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Sauceda's Slants: Buy Low Report - 8 Hitters to Target


There’s something positively blissful about scanning your rosters and seeing double-digit — or *gasp* single-digit! — ranks up-and-down the roster.

But let’s be clear: these stats are in the past. They’re already banked. They shouldn’t overpower our valuation of them going forward because, really, that’s all that matters — what are they likely to produce in the future?

Think of it as a blank slate. As re-assuring as those high ranks are to see on your team, perhaps there’s another one lying in the weeds, poised to join those upper few but without the commensurate price tag. How do we to identify those players? That is, how do we identify our “buy low” targets?

 

How to Identify a True "Buy Low"

Here’s one cut at a rubric, a three-part one predicated on the best in-season research we have, crafted to identify undervalued hitters:

First, let’s start with a player’s rest-of-season (ROS) projection. In 2014, Mitchel Lichtman found that ROS projections are more predictive of future performance than year-to-date (YTD) performance at nearly every juncture of the season. From Lichtman’s research:

So what are our conclusions? Until we get into the last month or two of the season, season-to-date stats provide virtually no useful information once we have a credible projection for a player. For “hot” players, we might “bump” the projection by a few points in wOBA even 2 or 3 months into the season – apparently the projection is slightly under-valuing these players for some reason. However, it does not appear to be correct to prefer a “hot” player like Gomez versus a “cold” one like Butler when the “cold” player is projected at 25 points better, regardless of the time-frame. Later in the season, at around the 4th or 5th month, we might need to “bump” our projection, at least my projection, by 10 or 15 points to account for a torrid first 4 or 5 months. However, the 20 or 25 point better player, according to the projection, is still the better choice.

Second, while Jonathan Judge and the team at Baseball Prospectus found that Statcast’s expected wOBA (xwOBA) metric isn’t the next big thing as a season-to-season tool, Alex Chamberlain of FanGraphs found that xwOBA is, however, more predictive than actual wOBA in­-season. That’s a key distinction and perfect for our purposes. From Chamberlain’s research, notice how first-half xwOBA has a nearly 25% stronger correlation with second-half performance (“2H wOBA”) than first-half wOBA:

Lastly, and this is less research-based and more psychological, it should feel somewhat unsettling. While you could make a case that acquiring Jose Ramirez would indeed be unsettling, he was a top three pick going into the season and has shown a level of upside few hitters can match. It’s a similar story for J.D. Martinez, who hasn’t performed as well as you’d like — and expect based on his xwOBA — but has still been a top 100 player and is established as an elite hitter. You won’t find any of those names on this list. We can do better. Let’s try harder and dig a little deeper. Remember, these are our buy-low targets. There must be something that feels “off” about the profile that makes their current owner uneasy and might enable acquiring that player’s services for less than full retail.

There we have it, our “buy low” rubric — let's summarize:

We want players who project well the rest of the season, despite any struggles they may have faced so far. We want players who’s xwOBA — that is, their “expected” performance to date based on their strikeouts, walks and launch angles and exit velocities on balls in play — suggests they’re doing things well but perhaps have been a tad unlucky so far. Sprinkle in a sense of real concern from current owners and we have our trifecta for “buy low” conditions.

 

Who to Target

Every team’s positional needs are different, so let’s look across the diamond and identify a “buy low” hitter at each position. Here are eight hitters that can give your team a shot in the arm — but might not cost full freight — ranked here by rough level of priority:

(NOTE: All stats and projections are as of May 23rd, unless noted otherwise. “YTD Rk” is courtesy of the Razzball player rater. “ROS Proj Rk” is an average of Steamer and THE BAT ROS projections, held on Fangraphs. All “expected” stats are courtesy of Baseball Savant.)

 

Drop Everything and Move Now

3B — Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers

YTD Rk ROS Proj Rk wOBA xwOBA BA / xBA SLG / xSLG
195 63 0.355 0.396 .282 / .299 .429 / .515

If you’ve been following our work this season, you’d know we’ve talked about Turner at length already. Two weeks ago, we talked about him as one of 18 hitters — alongside names like Trout, Bellinger, Betts and Martinez — who have been better-than-average at strikeouts, walks, lifting the ball in the air and hitting those balls hard. Four weeks ago, he showed up as an undervalued hitter.

He currently ranks in the top 10% by xwOBA and projections see him as nearly a top 60 player the rest of the way. Oddly, he’s been 22% above average as a hitter by weighted runs created plus (wRC+) — so he’s been good! But it hasn’t translated to the same level of success in fantasy, with a current per-600 plate appearance (PA) pace of 18 HR, 70 runs and 70 RBI. Projections still think he’s closer to a 22-25 HR hitter per-600 PA.

He’s hitting slightly more balls on the ground but otherwise his pristine plate discipline is largely intact and he’s hitting the ball harder than ever. He hits second or third in a loaded Dodgers lineup — I don’t know how you can reasonably expect a good hitter like Turner to continue at a 70 runs/RBI full-season pace.

Maybe current Turner owners see a late-blooming 34-year-old seeing his magical late-career run coming to an end. However, nothing in the numbers suggests that is imminent. I’m not sure how many different ways we can say this: go get him!

(Writer’s Note: Of course, Turner had a 5-hit game the other day on Sunday 5/26, helping his overall rank on the player rater move up 50 spots — hope that doesn’t make the price shoot up!)

 

1B — Justin Smoak, Toronto Blue Jays

YTD Rk ROS Proj Rk wOBA xwOBA BA / xBA SLG / xSLG
299 140 0.345 0.418 .220 / .286 .400 / .550

Hopefully, you grabbed Smoak two weeks ago when, like Turner, we wrote him up as one of 18 hitters doing everything we want to take full advantage of today’s juiced ball environment. After he hit five homers last week and produced a .355/.852 OBP/SLG — pushing his rank on the player rater up over 100 spots, from 299 as of Thursday 5/23 to 170 on Monday 5/27 — maybe it’s too late now.

Still, he remains below where ROS projections and his top 5% xwOBA suggest he could be. He’s hitting the ball harder and lifting more balls in the air than last season and similar to his breakout 2017. Sprinkle in career bests in chase rate, contact rate and swinging strike rate, and you also get the best strikeout and walk numbers of his career. For those in OBP leagues, it might be too late, but inquire now in case the Smoak owner thinks last week’s strong production represents a selling opportunity.

Honorable mention in case it’s too late on Smoak: Brandon Belt (YTD / ROS Proj Rk: 315 / 234; wOBA / xwOBA: .346 / .382)

 

No Guarantee But Cause for Optimism

OF — Yasiel Puig, Cincinnati Reds

YTD Rk ROS Proj Rk wOBA xwOBA BA / xBA SLG / xSLG
182 50 0.264 0.309 .206 / .240 .358 / .437

It’s been a rough year for Puig in his new digs — he’s nearly bottom 10% by wOBA and, while his xwOBA suggests he’s been better, it still sits well below average and in the bottom 35% of the league.

He’s exhibiting classic signs of “pressing” — reaching and swinging more. Unfortunately, the aggressiveness hasn’t worked well and he’s seeing his worst contact and swinging strike rates since his rookie season in 2013.

On the plus side, his current stolen base rate suggests we could see a career high there and potentially more than 20 SB. He’s hitting the ball nearly as hard as he has in the past — although with the ball flying more this season, you could say staying the same is seeing a downtick — and lifting it more. These are normally good things. Throw in the fact that projections still see a top 50 player and that Puig plays in one of the best ballparks in the league, he could be the acquisition that swings your league when things heat up this summer.

Kyle Schwarber, Chicago Cubs

YTD Rk ROS Proj Rk wOBA xwOBA BA / xBA SLG / xSLG
405 136 0.316 0.360 .225 / .261 .401 / .479

Look at Schwarber’s Baseball Savant page and you can see a lot of good things happening:

He’s lifting the ball more and his 97.4 mph exit velocity on flyballs and line drives (FB/LD EV) sits in the top 20 in the league. Typically benched against lefties due to a career platoon split (career 119 wRC+ against righties and 77 wRC+ against lefties), he’s shown signs of improvement there this season — albeit in a tiny 36 PA sample — shaving a few percentage off his strikeout rate on his way to an improved wRC+ (141 against lefties). He’s likely to remain a platoon player — helping boost his rate stats but hurt his counting stats — but has been leading off for the last two weeks, a trend that could help buoy those counting stats (particularly runs).

Like Smoak, Schwarber provides more of a boost in OBP leagues where his walk rate sits in the top 10% of the league, but even in traditional 5x5 leagues, projections think we have a player in the top 140 despite sitting outside the top 400 overall as recently as last Thursday. If his small gains against lefties hold and result in more playing time, he has a chance to beat those projections. As it stands, I think Schwarber is a good bet to be a top 140 player the rest of the way — yet might not cost like it.

 

Nomar Mazara, Texas Rangers

YTD Rk ROS Proj Rk wOBA xwOBA BA / xBA SLG / xSLG
172 118 0.331 0.364 .262 / .290 .451 / .504

Mazara hasn’t exactly been struggling, but there might be another gear in there. I know it feels like we’ve been saying this for awhile, but dude just turned 24 and already has three full major league seasons under his belt! And he’s doing some interesting things at the plate so far this season.

Most importantly, he’s hitting more balls in the air! Not only has he decreased his groundball rate from 55% in 2018 to 47% so far this season — doubling his launch angle in the process — but he also sits in the top half of the league by FB/LD EV. Additionally, a greater portion of his plate appearances are resulting in barrels, that perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle where balls go flying.

His poor weekend has him now sitting well outside the top 200 as of Monday 5/27, but projections still see a player that could perform 100 spots better than that for the rest of the season. Throw in the fact that I don’t think we’ve seen the best from Mazara yet and he plays in a park that you want exposure to, particularly when things heat up this summer.

 

2B — Rougned Odor, Texas Rangers

YTD Rk ROS Proj Rk wOBA xwOBA BA / xBA SLG / xSLG
297 113 0.256 0.277 .162 / .196 .354 / .369

Like his teammate, Mazara, Odor has been teasing us for years. Perhaps worse! And his expected stats don’t suggest this has been anything overly unlucky. But let’s dig in a little further.

First, the good: after showing well below average ability to take a walk in his early days as a professional, Odor significantly improved his walk rate last season to roughly league average … and he’s kept those gains so far this season! He’s also doubled down on his flyball-happy approach and is hitting more balls in the air while hitting those balls roughly as hard as he’s hit them in previous seasons.

Okay, onto the bad: man, that strikeout rate. It’s progressively gotten worse since his 114-game debut in 2014, but a strikeout rate near 34% is untenable. He’s swinging roughly the same amount but making much worse contact on those swings, seeing his swinging strike rate rise to a career-worst 14%. What happened to the 7-8% swinging strike rate that we saw in 2014 and 2015!?

He’s slightly improved there recently, seeing his 15-game rolling strikeout rate closer to 30% — helping his wOBA creep closer to league average during that time — but that’s still not going to get the job done:

Not only that, but his stolen base efficiency has remained poor, currently 4 for 9 (44%) on stolen base success. Given you need to steal bases successfully closer to 70% to “break even,” it’s fair to wonder if Odor will get more red lights on the base paths in the future. Additionally, Odor has struggled with sliders throughout his career and, in a league going to the slider more, that’s not the best combination.

Still, we talked about a true “buy low” needing to make you feel uneasy. Projections think that with a 25% strikeout rate and 15-16 more stolen base attempts at a 65-73% success rate, Odor can be close to a top 100 player the rest of the way. I could have easily put him in the “leap of faith” section below, but Odor’s top-100 upside didn’t feel right there. Don’t get me wrong, this might take a leap of faith to work out, but that’s what makes him a true “buy low” — and might make his current owners inclined to sell off for less than they should.

 

Leap of Faith

C — Willians Astudillo, Minnesota Twins

YTD Rk ROS Proj Rk YTD C Rk ROS Proj C Rk wOBA xwOBA BA / xBA SLG / xSLG
623 203 C-24 C-10 0.297 0.329 .276 / .287 .434 / .462

 Willians “The Tortuga” Astudillo might be too fun of a name to ever be considered a “buy low.” When you do stuff like this, you deserve that treatment.

His approach is perfect for this environment — he basically puts everything in play and, even better, has increasingly done so in the air. His strikeout and walk rates are 5% — combined! He doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard, but with this juiced ball, give me someone who puts it in play and I’ll take my chances.

The bar to be good at catcher is incredibly low and Astudillo’s upside is worth chasing — he projected as a top three catcher per plate appearance before the season and projections think he could be a top 10 catcher the rest of the way. The counting stats could be tough to come by — particularly if Mitch Garver, who’s just beginning a rehab assignment, returns soon — but the upside (particularly if you’re seeking batting average) is worth inquiring about while the current asking price is unlikely to be prohibitive.

Honorable mention in case current owners are too attached to the allure of Astudillo: Buster Posey (YTD / ROS Proj Rk: 525 (21st ranked catcher) / 99 (6th ranked catcher); wOBA / xwOBA: .311 / .331)

 

SS — Manny Machado, San Diego Padres

YTD Rk ROS Proj Rk wOBA xwOBA BA / xBA SLG / xSLG
134 41 0.342 0.346 .267 / .261 .450 / .459

I cheated on this one. Realistically, Machado belongs in the same conversation as the previously mentioned Jose Ramirez and J.D. Martinez. The track record is there and no one is truly going to sell low. But, truthfully, the other shortstop options weren’t great! That’s what makes this a “leap of faith” — Machado might not be acquirable at a discounted rate, but it’s worth trying! (See the honorable mention for the true “leap of faith” option).

Machado’s strikeout rate has ballooned to a career-worst 20%, driven largely by inexplicable drops and career-worsts in contact and swinging strike rate. However, I wonder how much of that was driven by early-season “pressing” due to a new team and hefty contract. More recently, we’ve seen his strikeout revert closer to his career rates, hovering around 14-16%:

Additionally, he’s still top 50 by average exit velocity, exit velocity on fly balls and line drives and percentage of balls hit at least 95 mph. His batted ball profile is largely intact with his career tendencies.

Projections think he’ll play closer to top 40 the rest of the way. I worry that the name value and large offseason signing will drive an asking price close to that — if not pricier — reducing any chance of a discount. Maybe you have a couple players you can package for him — those whose current ranks look tastier but that might be playing over their head. It never hurts to try.

Honorable mention in case you don’t want to let me off the hook with Machado — this is the true “leap of faith” option: Jose Peraza (YTD / ROS Proj Rk: 490 / 207; wOBA / xwOBA: .254 / .265)

More 2019 Fantasy Baseball Advice