Regression Report: Miguel Sano, Eric Thames, Christian Yelich
On last week’s inaugural Regression Report, our cautiousness towards limited sample size moved us to focus solely on starting pitchers. Now that most every-day offensive players have close to 50 plate appearances under their belts, we can make up for some lost time. Here are five hitters whose early season returns should signal some sort of regression, for worse or for better.
There are small-sample anomalies, and then there is Sano’s 2017 soft-contact rate, which actually sat at 0.0% through this past Friday. That’s right, zero percent–Sano had not, until Saturday’s game against the White Sox, made categorically “soft” contact while putting a ball in play across the first 10 games of the season.
This certainly serves to illustrate the extent of Sano’s utterly berserk stretch of hitting to open 2017, which saw the towering slugger amass an ungodly .425 isolated slugging mark over the season’s first week and a half.
But this also serves to illustrate the unfair expectations that can be created by slices of small-sample excellence, especially when that excellence comes at the very start of the season.
Make no mistake, there are several encouraging signs for Sano early on. The Minnesota bopper is clearly seeing the ball better, with his swing percentage on pitches out of the zone notably down compared to last season, to go along with a nice spike to his swing percentage on in-zone offerings.
This aggressive approach belies the fact that, compared to his previous two seasons, Sano is thus far seeing significantly fewer fastballs and more sliders and changeups. Now, this data is very much matchup dependent and sample-size skewed, but it’s worth noting the extent to which a maturing Sano, gradually shaking off his reputation as a major swing-and-miss liability, could begin to find pitchers adjusting their approach, putting his batting eye to the test and making it more difficult for Sano to wait for the right fastball to sit on and crush.
All of which makes it fair to expect that some regression is on the way for the young slugger, whose impressive 24.4 percent walk rate and restrained (by his standards) 26.8 percent strikeout rate across the season’s first 10 games has already regressed to a more sober 21.6/31.4 split following a four-strikeout performance on Sunday.
Sano will undoubtedly turn a nice profit for those who drafted him, but those expecting this seismic surge in power and strong contact to sustain over the span of the full season will probably be disappointed. Sano owners have every right to be patting themselves on the back for their well-struck mid-round gamble. But those who are currently fielding trade offers for established high-end players fighting through early-season slumps (Nelson Cruz and Carlos Gonzalez come to mind) might want to pause the victory lap and consider cashing out.
Having clubbed five homers in his last four games, Milwaukee’s Eric Thames now stands as your major league leader in OPS, with a 1.373 mark that should at least temporarily dispel fears that his cosmic KBO productivity wouldn’t translate stateside.
The appeal for negative regression here is fairly obvious, as the MLB has only seen four full-season OPS marks above 1.100 in the past 10 years; one was Bryce Harper’s 2015 MVP year, and the other three belong to Albert Pujols. For Thames to keep this sort of pace and this sort of company would be truly historic.
At the same time, the extent of the potential regression still remains, like Thames himself, fairly mysterious. We are perhaps no closer to understanding how to value Thames as a fantasy asset than we were when he first tantalized fantasy players by signing with the Brewers this offseason. Owners looking to sell high on his white-hot recent stretch will likely be rebuffed–just look at that .400 BABIP! Others might opine that Thames’ slim 7.4 percent strikeout rate is a sign that he’s the real deal, an asset worth cherishing. After all, his stomping grounds at Miller Park are some of the hitter-friendliest environs this side of Coors, and the 30-year-old hasn’t even gotten going on the base paths.
There almost certainly is some cooling off in store here. A player with Thames’ speed tool could toy with a near-.400 BABIP, sure, but that 40-plus percent homer-to-fly rate is a video game stat, one that’s bound to fall to earth as the season wears on.
But even a fraction of Thames’ current pace could prove invaluable to fantasy owners, especially if he turns on the speed. Considering the potential volatility here, it’s hard to discourage conservative owners from selling high, but if it were me, I’d be aiming real high.
Speaking of torrid hitting stretches and volatile assets, Colorado’s Trevor Story is suffering through a cold spell that appears to be the photo negative of his historic early 2016 rookie run. A three-strikeout performance on Sunday has pushed the infielder’s batting average all the way down to .114 on the young season, while his strikeout rate has ballooned all the way up to an unsightly 37.7 percent.
As far as range of outcomes go, we’re seeing a worst case scenario play out for a hitter who possesses both a sterling power tool and a ton of swing-and-miss downside. Meanwhile, Story’s hard contact rate has cut nearly in half, down from a tremendous near-45-percent mark last year to just over 26 percent so far this season.
Do Story owners have anything to hang their Rocky Mountain hats on? Yes, actually. Approach-wise, Story’s numbers represent notable improvements on the already impressive plate-discipline metrics that we saw from the young slugger last year. His walk rate has more than doubled, and he’s nibbling at even fewer pitches outside of the zone, with an out-of-zone swing rate at 21.5 percent compared to a league-average 29.1.
So maybe Story is swinging at the right pitches, but just outright missing them. Indeed, the major spikes in fly ball rate and infield fly rate that Story has shown do seem to suggest that he is habitually getting under the ball.
It’s a “glass half full” take, sure, but if I can get Story at a major discount, I’d be buying. He could be one adjustment away from a massive power boon.
Miami outfielder Christian Yelich had many skeptics crying foul last year when he submitted a career-high 21 homers with some seemingly dubious peripheral stats, namely a major boost in homer-to-fly rate combined with a spike in overall fly ball rate that was suspiciously meager.
Lo and beyold, in 2017 Yelich has thus far rebuffed his critics by upping his fly rate to 31.2 percent, way up from last year’s modest 20 percent. And while the 25-year-old Marlin does have a pair of long balls to show for it, Yelich has thus far lagged in the batting average department, with a .231 mark that has fantasy owners who paid a premium for his reliable .290-plus contribution wringing their hands.
But Yelich has all the earmarks of a looming bounce back in his underlying numbers, be it his improved hard hit rate, his spike in contact rate, or his slight decrease in swinging strike rate. There’s no reason to panic here–Yelich should be on the road to .300 soon enough, and there’s reason to believe that the power gains from last season are sustainable.
After storming out of the gates with two homers across the season’s first four games, Oakland up-and-comer Ryon Healy has slowed his slugging pace considerably, or so his surface stats will tell you.
But as far as quality of contact goes, Healy’s current pace is nearly identical to the minor power binge from last year that put him on the map as a popular fantasy sleeper heading into 2017:
|Sample||Soft Contact %||Medium Contact %||Hard Contact %|
|2016, 283 PAs||19.5%||50.5%||30.0%|
|2017, 49 PAs||18.8%||50.0%||31.3%|
The echoes here are downright uncanny. If anything, Healy has actually improved (his other underlying numbers show that he’s hitting the ball to all fields more frequently, cutting down on grounders, and making gains on contact in the zone), even as his .170 batting average tests his fantasy owners’ patience. You’d have to be in a pretty shallow league, or have a pretty stacked team, to pass on Healy if his early BA woes find him sitting on your waiver wire. Better days are almost certainly ahead.