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Players to Target for AVG/OBP (2020 Fantasy Baseball)

by Max Freeze | @FreezeStats | Featured Writer
Feb 11, 2020

Amed Rosario improved his batting average significantly in 2019.

Batting average can be difficult to predict. We have a general idea regarding which players should provide value in this category, but there are so many factors that can throw your perceptions out the window. Take Mookie Betts for instance. He’s been one of the top fantasy performers over the last four seasons, never finishing outside of the top 25 overall. Despite generally providing good-to-great batting average, check out the fluctuations over that time frame: .318, .264, .346, and .295. An 82-point swing from 2017 to 2018 seems crazy. His BABIP was the culprit. It was .262 in 2017 and jumped 100 points to .364 the following season. How can that be?

BABIP is not necessarily stable year-to-year. In fact, it takes 820 balls in play or nearly 300 games for BABIP to stabilize. In other words, we can’t fully trust BABIP during a single year. Since BABIP is the driver of batting average and the metric is difficult to predict, here are the skills I look for in a hitter when projecting batting average:

  • Quality of contact (hard-hit%, barrel%, etc)
  • Batted ball profile (pop-ups and fly balls are bad for BABIP, line drives and ground balls are good)
  • Speed (sprint speed, home-to-first splits)
  • Batted ball distribution (players with elevated pull rates are susceptible to defensive shifts and, therefore, lower BABIP)
  • Low strikeout rate (putting more balls in play obviously leads to a higher potential batting average)

I’ll touch on OBP later on, but many of the same skills are required with the addition of walk rate.

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Players to Target for Batting Average

Amed Rosario (SS – NYM): 135 NFBC ADP
At age 23, Rosario boosted his batting average by 31 points to .287 in 2019. It was fully supported by a .291 expected batting average (xBA), per Baseball Savant. His improvements included a 4.5% bump in zone contact while cutting his chase rate (swings on pitches outside the zone) for the second straight season. The incremental improvements are definitely believable for a young, talented shortstop. Additionally, he improved his hard-hit% while cutting his pop-up rate. He’s not a shift candidate and is extremely fast (top six percent in sprint speed), so last year’s .338 BABIP seems repeatable. If Rosario can cut his already solid strikeout rate a little more, he has a real shot at batting .300 this season.

Jorge Polanco (SS- MIN): 155 NFBC ADP
Unfortunately, Polanco is not running much, and I don’t expect that to change given the depth of power options in the Twins’ lineup. However, Polanco should lead off for this loaded lineup, which means he’s a virtual lock for 95+ runs. With a league-average walk rate, he needs to provide a good batting average to remain atop this lineup. I believe he will. He managed to strike out just 16.6% of the time and has regularly posted zone contact rates at or above 90% (league-average Z-Contact% was 82.9% in 2019). Despite his lack of stolen bases, he’s still a fast dude who fell just short of the top 20% for sprint speed, which will help him leg out a few infield hits. Polanco’s batted ball distribution is a thing of beauty, and his .328 BABIP from last year closely resembles his .317 career rate. I expect Polanco to hit over .280 for the third straight season. 

Bryan Reynolds (OF – PIT): 188 NFBC ADP
Reynolds hit .314 as a rookie, which tied for ninth in Major League Baseball. Skeptics will point to his elevated .387 BABIP as a cause for regression. While I agree that a .387 BABIP is difficult to sustain, Reynolds carried a high BABIP through High-A and Double-A in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Let’s see if he meets the criteria of a player who can maintain a strong BABIP. His hard-hit rate was seven percent better than league average, and his batted balls are evenly distributed to all fields. He also hit line drives and ground balls at higher clips than league average as well while rarely hitting pop-ups. Finally, his sprint speed. He fell into the 76th percentile, which helped provide a solid 9.2% infield-hit percentage. His strikeout rate is average but given his 84.3% zone-contact rate, the outfielder could improve if he lays off more pitches outside the zone. Overall, Reynolds is a great candidate to post another elevated BABIP. While I won’t project another .300 batting average, he could easily finish around .290.

Alex Verdugo (OF – BOS): 231 NFBC ADP
After an initial snag to the blockbuster trade that would send Betts and David Price to the Dodgers, Verdugo is now again heading to Boston, where he should receive plenty of playing time. Unfortunately, he has been dealing with back issues and is currently questionable to start spring training. I covered Verdugo last offseason in this very series, and I have even more confidence in 2020. He’s a prime candidate to take Betts’ spot in right field and lead off for the Red Sox. He hit .294 on a .309 BABIP and struck out just 13% of the time last year. Dodger Stadium plays fairly neutral for BABIP, but playing in Boston offers a big boost for Verdugo. Fenway Park was second among all venues with a .320 BABIP last year behind only Coors Field (.345). Given his high contact approach and potential new home park, Verdugo should hit .300 while batting in front of one of the league’s better lineups.

Daniel Murphy (2B – COL): 248 NFBC ADP
Murphy dealt with a lingering thumb issue for nearly the entire 2019 season. It really hampered his production and playing time. Going into his age-35 season, I don’t expect his power to play up any longer, but a healthy season in Coors Field should yield a .300 batting average. In 2019, Rockies hitters batted .300 with a .348 BABIP at home! Courtesy of Pitcher List’s Dan Richards, check out how well Coors has performed over the last three seasons:

Murphy is a career .298 hitter without the effects of Coors Field. He still has shown elite bat-to-ball skills, evidenced by his 91.7% Z-Contact rate last year. I don’t foresee more than 15 homers, but a healthy Murphy is near lock to hit .300 with a chance for .310 or higher.

Hanser Alberto (2B – BAL): 417 NFBC ADP
Wait, who, you ask? Alberto may just be a deep-league option, but maybe you ended up drafting Joey Gallo and Rhys Hoskins for some massive power potential. You’ll need to balance out your batting average a little bit. Enter Hanser Alberto. He hit .305 last year and struck out just 9.1% of the time. An ultra-aggressive slap hitter, Alberto swings at pitches 12% more frequently than the league-average. That limits his walk rate, so he isn’t as much of an asset in OBP formats. His contact rate, however, is nearly 10% better than league-average. He simply puts the ball in play nearly 90% of the time. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have elite speed and doesn’t hit the ball all that hard, so I don’t expect a BABIP much higher than .300. That said, Camden Yards plays favorably for power, and Alberto hit 12 homers last year thanks to the juiced ball. I could see another eight-10 home runs with a .295 average in 2020. 

Players to Target for OBP

Cavan Biggio (2B – TOR): 134 NFBC ADP
Players with truly elite on-base percentages will provide all the skills I discussed above while also providing elevated walk rates. I’ll focus on the players who may not be as skilled in batting average, but provide huge boosts in OBP. Biggio is going to be the poster child for this type of player. He strikes out a lot, but it’s partially due to his extreme patience. One of the key components to an elevated walk rate is a batter’s O-Swing or chase rate (percentage of pitches a player swings at outside the zone). A low O-Swing% leads to deep counts, which leads to more walks.

In 2019, Biggio had the lowest O-Swing rate (15.8%) among all hitters with at least 400 plate appearances. His 16.5% walk rate ranked fourth. Unfortunately for standard leagues, he swings so infrequently that he finds himself in far too many deep counts, which led to the aforementioned strikeouts and walks. Additionally, pulling a high percentage of ground balls into the shift deflates his batting average. However, he flips from providing negative value in batting average to positive value in OBP. To quantify this, Biggio ranked as the 179th hitter in batting average but 42nd in OBP in 2019.

Andrew McCutchen (OF – PHI): 204 NFBC ADP
McCutchen is 33 years old and coming off an ACL tear, but that shouldn’t dissuade fantasy players from drafting him, especially in OBP formats. He carries a 12.2% career-walk rate and was ultra-passive in his first season with the Phillies, dropping his swing rate by seven percent. It led to a .378 OBP across 59 games prior to his season-ending injury. Steamer is projecting a .359 OBP with just a 12.7% walk rate, a mark that he eclipsed in each of the last two seasons. I’ll take the over on .359, as he will once again bat leadoff in front of Bryce Harper and company. He no longer is an asset in batting average, but he receives a nice bump in OBP formats with a walk rate that was double the league-average. 

Luis Arraez (2B – MIN): 242 NFBC ADP
Arraez is basically a unicorn when it comes to modern hitters. He doesn’t hit the ball hard, like, at all, and is an average runner. His best skill is making contact. His whiff rate (percentage of swings and misses per swing) was just 7.9%! For reference, the league-average whiff% in 2019 was 24.3% and known contact machine Alex Bregman had a 14.3% mark. Additionally, Arraez hits a ton of line drives and goes the other way 12% more often than the league-average. So what he lacks in some areas, he makes up with the sheer volume of balls that he puts in play. Arraez was also patient enough to draw walks at a 9.8% clip in 2019. While he’ll provide a very high batting average, he’s an asset in OBP formats as well.

Trent Grisham (OF – SD): 349 NFBC ADP
Grisham, traded from the Brewers to Padres for Luis Urias this offseason, is a deep-league option for those playing in OBP formats. The Padres’ outfield is crowded but outside of Tommy Pham, it’s full of unproven players or low on-base options. San Diego trading Manuel Margot to Tampa Bay also gives Grisham a clearer path to a full-time job. Grisham, while unproven, is just 23 years old and has never produced a walk rate below 14.6% in the minors. Additionally, his chase rate in the majors was just 22%, nearly nine percent better than the league-average. He’s not a one-trick pony either. Across three levels, Grisham hit 32 home runs and stole 13 bases. Drafters who seek his talents could be in store for a huge bargain if he receives everyday at-bats.

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Max Freeze is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Max, check out his archive and follow him @FreezeStats.

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