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Affinity Gauntlet: Surprising Statcast Similarity Sleepers

Ben Pernick finds sleepers via a useful Statcast batted ball comp tool

A few years ago, I discovered a new favorite and rarely-discussed Statcast Tool for hitters — the player similarity or affinity tool. Why? Because people love comps, that’s why. With so many stats to juggle, it’s hard to know how important a barrel rate is if the strikeout rate is bad, or what to make of a guy who makes hard contact but with a high groundball rate. If you don’t understand all the sabermetric-toothed tigers, this is the “stat” for you. We all pretty much get what someone means if they call a player a “Yandy Diaz type”, massive biceps notwithstanding.

It’s a bit messy to compare every element of a player’s batted ball game (with strikeout and walk rate). However, it tells even more than barrel rate with six different types of contact. This reveals a lot about a player, such as why Carlos Santana can have a good K rate and passable barrel rate and still be lousy due to his high ratios of weakly-hit balls. Instead of spitting out meaningless numerical scores, comps at least give us a quick heuristic for a range of expectations based on last year’s numbers (and last year’s numbers alone, it does not incorporate career data or project) from players.

Like most heuristics, it does have its flaws. Since it does not make predictions, it can lead to bearishness on developing players who had a down year, or bullishness on aging players who will decline further. More importantly, since it only deals with what happens at the plate and does not account for speed, it gives unfairly negative comps for especially fast players and unfairly good comps for especially slow players. Lastly, it doesn’t account for sample size or platoons, so it can make a lefty-crushing specialist look unrealistically awesome.

But in this exercise, I try to take this into account and find some players whose top comps (determined by an r score with 1.0 being a perfect comp) are far better than how they’re valued, indicating they may be better than we realize under the surface. I’m using NFBC ADPs from February 1st, 2022. How did I find these values? Basically by looking at the comps for the league’s best hitters (Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Juan Soto are good places to start) and find the few comps that stand out, and then look at that player’s comps. I do that over and over until I handpick the ones where there seem to be the biggest discrepancies between the hitter’s ADP and that of their comps, adjusting for speed, age, and playing time situation. I swear, it’s super scientific. Anyway, let’s take a look at some of the most surprising mediocre players with great comps.

 

Josh Donaldson, 3B, Minnesota Twins (ADP: 193)

Top Comps: Max Muncy (.78), Yordan Alvarez (.78), Pete Alonso (.75), Rafael Devers (.75), Bryce Harper (.73)

 

If you don’t pay attention to Statcast, you may be surprised to see that the oft-injured Donaldson, who had a ho-hum year with 26 HR, has all five of his top comps as guys who hit over 30 homers in 2021, and many with strong batting averages. In fact, four of them are in the Top 60, with two in the top 20, with almost all of their value derived from their bat.

Now seeing these comps, you may be thinking to yourself “You’re out of your element, Donny!” But he actually compares quite favorably to Harper, as J-Don’s elite 17% barrel/PA rate was 3rd best in baseball, and average exit velocity of 94 mph was 4th best, which are both better than Harper and actually closer to Tatis and Ohtani. And he did all this without the expected age-related decline in contact rate, with a 21% K% rate and 75% Contact% and strong 13% walk rate.

If he can stay on the field, even with some decline in rate stats he should be an underrated 30 HR asset.

 

Alejandro Kirk, C, Toronto Blue Jays (ADP: 238)

Top Comps: Jesse Winker (.77), Manny Machado (.71), Matt Olson (.70), Corey Seager (.70), Brandon Crawford (.70)

 

Alejandro Kirk answers the question I had long been asking “Could a major league player ever succeed with a Willians Astudillo-esque physique? While Kirk may lack Astudillo’s freakish contact abilities, he still has a high contact rate, and his second cup of coffee showed the sequel will also come with plate discipline and a healthy barrel rate to match his barrel shape.

I love the Jesse Winker comp as another guy who was thought of as a primarily AVG/OBP guy who could have a huge year with some batted ball luck. Kirk’s 2021 line underwhelmed on the surface after losing a starting role following a late-season slump, but it’s clear both from his superior expected stats and his other great power and average hitting comps of Manny Machado, Matt Olson, and Corey Seager that his offensive potential is star-level.

Kirk currently plays in a favorable home park, though he may find himself on another team with playing time pressure from the defensively-superior Jansen and upcoming blue-chip prospect Gabriel Moreno. But even as a DH, he can be their best hitter (his bat is already better than Grichuk) and become a .290 25 HR stud that offensively outshines the more hyped Ruiz and Rutschman in 2022. The playing time risk is baked into the low price and I’ll bet on the talent in his otherworldly ascent to become Captain Kirk.

 

Max Kepler, OF, Minnesota Twins (ADP: 282)

Top Comps: Xander Bogaerts (.82), Trevor Story (.82), C.J. Cron (.81), Marcus Semien (.81), Bryan Reynolds (.81)

 

Kepler had a 2021 to forget, but I think his comps are quite encouraging considering he’s one of the few affinity studs here who is also relatively fast. Despite the Mendoza Line-flirting batting average, his expected batting average and slugging were virtually the same as his expected stats in his 36-homer breakthrough season in 2019. And nearly all of his comps but Trevor Story are players who hit for a plus batting average (and Story’s .251 was still 40 points better than Kepler’s .211 AVG. 

The downside is that he is a strong platoon risk, but he’s a relatively safe bet for a 25 HR 10 SB season, and I am confident his batting average should bounce back to at least .240 with his still-low strikeout rate. You don’t need a telescope to see that he’s a buy at this ADP.

 

Rowdy Tellez, 1B, Milwaukee Brewers (ADP: 310)

Top Comps: Nelson Cruz (.86) AJ Pollock (.84) Brandon Crawford (.84) Hunter Renfroe (.83) Luis Robert (.82) Paul Goldschmidt (.80)

 

The beefy Rowdy has remained one of my favorite players for better or worse, even though he didn’t quite have the breakthrough I hoped for in his new Milwaukee digs, with just 11 HR and a .242 AVG in 325 PA. Still, I’m encouraged by the 26-year-old’s strong 12% Barrel/PA% close to his 2019 peak with a career-best 48% HardHit%, especially since his 20% K% is far better than his 28% mark in 2019.

He reminds me a bit of pre-2021 Winker without the OBP, as he’s learning to balance contact and power. His top comp of Nelson Cruz has a fair mix of both, and most of these hitters had a rather healthy balance between average and power in 2021.

When I decided to write him up, he was going at an ADP of 374, before the news he will clearly benefit from playing time becoming more secure with the NL DH. I’m bullish as a rodeo on Rowdy at this cost, giddy-up.

 

Evan Longoria, 3B, San Francisco Giants (ADP: 418)

Top Comps: Teoscar Hernández (.85), Nelson Cruz (.84) Rafael Devers (.84) Mitch Haniger (.82) Paul Goldschmidt (.82)

 

After years of providing consistently mildly disappointing production, the past two years for the aging slugger would likely be more intriguing if not for injuries getting in the way. You’d likely be surprised to learn that in his age 36 season, Longoria posted the highest barrel rate (13%), HardHit% (54%), and Max eV (113 mph) since Statcast started measuring it in 2015 (when he was 30). In fact, Longoria’s HardHit% was 9th best in the MLB, with his average exit velocity of 94 mph ranking 4th, just behind Vlad Jr. and ahead of Shohei Ohtani!

Yet oddly, his expected stats didn’t care much about this, with his .261 AVG and .482 SLG% right in line with his .253 xBA and .487 xSLG that was actually below his 2020 and 2019 xStats. I’m still bullish as I think his elevated 23% K% was mostly unlucky, and these comps suggest he could produce like an elite slugger if he could just stay on the field.

I think it’s more than baked into the price which is only dropping at #418, especially seeing as he’s really not so different from Josh Donaldson who is drafted nearly 200 picks higher. Unlike Donaldson, before last year he was pretty good at staying healthy, with at least 500 PA in 7 consecutive seasons from 2013 to 2019. He’s one of my favorite late game plays.

 

Chad Pinder, OF, Oakland Athletics (ADP: 638)

Top Comps: Giancarlo Stanton (.67), Aaron Judge (.66), Franmil Reyes (.64) Byron Buxton (.64) Yordan Alvarez (.62)

 

One of these names is not like the others. Are you really trying to tell me that a guy who hit six, count ’em, SIX, homers in a year is among the greatest power hitters of the year? What in the what? Well, at least this makes me feel slightly better about my flopped bullish pre-2021 Pinder bold prediction. Well, he did somehow manage a career-best 16% Barrel% and an 11% Barrel/BBE%, with a 98 mph eV on FB/LD that ranked 6th best in the MLB.

Statcast thinks he was quite unlucky and says he deserved far better than his .243 AVG and .411 SLG with a .261 xBA and .507 xSLG. The home park was a factor, but also keep in mind he’s mostly hit against lefties, so even if he is Giancarlo Stanton-esque against lefties, his numbers will likely suffer in an expanded role. Still, at pick #646, you can bet I’m swiping right again on Pinder for a 20+ HR sleeper with playing time opportunities on a wasteland of a team.

 

Adam Engel, OF, Chicago White Sox, (ADP: 706)

Top Comps: J.T. Realmuto (.89), Michael Conforto (.86), Gleyber Torres (.86), Jeimer Candelario (.83), Buster Posey (.83)

 

Betcha didn’t see this one coming. Despite being a draft afterthought, these comps suggest he might be able to hang as an above-average major league regular bat, especially considering Affinity doesn’t account for sprint speed, and Engel is 98th percentile, making him by far the fastest guy on my list. That means that he could perform significantly better in batting average (and somewhat better in SLG% due to more extra-base knocks) than these comps. Granted, his playing time sample size is also quite small, with only 140 PA, meaning it’s not as reliable, but it continues a multi-year trend of gradual improvement.

Also, compared to the other names in this article, his comps are less impressive from a batted ball perspective, especially given that the first 3 names are coming off disappointing years from a batted ball perspective. Still, they are all first-division starters with the ability to hit for both power and average, which is probably not something people are thinking of when they think of Adam Engel. If he can get 400 at-bats and hit even close to these comps, with his strong stolen base ability he should make for a great deep league value who could even be an asset in mixed leagues.

Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Shawn Palmer (@PalmerDesigns_ on Twitter)

Ben Pernick

I've been writing for Pitcher List since the beginning, and have been a fantasy baseball addict now for 20 years. I grew up as a Red Sox fan in New York, but now I declare allegiance only to my fantasy teams.

  • BB says:

    “(Tellez) didn’t quite have the breakthrough I hoped for in his new Milwaukee digs, with just 11 HR and a .242 AVG in 325 PA” – those are his combined numbers between Toronto and Milwaukee. With the Jays, he slashed .209/.272/.338 with 4 HR in 151 PA, compared to .272/.333/.481, 7 HR in 174 PA with the Brewers. I would call that a pretty nice breakthrough in Milwaukee, albeit in a relatively small sample size.

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