JA Happ is deserving of a spot on your roster

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Dan Hamilton (USA Today)

Which pitcher has the 18th lowest ERA since 2015, with a minimum of 400 innings pitched? Any guesses? JA  Happ you say? Wrong, it’s Indians hurler Carlos Carrasco. But Happ and his 3.43 ERA come in 19th, bookended by the aforementioned Carrasco and Johnny Cueto at 20th, impressive company to say the least.

Hold on a second. You’re saying that JA Happ, the 35-year old guy that pronounces his acronym’d name “Jay” instead of “J.A.”, has been the 19th best run preventer in baseball for the last three years?  Ahead of names like Stroman, Gray, Tanaka and Archer? Yes, that is what I’m saying. Check Fangraphs if you don’t believe me.

JA Happ, despite his #1-2 level starter performance over the last three years, doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. Take this example. When I justified my drafting of Happ in the 21st round in my fantasy league by saying he would help anchor my pitching staff, my league mate said, “I  didn’t think Ian Happ could pitch”?

Happ 2015

To get a flavor for what I’m talking about, let’s compare Happ’s stats over the last three MLB seasons to two mystery pitchers. This type of blind trial can help us shed our preconceptions about players and get to the brass tacks – their production. In 511 innings in that span Happ has produced a 3.43 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. Mystery Pitcher 1 has pitched a similar amount of innings to Happ and totaled a 3.52 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. Pitcher 2 has shown to be more durable, averaging over 200 innings per season, and comes in at a 3.55 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. From a run and base runner prevention standard, the pitchers are virtually identical.

Yet their draft positions, as reported by FantasyPros, are not. Pitchers 1 and 2 are being taken in the sixth to seventh rounds in drafts, right alongside bats like Daniel Murphy, Robinson Cano, Wil Myers and AJ Pollock. Happ is being drafted in the 240s on average, surrounded by such esteemed hitting talent as Todd Frazier, Ryon Healy and Marcus Semien. Doesn’t that differential seem a bit curious when considering the seemingly identical production of Happ compared to the mystery pitchers?

Now there’s certainly more to being a pitcher than just ERA and WHIP, and we can only rely so much on a data set that includes 2015 figures. After all, John Lackey and his 3.49 ERA / 1.25 WHIP since 2015 would compare favorably to Happ and the mystery pitchers, and I certainly wouldn’t advocate targeting him in fantasy. So with that let’s check out an expanded set of statistics that focuses on 2017 performance.

Happ looks great from an ERA perspective here, as the mystery pitchers above came in Happ 2017well above 4.00 on the run prevention front compared to Happ’s 3.53 ERA in 2017. All three compare about evenly on FIP and xFIP metrics, while Happ’s WHIP is a bit worse. Happ struck out more batters per nine than Pitcher 1 but less than Pitcher  2, however Pitcher 2’s strikeout rate last year was a bit of an aberration. All three pitchers have above average to good control and come in with K/BB ratios north of 3.00.

Each pitcher is roughly average at inducing ground balls, with Happ having the slight edge of the three at 46.9%. All three are also good at inducing soft contact, with Happ falling in between Pitcher 1’s 23.9% and 2’s 18.2%. Happ’s swinging strike rate of 9.4% and Pitcher 1’s of 9.5% are right around league average for a starter,  while Pitcher 2 lags behind at 8.4% (thus the fluky nature of his 9.87 K/9).

If you couldn’t tell, these pitchers had very similar 2017’s by a host of surface level and underlying pitcher metrics. Yet their draft positions diverge markedly. Happ is being selected as an also-ran and is owned in only 51% of ESPN leagues, while fantasy managers are  forgoing serious offensive talent to select the mystery pitchers. What gives?

I  suspect some of it has to do with Happ’s age. At 35.45 years old, Happ is an old geezer by the standards of the mystery pitchers. Having made his MLB debut all the way back in 2007, and first gaining fantasy relevance in 2009, Happ’s name suffers from a certain degree of a fantasy fatigue. Another thing that hurts Happ’s popularity is his odd career trajectory. He came out guns blazing  in 2009 and 2010 with the Phillies, but spent the next five years struggling with injuries and hopping from franchise to franchise. It wasn’t until Happ’s Cy Young-caliber, 20-win 2016 season that he began to show up on the radar again. But fantasy owners have short memories, and after some injuries sidelined Happ in the middle of 2017, people quickly forgot about him again.

Another issue likely revolves around Happ’s seemingly pedestrian pitch arsenal. Happhapp mix throws the kitchen sink at hitters, using a full five pitch mix and failing to dazzle, at least on the surface, with  any of them. His four-seam fastball, which was used 42% of the time in 2017, averages a decent but hardly noteworthy 92.9 MPH. His sinker, at 29.1% usage, is a passable 91.0 MPH and is mainly used to induce groundballs. His off-speed stuff, which he throws 28% of  the time, is pedestrian. His slider only induces a whiff 8.8% of the time, and his curve, while effective, is thrown in only one out of 20 tries.

So Happ’s old, has been around the block, doesn’t throw hard and has mediocre off-speed stuff? No wonder no one cares.

But take another look at the pitch mix table, particularly his four-seam fastball. While it doesn’t dazzle with speed, Happ manages to induce a whiff on 12.8% of those pitches. That’s actually an elite rate.  Happ’s whiffs per swing on his four-seam fastball of 27.7% in 2017 was the fourth best among MLB starters, trailing only Jacob deGrom, Rich Hill and Danny Salazar. Other names in the top 10 included Chris Sale, Jimmy Nelson, Yu Darvish and Robbie Ray. That’s good company.

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Source: Baseball Prospectus

Happ is known for having a deceptive delivery, which likely contributes to why hitters have difficulty picking up a fastball that struggles to top 95 MPH. He does most of his damage up in the zone with the pitch, earning whiff rates comfortably above 20% in the upper-third of the strike zone. Hitters also can’t seem to help themselves when Happ elevates the pitch further, with whiff rates ranging from 16% to 37% directly above the zone.

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Whiff Rate on four-seam fastballs

Although it’s strange to say given his mediocre velocity, Happ’s “out-pitch” is his four-seam fastball. Through some combination of deception, location and sequencing, he’s able to get MLB hitters to swing and miss at it consistently. While Happ’s reliance on high fastballs might seem like a dangerous approach to baseball traditionalists, it’s actually a smart strategy given how hitters are revamping their swing planes to more of an uppercut trajectory. These new swings are great at hitting pitches in the lower to middle part of the zone out of the ballpark, but they’re awkward in dealing with letter high offerings.

But Happ also has yet another plus pitch. The sinker, while generating a roughly average 6.9% whiff rate, is a real worm-burner, getting groundballs on 62.4% of balls in play. It also induces weak contact, as Happ held hitters to a paltry 347 slugging against on the sinker in 2017.

While his four-seamer resides in the upper realms of the strike zone, Happ buries his sinker in the bottom third of the zone or below it completely. Impressively, Happ is able  to induce a swing on over one-third of his sinkers below the strike zone. This leads to a lot of weak contact and helps explain the favorable groundball rate and slugging against he’s able to garner.

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Swing rate on sinkers

But just how good is getting opposing batters to swing at one-third of your low-balled sinkers? If you’re like me, and relatively unfamiliar with swing rates on sinkers below the strike zone, you don’t have much of a clue. That’s where context helps. Let’s look at  the master of sinker-induced, low-zone weak contact – Dallas Keuchel.

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Swing rate on sinkers

Hot damn! Happ is  better than Keuchel at getting hitters to swing at his low sinkers! Bet you weren’t expecting that.

Bringing this all together, Happ has two plus pitches, a four-seam fastball and a sinker, that he throws over 70% of the time. These pitches are effective in different ways. The fastball generates a disproportionate amount of swings and misses and serves as a real out pitch for Happ, however it’s prone to getting hit hard and in the air. Happ complements the fastball with a sinker that sits low in the zone, or out of the zone completely, and generates a lot of weak groundballs. While his secondary offerings are average at best, Happ’s dominance on hard stuff more than overcompensates. Also, look out if he starts throwing his curveball more, as that pitch has shown positive results over the years despite being seldom used.

When you combine Happ’s impressive boxcar stat performance, with his plus ERA, impressive amount of wins and adequate strikeout rate, with an understanding of what makes him stick on the mound, the only real conclusion one can draw is that he’s tremendously undervalued. This isn’t simply an old vet getting a bit lucky. He has some real, discernible skills behind his 3.43 three-year ERA. Grab him late, or pick him up off waivers, and profit.

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A deeper look at Scott Kingery and why he has underrated fantasy value

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Cheryl Pursell

I know what you’re thinking – “oh boy, another Scott Kingery article”? The 23-year old second baseman went from a relative nobody heading into 2017 to Philadelphia’s top prospect and everyone’s favorite fantasy sleeper heading into 2018. Now search ‘Scott Kingery’ and you will be inundated with new articles every day heaping unbridled praise on the top second base prospect in baseball according to MLB.com.

But I promise this article is a bit different – sort of. Instead of spilling significant ink on Kingery’s re-tooled swing and breakout 2017 season, I want to focus on what really makes him an intriguing fantasy player this year. He’s on most astute manager’s radars right now, but I suspect few truly understand just how valuable he might be when he sticks on Phillies’ roster.

In terms of Kingery’s background, I’ll give the highlights for the uninitiated: Kingery, at 5’10”, 185lbs, does not look like your prototypical power hitter. Nor did he play like one through his first two years in the Phillies minor league system, accruing isolated slugging percentages of 087 to 117 in stops at A, high-A and AA in 2015 and 2016. Then, after taking the advice of hitting instructor Richard Schenck, Kingery made a swing adjustment that improved his timing. The results were startling, as Kingery smacked a 304 / 359 / 530 batting line between AA and AAA last season with 26 home runs, 29 doubles and eight triples last season. He went from a nobody to the best second base prospect in baseball, and is now following that up with 390 / 419 / 732 line in Spring Training.

Thus the newfound hype in traditional and fantasy baseball circles. However, beyond the impressive power bat from the middle infield, there are three distinct factors that make Kingery a terrific player to follow as a traditional baseball fan and roster as a fantasy manager. Let’s take a look at them.

The Phillies might actually be good

Philadelphia, despite ownership of a 66-96 2017 record and consecutive losing seasons since 2013, seems intent on competing now. Over the off-season they signed 31-year old first baseman Carlos Santana to a three-year $60 million contract, despite already having natural first basemen Rhys Hoskins and Tommy Joseph on the roster.  Earlier this month they signed veteran hurler Jake Arrieta to a three-year, $75 million contract. These are moves indicative of a team that expects to win in 2018, not five years down the road.

Factoring in the Arrieta signing, Fangraphs currently projects the Phillies for a 75-87 record in 2018. While that’s a far cry from the 89-73 projection for the Nationals, or even the 82-80 projection for the Mets, Philadelphia could easily outperform given all of the young players slotting in prominent roles. Catcher Jorge Alfaro, outfielder Nick Williams, shortstop JP Crawford and Kingery are projected for a combined WAR of 2.1. If I were a betting man – and I am on weekends – I would take the over on that.

A competitive team will increase the odds that Kingery sticks with the club out of camp or receives an early season call-up. Philadelphia has been notoriously patient with their top prospects in the past (see Rhys Hoskins, who might have been in the MLB one year sooner on different clubs), a strategy partially related to refraining from wasting the efforts of a young player on a deadbeat MLB squad. A competitive Philadelphia Phillies will also increase the likelihood that a productive Kingery leapfrogs a struggling positional incumbent, be it Cesar Hernandez at second, Freddy Galvis at short JP Crawford at short or Mikael Franco at third, for a starting role. Philadelphia isn’t going to have a long leash with their legacy players when they’re trying to compete.

On top of that, new Philadelphia manager Gabe Kapler seems to really like Kingery, which is always a good thing in terms of potential playing time for a young player. Kapler beamed, “[I’m] absolutely enthused by Scott Kingery. We were talking about the player plan meetings…I was sharing with you guys that we have these guys come in for player-plan meetings…he came in and devoured the information that we gave him. He’s successful on the bases, he drives the ball to the middle of the field, he drives the ball to those alleys, he gets good jumps, he’s professional, he’s prepared. I ask him ‘Hey, Scotty, can you play different positions on the field and how would you feel about that?’ [He] absolutely can play center, [he] can play short.” The last point Kapler touched upon – Kingery’s versatility – leads us to another pro-Kingery factor.

He can play anywhere on the diamond

Kingery is a second baseman by trade, but has the athleticism and attitude to play a variety of roles on the field. Last year Kingery played games at third base and shortstop with AAA Lehigh Valley. Thus far in spring training he’s played innings at third, short and center field.

The value of Kingery’s versatility crops up in several ways. First, it will allow him to gain consistent MLB at bats out of the gate. One complaint regarding Kingery’s fantasy viability is the lack of an immediate spot for him in the lineup. Kingery’s trademark keystone position is currently occupied by a deceptively productive Cesar Hernandez, who is only 27 years old and has earned a 7.6 WAR over the last two years. It’s difficult to see Hernandez ceding reps, even for a player with as much potential as Kingery.

But shortstop is another story. Freddy Galvis is a great fielder but truly awful at the plate, with a career 75 wRC+ JP Crawford is a highly touted prospect that, until late last year, packed a meek stroke in the high minors. I could easily see Kingery taking significant at bats away from Galvis Crawford is the latter struggles at the plate. Third baseman Mikael Franco, though still only 25, has regressed significantly since his hot 2015 debut. He was a 76 wRC+ and negative WAR player last year, presenting another position for Kingery to pilfer at bats or simply steal them all.

The beauty in all of this, outside of easy of at bats for Kingery, is its effect on his fantasy versatility. Kingery is heading into the season with second base eligibility in tow, but we know that he won’t play much there. It’s conceivable that by season’s end Kingery has eligibility at short and third as well, and possibly an outfield position. That type of flexibility is invaluable in fantasy, particularly formats that don’t have utility or generic infield and outfield spots. I’ll go out on a limb and guarantee he has 2B / SS / 3B / CF quadfecta next to his name in Yahoo fantasy leagues, which only require five in-season games, by September.

How about them steals?

For all the discussion that Kingery’s power surge received in 2017, there was surprisingly little talk of the 29 bags he swiped across both his minor league stops. Kingery stole those bases in a mere 34 attempts, a robust 85% success ratio. His stolen base count becomes even more impressive when considering that his extra-base hit ratio (XBH/AB) increased from 8.2% to 11.6% from 2016 to 2017. While extra-base hits are great for overall run production, they’re not great for generating steals.

Outside of a handful, I suspect most of Kingery’s 34 steal attempts came after his 104 singles or 41 walks. This means that he was attempting a steal close to one out of every five times he reached first. Some players are efficient base stealers because they pick their spots, however Kingery swiped bags even when the opposition was expecting it, a sign that he can carry the talent to the majors.

As additional support for his speed, note that Kingery displayed base stealing profligacy in previous seasons. He swiped 30 out of 37 in a full minor league season in 2016 and 11 out of 12 in only 66 games in 2015. He also has 13 triples across his two and one half season minor league career.

The ZiPS projection system tabs Kingery for 20 steals across 130 MLB games this season. The other prognostication measures have him playing way less games but ultimately come to a similar steal per PA ratio. I think that’s a conservative estimate. Although it’s tough to know how Kapler, an analytically inclined manager, will set the stolen base agenda, it appears like he has the utmost confidence in Kingery and loves his aggressiveness. I think 25 steals, which would have had him in the top 10 of MLB base stealers last year, is a reasonable expectation for Kingery so long as he is called up by mid-April.

Putting it all together

Kingery is a player who will be eligible at at least three fantasy positions in short order and is a threat to steal 25 bases. That, right there, makes him immensely valuable. Adding the power he’s shown in the minors in 2017 and this spring to the mix should get fantasy owners salivating at the prospect of owning him. However, remarkably, Kingery’s ADP is 369 and he’s owned in only about 10% of leagues.

I suspect ownership is low because owners look at the Phillies’ infield depth chart and think serious at bats are a long way off. If the Phillies were in a different position, and clearly still a year away from being serious about contending, I would kind of get that. But their recent moves, and their manager’s unbridled praise for Kingery, makes me extremely bullish on the prospect of him making the club either out of Spring Training or immediately after the April 13th cutoff for extending team control another season. From there I think Kingery will earn a starting gig by mid-May and be a perennial 25/25 threat for years to come. Use a late round draft pick on him and you won’t be sorry.

Is Matt Davidson just one adjustment away?

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Lisa Blumenfeld (Getty Images)

Perhaps it’s a miracle that people are even talking about Matt Davidson in late March 2018, just days before his 27th birthday. The right-handed hitting third baseman spent the better part of eight years in the minors prior to getting his first real taste of MLB action last year with the White Sox. Along the way there were numerous points where Davidson seemed destined to spend the remainder of his professional career taking bus trips to cities like Lehigh Valley and Gwinnett.

Davidson was drafted in the first round by Arizona all the way back in 2009, and it took him four years to record his first MLB at bats (all 76 of them) with the Diamondbacks in 2013. Davidson was then dealt to the White Sox after the 2013 season and spent two full seasons in Triple AAA with the Charlotte Knights in 2014 and 2015.

Davidson’s career appeared to be sputtering at this point, as the formerly adept minor league hitter posted back-to-back seasons with wRC+ scores well below 100. His batting average over those two years was a meager .201 and his slugging percentages were struggling to reach the high 300s. But fortunately something clicked for Davidson in 2016. His strikeout rate went down, power went up and overall production soared, with a 128 wRC+ in 326 plate appearances in the first half with Charlotte.

Davidson’s strong play was rewarded with a mid-season call-up to Chicago. His debut came in a June 30th game against Minnesota. Davidson earned a hit on his second at bat and, while rounding first base, tripped and broke his right foot. Out of the rest of the season. Ouch.

After an off-season of recovery Davidson came to 2017 spring training with something to prove and earned a starting spot out of the gate. He then proceeded to dazzle (/befuddle) with one of the most all or nothing approaches in all of baseball. The guy swung hard. When he made contact, the ball went far, evidenced by his 26 home runs in 443 plate appearances. But he didn’t make contact nearly enough, with the second highest strikeout rate in baseball at 37.2%.

Players like Chris Davis and Joey Gallo strike out a ton but manage to maintain productivity by walking a lot. Not Davidson. His walk rate was a measly 4.3%, and his 0.12 BB/K ratio was the second worst in baseball behind teammate Tim Anderson. When you rarely walk and strike out a ton, you need to be really good at something else. Fortunately Davidson is really good at making at hitting the ball hard when he does hit it.

Davidson’s 38.2% hard hit rate was 43rd among 216 hitters (~80th percentile) with at least 400 plate appearances last year. More impressively, his barrel rate per batted ball event of 15.4% was ninth among hitters with at least 100 batted balls. That, combined with his 46.5% flyball rate last season, led to a lot of hits to deep parts of the ballpark.

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Baseball Savant (Guaranteed Rate Field Overlay)

As we can see by the above spray chart, Davidson didn’t have very many cheapies. Most of his 26 home runs cleared the fence with room to spare, and he had quite a few warning track flies that could have been something more if the weather conditions or the stadium were slightly different. Over a full season of plate appearances I would feel confident in projecting Davidson for 35 home runs (he was on pace for 37 over 630 plate appearances last season) given his inclination for flyballs and the authority with which he hits the ball.

Davidson is definitely a subscriber to the “flyball revolution”, highlighted by players changing their swing plane to induce more flyballs. They often accomplish this by shifting their swings to an uppercut trajectory, thus increasing the launch angle of the ball off the bat. The upshot to this method is that it allows players to drive pitches in the middle to lower part of the strike zone out of the ballpark. Fangraphs writer Jeff Sullivan discovered that all of the home run gains in 2016 compared to 2008-15 came in the middle to lower part of the strike zone, while home runs per swing actually decreased in the upper third of the plate.

This is pretty logical. Taking an uppercut swing approach will naturally take the path of the bat through the lower part of the zone. However, it can potentially make hitting pitches up in the zone more awkward.

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Matt Davidson is a test case example of this phenomenon. The still image to your right is how Davidson typically finishes his swing, with the bat head far above his own head. Davidson hit a home run against the Chicago Cubs earlier this spring displaying a perfect example of his signature swing. This home run from last season is another great example. Notice that, in addition to his uppercut swing, Davidson brings his hands back as the ball is being delivered. This motion creates additional torque and allows for greater force at the point of impact.

Let’s take a look at Davidson’s distribution of home runs around the plate last season. The below image is from the catcher’s perspective:

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Notice how 23 of Davidson’s 26 home runs came in the lower two thirds of the strike zone. One came in the upper third! In particular, Davidson displayed a distinct inability to homer on up-and-in pitches, going 0/14. Theoretically this makes perfect sense, as it would be very difficult to hit a high and tight fastball with a looping, uppercut swing.

It’s here where the problems in Davidson’s approach develop. Not only is he not generating power on pitches up in the zone, he is often not hitting them at all. Based on the image below, Davidson’s whiff rate is healthily above 20% in each quadrant in the upper third of the strike zone as well as the areas directly above the strike zone. Conversely, he is fairly adept at making contact at pitches low in the zone, particularly those on the inside part of the plate.

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Recall that Davidson had the second worst strikeout rate in baseball last season. The reasons why are starting to become clear: he can’t hit pitches up in the strike zone. More specifically, he can’t hit fastballs thrown up in the zone.

That’s kind of funny to think about it, because high fastballs are usually thought of as some of the easiest pitches to crank out of the yard. Quite the opposite for Davidson. He whiffed on 17% of fourseamers thrown his way in 2017 and had a brutal 161 batting average and 329 slugging percentage against them. When you combine that with already above average whiff rates on breaking pitches, you get a hitter that is really making life difficult for himself.

Davidson is a very one dimensional hitter. At one point he learned that selling out for hard contact on pitches low in the zone was an easy way to get home runs. Kudos to him, because not every player can do that. However, at his current strikeout and walk rates, Davidson is not a viable MLB hitter, even with his 35-home run power (his wRC+ last year was 83). He needs to bring that BB/K ratio from the low 0.10s to 0.25-0.30 range before being taken seriously overall and in fantasy.

I don’t suspect that a swing overhaul will do Davidson much good. He’s been a high strikeout rate, high flyball guy going well back into his minor league years. But a keener eye at the plate could do him wonders. While he’ll always struggle with fastballs in the upper third of the zone, he needs to start laying off the ones that are would-be balls. Consider that in the quadrants directly above the strike zone, Davidson swung at 66 of 119 pitches in 2017. That’s a chase rate of 55%. Turning those inevitable swinging strikes into balls would help his plate discipline immeasurable, and likely result in better pitches to hit later in the at bat.

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To leave this post with a hopeful tinge, Davidson is having an insane spring training. In 60 plate appearances over 17 games he’s slashing 358 / 433 / 679 and he leads the league with 18 RBIs. Most importantly, his plate discipline looks good with only 12 strikeouts (20% rate) and seven walks (12%). Considering that there wasn’t a single 17-game stretch where Davidson’s strikeout rate went below 25% last year, I’m hopeful that he’s turned the corner somewhat.

If Davidson can bring his strikeout rate down the to 30% range, and bump his walks into the high single digits, he becomes a very intriguing fantasy player, as few can inflict damage to baseballs like he can. Think Khris Davis-like upside if everything goes well. Otherwise he’s the AL version of Keon Broxton, just without the speed. Interested fantasy minds should track his plate discipline going forward, particularly on pitches above the zone. If Davidson is going to improve his game, it will have to come there.

What to make of Travis R. Shaw?

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Charles LeClaire (USA Today Sports)

Heading into 2017 third baseman Travis Shaw was as off the radar as a flight in the mid-Atlantic. After an exciting 226 at-bat, 13 home run debut with the Red Sox in 2015, Shaw was granted the starting third base job for the 2016 season. Unfortunately he regressed significantly, hitting only 16 home runs in an entire season’s worth of at bats and displaying a puny 89 wRC+ and 421 slugging percentage. At that point Shaw was already written off by most fantasy managers. Matters got worse when the Red Sox, who had no other viable options at third on the MLB roster, traded Shaw to the Brewers for a reliever with elbow issues, a move that essentially said “Travis, you’re bad, we don’t want you.”

Boy did Boston look silly. While the Red Sox had the worst production from third base in the league through the all-star break, the 27-year old Shaw was a revelation in Milwaukee, showing increased power, speed and patience on the way to an end of season triple slash line of 273 / 349 / 513. Shaw ended up with 31 home runs, 101 RBIs and 10 steals, accumulating one of the most well-rounded fantasy performances of any third baseman. In my ESPN league that counts R / HR / RBI / TB / SB / OBP as offensive stats, Shaw ranked as the fifth most productive third baseman on the player rater.

A keener eye at the plate

After Shaw’s meager hitting 2016 season the last thing most people expected was a robust 69 extra-base hits and across the board improvement in rate and counting stats in 2017. What prompted this exciting change? The reasons are threefold.

First, and perhaps most importantly, Shaw’s plate discipline improved significantly. In this era of launch angles and exit velocity the fundamentals of taking walks and avoiding strikeouts can get lost in the shuffle, however bettering one’s walk to strikeout ratio is still the most direct and impactful way to improve aptitude at the plate. And that’s precisely what Shaw did, improving his BB/K ratio from 0.32 in both 2015 and 2016 to 0.42 last season, a 33% relative improvement.

Shaw achieved this by taking a more measured approach. He cut down on swings on pitches outside of the zone from 32.7% to 29.3%.  As a result, his swinging strike rate went down from 10.7%, roughly average in this day and age, to an impressive 8.9%. A walk rate nearing 10% and a strikeout rate in the low 20% range will play all day in the 2018 MLB, so good on Shaw for making the adjustments necessary to get there. One additional point to consider is that Shaw was a very patient hitter in the minors, routinely scoring BB/K ratios well above 0.50. Sometimes it takes a hitter some time to get acclimated to major league pitching.

Power surge!

The second change was an increase in power hitting when the lefty-swinging Shaw did put the ball in play. Interestingly, this increased power story isn’t written by the “he hit more flyballs” approach common in today’s game. Shaw’s flyball rate actually went down significantly, from 44.6% in 2016 to 37.6% in 2017 while his groundball rate rose accordingly. In a vacuum this might be viewed negatively, however consider that Shaw did a lot more with with flyballs in 2017. In particular, Shaw’s hard hit rate on flyballs increased from 35.9% to 45.0%, while his pull rate on flyballs increased from 25.6% to 33.1%.

In terms of power hitting, pulled flyballs are the best type. Particularly hard hit, pulled flyballs. The changes in hard hit and pull rate are evident in Shaw’s 1.278 OPS on flyballs in 2017 compared to 915 in 2016. His flyball BABIP actually went down from .150 to .132 year to year, so the improvement came from turning fly outs and doubles into home runs.

Some might look at Shaw’s HR/FB rate, which increased from 10.3% to 20.5%, with skepticism. But consider a couple things. First, improved batted ball authority and pull frequency on flyballs will naturally increase the amount that leave the yard. Second, Shaw made a transition from a park with the worst home run factor in right field in baseball in Fenway to much friendlier confines in Milwaukee. Take a look at Shaw’s spray chart from last year set to Miller Park on the left and Fenway on the right.

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Source: Baseball Savant (Fenway)

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Source: Baseball Savant (Miller)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Immediately we notice that Shaw hit a lot of bombs last year – homers that cleared the fence with room to spare. That’s a good thing in terms of his odds at replicating the improvement in HR/FB rate. The other thing to take note of is how much Fenway could have stifled his home run production. I count seven to eight home runs that might have been doubles or fly outs in the spacious Fenway right field (admittedly, I don’t know which balls were hit home and away, so there is a bit of projection in this). Granted, Shaw would have earned more hits opposite field, but I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the move to Miller helped him a lot. The numbers bear it out too, with his HR/FB rate at home increasing from 8.5% in 2016 to 15.0% in 2017.

Sir, how fast where you going?

Shaw, at a hefty 6’4″, 230lbs, certainly doesn’t seem like your prototypical base stealer. He sits in the bottom quartile of MLBers in Statcast’s sprint speed metric, right around the likes of Rhys Hoskins, Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday. So yeah, he’s not fast.

But somehow he managed to go a perfect 10/10 on steals last year. The previous year in Boston he went 5/6 and he’s an impressive 15/17 on his MLB career. In the minors Shaw went an okay but not great 29/40. Some players, despite lacking for foot speed, are adept at picking their spots and getting a good read on the pitcher. Shaw seems like one of those players. I didn’t have the time to look this up, but given that Craig Counsell’s Brewers have been the most aggressive team on the basepaths in baseball, I wouldn’t be surprised if Shaw was on first for a bunch of double steal opportunities, thus granting him easy access to a steal.

Shaw is never going to be a guy who you can bank on double digit steals from, but I think a floor of five with the upside of 11-12 is a reasonable expectation. Given the dearth of steals in fantasy these days, a guy sneakily capable of producing a 30 home run, 10 steal season is very valuable.

What to expect this year

Shaw’s gains last season came largely from underlying adjustments in his approach. He swung at less bad pitches and subsequently reduced his strikeout rate. He also made a concerted effort to make better contact on pitches in the zone than simply selling out for flyballs. This led to an end of season stat line that looks repeatable to me. His HR/FB rate around 20% is probably appropriate for a player of his size and strength as well as his improved flyball batted ball metrics. His BABIP has consistently hovered in the low 300s throughout his career, and also seems repeatable going forward because of his higher groundball rate last season.

On top of that, the Brewers improved markedly over the offseason by adding Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich to an already stout offense. This should only serve to benefit Shaw, with more runners on base to drive-in and more turns in the batting order because of it.

Perhaps I’m bullish, but I’m seeing an 85 / 35 / 100 / 8 / 275 season from Shaw. He’s currently the 88th player off the draft board according to FantasyPros, which is curious to me since ESPN has him ranked 105th. Somewhere around 90 is an appropriate draft position (7th-8th round), and if you manage to snag him after that then it’s gravy.

Two bargain fantasy targets on the underrated Toronto Blue Jays

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Nathan Denette (The Canadian Press)

The Toronto Blue Jays were all the rage two years ago. The team won 182 games between 2015 and 2016 and appeared in back-to-back ALCS’.  The heart of their batting order was filled with a murderers row for the ages, with Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista putting the fear of god into pitchers. Their pitching staff was bolstered by two young righties in Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez that looked destined to be baseball’s next dynamic duo.

But then Encarnacion left for the Indians after 2016. Jose Bautista cratered in 2017 and is no longer with the team. Sanchez has dealt with injury issues. And just like that, the former envy of the AL went from the ALCS to a 76-86 record last season. The departures of key players and the persistent injury issues with their remaining ones have put a cloud over the team, which is causing a lot of fantasy baseball owners to overlook what is still a very interesting team.

Although he was mired in trade rumors for much of the offseason, Josh Donaldson and his record-setting $23 million arbitration contract are back for another season in Toronto. Donaldson posted the best wRC+ in baseball over the final two months of the season and looks set to battle for another MVP this year.

To complement their 32-year slugger, Toronto made a series of smart, under the radar acquisitions over the offseason. With several significant holes in their outfield, Toronto traded for power hitting outfielder Randal Grichuk from St. Louis. They also signed veteran Curtis Granderson to supply some patience and more lefty power to their lineup. The Blue Jays also bolstered their infield depth by trading for the underrated contact-machine Yangervis Solarte from San Diego and shortstop Aledmys Diaz from St. Louis. While none of these moves seem overly impressive on their own, the aggregate effect will be significant. FanGraphs currently has Toronto projected for an 84-78 record this season with the fifth most runs scored in baseball.

Toronto should be on the radar of fantasy owners since all of their players are undervalued right now. Below I will talk about two guys in particular, Randal Grichuk and Devon Travis, who are going undrafted in most leagues and have the potential to provide significant surplus value.

Randal Grichuk (OF)8% Yahoo / 13 % ESPN

Randal Grichuk is kind of like Taco Bell. Grichuk is known for his strikeouts and lack of consistent playing time in St. Louis; Taco Bell for serving Grade D meat. But in both cases, when you take a deeper look, things don’t appear so bad. Taco Bell is now the the healthiest fast food chain and Grichuk has a new lease on life in the Toronto Blue Jays outfield.

Grichuk, 26, spent the last four seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, looking great at times and horrible at others. The logjam of outfielders in St. Louis cost him playing time, and things looked even worse after the Cards acquired Marcell Ozuna from the Marlins. Fortunately, a mid-January trade to the Blue Jays opens the door for Grichuk to get 600+ plate appearances for the first time in his career.

Grichuk’s MLB batting line to date is 249 / 297 / 488. What does an above average slugging percentage combined with a sub-300 on-base percentage typically mean? You guessed it – a power hitter who strikes out a ton and barely takes a walk. Grichuk’s career 29.9% strikeout rate is over 5.5x higher than his 5.8% walk rate. We don’t need to look far to find out the reasons, as Grichuk swings at a lot of pitches outside the zone and has trouble making contact in the zone as well. His 35.5% career outside swing rate compares to the MLB average of 29.9% last season, while his zone contact rate of 81.8% trails the MLB average of 85.5%. All of that combines for an unsightly 14.7% career swinging strike rate and a lot of resulting Ks.

That type of K/BB ratio makes it hard for a hitter to be valuable. They need to be VERY good in another quality – whether it be power or speed or both – to make up glass ceiling of a sub 0.20 BB/K ratio. Fortunately Grichuk has very good, if not elite power, a fact obscured by his lack of playing time to date and corresponding career high of only 24 home runs.

To put some numbers to it: Grichuk is 15th in the majors over the last three years (min. 1,000 PA) in isolated slugging percentage at 247, ahead of names like Rizzo, Bryant, Sano and Goldschmidt.  He’s 12th in hard hit rate over the same span. And he also ranked seventh last season in barreled balls per plate appearance at 9.5%. Clearly, when Grichuk does make contact with the baseball, he hits it hard and far. As it stands, he’s a top 10-15 hitter of the baseball when he makes contact, and a fact that should grab the attention of fantasy owners.

Even assuming no improvement in Grichuk’s overall approach, and relying strictly on his career averages, he’s an 80 R / 30 HR / 80 RBI /  5 SB fantasy player in a full season (630 PA). The 249 career average is a bit of a drag, but if he can figure things out a bit on the swing and miss front that will improve along with the rest of his counting stats. After all, Grichuk is only 26 years old, and has never had the opportunity to to be a definitive starter. The confidence that comes with that can only help with his performance. Additionally, Grichuk’s career splits against lefties and righties are about even, so he’s not at risk of losing at bats on the wrong side of a platoon.

Cutting back the strikeout rate is the rising tide that lifts all boats in fantasy, both on the counting stat and ratio front. If Grichuk can manage that, a 90 / 35 / 90 / 7 / .270 fantasy line should be attainable, which would make him an eighth to 10th round draft talent. Currently he’s owned in less than 15% of leagues and has an ADP north of 300. There is little downside in drafting him late and tons of upside if he can progress.

Devon Travis (2B)2% Yahoo /  6% ESPN

Devon Travis, the diminutive second baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays, has showed serious flashes of talent over his abbreviated three-year MLB career. But unfortunately most baseball fans and fantasy owners know Travis not for his career 292 average and 462 slugging percentage, but for being the arguably the most injured player in baseball since his 2015 debut.

Despite taking his first MLB swings less than three years ago, Travis has had two separate 60-day DL stints as well as another two 15-day DL stints. Shoulder issues, and a subsequent surgery, plagued him in 2015-16, followed by recurring knee issues that cropped up in late 2016 and scuttled most of his 2017 season. As a result, Travis’ fantasy stock heading into the 2018 season is close to an all-time low, with a mere 6% ownership in ESPN leagues and an ADP well into the 300s.

The story of Devon Travis really begins over five years ago. Travis was drafted out of the University of Florida by the Tigers in June 2012 and immediately turned heads in Detroit’s minor league system. He accrued wRC+’s of 135, 160, 174 and 126 at stops from low-A to AA from 2012 to 2014, displaying an impressive combination of plate discipline, batted ball skills and speed. His strikeout rate in the minors never topped 13.6% and his B/KK rate hovered in the 0.75 range, which is elite. Travis was so good that Baseball America tabbed him as the top prospect in the Tigers’ organization following the 2014 season.

Then, in November 2014, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski shipped Travis to Toronto in an inexplicable trade for the light-hitting center fielder Anthony Gose. Travis seized the Blue Jays’ starting second base job out of the following spring training, and so started the story of his injury-riddled career. Gose is now a pitcher in the Texas Rangers’ minor league system.

Travis carried his skills from the minors to the MLB, with a career strikeout rate under 20%, which is well above average in this day and age. While his walk rate leaves a lot to be desired, Travis makes up for it with his batted ball skills, to the tune of a 341 career BABIP.  The low strikeout rate and high BABIP have enabled him to produce a career 292 average, which plays well in traditional scoring fantasy leagues. Now, normally a BABIP in the 340s should arouse caution in the astute fantasy owner, however Travis’ hit it to all fields approach and solid line drive rate provide comfort that the success is repeatable. And although not a flyball hitter by nature, Travis’ barreled balls per plate appearance ranked in the top 70th percentile of MLB hitters last year at 5.1%, showing that he does make solid contact.

The other impressive facet to Travis’ game in the majors thus far is his power. His 24 home runs in 867 career plate appearances prorates to 18 over a full season. Given that his career HR/FB rate is a very reasonable 11.2% there shouldn’t be much concern in that figure regressing. For a near-300 hitter to hit around 20 home runs in a season is a boon from the middle infield in fantasy circles.

Travis underwent offseason surgery for his knee issue and is by all accounts fully healthy this spring, logging significant time in the field and a 500 slugging percentage in 26 at-bats. There is also talk around the Blue Jays that Travis is slotted as the lead-off hitter to open the season. This would do wonders for Travis’ fantasy value, as his PAs would increase and he’d have the opportunity to hit in front of perennial MVP candidate Josh Donaldson. If Travis can spend a good portion of the season at the top of Toronto’s batting order, which of course implies good health, a 90 R / 20 HR / 75 RBI / 8 SB / 300 AVG fantasy line is in the cards for the once top prospect.

How to master SV+HD leagues, plus some off the board relievers for your consideration

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Ken Blaze (USA Today Sports)

Fantasy baseball is the intelligent person’s fantasy sport. The plodding, everyday march through the six month marathon that we call a season favors players with the discipline and analytic acumen to play the part of the tortoise rather than the hare. Yet, despite this perspicacious inclination, traditional fantasy baseball circles still subscribe to some very strange and outdated things. Consider that wins, a statistic so laughably random and out of pitcher control that even the baseball press is beginning to abandon its reliance on it, is still a common statistical category in most fantasy leagues. Or how about that saves, a decidedly odd stat when you really think about it, is also standard fare for many leagues.

The save is to relief pitchers what wins are to starting pitchers. A rudimentary but ultimately time-saving way to keep track of player performance. After all, there are over 200 relief pitchers that get regular time in MLB bullpens each season. Relying on the save leaderboard to analyze relievers cuts the player pool down to 30, maybe 35 depending on if some teams employ closer time-shares, a much more manageable sample for analysis.

But we’re fantasy baseball players. We don’t like shortcuts and half truths. Which is why, in my view, any league worth its salt utilizes the ‘saves + holds’ category, rather than just saves. What’s a hold? Well, a hold is kind of like a save, except it can occur in any inning and is thus achievable by the full roster of relief pitchers. The dynamics of roster construction in leagues that utilize the SV+HD category change considerably since a lot of players who contributed 0 in the saves column contribute meaningful totals in the SV+HD column.

The beauty of SV+HD is that, despite making potentially hundreds of new players fantasy relevant, it also still favors the traditional closer that notches 40+ saves per season. This is because the most prolific closers will always earn more saves than the best holdmen. Consider that last year Taylor Rogers led the MLB in holds with 30 while Wade Davis had the 10th most saves with 32. So for those that like the mystique and tradition rooted in the concept of the stopper or fireman, SV+HD still offers something for you.

With my editorial on the coolness of the SV+HD stat category complete, let’s move on to the fun stuff: how to take advantage of this stat category in leagues. The first thing to point out is that managers in SV+HD leagues need to do more due diligence in draft preparation. Why? Because, at least for ESPN leagues, the standard draft table doesn’t adjust for the stat categories your league chooses. As a result, the default player order still lists relief pitchers assuming the league is of the saves-only variety. For instance, Chad Green, who was the ninth most valuable reliever in one of my fantasy leagues last year, is the 40th ranked reliever on ESPN’s draft board. Chris Devenski, the eighth ranked reliever in the same league in 2017, is ranked 37th on ESPN’s draft board. Anthony Swarzak finished 16th but is ranked past 50th.

While, theoretically, every league manager is diligent enough to stick to their own personal rankings and remain unswayed by ESPN’s pre-draft rankings, this is seldom the case in practice. As the draft moves along, it’s difficult to pull the trigger on a player ranked in the 400s when the league is still picking within the first 15 rounds. As a result, stud relievers who are top values in SV+HD leagues end up sliding to the end of the draft or going undrafted completely.

This of course presents opportunity for the enterprising manager. My typical draft strategy is to snag one stud closer, of the Jansen-Chapman-Kimbrel-Osuna variety, and then to completely punt the relief pitcher position until later rounds, where only a few, if any, true closers remain. From there, I fill out reliever slots based on my short list of candidates. Who makes that shortlist?

Remember that since closers earn more saves than other relievers earn holds, middle relievers and set-up men must generate next-level rate stats (ERA, WHIP, BAA, K/9) to overcome that inherent bias in value. The good thing is that there are plenty of relievers who do just that. Last year Chad Green put up a sparkling 0.72 WHIP, edging out Ryan Madson who had a terrific 0.80 showing of his own. Andrew Miller threw the third best reliever ERA at 1.44, while Felipe Rivero came in at 1.67 and Archie Bradley at 1.73.

The trouble is that each 1.50 ERA and 0.75 WHIP isn’t created equally. While a pitcher certainly needs to have a certain level of skill to produce that result, the nature of the small sample of innings that relievers pitch each season usually allows an assortment of players to produce run prevention estimators above their true talent level. For instance, despite his 1.62 ERA in 2017, Matt Albers should not be on your draft board in a SV+HD league.

The best way to start developing your reliever shortlist is to filter by xFIP, a run prevention estimator on an ERA-scale that is based on strikeouts, walks and groundballs. I won’t really consider any middle reliever or set-up man with an xFIP above 3.50 the previous season. There were 55 such relievers last year who pitched a minimum of 15 innings that met that criteria from 2017. From there I look at strikeouts. Both of my fantasy leagues have categories for raw strikeout figures, so I want relievers who a) strikeout a lot of batters on a per inning basis and b) who pitch a lot of innings. The second part is hard to grasp from simply looking at a previous season’s metrics, because injuries, time in the minors and changes in role could make a pitcher’s inning count from one season to the next very unrelated. So let’s focus more on the first part, a pitcher’s ability to strikeout batters on a per inning basis, by cutting out any pitchers with a K/9 below 11.0 (this leaves out a couple interesting names – Ryan Madson, Anthony Swarzak, etc. Feel free to make one-off exceptions).

Now we’re left with 25 arms. You’ll recognize a lot of names on the list as elite closers, like Jansen, Kimbrel, Osuna, Giles, Chapman, Knebel, Hand and Allen. We’re not really interested in these players because they’ll be long gone in the draft by the time we’re looking to round out our fantasy bullpen, so let’s cut out any player that’s not tabbed as their team’s closer to open the 2018 season. That leaves the following 14 names:

Chris Devenski (actually missed the xFIP cut off at 3.51, but had to include him), Chad Green, Andrew Miller, David Robertson, Carl Edwards Jr, AJ Minter, Joe Smith, Tommy Kahnle, Darren O’Day, Brad Boxberger, Kirby Yates, James Hoyt, Drew Steckenrider, Boone Logan, Jesse Chavez and Tim Mayza.

Andrew Miller and David Robertson are the cream of the crop of this group. They are consistent veterans who have put up low ERAs and xFIPs and high K/9 stats for multiple seasons. Both are their team’s primary set-up men, which indicates lots of holds and first dibs at saves in the event of injuries or ineffectiveness to the incumbents. Despite this, ESPN ranks Miller as the 23rd reliever off the board and Robertson the 33rd, yet they were both top 10 relievers in my SV+HD leagues last year. Combining Miller or Robertson with the stud closer you picked earlier in the draft is the start of a great bullpen.

From there Chris Devenski, Chad Green, Carl Edwards Jr, Tommy Kahnle, Darren O’Day and Brad Boxberger represent the next wrung of talent. Virtually all of these players are ranked by ESPN to go undrafted, with raw rankings higher than 300. These players should be good for ~20 holds, plus or minus, along with tremendous strikeout figures and magnifying-glass worthy ERA and WHIP stats. Grab two of them.  Note that in leagues that count raw strikeouts rather than K/9, multiple inning relievers like Devenski and Green have higher value since their innings count enables them to put up truly gaudy strikeout figures. One thing to understand is that when we get to this tier of reliever, who is very good but might not have the long track record of success, or issues with injuries and inconsistency, performances may vary. Prepare for one of the two guys to have issues as some point this year. Don’t worry about it, you likely spent a 24th round pick on them, so you can drop them if need be.

After that are relievers like Kirby Yates, AJ Minter, Tommy Kahnle, James Hoyt and Drew Steckenrider. These guys are ranked a tier lower because they became good out of nowhere (Yates), are young and unproven (Minter and Steckenrider) or could struggle to get holds in a crowded bullpen (Kahnle and Hoyt). These players are dart throw-y, but you don’t need them to light the world on fire, just to come in and get a sub-3.00 ERA with an 11 K/9 and 15-20 holds. Pay special attention to young guys like Minter who could eventually wind up as their team’s closer at some point in the season, as they’ll likely need to be picked earlier in the draft.

All told, if my hypothetical fantasy bullpen heading into 2018 is an assemblage looking like Kenley Jansen, Andrew Miller, Chad Green, Darren O’Day, Kirby Yates and Drew Steckenrider, I am very pleased. I don’t think another bullpen in my league will boast better ERA, WHIP and K/9 figures, and I’ll probably be middle of the pack on the SV+HD front. That’s a top tier bullpen assembled at a fraction of the price. And if the bottom two or three of that bullpen flame out, fear not, there will be another 2017 Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle sitting on waivers to pick up one month into the season.

Let’s talk about Ian Happ, an underrated fantasy player heading into 2018

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Tim Spyers (AP)

The amount of young, MLB-ready talent flowing from the North Side of Chicago over the last three years is a bit overwhelming. Kris Bryant, Wilson Contreras, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez headline an impressive list of names coming out of the Cubs’ minor league system in recent seasons. With so much young talent stealing the headlines it’s easy for certain players to get lost in the shuffle. Ian Happ, despite a strong prospect pedigree and successful professional numbers, is one such player. He’s currently sporting an ADP of 146 according to FantasyPros, which puts him as a 12th to 15th round value depending on league size. Happ, a good bet for 35 home runs and 10 steals with potentially solid run and RBI figures, and additional upside beyond that, is a must-own at that value.

Coming up through the system

The 23-year old Pittsburgh native was picked 9th overall by Chicago in the 2015 MLB draft and immediately acquitted himself to minor league scene, posting an 822 OPS across low-A and A-ball in 2015 with nine home runs in only 251 at bats in pitcher-friendly environments. Happ continued his success in high-A and AA the following year, with an 810 OPS and 15 home runs in similar offense-suppressing ballparks.

Happ’s draft status and early minor league success earned him some fanfare prior to the 2017 season, when Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the 54th best prospect in the game. His stock rose even further a month into the year as he blew the doors off AAA pitching, smacking nine home runs in 116 plate appearances with a 615 slugging rate and 144 wRC+. Despite a crowded roster at the MLB level, Happ forced the Cubs’ hand and received a call-up in mid-May.

One of the reasons the 6’3″, 205lbs Happ earned a promotion is his versatility. Happ took significant reps at second base and all the outfield positions in the minors, putting him in position to slide into a Chicago lineup that looked different nearly every day last year. He could move around positions within games, or start at multiple positions in the same series. This versatility is also valuable in fantasy, since Happ heads into 2018 with second base, left field and center field eligibility in ESPN fantasy formats.

Once in the majors Happ didn’t look back. He parlayed his versatility and power bat into a valuable piece on Chicago’s roster, ending the season with 62 runs, 24 home runs, 68 RBIs, eight steals and an 842 OPS in 413 plate appearances. The switch-hitter displayed serious power, with a 261 isolated slugging percentage that ranked first on the Cubs, above names like Rizzo, Bryant and Schwarber. On top of that, Happ finished in the top 20 in baseball with a barrel on 13.3% of his batted balls, a similar figure to players like Freeman, Donaldson and Trout.

Light tower power

Happ’s calling card is his power. His 24 home runs in an abbreviated MLB year extrapolates to over 35 in a full season. He did that at 22 years old, an age where most hitters are still getting acclimated to the high minors.

Despite throwing right, Happ is a switch-hitting batter who takes his best hacks from the left side of the plate. I’m no expert on swing mechanics, but Happ has one of the sweetest lefty swings in baseball. Take a look at this home run from 2017 Spring Training. Or this one from this year’s Spring Training. He has an upright stance and brings the bat around in a violent, round-house type fashion that unleashes fury on the baseball. It’s a sight to see.

Happ’s HR/FB rate of 25.3% last year seems a bit elevated on the surface, but given his barrel proclivity and surplus medium and hard contact I wouldn’t expect much of a drop off this year. Nearly 40% of Happ’s batted balls were of the flyball variety, and over 30% of his flyballs were pulled, which is a good sign for maintaining an above average HR/FB rate. Happ has the frame, the swing and the historical production to allow me to comfortably project 35 home runs over a full season, which is plus production from anywhere in your lineup, particularly second base.

Don’t forget about that speed

But 35 home runs isn’t what it used to be. 18 players hit that mark last year and far more would have hit it if not for injury or time in the minors. For a player like Happ, who will likely drag on batting average, to provide value they need to produce in other categories. Fortunately Happ has the ability to swipe double digit bases, which, when combined with 35 home runs, begins to form a very intriguing fantasy player.

Happ had eight steals in 12 attempts in his MLB time last season, which projects to 10-12 over a fuller complements of at bats. That wasn’t a one-off thing either, as Happ stole 28 bases in less than 240 minor league games from 2015 to 2017, which is an average of about 18 per 150 game season.

Happ’s sprint speed, as calculated by StatCast, also supports the idea that he is a player capable of swiping double digit bags at the MLB level. He was 35th in the MLB with sprint speed of 28.5ft/sec, sandwiched in between Wil Myers and Andrew McCutchen and even besting Mike Trout! Based on Happ’s minor league steal figures, combined with his major league steal success and overall athletic ability, 10+ steals is easily within reach.

What else is there to know?

Happ crossed home plate 62 times last season and knocked in 68 runs in 413 plate appearances. While we need to be careful projecting run and RBI totals, stats heavily influenced by batting order placement and luck, those figures extrapolate to 93 runs and 102 RBIs in 630 plate appearances. I wouldn’t feel comfortable projecting that performance over a full season in 2018, but given Happ’s power and the offensive ability of his teammates 180 R+RBI is a reasonable expectation.

One issue that Happ struggled with in 2017 was strikeouts. He K’d in 31.2% of his plate appearances and backed that up with a 16.1% swinging strike rate, which was top 10 in baseball. Like a lot of young players, Happ struggled with off-speed pitches, with swinging strike rates above 25% on both sliders and curveballs. Given Happ’s scythe-like swing, I’m not surprised he has issues with contact at times. But on the positive side, Happ never had a strikeout rate about 23.6% in the minors, so I suspect we’ll see the strikeout rate decline below 30% this season, which will help his entire stat-line.

Another concern with Happ is playing time. There’s a lot of language to this point about “extrapolation”, “projection” and “full season”. So we need to ask ourselves: will Happ get over 600 plate appearances on a very crowded Cubs’ roster in 2018? I think he will. Happ’s call-up from the minors last year came after the Cubs had already played 34 games, or 20% of their season. 413 plate appearances over 80% of the season is ~515 over a full year, so it’s not as if Happ was a part-time player last year. He was basically out of the lineup once per week on average after getting called up.

Happ’s competition for playing time mainly consists of Javier Baez, Ben Zobrist and Jayson Heyward. While Baez is a strong young player, he also has a significant platoon split that will prevent him from getting full-time at bats against right-handed pitching. Zobrist has had injury issues this spring and is coming off a career-worst season with a pedestrian 82 wRC+. On top of that Zobrist will turn 37 in June, so one has to wonder just how much time has has left. In terms of Heyward, I don’t know if he’s an MLB-quality hitter any more. He has a wRC+ below 80 in two full seasons with Chicago. While Cubs manager Joe Maddon loves veteran presence and versatility, competition will be stiff in the NL Central this season and something is going to give way if Heyward continues hitting the way he is.

What’s Happ-ening now?

As the cherry on top of my pro-Happ analysis, I’d like to point to his performance this spring. Happ has four home runs and two doubles in 23 plate appearances thus far.  The rate stats are gaudy – 500 OBP, 1.190 SLG and 1.690 OPS. Perhaps most impressively, he only has four strikeouts and a 17.3% strikeout rate. While the sample size is small and we’re only half-way through spring, this type of start from a player with Happ’s ability should turn heads. And, at the very least, it sets the expectation that he should open the MLB season as an everyday player.

A 90 run / 35 home run / 90 RBI / 10 steal / 260 average season is very much in reach for Happ if he can get to 600 plate appearances. He also has the potential to do even more if he can cut down the strikeouts. Take him in the 10th round and take that production, along with his positional flexibility, to the bank.

The importance of swinging strike rate and why I’m buying Dan Straily and Blake Snell

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Kim Klement (USA Today Sports)

On one hand pitching is an extremely complex endeavor, with the prospect of success and failure straddling the finest of lines. The difference between a strike and a ball, or a whiff and a home run, rests on mere inches. Not only that, but if one aspect of the pitcher is amiss, whether it be his arm strength, mental focus or delivery mechanics, the results can be devastating.

But on the other pitching is also very simple. Success as a pitcher really boils down to three things: striking batters out, avoiding walks and keeping the ball on the ground. You can spend days analyzing the minutiae of release points and pitch sequencing, but in the end it’s all for the benefit of getting whiffs, staying in the strike zone and avoiding hard hit fly balls.

Strikeout percentage (strikeouts divided by batters faced) alone explains 50% of starting pitcher ERA (based on a regression analysis run covering starting pitchers from 2015 to 2017). That’s kind of amazing, because strikeout percentage says nothing directly about the quality of contact a pitcher gives up, his ability to pitch through jams and a variety of other more subjective elements of pitcher skill. Yet it still gets us half of the way there in terms of explaining pitcher performance (one thing to note is that strikeout percentage implicitly factors in a pitcher’s efficiency in getting outs, since increasing the denominator, batters faced, would result in a lower percentage).

The diligent fantasy manager will certainly place importance on strikeout percentage when selecting their pitchers. Not only do strikeouts have a tremendous effect on predicting ERA and WHIP, they often have their own statistical category reserved for them in fantasy match-ups. But the trouble with strikeout percentage is twofold: a) it’s probably the first or second stat everyone looks at, so you don’t derive any arbitrage opportunity by evaluating it and b) it’s a stat that can jump around a bit in smaller sample sizes.

For instance, a pitcher might benefit from a string of pitcher-friendly umpires who call a lot of borderline strikes, leading to more strikeouts. Or maybe a pitcher is often paired with a catcher skilled in pitch framing, giving the pitcher a disproportionate share of called strikes and thus strikeouts. In these cases, and as well as out of sheer randomness, looking at strikeout alone can deceive.

That’s where swinging strike rate (SwStr%) comes in. Measured byswstr FanGraphs as swings and misses divided by total pitches, SwStr% is the holy grail of advanced pitching metrics, and a rare case where the stat nerds and the old school baseball geezers see eye to eye on things. Everyone loves the visceral thrill inspired by Corey Kluber inducing a pool noodle hack on his nasty slurveball, right? Well it also turns out that Kluber’s ability to do that is precisely what makes him so good. Kluber led the MLB in SwStrk% last season at 15.6%, and the rest of the top 10 is dotted with names like Max Scherzer, Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw. Needless to say, SwStrk% matters, and it matters a lot.

