Slumping Studs: Why They Suck, and Who Will and Won’t Turn it Around (Part 4)

It’s time for another edition of Slumping Studs, and this week Baseball and Brews is diving into the numbers behind three stars who are failing to meet expectations: Josh Donaldson, Trevor Story, and Christian Yelich. I’ll diagnose what’s wrong with each hitter and provide a prognosis for their performance for the remainder of the season so you can make an informed decision on whether to buy, sell, drop, or add. As always, I’ll end with a craft beer review to make your Monday more tolerable. Let’d get down to it!

Christian Yelich, OF (MIA)

yelich.jpg

I don’t really have a word to describe whatever expression is on his face, I just thought everyone should see it

The synopsis: You might be wondering why Yelich is even on this list (which is why I started with him). The Marlin’s talented 25-year-old outfielder is have a respectable season by anyone’s standards, and is currently slashing .288/.364/.412 to go along with 57 R, 8 HR, 44 RBI, and a perfect 8 SB in 8 tries. ESPN ranks him as the 26th best overall outfielder, and he bats third in a solid Miami lineup.

Unfortunately for Yelich owners (such as myself), these stats are not what we signed up for when he was drafted at an average of 46th overall. Yelich was supposed to be a top-30 fantasy player overall, not top-30 at his position. Yelich was a first-round draft pick by the Marlins in 2010, and he made his MLB debut almost exactly 4 years ago in July of 2013. Since then, he’s been a fixture in the Miami lineup, showing improvement and posting good stats each year until last year’s breakout where he slashed .298/.376/.483 while scoring 78 R, driving in 98 RBI, and slugging an impressive 21 HR with 9 steals to boot.

While most fantasy experts predicted the 25-year-old Yelich would build on, or at least maintain, last year’s impressive season, the reality has been more mediocre than that. Chiefly, we are not seeing the power that we expected from Miami’s Center Fielder, and the All-Star numbers we were hoping for have not showed up yet.

The diagnosis: Christian Yelich is a talented hitter who has flashed 5-tool upside. He hits for average, boasting a .292 career mark over 574 MLB games. He hits for power, posting a career-high 21 bombs last season after Miami moved in its fences, which has helped the young slugger immensely as FanGraphs accurately predicted by noting his extreme HR/FB split, with Yelich posting a vastly better HR/FB rate (18.7%) on the road versus at home (4.5%) prior to last season. He steals bases, with 64 SB to only 14 CS over the course of 3 full MLB seasons and two partial ones.

His 2017 slashline of .288/.364/.412, while seemingly close to his career averages, falls well short in the Slugging department when compared to last year’s excellent mark of .487. You can see the problem even more clearly by looking at his paltry .125 ISO, which falls below his career average of .135 and well below last year’s career-high mark of .185, which is still nothing to write home about.

Scouts have painted Yelich as a guy with a plus-plus hitting tool potential and a 20-25 HR potential. He appeared to have reached that potential last season when he hit .298 and went deep 21 times, indicating he was continuing to develop and may have finally figured out his power swing (with some help from the aforementioned shallower Miami fences). Was his power surge last year a mirage? Or has he merely hit a speedbump in his development?

This was an interesting one to dive into: on the surface, Yelich’s peripheral stats appear to be more or less in line with career averages. He’s walking a bit less often, but he’s also striking out less, too, and has posted a career-low K% and career-best K/BB%. Yelich’s Soft Contact Percentage is a career-best 14.8%, with his Hard Contact Percentage of 35.4% besting his career-average and representing his finest Hard Contact season outside of last year’s career-high of 38%. Where he’s hitting the ball hasn’t changed either, with his Pull %, Opposite %, and Center % all hovering around career norms and all within less than 1.8% deviation from last year’s career-best power-hitting season. His plate discipline isn’t the culprit either, as Yelich is again within career norms for O and Z-swing metrics, and actually posting better contact-rates than last year’s breakout season in all areas (O, Z, and Overall Contact are all better than 2016).

So where is the red flag hiding? First, his HR/FB rate sits at 13.8%; lower than his career average of 16.1%, and significantly lower than his 2016 mark of 23.6%. So we know that when he elevates the ball, it’s leaving the yard at a drastically reduced rate. When it really gets interesting is when we look at the splits of his Fly Balls by location:

HR/FB% when Pulling (to right) HR/FB% when going Center HR/FB% when Opposite (left)
2016 (best year) 80% 19.4% 14%
2017 27.3% 6.7% 12.5%

The big discrepancies are pretty glaring: Yelich hit an astounding 80% of his Fly Balls to Right Field for Home Runs last year, but he’s down to just 27.3% this season, good for a whopping 52.7% freefall in HR’s when hitting Flies to Right. His Center Field HR rate also plummeted from last year’s 19.4% mark to just 6.7% in 2017.

The reason? Launch angle. A significant drop in launch angle. Check out his 2016 Launch Angle chart about halfway down the page there; it’s not insane, but it’s a big, solid chunk of hits raked in between 0-20 degrees off of his bat. This year, however, Yelich’s launch angles are noticeably lower and range from about -5 degrees to 15 degrees. His AVG Launch Angle in 2017 currently sits at an abysmal 4.7 degrees; well under the MLB average launch angle of 12.38 degrees.

Could it be as simple as that? Let’s take a look at his HR swing from this season (first GIF) and last year (second GIF). Keep an eye on his right elbow and where he makes contact:

giphy

2017 Yelich HR

Lance Lynn makes a mistake and misses his location up and on the outer part of the plate. Notice how Yelich’s elbow stays up and level with his chest? He makes contact just above the belt and does a nice job of just driving the ball, but he also opens up his hips a bit and pulls his back leg in towards the plate.

Compare that with this GIF from his 2016 season, also a HR swing:

giphy1

2016 Yelich HR. I promise I didn’t pick this one because it’s off Papelbon (though I’m sure we can all agree he’s a terrible person)

Another mistake pitch that hangs over the plate, and again Yelich makes the pitcher pay. In this one, you can see Yelich swing in one smooth motion, with no major movement in his back foot until he leaves the box, he keeps his arms in and his elbow bent below the chest, and gets what is clearly a lot more lift on the ball.

yelich 2017 contact.gif

2017 still-frame of contact point

2016 contact.gif

2016 still-frame of contact point

The Verdict: Sell high if you can (to a Marlins fan or during his recent hot streak), but do not drop him, and do not look to buy him for anything other than what he is: a guy who will flirt with a .300 BA, score 100 R, knock in 70+ RBI, and hit 12-16 HR with 10-15 SB. Yelich has not drastically changed his approach at the plate or where he hits the ball, and the vast majority of his peripherals line up with his 2016 breakout and career numbers. He’s hitting at a still-impressive clip of .288 after posting multi-hit games in 6 of his last 7 starts (but no HR in that span). He’s a very good outfielder and rosterable in all formats, but in his 5th big league year (4th full season) I think that 2016 Yelich is his ceiling when it comes to power numbers.

I think that Yelich is more of a high-teens low-twenties ceiling for HR’s, and that scouts and prognosticators may have hopped on the hopeful hype train a little too early. I would not be surprised to see Yelich reach 20 HR again in his career, but I would not look for him to ever eclipse 25 HR, and certainly not this season (currently on pace for 14 HR).

The Reason: Yelich’s .338 BABIP sits at a career-low (career-avg of .359), so we can expect his average to continue to rise and end up between .290-.300, and his 57 R scored puts him on pace for a career best and his first season of 100+ R. However, he’s also on pace for between 13-15 HR and less than 80 RBI, and with a low-to-moderate SB upside he blends into the upper-mid-tier of fantasy OF. Don’t get me wrong, he’s quite good, and rosterable in all formats, but his power numbers are not going to help you, and his deep stats appear to show an inability to properly elevate the ball when he Pulls and goes Center, spelling big trouble for his HR/FB rate and ISO.

Josh Donaldson, 3B (TOR)

Josh-Donaldson-Jays.jpg

The synopsis: Josh Donaldson is a 31-year-old right-handed slugger currently hitting 3rd for the Toronto Blue Jays. Besides having an awesome first name, Donaldson has put himself on the fantasy map by hitting 131 Home Runs over the past 4 years and posting a career slashline of .277/.366/.501. Since moving to the Blue Jays in 2015, Donaldson went from top-tier slugger to SuperStar status: hitting 41 and 37 HR in 2015 and 2016 respectively, along with identical marks of 122 R in each season and 222 RBI driven in. Wowsers. No wonder he was drafted as a top-ten first-rounder in virtually every fantasy draft in America this year.

The reality has been less than the expectations, however, starting the first two weeks of the season before missing 38 games with a Strained Right Calf, coming off of the DL on May 26th and failing to right the ship despite a promising June. Donaldson was drafted with the expectation that he would post 35+ HR, 100+ R and RBI, and a .280ish AVG to go with a .380ish OBP. His slashline through 49 games sits at .254/.374/.462 with 9 HR, 20 R scored, and 28 RBI. Accounting for his time missed due to injury, his current pace projected over a full season would have him posting 29 HR, 66 R, and 92 RBI if he was healthy. Those are low, low numbers for JD, and they’ll be even lower once you take out the 38 games he missed on DL: if he keeps up his current pace, he would finish the year with 22 HR, 50 R, and just 70 RBI over 124 games.

The diagnosis: The pessimistic facts tell us that Donaldson is on the wrong side of 30 and coming off of an injury, causing many owners to push the panic button. Worse still is his seasonal decline: in an admittedly truncated April in which he played the first 9 games before being injured, JD slashed .310/.429/.586. He only played 4 games in May so that sample is too small to consider, but in June Donaldson slashed .247/.364/.473, and now .229/.386/.314 in July. Yes, his July Slugging is actually lower than his OBP. Ouch.

His batting average and slugging have gone down each month, with his OBP also taking an overall dip despite surging by 20 points from June to July. He’s hit one HR in the past month and change. Aside from a lonely dinger against Houston just before the All-Star break, you have to go back to June 11th to find his last HR on the stat sheet. In fact, outside of said HR, Donaldson has no extra-base hits in the month of July. Not one. And that’s not good.

Like Yelich, Josh Donaldson’s peripherals paint a rosy (and therefore confusing) picture: his BABIP is exactly in-line with his career average (.302) and is actually a hair better than the .300 BABIP he posted last season. Additionally, his Batted Ball stats (Pull, Center and Opposite hit % and Soft, Medium, and Hard Hit %) are all in line with career averages, and actually line up most similarly to his 2015 MVP season.

In short, he doesn’t appear to be doing anything differently. He’s seeing the ball just as well as ever. He’s hitting the ball just as hard as his MVP season, and he’s hitting the ball to the same areas of the ballpark as he always has.

The lovely thing about baseball, however, it’s that it’s (almost) never about one single stat. JD’s ISO sits at .208; his worst mark since 2014, and well below his career average of .224. We know that the power isn’t there, and the question is why? Part of the answer is his overall Contact Percentage, which currently sits at a career-low of 72.9%. Contact Percentage measures the total amount of contact (be it a hit, foul, out, etc) that a player makes when swinging at the ball. The higher the Contact Percentage the better; you don’t want guys who swing the bat and can’t even graze the ball, no matter what the outcome. Let’s take a look at some key contact stats for JD:

O-Swing% O-Contact % Z-Swing% Z-Contact % Overall Contact %
Career Average 25.6% 62.8% 67.3% 83.5% 76.8%
2015 (MVP year) 25.1% 60.2% 70.7% 82.8% 76.0%
2017 23.8% 53.9% 63.0% 81.2% 72.5%

(a quick refresher: O-swing measures pitches swung at outside of the zone, aka bad pitches. You want that number to be low. Z-swing represents pitches swung at inside the zone, aka strikes, or good pitches. O-contact measures how often the batter is able to make contact at “bad” pitches swung at outside the zone, ditto for Z-contact on “good” pitches swung at inside the zone. Overall Contact Percentage measures how often a batter is able to make some kind of contact with the ball when he swings, which you obviously want to be a high number)

Two major stats stick out: Donaldson’s massive drop in O-Contact (down almost 10% from career average) and his Z-Swing Percentage. JD is riding the struggle-bus extra hard on pitches outside of the strike zone. While you want the O-Swing % to be low, you want the O-Contact % to be high: if you’re gonna swing at a pitch that isn’t a strike, you’d better do something with it. On the other side of the equation, Donaldson is not swinging at good pitches inside the strike zone as much. Essentially, he’s not able to make as much contact with “bad” pitches and he’s not swinging enough at “good” pitches. When he does get off his lazy millionaire ass to swing at a pitch, he’s doing the worst job of finding the ball with the bat since his rookie year: posting a career-low 72.5% overall Contact rate, showing that the 2017 version of JD just can’t find the ball when he swings.

