Hitters to Target in Deep Leagues (Fantasy Baseball)
MLB’s power paradigm should compel fantasy managers to reconsider the way they evaluate hitters.
I’ve especially been guilty of dismissing breakouts from unlikely sources, ignoring the countless success stories sparked by altered swings and approaches. Yet a handful of these surgers keep clearing fences despite unhealthy contact and strikeout rates. Even when these trends foretell regression, they can’t always be considered deal-breakers when done by design.
An all-or-nothing approach is often part of the plan, and it’s working handsomely for two players highlighted below. Both considerably below-average hitters have suddenly transformed into lethal sluggers. While the law of averages suggests both will fade, it’s possible they have evolved into players to own in deep leagues.
Kevin Pillar (OF – SF): 14% Owned
I’m going to start by breaking a self-enforced rule of limiting this article’s scope to players with single-digit consensus ownership rates. Pillar is rostered in just 6% of Yahoo formats, so he might simply be accounted for in more inactive ESPN leagues. After all, how many diligent managers would keep an outfielder saddled with a .227/.263/.368 slash line through May?
The 30-year-old has turned the corner a bit in June, batting .286 with two home runs and two stolen bases apiece in 12 games. He has also yet to draw a walk all month, giving him seven in 259 plate appearances on the season, so don’t expect the Giants to extend him leadoff duties anytime soon. Pillar is here since he’s an everyday starter who has mustered eight home runs and steals apiece. That production has become par for the course; he tallied 31 combined homers and 29 steals in the last two seasons.
While his putrid .254 OBP is the worst of any qualified position player, he should improve. The former Blue Jay is a career .258 hitter whose 81.1% contact rate hasn’t even dropped a full point below his lifetime norm. Pair the rest of his line with an average closer to .250, and he’s a usable piece in five-outfielder leagues.
Roberto Perez (C – CLE): 9% Owned
Only four catchers (Gary Sanchez, Yasmani Grandal, Willson Contreras, and Robinson Chirinos) have hit more home runs than Perez, who has gone deep 11 times in 179 plate appearances. That’s already a career high for the 30-year-old with a career .363 slugging percentage. Maybe this is just another random hot streak, but the temperature has risen more than enough to take notice.
Per Statcast, his average exit velocity has ballooned from a lethargic 87 mph in May to a superb 94.6 mph, as of Sunday, in June. He’s performing demonstrative better against all pitches during a stretch in which he’s hitting 11-for-30 with two doubles and four home runs.
That’s merely a small slither of 2019, but his .377 xwOBA this season ranks third among all catchers behind Sanchez and Jason Castro. Chirinos, owned in half of Yahoo and ESPN leagues, is the best comp for Perez’s hot start. Neither are hitting for much average, but both have provided plenty of power and walks. Houston’s backstop currently ranks fifth on FantasyPros’ Player Rater, and Perez is quickly gaining ground at 14th.
Unless simply seeking a short-term power boost, Perez is not yet worth adding in shallow single-catcher formats. He has shown plenty of strength, however, to add in any two-catcher or deep league.
Brandon Dixon (1B/OF – DET): 1% Owned
I gave Dixon a glance in each of the past two weeks before ultimately deciding against touting him. Let’s run down all the reasons not to believe in his hot start. Before hitting .278 with seven home runs for the Tigers, he meandered at .178/.218/.358 as a 26-year-old rookie for the Reds last season. His hot start comes with a hodgepodge of poor discipline. In 139 plate appearances, he has just four walks to 44 strikeouts and a desolate 67.0% contact rate. This seems like the quintessential flash in the pan.
OK, now let’s give Dixon some credit. While struggling to regularly make contact, he also crushes when connecting. The first baseman’s 14 barrels already doubles last year’s tally in just 11 more plate appearances. His average launch angle has ascended to 18.9 degrees, which is particularly encouraging when paired with a 52.9% hard-hit rate. Combine those positive factors, and Statcast awards him a .276 xBA and .350 xwOBA despite his flaws.
Regression is still likely. Dixon has overperformed (.455 wOBA, .356 xwOBA) against breaking balls after struggling mightily against them (.100 wOBA, .125 xwOBA) last season. All those caveats aside, this hot streak has earned him regular playing time for the rebuilding Tigers, who are routinely batting him fifth. Brandon Lowe continues to defy the same glaring warning signs, so perhaps Dixon has some more dingers left in the tank.
J.P. Crawford (3B/SS – SEA): 1% Owned
The Mariners continue to clean house. Two weeks after sending Jay Bruce to the Phillies, they shipped Edwin Encarnacion to the Yankees. Remember when baseball’s hottest lineup had a roster crunch early in the season? They’re suddenly seeking warm bodies with Mitch Haniger and Ryon Healy on the IL.
This should mean more playing time for Crawford. Less than three weeks into his May promotion to replace Dee Gordon, the 24-year-old infielder suffered an ankle injury. He has returned to make three starts at shortstop — relegating Tim Beckham to DH duties — in which he has accrued two doubles and five RBIs.
Once considered an upper-echelon prospect, the buzz has faded after years of underwhelming results. He has demonstrated little power or speed, notching just four homers and three steals over 91 career MLB games. Only one of those long balls has come in 2019. Even at his best, he profiles as someone who will help the Mariners more than fantasy investors with strong defense and a commendable OBP.
We’re at least starting to see the useful version of Crawford manifest, as he’s batting .274/.346/.425 with a 113 wRC+ in 19 games. He’ll finally get a chance for a prolonged stay in the starting lineup, and hitting second during both weekend games is another positive sign for his deep-league worth. There’s not much upside, but Crawford could contribute as a depth piece.