6 Under-Owned Players Ready to Break Out in 2019

4/18/2019

by Josh Rohrer

 

Howdy folks, it’s good to be back after a long (looong) absence from fantasy writing! We are approximately three weeks into the 2019 baseball season, though it already feels like we’ve watched four months worth of injuries (especially if you’re a fellow Yankee fan).

This has prompted me to try and find production from less likely places, and today I’m going to share the fruits of my labor with you by identifying several position players who are having very impressive seasons and appear ready to break out, if they haven’t already started. All six hitters will be men who are owned under 50% and whose underlying stats show emergence of both power and batting average value, and I’ll show how I came to that conclusion.

Let’s get to it!

Methodology

If you don’t care about how I came to the conclusions that I’m going to present, go ahead and skip down to the list of recommended players.

For everyone that’s still here, the data used for this article was collected from the always excellent Fangraphs (for plate discipline stats) and MLB’s own Statcast. I wanted to see what metrics could help find me elite hitters for bargain basement prices.

I started by collecting two groups of players from among qualified hitters in 2018: the 10 best batting averages and the 10 highest home run totals. These names included the top hitters in the game, but only two men made both lists: JD Martinez (.330 BA & 43 HR) and of course, Mike Trout (.312 & 39). Each group was examined separately due to the anticipated contrast between skillsets for a great power hitter versus a great hitter for average.

In order to gauge what makes each group of hitters succeed, I used batted ball data to see where they hit the ball (Pull, Center, and Oppo percentages and GB/FB rate, LD/GB/FB rates) and how well they hit it (Hard Hit percentage, Barrel percentage, Avg. Exit Velocity, Avg. Launch Angle) and lastly their contact skills (O-Swing & O-Contact, Z-Swing & Z-Contact, Swinging Strike percentage).

In order to form a baseline for these metrics to give them context, I calculated the league average for each of the fore-mentioned statistics using data from all qualified hitters in 2018:

mlb avg

So these establish our baselines for what qualifies as above or below average. Here are the same metrics but for the 10 players with the highest batting averages of 2018:

topBA.png

BA avgs

I did the same for the top 10 HR hitters (and I cheated slightly by using the top 11, since three players were tied with 37 bombs apiece for the last two spots). Here’s what I found:

topHR.png

HR hitters avgs

First Impressions:

I’ll start with what wasn’t statistically significant: where hitters hit the ball. Pull, Center, and Oppo rates were the same across all samples of players, with no more than 1% of discrepancy between any stat for any group. Additionally, O-Swing and Z-Swing percentages were largely irrelevant, with less than 2% discrepancy among all three groups (the 10-best Avg. hitters, the 11-best HR hitters, and the 2018 MLB averages from all qualified hitters). You may notice that none of those stats are included in the charts, and that’s why.

As for the good stuff, let’s take a look at all three groups stacked together for easier comparison, with the significant metrics highlighted:

metric comparison

metric key

Let’s start with the obvious: our two groups of studs, both the BA hitters and the HR hitters, are averaging significantly better Hard Hit & Barrel percentages, along with much higher Exit Velocity. Makes sense that more hard contact is going to produce more hits and more HRs.

One of the key disparities is found in Launch Angle, where we see that the players with the best BA’s of 2018 actually launched hits at a lower average angle than the rest of the league, indicating that an elite launch angle is not necessary for elite batting averages. However, it’s worth noting that StatCast considers balls hit between 8 and 32 degrees to be well-hit (“SweetSpot” is the name of the statistic), so a 12% Launch Angle is still technically considered good. Conversely, the best HR hitters are well above league average in their Launch Angles (15.6 degrees), Fly Ball rate (42%), and hit the fewest Ground Balls of all groups (37.7%), which unsurprisingly leads to the lowest GB/FB ratio. All that hard hacking leads to less contact though, as the HR hitters trail everyone else in O-Contact and Z-Contact in addition to the worst whiff rate (11.3%).

Somewhat surprising was the HR hitters having the lowest Line Drive rate (20.2%), as you’d guess a hard-hitter would be slapping LD’s all over the field a-la Aaron Judge. The elite-BA hitters demonstrated the best plate discipline with the highest contact rates across the board and significantly lower whiff rates. This group doesn’t put the ball in the air as much as the rest of the league (only 34.2% FB rate) but makes up for it with the best LD rate (24.3%) and elite Hard Hit, Barrel, and Exit Velocity.

Looking more closely still at the elite BA hitters, we can see that despite the group trend of high GB and GB/FB rates and low Launch Angles, exactly half of them (5/10) recorded GB/FB rates and Launch Angles that were better than the league average. We can infer that those tools are still important to many quality BA hitters, as well as being vital to HR hitters.

So we know that both groups of elite hitters, those for BA and those for HR, demonstrate great contact through high Barrel & Hard Hit percentages, quality Launch Angles, high Exit Velocities, and fewer Ground Balls with an eye towards a good GB/FB ratio.

Using this data I devised the following five metrics to seek out 2019’s early, well-rounded mashers:

1) Players must own a 2019 Barrel rate higher than 9%: the league average is just 7.2%, and elite hitters for both average and power recorded higher than 9% Barrels in 2018.

2) Players must have a Launch Angle greater than 13 degrees: the best power hitters record Launch Angles of 15+ degrees, and while the average of the best BA hitters was lower than 13 degrees (and the league average), half of them hit for higher than 13 degrees in 2018, so we can safely assume that 15 of the games best 20 batters for either power or average will record higher than usual Launch Angles.

3) Players must have an Average Exit Velocity of 90 mph or higher: this one is self-explanatory, as the best hitters of all groups mash at 90+ MPH, which also accounts for Hard-Hit Percentage.

4) Players must have a GB/FB rate of 1.0 or less: Similar to Launch Angle, while this stat is generally a better predictor of power, 5 of the 10 best BA hitters recorded elite GB/FB rates, so this is not mutually exclusive to good HR hitters.

5) Lastly, players on this list must have 40% or higher FB percentage: while this may seem redundant give the use of the GB/FB rate, I wanted these rankings to focus a bit more on power while still allowing for players with elite averages, and with the other metrics used FB rate will give us an even better list of well-rounded power hitters.

The Superb Six

After combing through all of the batted ball data for the young 2019 season and applying my recipe above, I came up with a list of just under 30 names that fit the bill. Most of them were not surprises and are unlikely to be found on any league’s waiver wire, but these six players I’m about to list are all in the under 50% ownership group and could provide massive, immediate, and long-term value to your fantasy team this season. Granted, it’s still early, but these trend have been solid for the first month, and they’re worth taking a gamble on your waiver wire to see if they hold true. If they do, they just might help you get that ‘ship.

All of the following players have recorded (in 2019) at least a 9%+ Barrel rate, 13+ degree Launch Angle, 90+ MPH Exit Velo, 1.0 or less GB/FB rate, and 40%+ FB rates.

Brandon Belt (SF)

1B/OF – 20% Owned

Besides having a name that’s destined for baseball (alliteration and a surname that’s synonymous with a good hit? sign me up), Brandon Belt is nobody’s fantasy darling. In fact, here’s Fangraphs 2019 profile on him courtesy of Brad Johnson:

I suspect we all like to the play the “what if” game from time to time. At least once a year, I’ll look at Brandon Belt and wonder… “what if he wasn’t a Giant?” The first baseman has never reached the 20 home run threshold despite possessing all the traits of a slugger. Fly balls? Check. Hard contact? Check. Advanced plate discipline? Double check. The only thing he’s missing is a home park friendly to power. The overall profile is similar to a left-handed Rhys Hoskins who we already accept as a perennial 30 homer threat. With the Giants entering a rebuild and Belt entering his 30s, it’s becoming less and less likely that Belt supplies a magical out-of-nowhere fantasy bonanza. Then again, Matt Carpenter finally pieced it all together in his age 32 season.

Looking under the hood though, this doesn’t add up to what we’re seeing, and I think Belt is going to have the Carpenter-esque breakout that Johnson alluded to above.

