MLB Barometer: Risers & Fallers

MLB Barometer: Risers & Fallers

This article is part of our MLB Barometer series.

At this point in the season, the plate appearance leaders are sitting above 70, while a large handful of players have reached 60. That still only represents about 10 percent of the season and remains firmly in small-sample territory, but you might recognize that 60-plate-appearance threshold as an important one. It's the stabilization point for a batter's strikeout rate, one of the first numbers to reach that threshold.

Stabilization points are an oft-misunderstood concept and are frequently given more weight than they deserve, but if you shortcut them to simply, "I should pay more attention to this number now," rather than, "This stat suddenly has meaning after being meaningless yesterday," or "This number fully represents this player's new true talent level," you'll be in fine shape. 

Strikeout rate is a stat I pay close attention to throughout the year, as it serves as a sort of proxy for batting average. That's not to say that all hitters with the same strikeout rate should be expected to have the same average, as factors such as speed, ground-ball rate and susceptibility to the shift are all important as well, but when a player's strikeout rate deviates meaningfully from his own career norms, it's reasonable to expect a corresponding change in his batting average.

Here are a handful of other numbers I turn to as proxies for some common fantasy categories:

  • For home runs, use barrel rate. If a hitter is more consistently hitting the ball hard at an ideal launch angle, he's

At this point in the season, the plate appearance leaders are sitting above 70, while a large handful of players have reached 60. That still only represents about 10 percent of the season and remains firmly in small-sample territory, but you might recognize that 60-plate-appearance threshold as an important one. It's the stabilization point for a batter's strikeout rate, one of the first numbers to reach that threshold.

Stabilization points are an oft-misunderstood concept and are frequently given more weight than they deserve, but if you shortcut them to simply, "I should pay more attention to this number now," rather than, "This stat suddenly has meaning after being meaningless yesterday," or "This number fully represents this player's new true talent level," you'll be in fine shape. 

Strikeout rate is a stat I pay close attention to throughout the year, as it serves as a sort of proxy for batting average. That's not to say that all hitters with the same strikeout rate should be expected to have the same average, as factors such as speed, ground-ball rate and susceptibility to the shift are all important as well, but when a player's strikeout rate deviates meaningfully from his own career norms, it's reasonable to expect a corresponding change in his batting average.

Here are a handful of other numbers I turn to as proxies for some common fantasy categories:

  • For home runs, use barrel rate. If a hitter is more consistently hitting the ball hard at an ideal launch angle, he's likely to hit for more power, whether or not that's actually showed up in his results yet.
  • For runs and RBI, use the aforementioned strikeout rate and barrel rate alongside lineup position. Runs and RBI depend so much on the performance of a hitter's teammates, so it's a lot easier to get excited when he's hitting next to the team's best bats.
  • For strikeouts, check out CSW (Called Strikes plus Whiffs) rate. Think of this as a measure of how often a pitcher scored a "decisive victory" on a pitch, as even a weakly-hit batted ball has the potential to squeak through the defense or result in an error. It's been shown to predict strikeout rate better than whiff rate alone.
  • For ERA, take a look at any of the various ERA estimators, all of which predict future ERA better than ERA itself. My personal favorite is xFIP, but FIP, xERA, SIERA and more are all useful tools.

All of those metrics listed above have their own small-sample issues, just like strikeout rate, so they certainly shouldn't be taken as gospel at this early stage. Still, they can reveal a potential change in talent level that's been hidden by random variance, or they can reveal that a player's talent level seemingly hasn't changed despite surface stats that say otherwise. If you're looking to dig deeper on which under-performers to drop and which hot starts are worth investing in, those stats are a great place to start. We'll lean on those numbers heavily for this week's set of risers and fallers.

RISERS

Wander Franco, SS, Rays: There were two schools of thought about Franco during draft season. Some recognized him as an elite contact hitter but noted he finished with seven homers and two steals in roughly half a season last year, numbers that suggested he could look a bit too much like late-career Michael Brantley to be a true fantasy star. Others pointed out he was a generational talent like Juan Soto or Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and thought that there's no telling how big of a step forward he'd take in his first full season. Through 15 games, the latter group appears to be winning. His already amazing contact numbers have gotten even better, as he's struck out just 7.6 percent of the time, but he's also hitting the ball harder. He's homered three times while seeing his hard hit rate jump from 37.6 percent to 50.8 percent and his barrel rate jump from 4.9 percent to 10.2 percent. He's still not an elite power hitter, but his early gains are very encouraging and suggest fears of an empty batting average were overblown.

Cody Bellinger, OF, Dodgers: It's not the case that absolutely everything is trending in the right direction for Bellinger, as his 33.3 percent strikeout rate is still worryingly high, but if you scan through the rest of his underlying numbers it becomes clear that he's emerging from the depths he sunk to last season. His batted-ball profile in 2021 was simply awful. His 22.2-degree average launch angle would have ranked third among qualified hitters. That works when you hit the ball very hard, as launch-angle leaders Adam Duvall and Joey Gallo did, but Bellinger's 34.4 percent hard hit rate ranked in the 20th percentile. The result was a bunch of weak fly balls and a .165/.240/.302 slash line. Through 15 games this year, his launch angle is down to 14.1 degrees, while his hard-hit rate is up to 51.4 percent, leading to a .273/.333/.582 line. He still needs to make more contact if he's to maintain that batting average, but his power is rebounding and so is his speed, as he's already matched last year's total with three steals.

Carlos Carrasco, SP, Mets: You could be forgiven for wanting no part of Carrasco during draft season. After all, how much faith would you normally place in a 35-year-old who hasn't surpassed 80 innings since 2018 and who struggled to a 6.04 ERA in 12 starts last season? The veteran's results through three outings this season suggest that his struggles last year were entirely injury-related, however. He's cruised to a 1.47 ERA, with his strikeout rate jumping to a career-high 29.9 percent and his walk rate dropping to a career-low 3.0 percent. Of course, none of that offers any reason to believe his injury issues won't eventually return, but it does serve as a valuable reminder of how good he is when he's on his game. Among pitchers who threw at least 600 innings from 2015 to 2020, he ranked ninth in strikeout rate (28.3 percent), 18th in ERA (3.54) and 13th in WHIP (1.14). His age suggests he may not repeat those numbers this season, but he might not be too far away for as long as he remains healthy.

Kyle Wright, SP, Atlanta: Wright was the fifth-overall pick in the 2017 draft, but excitement about his potential had more or less evaporated over his 70 innings of major-league work the last four seasons. He struggled to a 6.56 ERA over that stretch, a mark that looked deserved given his 18.2 percent strikeout rate and 14.8 percent walk rate. He could hardly look more different through three starts this season, as he's struck out 39.4 percent of opposing batters while walking just 3.0 percent en route to a 1.06 ERA. He's gotten called strikes or whiffs on 35.7 percent of his pitches, good for second among qualified starters. That improvement is backed by changes in his repertoire, as he's averaged a career-high 95.0 mph with his fastball and has mostly ditched his slider in favor of his curveball, a pitch he's thrown 33.8 percent of the time with excellent results. It's the kind of performance you'd expect from a top-five pick, so chalking up his past struggles to a premature debut and buying in on the new version of Wright looks wise.

Hunter Dozier, 3B/OF, Royals: I've never been much of a Dozier guy. In his lone noteworthy season back in 2019, when he hit .276 with 26 homers, he outperformed his xBA by 21 points and his xSLG by 56, and he followed that up by hitting .219/.300/.394 over the next two years. His performances thus far have put me on notice, however. Through 13 games, he's hitting a lopsided but effective .275/.288/.529. He's suddenly become far more aggressive, swinging at 55.5 percent of pitches, well above his career average of 47.2 percent. That aggressiveness has led to a grand total of zero walks, but it's also seemingly helping him crush the ball, as he owns a 21.1 percent barrel rate, tied with Giancarlo Stanton for fourth among qualified hitters. His contact quality has been so good that he's actually underperforming his .608 xSLG by 79 points. It's tough to be fully in, as the complete lack of walks gives him a very low floor once his barrel rate falls to more typical levels, but it's also tough to ignore someone who's hitting the ball as hard as he is.

