Is It Legit: Jason Heyward’s Start Proves an Astrophysics Theorem
Welcome to Is It Legit, where each week I’ll be doing what every fantasy analyst tells owners not to do and recklessly diving into small sample sizes from previous weeks to make a rash judgment on how useful a player will be rest of season. For context, this goal of this series isn’t to point out that Player X won’t hit .400 all season. You — a loyal Pitcher List reader, who’s considering getting a Pitcher List tattoo — are obviously much too savvy for that.
Rather, the goal is to identify players for whom we may want to reconsider our rest-of-season valuations based on recent performance. A “legit” verdict indicates that a player’s underlying metrics or changes to a playing time situation point to him being better than we’d previously assumed. A “not legit” verdict indicates recent performance is more related to a hot streak than a breakout.
Jason Heyward, OF Chicago Cubs
Case for Legitness (Season): 55 PA, 15 H, 4 HR, 3 SB, .651 SLG
Argument: I’ll admit, I don’t really know what to make of Heyward. It would be easy to just look at his stretch from 2013 to 2018, in which his 102 wRC+ was almost as average as a hitter can get, and say that his hot stretch to open the 2019 campaign is nothing more than luck. I was prepared to do just that (and spoiler, I’m still going to), but Heyward’s currently rocking some career bests at the plate.
Statcast is similarly backing Heyward’s good start. The 29-year-old has improved his launch angle from 9.4 to 18.7 degrees, is up to 91.6 mph average exit velocity, and has hit 45% of his batted balls over 95 mph. This all adds up to an actual wOBA of .452, which is among the top 5% in the league, and an expected wOBA of .385.
Heyward’s played just 13 games this season, so let’s see if this run of success is unprecedented or if it’s something he’s been able to produce before. Below shows Heyward’s rolling 15-game wOBA since 2012.
And there’s the rub. Heyward’s start, as metric-backed and Statcast-jacked as it is, is not abnormal. The plate discipline gains are encouraging, but similar graphs to the above for K%, BB%, SwStr%, and O-Swing% show previous stretches of glory. It’s hard to run from a long track record.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ll roll the dice on Heyward in a 12-teamer. We can only act on the 2019 data we have to go on, which says he’s been pretty good. But longer term, I’m not really buying it.
There’s a concept in astrophysics called the “infinite monkey theorem” which states that, given enough time, an infinite amount of monkeys banging away on typewriters will eventually produce the completed works of Shakespeare. So it goes with Heyward. As long as he stays in the majors and gets frequent at bats, he’s due for the occasional midsummer night’s dream.
Verdict: NOT LEGIT
Austin Meadows, OF Tampa Bay Rays
Case for Legitness (Season): 64 PA, 20 H, 6 HR, 2 SB, 12.5% BB %
Argument: Don’t look now, but after a four-homer week, Meadows is currently ranking among the league’s top 10 in OPS, weighted on-base average, and wRC+. He’s been a scary guy to stare down from the mound since late last summer. After getting shipped off to Tampa from Pittsburgh at last season’s trade deadline, all Meadows has done is hit .325/.400/.638 across 90 plate appearances. He previewed that nasty streak with 10 homers across 106 plate appearances in Triple-A Durham.
Statcast fears him too. He’s hitting balls harder (91.8 mph, +3.6), and already has seven barreled balls on the season, nearly matching the nine he hit last year across 191 plate appearances. The expected stats all back up his performance so far, and he’s managed to produce against both fastballs and breaking balls.
Aside from the surface stats, there’s two things I really like about what Meadows is doing. For one, he’s being patient at the plate. He’s seeing more pitches than he did last year, averaging almost one extra pitch per at bat (4.89). Indeed, his swing rate has dropped to just 37.4%, and his walk rate has subsequently leapt from 5.2% to 12.5%. He’s making less contact and whiffing more, but a 9.9% swinging strike rate is about league average and not cause for concern.
Secondly, he’s spreading out his home runs. In 2018, all six of his longshots were pulled. In 2019, he’s had home runs to center and center left.
While his 33% HR/FB is almost certainly inflated, all-fields power is still better than right field-only power. He hit 24% of his fly balls for home runs in his stint in Durham, which would still be plenty productive this season.
Meadows was probably a bit underrated in drafts this season, going as the 47th outfielder off the board in NFBC. He’s got top 30 outfielder potential.
Leonys Martin, OF Cleveland Indians
Case for Legitness (Last 15 Days): 44 PA, 12 H, 3 HR, 8 BB,
Argument: Martin was a popular sleeper candidate going into the season, and it’s easy to see why. He’s got the only two tools that truly matter in the standard fantasy format: power and speed. Consider this: Martin has never combined for fewer than 18 HR + SB in any season in which he’s had more than 300 plate appearances. He had 11 jacks and seven swipes in 353 PAs last year, with some respectable counting stats to boot. With the Cleveland Indians’ outfield depth chart basically full of a bunch of Timmy Lupus types, the path for playing time was finally open for Martin in a way he hadn’t seen since his Texas Rangers days in 2012-13.
Since April 1, he’s been a productive fantasy outfielder, hitting a trio of long balls and walking at a 15.1% clip. But there’s a major concern here: Martin is whiffing. A lot. His current 29.7% K% would be a career worst, and his 15% swinging strike rate shows that’s probably not going to get better any time soon. His contact rate has dropped from 76% last season to just 64% so far this year, coming mostly from his inability to hit pitches outside of the zone. He’s actually swinging at fewer pitches across the board, which explains his improved walk rate, but that’s been at the expense of extra Ks. His BABIP over this mini-hot streak of .346 is well above his career .306, and his 21.4% HR/FB rate also paces his career rate of 9.1%.
Martin’s still a toolsy player, and his ability to suddenly take a lot of walks could help support a decent amount of stolen bases, but the whiffs and non-aggressive plate approach are just screaming to be exploited by opposing pitchers. My guess is Martin will bounce on and off waivers in a 12-teamer throughout the season. He’ll be ownable for some teams in need of a fifth outfielder, but expect some freezing cold stretches.
Verdict: NOT LEGIT
Chris Davis, 1B Baltimore Orioles
Case for Legitness (Since April 13): 13 PA, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 1.135 OPS
Argument: C’mon y’all. Just let him have this one.
Verdict: (HONORARY) LEGIT
Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire