obvious name was Ervin Santana, largely because his performance so far this season has been mind-boggling, both in how good it has been and how unlikely it has been. Currently his strand rate is through the roof at 91%+, which is unbelievable considering the mediocrity of the Twins pen (75% is roughly league average). His average on balls in play is at a ridiculously low .136, meaning that just about every ball that hitters have made contact with has found a glove at the end of its journey. His strikeout rate is down by a full percentage point and his walk rate is up by nearly a full percentage point. The swinging strike rate is down and the zone contact rate is up, all of which means that he’s not fooling hitters. What is saving him so far is a slightly lower HR/FB and a hard contact rate slightly down. Now it could be that he is mastering the art of avoiding hard contact but I’m dubious one can avoid it this much. There are simply too many factors weighing in the opposite direction. The interesting thing to watch will be if the correction occurs slowly over a number of “unlucky” starts, or whether it will be sudden and greatly unpleasant.