The Verdict: Buy him low if you can pry him away from an owner, and hang onto him if you already have him. I know that his contact stats paint a rough picture, but the 31-year-old veteran is just two years removed from an MVP campaign, and his batter’s eye and instincts as a hitter did not vanish quietly into the night. I think JD is struggling for two reasons: he’s not used to mentally dealing with an injury, as this season represented the first amount of significant time he’s spent on the DL, and I believe he’s nursing his right calf out of caution and/or he’s still not 100% healthy, which caused him to not put as much power into his swing as usual out of fear of re-injuring himself.

The good news is JD just got a breather during the ASB, and he was heating up just prior to the break going 6/10 with 3 R, 5 RBI, and a HR. He’s been a bit slow out of the gate in the second half, going just 2-12 over the weekend, but he still posted a R and 3 RBI despite the weak batting average.

The Reason: Donaldson is 31, but it’s not the years it’s the mileage. JD is playing in just his 5th full MLB season, and should have plenty of gas left in the tank. Despite his poor contact numbers, his OBP is on the rise, meaning he’s seeing the ball well and the contact peripherals should regress to career averages. Additionally, he’s still hitting the ball just as hard as he has all his career, indicating that he’s not still suffering from his calf injury, but rather that he may have been playing lightly out of fear of re-injuring it. Unless news comes out from the team and/or Donaldson about an injury (which again, doesn’t seem to be likely), owners can fully expect him to start trending up during the second half. I fully expect Donaldson to finish the year with numbers around .275/.380/.500 to go with 28-32 HR, 85-95 R, and 100+ RBI.

Trevor Story, SS (COL)

trevor-story-495x377.jpg

The Trevorending Story (photo credit: Matt York/AP)

The synopsis: What’s not to love?* Trevor Story made an electric MLB debut in Denver last year by mashing 27 HR in 97 games as a rookie to go along with 67 R, 72 RBI, and an insane .271/.341/.567 slashline. Those are impressive numbers for any rookie playing just 2/3 of a season, but for a shortstop those power numbers alone earned him an average draft spot of 39th overall. Throw in the Coors Field Advantage and you can just see the hype-train gathering steam for the 24-year-old shortstop.

*question circa March 2017

This season has been a very different Story (sorry, I promise I won’t do that again). Through 78 games, Trevor has just 11 HR, 34 R, 37 RBI, and a cringe-worthy slashline of .226/.302/.398. What happened to the power? Why is his average so ugly? Is he a flash in the pan or a star in a slump? Will we ever find out where Gendry was rowing? Let’s dive into the numbers.

gendry rowing.jpg

Seriously, where is this guy?

The diagnosis: While I can’t vouch for the whereabouts of Robert Baratheon’s last living bastard (though my money is on the Riverlands), I can provide some insight into Story’s sharp decline.

Now, we know that his slashline is down in all departments. His BA and OBP are both nearly 50 points below last year’s, and his SLG has dropped by a horrific 170 points. His ISO dropped from .296 in 2016 to .173 in 2017. Bad luck isn’t to blame either, as his .327 BABIP, while lower than the .343 mark set last season, is still good and not a significant departure from his rookie campaign.

Unfortunately for Story owners, some eye-poppingly bad peripherals support his poor 2017 season. For starters, lets look at the number one culprit for drastic shifts in power numbers: how hard a player is hitting the ball.

Soft Contact Medium Contact Hard Contact
2016 14.3% 40.8% 44.9%
2017 18.6% 49.7% 31.7%

Good lord look at that drastic drop in Hard Contact Percentage. Story is just unable to hit the ball hard this year: that’s a whopping 13+ point freefall from his truncated rookie year to this season. There’s our explanation for his nosediving ISO and SLG stats.

Even worse are his Plate Discipline stats, courtesy of FanGraphs:

O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Zone% F-Strike%
2016 27.8% 66.8% 46.2% 47.1% 56.6%
2017 28.6% 65.5% 45.4% 45.4% 66.1%

At first glance, that’s not too shabby. At the very least, those are nearly identical to his 2016 stats. Story is basically swinging at the same pitches the same amount of time. He’s seeing a few less pitches in the strike zone, but only 1.7% less. Nothing dramatic. In fact, he’s getting nearly 10% more first-pitch strikes this year, meaning pitchers are coming after him and giving him something to hit right away and he’s failing to take advantage. Where it gets really scary is when you look at his contact rates, and keep in mind that he’s essentially swinging at the same rate (thus you’d expect contact rates to be very close):

O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
2016 56.2% 80.7% 72.9% 12.5%
2017 49.5% 77.0% 67.5% 14.7%
Difference -6.7% -3.7% -5.4% +2.2%

Nope, nope, nope. Despite Story’s “batter’s eye” causing him to swing at almost identical O-swing and Z-swing pitches, his contact rates have plummeted. He’s making significantly less contact at pitches outside of the zone (much like our friend Josh Donaldson), but unlike JD, Trevor Story also has experienced a big drop in his Z-Contact, or “good” pitches inside the zone, in addition to a drastic Overall Contact Percentage drop. Coupled with his worsened Swinging Strike Percentage (and last year’s 12.5% mark was already pretty piss-poor), Story is looking more and more like a lost hitter at the plate. It seems pitchers have adjusted to him and he has failed to make any sort of adjustment back. This is further supported by his abysmally unacceptable Strikeout Rate, which currently sits at a putrid, MLB-worst 35.6%.

Even Miguel Sano, the league leader in strikeouts at 124, sits on a 34.6% K-rate, and he also has 21 HR, 62 RBI, and a .270 BA to make that number acceptable. Story does not have such sterling counting stats to offset how much he strikes out.

The Verdict: Get him off of your roster. I don’t care how you do it, but in 10-teamers and smaller I would drop him in a heartbeat* if there’s someone better available on your wire. Always try to trade guys with exciting names (bonus points if your league has a Rockies fan or an owner who literally doesn’t follow baseball) before you dump them, but don’t make the mistake of getting married to a name.

*The only exception here comes for dynasty leagues (and it’s a small exception): Story is a young hitter who looks like he’s just getting beat by superior, Major League pitching. He may very well make the adjustment over the next year or two, and the fact that he plays in Coors is always a feather in his cap. That being said, this year’s sample-size of data is almost as big as last season’s, and owners must begin to consider the possibility that last year was a fluke.

The Reason: Story had a dangerously great season last year: he posted fantastic power numbers, but the warning signs were there with his 31.3% K-rate and unsustainable 23.7% HR/FB rate (minor-league career-best was 15.3%, and minor-league average was around 11%). His Contact numbers and Plate Discipline paint the picture of someone who has nothing going for them. Literally nothing. Here’s a Dr. Seuss homage to Story’s Contact stats:

I do not hit them in the zone,

I do not hit them on my own,

I do not hit right down the plate,

I do not hit well, much less great,

I don’t make contact with the ball,

In fact I don’t make contact at all,

My batted balls don’t leave the yard,

Because I don’t hit them very hard,

I don’t steal bases very much,

I do not hit well in the clutch,

I play at Coors and my potential’s there,

But roster me and you’ll pull out your hair.

The Beer

Today’s craft beer review comes to us from a Virginia Beach, Virginia brewery: Commonwealth Brewing’s Big Papi Double IPA.

commonwealth-big-papi.jpg

As much as I disliked Big Papi the player, I found the beer version to be much more palatable

Big Papi pours a nice hazy orange with a good head of clean, white foam. I get tropical fruit, pine, and citrus on the nose.

The taste is juicy, juicy, juicy. Like a Juicy Fruit Gum commercial except the taste lives up to their promises (seriously, what’s with gum tasting like cardboard after 4 chews?). It’s sweet and resinous with a healthy dose of tropical fruit, citrus, piney, orange peel, and some mango on the back-end. Big Papi has a nice malty backbone that lets you know it’s a DIPA without the malts taking over. It’s smooth and beautifully balanced, with good, moderate carbonation and a medium-body that makes it pretty easy to drink for a DIPA. Despite clocking in at 8% ABV, I get almost no booziness in this brew.

So far I’m very impressed with Commonwealth. They recently started distributing to the DC area after hiding down in VA Beach, and all of their beers I’ve tried have been outstanding, and Big Papi is no exception! It’s clean, crisp, juicy (did I say that enough yet?), and wonderfully balanced. Overall, a damn tasty beer. Buy it on sight!

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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