By The Numbers: Jorge Polanco, Garrett Hampson, Kenta Maeda
Jorge Polanco is already one barrel away from matching last year’s tally (nine) and three shy of his personal high from 2017.
While his 87.8-mph average exit velocity is roughly league average, per Baseball Savant, it’s a stark improvement from his career 84.6 clip. His biggest gains, however, have come in the air. The Twins shortstop’s fly-ball rate has jumped over 15 points to 53.7%, which has resulted in five home runs and three triples. Last year, he managed six long balls and three triples in 77 games.
Skeptics will fairly note that he can’t possibly sustain a .391 BABIP while elevating so many balls. He certainly won’t hit .366/.424/.695 through September, but the inevitable regression shouldn’t strip him of all value. The walks are up (8.7%), the strikeouts are down (15.2%), and only 19 hitters with at least 50 plate appearance have exceeded his .411 xwOBA, as of Wednesday.
The only thing the rising star hasn’t done is run. Polanco, who swiped 13 bases in 2017 and seven last season, got thrown out in his lone attempt this season. It’s hard to steal when constantly passing first base on hits, but with a Statcast sprint speed still in MLB’s top-quarter percentile, he should eventually chip in a few swipes.
Take the 25-year-old’s breakout seriously. These early results are far more indicative of an early hot streak, and he should at least blow by tame preseason power projections that hovered around the 15-homer vicinity.
After hitting over .300 in each of the last three minor league seasons with 123 combined steals (and two more in the majors), the infielder had all the makings of a fantasy difference-maker. Twenty-one games into this campaign, he’s batting .183/.203/.282 with a 6 wRC+ and one steal.
His batted-ball data isn’t any prettier. As of Wednesday, he places in the bottom-two percentile of exit velocity (81.0 mph), hard-hit rate (19.2%), and xwOBA (.215). This feeble contact is apparent in baseball’s highest infield-fly rate of any batter with at least 50 plate appearances. The 24-year-old has mustered just one more line drive (eight) than pop up.
While I’m hesitant to throw in the towel on Hampson, managers soon may have little choice in standard mixed leagues. The Rockies activated Daniel Murphy from the injury list on Wednesday, and the 34-year-old reclaimed first base with Ryan McMahon starting at second. Hampson is once again out of a starting job. This time, however, nobody can blame the Rockies for squeezing him out of the lineup. He’s sadly droppable in most formats.
Kenta Maeda: 32.1% Soft-Contact Rate
Maeda has relinquished 27 hits in 27.2 innings. Five of them have cleared the fences, leading to a ghastly 5.20 ERA and 1.45 WHIP. He’s clearly getting rocked in the early stages of 2019.
Except he’s not, as the batted-ball rates tell a different tale. No qualified starter has induced a higher rate of soft contact, as measured by FanGraphs. Only Anibal Sanchez and Stephen Strasburg have permitted a lower proportion of hard hits than Maeda, who has conversely endured the NL’s highest percentage of infield hits (18.2%). The Statcast data concurs; the Dodgers righty has relinquished the lowest average exit velocity (82.2 mph) of any pitcher with at least 40 batted-ball events.
Further fueling his misfortune, Maeda’s strikeout rate has tumbled from 28.8 to 21.0% despite a comparable contact rate and a swinging-strike percentage that dropped just one point to a still excellent 13.4. A 10.9% walk rate is also out of character for a command artist who has fired a first-pitch strike to 84 of 119 batters faced (70.6%). Four of those free passes came at Coors Field, where he otherwise had his best road start of the season.
The opening returns are especially frustrating given the likelihood of Los Angeles limiting Maeda to 20-25 starts. In fact, the Dodgers could soon jettison him to the bullpen with Hyun-Jin Ryu back from a short IL stint and Rich Hill slated to make his season debut on Sunday. For now, the Dodgers will move Ross Stripling — who posted a 3.07 ERA in five starts — to a relief role. This rotation won’t stay entirely healthy for long, so don’t let their depth deter you from buying Maeda (or Stripling) at a notable discount.
The Zero Home Run Club
In 2017, MLB collectively hit 6,105 home runs, smashing the previous year’s record by 495. Already on the cusp of 100 more dingers than the 863 tallied through April that season, all 30 teams could shatter that record by 500 more.
Tommy La Stella has already hit six home runs. Jarrod Dyson, Pedro Severino, and Kyle Farmer each have three. Zack Greinke has two. Everybody is going yard these days. Well, not quite. The following players — excluding those such as Giancarlo Stanton who have succumbed to early injuries — are notably absent among the 312 players who have cleared the fences at least once.
|Jackie Bradley Jr.||13|
There’s too much pop overrunning the majors to wait around on Candelario, Bradley, White, and Flores in most mixed leagues. It’s understandable to drop Jansen in single-catcher formats for a hotter hand such as Mitch Garver, Jorge Alfaro, or Josh Phegley. In many leagues, especially those with two catchers, the alternatives may be bleak enough to stick with Toronto’s slumping neophyte for another week or two.
Drafted specifically for his prodigious power, Aguilar is batting 9-for-68 with just two doubles. The first baseman has taken a seat behind Eric Thames — who has touched them all three times in his last 15 plate appearances — in each of Milwaukee’s last three games. Managers may have to drop Aguilar if an atrocious start has cost him a starting gig.
Did MLB forget to send the juiced balls to Detroit? Three of the club’s top hitters remain without a single long ball, leaving Gordon Beckham as the active leader with three. As much as I liked Candelario entering the season, he’s a drop until improving his .289 xwOBA. Hang tight onto Castellanos, who has actually slightly improved his exit velocity, launch angle, and hard-hit rate from a strong 2018. He finished last year with 23 homers despite mounting his first on April 21, so consider the 27-year-old one of fantasy’s finest buy-low candidates.
At this point, it’s hard to extend the same confidence to Cabrera. Just like last year, the Statcast data (.370 xwOBA) support better results than the actual outcomes. His Triple Crown days are over, but the 36-year-old is at least still batting .279 with a .364 OBP while scorching 32 of his 63 batted balls at least 95 mph. If he stays healthy, the former MVP could potentially offer roughly 15 long balls with a steady average as a solid mixed-league corner infielder. Don’t bank on much more.
Last year, Turner hit one homer in May — his first taste of action after sitting six weeks with a wrist injury — and none in 13 July contests before batting .357 with nine homers from August 1 onward. While he has looked more like the pre-breakout third baseman who toiled away on the Mets’ bench, he still sports a .369 OBP, and there’s too much upside when he’s locked in to panic.
Devers has at least improved his walk (12.4%) and strikeout (15.5%) rates while swiping three bases. Yet a 59.4% ground-ball rate and .324 xSLG pose enough concern about his power funk to avoid actively seeking out Boston’s third baseman in a trade.
Buxton has not hit a major league home run since September 17, 2017, and yet he’s actually displayed plenty of power. Despite the goose egg in this column, the former can’t-miss prospect is still slugging .493 with the help of a dozen doubles. He’s also batting .284 with a depreciated strikeout rate (22.2%), which has helped the outfielder steal five bases. Investors should still be encouraged by Buxton’s homerless start. Given the significant rises in launch angle and exit velocity, he should eventually harness his gap power into more deep balls.