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4 Burning Questions (Fantasy Baseball)

by Max Freeze | @FreezeStats | Featured Writer
Apr 18, 2018

Last week I covered three pitchers for this segment Gerrit Cole, Patrick Corbin, and Chris Archer. This week, I want to cover several polarizing hitters. I’ll be diving into the analytics a bit with some of these hitters now that we have about three weeks worth of data to support the statistics. I wish we were talking about Ronald Acuna being called up, but it doesn’t appear that it is going to happen this week. He’s been struggling in Triple-A and Preston Tucker is playing well in his place. I won’t speculate, but considering his recent struggles, it’s possible the Braves wait until June after the Super Two deadline.

Back to the Major League numbers. I want to focus on Statcast and xStats with the hitters I discuss today. Certain batted ball data starts to stabilize after just 60 plate appearances. Below is a table showing some statistics that stabilize early in the season.

Stat To Stabilize
Strikeout Rate 60 PA
Walk Rate 120 PA
Flyball Rate 80 Balls in Play
Ground ball Rate 80 Balls in Play
HR/FB Rate 50 fly balls

 
The league leaders in plate appearances are Marcus Semien, Jose Pirela, and DJ LeMahieu with 85 coming into Tuesday’s games. The hitters who have put the most balls in play are Andrelton Simmons and Jose Pirela with 61. As you can see, the strikeout rates have already stabilized for my hitters and the leaders aren’t far off for walk rate to stabilize. We are still short in terms of batted ball data, but again, within the next week or so, we should reach the stabilizing point. With this information, I want to dive into some hot and cold hitters to start the 2018 season.

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Will DJ LeMahieu finally join the fly ball revolution?
Where did this come from? LeMahieu’s career high in home runs is 11 back in 2016. He hit all of eight last year. This is his sixth year in Colorado (aka hitters haven) and he has mashed a total of 37 home runs in 727 games, or one home runs every 19.65 games. Now, he has five homers in 18 games or one home run every 3.6 games.

xStats.org has DJ projected for 3.2 home runs to date versus the five that he’s actually hit in 2018. So while there’s a discrepancy, it’s not like he hasn’t earned some of his power improvements. Digging into the batted ball data, we see he’s increased hard contact from 30.4% in 2017 to 35% this year. That’s a solid improvement, but the biggest change to his profile is the  31.7% fly ball rate up 10% from his career rate of 21.3%. This is huge because DJ hit less than 20% of his batted balls in the air in 2017. His pull rate has improved by six percent so far this year as well which also can aid his power.

While DJ’s adjustments have helped his power, his 26.3% HR/FB rate sticks out like a sore thumb. Of course, he won’t maintain that home run rate but he’s barreled nearly eight percent of his batted balls up from a paltry 1.5 percent in 2017. To give you an idea of how good that is, these players “barreled” just under eight percent of their batted balls in 2017: Justin Upton, Bryce Harper, and Cody Bellinger.

At this point, I’m not labeling DJ LeMahieu as a mirage. However, I am concerned about his 55% groundball rate which matches his career numbers. His 13.3% line drive rate is over 10% below his career average. I will bet that the line drive comes back over 20%, but will it be at the expense of the fly balls or the ground balls?

It appears to me that the ground ball rate will remain around 50% which means the additional lift on the ball is intentional. While this approach will continue to provide more long balls, the line drive rate and batting average may suffer. His current .291 BABIP might not be too far from being stable. Coors Field helps, but maybe LeMahieu is more of a .275 hitter with 15-18 homer power than a .310 hitter with single-digit pop.

How does Paul DeJong continue to defy the odds?
Paul DeJong caught some of the Cardinals’ Devil Magic in 2017. He’s is off to another solid start hitting four homers in 16 games this year. He is only hitting .246 but continues to prove that his power is legit with 29 home runs in only 504 Major League plate appearances. He did hit .285 in 2017, but it came with a .349 BABIP. The previously mentioned .246 batting average has come with a .357 BABIP. Something’s up with DeJong. Let’s deep dive!

DeJong enjoys swinging hard and often. Thus far, he’s fanned a whopping 42% of the time against a 4.9% walk rate. In 2017, DeJong swung over 50% of the time with well below average contact. This year, however, he’s dropped his swing percentage to just below 40%, but it clearly has not helped his walk rate. Not only is he taking more pitches, but he’s swinging and missing more to the tune of a 17.0% swinging strike rate! What’s even more concerning to me is that his contact rate in the zone is under 75%. League average is over 85%.

Ok, well he’s been hitting homers so he’s hitting the ball hard, right? Well, he’s only hitting 34% of his batted balls hard (86.1 mph average exit velocity), but he’s yanking everything to the pull side. That’s a great way to hit home runs, but his current 28.6% HR/FB is going to come down. DeJong is trying to pull everything which means his plate coverage is terrible. Anything on the outer third of the plate is either swung on and missed or results in weak contact (28% soft contact to date).

I think I’m completely out on DeJong. Even the balls put in play aren’t all that valuable outside his four home runs. xStats categorizes batted balls into six types; dribblers, ground balls, low drives, high drives, fly balls, and pop-ups. It’s pretty self-explanatory but dribblers and popups are basically automatic outs (or close to it). Thus far in 2018, nearly 44% of DeJong’s batted balls fall into these two categories. If I’m an owner, I’m praying for a couple hot games in order to flip him for something before he really falls off.

What’s up with Francisco Lindor?
As I write this, he just blasted his second home run of the season in his home country of Puerto Rico off Jake Odorizzi. Prior to the home run, xStats projected him at 2.6 xHR compared to his one so far in 2018. Lindor has always been one of the best all-around players in the Major Leagues since his call-up in 2015. He’s a wizard defensively and has far exceeded expectations with the bat. He’s off to a bit of a slow start hitting .241 with the single home runs but has chipped in three steals. Is it just a slow start or is there something else going on?

First off, his strikeout rate is up to 20% while his walk rate is down to 6.3%. In two consecutive seasons, Lindor has held a very low 12.9% strikeout rate. This is not a fluke, his swinging strike rate is over 10% for the first time in his career and his overall contact rate is down 10%. I was wondering if Lindor’s fly ball approach from 2017 is finally catching up to him. As he continues to swing for the fences, the whiffs will increase.

Well, it’s interesting because his fly ball rate is back to the level it was in 2016 prior to Lindor’s power breakout. The 31% line drive rate is clearly going to come down. As it does, I expect the power to move in the opposite direction. Normally, I’d expect a drop in batting average with a change similar to LeMahieu, but xStats says Lindor should be hitting .298.

Lindor is a superstar, and I’m not worried about him. As I glance at BaseballSavant, Lindor is absolutely killing the ball on line drives and fly balls with an average exit velocity of 98.4 mph. He hasn’t hit a pop up yet, so everything he’s putting the bat on has been valuable. The increased strikeout rate is really the only concern for me. I think Lindor is pressing a little bit early as most of the Indians have gotten off to slow starts. As he settles in, he should cut down on expanding the zone. By June, you’ll forget about this slow start for Lindor. I doubt anyone is selling, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

What about the other Machado?
I’m talking about Dixon Machado of the Detroit Tigers. He’s probably only viable is very deep leagues like 15-team or deeper and AL-Only. He’s playing almost every day at second base but can also play shortstop. He’s 26 years old and has one home run in 326 Major League plate appearances. So, why am I talking about him?

Machado is a candidate for a breakout. I’m not saying he’s a 20-25 home run hitter, but he’s changed his approach and is hitting fly balls at just under 40%. He’s also increased his pull percentage to just under 50%. Remember, pulled fly balls have the best opportunity to leave the yard. The last factor is hard contact. You can’t hit a home run if you don’t hit it hard. Well, his hard contact is at 46% and his average exit velocity on line drives and fly balls is 95.4 mph! Both of those numbers fall inside the top 25% for hitters.

All of this from a guy with a well above average contact rate and a below 20% O-Swing rate. The approach and batted ball profile look good for Machado. If I’m in a deep league, I’m grabbing him for my MI slot. In the Minors, he showed a little bit of speed but has yet to show any in the majors. The Tigers are bad this year and Machado should see everyday at-bats. I like Machado to hit for a good average with middling pop while chipping in a handful of steals.

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Max Freeze is a correspondent at FantasyPros. For more from Max, check out his archive and follow him @FreezeStats.

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