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Sauceda's Slants - Six Hitters to Buy for Today's Environment


Pitching days can be pure euphoria — firing up the games to watch your pitchers (hopefully) mow down the opposing team for several innings. Catching one of your hitters’ at-bats just doesn’t create that same lasting feeling.

Or, at least that’s what I used to say. Nowadays, I find myself bracing for dear life whenever I tune in to watch a start or go onto my phone to check the stats. This new environment has completely shifted that paradigm, something I wrote about on CBS last week.  I’ll save you some time and rehash the gist here:

  • Starting pitchers are giving up more home runs (HR) than ever
  • Fly balls are as dangerous as ever, giving up the highest Isolated Power (ISO) on record
  • More balls are being barreled — Statcast’s definition of an optimal batted ball for a hitter — and more barrels are leaving the park

Given these changes, it’s more important than ever to have pitchers that keep the ball out of play (strikeouts) and out of the air (minimize fly balls).

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Fly Balls Are Flying

But if that’s true for pitchers, wouldn’t we want the opposite for our hitters? If the ball is flying more than ever, wouldn’t it be more important for our hitters to put the ball in play, particularly in the air?

I’d say so, especially when you consider the difference between a fly ball and a grounder this season:

Batted Ball Count % AVG SLG ISO wOBA wRC+
Fly Balls 8,249 36% 0.243 0.745 0.502 0.388 145
Ground Balls 9,660 43% 0.233 0.255 0.022 0.212 27

(NOTE: doesn't add to 100% as line drives aren't shown)

Fly balls doing more damage has long been the case but has been exacerbated over the last 15-plus seasons.

Based on this, let’s go identify some hitters who are perfect fits for this environment — ideally those that might not cost a lot to acquire today.

Leveraging the analysis from the piece above regarding pitchers, here’s one rubric to identify who that might be, identifying hitters who:

  • Put the ball in play (avoid strikeouts) and take free bases (walks) — above 50th percentile by both strikeout rate (K%) and walk rate (BB%)
  • Lift the ball in the air — above 50th percentile by fly balls plus line drives (FB+LD%)
  • Hit those balls hard — above 50th percentile by fly ball and line drive exit velocity (FB/LD EV)
  • Above average by expected weighted on-base percentage (xwOBA) (league average is 0.326) — while Jonathan Judge of Baseball Prospectus found that xwOBA isn’t predictive season-to-season, research by Alex Chamberlain found that xwOBA is more predictive in-season than actual wOBA

 

Fly Ball Hitters to Consider Targeting

I started with 177 qualified hitters (minimum 100 PA) and after applying those filters, we’re left with 18 names, sorted here by xwOBA:

(All statistics as of 5/8)

Name K% BB% FB+LD% FB/LD EV wOBA xwOBA
Cody Bellinger 15.1% 12.5% 69.4% 98.0 0.520 0.501
Mike Trout 11.3% 23.4% 64.8% 94.7 0.432 0.476
J.D. Martinez 14.4% 10.5% 60.2% 95.8 0.380 0.465
Freddie Freeman 17.1% 14.0% 63.9% 95.7 0.388 0.425
Hunter Dozier 18.7% 14.4% 64.1% 96.7 0.464 0.415
Paul DeJong 15.9% 9.6% 69.6% 94.2 0.427 0.409
Anthony Rizzo 14.7% 12.7% 61.7% 93.8 0.386 0.396
Kris Bryant 19.0% 14.3% 66.7% 95.3 0.382 0.396
Marcell Ozuna 21.0% 10.5% 63.9% 96.7 0.376 0.392
Justin Turner 16.6% 11.3% 62.3% 94.5 0.362 0.391
Jorge Polanco 14.0% 10.5% 77.9% 94.0 0.417 0.387
Justin Smoak 21.0% 15.2% 67.5% 93.8 0.349 0.381
Dansby Swanson 20.7% 10.0% 62.5% 95.4 0.348 0.379
Mookie Betts 14.2% 14.8% 59.3% 93.8 0.380 0.367
Mike Moustakas 21.1% 9.0% 71.1% 95.7 0.371 0.365
Jose Ramirez 14.4% 11.0% 67.9% 93.6 0.264 0.339
Max Kepler 17.4% 9.8% 60.4% 94.9 0.342 0.330
Maikel Franco 10.6% 10.6% 59.4% 93.7 0.316 0.326

Now we’re talking! This is a fun list and right away we can cross off several names who are likely to be quite expensive to acquire.

Good luck acquiring Cody Bellinger for anything right now. Everything he’s doing is legitimate. File this away as a point in favor of betting on secondary breakouts from players who do extraordinary things at the major league level at a young age — sophomore “slumps” be damned.

You’ll also see several names that went high in drafts — Mike Trout, J.D. Martinez, Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Mookie Betts and Jose Ramirez. If it weren’t for a shoulder injury that depressed his numbers in 2018, Marcell Ozuna likely would have joined them. Hell, Mike Moustakas wasn’t far off from being a top 100 pick during draft season.

At any rate, you don’t need me to tell you these guys are good, although perhaps their inclusion lends credibility to our approach. It’s the others on this list that we’re interested in. Those that might not cost quite as much to acquire.

 

Fly Ball Hitters to Definitely Target

Whether they’re considered “buy high” or “buy low,” here are six worth exploring for acquisition:

(All expected batting averages, xBA, and expected slugging percentages, xSLG, courtesy of Baseball Savant as of 5/10)

 

Hunter Dozier (1B/3B, KC)

BA / SLG xBA / xSLG
.331 / .661 .298 / .565

Dozier might be among the most improved hitters this season, particularly when you consider his drastically improved plate approach — he’s chasing pitches far less and swinging less in general, telling the Kansas City Star that he’s trying to wait on his pitch:

“Something I’m trying to be a little better at is really only swinging at good pitches.” – Hunter Dozier

And when he does swing, he’s making more contact and punishing those balls in the air (78th percentile by FB+LD% and 88th percentile by FB/LD exit velocity). Steamer rest-of-season (ROS) projections still see him as replacement level — projecting him as roughly the 50th best corner infielder (CI) — which might create a buying opportunity.

His expected stats suggest that his performance has been largely “earned” to date and he has the perfect profile to take advantage of this environment. As a prospect, he was selected by the Royals as the 8th overall pick in 2013 and earned a 65-grade power rating from FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen. There is some pedigree here and if someone thinks they’re selling high, I’ll be there to buy.

 

Paul DeJong (SS, STL)

BA / SLG xBA / xSLG
.329 / .582 .312 / .561

 DeJong has long shown the power, dating back to 2017 when he hit 25 HR in 443 PA. What’s particularly impressive is his steady plate approach improvement:

Season K% BB%
2017 28.0% 4.7%
2018 25.1% 7.3%
2019 15.9% 9.6%

In three short seasons, he’s gone from below average to above average in his plate approach — improving his strikeout and walk rates each season. While his contact skills have remained similar, DeJong is driving this improvement by swinging at fewer balls and more strikes, something we previously hinted as a key to a Joey Gallo breakout.

Not only that, he ranks among the top 10% in the league in terms of hitting the ball in the air (either through fly balls or line drives). If it weren’t for a hand injury that impacted his 2018, DeJong may have been drafted significantly higher in drafts this preseason.

Maybe that’s what the projections are now saying? Steamer ROS projections see DeJong in a similar class as buzzier shortstops like Xander Bogaerts, Jean Segura, Carlos Correa and Tim Anderson. Of course, many of those guys contribute hard-to-get speed but if you have that category taken care of, I bet you could deal one of those guys for DeJong and a meaningful upgrade elsewhere.

 

Justin Turner (3B, LAD)

BA / SLG xBA / xSLG
.297 / .442 .298 / .515

If you’re reading RotoBaller regularly — and you should be! — then you would have read our own Kev Mahserejian telling you to grab the boring-yet-undervalued Justin Turner two weeks ago. After slugging three homers — three! — just a few nights ago and then tacking on another one the next night, maybe it’s too late now. Maybe we’ve missed our chance. But with the slow start and old age (34), maybe we still have a shot? He still ranks as just the 161st best player, according to the Razzball player rater. That’s hardly prohibitive.

And unlike the others above, this isn’t the case of some massive improvements driving a new level of play. This is just a proven hitter struggling to see results despite continuing to do many of the things we covet — not striking out, taking walks and hitting the ball hard in the air. I mean, dude has been 50 percent above average as a hitter (as judged by wRC+) these last two seasons!

