Batter’s Box: “All is flux, nothing stays still.”
I am slightly embarrassed to admit that my undergraduate degree focused mostly on philosophy. While I find it to be a fascinating topic and one worthy of significant study, it doesn’t pay many bills. It does, however, leave impressions on your mind that can be difficult to shake. One quote, from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, always stays with me: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” That quote ends up getting applied to many things I do, and one of those things is baseball. Specifically, that quote makes it difficult for me to talk about regression.
In most cases, people talk about regression when discussing players who are overperforming their metrics to an insane degree (such as Fernando Tatis Jr. (SS, San Diego Padres), who went 4-5 with a run scored on Sunday). The conversation, generally, is that a player is getting lucky on batted balls and will regress at some point because the luck factors will “correct” themselves and everything will adjust. In many cases, that’s kind of what happens. Batters cool off and don’t perform as well as they did during their hot streaks, and we kind of just say it’s “regression” and that these things happen.
Here’s the problem: The truth is MUCH more complicated. Baseball is an incredible game in part because of the insane number of independent and dependent variables affecting each moment of every game. Inning, count, situation, batter, pitcher, runners, fielders, positioning, previous sequences, health, recent pitch sequences, scouting, coaching, batter’s eye, lighting, wind, humidity, and an almost infinite list of other things all affect individual moments that lead to hits and outs. Modern statistics do a fantastic job at measuring what happened and give us great insight on why it happened, but they are limited. Because of all of these variables for which individual statistics cannot account, we require fairly large sample sizes for many of these statistics to be reliable (BABIP, for example, takes more than a full season to be reasonably reliable by some measures). As we wait for large enough sample sizes, the world keeps turning, and ball players keep changing. When struggling, hitters might adjust their timing, swing, or positioning in the batter’s box. These things all have the potential to drastically change a hitter’s performance.
Now, I use statistics as much as anyone, and I routinely indicate when I believe a player is over- or underperforming based on those statistics. Is that analysis worthless? No—it’s just limited and is not based entirely in any one number. I try to use stats alongside scouting, history, leaguewide trends, projections, and anything else I can get my hands on to make a call or decision. Ultimately, though, I have to accept that anything I say is at the whims and mercy of an infinite number of variables I cannot possibly predict.
Recently, my colleague Jake Greenberg did a fantastic write-up of many of the variables surrounding a possible cooling off for Tatis that avoids many of the common simplicities. I actually agree with Jake—if Tatis does what he did in the first half in the second half, then I would anticipate he would get worse results than he did for exactly the same reasons as Jake lays out. The one thing that could throw all of that off, of course, is if the uber-athletic 20-year-old changes, and as my dude Heraclitus would say, “there is nothing permanent except change.”
TL;DR: Regression candidates can and should be identified, but bear in mind that players change and the variables that affected them before may be entirely different in the future.
Robinson Cano (2B, New York Mets)—4-5, 2 R, HR, 2B, RBI. Father Time had his way with Cano in the first half, but he now has back-to-back games with a home run and is slashing .395/.422/.558 over his past 11 games. Second base is a weak position, and Cano’s history of hitting for contact and power makes him an intriguing option in 12-teamers.
Harold Castro (2B/SS, Detroit Tigers)—4-6, 2 R, 2B, 2 RBI. The young lefty has played six different positions in his past 11 games as the Tigers try to find ways to get his bat in the lineup. He doesn’t have much power or speed, but those in very deep formats might be able to extract some value from his ability to make contact. He had a high batting average throughout his minor league career, though his OBP will leave quite a bit to be desired. That said, if you’re considering Castro, it’s because you’re in an AL-only or 15-teamer and need an emergency middle infielder, and you could do a lot worse. He’s also a decent DFS pivot play when facing righties, especially if he keeps hitting second like he did Sunday.
Niko Goodrum (1B/2B/SS/OF, Detroit Tigers)—4-5, R, 2 RBI, 2 SB. His sub-par ratios aren’t fun to look at, but he’s already swiped three bags in July and could easily finish out the season with 15 home runs and 15 steals. He won’t hit .250 or slug .400, but his flexibility and power-speed combo is worth rostering in 15-teamers.
A.J. Pollock (OF, Los Angeles Dodgers)—3-6, 2 R, HR, 4 RBI. That’s six hits in three games since his return from an extended absence. I’m not sure how many bases he’ll steal many this year, but he should hit a decent number of home runs and put up plenty of counting stats while healthy as the everyday center fielder for the Dodgers. His return does cloud the playing time for guys such as Chris Taylor and Enrique Hernandez and likely puts Joc Pederson into a full platoon, though.
Ryan McMahon (1B/2B, Colorado Rockies)—3-4, 2 R, 3B, 2B, 3 RBI. There are flashes of a good player in there, but in 10- and 12-teamers, I am 100% done chasing it. He bats low in the order and doesn’t hit for nearly enough power for me to be interested outside of 15-team leagues, and even then, he’s just a corner or middle infielder at best.
Marwin Gonzalez (1B/2B/3B/SS/OF, Minnesota Twins)—3-4, R, 2B, RBI. His ability to play any position gives him plenty of fantasy utility, but more importantly, it gives the Twins a chance to put him in the lineup every day. Hitting 20 home runs with little to no speed and a .260-.270 average isn’t worth all that much these days, but he won’t hurt you in any category and is a decent option in deep leagues who can help consolidate your bench spots and open up space for more exciting options.
Xander Bogaerts (SS, Boston Red Sox)—3-5, 2 R, HR, RBI, BB. I’ve talked a lot about the breakout of his teammate Rafael Devers, but I’ve neglected Bogaerts and that’s not fair. He’s well on his way to his first 30-home run season and looks like he’s going to put up 220 or more combined runs and RBI. He’s also posting a career high 12.7% walk rate while striking out in only 18.5% of his plate appearances. The 26-year-old has been a top-five shortstop this season, and I expect him to continue to be one going forward.
Jose Altuve (2B, Houston Astros)—3-5, 3 R, HR, 4 RBI. Two home runs in his past three games has bumped his batting line since his return on June 19 to .322/.340/.500. The power has clearly returned; now all he needs is the speed to become a top-tier second baseman once again. He’s only 29, so he hasn’t quite hit the point where speed evaporates, meaning there’s still hope.
Yuli Gurriel (1B/3B, Houston Astros)—3-5, R, HR, 3 RBI. I have no idea where this power is coming from. He has 11 home runs in his past 15 games, which is absurd for a guy who needed 136 games to hit 13 home runs in 2018. I don’t know who or what magic he summoned to grant him this kind of power, but ride it while you can because it is incredibly likely to vanish as suddenly as it appeared.
Jeimer Candelario (3B, Detroit Tigers)—2-5, R, 2B, 3 RBI. Since returning from injury and demotion on June 26, he has a 1.032 OPS. I can’t recommend him in most formats, but if you’re looking for playing time and replacement-level counting stats, here they are.
Brandon Belt (1B, San Francisco Giants)—2-4, 2 R, HR, RBI, BB. He’s healthy, so he’s hitting. That’s just how it always goes for Belt. Don’t know how long it will last, but he’s a solid corner infielder in points and OBP leagues.
Paul Goldschmidt (1B, St. Louis Cardinals)—2-4, 2 R, HR, 2 RBI. He rebounded in 2018, why not 2019? Someone smarter than me could probably do/has done a deep dive on what’s going on and why, but for my purposes, he’s locked into the first base slot in whatever leagues I own him, and he’s there to stay unless he hits the IL.
(Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire)