It’s not easy to write any viable advice early in the season, and it’s even harder to do with hitters. That said, there are certain stats that stabilize earlier, and a smart owner can not only identify hitters breaking out in visible ways, but also to acquire players breaking out behind the scenes. The latter helps you take advantage of other team’s April panic and acquire the guys you wanted at the draft, now at a discount, who can lead your team to fantasy glory. I leaned more heavily on Plate Discipline metrics since they are far more reliable than batted ball data so early in the season with such tiny sample sizes. P.S. I swear I didn’t mean to make this a nearly completely AL-only list, that’s just how the players shook out this week.
Yasiel Puig (OF, Dodgers) – It’s hard not to get giddy at seeing how Puig has started the year. Not only is his walking more than he is striking out, which seems impossible compared to last year’s rates, but he’s hitting 40% Hard Contact with a superb .458 ISO. With a player of his talent, while this is sure to regress, you can’t just write off the whole thing as a fluke. He’s owned in most leagues but he should be owned in every league, and if he is owned, don’t be hesitant to pony up for him, within reason.
Steven Souza (OF, Rays) – Who is this man and WHAT THE HELL HAS HE DONE TO THE REAL STEVEN SOUZA?!! His Strikeout rate has nosedived from 34% to 6%, and his walk rate has boosted from 6% to 20%! That’s nuts. However, his plate discipline stats suggest a less drastic improvement, and while he’s been more selective at the plate, with a Swstr% nearly halved to 9.3% he’s only improved at making contact with pitches off the plate, not on the plate. Still, he has enough power and speed to hit above .260 with 20 HR and 10 SB if he can maintain this newfound discipline.
Aaron Judge (OF, Yankees) – All rise for the honorable Judge, since he is on the rise. Though you wouldn’t be able to tell by the surface stats alone, he has made significant swing rate changes, which are one of the quickest stats to stabilize. He’s decreased his O-Swing% from 34.9% to 24.4% and increased his Z-Swing% from 59.7% to 62.9%, both signs of maturing discipline. He’s also somehow made a lot more contact, with a 90.5% Z-Contact% this year compared to his 78.5% mark, which should regress some but that’s still a good sign. The power is still massive, with 4 of the 9 hardest hit balls in the MLB coming from him. With some more batted ball luck and a few more flyballs (which I’m sure he can do with his 51% 2016 mark), he can make those Stanton comps look not so crazy after all. Buy now, or forever hold your peace.
Andrew Benintendi (OF, Red Sox) – Hopefully, for the sake of humanity, nobody in your league dropped him just because he’s been a dud since his Opening Day dinger. If you have ever tried to do your job while sick, you know it’s not easy, especially when your job includes hitting 95 mph baseballs and running around. Dude puked between innings! Ew. Still, his batted ball profile looks sexy, with 22.2 LD% and 50% FB% to go with a 44.4% Hard Contact Rate. What’s more, he has a ridiculous 100% Z contact rate and 1.2% SwStr. Add the fact he has a .176 BABIP (especially unlucky given his hard contact rate) and a K% equal to his 8.7 BB% and you’d be a dang fool not to buy.
Ryon Healy (3B, Athletics) – While I had looked past him as it seemed he carried a lot of helium, after his hot start the balloon is starting to squeal and fly around the room. Despite the 2 HR, the .156 AVG looks concerning, but worry not. The power is real, and not only is he hitting for improved Hard Contact, he’s hitting way more flies and fewer grounders (from 41.6 GB% to 19% and from 38.8 FB% to 57.1%. Right on, Ryon! He’s also upped his Z-Swing% and reduced his O-Swing%. Buy his ability to hit big flies and believe the hype… it’s not just helium. Heh, Healy-um.
Nick Castellanos (3B, Tigers) – I try to avoid having too many repeats on here, but my man Nick C. here is simply too underowned and undervalued for me to stand idly by. His walk rate is up to 11.5% (from 6.3% in 2016.) and even though it’s just 22 AB, his swing rates suggest improved discipline; his O-Swing is down to 27% from 37%, with a 8.8% SwStr down from 14.6% in 2016. Oh, and did I forget to mention his 0% Soft Contact, and 80% Hard Contact? All of this will regress, of course, but he’s doing everything right to breakout, so cast the dice on Castellanos.
Matt Joyce (OF, Athletics) – Poor suckers who fell for Matt Joyce’s 2016… his walk rate is back to his career rates and he’s back to being a bum. …Okay, are my leaguemates gone? Good! He’s the perfect buy-low, since BABIP is the only reason he’s struggling, and so far his 2016 changes look like they stuck. He has a 33% Hard Contact Rate with just 6.7% Soft Contact, compared to 36% Hard and 17% Soft last year. Meanwhile his plate discipline improved even more, with a 12% O-Swing% (would be 2nd best in MLB if he had AB to qualify) down from 18% in 2016 and 25% career. He’s the kinda wild card teams give up on quickly without results, so jump for Joyce.
Kendrys Morales (DH, Blue Jays) – Other than his grand slam, Kendrys has yet to do much to turn heads, and as a DH, impatient fantasy owners may have less patience with him and his roster-spot-clogging ways. But you perhaps didn’t realize that he’s actually crushing the ball, with a 5.3% soft contact rate and 68.4% Hard Contact Rate! 68.4%! Gotta love April. It’s also a good sign that he’s been pulling the ball a lot more, with a 52.6% mark compared to 37.9% from 2016. His plate discipline is right in line with 2016 and that .222 BABIP won’t last long. Drink up, get Mor Ales.
Joey Gallo (3B, Rangers) – It’s fair to say that Gallo has a bit of a strikeout problem. His 39% K rate agrees… and that’s his best major league K rate yet. But for a guy with this much upside, even small signs of hope carry big significance. It seems he’s adapted a more aggressive approach at the plate, with higher O-Swing% up 10% to 37% and Z-Swing% up 15% to 80.5%. It’s helped so far as his contact rate has jumped from 50% to 69% and his SwStr is down from 22.1% to 16.8%. With a crazy 60% FB% to go with his 45.5% Hard contact rate, those signs of improvement may be enough improvement to stay in the majors with the chance for Jack Cust-ian numbers at 3B. No, that’s not an insult, though I know it sounds like it is.
Jose Iglesias (SS, Tigers) – When you draft a player for their ability to hit for average, and they’re hitting .105, it may make you lose faith. But of course, that would be stupid, as his .063 BABIP is not going to last, especially when you consider he’s hitting career-best hard contact. While his contact rates have actually dipped so far, it’s offset by both a lower O-Swing% and a higher Z-Swing%. In deep leagues or AL-only Batting Average leagues, it’s a great time to pick him up dirt cheap.
Russell Martin (C, Blue Jays) – Owning a struggling player can be hard. Owning a player who is literally hitting .000 is harder. However, unlike early last year, where his sky-high K rate led to valid concerns, he actually has a lower 20% K rate, with a 30% walk rate. Weird. He’s the ultimate BABIP casualty, with a .000 BABIP despite a normal-looking batted ball profile (except for lack of line% K drives). As a 34-year-old catcher, it’s possible his owner is silently panicking that he’s toast and you can get a solid catcher on the cheap, especially in OBP leagues.
Yandy Diaz (3B, Indians) – Okay, so here’s an interesting buy, but just for deep AL-only leaguers. The profile here is odd… He’s hitting 72.2% GB%, despite a Hard Contact rate of 72.2%, and only 5.6% FB% Based on Eric Longenhangen’s prospect writeup of him, this isn’t a total fluke as he has a funky swing with a downward bat path. But he has some speed and hard grounders, while being the least-good hard-hit ball, should still lead to infield hits, a la Hyun Soo Kim. His 20% K rate should come down as his Swing rates and 6.9% SwStr% suggest better. He could be a Jose Ramirez-lite at the hot corner, so if you’re in need of batting average sleepers or a fill-in, keep your eye on him.
Jose Peraza (2B, Reds) – Not only is he not guaranteed playing time, it seems he has been attempting a more aggressive approach at the plate which has not been working out for him, as his O-Swing% went up more than his Z-Swing%, and his contact rate’s down too. With no on-base skills, he needs to hit to utilize his speed, and there’s better options out there if you can flip him for a more well-rounded hitter. If you can’t trade him, I wouldn’t drop in 15-team mixed yet, but I’d consider in 12-team and definitely would in 10-team.
J.J. Hardy (SS, Orioles) – He has the 2nd-worst O-Swing% in baseball and his Z-Swing is also no good. He seems to have a good hard contact rate but he had the same last year but it just doesn’t seem to materialize into hits. He is rapidly dwindling into the twilight of his career and there’s no room in fantasy for fostering a charity case. Be hardy, and don’t look back when you cut Hardy.
Raul Mondesi (SS, Royals) – Yeah, this is why you don’t rush raw high-upside prospects. With yet-to-develop power and God-awful plate discipline, it’s no surprise that this year he hasn’t been able to hit his way out of a wet paper bag. There’s nothing to salvage here unless it’s a keeper league where you can stash him until a few years from now when he’s actually ready for the majors.
Chris Davis (1B, Orioles) – His K rate is a bit higher than usual, and plate discipline metrics support the plate discipline decline. That’s concerning for a guy who’s strikeout issues threaten his viability, especially when he’s not even hitting for much hard contact. A .500 BABIP gives you an opportunity to sell now at no discount so you don’t have to worry about the wheels finally coming off. I obviously wouldn’t drop him even in shallow mixed, but I’d recommend looking at a backup plan.