2020 Hitter Stats That Matter
Fantasy baseball is hard enough in a normal, 162-game season. But my head has never been sent spinning as it has in 2020. We’ve got new stadiums, new rosters, and an extraordinary amount of information pouring in, it seems like, by the minute. There are no minor league games. No nose-bumping ump-manager shouting matches. And now everyone gets an invisible double in the top of the tenth!?
Is 2020 For Real?
So I’m tempted to say this season doesn’t mean anything. That we should just take it as a tryout – a developmental novelty that we’ll joke about in a decade or so. But the intensity of this season keeps slamming me back into reality. It just feels like the soul of the game (and the world, I guess) changes daily. Whether it’s ridiculous new rules or the bickering billionaire owners passive-aggressively arguing about what matters, 2020 just keeps swinging that shillelagh.
So let’s swing back a little.
This series will present interesting 2020 hitters stats and some actionable considerations for your dynasty rosters so you can take a swing at 2020 and still come out on top. Specifically, I’ll be honing in on adjustments to plate discipline, change in approach, boosts in expected stats, etc. You know, the usual 5×5 categories. The things that matter.
I’m obviously kidding. We all crave those on-field counting stats, as does the fantasy baseball community at large, even if we tend to get a little too wrapped up in analytics these days. However, analytics are available for a reason. And they are especially important in dynasty leagues. I’m not saying that a player who hits 108 mph ground-punishers is ultimately more valuable than your late-round steal who keeps shooting dingers just over the wall (hello, juiced ball!). But I am more interested in the former player if he starts to consciously push up that launch angle.
In my opinion, that’s how you get ahead in this game. Maybe that’s obvious to both casual and dynasty fantasy managers. But with all the information around these days (and misinformation, for that matter), I think it bears repeating: be a step ahead by checking the counting stats, but also check under the hood to project future performance and chase that upside. I acknowledge that we are working with extremely limited sample sizes here, but it is what it is, people! This is what we get. If you’re willing to just throw out this season, so be it. But explain to me why there can’t be real growth in a 60 game stretch?
Trust me, I’m not so naive as to believe that we should throw all our eggs in the 2020 stats basket. However, on a human level (oh yes, baseball players are human too), I think success in this strange, new world is pretty impressive. In fact, I’m willing to put some extra weight behind players who have certain improved numbers this season because one, offensive numbers are down across the board, and two, I think players definitely deserve our attention if they came out of quarantine stronger than when it started. Conversely, I may be willing to give struggling players a break. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have thoughts on their fantasy standing as well.
With that in mind, let’s discuss a few players with new stats that warrant our attention moving forward.
Dominic Smith, 1B/OF, New York Mets
This dude is a hitter. Plain and simple. Smith’s stats were already quite nice in 2019, as he batted .282 with an OPS of .881 to go along with 11 homers in 89 games. He’s maintained his batting average and home run pace (and then some!) this year while also upping his OPS to 1.161, which is second-best among players with 80 plate appearances.
But here’s what’s really exciting about Smith: he’s increased his barrel percentage to 16.4%, up from 7.5% in 2019. He is literally crushing almost one in six balls he puts in play this season. But is he just riding a heater or are there legitimate gains here?
I’m willing to bet on the latter. Smith is proving that he’s seeing the ball extremely well this season, as he’s lowered his chase rate while also increasing his contact rate in the zone. Plus, I love to see a guy with zero infield fly balls on his scoresheet. If Smith is already on your roster, good on you. If there’s a manager in your league who thinks this fire is going to fade, I say make an offer and take a chance on the upside. This has the makings of a breakout written all over it and I am all in.
Jake Cronenworth, 2B/SS, San Diego Padres
If I told you in June that Jake Cronenworth was going to accrue more WAR in the first 30 games of the season than Freddie Freeman, Pete Alonso, and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., you would’ve laughed me all the way back to the bush leagues. Who knows, you may have made a silly joke about how he’s not Cronen-worth a roster spot at all [especially if you’re talking to Keaton DeRocher- Ed.].
Before the season began, there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Cronenworth’s fantasy value, both in redraft and dynasty leagues. The Padres had recently traded for Jurickson Profar and Jorge Mateo, so he was blocked at second. Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado were set to man the corners for many years to come. Oh, and the Padres have a pretty good shortstop too. He was set up to be just another utility man.
Well, not only has he been a real-life stud, he’s really showing some staying power. Cronenworth’s xwOBA of .498 now ranks third among qualified hitters, behind Juan Soto and ahead of Corey Seager, Bryce Harper, and Fernando Tatis, Jr. Now, that’s some company. Couple that with his major league-leading expected batting average of .397 and his xSLUG of .749 (99th percentile in MLB) and you’ve got yourself one of the most underrated Statcast darlings in the game. And while there are potential playing time concerns in the future if the whole infield stays healthy, the addition of the designated hitter should keep his bat in the lineup more often than not.
