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Sauceda's Slants - Take Action on Early Season Trends


Someone recently DM’d me on Twitter asking where I’ve been. Where had my writing gone? I must admit, I was flattered that someone enjoyed my work and was curious why we hadn’t seen more.

So what? Why am I telling you this? All for the glorification of my massive ego? (And perhaps to suggest you’re free to slide into my DMs anytime?)

Not entirely. Truth is, I’ve been purposely lying in the weeds. I’m trying my hardest not to look at stats right now. Don’t get it twisted, I’m still following along closely — but trying, and sometimes failing, to remain very selective in what I see.

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Avoid Jumping to Conclusions

It’s not easy. After all, early-season confirmation bias is pure, unadulterated euphoria. But falling for small samples can drive rational people to do irrational things. Still, games are being played and new information is being generated. Surely there are some things we should be looking at, right? Of course!

For starters, we already know that league-wide strikeouts are at an all-time high, fastball usage is down for the 12th straight season and hitters are hitting the ball harder than they ever have in the Statcast era (since 2015). But what else should we be looking at? What other trends are brewing under the surface that we should be taking notice of before our league-mates do?

That’s precisely what we hope to accomplish with this regular “Sauceda’s Slants” series. As Bryan Colangelo suggested, let’s go find some new slants — here are three things that have caught my attention in the season’s early going:

 

Joey Gallo On the Verge Of Reaching a New Level

Like I mentioned above, I’m not interested in outcomes yet. Give those more time to marinate. What I am interested in, however, are some of the raw skills driving those outcomes.

While more data is always better, some things are already starting to become meaningful. For instance, we know that maximum exit velocity on one batted ball is meaningful. We also know that a hitter’s strikeout rate starts to become more meaningful around 70 plate appearances, a mark that some are fast approaching (Stephen Piscotty currently leads the league with 67 PA at the time of this writing).

If strikeout rate is beginning to form then it stands to reason that some of the underlying swing metrics — given their greater per-swing samples — might be instructive. Based on plate discipline research from Pitcher List’s Dave Cherman, contact metrics have the strongest correlation to strikeout rate. However, that still leaves us vulnerable to smaller batted ball samples.

Instead, let’s look at who might be improving their approach at the plate the most compared to last season — that is, swinging more at pitches in the zone and less out of the zone. After all, swinging at strikes and not swinging at balls is typically a good thing.

Here are the biggest improvers from last season, as measured by the percentage of swings on pitches in the zone (Z-Swing% on FanGraphs) minus percentage of swings on pitches outside of the zone (O-Swing% on FanGraphs, commonly referred to as “chase rate”):

Name 2018 2019 Diff
Melky Cabrera 31% 59% 28%
Dee Gordon 27% 50% 23%
Byron Buxton 34% 55% 21%
Peter O'Brien 42% 63% 21%
J.D. Davis 42% 59% 17%
Alex Gordon 37% 54% 17%
Leury Garcia 35% 52% 17%
Stephen Piscotty 36% 52% 17%
Jake Bauers 40% 56% 16%
Cody Bellinger 39% 54% 16%
Joey Gallo 42% 57% 15%

One name that immediately pops out to me is Joey Gallo. He’s cut his chase rate in half so far! This has helped nudge his contact rate up, which could be a boon for his ungodly 38% career strikeout rate. It’s still ridiculously early but if he’s able to sustain some of the approach and translate that into strikeout improvements, we could be looking at a monster season and a borderline superstar in on-base percentage (OBP) leagues.

Following a season that left some disappointed, might a similar shift — swinging at more strikes, fewer balls — unlock another level for Cody Bellinger? Bellinger owners certainly aren’t complaining so far.

Similarly, could an improved approach be the key for Byron Buxton? He’s struggled with strikeouts (32% career strikeout rate) so far in his short MLB career and an improvement in approach could go a long way towards helping him fulfill some of the promise many have bestowed upon him.

 

Expect the Unexpected - Lean into the Chaos

Every year during draft season, we as a fantasy community are consumed by a player’s opening day role and immediate path to playing time (or lack thereof). As the baseball season kicks off into full gear and opportunities for playing time unexpectedly arise, I’m always reminded of something I’ve grown to increasingly embrace in football, a concept known as “antifragility.” The idea is that as volatility, randomness and disorder ensues — what I like to refer to as “chaos” — other teams suffer from being fragile. The idea is to build a team that is antifragile — that is, as other teams grow weaker, yours gets stronger.

