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Champ or Chump: Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Lorenzo Cain


The trade deadline is rapidly approaching, both for real MLB clubs and most fantasy rosters. At this point, it can be a good idea to take a deep breath and assess what you currently have on your roster and what you might need to pursue your goals. Part of this process is evaluating whether the numbers next to a particular player are really what you should expect moving forward.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. has been showing more power than anybody expected, clubbing 16 big flies in 236 PAs. Should we expect it to continue? Likewise, Lorenzo Cain has largely disappointed fantasy owners in his age-33 season. Is a rebound in the offing, or is his goose cooked?

Keep in mind, our Champ / Chump conclusions are based on whether we think a player will outperform their expectations. For example, a pitcher we view as "Tier 2" can be a Champ if they're seen as a Tier 3 pitcher, or they could be a Chump if they're perceived as a Tier 1 pitcher. All ownership rates are from Yahoo! leagues unless otherwise noted. Let's take a closer look at Gurriel Jr. (henceforth just Gurriel) and Cain, shall we?

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Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (2B/SS/OF, TOR)

77% Owned

Gurriel has an impressive .295/.343/.599 triple slash line and five steals to go with his homers, so he's been a real find for his owners thus far. While his surface results are comparable to his 2018 debut (.293/.309/.446 with 11 HR and a steal in 263 PAs), his underlying metrics suggest a significant change in approach. The power should continue moving forward, but his average seems primed for a drop off.

Gurriel flashed some plus power in 2018 (17.5% HR/FB), but scouts didn't love his power potential (40/45 Game Power on the 20-80 scouting scale per FanGraphs) and his underlying Statcast metrics weren't great (92.4 mph average airborne exit velocity, 7.8% rate of Brls/BBE). Furthermore, his 33.2% fly ball rate made it tough to project more power from him without a drastic change of some kind.

Gurriel has solved all of these problems en route to a 23.5% HR/FB in 2019. First, he has raised his fly ball rate to 42%, right where a slugger wants to be. A good chunk of the improvement came out of his LD% (23.7% in 2018, 18.5% this year), but it's still a positive development for his power. His average airborne exit velocity has also spiked to a well above average 96 mph, while his 12.3% rate of Brls/BBE also represents a substantial improvement over his prior performance. Gurriel's Pull% on fly balls has fallen a bit (20.6% vs. 33.3% last season), but remains high enough to produce power numbers at hitter-friendly Rogers Centre.

Fantasy owners are usually willing to trade batting average for more power, and this seems to be what Gurriel has done. As noted above, Gurriel has given up some line drives for more homers, putting downward pressure on his average. Hitting more fly balls is also bad for BABIP, especially when your IFFB% goes from 3.2% (2018) to 11.8% (2019). Despite this, Gurriel's BABIP on fly balls has actually increased year-over-year (.173 vs. .096), a trend that will not continue all else being equal.

Gurriel's ground balls are more productive than most (.281 BABIP this season) thanks to a combination of above average foot speed (27.6 ft./sec Statcast Sprint) and exit velocity (86 mph on grounders), so hitting more flies could impact him more than other players. His SwStr% has also increased by two percentage points (11.9% vs. 13.9%), suggesting that Gurriel may be swinging harder and sacrificing contact ability for pop. As a result, his slight uptick in K% (from 22.4 to 24.2) makes perfect sense. His chase rate has improved slightly (36.9% vs. 39.3% last season), but is still higher than you'd like.

Baseball Savant assigns Gurriel an xBA of .265, a number that sounds reasonable considering all of the factors above. He'll still hit for power at a strong clip, and his position as the #3 hitter in Toronto's lineup should give him plenty of counting stats. Gurriel looks like a strong fantasy asset in the second half, though the shape of his production is likely to lean more toward the power categories.

Verdict: Champ (based on continued power production with a neutral BA)

 

Lorenzo Cain (OF, MIL)

85% Owned

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably state up front that Cain is my favorite player in baseball right now. His .252/.313/.364 line with just six homers and 11 steals (five CS) has hurt me too, so I understand feeling frustrated with his lack of production to date. That said, all of the metrics this column typically looks like suggests that Cain is having a fluke down year more than an age-related decline. Dropping him for something off of a depleted waiver wire just isn't the right move.

Cain's BABIP (.294) is well off his career rate (.341). The biggest reason why is a substantially lower BABIP on ground balls (.226) than he has posted over his career (.288). Despite this, Cain's 88.4 mph average exit velocity on grounders is right in between his 2018 (88.6 mph) and 2017 (88.2 mph) marks. Cain is not a guy who cares about the shift, and his Statcast Sprint Sprint (28.1 ft./sec) is still excellent even if he's lost a half a step relative to 2018 (28.6 ft./sec). Quite frankly, there's no obvious reason why his ground balls shouldn't be substantially more productive over the rest of this campaign.

Similarly, Cain's line drives are dramatically underperforming their usual production (.579 BABIP vs. .689 career). Despite this, Cain's 91.1 mph average airborne exit velocity is his highest mark in the Statcast Era, beating his previous best (89.1 mph in 2016) by two whole ticks. His LD% is also higher than usual, 25.4% vs. 22.8% career. Most of the spike has come out of his FB% (22.7 vs. 28.6 career), a number that was already too low to support much power anyway. In short, Cain's batted ball profile and contact quality are just as good as they usually are. He just doesn't have the results to go with it.

Cain's plate discipline fueled a career year in 2018, but his 2019 metrics are far from bad. His 28.2% chase rate isn't as good as the 24.9% rate he boasted last season, but it's still better than his career 30.2% rate. Similarly, his 8.1 SwStr% is better than his career mark of 8.8% if not quite up to last season's 6.9% standard. It says here that both his 7.5 BB% and 17.2 K% will improve in the second half, though they probably won't be quite as good as they were in 2018.

Baseball Savant pegs Cain for a .281 xBA, a number that would not only help fantasy owners directly but also give Cain more opportunity to swipe bases. The Brewers have stuck with Cain as their leadoff man, so he should score runs in bunches as well. If his current owner has soured on him, it's a good time to try to buy-low on Milwaukee's speedster.

Verdict: Champ (based on likelihood of a full rebound)

 

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