Monday, March 20, 2023

Fantasy Baseball: Should we be concerned about slow starts from Bo Bichette, Joey Votto, other star hitters?

On Tuesday’s episode of the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast, we talked about some slow starts to the season and whether we were worried about them, and on the whole, I’m not. It’s hard to be too concerned about much of anything two weeks into the season, as a rule. 

There are exceptions to that rule, of course. Injuries are always a concern, especially a situation like Alex Kiriloff’s, where a recurrence of the wrist issue that required surgery last season seems like it might just derail a second straight season for the promising young bat. On the pitching side, you’ve got guys dealing with declining velocity, which is always a concern – Scott White wrote about Zack Wheeler, Shane Bieber, and a few more concerning pitchers for Tuesday

But with hitters, there generally just isn’t enough information to change how you feel one way or the other. Bad 11-game stretches happen for every hitter. Of course, that doesn’t stop people from being concerned their slow starters, so I took to Twitter to ask my followers for some names of hitters they are concerned about. 

Let’s fire up the patented Worry-O-Meter to determine whether there’s any reason to be concerned about 10 of the most-mentioned hitters – with a 1 being “not worried at all” and a 10 being “I’m completely out on this guy.” Spoiler alert: There are no 10s at this point in the season. 

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Bo Bichette

There really isn’t anything particularly concerning under the hood for Bichette. He’s hitting a few too many groundballs, but the batted ball profile mostly looks like you want it to – including the .287 expected batting average and .464 expected slugging percentage. The only red flag here is that his sprint speed has dropped to 54th percentile from 74th, but it’s probably too early to determine if there’s anything to be concerned about there. Bichette is going to be just fine.

Worry-o-Meter: 1

Mookie Betts

Betts’ underlying numbers are pretty discouraging, to be honest. He’s just not hitting the ball well, ranking in the 35th percentile or worse in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate while striking out in 21% of his trips to the plate. Add in a 24th percentile sprint speed, and it’s possible the hip injury that limited him last season – and that he opted to not have surgically repaired this offseason – is still an issue. That would be a big problem moving forward, but I think it’s too early to really be worried about that. That being said, it’s worth watching how the next few weeks look for Betts, given the injury concerns. 

Worry-o-Meter: 3

Kyle Tucker

Through 10 games, Tucker’s expected wOBA is nearly double his actual mark – .450 vs. .239. That .450 mark is an elite one, even better than the .400 he posted last season. Tucker’s actual production did trail behind his expected numbers last season, especially early on, and it’s possible that hitting left-handed makes Tucker more likely to underperform his underlying metrics than other players. That being said, his quality of contact measures are so promising right now that even that wouldn’t be an actual concern; he “underperformed” last season and was still an elite player. 

Worry-o-Meter: 1

Ketel Marte

Coming into the season, I viewed Marte as one of the safest bets in the league for batting average, so it’s not great to see him hitting .212 coming into Tuesday’s game. And his expected average of .257 isn’t much better. There’s a bit of randomness at work here, however, as just eight of Marte’s first 39 plate appearances have come against left-handed pitchers, who he has always hit better in his career. Marte is still hitting the ball hard consistently – 82nd percentile in hard-hit rate – so I don’t see much reason to be concerned. This seems like just one of those stretches players go through. 

Worry-o-Meter: 2

Giancarlo Stanton

Stanton has twice as many batted balls hit over 110 mph (10) than the No. 2 player in the league, Juan Soto. Up the filter to 115 mph, and Stanton has two-thirds of the total batted balls in the league so far this season – he has six, while Willson Contreras, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Shohei Ohtani are the only other players to have even one. Stanton is still a one-of-one outliers when it comes to hitting the ball hard, and it’s not like he’s hitting them into the ground or something – he has a massive 30.8% barrel rate. Stanton hasn’t lost what makes him great as a hitter despite signs of vanishing athleticism elsewhere – seventh percentile in sprint speed this season, down from 13th last season – so there’s no reason to be concerned here. 

Worry-o-Meter: 1

Eloy Jimenez

I’ve never been a big fan of Jimenez’s for Fantasy because I think even the good version of him is unlikely to contribute much outside of potentially batting average, home runs, and RBI. I don’t have him on any of my teams this season. So, you might think I’d be inclined to believe a slow start was reason to be concerned.  But that isn’t really the case for me. He’s hitting the ball incredibly hard in the early going but has just hit too many ground balls. That’s been an issue for him in the past and makes his path to true difference-making production as a power hitter narrower, but I don’t think a 71.4% groundball rate is sustainable, either. In most ways, Jimenez looks like the guy who hit .296/.332/.559 in 2020, and I would be trying to buy right now. 

Worry-o-Meter: 1

Joey Votto

If I were to take what Votto is doing right now at face value, I’d be quite concerned, because there really isn’t very much to be optimistic about. He has struck out 38.6% of the time, and it’s not like he’s crushing the ball when he does make contact; his 28.6% hard-hit rate and 87.6 mph average exit velocity are the worst marks he’s posted in the StatCast era. It’s a far cry from 2021, when he struck out 23.8% of the time, a career-worst mark, but made up for it by crushing the ball. Votto isn’t doing anything right. 

But … it’s Joey Votto. Forgive me for being too flippant about his obvious struggles, but I feel like we’ve done the “Is Joey Votto finished?” thing dozens of times over the past five years, and he’s always found a way to turn things around. Votto is tinkering right now, trying out different batting stances and setups, and it’s hard to succeed like that. But, if there’s any player in the sport I trust to figure it out, Votto is that guy, especially after watching his bounce back in 2021.  Maybe he’s at the end, and there’s no tinkering left to make up for what he’s lost. It’s possible. But I’m not betting against him after 11 games. 

Worry-o-Meter: 4

Nelson Cruz

Cruz is at the age where a sharp decline wouldn’t be unexpected. And, since he struggled pretty mightily in the second half of last season, it’s possible this really is the end. But he still ranks in the 96th percentile in max exit velocity with a 112.7 mph batted ball, so the underlying raw power is still pretty impressive, and his quality of contact metrics still suggest above-average production is coming – his .355 expected wOBA isn’t far off what he managed in 2021. Every slump for a player like Cruz is magnified given his age, but this one doesn’t actually seem too concerning. 

Worry-o-Meter: 3

Brendan Rodgers

Rodgers’ struggles are harder to write off than the rest of the players here because he just doesn’t have much of a track record to fall back on. He was solid in 2021, but hardly a difference-maker consistently enough to overlook struggles, especially since he doesn’t run. He actually has a lot to prove at this point in his career, and he isn’t doing that. I still believe in the talent, but there is unquestionably more of a sense of urgency for Rodgers to get going because his spot in the lineup – yours and the Rockies – is less assured. I’m willing to give him a few more weeks, but Rodgers is by no means a must-start player right now, and another couple of weeks of poor production might make him droppable in shallower leagues. 

Worry-o-Meter: 5

Luke Voit

I was adamant in the offseason about my belief that Voit would be a must-start player if he just had somewhere to play every day, so this one isn’t looking great for me. It’s not just the .167/.340/.194 line that is bothersome about Voit, but how he’s going about it; he isn’t hitting the ball hard consistently and leads the majors with a 21.7% swinging strike rate. He’s made contact on just 51.6% of his swings in the strike zone so far, a ghastly rate. As with Rodgers, the concern isn’t necessarily that Voit won’t bounce back, but that the slow start will cost him playing time before he does. I think a healthy Voit is a difference maker for a Fantasy – his .264/.356/.500 career line attests to that – but he needs to turn things around quickly. 

Worry-o-Meter: 4

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