By The Numbers: Matt Olson, Julio Urías, Josh Donaldson
Skeptics often use numbers as tools to spoil the party. Instead of enjoying a good thing, fantasy baseball managers are trained to dig into their bag of metrics and see why the fun won’t last.
Other times, a deep dive does just the opposite.
At first glance, the first hitter highlighted is merely enjoying small-sample fortune out of whack with career norms. On further inspection, he’s made tangible improvements. If they stick, we’re looking at a high-grade fantasy phenom.
Matt Olson (1B – OAK): 16.5% Strikeout Rate
For all his ups and downs, Olson always delivers dingers. Only 10 hitters have hit more home runs since the start of 2017 than Olson, who offered 24 in just 59 games during that historic rookie campaign. After only tallying 29 long balls in a full 2018, he regained his elite power stroke with 36 the following year. With 18 more taters this season, he has 32 in 124 games when including the shortened 2020.
Drafters expected prodigious pop, but they took a pricy gamble on Olson repairing last season’s .195 batting average. He’s done so in resounding fashion, going from a major liability to a tremendous asset. In a season that’s harvested a microscopic .238 league-wide batting average, Olson is batting .297 with the best contact rate of his career.
This is typically when an analyst turns to a hitter’s BABIP to explain such atypical results. That’s not the case here. Olson’s .291 BABIP isn’t massively above his career .278 clip. (If anything, last year’s .227 BABIP represents his career outlier.) The 27-year-old has drastically improved, which is most evident by a strikeout rate that’s far below MLB’s game-wide average of 24.0% and easily the lowest mark of his career.
Such a steep shift is uncommon. No qualified hitter has dropped their strikeout rate from 2020 to 2021 more than Olson.
The biggest difference is his ability to catch up to heaters. After batting .207 with a 40.5% whiff rate off fastballs in 2020, he's now hitting .308 with a 22.4% whiff rate.
Perhaps this progress shouldn't be too shocking. Olson's .274 expected average (xBA) and 15.1% barrel rate are in line with his .273 xBA and 14.5% barrel rate from 2019. Last year's fall below the Mendoza Line looks like the clear fluke for the career .252/.344/.513 hitter. Pairing this enhanced contact with a .306 ISO, Olson is inching into the top tier of fantasy first basemen.
Julio Urías (SP - LAD) : 11.4 pVAL (Curveball)
Permanently parked into the Dodgers' rotation, Urías is making good on his ace upside. Fourteen starts into his season, the 24-year-old southpaw has submitted a 3.54 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. He also boasts the best strikeout (26.9%) and walk (3.9%) rates of his career. Perhaps most surprising of all, his 84 innings -- already a career-high -- ties Yu Darvish for ninth among all qualified pitchers.
He's succeeded on the strength of baseball's best curveball, as measured by FanGraphs' pitch values (pVAL).
When operating as a starter in 2020, Urías upped the pitch's usage rate significantly from single digits to 22.5%, per Statcast data. This year, he's throwing the curve 32.8% of the time. Higher frequency hasn't diminished the offering's dominance; opponents are hitting just .142 with a .165 wOBA.
The terrifying part for hitters? His changeup has induced an ever lower wOBA (.156). The same pitch that yielded a .316 batting average last season has baffled batters to a .149 mark.
So wait, how does anyone ever hit Urias then? Unfortunately, his fastball has gone in the opposite direction. After netting a .265 wOBA and 9.7 pVAL last season, his heater is responsible for a ghastly .404 wOBA and minus-7.4 pVAL. Of the eight starters with a worse pVAL from their fastball, only Luis Castillo and Domingo Germán should be rostered in any fantasy leagues.
We're playing with splits in June, so this amounts more to "fun with numbers" than reading too heavily either way into the widely varied pitch results. When including last year's playoffs, Urías has a 3.11 ERA in his last 162 innings. He's a near top-20 fantasy starter when healthy. The only concern is whether the Dodgers send him to the bullpen later this summer to taper his workload and keep him fresh for what they hope will be another World Series run.
Josh Donaldson (3B - MIN): 12.1% Barrels/Plate Appearances
The names atop MLB's barrel leaderboard won't surprise many fans paying attention to 2021's early results. However, chances are few would have guessed Donaldson sits second behind Shohei Ohtani and Fernando Tatís Jr.
Donaldson is hardly having a disappointing season given his diminished draft price and baseball's plummeting batting averages. The 35-year-old is batting .237/.335/.453 with 10 home runs in 54 games. Then again, a .340 wOBA is his lowest since 2012. Since he wasn't too spectacular (.222/.373/.469) in limited time last year, someone studying his surface stats might wonder if the former MVP is nearing the end of the line.
That's before clicking on his Statcast page. Donaldson's average exit velocity (93.2 mph) and hard-hit rates (50.7%) are both above career norms. So are his .275 xBA and .385 xwOBA that present hope of better days ahead.
He's also striking out at his lowest rate (18.3%) since 2017 while hitting the opposite way (28.0%) more than usual. This has led to opponents shifting against Donaldson at the lowest percentage (10.9%) since Statcast began tracking in 2016. This isn't a case of an aging, all-or-nothing pull hitter swinging right into the defense's traps.
If he stays healthy, Donaldson should eventually get hot. He's teased such a streak with two multi-homer games this month, but his K rate has also surged to 28.6% in June. Keep close tabs on the Bringer of Rain, who might not have too high an acquisition cost.
Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | SoundCloud | iHeartRadio
If you want to dive deeper into fantasy baseball, be sure to check out our award-winning slate of Fantasy Baseball Tools as you navigate your season. From our Lineup Assistant - which provides your optimal lineup, based on accurate consensus projections - to our Waiver Wire Assistant - that allows you to quickly see which available players will improve your team, and by how much - we've got you covered this fantasy baseball season.