Why this season is different: Belt’s career FB rate and Hard Hit rate stand at 43% and 36% respectively. While those skills profile as a power hitter, they’re hardly elite. This season, however, Belt is mashing to the tune of a career-high 45.5% Hard-Hite rate along with a career-high 54.5% FB rate. Both blow his prior career best marks out of the water, and this could be a sign of sustained change. While the FB rate will likely drop a bit, his career-highs in overall Contact and Zone Contact are backing up the power numbers. He’s already hit 4 HR through his first 19 games with the underlying stats to back it up, and that projects for a season of 32 HR if he plays for 150 games. That’s not a player that should be on your wire.

The best news? Brandon Belt is currently rocking a career-low BABIP (.275) which is more than 50 points lower than his career .328 mark. So the AVG could get even better, and with dual IF/OF eligibility, he can surely find a spot somewhere on your roster.

Hunter Dozier (KC)

1B/3B  – 36% Owned

You probably don’t need me to tell you that Dozier has been hot recently (not Brian, sorry), as he’s crushed 5 HR so far in 2019 with 4 of them coming in the last week. Many have snagged him off of the waiver wire already, but he’s still unowned in nearly 65% of leagues. Doubtless those who haven’t snatched him are expecting regression, but his underlying stats tell a different story.

Why this season is different: For Hunter Dozier it all comes down to Plate Discipline, and the former 1st round pick appears to be finally learning what that means in his age 27 season.

Dozier has always been a highly graded power hitter, with a 65 raw power score. However, his high strikeout total and inability to make contact have prevented him from living up to this potential. In 2019, he’s nearly doubled his walk rate at a sterling 11.9% BB rate while slashing Strikeouts to just 17.9%, down nearly 10 points from his career 27.1% K-rate.

His elite-level 13% Barrel rate is a big but believeable jump from last year’s mark of 10.6%, and his 93.9 MPH average Exit Velo is among the top 6% of the league. His quality of contact is improving along with his ability to make it, and when you combiine that with his big-game power, the HR potential is scary, especially with a .298 BA backed up by a .293 BABIP. His Hard-Hit rate is actually slightly lower than last year (43.5% down from 44.9%), but he’s more than made up for it by cutting his Soft contact rate in half and boosting his Medium contact by 7+ percentage points. While the 23% HR/FB rate is sure to fall, it may not fall as far as you think. He won’t hit the 40+ dingers his current pace suggests, but the metrics support his ability to sustain much of this success, and a 25 HR season for him is not out of reach.

Go hunt for this Dozier before he’s gone!

Jay Bruce (SEA)

1B/OF – 42% Owned

Big power, horrible batting average are the first two things that come to mind when looking at Jay’s .164/.250/.552 slashline (and 8 HR), yet here he is on the list. The underlying metrics are showing the skills for better Batting Average are there, if not the results (yet).

Why this season is different: As you can doubtless see from his massive HR total and minuscule AVG, Bruce is struggling to hit the ball. He’s striking out at an absurd (and career-high) 32% clip while maintaining his exact 9.2% career BB rate, suggesting his batter’s eye is still there.

But when he does make contact…hoo boy. He’s Barreling balls at a crazy 20% rate to go with an elite 90.2 MPH Exit Velo and a career-high Hard Hit percentage. The only thing keeping him from going bonkers is all the swinging and missing, which I think will stabilize more (closer to his career mark of 23% K rate) as the season goes on considering he’s still walking at the same rate, as will his comically horrific .086 BABIP. That’s the key right there to Bruce: he’s having just about the worst luck a player can have. Even a below-average BABIP of .250 would skyrocket Bruce’s AVG (and OBP) to extremely palatable levels, and if he stays healthy he could put together a huge season.

The torrid HR pace will certainly fall off, but so will his terrible BABIP luck and his K-rate. That tradeoff spells out a payoff for savvy owners.

Max Kepler (MIN)

OF – 50%

Kepler is right on the cusp of being owned too much to be here, but he’s hanging on and I’m hoping after today that 50% rate climbs a few points.

Why this season is different: Like Bruce, Kepler’s issues are with making contact with the ball, because once he does he’s crushing it. He’s recorded career-bests in Hard Hit rate, Barrel rate, Exit Velocity (92.5 MPH!!), and Launch Angle (20.3 degrees!). He has the skill to scorch the ball, but struggles to make contact.

