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 cherry-picked 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 Tim Anderson won’t go 30/60 this year. You — who was smart enough to end up on a prestigious fantasy analysis site like Pitcher List, the Zoltar of fantasy prognosticators — 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.
Tim Anderson (SS, Chicago White Sox)
Case for Legitness (Last 87 PAs): 6 HR, 20 R, 17 RBI, 9 SB, 2 Epic Bat Flips
Argument: Unwritten rules. A questionable suspension after getting plucked for breaking unsaid rules. Getting drafted second overall in the PL Worst Ball league. Randal Grichuk. No matter how much the haters pile on, Tim Anderson just does. not. care. It’s no surprise that baseball’s traditionalists — easily a larger and louder segment than that of any other professional sport — are blasting the 25-year-old shortstop this week. But I, for one, am totally here for this version of Tim Anderson — the one who’s eighth in the league in WAR, who leads the majors in steals with 10, who is currently the top-ranked shortstop on ESPN’s player rater despite being the 15th ranked at the position during draft season, the one who does this:
But despite how much I’m here for it, Anderson’s breakout April is actually kinda perplexing. There’s not really much change in his underlying profile that point to Anderson being all that different a player in 2019.
Going down the usual “Is This Guy Any Different?” checklist doesn’t reveal a lot of “Ah-Ha’s!” Plate discipline? Actually kinda worse, swinging at more pitches overall and tracking to a putrid 2% walk rate and nearly 20% strikeout rate, which his swinging strike rate actually suggests might be a little low. Contact rates? Slightly up across the board, but the aforementioned plate discipline numbers don’t give me too much confidence that his hyper-aggressive approach will continue to pay off. Batted ball profile? Not fundamentally different, other than an inflated BABIP of .418 that’s well-above his career .332 mark, as well as an inflated 22 HR/FB% — both of which suggest a batting average and power regression. Statcast data? Nothing too exciting, with a modest improvement in average exit velocity that still puts him below league average and no major launch angle adjustment. Even the stolen bases aren’t necessarily exceptional: He also swiped eight in nine tries last April while only going 18-25 on stolen base attempts the remainder of the year.
So, what’s behind the bonkers April? Maybe he was underrated going into the year: After all, in 2018 he was one of just 10 players with 20 long balls and 20 swipes. But maybe he’s just really on fire. It seems we’ve just hit peak Tim Anderson: This is who he can be when it all comes together for him. But he’s also not a fundamentally different player either. I really wanted this to be legit, but I just can’t get behind a real change. That his expected wOBA of .348 is far below his actual wOBA of .414 only supports the regression prognosis.
Regardless of where the gavel comes down this week, one thing is clear: Tim Anderson doesn’t care. Carry on, Tim. You be you.
Verdict: NOT LEGIT
Jesse Winker (OF, Cincinnati Reds)
Case for Legitness (Last 65 PAs): 5 HR, 12 R, 8 RBI, .281 AVG, .948 OPS
Argument: It seems like we’ve been waiting for Jesse Winker to arrive for several years now. Despite a slow start to 2019, the Reds outfielder is now slugging a solid .511 on the season after a recent hot streak that saw him hit four homer in five days. As a prospect, the hit tool has always had promise, but with eight longballs already on the season Winker’s power game has been a promising development. Let’s play the blind resume game with two players across their last 575 plate appearances (hint: one is Winker):
If the season started today and I had to draft one of the two, my clear pick would be Player A, who’s going yard at a decent clip, hitting for more overall power, and is getting on base well above league average. Even in May, draft anchoring is still a very real thing, and my guess is these two players are still valued very differently than their actual performance suggests: Player A, you guessed it, is Winker. Player B is his teammate Joey Votto.
I say this not to downgrade Votto — although you probably should at this point — but instead to show that Winker’s contact skills and plate approach are Votto-esque, at least as far as actual outcomes go. While Winker swings at more pitches overall, including pitches outside the zone, he actually has better contact rates than Votto all across the board. His .209 BABIP is this season is way below his career .311, which suggests more of those balls in play should start falling for base hits soon and which his season-long expected batting average of .277 also supports.
So it’s easy to say the hit tool is legit, but what about the power? Winker is currently hitting a third of his fly balls for home runs, which likely won’t stick over the course of the season. However, the good news here is he’s hitting the ball hard, with an above average exit velocity on line drives and fly balls. He hits lots of line drives, averaging a liner on about a quarter of hits balls in play. Last season’s OPS on liners: 1.661. This year: .789. I don’t expect the 40-plus home run pace to stick, but there should be plenty of extra base hits to fall regardless of whether they’re doubles or dingers.
Despite the current hot streak, his season numbers are still modest, with his .234 average looking much worse on the surface than it actually is. Now is prime time to buy if you’re in need of outfield help, but that window won’t be open much longer.
Yandy Diaz (3B, Tampa Bay Rays)
Case for Legitness (Last 55 PAs): 14 H, 4 HR, 12 RBI, .638 SLG
Argument: In today’s game, growing into a productive fantasy player is more the exception than the norm. Run down the list of the first 50 draft picks, and you’ll find a lot more high-pedigree guys who made an impact within their first full season — from Mike Trout to George Springer — than you will guys who grew from waiver claim to fantasy stud: Jose Ramirez and J.D. Martinez, just to name a few of the few. This is not to proclaim Yandy Diaz as a future fourth round pick, but the 27-year-old is showing skills growth that we should start to take seriously despite what we thought we knew about him going into this season.
He already has seven taters on the season, the most he’s put up in any single season across any level save for 2016, when he had a not-so-whopping nine across 526 plate appearances. The plate skills have never been in doubt, and this season he’s walking 14% of the time while striking out at a palatable 17% clip. Just like Winker above, Diaz’s .275 average and .369 OBP seem about right given his approach at the dish and above average contact skills. But what’s with the power?
Turns out, Diaz has never lacked in that department, either. He’s just hit the ball at that wrong angle. See below:
He’s still hitting a ton of balls into the ground, but he’s produced significantly better outcomes on his fly balls this year, buoyed by an excellent 97.8 mph average exit velocity on line drives and fly balls. And while his average launch angle hasn’t changed, the actual amount of batted balls he’s hitting at more optimal angles has improved. Check the histogram below, where the redder buckets indicate a greater percentage of batted balls at an average exit velocity above 95 mph.
There may not be a launch angle shift in terms of average launch angle, because Diaz has hit quite a few stinkers into the dirt. But there’s been an effective launch angle change. Comparing his 120 plate appearances last season to his 122 this year, he’s hit a greater amount of balls in the 0-35 degree angle range, with the bulk of those occurring between 10 and 35 degrees. Combined with his excellent hard hit rate on line drives and fly balls, it appears Diaz is starting to hit balls at the optimal launch angles and exit velocities to make good things happen, even if there’s a lot of junk in between.
His home run to fly ball rate should certainly regress, but the days of 4.8% HR/FB should be over for Diaz. His ownership percentage is hanging just around 60%, according to FantasyPros. I’m buying as a legit corner infielder in 12-teamers, with an extra value bump where walks are rewarded.
Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire