You may have heard that the 2020 season has been less than conventional. Nonetheless, we've accepted it as reality. Everything that has happened during it is part of MLB canon now and, thus, has inherit legitimacy. But from an analytical standpoint, it's still murky.
The sample is small — a little more than one-third of a typical MLB season — and external factors related to coronavirus, from scheduling quirks to restricted access, have influenced the results as well.
We discuss some of these perplexing hitters on the Wednesday edition of the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast. Follow all our of podcasts and subscribe here.
So while the data we have is important and meaningful, it's also incomplete, which will require us in the ranking world to fill in some of the gaps ourselves, playing bigger hunches than we've had to in recent years.
In anticipation of such, here are the 15 hitters most likely to drive me crazy:
There's no confirmation bias to lean into here. As 2019 breakouts went, Austin Meadows' was considered "safe." It seemed like a natural follow-up to a solid rookie showing, and the advanced stats backed it up. So the idea he could be as bad as he has been this year, with a bloated strikeout rate and a ton of lazy flyouts, is a tough pill to swallow.
I'm willing to bet a delayed start because of a positive COVID-19 test really threw off his game and that he might have been able to rebound in due time, but how much I'd stake on it is another matter, especially knowing the Rays' willingness to mix things up.
J.D. Martinez's greatness was so well established that a season like this one would have seemed impossible coming into it, but he has always relied on in-game video to break down his swing, telling Tom Verducci back in March that it's what's made him the hitter he is. Maybe it's as simple, then, as him not having access to it this year because of health and safety guidelines. Then again, because of the Astros' sign-stealing scandal, there were already restrictions placed on it even prior to the pandemic, which is why it came up in March. So is he just a victim of circumstance, is this his new reality, or was he destined to regress anyway at age 33?
Given the enormity of last year's breakthrough and the way he staggered to the finish line, Josh Bell had his share of detractors coming into 2020, but his struggles aren't a case of him reverting to his former self. The gains in exit velocity have in fact carried over. It's just that the contact skills that have spanned his entire career have suddenly gone missing. Complicating the matter further is that he's showing signs of improvement as we approach the finish line, but he's obviously not going to finish with the numbers we hoped to see.
Brandon Lowe's strikeout rate has improved considerably, and his xSLG suggests his power production is legitimate. But he has run so hot and cold this year — with the cold coming most recently, his batting average dropping about 90 points over a three-week span — that it's hard to say whether his early success was just some crazy hot streak. Would his numbers continue to normalize in the wrong direction if the season wasn't ending abruptly, or would he have had time to come roaring back? The need for quality second basemen encourages a glass-half-full outlook.
He has still destroyed baseballs for the little bit he has played in 2020, but the fact is Giancarlo Stanton will head into 2021 having more or less sat out two straight seasons. Injuries have come to define him even more than home runs have, and enthusiasm for him next year figures to be, rightfully, at an all-time low. Maybe it'll present a value opportunity, but deciding what ranking properly weighs both the risk and reward feels like just a guessing game. And frankly, the same could be said for Stanton's teammate, Aaron Judge.
Kris Bryant has played most of this season with a nagging wrist injury while also contending with finger, elbow and knee issues along the way, so maybe he deserves a pass for bad health. But health has become a longstanding concern for him, and he was already trending the wrong direction statistically. Nobody was expecting him to drop off a cliff this year, obviously, but even if you wanted to make a case for his resurgence next year, enthusiasm for it would be greatly diminished.
The bottom line is that two months isn't enough time to tell us who a player really is, so the fact Teoscar Hernandez has pulverized the ball for two months' time, producing the sort of exit velocity and hard-hit rate that you'd normally see from someone like Nelson Cruz, doesn't tell us for sure whether this career fringy has taken a stud turn. There's nothing in the underlying numbers to suggest otherwise, but normally we'd be skeptical of this kind of performance from this kind of player even if it spanned a full six months.
One overlooked storyline this year is the way Oracle Park has played, becoming not nearly so punishing for hitters. Partly, it's due to a change in dimensions, but the greater impact may be the decreased air flow in right field, where certain standing-room areas have been closed off with no fans in attendance. It's yet another reason to question the extent of Mike Yastrzemski's breakthrough, given how much of his production has come at home, and seeing as the surprise 30-year-old has exceeded his expected stats, according to Statcast, he already figured to be a polarizing player this offseason.
Frank Stampfl and I recently got into a little bit of a kerfuffle about Jose Abreu's 2021 ranking on the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast, which inspired me to include the first baseman on this list. Certainly, he has been money for Fantasy Baseballers this season — and at a position rife with underachievers — but it's coming from a guy who hit .275 with an .818 OPS the previous two years. It's the sort of production we haven't seen from him since his rookie 2014 season, and seeing as he's now 33, I would have bet against him sustaining it for a full season. Still, you have to ask yourself which first basemen are worth ranking ahead of him.
It's another case of the track record needing to count for more than ever given how brief this season has been. Statcast says Wil Myers deserves every bit of the career-best numbers he has put together so far, but it's largely because of an outlier barrel rate that might simply reflect him getting hot at the right time. His strikeout rate is more or less in line with career norms, and considering it has typically produced a batting average closer to .250 and OPS closer to .800, I'm reluctant to take his 2020 numbers at face value.
As one of the Javier Baez's loudest detractors the past couple years, it's tempting for me to say I told you so. His poor plate discipline and sub-optimal launch angle had him threading a needle statistically, requiring his quality of contact to remain impeccably high. We've indeed seen slippage in that area while his plate discipline has also gone from bad to worse. But if it's a volatile profile, is it so crazy to think he could disappear for two months before revving back to form? He is only 27, so a decline of this severity just doesn't make sense.
The strikeout rate is positively absurd and certainly disqualifying of anything in the vicinity of a respectable batting average, but strikeouts haven't been a longstanding issue for Gary Sanchez. And seeing as he's hit the ball as hard as ever this season, it's not like he's forgotten what to do with a bat in his hands. He's young enough to hold out hope for a resurgence, and frankly, there aren't many places to turn for assured production at the catcher position anyway.
For all his greatness, Jose Altuve has never hit the ball particularly hard or particularly high, so those looking to exit velocity and launch angle for possible answers are discovering that his shortcomings there are nothing new. Could the slight uptick in strikeouts be to blame? Was it genuinely trash can lids driving all his success before? Or was he already showing signs of decline but got bailed out by a juiced ball and career high in home runs last year? There are more questions than answers for a player who should have more left at age 30.
It would be so easy to conclude that the little bit of extra carry on the ball in 2019 was enough to turn Ketel Marte into a monster. His average exit velocity and xSLG in 2020 have been more in line with 2017 and 2018, according to Statcast, suggesting that he's reverted to his prior form. But it would also be confirmation bias. The pandemic-shortened season denied us a chance to vet the theory fully, and no matter how much you may want to roll with it, the position he plays makes for added incentive to see the glass half full. Second base, you may have noticed, isn't looking so hot.
Ranking in the 98th percentile in average exit velocity last season was the key to Yoan Moncada's success, so it's no wonder he has struggled this year, performing in the bottom third of the league in that area. The strikeout rate has climbed back up to 30 percent, too, putting even more emphasis on his quality of contact. He doesn't have a long enough track record for us to write it off as a small-sample fluke, and yet the upside remains so tantalizing for the 25-year-old.