Tradition is a powerful construct in the human experience. It guides our choices and shapes our lives every day, even when we don’t realize it. When we play the national anthem before sporting events, eat turkey on Thanksgiving, the driver picks the music, and the Pirates miss the playoffs, all seems right with the world. Break from tradition and it can elicit an extreme emotional response, even if the tradition itself has become outdated and nonsensical. We often can’t help but cling to the familiar, and that remains true for fantasy baseball.
In recent years, we’ve seen a shift in our game that strays away from some of the “traditional” statistics to favor those which, in theory, better reflect a player’s true skill level/value on the field. Many leagues have eschewed pitcher wins for quality starts. The other most common exchange has been batting average, counting only hits, for OBP which of course incorporates walks and HBP (hello, Anthony Rizzo) into the mix. However, since most leagues do still incorporate the “traditional” AVG or hits in some form, it’s still helpful to know which players provide the most value in that category.
This week we look at hitters with the largest negative gaps between their AVG and xBA. These are the hitters who should have a higher AVG than they actually do, based on the exit velocity and launch angle of every individual ball in play.
All stats via Baseball Savant thru 5/22
The table shows 10 of the most unfortunate (and most fantasy-relevant) hitters so far in 2022, drawn from the Top 25 largest gaps between AVG and xBA amongst qualified batters. All represent, to varying degrees, buy-low targets in leagues with trades. Others may even be available off the waiver wire in 12-team and shallower leagues and are worth an add if they fit your roster.
AVG is the only batting category holding back Yordan Alvarez from true fantasy stud status. The only thing he doesn’t do is steal bases. The batted ball metrics are elite (amongst them a 63.5% hard hit rate!), but whether he’s on your roster or someone else’s he’s not likely to be changing sides any time soon. If you’re lucky enough to have him just sit back and enjoy the summer explosion that’s coming.
On the other hand, Gleyber Torres is currently blowing away his prior career bests in average exit velocity and hard hit rate, though it hasn’t translated to the spike in production one would expect in the powerful Yankees lineup. While we could be seeing early signs of an age-25 skills breakout from Torres, it’s likelier than not he’ll have trouble sustaining such significant gains in quality of contact and will remain an uninspiring option in 12-team leagues. Keep an eye on him though.
Early reports of the (fantasy) death of Nelson Cruz may be premature. The skills and batted ball metrics have declined from his high standards, but relative to the rest of the league Cruz is still a quality hitter who has had some bad luck in BABIP. Hitting 3rd nearly every day between Juan Soto and Josh Bell is an enviable position. Should an impatient owner cut bait or float Cruz cheaply in trade, he’s a worthy target. If you have him, hold him.
Tommy Pham – OF CIN
Tommy Pham stands out on this list for a few reasons. All the ingredients are there for Pham to excel as a fantasy asset as he once did in St. Louis and Tampa Bay, and he can do so in every format; roto or points leagues, H2H, weekly, daily, AVG or OBP, etc. He possesses both power and speed, draws a lot of walks, plays every day while healthy, hits 3rd in the lineup in a hitter-friendly ballpark, faces one of the weakest slates of intra-division pitchers, and the complete view of skills/batted ball metrics support far more production than he’s earned so far.
The Reds lineup has been a disaster in 2022, but there’s time enough for Pham to be surrounded by healthy and productive versions of Jonathan India, Joey Votto and Tyler Stephenson. It’s easy to see how Pham is an intriguing player for fantasy and current circumstances may make him available at a relatively cheap price. If he’s on your team already, he’s an easy hold through these early struggles. If he hits the waiver wire or can be acquired relatively cheap, pounce.
Whit Merrifield – 2B/OF KCR
As a late bloomer in small-market Kansas City, Whit Merrifield needed a few years to build up trust amongst fantasy players as an early-round stud, yet that’s exactly what he has been. Merrifield hasn’t had a “bad” fantasy season since his 81-game debut in 2016, each year making strong contributions in AVG, Runs, and SB. One of his greatest skills has been availability. Merrifield hasn’t missed a game since 2018, which allows him to accumulate counting stats even in one of baseball’s weaker offenses.
An extremely slow start to the season has frustrated fantasy players, but nothing in his underlying skillset has changed. In fact, despite the .214 AVG and .251 OBP, Merrifield is on pace for a 12 HR/28 SB year with 70+ RBI and runs. When, as expected, the hits start falling in more frequently, we should expect an uptick in all of Merrifield’s fantasy-relevant contributions outside of HR. Back in the lead-off spot ahead of Andrew Benintendi, an improving Bobby Witt, Jr. and eventually a healthy Salvador Perez, Merrifield should once again push 90+ Runs, 30+ SB, and post a solid AVG by season’s end.
In the current fantasy environment, Merrifield’s speed makes him difficult to value in trade scenarios and it’s hard to imagine anyone would outright drop him, but now may be the time to package a more volatile speedster like Jorge Mateo or Myles Straw for the ROS reliability Merrifield should bring.
Christian Walker – 1B ARI
Like Whit Merrifield, Christian Walker emerged as a major league contributor later than most when he hit .259/29/73/86/8 at age 28 in the 2019 season. He followed up the breakout with a .271 AVG in 2020, though it came with reduced power (7 HR in 57 games). Hopes of a consolidation were high for 2021, with many who waited on 1B in their drafts targeting Walker as their starter or CI. He disappointed though, hitting just .244 with 10 HR while some minor ailments limited him to 115 games.
So far in 2022, Walker’s skills and Statcast numbers are back in line with his ’19 and ’20 seasons, but a ridiculously low BABIP of .183 has limited his AVG to .199 despite the xBA of .276. Even with fewer hits falling though, Walker has already amassed 11 HR and is on pace for 80+ RBI and runs.
He’ll never be confused for the man he replaced, Paul Goldschmidt, but Walker is back on track to be a startable 1B/CI for most 12-team and deeper leagues. His first 30-HR campaign may be coming, and an uptick in AVG can only help the counting stats, especially if/when Ketel Marte warms up and Josh Rojas is fully back and healthy to team with Daulton Varsho and steady vet David Peralta. They’re no Murderer’s Row, but the top of the Diamondbacks order gives Walker the chance to keep up the 80+ RBI and runs pace.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)