Two Slumping Stars
A friend of mine, let’s call him Jake, came into this season hoping to compete for a fantasy title. He was buoyed by a fantastic offense led by Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Justin Upton, and Jason Heyward. Uh, I mean led by Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. Like many fantasy owners, “Jake” has been let down once again by two of baseball’s most enigmatic players.
Perhaps the most disappointing player in fantasy baseball this year is Tigers outfielder Justin Upton. Once a fantasy stud counted on for 20-plus home runs and stolen bases with good power production, Upton has sunk to Mariana Trench depths. Take a look at his year-by-year trends.
In 2015, Upton reversed a stolen base dearth that had marked the slide from his elite fantasy years to the merely productive ones, but this year? Nothing. He’s not even trying to run. Of course, when you’re not getting on base – .263 OBP – it’s hard to steal many bases. Two obvious value sinking outcomes of Upton’s first season in Detroit are an elevated K% to go with a significantly decreased BB%. Many players can success with a 25% strikeout rate, very few can with a 36% rate. To make matters worse, he’s not even unlucky as he has a near career high BABIP.
From 2015, he’s exchanged a ground balls for line drives, which would lead one to expect better results. However, he’s lost a lot of both medium and hard contact which has resulted in a nearly 50% increase in soft contact. Perhaps, not coincidentally, his approach seems to have changed as he has hit significantly more balls to the opposite field. A timeline of his exit velocity confirms the fact that he hasn’t just lost some pop to his bat, he’s lost all of it.
A look at his zone profile doesn’t suggest that much has changed. One possible cause for his opposite field tendencies, and poor power, is that he is swinging at more pitches down and out of the zone. Obviously, it’s hard for any hitter to do a lot with those pitches, so if Upton can start laying off those he might reduce a bit of his weak contact. (Ignore the name Wesley Rodriguez, apparently Brooks Baseball is having an issue linking to the correct name)
Perhaps more disturbing, is what pitches Upton is swinging and missing at. The traditional power hitting region of the strike zone – middle to middle-up – has become a wasteland for Upton. As you can see, he’s missing a quarter of the time that he swings at balls right down the middle and nearly half of the balls in the upper-middle of the strike zone. Those are pitches that he should be punishing.
Justin Upton has always been a fairly unpredictable fantasy player. Some years he plays like an MVP and some years you rue the day you drafted him. But even at his worst, he generally had a swing and miss rate of around ten percent on fastballs. It’s currently double that at 20%. I don’t know what is wrong with him but there aren’t any signs that he’s going to break out of his extended slump.
Jason Heyward is another player who gives Justin Upton a run for his money in the race for most disappointing player every few years. But after several years in fairly negative hitting environments, the move to Chicago, along with the surrounding offense, was supposed to be the cure for Heyward’s occasional lack of production. The most frustrating thing about Heyward is the power. He has ranged from 18 home runs as a rookie, to 27 in his apparent breakout third season, only to hit under 15 every year since. Unlike Upton, at least Heyward seems intent on providing stolen bases at a beneficial clip. A look at some basic metrics below shows his inconsistency.
He’s ranged from a player who is borderline elite in terms of limiting his strikeouts while providing a little bit of everything from a fantasy perspective to this 2016 version that strikes out at his career high level while swinging a lifeless bat. His current ISO is at a pathetic level, though, to be honest, it hasn’t been even acceptable since 2013.
What you see is a player who, throughout his career, has been held back by an elevated ground ball rate. While ground balls have a greater chance of becoming a base hit, they have no chance of leaving the yard. And we expect Heyward to do more than hit singles and walk. While still less than ideal, his GB% of 49% is actually a vast improvement over last year. Unfortunately, instead of lofting long fly balls onto nearby roofs in Chicago, he has instead provided infield practice in the form of pop flies. I recall a stat that claimed that Joey Votto had something like 15 infield fly balls in his whole career, well Heyward is hitting every fourth flyball to the infield. Despite that, his exit velocity has remained fairly consistent with that of the 2015 season.
Jason Heyward seems like the type of player that will perpetually frustrate fantasy owners. Despite that, he usually bounces back from apparent declines and this year should be no different. Eventually, his pop flies will turn into fly balls and his HR/FB rate will return to its usual mediocre form. Unlike Upton, I feel confident that Jason Heyward will return to form.