Players to Target for AVG/OBP (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
My previous article at FantasyPros discussed how to approach your draft in redraft leagues. I also touched on how batting average and on-base percentage are on the decline. Pitchers are utilizing their secondary and offspeed offerings that generate more swings and misses, which has led to a league-wide increase in strikeouts. Unfortunately for hitters, pitchers are not going to back off of this strategy unless they brandish an elite fastball like Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, or Zack Wheeler. Good luck catching up with their heaters.
League-wide batting average, which had settled to around .255 prior to 2018, took a major dip down to .248 last season. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but neither does the ocean temperature rising by one-degree Celsius. The point is, it’s a big deal. Not surprisingly, on-base percentage (OBP) dropped by six points from .324 to .318. The good news is walk rates continue to rise, so OBP won’t completely plummet. So, who should you be targeting for batting average and OBP in 2019?
Let’s start with batting average. The metrics I look at when determining batting average include strikeout rate, fly-ball rate, popup or infield fly ball rate, foot speed, and zone contact. A player who is good or better than league average at all of those metrics should generate a high BABIP and maintain a great batting average. I’ll mostly focus on players drafted after pick 100, so let’s get started!
Batting Average Targets
Ketel Marte (2B/SS – ARI)
Marte is just 25 years old and has some elite contact skills with an in-zone contact rate over 90% to pair with a swinging-strike rate under 6.5%. That allowed him to manage just a 13.6% strikeout rate in 2018. He’s also pretty quick, as evidenced by a 28.7 mph average sprint speed via Baseball Savant. Including his low fly-ball rate, he basically hits all of my criteria for a high batting average, especially with a below-average popup rate. So how did Marte hit just .260 in 2018? Well, he does hit a few too many weak ground balls, but that’s about it. xStats.org agrees with me, pegging Marte for an expected batting average of about .280 last season and a whopping .296 in 2017. Marte’s sub-.300 BABIP the last two seasons should rise, as his hard contact has improved.
Marte is primed for a breakout in more than just batting average. He’s increased his power production as well. As of now, he’s getting drafted around 270 overall in a consensus ADP from five sources, so you don’t have to reach. Keep in mind a player with a .280-.290 batting average is borderline elite in today’s game. Combine that with mid-teens power and some stolen-base potential, and you’ve got a great value after pick 250.
Michael Brantley (OF – HOU)
Brantley has always had a unique profile that seems to be a dying breed in today’s game. He managed a 9.5% strikeout rate in 2018, finishing about 13% below league-average. Yup, you read that right. While Brantley’s speed is diminishing and his advancing age may limit his stolen-base potential, his contact rates are so far and away the best in the league. Let me tell you how impressive they are. His 97.3% contact rate on pitches inside the zone last season is second to only Daniel Murphy from 2015 (97.5%) for qualified hitters in the last four seasons!
Brantley is not just an average-only player; he has moderate power and has proven an efficient base-stealer. I liken his value to that of Murphy (now with Colorado). Both should hit .300, with Murphy hitting more home runs but Brantley stealing more bags. Brantley is going right around Murphy at pick 111. Brantley’s injury history is baked into the price, but just know his health risk going into your draft.
Adam Frazier (2B/OF – PIT)
Not another boring middle infielder! Yup, Frazier is slated to bat leadoff for the Pirates in 2019. Going around pick 208 in early drafts, he’s dirt cheap. Batting average is typically difficult to find on waivers or this late in a draft, especially with the number of plate appearances Fraizer should compile in 2019. He doesn’t possess the high-end speed (he’s essentially league average in terms of sprint speed), but he had a 91.4% zone-contact rate while limiting fly balls (31.3%) and popups (3.6%). At age-27, he is starting to develop some power, so he’s not a complete empty-average player. I don’t expect Frazier to hit .300, but he should settle in around .280, which is still .032 above last year’s league-wide rate.
Alex Verdugo (OF – LAD)
Verdugo is a deep-league option going after pick 375 in most drafts. The rookie saw a little bit of action in 2018, hitting just .240 in 52 games with the big league club. I know what you’re thinking, but Verdugo actually has a little Brantley in him. His strikeout rates have been relatively consistent between 10% and 13% throughout the minors, and they’ve only gotten better.
Not only has Verdugo had a knack for making contact, he actually improved towards the end of 2018. He doesn’t have blazing speed, so more than eight to 10 steals would be a reach. His low fly-ball, high line-drive approach breeds base hits and a high batting average. Yet to hit an infield fly ball in the majors, he’s got most of the characteristics I look for in a high batting average hitter. Thanks to the A.J. Pollock signing with the Dodgers, playing time is still not guaranteed even with the departures of Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp. Verdugo will be extremely cheap on draft day, so make sure to give him a look if you end up with Joey Gallo or Edwin Encarnacion.
Jesse Winker (OF – CIN)
I could have included Winker for both batting average and on-base percentage. Winker has patience and does not chase pitches outside the zone. That combination netted a 14.7% walk rate in 89 games played last season. Had he qualified, he would have ranked 10th in walk rate behind the next player I will discuss, Brandon Nimmo. Here’s the difference between Winker and Nimmo: Winker only struck out 13.8% of the time. Of players with a higher walk rate than Winker, only Carlos Santana struck out less often at 13.7%.
Cincinnati adding Puig and Kemp have muddied the waters a bit in terms of playing time, and Winker is recovering from shoulder surgery. There’s a risk here, but I think Kemp gets dealt at some point in the first half of 2019 once Winker proves he’s healthy. Winker is going around 226 overall, but I imagine that will drop as the season approaches.
Brandon Nimmo (OF – NYM)
Nimmo actually offered at pitches outside the zone less than Winker. At just 19.7% in 2018, he ranked third in MLB, one spot in front of AL MVP Mookie Betts. Nimmo’s issue is with making contact, not plate discipline. His contact rate was below league-average, so there will be a fair amount of at-bats that end via punchout. I’m not Nimmo’s biggest fan in standard batting-average leagues because I fear he will hit .240-.250, but his elevated walk rate will alleviate the average issues in OBP formats.
Nimmo is a virtual lock for a .360+ OBP, and he continues to show positive power developments. Slotted to hit leadoff for an improved Mets lineup, he could hit 20 homers and steal 10 bases while scoring a boatload of runs ahead of Michael Conforto and Robinson Cano.
Max Muncy (1B/2B/3B – LAD)
Muncy is more than just an OBP stud. He’s got power, and he showed it in 2018. I don’t believe it’s a fluke. His Statcast metrics are off the charts and while his strikeout rate jumped in the second half, his batted-ball quality remained elite. His barrels per batted-ball event (BRL/BBE) was 16.9%, which ranked third in all of baseball with a minimum of 250 batted balls. Combine that with his 16.4% walk rate, and we could be looking at an elite hitter in OBP formats.
Can he keep up that incredibly high walk rate this season? His swing rate dropped to 37%, and his chase rate (O-Swing%) sat at a very low 21.5% in 2018. Those plate-discipline metrics ranked fifth and 13th, respectively, in 2018. He’s extremely patient and will lay off pitches he can’t handle, boosting his walk rate. On top of that, he regularly maintained walk rates between 14% and 16% in the minors. There are playing time concerns, but manager Dave Roberts has assured that Muncy should see regular at-bats at first or second base in 2019. His multi-position eligibility gives him a boost in most formats. In OBP leagues, I’d be willing to grab Muncy inside the top 75 overall.
Travis Shaw (2B/3B – MIL)
Since earning a full-time role in Milwaukee, Shaw has posted back-to-back 30-homer seasons. The Brewers field a top of the order featuring Lorenzo Cain and NL MVP Christian Yelich that few others can rival. Shaw should provide plenty of value in terms of home runs and RBI. What you may not know is that he saw a nice jump in walk rate last season.
You can see his steady improvements by lowering his O-Swing and his swing rate. Some progress was masked by his .241 batting average. An unlucky .242 BABIP was likely to blame, as his batted-ball profile and contact rates remained constant. I’d expect a BABIP closer to his career .286 in 2019. Despite the low batting average, Shaw maintained a solid .345 OBP thanks to a 13.3% walk rate.
Shaw, who turns 29 in April, has seen three straight seasons with a decreased O-Swing, decreased swinging-strike rate, and increased contact. He’s also decreased his swing percentage since 2016 as well. I’m not expecting a repeat of the 13.3% walk rate, but somewhere between 10 and 11% seems about right. Given an expected 20-point bump in batting average, Shaw should be able to maintain a .350-.360 OBP to go with impressive power numbers in 2019. Draft him with confidence inside of pick 75 in OBP formats.