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4 Burning Questions (Fantasy Baseball)

by Max Freeze | @FreezeStats | Featured Writer
May 2, 2018

Ronald Acuna finally got the call to the bigs everyone expected. After a week’s worth of games from the rookie, it’s clear that he was more than ready to arrive (and probably should have been up sooner). Either way, the kid looks like he’s going to be a star and that Braves team along with Freeman and Albies is going to be fun to watch for years to come. I thought about including Acuna in my burning questions today, but I’ve already given you my take on Acuna in the first week’s article of Burning Questions, check it out.

In the offseason, I did some research on players who improved their fly ball rates and launch angles in the second half of 2017. I found that those increases weren’t as sticky as year-to-year approach changes for hitters. This, of course, seems obvious because players have more time to work with coaches and learn new skills, etc. Fly ball rates along with launch angle begin to stabilize after about 80 batted balls. As the calendar turns over to May, there are nearly 70 batters that have over 80 batted balls in the 2018 season.

Let’s looks at players with both increases and decreases to their launch angles from 2017 to 2018 and what to do with them as the season progresses. Because remember, not all launch angles are created equal, every player’s ideal launch angle is different based on the individual. You may need to refer to the xStats glossary as I’ll be referencing terms throughout this article, especially (VH% Value Hits and PH% Poor Hits, and HD% High Drives).

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Which launch angle increasers should you be buying?

Season Name BABIP FB% LA (deg) Pull% Soft% Hard%
2017 Didi Gregorius 0.287 43.8% 17.5 40.3% 24.4% 23.1%
2018 Didi Gregorius 0.293 49.4% 21.7 48.2% 20.0% 37.7%
2017 Mookie Betts 0.268 42.8% 14.1 44.4% 18.2% 35.7%
2018 Mookie Betts 0.324 51.9% 21.7 50.6% 12.7% 49.4%
2017 DJ LeMahieu 0.351 19.7% 2.5 21.6% 15.4% 30.6%
2018 DJ LeMahieu 0.299 29.3% 3.8 31.5% 15.2% 32.6%
2017 Cesar Hernandez 0.353 24.6% 3.2 35.8% 23.5% 22.1%
2018 Cesar Hernandez 0.379 29.2% 8.0 45.6% 14.7% 27.9%
2017 Evan Longoria 0.282 36.8% 12.6 42.8% 18.0% 34.3%
2018 Evan Longoria 0.274 41.2% 14.4 48.5% 11.8% 48.5%

I want to start with Didi Gregorius and Mookie Betts because they are in a class of their own. Didi has gone nuts this year and now leads the league in RBIs and is tied for the league lead in home runs with 10. How’s he doing that? Well, he’s nearly tripled his HD% (high drive) from 6.5% to 18.5% which means he’s maximizing value on his batted balls. The increase in launch angle and fly ball rate isn’t huge, but combine that with a 14.6% increase in hard contact and an attempt to pull the ball more results in a transformation from a slap hitter to a Babe Ruthian start to the season.

Mookie has increased his launch angle more so than Didi but has the same approach in terms of pulling the ball. As good as Didi’s high drive rate (HD%) is, Mookie’s is more than six percent higher! That difference has Betts pegged for an xSLG of .718 as opposed to a still incredible xSLG for Didi of .608. I’m buying Didi as a top-50 player for the rest of the season, but if anyone thinks Didi and Betts are on the same level, they need to think again.

Evan Longoria’s slow start has begun to spin in a positive direction as he’s homered three times in his last 10 games for a total of six on the young season. It isn’t so much the launch angle increase as it is the hard contact and pull-heavy approach that makes Longoria a buy candidate. His average exit velocity is up 4.6 mph from 2017 and his value hits (VH%) are up a whopping 6.1%. Expect his low average to come up as his xBABIP is .308 which is well above his current BABIP of .274.

I won’t go in depth on D.J. LeMahieu now that he’s hit the DL, but his exit velocity is up 3.5 mph and he’s nearly tripled his value hit percentage this year. Get back soon friend! Cesar Hernandez looks primed to keep up his current numbers based on xStats and he’s running more. Look for 10-to-12 homers and around 20 steals from Hernandez this year. The Kingery shine has faded. All Hail Cesar!

Which launch angle increasers should you be selling?

Season Name BABIP FB% LA IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Soft% Hard%
2017 Carlos Santana 0.274 39.3% 12.9 13.4% 12.3% 51.2% 18.4% 33.0%
2018 Carlos Santana 0.176 53.3% 18.5 15.0% 5.0% 42.1% 21.1% 39.5%
2017 Gary Sanchez 0.304 36.6% 12.9 10.8% 25.4% 51.6% 18.6% 36.9%
2018 Gary Sanchez 0.197 50.7% 18.2 21.6% 18.9% 48.0% 19.2% 39.7%
2017 Eddie Rosario 0.312 37.4% 12.8 7.3% 16.4% 39.3% 16.7% 31.7%
2018 Eddie Rosario 0.274 43.8% 18.6 21.4% 10.7% 57.6% 15.2% 34.9%
2017 Khris Davis 0.29 42.3% 14.3 6.3% 26.9% 34.4% 13.5% 42.1%
2018 Khris Davis 0.26 47.5% 17.7 10.5% 18.4% 41.3% 15.0% 48.8%

Stanton and Davis are neutral for me, I’m not concerned about either. With both Carlos Santana and Gary Sanchez, I think they’ve taken the fly ball revolution too far. Their launch angle doesn’t show it, but both have elevated infield fly rates and high soft contact percentages. Their exit velocities and pull percentages look good, but a high quantity of poorly hit balls is going to result in a low average evidenced by Santana’s xAVG of .233 and Sanchez’s xAVG of .225.  I’m not concerned about the home runs, they will be there for both players. I’m not selling them either, especially Sanchez in keeper/dynasty leagues, but I’d like to see the fly ball percentage drop a little and the popups decrease before I feel confident going forward.

Eddie Rosario had a nice breakout in 2017 hitting .290 with 27 homers and nine steals. However, while increasing his fly ball rate and launch angle, Rosario has nearly tripled his infield fly rate! As a result, his value hits are down nearly three percent. That’s completely killing his BABIP and batting average. His xBABIP is only .233 and his xAVG is .195 which is surprisingly worse than his actual numbers to date. Rosario is a hard sell for me. Use last night’s big game as a selling point.

Should you sell these fly ball decreasers?

Season Name BABIP FB% LA IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Soft% Hard%
2017 Andrew Benintendi 0.301 38.4% 14.20 10.1% 11.2% 34.3% 16.6% 34.3%
2018 Andrew Benintendi 0.288 32.4% 10.60 8.3% 4.2% 47.3% 18.9% 20.3%
2017 Cody Bellinger 0.299 47.1% 16.10 8.4% 25.2% 42.4% 14.0% 43.0%
2018 Cody Bellinger 0.346 39.5% 15.70 18.8% 9.4% 50.6% 16.1% 35.8%
2017 Corey Seager 0.352 33.1% 10.70 4.4% 16.2% 36.5% 12.9% 44.0%
2018 Corey Seager 0.289 27.1% 10.20 0.0% 8.7% 36.5% 16.5% 35.3%
2017 Eric Hosmer 0.351 22.2% 3.70 7.2% 22.5% 31.3% 21.8% 29.5%
2018 Eric Hosmer 0.379 13.2% -0.80 11.1% 22.2% 32.4% 17.7% 32.4%
2017 Giancarlo Stanton 0.288 39.4% 11.00 16.9% 34.3% 44.6% 20.8% 38.9%
2018 Giancarlo Stanton 0.323 31.4% 8.80 4.5% 22.7% 38.6% 15.7% 44.3%
2017 Jay Bruce 0.274 46.7% 18.10 5.1% 18.5% 44.4% 11.7% 40.3%
2018 Jay Bruce 0.294 40.0% 18.30 3.6% 7.1% 44.3% 20.0% 20.0%

Now we understand why Corey Seager was on this list. Here’s to a speedy recovery.

