Fantasy Baseball: Buy these 12 legit hitter breakouts, from Javier Baez to Mitch Haniger
So the hitter who's carrying you isn't the one you expected to carry you, and you're worried it may not last? If it's one of these 12, says our Scott White, you can rest a little easier.
We've taken to calling them buy-highs.
It's less a literal description than wordplay, buy-lows and sell-highs being among the analyst devices that make for endless conversation fodder if not always the most actionable advice.
What it means, roughly: "This guy has been better than expected, and there's reason to think it'll continue." He's breaking out, in other words.
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Of course, by "continue," I don't mean to the absurd degree that only a small sample size would allow. Javier Baez won't actually sustain a 60-homer pace, for instance, and I dare say Didi Gregorius isn't the league's preeminent RBI guy. The focus here isn't so much on the production anyway. It's the underlying skills that suggest more good times are ahead.
That is why a few of these names may surprise you given that their numbers aren't particularly eye-catching. Others may strike you as fairly obvious given nature of the subject matter (hey, these top performers are good), but you'll notice not every hitter off to a surprising start is here. (And I've alreadywhose performances I'm not totally buying.)
Javier Baez has built such a reputation as a snazzy defender that it's easy to forget he hit 37 homers in the minors one year, regarded then more for his lightning-quick bat and power potential than anything else. Still only 25, he may have finally gotten his wild swing under control, showing an improved strikeout rate, line-drive rate, fly-ball rate, hard-contact rate and basically all the things we've come to understand make hitters great.
Part of the reason I hyped Mitch Haniger to the hills last year is because his minor league-leading .999 OPS in 2016 was built on a swing modeled after Josh Donaldson, which made his modest fly-ball rate during his rookie season a little surprising. Nothing modest about his current 45.8 percent mark -- the sort that makes home runs inevitable for someone who strikes the ball as hard as he does. Throw in an below-average strikeout rate, and we're talking a potential .300 hitter as well, as his perfectly reasonable .314 BABIP to this point would suggest.
It's not just that Didi Gregorius is hitting a bunch of home runs, furthering the trend of the last two years. It's that he's doing it with newfound plate discipline, going from having the ninth-worst walk rate among qualifiers last year to the 17th-best this year. It actually started at the end of 2016, when he drew 12 of his 25 walks over his final 44 games. With as much as contact as he makes, the increasing threat of the long ball has given pitchers reason to fear him, which should make him a more complete Fantasy contributor.
Though having no shortage of believers as he ascended the minor-league ladder, the big question surrounding Ozzie Albies was whether he'd have enough power to stand out in today's environment. Between the seven homers in his final 45 minor-league games to the six in 57 major-league games last year to his six already this year, I think he has answered that question. Having maintained a fly-ball rate over 40 percent in the majors with a contact that keeps his batting average healthy, all that's missing now are the steals.
Perhaps the most open-and-shut case on this list, Jose Martinez has simply continued to do the things that made him great as a part-timer last year, only now with the at-bats needed to shine. With an all-fields approach, a potentially league-leading line-drive rate and an even-better-than-expected strikeout rate, a batting title is in his sights. And his 6-foot-6 frame should be enough to muscle a couple dozen over the fence even if he's not a big fly-ball guy.
As a rookie last year, Matt Chapman had a strikeout rate comparable to Steven Souza and a line-drive rate that condemned him to a BABIP south of league average. In other words, it's no wonder he hit only .234. He has made vast improvements in both areas this year, though, which should lead to All-Star production given his patience and power. He could be like Jake Lamb without the massive platoon problems.
Yoan Moncada's 38.6 percent strikeout rate is outrageous to the point of being impossible, so if he has managed to hit .240 with it, just imagine when it's a more typical version of awful, as in closer to 30 percent like last year. It's not like the home run output has been unsustainably high, and seeing as he has a top-five hard-contact rate and bottom-five soft-contact rate, according to FanGraphs, the .378 BABIP isn't so far-fetched either. It's not like he's getting a bunch of freebie batting average boosters, in other words. If he hits even .260 with the 34-34 pace he's on, he's a stud.
Considering their scarcity and the quantity he could provide, it's all about the stolen bases for Tim Anderson, who already has more than half what he had all of last year -- part of a concerted effort that actually began last September, when he had nine. He's a perfect 17 for 17 during that stretch, so there's no reason to think the White Sox would discourage him from running. And while he's nothing special at the plate, his numbers so far jibe with his batted ball profile and are certainly enough to keep him in the lineup.
Though he profiled as a plus hitter from his earliest days in the Yankees farm system, Miguel Andujar only began to translate the potential to minor-league production last year, when he still hit a modest 16 homers in 480 at-bats. But between Double- and Triple-A, his fly-ball rate was only about 30 percent. It's up over 40 now -- a drastic enough change to completely alter a player's power profile -- and with the same exceptional contact rate that allowed him to hit .316 in the minors last year. He could be the third-base version of Gregorius if the Yankees can live with his defense.
A 32-year-old with two All-Star appearances on his resume, Todd Frazier isn't a breakout candidate in the purest sense, but nonetheless, the skill indicators suggest he's closer to the player he was in his prime than the one we've seen the past two years. The latter still saw him hit home runs but also showed him to be susceptible to weak contact, meaning the home runs had to carry the batting average. His BABIP is closer to normal now, aided by improved line-drive and hard-contact rates. It may just be early-season noise, but given that Frazier's down years were some of his best in terms of ISO and plate discipline, I've suspected the decline wasn't age-related.
Francisco Cervelli is a verified member of the fly-ball revolution, having tweaked his swing to generate more loft this offseason, and more fly balls he's getting, his rate of 50.0 percent ranking 15th in the majors. It was only 27.1 last year, which makes for the starkest of contrasts and helps explain how Cervelli is already more than one-third of the way to last year's extra-base hit total (after homering four times this spring, no less). He has always been a good contact hitter, so even if these changes manifest more as doubles pop, he could be like an in-his-prime Jonathan Lucroy.
Though he showed decent pop in his first two major-league seasons, Max Kepler lost what made him so great in the minors, where he was a supreme bat-control and on-base guy. But so far this year, he has a 12.5 percent walk rate and a 10.9 percent strikeout rate, which are not only his career bests (by far) but are also his exact percentages from his final stint at Triple-A. And what's more, he's looking like a fly-ball revolution guy himself, putting it in the air 49.0 percent of the time compared to 39.5 a year ago. The skills are converging in potentially exciting ways, and quietly, the numbers reflect it.
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