In fact, by itself, SwStrk% explains 37% of of a pitcher’s ERA. It does this while having little to no relationship with the other primary drivers of ERA, including walk rate, home run rate and batting average on plays in play (BABIP), making it a truly independent and predictive statistic. And because the sample of swinging strikes in a given game is much higher than the sample of strikeouts, it’s a statistic that stabilizes quicker, making it very useful for unearthing pitching talent prior to when the full-scale breakout in strikeouts and ERA occurs.


Now with all that exposition out of the way, let’s take a look at two pitchers who were SwStr% surgers in the second half of 2017 and thus should be on your fantasy radar heading into the 2018 season.

Dan Straily (MIA)

Straily has kicked around for the last two years as a good but not great fantasy option who likely oscillated between last pitcher on the roster and streaming candidate for most managers. Straily was a former top prospect with the Oakland Athletics, where he made his full-time MLB debut with 152 innings in and 3.96 ERA 2013. He battled ineffectiveness the following two seasons and bounced around from the Astros to the Padres to the Reds, where he finally settled down and turned in a decent 2016 season.

Just when Straily was getting used to Cincinnati, he was dealt to the Marlins in January 2017 for Luis Castillo (man, I like Straily, but looks like the Marlins were in the business of making bad trades before Jeter came along…). Going from the band boxy Great American Ballpark to Marlins Park is a great move for a hurler, but Straily’s results were mixed. His ERA / FIP / xFIP slash was a mediocre 4.26 / 4.58 / 4.70, although he did see improvement in his strikeout and walk rates compared to the previous year. Straily also demonstrated an improvement in his SwStr%, which increased from a roughly average 10.2% in 2016 to a top 15 mark of 12.1% last year. Straily’s ability to induce whiffs also got stronger as the reason wore along, with an 11.7% rate in the first half compared to 12.8% in the second half.

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Straily’s 2017 pitch mix, with corresponding whiff rates. (Source: Brooks Baseball)

Straily plies his craft with a four pitch mix that includes a fourseam fastball, slider, change and the occasional curveball. The slider is a definite plus pitch, generating whiffs over 18% of the time it’s thrown and holding hitters to a 389 slugging percentage against. He throws the slider close to 30% of the time but could probably stand to use it more given just how effective it is. Straily’s changeup is also a plus offering, with a SwStr% in the 17-18% range. The fastball is Straily’s weak spot, generating a 500+ SLGA and 250+ isolated slugging against the last two seasons.

Straily, despite his flaws (poor fastball, too many home runs), is a pitcher that could be on the cusp of figuring things out. He has two plus offerings in his slider and changeup and could stand to use them more, creating potential strikeout upside. His home ballpark is also one of the most pitcher friendly in baseball. If things shake right for Straily, I can envision a 3.75 ERA with a 9.0 K/9, which would make him a bargain at his laughably low ADP of 425.

Blake Snell (TBR)

Snell was drafted in 2011 by Tampa and took a methodical path through their minor league system, spending multiple years in rookie ball, A ball and high-A before graduating to the upper minors. Snell really made a name for himself in 2015 when he, across A+, AA and AAA, posted respective ERAs of 0.00, 1.57 and 1.83. That performance earned him the #12 mark on Baseball America’s top prospect list heading into the 2016 season.

Snell followed that up with a terrific 2016, splitting time between AAA Durham and and Tampa. Snell pitched 89 major league innings that year with a 3.54 ERA and K/9 nearing 10.0, tantalizing Rays fans and fantasy owners alike. Despite Snell’s penchant for walking a few too many batters (10% rates across most of his minor league stops as well as his MLB call-up), the raw stuff and strikeout ability seemed to win out…

Until the beginning of last year. Snell’s first half was abysmal, with a 4.85 ERA plus FIP and xFIP estimators above 5.00. His strikeout rate sank below 20% and his walk rate hovered in the mid-teens. Not surprisingly, Snell also wasn’t displaying the ability to induce whiffs with the same frequency, as his SwStr% sank to 8.8% in the first half.

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The owner a traditional four-pitch mix that includes a fourseam fastball, slider, curveball and changeup, all with use percentages in the double digits, Snell made an adjustment in the second half to rely less on his fourseamer, which he was throwing above 60% of the time to start the year, and more on his breaking pitches, particularly his changeup and curveball.

The results were stark. Snell’s numbers improved across the board, with a 3.49 second-half ERA and markedly improved strikeout and walk rates. His SwStr% increased from 8.8% in the first half to 12.4% in the second, which put him just outside the top 10 among MLB starters. The shift makes sense, as Snell generates well above average swings and misses on all his offspeed offerings, particularly his slider and curveball. Meanwhile, his fastball generated a paltry 5.5% SwStr% last season and gave up a slugging rate above 500.

If there was any doubt Snell had locked down a rotation spot with his fantastic end to 2017, the departure of Jake Odorizzi to the Twins all but ensured it. Snell, now 25 and coming off over 170 innings pitched last season, is also likely free of any innings or pitch limits. The walks might present an issue at times, but Snell is well within reach  of a 3.65 ERA and a K/9 above 9.50. ESPN has him ranked as the 247th player on the draft board, only 12 spots above Tyler Chatwood. That’s crazy. Take Snell in the 20th round of your draft and be ready to profit once the season kicks in.

Jason Kipnis is returning to fantasy relevance

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David Maxwell (Getty Images)

Jason Kipnis had a season to forget in 2017. Cleveland’s second baseman appeared in only 90 regular season games last year, a career low since he made his a full-time debut in 2012. The missed games were the result of a variety of ailments, including shoulder inflammation and a hamstring strain. The injuries took their toll on Kipnis’ counting stat production as well as his overall offensive efficiency, with a deplorable 232 average and 291 on-base percentage. Things got even worse in the playoffs, when Kipnis managed a mere four hits – three of which were singles –  in 22 plate appearances.

Fantasy owners who relied on Kipnis to produce his standard 85 runs, 15 home runs, 20 steals and 270 AVG / 340 OBP were left sorely disappointed. Based on his injury history and 2017 production, it certainly seemed like the wear and tear of Kipnis’ take no prisoners approach, both on the base paths and in the field, caught up to him. ESPN’s fantasy rankings echo this sentiment, with Kipnis, a former consensus top 75 player, checking in at 216th on the draft board. FantasyPros provides additional support of Kipnis’ middling stock with a reported average draft position of 231.

Given Kipnis’ brutal 2017 and injury history I was writing him off completely for fantasy purposes. But then I checked MLB.com’s spring training leaderboards yesterday and found that, lo and behold, Kipnis is tied for the spring lead in home runs with five. More specifically, Kipnis has hit five home runs in 14 at-bats, with three singles thrown in for good measure.

Clearly spring training stats, especially in a 14 at-bat sample, should be taken with a grain (or two) of salt. Opposing pitchers are messing around with new pitches. For some it’s their first time facing competition above AA. But when a player like Kipnis produces like this, even in a small sample, spring training environment, the fantasy world should take notice. After all, he was a valuable fantasy asset as recently as 2016, and plenty of players retain their value into their early 30s. In fact, the more I dig into Kipnis’ profile, the more I’m left thinking there is a lot left in the tank.

Change in approach

Kipnis is a bit of an odd duck when it comes to his fantasy production. It’s really all over the place. His year to year batting averages since 2012 read as follows: 257, 284, 240, 303, 275, 232. His isolated slugging percentages range from 090 to 193 in the same span. He’s topped out at 23 home runs and has had as little as six. Outside of his speed, which is usually there in the way of 15-25 steals, Kipnis seems like an enigma.

But hidden in Kipnis’ horrible 2017 season is the furthering of a change in approach that goes back more than two years. In 2015 Kipnis was primarily a groundball and line-driver hitter, with a pedestrian 28% flyball rate. That flyball rate jumped to 37% in 2016, the season where Kipnis hit a career high 23 home runs. And in 2017? It went up even further, to 44%! Meanwhile his groundball rate went down from 46% to 36% in the same span. That type of change doesn’t happen by accident, as Kipnis is clearly buying into the “flyball revolution”. On top of that, Kipnis’ share of flyballs that are pulled, which are the most desirable flyball types for power, increased from 15% in 2015 to 26% last season.

Despite his poor all-around season, Kipnis did manage 12 home runs in 373 plate appearances, roughly a 20-22 home run pace over a full year. It’s reasonable to think that, even if Kipnis doesn’t improve on his issues from last year, he’s a 20 home run hitter at this juncture. Combine that with his 10-15 steal floor and you have the makings of a valuable fantasy player again.

The key: health

Kipnis’ overall numbers last year were dragged down significantly by a horrible start to the season. Kipnis missed most of spring training and the first three weeks of regular season play with shoulder inflammation issues and when he returned something was clearly not right. In his first 19 games Kipnis totaled a mere two extra-base hits, both doubles, in 74 plate appearances. He only walked twice in that span, with an uncharacteristically high 27% strikeout rate. His triple slash was – get ready for this – 155 / 176 / 183. Hide the women and children!

A lot of players can be made to look really good or bad by setting arbitrary start and end points to their stat-lines. But in Kipnis’ case it’s reasonable to assume that he was suffering from some combination of rust, after missing most of spring training and the start to the season, or potentially a lingering shoulder issue. One telling sign is that Kipnis attempted only one steal in that span, which is likely a sign that Indians manager Terry Francona didn’t feel comfortable giving Kipnis the green light (then again, Kipnis was on base less than 15 times).

This is probably the most obvious statement ever, but Kipnis’ health will be key to his success. And us, as armchair fantasy analysts, have no real insights into that. But given Kipnis’ current draft position, even if he only has a 30% chance of being healthy this year, the upside is tantalizing.

An optimistic projection

I’m buying Kipnis’ spring training breakout as a sign that he’s, at least temporarily, over the injuries that plagued him last season. The shoulder inflammation has been a recurring issue going back several years, so this might always be a touch-and-go type thing with him.

But I can’t help but think about the fairly clear path to 20 homers and 10 to 15 steals that Kipnis has. And that, right there, gives him a solid floor from a fantasy perspective. His run and RBI production will be heavily tied to whether he can improve his average and on-base percentage closer to his 2016 numbers, but the days of 85-90 in each category might be gone with his place atop of the Indians’ batting order no longer sacrosanct.

Kipnis’ BABIP was an ugly 256 last year, well below his career rate of 314. While some of that drop is simply a function of hitting way more flyballs, it’s difficult for a competent MLB hitter to sustain a BABIP that low. After all, Kipnis had a 324 BABIP in 2016 when he was already halfway through his own personal flyball revolution. I think a return to the ~290 level is reasonable, which would imply a batting average in the 260s.

All told, I think a fantasy line of 80 R / 22 HR / 75 RBI / 12 SB / 265 AVG is reasonable for Kipnis, which would make him a starting-caliber second baseman in fantasy. There is also additional upside on average if his BABIP bounces back more and on runs and RBIs if he can stake a claim in the upper half of Cleveland’s batting order. Keep tabs on him for the rest of the spring, but at this juncture Kipnis is a no brainer at his current draft ranking.

 

 

 

Spring Fantasy Watch: Who are some of the standouts thus far?

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Denis Poroy (Getty Images)

Spring Training is kind of like Christmas for hardcore fantasy baseball fans, especially for those in deeper leagues or with an eye for late-round talent. It’s in the preceding week and following three that top prospects either stick or get sent down and where position battles are won and lost. One of my favorite past-times (I’m so cool) during this month is to scour the MLB.com spring leaderboards to see if I can unearth some potential diamonds in the rough for fantasy purposes.

I don’t advise blindly stat-watching. My system for tracking hitters operates as follows: look at all the top performers in power categories (slugging percentage, TBs, ISO, etc.) and make a shortlist. Cross off the names who are ~28 years and older, as well as the players who have never shown the ability to hit at any level. Then take a deeper dive into the remaining names. Ideally, you want to find players who are good prospects, or had a good prospect reputation at one point. You’d like to see good minor league performance at some juncture. And, in a perfect world, you’d like to hear about some mechanical change or clean of bill health that could propel their performance forward. Also keep an eye on plate discipline metrics like walk and strikeout rate. If the BB/K ratio increases along with improved power, that’s a great combination.

Below are three players who, more or less, meet that criteria so far this spring. Fair warning: we’re dealing with incredibly small sample sizes, so this post is more about expanding your watch-list than your draft list. But if you want to get a jump on the fantasy competition then you need to start now. Even if some of these players don’t make an immediate impact, or start in AAA, you’ll have them logged in your head and will be the first to pounce if their situation changes for the positive.

Miguel Andujar – NYY

The #14 prospect in baseball according to Fangraphs came into this spring with an outside shot at making the Yankees out of camp due to their recent acquisition of Brandon Drury. Yet, after six spring training games, Andujar leads the spring league in total bases and slugging percentage. He’s clubbed four home runs and two doubles with a single thrown in for good measure.

The newly turned 23-year old had prospect cache but failed to produce at the lower levels of the minors, with middling slugging rates and wRC+’s ranging close to 100. But Andujar broke out in a big way last year, with 16 home runs and a 500+ slugging percentage between AA and AAA. Andujar also had a successful five game call-up to the Yankees where he nabbed four hits in eight at bats and showed very impressive batted ball authority. Andujar managed four 95+ MPH batted balls in seven opportunities.

Another reason I’m bullish on Andujar is the power improvement Yankee prospects have experienced going from AAA to the Bronx. Gary Sanchez had a 187 ISO in 2016 before getting called up and becoming baseball’s best hitting catcher. Judge had a 219 ISO in 2016 before posting 343 at the MLB level last year. While we shouldn’t expect Sanchez and Judge-like progression from every player, it’s an indication that the MLB juiced ball and Yankee Stadium’s friendly confines allow players to achieve a premium on their minor league power figures.

Is it for real? Isolated power is one of the metrics that trends better from spring to the regular season, and six of Andujar’s seven spring hits have gone for extra bases, good for an ISO north of 800. He has struck out four times while walking none, but taking free passes isn’t Andujar’s game.

Fantasy Impact: Managers in leagues that count average should be all over Andujar if he makes the Yankees as his high-contact, high-octane hitting approach will result in a good batting average. I’d wait and see in on-base leagues, because he’d likely be hitting at the bottom of the Yanks’ batting order, which could depress counting stats. In a full season I’d expect an 85 / 25 / 80 / .290 / .325 batting line from Andujar.

Austin Hedges – SDP

San Diego’s donner of the tools of ignorance has had an interesting career arc. He was Baseball America’s 27th best prospect back in 2013, but followed that up with an awful 2014 and injury-riddled 2015. Largely written off, Hedges came into 2016 with something to prove and ended up as one of the PCL’s top power hitters with a 326 / 353 / 597 batting line. Hedges propelled that performance into the Padres’ starting catcher gig last year and largely struggled. While he did hit 18 home runs, Hedges had an unsightly 0.20/1.00 walk to strikeout ratio and a deplorable 262 on-base percentage.

Reports surfaced in mid-February that Hedges worked with San Diego assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington to tweak his swing over the offseason. What’s followed is four home runs in a mere eight at bats. On top of that, Hedges has walked twice and hasn’t struck out. It’s not like Hedges has been feasting off low minors pitching either. His home runs have come off Garrett Richards (good MLB pitcher), Wilmer Font (great AAA pitcher who should be the MLB), Christian Bergman (bad MLB pitcher) and Scott Barlow (decent minor league pitcher), a fairly representative swath of talent.

Being 2018, it seems like every other offensive underperformer is making adjustments to their swing, so maybe we should exercise caution with Hedges’ eight at-bat outburst. But I have reason for optimism. Hedges already gets a lot of lift with over 43% of his MLB batted balls ending up in the air. That’s good. The bad is that only 25% of Hedges flyballs have been pulled. This is actually right around league average, but given the shear amount of flies that Hedges hits, he needs to learn to pull more of them with authority, because that’s where power comes from. To illustrate: 14 of Hedges’ 21 career MLB homers have come on pulled fly balls, while pulled fly balls represent only ~10% of his batted balls.

Is it for real? Another case of a huge isolated power spike, so that’s a positive. Unfortunately it comes in only 10 plate appearances. I like the fact that Hedges hasn’t struck out yet and has walked twice. Hedges also might deserve the benefit of the doubt considering his age and prospect pedigree. At only 25, he’s not that far removed from being a top prospect and his 2016 AAA season was one of the best minor league seasons we’ve seen from a catcher in recent years.

Fantasy Impact: Given how bereft the catcher position is of talent, fantasy owners should be paying attention. If he stays healthy Hedges is guaranteed 500 at bats, and his defensive ability will keep him in the lineup even through hitting cold spells. If Hedges can increase his HR/AB a bit and pull the average into the 250 territory, he becomes a very viable fantasy catcher.

Christian Villanueva – SDP

What’s in the water in Peoria, Arizona? Numerous Padres’ hitters have impressed in spring thus far, including Christian Villanueva, a 26-year old third baseman hailing from Guadalajara, Mexico. He originally came up in the Rangers’ system before being dealt to the Cubs, where he had several decent minor league seasons but ultimately found his path blocked by Kris Bryant and the myriad other strong Chicago prospects.

Villanueva’s prospect star dimmed to a mere flicker after a broken leg scuttled his 2016 season. San Diego picked him up for the 2017 season and were rewarded with a 528 slugging percentage and 129 wRC+ for AAA El Paso. Villanueva followed that up with four home runs in a 12-game late season call-up with the Padres. He’s continued where he left off thus far in spring, with three home runs, one double and and a 600+ ISO in 16 at bats.

San Diego has been adept at finding post-hype prospects and reviving their careers. Villanueva actually profiles similarly, in batting approach, handedness and stature, to Jose Pirela, who made a big impact with a 122 wRC+ in San Diego last year. Pirela, also a natural third baseman, is taking reps at second this spring, which will hopefully reduce Villanueva’s competition for regular season at bats.

Is it for real? Villanueva clearly made adjustments prior to 2017 to hit for more power, and he’s carried that over to AAA and MLB regular season play as well as this spring. Given his elevated minor league strikeout rates as well as his 14% swinging strike rate in 32 MLB plate appearances last season, Villanueva will probably struggle with plate discipline. But the power looks legit, so monitor his progress going forward.

Fantasy Impact: San Diego manager Andy Green stated early in spring that Villanueva looked prime to make the team. But does he get starting at bats? Chase Headley looks like the starting third baseman, but I like Villanueva’s odds at out-producing him going forward. Villanueva also plays first, but the signing of Eric Hosmer renders that option mute. Villanueva is certainly a deep sleeper, and might need an injury to produce regular at bats, but he’s a player worth monitoring and potentially stashing in deep leagues.