If he’s somehow still available in your league, go get him. I disagree with your hypothetical whimsy: he’s absolutely Cronen-worthy of your time. He’s already showing as a rookie that he’s more than capable of hitting major league pitching, and I expect great things moving forward.
Randal Grichuk, OF, Toronto Blue Jays
I’ll admit it. For the past few years, Randal Grichuk has only been in the streaming discussion for me. There are just so many high-strikeout, low walk-rate guys with power upside out there. Times are a-changing, though. He blasted five homers in four games recently, so I thought I’d dive into the numbers and see if anything popped. And popped they did!
Grichuk has had some pleasing stat trends since 2017. Each year, he’s increased his home run, runs batted in, runs, and walks, the bulk of which are key stat categories we like to see on the rise. He’s also signed with the Blue Jays through 2023 and has some pretty impressive names around him in the lineup, so I imagine the counting stats should be stable moving forward. And as you would imagine, Grichuk is not just making strides in the usual 5×5 categories. This year, he’s swinging at far fewer pitches outside the strike zone and is making better contact than he has in his career. His strikeout rate is even down to 21.6%! This improved selectiveness hasn’t appeared to impact his ability to mash baseballs either. He’s maintaining an above-average barrel percentage of 14.9%, which is better than his career rate and is in the 88th percentile in MLB.
The drawback of Grichuk’s 2020 approach is that his launch angle has dipped to 9.7 degrees, which is significantly lower than his career average. However, all things considered, I think it’s fair to say that no one’s complaining about his current production. He’s likely rostered in your league, and if he’s on your team, congrats! If not, he’s worth targeting in a trade before the deadline hits.
Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston Astros
2020 has not been kind to Jose Altuve. Not only does he have the fourth lowest WAR among qualified second basemen at -0.1, but he’s also batting a measly .206 and he plays for the much-vilified Astros. Now that’s a doozy.
Did you know that Altuve stole 56 bases in 2014? He stole six bases in 2019. In 2014, he hit seven dingers. In 2019? A career-high 31 home runs, in a career-low 548 plate appearances. He’s totally sold out for power, which on the surface is just fine. Everyone’s doing it. And even with two injured list vacations in 2019, the guy still ended up as a top-ten second baseman last season. That being said, his strikeout rate has also increased every year since 2015. This season, Altuve is actually still contributing in runs but is absolutely smoking fantasy managers in the one category that was supposed to be his calling card: batting average. Plus, the top right-hand corner of his Baseball Savant page is just a sad sea of blue.
Just giving him the eye test, I get the sense that something isn’t right. Maybe age is catching up. Maybe it’s the scrutiny after a brutal offseason. Who knows? It just feels like the 5′-6″, 166-pound keystone manager’s tenure is at a crossroads, so I’d be listening closely to all offers from managers who are willing to bet on a rebound. Because honestly, I’m not willing to take the same chance anymore.
2020 Matters At Hand
This has been quite a ride so far. First, we had spring training, then we had a half-season in the works, then all hell broke loose, and now I’m sitting here trying to wrap my head around projections for next year using a factor of 2.7. Wonderful. I fear this ride is only going to get wilder. Kudos to all the managers out there who are sticking out this season and doing their best to stay ahead, and enjoying baseball while we have it.
Let’s face it: this season matters, for better or worse, and it’s especially important to monitor how players are handling the unpredictability of this world. We’ll see at the end of this messed up season if my theory holds any weight, but for now, I’m willing to support players that have come on strong and held their own. I’m actively seeking out Smith, Cronenworth, and Grichuk, either through trade or on the off chance one of them is still hanging out on the wire.
And who knows? I just may give Altuve the benefit of the doubt until the end of the year. I know the projection systems like him, and I really hope that dude finds some balance, but I’m honestly worried about his overall fantasy production moving forward. Maybe this one is more of a gut call, but I think his days as a top-ten second baseman are long gone.
In any case, hit me up on Twitter to talk shop, and thanks for the grace in advance. I’m new to Twitter, and, well…talk about a wild ride. In the meantime, be nice, set your lineups, and keep in mind that there are plenty of matters in this world that are more important than fantasy baseball. I salute the Bucks, the Brewers, the Mariners, the WNBA, and all other teams and individuals who continue to bring awareness to the Black Lives Matter movement. Keep up the great work, and I’ll do my best to support as well.