However, while his overall Contact rate has dipped by two points from last year, his Zone Contact has risen to an elite 93% rate. Combined with the improvements he made to his pitch selection last year with career-bests in K and BB rates, he could be showing an improvement in his ability to make contact. And as the metrics show, when he does make contact, he hits it well, and he should actually improve upon his HR total and overall numbers as the season progresses, potentially in a breakout year for him.

My biggest concern for Kepler’s ability to sustain this success is his BABIP. He is currently sitting on a below-league average BABIP of .286….yet that’s actually his career-high BABIP, and a full 30 points higher than his career mark. His K rate is also at an ugly 20%, but in his three full big league seasons he lowered his K rate each year to 2018’s lowest mark of 15.7% to go with a career-best 11.3% BB rate. Both his K and BB rates are currently worse than his 2018 numbers, but if he can get back on track and continue the trend of improving his plate discipline, he’ll be able to leverage that into more contact. Like Bruce, Kepler does great when he makes contact but struggles to do so, but unlike Bruce his underlying contact metrics are a bit shakier. Still, he’s hitting the ball with authority, and if he keeps it up he could be a fantastic value.

 

Mitch Moreland (BOS)

1B  – 21% Owned

It’s never easy for me to say nice things about Red Sox players, but after watching Big Maple and the Backup Bombers give them a sound beating this week it is a little easier.

Mitch Moreland has raised some eyebrows in 2019 by crushing 5 HR in his first 58 ABs, and after taking a look under the hood it looks pretty legit.

Why this season is different: He’s scorching the ball with an outstanding 53.5% Hard Hit rate, top-4% in the MLB in barrels with an unreal 21% Barrel rate, and career-highs in Exit Velocity (93.5 MPH) and Launch Angle (15.7 degrees), all pointing to elite power hitting outcomes. The real value is coming from the fact that he’ll not only be getting more at-bats in a depleted BoSox lineup, but that he’s still underperforming in BA and power.

Moreland owns a career BABIP of .285, yet he currently sits at a career-low of .237, which nicely explains StatCasts’s xBA (expected Batting Average) of .276 and xSLG (expected Slugging) of .612. He’s already a solid fantasy asset in most leagues, but another 30+ points of BA and OBP should be coming, along with more than a few taters.

The absurd .345 ISO will fall, but the BA should rise steadily, and the HR production is anything but a mirage. Moreland is currently on pace for 39 home runs over 500 PA this year, and even if he slows down, that’s still a 25+ HR hitter sitting on your wire. Go grab him.

 

Ryon Healy (SEA)

1B/3B  – 42% Owned

Healy might seem like a bit of a head-scratcher given his recent 0-17 slide in the batter’s box, and a pedestrian .218 BA to go with 3 HR and 12 RBI. Yet the metrics underneath don’t lie, and he’s making excellent contact at the plate. Healy has shown flashes of power in the past, particularly in his explosive 2016 debut when he clobbered 13 HR in just 72 games. While he’s failed to duplicate that success, neither has he faded into the horizon, hitting 24+ HRs in each of his last two seasons. Is this the year he puts together a 30+ HR campaign and achieves fantasy relevance?

Why this season is different: Ryon Healy is a career .262/.297/.451 hitter who doesn’t walk (less than 5%) and strikes out a lot (more than 22%). He’s got power, but not the kind of raw power that can erase those eyesores. Yet this season’s low BA is not telling the whole story.

Healy has a career BABIP of .299 but owns a paltry .237 BABIP through 21 games this year. I expect the BA to rise closer to his career range of .260-.270, and with that additional contact we will see if he can sustain the batted ball improvements he’s demonstrated. Despite the struggles, Healy is currently recording career highs in Barrel rate (9.7% this year, 6.1% career), Launch Angle (20.2 degrees in 2019, 11 degrees career), and scorching Exit Velocity at 91 MPH up from his career average of 87.4. Needless to say all these are better than his excellent rookie campaign that saw him on pace for 30+ bombs.

While he may not reach that plateau this year, teams in deeper leagues should consider taking a flier on a potential emerging power hitter on a potent Mariners lineup.

 

 

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