Welcome back to our third edition of Turning Two. We've now discussed who will hit 50 HR, and who will rack up 300 K. This week we flip back to the hitters to discuss a challenge that has not been tackled in seven years; hitting .350 for a season. A .350 batting average is a daunting task. Hell, .330 is an amazing feat. Remember when Tedd Williams hit .406 in 1941? Of course you don't (unless you're at least 76, then I say thanks for reading pops!). Given the advances in baseball (relief pitching, defensive shifts) it takes a rare breed of player to overcome the odds and reach .350, let alone tinker with the idea of .400.
Since 2000, thirteen players have achieved an average of at least .350. Ichiro Suzuki has done it four times in that span! But since 2010, only one player has had such a season (Josh Hamilton; .350 in 2010). Chances are, Ben and I will go 0-for-4 in our picks. There's no fun in that pessimism, so let's take some swings at this topic and hope we strike gold!
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Turning Two: Who Will Hit .350?
1. Miguel Cabrera, DET (1B)
I am going to go just about as safe as it gets for my first pick. Although Miggy has never reached .350, he has come damn close twice, hitting .348 in 2013 and .344 in 2011. The dude is one of the best hitters of all time. Last season he hit over .300 for the eigth consecutive season, although the .316 mark was quite a ways from today's bold prediction. But I believe some of the statistics from 2016 point to a monstrous 2017 campaign, culminating in a .350 BA.
First off, Cabrera is getting older. Duh, right? At the age of 33, we can expect a players bat speed to begin to decrease, and begin to have more trouble catching up to the fastballs. We've even already seen the trend with Miggy according to Pitchf/x, as his value against fastballs had decreased for three straight seasons heading into last year. But the 5.5 wFA he posted in 2016 is a laughable outlier. Go ahead and toss that out. Prior to that, his lowest value was over 13. That will undoubtedly even out in 2017, which will be an easy increase in the BA department. The second outlier statistic Cabrera suffered last season was his splits vs left handed pitching. He hit .302 against southpaws, which is 15 points lower than his career average, while hitting a higher LD% and Hard% than his career marks. I don't care what the BABIP numbers say, that doesn't add up. It might not seem like much, but when we're aiming for .350 every little blip returning to its norm is going to help.
But even with having an "off year" against the cheese and lefties, Miggy absolutely balled out over the second half. He hit .346 and earned the second highest wRC+ after the All-Star break. He increased his line drives, increased his hits up the middle of the field, and increased his hard hit percentage to a terrifying 47.9%. If that kind of momentum doesn't scream .350 BA, I don't know what does.
Ben: Can’t argue if you think a former triple crown winner is going to hit .350, especially considering he has hit over .310 every year but one since 2005.
2. Jose Ramirez, CLE (3B/OF)
If you go safe with your first choice, you got to follow it up with a pick like Ramirez. It looks absurd, considering the man only has one full MLB season under his belt, but hear me out. Ramirez broke onto the fantasy scene in 2016 after taking over the starting third base gig for Cleveland. He hit .312/.363/.462 while posting an impressive 0.71 BB/K ratio, aided by the fifth lowest strikeout percentage in the league. He was an elite contact hitter, ranking in the top ten of both contact percentage and swinging strike percentage. But the dude isn't out there just slapping infield ground balls. Ramirez has what you would call "gap power". His high line drive percentage and surprising speed make him a doubles machine (third most in the league) and will help keep the BA consitently high. The bonus you get with Ramirez is the switch hitting ability, which is great for matchups. He hit almost identical batting averages against both RHP and LHP pitching last season (.312, .311).
Much like Miggy, a lot of my juice behind this pick was found in the second half stat book from 2016. After the break, Ramirez hit .329 while even further cutting his K% and increasing his Hard% by seven points. This shows me that the 24 year old is still getting better at the plate, and I don't believe for a second we've seen the best of him yet. Did I mention he's only 24 years old?? With his elite contact percentages, high amount of line drives, speed, and continuous improvement at the plate, Jose Ramirez is literally just a small BABIP increase away from reaching the .350 BA. Here's to those friendly bounces coming in 2017!
Ben: Ramirez was a big surprise for Cleveland last season, partially due to his BABIP taking a huge leap (.232 in 2015 to .333 last season). He did make some nice improvements in his approach, but I need to see if the improvements stick before I’m buying .350.
1. Jose Altuve, HOU (2B)
Jose “Gigante” Altuve has emerged as one of the primier hitters in the league over the past three seasons for Houston. Over that span, he has hit .331 with some excellent underlying statistics. His strikeout percentage has been under 10% every season, and his walk rate rose to 8.4% last season. Altuve struck out only 10 more times than he walked last season; his 0.86 K/BB rate was ninth in the league. His hard contact percentage has risen each of the past three seasons, and was over 30% for the first time last season. His soft contact percentage was a measly 13.6% last season, which was top-20 among all hitters.
Altuve’s BABIP has been fairly consistent over the past three seasons, so there is no reason to expect a regression in his game there. His ISO has also risen over the past three seasons, as evidenced by his rising HR totals. Though that total may dip this season (career-high 13% HR/FB rate last season, nearly double his career average), there is no reason why Altuve can’t take another step in his game and break through to the .350 mark. Last season he hit .300 every month until September, and he hit over .350 twice (he hit .420 in June). He hit over .300 against left and right handed pitching, the second time in his career he accomplished that feat (2014, when he hit .341). If I’m putting my money on one player to hit .350 this season, its Jose Altuve.
JB: Career high line drive and hard hit percentages last season, which are definitely great signs for a high BA. But the GB/FB ratio has decreased each season since 2012, so if he is unable to at least replicate those two career bests- while still trying to hit the most HR ever by a 5'7" human being, this years BA will look more like the .313 we saw in 2015.
2. Francisco Lindor, CLE (SS)
Boy, do I love me some Francisco Lindor. Known for his silky-smooth fielding abilities coming through the minors, he was not projected to make a major impact offensively. When he arrived in 2015 even the most optimistic Lindor supporters had to be surprised with his production. He hit .313/.353/.482 with 12 HR and 12 steals in 99 games. He proved that start to be real in 2016, slashing .301/.358/.435 with 15 HR and 19 steals in 158 games.
Though his average took a slight dip, his plate discipline improved; his walk rate improved to 8.3%, and his strikeout rate fell to 12.9%. His soft contact percentage fell two percentage points to 17.2%, and those points went straight to his hard contact percentage, which rose to 27.5%. Lindor was able to drop his outside swing percentage to 30.3% last season, and increase his contact percentage on outside pitches to 71.4%. This also helped lead to his swinging strike rate dropping from 8.6% to 7.7%.
Lindor is a legit hitter at the major-league level even if he didn’t appear to have this potential in the minors. He will continue to provide highlight reel defensive plays for the Indians, while providing fantasy owners with a SS who can chip in in all five categories. If Lindor continues making strides in his approach while hitting in a loaded Tribe lineup, he has a chance to make the leap to .350.
JB: Why are people paying so much for this guy when you can get the same production out of Jose Ramirez later in the draft? Different discussion for a different day I suppose. But there's no way Lindor hits .350 before Ramirez. Same speed, less pop (don't care about the HR totals), less contact, and subsequently more strikeouts. Maybe after Ramirez does it, he can teach Lindor his secrets.
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