Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Fantasy Baseball: Looking into (and beyond) the numbers to find buy-low hitters like Trevor Story, Joey Votto

Ketel Marte got off to an absolutely miserable start to the 2022 season, hitting just .146/.211/.256 through the end of April. It wasn’t just a bad month for Marte – his .467 OPS was the 10th-worst in baseball and the worst of his career for a month where he had at least 90 plate appearances. Unfortunately, your buy-low window may have already closed since the calendar turned to May. 

Marte has the second-highest OPS in the majors so far this month, and he’s hit safely in nine games (including the final two of April) with two homers, five doubles, and a triple in that time frame – good for a mammoth .406/.487/.813 slash line. And the thing is, it’s not like Marte’s underlying numbers suggested this kind of run was coming, as Marte’s underlying numbers were all pretty bad – he had just a .211 expected batting average and .298 expected slugging percentage and his average exit velocity was down to 88.7 mph. Marte was cold

But his track record over the previous three seasons was simply too strong for me to ever get too worried. Players get cold sometimes, and Marte has heated up just as quickly, with a 94.4 mph average exit velocity so far in May. It’s a small-sample size, obviously, but I’m willing to bet April will end up being by far the worst month of Marte’s season, and a distant memory by the time we get September. 

There’s a lesson there. Be patient. Don’t overreact to small sample sizes just because it’s the beginning of the season. And while quality-of-contact metrics are useful – though it’s more fair to question their utility this season than ever before – they are a snapshot of where a player is at in a moment in time, not a predictor of how they will play moving forward. Marte’s slump coincided with the start of the new season, and the underlying numbers backed it up, but his track record gave reason to be optimistic. 

You missed the buy-low window on Marte, although if someone in your league is still worried, by all means, try to snag him, because I still think he’ll be a top-25 hitter the rest of the way – but he’s obviously not the only buy-low candidate out there. Here are four more hitters I’m looking to buy even coming off their poor starts.

Whit Merrifield 

Merrifield ranks dead last in most offensive categories so far, with an almost impossible to believe three extra-base hits in 113 trips to the plate. Merrifield is 33, so he’s at an age where a sudden drop off wouldn’t be unbelievable, and with his already middling quality of contact metrics and the newly deadened ball, it’s possible he is especially vulnerable to such a dramatic drop off. 

But I’m not actually sure that’s what we’re seeing. Merrifield is still making contact at roughly his typical rates – his out-of-zone contact rate is down a bit (71% to 56%), but his in-zone contact rate is identical (85.9% to 85.4%), so I don’t think there’s much there. He’s also not swinging at pitches out of the strike zone any more than normal. He ranks in the 87th percentile in sprint speed right now as well, identical to last season, and the biggest change in his batted-ball metrics are a significant drop in his line drive rate.

A drop in line-drive rate would be a very bad thing for a hitter who relies on running high batting averages  as much as Merrifield does, but that’s also one of the batted-ball metrics that takes the longest to stabilize – FanGraphs.com’s sabermetrics library says line drive rate typically takes more than a year to stabilize, so “six weeks of batted ball data shouldn’t change your opinion of a player’s talent level.” Which is to say, it’s way too early to know if we’re actually seeing a significant decrease in his underlying skill level. 

I’m willing to bet on the longer term stability Merrifield has shown, especially absent evidence of a significant loss of athleticism. Merrifield may no longer be the batting average outlier he was when he was routinely hitting near .300, but I still see him as an above-average source there (and likely with runs), with high-end stolen base production likely coming. 

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Trevor Story

The biggest surprise isn’t that Story has been a disappointment – players switching leagues often struggle early on (just think of Francisco Lindor last season). No, the biggest surprise is that he hasn’t managed even one cheap homer with the help of the Green Monster yet. Of course, he’s not exactly giving himself many opportunities yet thanks to those infield pop ups and his 43% strikeout rate at home.

That’s ugly stuff. Story is still hitting the ball plenty hard, but if you’re looking for evidence that he might be pressing, a career-high 50.8% fly-ball rate is compelling evidence; a 20% infield fly rate on top of that seems like definitive proof. And the truth of the matter is that we don’t know what even a locked-in version of Story playing full time away from Coors Field would look like, so I understand being concerned that, well, this is what it looks like. 

But it mostly just seems like Story isn’t right yet, and we can’t really judge who he is away from Coors Field until he is right. Maybe he’s struggling under the weight of the expectations of his contract, but you have to give him an opportunity to get right. If the person who has him in your league is running out of patience, I would try to throw an offer out featuring a low-end top 100 or below player like Ty France and see if that’s enough to add Story. 

Joey Votto

The nice thing about trying to buy low on Votto right now is, it’s going to come at very little cost. He’s currently on the IL with a bout of COVID and was off to a disastrous start to the season, hitting .122/.278/.135 with 29 strikeouts and just one extra-base hit in his first 90 plate appearances. If Votto, at 38 years old, were finished, it would probably look a lot like that.

But we’ve thought Votto was finished before. Granted, this is probably the ugliest stretch we’ve seen from him yet, though it’s worth noting this isn’t even the worst strikeout rate he’s had over a 22-game stretch in the past year; he had a 34% mark in a stretch last August. And while it’s true that he was still hitting for power when he was striking out like that, Votto is certainly no stranger to slumps; he had a .257 wOBA mid-way through the 2020 season as he searched for his swing.

Votto is a tinkerer. The latter stages of his career have been defined by him trying to figure out how to overcome the aging process, and we’ve seen ugly results from him from time to time as he adjusted. He picked up on a new approach last season by aiming, for the first time in his career, to hit a bunch of homers, adjusting to a more aggressive swing and even switching to a new bat this offseason hoping to generate more power – and then switching back to his normal bat at the end of April before going on the IL. 

Asking a 38-year-old to turn around this kind of slump may be too much to ask, and maybe I just have too much faith in Votto. But he’s one of the most cerebral players in the game and one of the most honest about his approach and his skill set (especially as it has declined), and he was expressing optimism about getting his swing back before going on the IL. If Votto still believes in himself, then I’m comfortable believing he’s going to figure it out. 

Joey Gallo

You figure if anyone isn’t going to be impacted by a deader ball, it’s the gigantic, left-handed power hitter who plays half his games in Yankee Stadium. But, while Anthony Rizzo has managed to put together his best start in years, Gallo has been miserable. Even in a time when seemingly everyone is “underperforming” their expected stats, Gallo’s .297 wOBA relative to a .371 expected wOBA stands out. 

Gallo has actually managed to increase both his fly ball and line drive rates from last season while dramatically cutting his infield fly ball rate so far, and he’s still hitting the ball plenty hard – ranking in the 79th percentile in average exit velocity and 92nd in hard-hit rate; if you just isolate fly balls and line drives, Gallo’s 100.5 mph average exit velocity is in the 99th percentile. It just doesn’t make sense that Gallo’s HR/FB rate is just 18.8%, dead ball or no. 

Sure, he’s always going to be a batting average liability when he’s striking out 35% of the time or more. But in an environment where batting averages are down for everyone, Gallo’s typical Mendoza line flirtation might be even less harmful … if the power production was there. I think it will be, so I’ll buy – aggressively in an OBP league. 

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