Sure, he might get hurt at some point, but projections still see him as a top 10 third baseman for the rest of the season, behind only Arenado, Ramirez, Baez, Bryant, Bregman, Rendon, Guerrero Jr. and Moustakas. I highly doubt he costs anywhere near as much as those guys, although if you wait another couple of weeks, he just might.

 

Jorge Polanco (SS, MIN)

BA / SLG xBA / xSLG
.344 / .649 .293 / .553

Polanco isn’t getting enough love for his breakout so dammit, let’s give it to him! Few have transformed to the extent Polanco has — among those with at least 300 PA in 2018 and 100 PA so far this season, Polanco ranks 4th in terms of the largest groundball decrease. He’s gone from hitting fly balls at a roughly league average rate to now top five in fly balls and number one in hitting balls in the air (i.e., fly balls plus line drives).

Maybe looking at this graphically will drive home just how drastic of a shift this has been:

It’s somewhat of a surprising shift considering many believed Polanco’s carrying trait to be speed moreso than power. It would be one thing if he were a slap hitter and doing this, but he ranks in the top 40% of the league by FB/LD EV and second in average flyball distance (behind only Gary Sanchez).

Hitting the ball in the air more has helped boost his real-life value but for fantasy purposes, the elephant in the room is … why has he stopped stealing bases!? Despite his sprint speed being roughly the same as his last two seasons per Statcast, his stolen base attempts per opportunity have fallen off a cliff — decreasing by nearly 85 percent from last season. (NOTE: Opportunity loosely defined here as singles + walks + hit-by-pitches)

Steamer ROS projections think Polanco is a top 8 shortstop — based on the changes we’ve seen so far, they may be giving too much credit for speed and not enough for power, so perhaps the net effect remains a roughly accurate valuation. Still, as fantasy owners, we’d love to see more speed. Under new manager Rocco Baldelli, the Twins are attempting stolen bases roughly 10 percent less often per opportunity as they did last season. This certainly suggests a change in strategy, however, it’s not as drastic of a decrease as we’ve seen for Polanco so far. If he starts stealing bases again at just a 10 percent decrease from his previous rates — while holding his current power gains — watch out.

 

Justin Smoak (1B, TOR)

BA / SLG xBA / xSLG
.239 / .410 .264 / .505

It was just two seasons ago where Smoak finally put it all together — the promise that made him the 11th overall pick in 2008 and tantalized fantasy owners for years — and produced a top-12 first baseman season. Despite his struggles last season to fully re-capture that level of production, he’s increased his walk rate for the third straight season and decreased his strikeout rate closer to 2017 levels.

He’s reaching less and, like Dozier above, swinging less in general, making more contact on those pitches that he does go after. He’s hitting fewer grounders and lifting the ball more. He’s hitting the ball harder and he’s seventh in average fly ball distance.

Projections like him firmly as a startable CI in 12-teamers, rating as the 35th best CI by Steamer ROS projections. While he’s owned in 71% of CBS leagues, based on our Twitter mentions, he might be available in your league. Either way, I doubt he costs much more than a throw-in and he’s particularly valuable in OBP leagues where his 92nd percentile walk rate really plays.

 

Dansby Swanson (SS, ATL)

BA / SLG xBA / xSLG
.258 / .477 .277 / .520

While projections don’t see Swanson as much more than a low-end middle infielder (MI) in 12-team leagues, he’s doing some interesting things under the hood. Like DeJong, he’s chasing fewer pitches outside the zone and swinging at more pitches inside the zone. It tends to be good when your hitters spit on balls and swing at strikes.

When he does swing and make contact, he’s hitting the ball harder than ever before — his average exit velocity is up to 91.6 mph, an increase from the 86.8 mph he sat at during the last two seasons. He’s in the top 30 percent of the league in terms of lifting the ball (FB+LD%), 79th percentile in terms of exit velocity on those balls and top 40 by barrels per plate appearance. He’s killing the ball! We could be looking at a 20 HR and 15 SB player about to live up to the promise that made him the 1st overall pick by the Diamondbacks in 2015.

Many of these names have teased us more than once, so I understand your trepidation. Healthy skepticism will never go out of style. But just know that we’re in a (relatively) new lane — balls are flying and home runs are higher than ever. These hitters might represent relatively low costs of admission to take advantage of these shifts. If you’re still not buying it, you might be living in the past, man.

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