Baseball is back. Whether you’ve drafted already or are about to draft, you (like me) are probably chomping at the bit to get some data to tell us if we should buy into the hype of all the players who are “in the best shape of their lives.” Our first opportunity to get this data is in spring training, but analyzing the stats we get from these games can be a dangerous game. Between the small sample size, lower average quality of opponents, and the fact that the games are exhibitions, it’s hard to tell what is real and what is not. Simply looking at the guys with the most homers and RBI often won’t tell you much. We can, however, look one level below the surface to see if popular breakout candidates will get their long-awaited opportunity or if the warning signs for bust candidates have continued to trend in the wrong direction. Here are four players I think we should be paying attention to in spring training and a key stat for each that can give us the first hint of a breakout.
Garrett Hampson, 2B/OF, COL (ADP: 175)
Key Factor: Plate Discipline
Garrett Hampson has burned us once before. He came out on fire last spring, slashing .279/.340/.628 with four home runs and seven steals in just 43 at-bats. Though America’s darling vastly underperformed expectations last year. There’s reason, however, to hope this year could be different. Hampson started to put it all together last September, putting up five homers and nine steals in September/October while playing center field. Like last year, he finds himself in a positional battle, but it’s now with Ian Desmond for an everyday OF role, a battle he’s much more likely to win. How do we know if this is the year that Hampson wins an everyday job and lives up to the hype?
The key thing to look toward is his plate discipline. His strikeout rate jumped to nearly 27% last year after hanging in the high teens to low 20s during his time at Triple-A. Hampson is at his best when he focuses on making consistent contact, as evidenced by his K-rate during the two most successful stretches of his professional career: spring training 2019 and September/October 2019. During those two periods, his K-rate was 18.6% and 18.9%, respectively. If he keeps his K-rate below 20% this spring, that’s a good sign that he could beat out Desmond and live up to his potential. Hampson has the edge on Desmond in both offensive and defensive ability, but, as we’ve seen, that doesn’t always guarantee a team won’t inexplicably stick an expensive veteran in the lineup. Desmond’s performance this spring could also play a role in whether Hampson gets enough at-bats to truly break out as could the performance of prospect Sam Hilliard, who has an outside chance of locking down left field and shifting David Dahl to center. I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to get burned at least one more time chasing after the potential of a guy with a ceiling of 40 steals who makes solid contact and only has to beat out a rapidly declining 34-year-old to secure an everyday role at Coors Field.
Gavin Lux, 2B, LAD (ADP: 156)
Key Factor: ABs Against LHP
Take a guy who hit .392 across over 230 plate appearances in Triple-A last year who is projected to have a 70-grade hit tool and a 65-grade power tool and add him into the most powerful offense in the NL and what do you get? You get Gavin Lux, one of the top prospects in the game and a trendy breakout pick for this year. And what’s not to like? He has the top-prospect pedigree, has a spot in a stacked offense, and seemed to hold his own in his cup of coffee last fall. But, if we look at his splits, we see a mildly concerning pattern emerge.
Key in on his performance against lefties in spring training. We don’t have much information on how Lux performs against Major League-caliber left-handed pitching because he barely played against them last year. In just 12 plate appearances against lefties, Lux struck out four times and recorded just one hit. Looking at the minors, he put up an .840 OPS against lefties in 2019 across both Double-A and Triple-A, compared to a 1.014 OPS against righties. An .840 OPS is nothing to scoff at, though. Putting up those kinds of numbers against big-league pitching would make him a top option at his position. But the problem gets worse if you also look at 2018 when Lux only registered 90 out of his 524 plate appearances that year against lefties and only logged a .575 OPS. Lux is clearly putting in work against left-handed pitching and has clearly improved against them since 2018. I don’t bring up 2018 to say that’s what we should expect from him this year. However, it’s enough to raise the question, though: Is he ready for a full-time role against lefties in the majors?
With those kinds of numbers against lefties and a guy like Kike Hernandez (career .829 OPS against lefties) needing playing time, why wouldn’t the Dodgers consider a platoon at second? If Lux plays and hits well against lefties in spring training, it would be the earliest indication that he is ready to make his breakout and would almost certainly be a top-10 fantasy 2B by season’s end. But, if he doesn’t, he could find himself in a platoon. Granted, he’d be on the strong side of the platoon, but we have to ask ourselves if we’re factoring that possibility into Lux’s draft price. It presents an opportunity for some formats. Those in daily leagues, for example, could pair Lux against righties with Hernandez against lefties to get a player with top-5 2B potential for just their 13th and final-round picks. But, for many, the possibility of a platoon is one we have to take into account before buying our ticket on the Lux hype train.
Khris Davis, DH/OF, OAK (ADP: 179)
Key Factor: Quality Fly Balls
Unlike our other subjects in this article, Khris Davis has a lengthy track record of success in the majors. Renowned for his remarkable consistency, Khrush finally did not hit .247 last year for the first time since 2014. His power was sapped by a hand injury which led to him hitting only 23 home runs after hitting at least 42 in each of the previous three seasons. Looking at his batted-ball data, this was largely earned. His xwOBA was .318, considerably lower than the previous three seasons. His barrels, exit velocity, and launch angle all dropped, which indicates a lower quality of contact and more ground balls. How can we know if all of that was truly due to Davis’ hand injury or if last year was evidence of a true decrease in skill?
I’ll be looking at the quality of Davis’ fly balls to know whether he has fully regained his power stroke. We, unfortunately, won’t have the benefit of Statcast during spring to help us measure average fly ball distance, exit velocities, and launch angles. I’ll certainly be paying close attention to those metrics in the first few weeks of the season to confirm my hypothesis on him that I develop over the course of the spring. To develop that hypothesis, though, we will have to rely on a less scientific but still useful method of gathering data: the eye test. An informed eye test can help us get an idea of the quality of contact Davis is producing and give us the first data point in what will be a months-long journey to answer the question, “Is Khrush back?”
I’m looking specifically at how Davis does against fastballs. In 2018, Davis’ xSLG against fastballs was .730. In 2019, it was just .455. He swung and missed at fastballs at a higher rate than at any other point since Statcast began measuring, and, when he did make contact, it was more likely to be a ground ball (11-degree launch angle in 2019 versus 18 degrees in 2018). I’ll be really encouraged if we see a couple of warning track shots to straightaway center, even if we don’t see many actually leave the park. That will demonstrate to me that he’s focusing on getting that launch angle back up and has regained the hand strength necessary to power fastballs back up the middle. If Khrush can get around on fastballs and turn them into quality fly balls this spring, it will be a good sign that he’s ready to reclaim his former 40-90-100-.247 glory.
Nick Madrigal, 2B, CWS (ADP: 274)
Key Factor: Playing Time
I certainly didn’t mean to have three out of four players highlighted here eligible at 2B. I think it tells you a lot about where I believe the scarcity is this year as three of the players have 2B eligibility and two have steals upside. Comparisons between Garrett Hampson and Nick Madrigal pretty much end there. While Hampson needs to work on making more consistent contact, Madrigal was the hardest player to strike out in the entire MiLB last year. He struck out a total of 16 times across 532 plate appearances across three levels, giving him a microscopic 3% K-rate (for reference, only two players in the majors with a qualifying amount of plate appearances had lower than a 10% K-rate). Certainly, we can’t expect him to maintain a strikeout rate south of 5%, but he likely would immediately be one of the hardest players to strike out in the bigs upon his debut. And, while I’m a sucker for that type of hitting profile, that’s not all he has going for him. Madrigal was the fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft and projects to have a plus-plus hit tool with plus fielding and plus speed. He hit .311 and posted 35 steals across three minor league levels last year, rocketing up the White Sox organization. But how can we know if his prospect pedigree and brief success will transfer to the majors or if he will even make the club?
This spring, there are several things one could look at to try to see if Madrigal will break out, but I’m going to be looking the most at his playing time. The White Sox primary second baseman from last year, Yolmer Sanchez, is now a Giant. Does anybody else step in and play with the other regulars at second? Does Madrigal play against both righties and lefties? My gut feeling right now is that the White Sox want to put their best nine on the field for Opening Day, and they know that includes Madrigal. They already showed that they aren’t interested in service time manipulation by locking in Luis Robert to a major league deal over the offseason. The White Sox also made key improvements to their roster that show they mean business in 2020.
Madrigal would likely start the year towards the bottom of the lineup, but, if his contact skills play in the bigs, he could find himself hitting near the top of a sneaky good lineup. Current projections have him at around 450 plate appearances, but if he’s the opening day second baseman, he could get 600 if he stays healthy. That alone would raise his value by 30% just by virtue of more counting stats. Madrigal doesn’t have top-5 upside at his position at this point in his career due to his lack of power potential, but he could easily become a cheap source of average, runs, and steals in a league and at a position where steals are rapidly drying up.
Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by JR Caines (@JRCainesDesign on Twitter and @caines_design on Instagram)