Let’s Make Moves: Four Surprising Hitters in the First Month
This weekend will mark the 1/6th point of the MLB season. While it’s essential to stay on top of the waiver wire from the jump, taking fliers on hot starts both in the majors and in the minors, it’s also important to be patient with the players that you drafted in the first half of your drafts and not cut bait too early.
The excitement of finding that Jesus Aguilar or Juan Soto a week early can only be topped by the agony of the subsequent waiver release that comes back to haunt you on an opposing team later that season. I try not to overreact in the first two or three weeks, but small sample sizes and bizarre trends start to even out after a month. In the past few days, we’ve seen a few teams look for a spark, whether it be the Pirates calling up Cole Tucker’s Flow, the Blue Jays finally being impressed enough with Vlad’s defense to get the call-up, or Boston turning to Stone Cold Michael Chavis, leading to the best WWE “Attitude Era” baseball tie-in we’ve seen in 2019, or ever. If you’re in the bottom third of your fantasy league, it’s time to make moves. Let’s dive into a couple of advanced metrics of some hitters who are having surprising starts, one way or another, and find out whether we should believe in them, or as the late Dennis Green taught us, they are who we thought they were.
(All stats through 4/24)
Dwight Smith Jr., OF, BAL
Dwight Smith Jr. enters the second month of the season as the 23rd ranked hitter on ESPN’s player rater, slashing .286/.327/.527, with five HRs, 18 RBI, and even chipping in three steals. Smith has been entrenched in recent weeks as either the second or third hitter in the Orioles lineup and appears to have plenty of opportunities for at-bats. Smith is on an extra-base tear to start the season with a .242 ISO, but his minor league profile did not show the power that resembled what we’ve seen thus far in 2019. Smith has only barreled 5.3% of the 76 balls he has put in play, which ranks just 176 of 274 in MLB, for those who have put 30 or more balls into play. To take the opposing defense out of the equation, Smith has a .312 Expected wOBA (xwOBA) compared to a .361 wOBA, showing that he has been very lucky so far this year. Smith has hit for average at each minor league level, however, and can contribute double-digit steals, so I think that he can be serviceable as a 4th or 5th outfielder in deeper leagues. I would expect the early power/speed combo to regress a bit and look to sell high in 14 team leagues or fewer.
Miguel Cabrera, 1B/DH, DET
Cabrera has been showing up on waivers in more and more shallower leagues, thanks to a less than stellar start to the season. While he’s getting by with a .280 average, Cabrera has yet to hit a home run, has seven RBI, seven runs, a .049 ISO, and a 95 wRC+. I would put a claim in for Cabrera or be willing to buy-low in trade in all formats of 12 teams or larger, and he is probably worth a bench stash with an open spot in a ten team league. Of course, it is important to have a viable back-up in case of injury, but I am encouraged by the fact that Detroit has DH’d Cabrera in more than half of the games so far this year, mitigating his injury risk. While I don’t think the Tigers will get their $32-million worth in 2022 and 2023, I think there’s a year or two left in the 36-year-old’s hall-of-fame bat. Briefly looking back at 2018, albeit a quarter-year sample until the season-ending biceps injury, Cabrera had the highest hard-hit rate in the entire league for hitters with at least 100 balls put in play. In 2019, he ranks 35th in the league in the same category, putting half of his batted balls in play at 95+ mph so far this season. His xwOBA of .372 vs actual wOBA of .312 shows that he has been very unlucky, and I expect better days ahead. I’m not willing to give up on Cabrera just yet.
Christian Walker 1B, ARI
I’m doing everything that I can to temper my expectations with Christian Walker, but with each game that passes, I feel more compelled to buy in. The following are facts, and you can choose to do with this month of data what you wish:
Walker has hit 55 balls into play this year. 31 of those have had an Exit Velocity of 95 MPH+ (56.4%) good for 6th best in the league. His exit velocity on average is 95.0 MPH, 7th best in the league. While finding himself slightly behind names like Gallo, Judge, and Rendon, he ranks ahead of names like Yelich, Bellinger, and J.D. Martinez. On those 55 balls in play (on 89 Plate Appearances), he’s barreled ten of those balls, which also ranks in the top 20 per batted ball, as well as per plate appearance. Walker’s expected wOBA is in the 88th percentile, and his expected SLG% is in the 94th percentile. 14 of his 27 hits are for extra bases, seven of which are home runs, good for a .333 average and a .346 ISO. This all being said, there is almost certainly regression coming. A .417 BABIP doesn’t seem sustainable, his three steals are a fluke, he strikes out 29.2% of the time, and he’s 28 years old, so the alleged “breakout” is coming at a later age than most. But, there were signs of this at Triple-A the last two years where Walker had 32 home runs in 133 games in 2017, and 18 home runs in 84 games in 2018. I may regret this in a few months, as all the Jesus Aguilar dynasty owners nod their heads in unison, but I’m buying Walker everywhere I can right now.
Rafael Devers, 3B, BOS
First and foremost, when looking at Rafael Devers from a dynasty perspective, remember that he is 22 years old, a full 14 months older than recent call-up and steel chair specialist Michael Chavis. To put this into perspective, in Devers’ second season last year, he still would’ve been the youngest player on the Double-A roster in Portland. There is so much room for improvement on both sides of the ball, and it’s hard not to think of his teammate Xander Bogaerts, who similarly was thrust into a relevant World Series role in 2013 at the age of 20, and needed a couple of seasons to become seasoned on both sides of the field. I do believe Devers will eventually get to a similar point that Bogaerts has. However, it can be tough to have patience with players who hit rough patches like this one in their third year. Devers has played in all 25 of the Red Sox games and has five RBI. His slugging percentage is .325. He’s made six errors. Digging a bit deeper, Devers has barreled up exactly one ball all year out of 69 put into play. His 43.5% hard-hit rate (95+ mph exit velocity) is outside of the Top 100. Devers’ ground ball % has increased from 46.2% last year to 59.4%, while fly balls are down to 18.8% from 38.6%. Could there be a minors stint ahead? There’s not a whole lot to latch on to as a Devers owner so far. In Dynasty, you have to hold, as you’ve come too far and the offers will be low. In redraft, you may find someone willing to buy low, and I’d probably take it for a player with a higher floor.