Going Deep: The Rise of Niko Goodrum
Niko Goodrum has had an atypical path to major league relevance. A second-round pick by the Minnesota Twins in 2010, Goodrum spent three years in rookie ball before finally graduating to the professional minor league circuit in 2013. He then spent another five years incrementally working his way through the Twins’ system, earning his first taste of big league action with a September 2017 call-up.
But the Twins cut Goodrum after the 2017 season, leaving him as a 26-year old free agent with minimal MLB experience. The odds of success for such a career path are exceedingly slim. However, Goodrum, an athletic switch-hitter capable of playing anywhere on the diamond, was able to latch on with the Detroit Tigers on a minor league contract in November 2017.
Against the odds, Goodrum parlayed that contract into an MLB roster spot out of spring training. He then proceeded to post 16 home runs and 12 stolen bases across 131 games for Detroit in 2018, all while taking reps at six different positions in the field.
Goodrum has expanded upon that success thus far in 2019, regularly hitting clean-up and stinging the ball to the tune of a .293 batting average, .512 slugging percentage, and 158 wRC+. Better yet, Goodrum’s box score stats are backed up by Statcast indicators that paint him as one of baseball’s 10 best hitters over the season’s first several weeks.
While it’s unlikely that Goodrum maintains league-leading hard-hit rate and xwOBA figures, even modest improvements on his 2018 performance will make Goodrum an exceedingly valuable player for the Tigers and fantasy owners alike.
Establishing the Baseline
Prior to delving into Goodrum’s 2019 improvements, it’s important to understand that Goodrum was a viable player and fantasy asset based on his 2018 performance alone. In 492 plate appearances, Goodrum posted 28 HR+SB, or .057 per plate appearance.
That performance ranked in the 75th percentile in baseball and above near-consensus top 100 fantasy players Andrew Benintendi, Eddie Rosario, Ozzie Albies and Jose Peraza. While these players possess other traits that might make them preferable to Goodrum, the fact that Niko shared their company in two of fantasy baseball’s most important statistics during his rookie season is an impressive feat.
Extrapolating Goodrum’s 2018 out to a full season’s worth of plate appearances would make him a 20 HR and 15 SB player. While such numerical sorcery can make a lot of mediocre players look good, Goodrum’s underlying skillset provides justification for it.
After adding some power to his game in AA and AAA, Goodrum averaged a 12% HR/FB ratio in the minors in 2016 and 2017, a figure which jumped to 15.5% with the Tigers in 2018. That increase is actually less than the 4% to 5% nominal bump most players experience after ascending from the high minors to the MLB. Goodrum’s xSLG last season of .413 also trended fairly close to his actual slugging percentage of .432. Both of these indicators provide confidence that if Goodrum can at the very least maintain his 2018 approach, he’s a legitimate 15-20 home run player.
Meanwhile, 12 to 15 swipes is a solid stolen base floor for Goodrum, considering his Statcast spring speed sits in the 95th percentile of MLB players, above names like Whit Merrifield, Jarrod Dyson and Dee Gordon. He used this speed to swipe 35 bags at high-A in 2014 and 29 at multiple minor league levels in 2015. There is certainly more to stealing bases than pure speed, but penciling Goodrum in for double-digit steals is a good bet considering his athletic ability and minor league history.
In Yahoo leagues (47% owned), Goodrum is eligible at every position except catcher. In ESPN leagues (17% owned) he’s eligible at first, second and will be at center in short order. With a 30 HR+SB floor and significant multi-position eligibility, Goodrum was already a valuable fantasy player heading into 2019.
Goodrum is teasing that his 2018 showing was just the tip of the iceberg. Through the first three weeks of 2019, Goodrum is tearing the cover off the ball, with a .482 xwOBA that ranks eighth in all of his baseball.
He is also in the 87th percentile or higher in xBA, xSLG, 95 MPH+ %, overall exit velocity and exit velocity on fly balls and line drives. He’s also doing damage with his eyes as well as his bat, evidenced by an 18% walk rate that ranks in the top 10 in baseball. Goodrum’s underlying readings are so strong that they actually point to his 158 wRC+ and .932 OPS to date being marred by bad luck, with his .402 wOBA trailing his xwOBA by a massive 80 points.
But we’re a mere three weeks into the season, and Goodrum has only amassed 50 plate appearances. Even though Statcast readings are more indicative of true skill than box score numbers at this point in the season, they are still prone to small sample variance. After all, Colin Moran, Mitch Moreland and Ronald Guzman all rank in the top 25 in xwOBA—do we honestly think they’ll still be there by mid-season?
When dealing with small sample sizes, the overall level of performance becomes important. While we can’t necessarily trust that a “good” or “great” showing over three weeks as indicative of much, an “extraordinary” performance, one that a player hasn’t achieved before, could be the sign of a true baseline skill increase.
An encouraging facet of Goodrum’s season to date, highlighted by the rolling 50 PA chart above, is that he never achieved the heights of a .480 xwOBA, or even a .450 xwOBA, for an extended period last season. I interpret this as an indication of legitimate improvement in Goodrum’s approach at the plate. And while he won’t come close to sustaining this level, I feel confident in projecting that his underlying baseline is affirmatively higher than the .318 level he posted in 2018.
Given Goodrum’s pop and speed, small improvements will result in large increases in fantasy production. If his .245 / .315 / .432 batting line from last season stabilizes to something like .265 / .335 / .460 in 2019, that likely means he goes from a 35 HR+SB player over a full season to 40, while his run and RBI counts would likely crest into the 80s.
Keeping the Gains
Goodrum, the rare switch hitter in the modern era, certainly has some flaws that he could stand to iron out if he wants to maintain the impressive Statcast gains he’s shown in 2019 thus far.
Goodrum profiles as a completely different hitter from each side of the plate. As a righty, Goodrum’s career to date has been personified by a high-contact, high-batting average approach, exemplified by a 0.62 K/BB ratio, .302 xBA and .147 xISO. Meanwhile, as a lefty, Goodrum tends to swing for the fences a bit more, with a .191 xISO but a 0.29 K/BB and .236 xBA.
Goodrum’s free-swinging tendencies as a lefty are supported by a whiff rate of 32% and a chase rate of 30% compared to 21% and 23%, respectively, as a righty. Superior performance as a right-handed hitter is a trend that extends well back into Goodrum’s minor league career, a concerning tendency given that he only takes a quarter of his plate appearances from that side of the plate.
However, some of Goodrum’s issues from the left side of the plate are fixable. His eye is clearly strong, considering his plus-plus plate discipline from the right side. While he might never be able to remedy his swing-and-miss rate from the left side of the plate, he can at least learn to make smarter decisions on which pitches he swings at.
The above charts compare Goodrum’s swings on pitches outside the strike zone as a lefty and a righty. From the left side, Goodrum is very susceptible to chasing sinkers and changeups that break away off the plate. He actually displays a similar inclination as a righty on the opposite side of the plate, however, he has a more discerning eye, as the swings are on pitches that are closer to the strike zone and thus easier to hit.
Goodrum has already shown improvement in this respect, cutting his chase rate from the left side of the plate from 30% last year to 24% thus far in 2019. This change is one of the reasons why Goodrum’s strikeout to walk ratio is nearly 1:1 to start the season.
From an anecdotal perspective, Goodrum has a pretty sweet, easy swing as a lefty. Check out this home run that he hit off Yankee’s fireballer Luis Severino late last season.
Goodrum took a 100 MPH fastball from one of baseball’s best pitchers for a pull-side home run. That’s mighty impressive, and highlights plus pitch recognition and bat speed. In fact, only eight players have hit a pulled home run on a 100 MPH+ fastball since the Statcast era started in 2015.
Niko Goodrum is beginning to receive fanfare for his impressive start to the 2019 season. However, his solid power-speed floor combined with wide-ranging positional versatility already made him a valuable player heading into the season. Additional gains in his approach at the plate, which are likely legitimate given his outsized Statcast performance and plate discipline improvements thus far, could push him into the realm of the game’s elite.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter).