Going Deep: Fletch Me If You Can
Everyone has gone wild for Willians Astudillo, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s a short guy with a cool name, a beer league belly, and a flair for the dramatic, who is willing to play every position (poorly) and swing at everything. And yet, because he swings at nearly everything and amazingly manages to make contact with nearly everything, he succeeds. La Tortuga is a champion of the everyman. He defies the trends and logic of scouting and front offices to will himself into the lineup. And we’re all happy to be part of the live Astudillo audience.
But there is another player with no hype who is an Astudillo counterpart. He doesn’t have flowing hair or kneel on his bat after hitting home runs, but he does play multiple positions and has a swinging-strike rate so low that I did a cartoon-level double-take after seeing it. You probably can assume that this player is David Fletcher, and you probably don’t care. I don’t blame you if you wish I’d go back to writing about Astudillo, because he’s fun while Fletcher seems like boring roster filler.
But boring roster filler doesn’t make contact with 98% of pitches on the plate, and 93% of pitches off the plate, for an overall contact rate of 96%. But here Fletcher is, flying under the radar with just three strikeouts in 64 plate appearances. That’s a K rate of 4.7% and a league-leading swinging-strike rate (SwStr%) of 1.2%. Last year’s leader among qualified batters in this stat was Michael Brantley, with a SwStr% of 4.0%. The SwStr% of David Fletcher is is 1.2%. Fletcher’s rate has been one-third of the league’s lowest. He hasn’t just been the best at avoiding whiffs, he’s been on a whole other planet.
It’s easy to miss because his overall profile is pedestrian, so you wouldn’t look for anything under the hood that’s extraordinary. It’s easy to ignore a player FanGraphs’ Jeff Zimmermann referred to in a preseason blurb as “A poor man’s David Eckstein,” and not just because he’s a second base-playing David on the Angels.
Unlike home runs, contact rarely makes headlines. But if we learned anything from Astudillo’s debut, it’s that even without amazing batted-ball velocity, just by putting the ball in play and eliminating an outcome of striking out, an automatic out, good things tend to happen. True, it can’t be poor-quality contact most of the time, or you become Jonathan Lucroy or Joe Panik. But Fletcher’s contact has been good, if a bit unlucky. With an xBA of .332, and xSLG of .435, he has an xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average) of .355, 103rd-best among MLB hitters and above the likes of Elvis Andrus, Andrew Benintendi, Anthony Rizzo, and Xander Bogaerts. And he’s probably still sitting untouched on your waiver wire.
Career: Life in the Fletch Lane
Fletcher was a sixth-round pick by the Angels in the 2015 in the June amateur draft, at pick No. 195 overall. Initially he posted single-digit K rates below his walk rates and double-digit stolen bases, but zero power. As he moved up the minor league ladder, he managed to increase his annual homer total to a maximum of three, but the walk rates fell and the K rates rose to 11%, which is solid but nothing special with so little pop. It was a stat line similar to a New Britain Sea Dogs career minor leaguer I met at a bar who bought me three drinks at once and was shortly after kicked out by the bouncer for being wasted and incessantly hitting on the bartender. Until 2018, Fletcher seemed destined for a similar path, minus the alcohol. Although, at the time, Fletcher was in Double-A.
In 2018, while repeating Triple-A, Fletcher had an all-around breakthrough, increasing his power while lowering his K rate to 8% while rehabbing his low walk rate to passable 6%. All in all he hit .350/.394/.559 with six homers and seven stolen bases over 275 plate appearances. His feat did not go unnoticed, as Carson Cistulli wrote him up several times in the 2018 The Fringe Five for FanGraphs. In fact, prior to his major league call-up in June, Fletcher was second on the Fringe Five prospect leaderboard just behind Josh James and a few spots ahead of Chris Paddack.
On April 27, Cistulli wrote: “Incredibly, Fletcher has produced these unprecedented power numbers while also striking out at a much lower rate than usual…Fletcher isn’t just striking out less often, he’s striking out almost never. In 86 plate appearances entering yesterday, he’d recorded just one strikeout.”
When the Angels dealt away Ian Kinsler, the door was open for Fletcher, and while he didn’t exactly get hype, there was optimism. Many hoped the 23-year-old Fletcher would hit the ground running as a scrappy Dustin Pedroia-lite type, but in the end, he performed more like current-day Pedroia. Over 307 major league plate appearances, he hit a puny .275/316/.363 with just one homer and three steals. His .209 ISO in Triple-A earlier in the year seemed to be a Salt Lake mirage, as it plummeted to a pathetic .088, and the double-digit K rate came back, too. The only silver lining was he was strong defensively at several positions, so despite this, he did earn 1.8 WAR.
Yet, on an Angels team that seems content with ensconcing baseball’s best talent, Mike Trout, in a lukewarm blob of mediocrity, this was enough for Fletcher to enter 2019 with a guaranteed starting role. And so far, that has seemed like a smart move.
Willians and Fletcher – The Tortoise and the Hare
If we were to use a D&D alignment chart for contact-rate hitters (Look, I’m assuming if you’re reading this that we’re all nerds here), Astudillo would be Chaotic Good, whereas Fletcher is Lawful Good. Astudillo has one of the highest swing rates in the league but also an elite contact rate. Fletcher, on the other hand, has the same elite contact rate but swings far less often. I suppose that by extension, Joey Gallo would be Lawful Evil and Jorge Alfaro would be Chaotic Evil.
I think this graph shows that the approaches of both players have flaws. Astudillo swings too often and is better at hitting pitches on the plate. Fletcher makes contact with everything he swings at but doesn’t swing enough. But in the end, both players should be batting average studs.
So far this year, nobody has come close to Fletcher in avoiding strikeouts. Sure, all it takes is one bad day at the plate and that rate could rise. But his contact rate is nearing the point of stabilization, and it’s at 96.8%, which is unheard of in the modern era. Granted, unlike Willians, who swings at everything, Fletcher basically swings at nothing. He swings at just 20% of pitches off the plate and 47% of pitches on the plate. That means he has been thrown 267 pitches and swung at just 90. But of those 90, he’s made contact with 87. That’s right, he’s swung and missed on a pitch three times all season. He’s also struck out three times this season. He’s one of the few players who would probably strike out even less if he swung more. After all, with a league-low Z-swing% of just 48%, he’s taken 128 strikes looking and had just three swinging strikes. When you’re that good at preventing strikes by swinging, allowing them without a challenge seems rather silly. In other words, he could learn a thing or two from Astudillo’s aggressiveness.
What also lends to Fletcher’s “El Conejo” nickname is that while he isn’t nearly as fun to watch as La Tortuga on the basepaths, he is much faster. Whereas Astudillo’s 24.4 m/s speed ranks 285th of 313, Fletcher clocks in at 27.8 m/s, which ranks 82nd. So he’s not exactly a burner, but that still is tied with Mookie Betts, Jose Ramirez and Jose Altuve. Even without their knack for nabbing bags, Fletcher’s speed also means that when he makes contact, which is almost always, he has better odds of beating the throw to first, as well as stretching out hits for extra bases and scoring runs. Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention that Astudillo has catcher ability while Fletcher does not, so Willians has that going for him. But hey, with the Angels’ current catching situation, a man can dream.
Historical Contact Context
The art of getting your bat to meet a ball is not easy, as any kid who challenges themselves with a fast-pitch batting cage can tell you. In the early days of baseball, when fastballs were the only pitch, the best hitters could manage to avoid striking out pretty well. Ty Cobb had a career strikeout rate of 4.1%, and in 1916, his last year with the Tigers in the twilight of his career, he managed a 0.7 K%. That year he hit .339 with four homers and nine steals over 273 plate appearances. As impressive as this was, in that era, the league-average K rate was 6%.
Of course that was over 100 years ago. In recent memory, low K rates are rare, but perhaps the closest notable modern example of a player so averse to striking out was Tony Gwynn. From 1982 to 2001, he managed a 4.2% career K rate, peaking at 2.6% in 1995 when he hit .368/.404/.484 with nine home runs and 17 steals, a great season despite a .116 ISO. In the modern era, baseball has moved further and further from contact with emphasis on velocity, spin rate, exit velocity and power, making it somewhat surprising that Fletcher received a major league opportunity at all. But he leads all qualified batters in K% (Astudillo does not have enough plate appearances to qualify), and this could be the greatest strikeout season of all time. In 2018, Craig Edwards at FanGraphs penned a piece about Andrelton Simmons and his 5% K rate at the time (it ultimately rose to 8%). He wrote that relative to the average major league K% and standard deviation, it would have ranked as the best K% season relative to the league (dubbed K% IQ) of all time at 137.5. Well, now in 2019, Fletcher’s K% performance relative to the league is even better, making him a bona fide K% Einstein.
Fletcher in the Rye
Fletcher avoids two of the three true outcomes, as he seldom homers or strikes out, though he does draw walks when he manages to not put the ball in play. What that means is that with so many balls in play, most of his outcomes are especially prone to luck. And that luck hasn’t be great—although lately it has been improving.
That .332 xBA ranks 10th-best in baseball. His expected stats are actually almost exactly similar to Jeff McNeil‘s (same average, and Fletcher has the slightly higher xSLG). McNeil is actually a solid comp to Fletcher in many ways. A lack of prospect pedigree but a utility role and kitchen-sink approach make him an invaluable fantasy asset.
Speaking of which, One great thing about Fletcher is that he can play nearly every position on the diamond. Yes, he’s listed as their emergency catcher and even has his own gear (though has yet to play a game). This is important considering that the Angels are carrying three players on their roster who are limited to first base or DH in Justin Bour, Albert Pujols and Shohei Ohtani. So far this year, Fletcher’s played left field, right field, third base, second base, and shortstop. And unlike Astudillo, he actually plays most of those positions capably, although he just learned outfield this year, so that’s still an adjustment. That defense does matter, as it keeps him in the lineup every day, allowing him to rack up the at-bats to give that high batting average extra weight. On Saturday, he batted leadoff for the first time, and this could be an arrangement that we’ll see more often.
I mean, why wouldn’t you want a batter who walks often and never strikes out to set the table? He certainly seems like the best candidate for that on the Angels at the moment, and hitting in front of Trout will be pretty darn good for his run-scoring potential.
I think Fletcher’s league-leading contact greatness is mostly sustainable. Sure, it’s still technically April, but contact rate is one of the fastest stats to stabilize, so barring injury or major changes, we can expect him to continue hitting for league-leading contact (and a strong walk rate), with his high quantity of contact leading to double-digit stolen bases and near-double digit power. While at just 5’9″ he lacks much in terms of physical projection (Ramirez and Betts say hello once more), Fletcher is still just 24 and has continued to improve his game over the past year. So I won’t make the mistake of assuming he’s already reached his ceiling.
Even assuming some regression, he could still hit .310/.365/.430 with eight homers and 15 steals, while qualifying at outfield and several other positions. That may not sound overwhelming, but especially in standard leagues, that’s an invaluable fantasy asset—not just for AL-only leagues, but also for 15-team leagues, and even 12-team leagues. And if he can start swinging at more pitches or add just a touch more loft and/or exit velocity, he could reach double-digit power, or hit .320, or steal 20+ bases, becoming the new prototypical leadoff hitter. Especially in deeper leagues, take him for what he’s doing now and hope he becomes the next fantasy breakout star.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)