It would be impossible to build your team into a perfectly antifragile state, but you can embrace some of the concepts. Already we’ve seen unexpected role shifts, call-ups and injuries breathe greater value into players like Willians Astudillo, Ramiel Tapia, Clint Frazier, Peter Alonso and Fernando Tatis Jr. We’re not rooting for any of these things to happen — injuries, poor play and so on. But they inevitably do happen and you need to be prepared for them.

Lean into that chaos by stashing — or being ready to quickly add — high-upside players who could see significant spikes in value should chaos ensue. Maybe you missed out on one of the above players but are scouring your wire for who could be next.

Here are some names that popped on my preseason projections on a per-PA or per-inning basis — suggesting that, if given a full breadth of playing time, they could be quite productive:

Maybe none of these guys would be sexy league-winners — perhaps except Josh James or Franchy — but you could be acquiring an impact player for free … while one of your league-mates get weaker. Think through other plausible scenarios where someone else could step into relevancy and be ready to strike if and when that happens. Or, better yet, before it happens — lean into the chaos and expect the unexpected.

 

Stolen Bases Are Down Again

As if it wasn’t hard enough to acquire stolen bases at reasonable prices in drafts, attempts (SBA) continue to trend downwards:

With fewer steals to go around, we need to be judicious in identifying early trends. Given stolen bases are driven by a mix of intent and skill, perhaps there’s something we can glean from team’s early season behavior.

It’s still super early, so let’s just assess the extremes — starting with the teams that have seen their stolen base attempts increase the most over last season, as measured by SBA per 10 opportunities: (Note: I used singles, walks and hit-by-pitch (HBP) as a proxy for an opportunity)

Team 2018 2019 Diff Diff % New Coach
Mariners 0.797 1.231 0.434 54%
Astros 0.632 1.058 0.425 67%
Royals 1.115 1.507 0.392 35%
Rangers 0.735 1.087 0.352 48% Y
Athletics 0.378 0.635 0.257 68%

Right away, I’m chalking up the Mariners and Royals increases to personnel change — newly added Mallex Smith and a healthy Dee Gordon for the Mariners, and the acquisition of Billy Hamilton and a full season of Aldaberto Mondesi for the Royals.

I’m more intrigued by potential shifts in philosophy for the Astros and Rangers. Given their emphasis on analytics and the relatively small value of a stolen base, I’m not completely buying this change for the Astros. Still, there was smoke in spring training that George Springer might steal more and it’s interesting that so far we’re seeing Springer’s highest attempt pace since 2015. I’d inquire looking to pay his rest-of-season (ROS) projection price (24 HR / 8 SB) and hope that I might pocket a few extra.

As the only team with a new coach on this list, the change for the Rangers might be the most meaningful. It could be largely explained by a healthy Elvis Andrus and near-full-time Delino DeShields, but it also gives me optimism that Rougned Odor might continue attempting to steal bases despite his previous inefficiencies. Then again, that could be me trying to preserve my sanity with all my Odor shares. Let’s get moving, Rougned!

Let’s look at the other side of this list, the biggest decliners compared to last season in SBA per 10 opportunities:

Team 2018 2019 Diff Diff % New Coach
Brewers 1.019 0.619 -0.399 -39%
Dodgers 0.625 0.224 -0.401 -64%
Blue Jays 0.568 0.133 -0.435 -77% Y
Indians 1.082 0.606 -0.476 -44%
Rockies 0.864 0.345 -0.519 -60%
White Sox 1.022 0.482 -0.540 -53%

I cheated to include six, as I felt including the Brewers was interesting considering they haven’t significantly changed personnel. I’m not worried about this given those that we want stealing bases — Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich — already have four and two attempts, respectively. But I’ll keep an eye on this.

While you didn’t draft many Dodgers’ to be your rabbits, A.J. Pollock owners (*raises hand*) may want to take notice. Hitting primarily out of the fourth and fifth spot might be great for his RBI opportunities but could hurt his stolen bases. You might also be holding out hope that Cody Bellinger puts together the full dream season by chipping in more than 10 stolen bases. If that’s the case, let’s hope this is an early-season blip and not a mandate from Dave “Doc” Roberts to slow down on the base paths.

The rest of the teams on here don’t interest me as much but keep an eye out to see how these trends continue.

There are many other things to watch for and we’ll be here all season to help track those: changes in velocity, pitch mix, launch angle, etc. For now, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter (@RotoPope) — even if it’s just to tell me to get a new slant. I look forward to being here with you all season!

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