Making good decisions with limited data is at the heart of winning your fantasy baseball league. Even though the season is still young, it’s not too early to start reconsidering your outlook on players with the season’s first few games in the books. In the spirit of the “Is It Legit” series, we look at several hitters who have over-performed and under-performed expectations so far, and recalibrate our outlook on them going forward.
Kyle Lewis, Mariners
While it’s taken the former first-round pick Kyle Lewis some time to get to the big leagues after his 2016 knee injury, he’s arrived with a bang. Lewis has hit nine home runs in the first 28 games of his major league career, including three homers so far this season. He’s also started 2020 off on a ten-game hitting streak, and he’s been slotting into the lineup regularly as the Mariners’ number three hitter. In addition to his fantasy numbers, which are jumping off the page right now, Lewis is displaying some promising underlying skills improvements: He’s improved his O-swing% significantly from last season, dropping down to a 24.6% rate from last season’s 36% mark. Lewis is also performing much better against breaking pitches than he did last year, with a .380 xwOBA compared to a .258 last season. These improvements paint a picture of a hitter who is refining his approach and has an idea of what he’s doing at the plate. While there’s lots to like about Lewis, we also need to temper our expectations somewhat. There’s still a lot of swing-and-miss to Lewis’s game, and while his swinging strike rate has improved, he’s still striking out 38.6% of the time. Additionally, Lewis’s power upside is capped somewhat by his low fly ball percentage, which is currently 21.7%.
Verdict: Legit. By reducing his reach rates and improving against breaking pitches, Kyle Lewis is showing the incremental growth needed to help your fantasy team in 2020. Hitting third with the Mariners, he has the current profile to post a .250-80-25-85-3 line in a traditional full season. That said, expect volatility in his performance due to his high strikeout rates, and know that he likely won’t deliver plus batting average or more than a steal or two over the course of the season.
Hanser Alberto, Orioles
Another player who’s absolutely raking right now, Hanser Alberto is hitting .429 with 2 homers, a steal, 5 RBI and 7 runs and a 223 wRC+ through the first 8 games of the season. Alberto has a ridiculously aggressive approach at the plate that actually works due to his strong contact skills, as his 41.9% O-Swing and a 57.9% swing rates are offset by his 89.4% contact rate and 6.1% swinging strike rate. In today’s game where the three-true-outcomes hitter has become commonplace, Alberto embodies a throwback style to the days when batting average was king. This approach is both to his benefit and detriment. Yes, Alberto should once again hit for a high average, but this will likely come at the expense of power, as Alberto’s average exit velocity of 85.1 once again trails most players who will end up on your fantasy team.
Verdict: Not Legit. It’s refreshing to see a throwback player who puts the ball in play, but the light-on-power-and-speed Alberto is unlikely to move the needle for your team this season. If you’re desperate for batting average help, he’s worth an add in a 12-team league, and he should be a fine, if unspectacular, option in deeper leagues due to his regular playing time and position in the batting order.
Teoscar Hernandez, Blue Jays
Teoscar Hernandez’s home run upside is obvious: At 16.5 degrees, his average launch angle is fly-ball friendly and he wields tremendous power. 70% of his batted balls this season have been 95 mph or higher and he has already recorded five batted balls above 108 mph exit velocity. Hernandez’s max exit velo on this young season is 114 mph, which is the eighth best in baseball. Unfortunately, Hernandez also still carries the same plate discipline and contact skill deficits that have always hampered him from sustaining stardom over the course of a season. With a 37.9% O-Swing and a 17.6% SwStr rate, he’s well below the MLB averages in plate discipline and contact skills. While Hernandez is simply destroying fastballs right now to the tune of a .639 xwOBA, he is only at .285 against breaking pitches and .036 against offspeed pitches. Incredibly, pitchers are continuing to feed him fastballs, throwing them nearly 60% of the time. How long will it be before pitchers wise up and just throw him junk off the plate?
Verdict: Not Legit. I just can’t see Hernandez sustaining his level of success when his plate discipline and contact skills continue to be glaring weaknesses. It won’t be long before he’s fed a steady diet of offspeed and breaking pitches. Sell high or ride the hot streak until it fizzles.
Gary Sanchez, Yankees
Gary Sanchez is off to one of the worst starts in baseball this season. Through eight games, Sanchez is 2-for-27 with 15 strikeouts and a -21 wRC+. He’s performing abysmally against every pitch type. He’s chasing more pitches outside the zone and missing more than ever in his career. It’s just brutal. Like many hitters, Sanchez has traditionally pummeled fastballs, and he’s logged over a .400 xwOBA in each of his previous four seasons against them. This year, Sanchez has a .193 xwOBA against fastballs. This inability to catch up may be due to getting his timing back after this chaotic offseason, and it could also be due to pitchers spotting the high fastball above his uppercut swing. Whatever the reason, pitchers are seizing the opportunity by getting more aggressive against Sanchez, throwing significantly more first pitch strikes. Sanchez has not yet adapted to this approach, and his swing percentage is actually down to 41.3%, so he is paying for his patience by getting behind in counts.
Verdict: Legit. It’s only been eight games, but Sanchez has truly “earned” his poor performance, and there are no excuses or easy explanations. If you want to hit the panic button and sell low, I wouldn’t blame you. This is obviously such an unprecedented season in so many ways, and Sanchez isn’t the only hitter struggling with his timing. I’m going to hold onto him for another week and see if he starts to figure things out, but I’m definitely concerned.
Oscar Mercado, Indians
After a promising rookie season where he hit 15 homers and stole 15 bases in 438 plate appearances, Oscar Mercado has found himself hitting in the bottom third of Cleveland’s lineup and struggling out of the gate. Even more important than this lineup change, Mercado is having to adapt to a new approach from opposing pitchers: a steady diet of breaking balls. Mercado has seen 50% breakers this season, up from 33.7% in 2019, and the approach seems to be keeping him off-balance thus far. Mercado is reaching at more pitches outside the zone and swinging at fewer strikes than last season. Many talented hitters have been foiled by an increase in breaking pitches, and it remains to be seen if Mercado can make this adjustment at the big league level. You might not have time to let him work out his struggles on your team.
Verdict: Legit. Mercado’s struggles to adapt to an increase in breaking balls, coupled with his role near the bottom of Cleveland’s order have put a big dent in his value for this season. It seems harsh to “give up” on a player in such a short period of time and I would try to ride out the slump in a normal season. This year, unless I’m really hurting for speed, I would be looking to sell low on Mercado.
Kris Bryant, Cubs
We need some happiness after looking at Sanchez and Mercado’s cold starts. Kris Bryant has been an odd player to analyze for a while now. He was a superstar MVP power hitter and then he injured his shoulder in 2018 and it’s been difficult to determine how the injury has impacted his performance since then. He’s gotten off to a slow start this season and it would be fairly easy to hit the panic button. However, it’s encouraging to see that his exit velocity numbers are markedly up from where they were the past two seasons, which gives me hope that he’s finally fully healthy. While Bryant has struggled against breaking pitches especially this season, he’s still been good at laying off pitches outside the zone, which may be a sign that his pitch recognition skills are still sharp. With such a tiny sample size, one game can be all it takes to turn his season around.
Verdict: Not legit. A healthy Bryant is someone you want on your team. Because he’s regularly hitting the ball hard and showing solid plate discipline, I have faith that the contact skills will come around and Bryant will put together a strong season.
(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)
Great stuff (and even more valuable in a short season)!
Appreciate it, J.C.!