Fantasy Rebounds: Trumbo and Bruce
2016 has seen a number of former stars get off to hot starts. Players that had been nearly or completely given up on are not only challenging the assumption that their days as a fantasy mainstay are gone but are actually laying claim to a new status as a key member of a fantasy team. Two such players are profiled below.
Mark Trumbo established himself early on in his career as an all-or-nothing type player. When you’re hitting 30 home runs per year this is acceptable, but when you struggle to hit 20 home runs, as he did in 2014 and 2015, you become more of an or-nothing hitter. He’s the sort of player that I would have had no interest in prior to drafts this season. Yet, three weeks into the season, Trumbo has been the fifth-best hitter in fantasy baseball. Obviously he hasn’t transformed into the hitter that is prorated to hit 60 home runs, but is any of it real?
His approach at the plate seems to have changed. Both his strikeouts – 24 percent to 16 percent – and walks – 6.6 percent to 3.7 percent – are down significantly in the early going. This is supported by PitchFX.
He is swinging at a lot more strikes in the strike zone and laying off a much higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone. This would explain both the change in walk and strikeout rates. He’s swinging at more strikes which means fewer deep counts which means fewer chances to strikeout or walk. Even better, he’s making more contact when he does swing. While his increased swing rate on pitches in the strike zone is probably a good thing, his decreased swing rate on balls is definitely promising. In the heat maps below, you can see the change in swing percentage.
Next, let’s take a look at his batted ball profile to see what it can tell us.
Two factors that will certainly regress are propping Trumbo’s performance up into the stratosphere. An unsustainable BABIP of .375 and the aforementioned HR/FB rate of 28 percent. I’d expect his BABIP to revert back to his career norms of .275 to .300, perhaps at the lower end of that range if he continues to value contact over good contact. I would therefore expect his batting average to level out in the .275 to .280 range. However, I do believe that his power is back and he can be counted on for 30-plus home runs.
Next up is my former fantasy baseball man-crush, Jay Bruce. After years of holding on to him, waiting for the inevitable MVP season, I finally bailed during an extensive rebuild. Soon after, I felt fortunate to have sold at a relative peak value. The bat that once hinted at 30-plus home runs yearly went nearly silent as his average dipped into the law .200’s and his home runs dropped to career lows. In the early going, Bruce seems to have rediscovered his batting ability. Like with Trumbo, there are some signs that his excellent performance to date is legitimate.
First, I took a look at his plate discipline. According to PitchFX, he is swinging less often, both at balls in and out of the strike zone. I’d call this a neutral observation but the big takeaway that I see if a much higher contact rate, driven by a 28 percent increase in contact rate of ball out of the strike zone.
This could be a good or bad trend in the longer term. I took a look at his batted ball profile to see if I could glean more information to inform my opinion.
Bruce seems to have dramatically changed his batted-ball tendencies. Gone is the pull-heavy hitter who rolled ground ball after ground ball into the shift. The new Bruce goes up the middle nearly as much as he pulls the ball while also adding to his opposite field tendencies. Replacing the ground balls and fly balls are line drives. His BABIB of .310, a huge increase over 2014 and 2015’s .250 to .270, is right in line with his established career rates to that point. It is certainly maintainable if he continues to use all fields. The only concern I had was the increase in swings at balls out of the strike zone. My hypothesis was that these were the balls he had begun to take to the opposite field. The answer lies below.
Obviously we’re dealing with small samples, but so far there is an increase in swinging at balls low and away. Somewhat disturbingly, his most common sector to swing and miss at is that low and away pitch that he used to pull right at the shifted second baseman. So far he’s 0 for 9 on pitches in that region with 8 ground balls. This approach has resulted in his walk rate dropping from a barely respectable 8 percent all the way down to 1%. Quite frankly, that sucks.
So here’s the deal. Bruce’s improvement is real, at least so far. But he needs to be a little more selective. If he can maintain his contact rate and line drive rate he’s going to be a fantasy asset. But he’s on a slippery slope, swinging at so many balls low and away, especially since he’s not experiencing much success when he does. The good news is that that one sector is basically the only region in which he’s expanded the strike zone. Every other sector out of the strike zone has been offered at less often by Bruce. After two years of futility, if I’m a Bruce owner, I’m ecstatic that he’s showing signs of life. His improvements have been real and if he can shore up that last weakness in pitch selection he will be back to being a star.