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Statcast Hitter Risers/Fallers - BA vs Defensive Shifts (Week 17)

Defensive shifts have become a controversial topic, believe it or not, as some people actually contend it is "ruining the game." Recently fired skipper Mike Matheny was in that camp and may have been given the axe in part due to his unwillingness to embrace analytics or any of the changes in modern baseball. Given that this is a series about Statcast numbers appearing on a fantasy baseball site, it's pretty obvious which side of the fence we're on. Like it or not, the shift is here to stay and hitters are going to have to learn to adjust. Our recent deep-dive into Bryce Harper's shift problem was a great starting point, but who else is having similar issues? Let's take a look at risers and fallers throughout the course of the 2018 season.

Many fantasy baseball owners are starting to see the value of MLB's Statcast advanced stats in order to help identify potential risers and sleepers. Just as we do for pitchers, this weekly series will examine a handful of hitters who are performing surprisingly well or poorly according to sabermetrics.

This week, we'll look at batting average when facing infield shifts by comparing April/May outcomes with June/July. While average alone is just one component of fantasy scoring, it drives nearly every other counting stat that matters and is a good starting point for this analysis.

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Surprising Chart Toppers

All stats current as of July 23, 2018 and display leaders among hitters with at least 50 PA for each split

Kendrys Morales (1B, TOR) +.090 vs. shift since June 1

Morales seemed to be done in fantasy circles as he entered his age-35 year, but he's figured something out since the calendar turned to June, keeping his average at .277 since then. A large part of this undoubtedly has to do with his improvement against the infield shift. Specifically, he's hitting .440 as a left-handed hitter to right field and is hitting .400 on balls pulled. Sadly, this doesn't mean much since the power hasn't been enough to make him a starter in most mixed leagues. He is hitting the ball well, just not over the fence, as his days as a 30+ HR hitter seem to be over.

Cody Bellinger (1B, LAD) +.102 vs. shift since June 1

We forget that rookie phenoms sometimes fall back to Earth and fall hard. Bellinger was on the verge of being sent down to the minors back in May, but his .289 BABIP is now within 10 points of last season's figure. A young player facing pronounced shifts will face a steeper learning curve, but it also might be easier to make those adjustments than a 10-year veteran who is more set in his ways. Truthfully, the higher average is a relief, but Bellinger isn't going to deliver on his preseason draft value unless he finds a way to replicate last year's 25.2% HR/FB and starts hitting the ball hard with more frequency.

Kole Calhoun (OF, LAA) +.139 vs. shift since June 1

After looking into his first two months worth of Statcast numbers, I pretty much wrote off Calhoun as a fantasy asset weeks ago. He was near the very bottom in barrel rate, xBA and every other telling stat that you want to see in a slugger. The 30-year-old has finally turned things around, however, and is batting .280 with six HR, 11 RBI, and 11 R in 14 games this July. The best news is that his recent resurrection has seen him in the leadoff spot on occasion, although he has also found himself in the nine hole just as frequently. Calhoun isn't the most high-end of waiver wire prospects these days, but he's at least a proven veteran in a good team situation. Now that he's figured out his shift problems, we could see the Calhoun of old rather than just an old Calhoun.

Carlos Gonzalez (OF, COL) +.077 vs. shift since June 1

CarGo is still hanging on as a starter in Colorado and seems to be getting stronger as the season goes on. Gonzalez has increased his average each month, from .246 in April to .316 in July. Not known as a dead-pull hitter, Gonzalez has nonetheless made a dramatic change in batted ball profile by dropping his pull rate seven points from his career average and hitting the ball to the opposite field higher than ever since becoming a regular starter in 2010. None of the young outfielders we expected to take his job away have made a dent in his playing time, so feel confident that CarGo can keep delivering throughout the second half.


Alarming Bottom Dwellers

Asdrubal Cabrera (2B/3B/SS, NYM) -.168 vs. shift since June 1

OK, so seeing a Mets position player here isn't too alarming, but Cabrera has seen his stock drop the most. Cabrera was a solid infield streamer early on, but is hitting just .225 against the shift over the last two months in 80 plate appearances. The main problem is that teams shifting him more often after seeing his power stroke return. He hit just .188 against the shift last year, but that came in just 48 such PA. This season, it has been implemented on 136 of his 388 PA. If Cabrera can't adjust, he could return to a mediocre MI option.

Mike Moustakas (3B, KC) -.092 vs. shift since June 1

Moose is hitting the ball harder than ever (43.5% Hard%), is hitting the ball out of the yard at a fine rate, and could soon get an upgrade if he is moved to a contender before the trade deadline. He's struggled against the shift lately, evidenced by a near-100 point drop in average since June began, but a minor correction in BABIP could lead to a decent enough average. In this case, unlike Bellinger, his power production is better and more sustainable. Now just imagine him in a Yankees uniform...

Edwin Encarnacion (1B, CLE) -.087 vs. shift since June 1

Encarnacion's overall average against the shift is .252 this season, which is actually better than his overall .233 average. He is hitting the ball to the opposite field more than ever (23.8%) and has a career-high 42.7% Hard hit rate as well. He should be doing much better, as he currently has a .285 xBA against the shift and .263 xBA in all situations. Expect the average to climb once his luck on balls in play turns around, at least if he can improve his plate discipline and cut down on his ever-increasing strikeout rate.

Bryce Harper (OF, WAS) -.066 vs. shift since June 1

I won't spoil Elliott Baas' great article, as you should check it out yourself, but suffice it to say that Harper hasn't figured out a way around defenses adjusting for his extreme pull tendencies (45.1% pull rate). This may in part explain why his BABIP is a full 127 points below last year's inflated .356 figure. It's amazing to see just how much his batting average has fluctuated over the last five years, but if this pattern holds, he's definitely due to hit well over .300 next season, if that's any consolation to dynasty owners.

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