By The Numbers: Brandon Belt, Christian Yelich, Yonder Alonso
Unless you’re in an NL-only format, Brandon Belt is that guy no one is ever excited to draft.
Despite entering his eighth major league campaign, Belt has never slugged 20 home runs. He’s exceeded 80 runs or RBIs just once. He owns a solid but ultimately unspectacular career .270 average. He plays his home games in one of the worst stadiums for offense. He’s susceptible to concussions, suffering his fourth in 2017, causing him to miss the final two months of the season. He’s already 30 years old.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Belt went outside the top 300 in most fantasy drafts.
Maybe we shouldn’t be that surprised then that so far Belt has been one of the top fantasy first basemen of 2018. Belt is slashing .301/.405/.562 with 24 runs, nine home runs, and 23 RBIs. He’s already halfway to last year’s home run total, and we aren’t even two months into the season.
Of course, the real question is whether he can keep this up. Well, for starters, he passes the Statcast test, holding one of the top marks in xwOBA (.439), while hitting barrels at one of the highest rates in the league. His 48.1% hard-hit rate and 51.0% fly-ball rate also coincide with the power display, which are both up from 2017. Although Belt is unlikely to maintain his .361 BABIP — and therefore his high batting average — he has a career .335 mark in that department, so even that number isn’t as outrageous as it might seem.
All that said, he does still play in AT&T Park as part of a modest Giants lineup, which likely places a cap on his ceiling. His average exit velocity isn’t noticeably different this year either, so perhaps some of the power tails off. Still, Belt should have no problem finally surpassing 20 home runs, and even with some regression, he’s checking all the right boxes, and looks like a steal at his ADP.
Considering Belt’s pedestrian track record, it wouldn’t be wrong if you want to try to sell while the iron is hot, but as players like Justin Turner have shown, a late career breakout isn’t impossible, and we could very well have one on our hands. Either way, if you’re a Belt investor, you’re playing with house money.
Let’s check in on a couple other guys with some notable fantasy implications this season.
Christian Yelich is still hitting ground balls over 50% of the time
Already a solid all-around fantasy contributor as is, following his trade to the Milwaukee Brewers, Christian Yelich saw his fantasy stock leap up many a cheat sheet, with forward-thinking drafters hoping the move to Miller Park would boost his power to new heights. After all, if Yelich could hit a career-high 21 dingers playing home games in power-killing Marlins Park, surely he could do more damage in one of the league’s top home run ballparks for lefties. Entering the season, 41 of his career 59 home runs had come on the road (69%).
So what do the early returns look like? Well, so far they’re… pretty much the same. Yelich has hit four round-trippers, and his .159 ISO is practically identical to 2017 (.159). And it doesn’t appear to be due to a lack of quality contact, as both his hard-hit rate (44.7%) and average exit velocity (93.3 mph) are up this season.
The issue stems from Yelich’s always high ground-ball rate. Technically, his 52.1% mark is an improvement, but a 23.4% fly-ball just isn’t going to cut it if we want to see a significant rise in long balls. His 34.0 % pull rate isn’t any different either. Surely his home venue ought to still get him more home runs over the long haul by default, but with little to no change in Yelich’s approach, this may not be as significant a bump as many hoped.
Look, no one is going to complain about a .294/.357/.452 batting line from a guy who can collect double-digit home runs and stolen bases. Far from it. But those who reached a little earlier in drafts, may find themselves a tad disappointed that Yelich hasn’t taken another step forward. We’re only at the season’s quarter mark, so there’s plenty of time for a change in narrative. But it would certainly be more encouraging to see Yelich exchange some of those ground balls for fly balls.
Yonder Alonso continues to hit for power and owns a .220 ISO
Yonder Alonso was an intriguing case study of the so-called fly ball revolution in 2017, hitting a career-high 28 home runs after never even reaching double-digits in a season his whole career. But 20 of those home runs came in the season’s first half, and many were skeptical of a repeat. Much like Brandon Belt, he was nothing more than a late-round draft pick.
Well, it’s a good time to see how he’s doing, and so far he’s picked up right where he left off. Alonso has already hit nine home runs — which would have tied his previous career high — and his 38.2% hard-hit rate and 43.6% fly-ball rate are in line with last year. He’s posted a .220 ISO, along with an 18.8% HR/FB rate. Last year’s power surge was no fluke.
You might look and cringe at the .220 batting average, but fear not, because much of that can be blamed on a .218 BABIP. In fact, according to Statcast, Alonso’s expected batting average is a perfectly fine .279. His xwOBA is even more impressive at .392.
If we’re nitpicking, Alonso sometimes takes a seat against lefties, so he loses at-bats here and there, but overall it’s hard to not like what we’re seeing in 2018. The power is here to stay, and while we shouldn’t suddenly expect him to hit for average with this approach, he shouldn’t be a category sinkhole all season. Maybe 30 home runs is the next milestone?