“The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.”
And the best-hit balls of hulking mashers oft go for outs. So it goes when your big slugger jacks one out to center field at 108 MPH and a 28 degree launch angle, only for the ball to land harmlessly at the wall in an outfielder’s glove, while the next man up bloops a 67 MPH base-hit into the Bermuda Triangle behind 2nd base. In the world of expected statistics, the center field blast would get significantly more credit for the quality of the batted ball and what should have happened, rather than the actual result. In a way then, xStats show us the likeliest outcome when best-laid plans/best-hit balls succeed.
This edition of xStats Weekly revisits hitters who are underperforming expectations across the board, based on their batted ball quality. As a reminder, xStats are not predictive. Just because a hitter is batting .200 but has an xBA of .300 does not mean he will hit .300 for the rest of the year. The xBA of .300 means his batting average should be higher when comparing the launch angle/exit velocity of all his batted balls to the results of historically similar batted balls. Whenever looking at xStats, be mindful to consider how likely the player is to continue displaying the same skill level that earned those numbers.
All players mentioned here would make for worthwhile holds, favorable trade targets, or even waiver wire additions in shallower leagues where they may be available for some reason.
xStat Underachievers: Hitters
Max Kepler – OF MIN
Max Kepler surprised the fantasy world in 2019 by featuring a new pull-heavy fly ball approach that led to a breakout .252/36/90/98/1 fantasy slash line over 134 games. The approach was a perfect marriage with the bouncy baseballs of 2019, but Kepler was unable to sustain the same level of success in subsequent seasons as MLB made adjustments to the ball itself. Kepler slashed only .216/28/77/88/13 in 169 total games between 2020 and 2021. The speed was an added bonus, but the batting average and mediocre run production were disappointing.
So far in 2022, Kepler has featured some refinements in his batted ball approach that better fit the current offensive environment. He’s both pulling the ball less frequently and hitting fewer fly balls. Despite the increase in grounders, Kepler currently sports a seven-year high in average EV at 90.9 MPH. The batted ball velocity and low 15.7% K rate are far more conducive to maintaining a solid batting average, and the .321 xBA is excellent proof of that. Even his current .260 AVG is comfortably above the league-wide MLB mark.
That Kepler has underachieved his xStats and is still on pace for .260/19/79/73/8 hints at the potential for upside rest-of-season. While he won’t match the overall power and run production of the 2019 outlier, anyone who can approach 25 HR and 10 SB with solid contributions elsewhere is a valuable fantasy commodity. The .365 OBP has played exceptionally in OBP and points leagues as well, so Kepler may even be underrated in those formats.
Rowdy Tellez – 1B MIL
Rowdy Tellez is one of the timeless fan favorites; a big guy with big power hitting big bombs. While Tellez hasn’t disappointed in 2022 (he’s currently on pace for 32 HR and 114 RBI!), the underlying metrics suggest there’s a legitimately good hitter bubbling just beneath the surface. Should he break out with any kind of prolonged hot streak, Tellez could turn a merely good season into a great one.
Unlike Max Kepler, who is hitting fewer fly balls, Tellez appears to be selling out for lift which is on display in a fly ball rate nearly 10 percentage points higher than his career level. Someone with the raw power of Tellez hitting the ball in the air more frequently should be a good thing, but he’s pulling a minuscule 16.7% of those fly balls. One of two adjustments could unlock a new level for Tellez in 2022. He can pull more of those fly balls and instantly become a threat for 40+ HR, or level out the launch angle for some extra line drives and a boost in batting average. Either way would produce an even better fantasy season than he’s already having, but in the less likely event he combines the two, Tellez would vault into the higher tiers of 1B.
The key for Tellez over the remainder of 2022 is not to fall into a straight platoon. He has faced 2-of-3 LHP in the past week and has faced the majority of lefties all year, but is hitting only .194 against southpaws on the season. Presently, he’s a set-and-forget starter in weekly leagues and a daily-league assassin where you can bench him against lefties, but those in weekly leagues should watch the Brewers lineup trends and be ready to play matchups if necessary.
Willy Adames – SS MIL
Willy Adames was an intriguing selection in 2022 fantasy baseball drafts. Many looked at the stark pre-All Star break difference in production between Tampa Bay (.197 AVG, 5 HR in 142 PA) and post-trade in Milwaukee (.291 AVG, 9 HR, 195 PA) and bought into the idea that Adames was particularly susceptible to the much-maligned batter’s eye in Tampa. He continued the breakout in Milwaukee after the All-Star weekend by hitting .280 with 11 more homers.
He’s currently on the IL rehabbing an ankle injury, but the 2021 power surge has carried over into 2022 for Adames. He’s hit 9 HR in 35 games with an incredible 17% barrel rate and even with the missed games could reach the 30-HR plateau for the first time in his career. The biggest disappointment to his fantasy investors has been the AVG though, which sits at a lowly .208 mark. The good news is that Adames’ underlying batted ball profile is similar to last season’s breakout, but with an increase in average EV and barrel rate. The batting average has suffered from a .228 BABIP which is over 100 points below his career level, but it’s clear the AVG has nowhere to go but up by season’s end.
Adames’ career-best walk rate indicates increased pitch-recognition and swing-decision skills. The biggest flaw in his game at the moment is simply that he swings aggressively at pitches in the zone and whiffs too frequently, hence the 28%+ K rate which limits his batting average upside. Even though he won’t challenge for a batting title any time soon, this version of Willy Adames is still a nice fantasy asset. Not many SS have a legit shot at 30 HR but even with the missed time Adames is one of them, and it may yet come with a .250+ AVG.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)