Cody Bellinger does not look like he did as the Rookie of the Year in 2017. A deeper dive is required on Bellinger, but a quick look at the table shows his launch angle as nearly identical to 2017, but with an increase in IFFB% with a decrease in FB%. The 18.8% infield fly ball rate is definitely alarming, and if he’s hitting fewer fly balls in general, he’s going to be hitting fewer home runs. That would be the case even if his hard contact was better, but even that’s dropped over 7.0%. He’s also been extremely lucky on his batting average, his xAVG sits at a lowly .227. As the injuries mount for the Dodgers, I’m selling Bellinger for 80 cents on the dollar in redrafts.

I’m lumping Andrew Benintendi and Jay Bruce together because I think there could be underlying injuries to both players. When there’s a significant drop in hard contact and a reduction in launch angle, something’s up. Bruce has seen his hard contact cut in half while Benintendi’s has dropped by 14%. It’s hard to see a young potential star take a dip like this but his HD% is almost 5% below league average at 6.8%. Bruce is also making terrible contact with a 26.5% poor hit rate and 25.7% popup rate. (Popup rate is different than IFFB%, but both are very bad). His xStats support his poor numbers and if I’m being honest, I’d prefer to see Brandon Nimmo in the outfield who’s been an on-base machine in his part-time role.

Eric Hosmer’s negative launch angle is actually hilarious. I guess when everyone zigs Hosmer zags. The best part is, he’s upped his IFFB% while only hitting 13.2% fly balls. Hosmer typically sports good batting average numbers with his high volume of line drives, but even his xAVG sits a .268, a far cry from his current .290 batting average. Part of Hosmer’s issues are his incredibly high 33.8% DB% which generates a .150 AVG (per league average). Hosmer has to somehow maintain his 20%+ HR/FB to be fantasy relevant. Unless he changes his launch angle, we are looking at a .280 hitter with 15 homers. Somewhere James Loney is smiling.

Can decreasing launch angles actually help these hitters?

Season Name BABIP FB% LA IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Soft% Hard%
2017 Joey Votto 0.321 38.0% 14.00 0.5% 19.7% 38.6% 10.4% 36.3%
2018 Joey Votto 0.284 31.8% 13.50 0.0% 14.8% 31.8% 10.6% 32.9%
2017 Kris Bryant 0.334 42.4% 16.90 5.5% 16.0% 41.2% 14.8% 32.8%
2018 Kris Bryant 0.328 30.2% 10.90 5.3% 10.5% 49.2% 19.1% 34.9%

Well, this is a short list and it involves two of the best hitters in the National League. Joey Votto got off to a slow start and didn’t hit his first home run until a week and a half ago. He’s been on fire since. Based on the table above, it wouldn’t appear that Votto has made any improvements; lower FB%, lower hard contact, lower pull%. That’s all true, except for his launch angle which is almost identical to 2017. He’s maximizing his value hits and line drives. In fact, his xAVG is .335 (current AVG .270) and his expected extra-base hits are 12 which doubles his actual XBH. I do expect his 32% line drive to drop but in favor of more fly balls. Votto is still a buy even on his hot streak. I foresee another .315-30 homer season from Votto.

Kris Bryant, on the other hand, has seen his FB% drop and the launch angle has followed suit. What intrigues me is the 49.2% pull percentage and increase in hard contact. As a result, his VH% is up 1.6% from 2017. That doesn’t seem like much, but Bryant made an unfortunate approach change last year in an attempt to hit the ball more to the opposite field. Well, he succeeded and his power dipped as a result. While the decrease in launch angle is a small concern, his elevated line drive rate has his expected BA at .315. Bryant only has two home runs right now, and he’s traditionally a slow starter in terms of power. I’m buying Bryant right now. Maybe you can get him at a slight discount compared to draft-day cost.

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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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