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Champ or Chump: Mallex Smith & Mitch Moreland

It's rare for a May transaction to significantly impact the fantasy landscape, but we've had two that did so recently. First, Denard Span and Alex Colome were traded to the Seattle Mariners. Colome's owners are now forced to speculate on who his successor might be in Tampa Bay, while Span's value remains constant as he swaps one leadoff role for another. Mallex Smith could become a fantasy mainstay now that Span is gone though, as his spot atop the lineup is ripe for the taking.

Second, Hanley Ramirez was DFAed by the Red Sox. Ramirez actually hasn't been good at baseball for some time now (hot start notwithstanding), so the only reason to own him was Boston's insistence on giving him a premium lineup slot. That slot now falls to Mitch Moreland, who should combine it with actual talent to make fantasy owners very happy.

Here's a closer look at what these two bring to the table from a fantasy perspective.

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The Fantasy Jury is Out

Mallex Smith (OF, TB) - 27% Owned

Smith swiped 88 bags between two minor league levels in 2014, so fantasy owners have known his name for a while now. The question was always whether or not he could hit enough to play, and so far he has been (.297/.372/.393). He has no power at all (zero HR) and has gone a mediocre 11-for-16 on SB attempts, but the stage is set for a career year.

Let's begin by dissecting his batting average. His .384 BABIP dwarfs his .342 career mark, primarily due to a sky high mark on ground balls (.377 vs. .272 career). He will not continue to hit .377 on ground balls, but there is reason to believe he will surpass his career mark moving forward. When Smith debuted with the Braves in 2016, his average exit velocity on ground balls was terrible (73.8mph). He actually managed to hit them more softly in 2017 (72.3mph). This year, he's up to an average exit velocity of 80.3mph. That's still not great, but it's worlds better than it has been.

Smith is a jackrabbit (29.5 ft./sec Statcast Sprint Speed this year), so it stands to reason that he should perform well on ground balls. Now that he's hitting them with some semblance of authority, he's likely to have a ground ball BABIP of roughly .285 or so the rest of the way.

That will easily be high enough to inflate his overall BABIP. Smith hits very few fly balls (27.1% FB% this year) with an average number of pop-ups (6.9% IFFB%), so most of his batted balls have a high value for his skill set. His 23.4% LD% also looks unsustainable compared to his 20.6% career mark, but the latter is dragged down by an awful 16.3% mark in his debut. Last year's 22% LD% suggests that Smith might be good for a slightly elevated LD% and the BABIP advantage that goes with it.

Smith also strikes out at a league average rate. His 20.6% K% and 11.1% SwStr% aren't remarkable, but they're not a disaster either. Excessive strikeout totals are often a concern with speed specialists who struggle at the dish, and Smith appears to be okay in that regard.

The departure of Span leaves Smith as the most obvious candidate to leadoff on the Rays roster. He hasn't assumed the role yet, but Brad Miller's .310 OBP is hardly suited for the slot. Miller also has some pop in his bat, something that nobody has ever said about Smith (0% HR/FB, 87.8mph average airborne exit velocity, 0.9% rate of Brls/BBE this season). Power is best deployed when someone is on in front of you, something that never happens at the start of a game.

Smith has walked 9.1% of the time this season, but he's unlikely to continue doing so. His 31.1% chase rate is roughly league average, and pitchers should not walk anybody with his legs. Pitchers aren't challenging him this year (43.6% Zone% against), but last year's 46% rate is probably a better projection moving forward.

A reduction in Smith's efficiency on the bases (69% success rate this year vs. 74% last) is mildly concerning, but he should still get his bags with everyday playing time. A pure speed play (with some runs and batting average potential) isn't a fit for every fantasy roster, but it can always help someone.

Verdict: Champ

Mitch Moreland (1B, BOS) - 51% Owned

Lost in the Hanley Ramirez controversy is just how good Moreland has been this year (.321/.394/.652 with eight homers in 127 PAs). Better yet, most of his peripherals suggest that more of the same should be expected moving forward.

His .350 BABIP may appear outrageous compared to his career mark of .288, but Moreland isn't the same hitter he used to be. For example, his IFFB% has been trending downward three years running (10.9% in 2016, 4.9% last year, 2.8% this year). It seems to be some type of swing change that has greatly benefited Moreland, allowing him to increase his FB% (40.9% vs. 36.2% last year and 37.5% for his career) without hurting his batting average.

His contact quality has also been amazing. He's always hit airborne baseballs hard, averaging 94.8mph in both 2017 and 2016 with a 96.8mph mark in 2015. This year, it's up to 97.9mph, the 10th highest mark in MLB (minimum 50 batted balls). His newfound unwillingness to pop-up has also allowed him to post a personal Statcast Era-best 13.6% rate of Brls/BBE (25th in MLB). He was good at barrels last season too (12% Brls/BBE), but wasn't great in 2016 (9.6%) or 2015 (10.7%).

That said, there's no way he maintains his current .321 BABIP on fly balls (.156 career). On the bright side, Moreland appears due for positive regression in a couple of areas that should offset a lower batting average on fly balls. First, his BABIP on ground balls (.167) is considerably lower than his career mark (.209). He faces the shift in nearly every PA (69 of 79), but it's not hurting him much (.319 batting average against it). He's also not pulling that many grounders (52.8% Pull% on grounders this year, 62% career), removing the theoretical justification for shifting him.

Moreland also hits his grounders hard (87.1mph on average this season), so it's not like he's giving opposing defenders easy grounders to field. He is slow as molasses (25 ft./sec Statcast Sprint Speed this year), but his career BABIP already reflects that.

Also, his 18.2% LD% this year is shy of his career 19.7% rate. That may seem minuscule, but when your career BABIP on line drives is .679 (.813 this year), even one percentage point becomes relevant.

Fantasy owners may be hesitant to buy into Moreland's 22.2% HR/FB (15.5% last year and career), but there's reason to believe in it as well. The elite airborne exit velocity and rate of Brls/BBE discussed above explain a HR/FB spike on their own, and Moreland is also pulling a ton of his fly balls (41.7%). His career rate is 18.8%, suggesting a conscious change of approach compared to past seasons.

Statcast believes in Moreland's contact quality. Baseball Savant has metrics called "Expected Stats" that calculate what a given player's batting and slugging percentages should be based only on their exit velocities and launch angles. Moreland's xSLG this season is .670, 18 points higher than his actual mark. These stats aren't perfect, but they become fairly trustworthy when combined with the other metrics above.

Moreland's 11.4% SwStr% in no way supports his 19.7% K%, but his batting average will remain plus even with a few additional Ks. Add in the cleanup slot in one of MLB's most potent lineups, and Moreland quickly deserves an ownership rate in excess of 90%.

Verdict: Champ


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