Bruce Zimmermann, SP, Orioles: It used to be the case that there was little reason to have any interest in a fringy Orioles starter. Just about every secondary factor went against them: they pitched in one of the toughest parks in the league, faced the toughest set of division opponents and got very little help in earning wins. Those latter two factors remain, but moving the left-field fence back in Camden Yards has altered the park factors to the point that such pitchers are now worth a look. Three starts with a 1.20 ERA may not be enough to prove Zimmermann is anything more than a fringe option, but he's a potential pickup and has shown signs of being something more. He carried a 19.9 percent career strikeout rate heading into the season but has struck out an impressive 27.1 percent of opposing batters so far this year. He's decreased the usage of his 90.4-mph fastball to 37.8 percent while turning to his curveball and change-up more frequently, with the curve proving particularly effective. I'm far from all-in at this point, but he's at minimum jumped from afterthought to potential streamer.

FALLERS

Mookie Betts, OF, Dodgers: Yes, Betts finally did something at the plate Friday against the Padres, homering twice. That's not enough to overcome a poor start to the season, however, as he's hitting just .196/.328/.339 on the year. He's simply not hitting the ball hard at all, posting a 2.5 percent barrel rate and a 30.0 percent hard hit rate, both of which are in the bottom fifth of qualified hitters. What makes that particularly worrisome is this is actually part of a multi-year trend for the star outfielder. Check out his barrel and hard hit rates over the last five seasons below:

YearBarrel RatePercentileHard Hit RatePercentile
201814.1%96th50.6%97th
201910.3%71st47.6%90th
20207.7%48th43.4%73rd
20217.8%43rd41.0%48th
20222.5%12th30.0%19th

Betts has remained a fantasy star despite that decline through a combination of excellent contact rates, a strong surrounding lineup and a bit of speed. That strong lineup remains, and he's already stolen a pair of bases, but he's also worryingly seen his strikeout rate spike to 23.9 percent, far above his career average of 13.4 percent. He could certainly still turn things around, but his status as a true offensive star seems to be teetering on the brink.

Joey Votto, 1B, Reds: For most of his career, Votto's power was less elite than you'd expect from a star first baseman, but he made up for it with excellent contact skills and even better plate discipline. In his age-37 season last year, he went through one of the more remarkable late-career adaptations I can remember, accepting a much higher strikeout rate (23.8 percent, well above his previous career average of 17.8 percent) in exchange for a big uptick in power, resulting in 36 homers and a 17.2 percent barrel rate. Through 16 games this year, though, he looks every bit of his 38 years. His strikeout rate has taken another huge jump, soaring to 34.4 percent, but it's come with a decrease in power this time rather than another increase. His barrel rate has sunk to 3.2 percent, and he's managed just a single extra-base hit. Votto is a smart enough hitter that it's believable he could figure things out soon, but it's hard not to worry given his age.

Huascar Ynoa, SP, Atlanta: While Atlanta has had one young starter emerge this season in the aforementioned Kyle Wright, that's merely replaced the exciting young arm they thought they had in Ynoa, who was optioned Tuesday after opening the year with a pair of disastrous outings. The Nationals scored five runs off him in three innings in his season debut, while the Dodgers followed up with five more in 3.2 frames in his second start. He's not enough of a difference maker to be worth holding onto in shallower leagues, but whether to keep stashing him in deeper formats is a difficult question. On the one hand, he was legitimately quite good last season, as his 4.05 ERA came with a significantly better 3.40 xFIP, as his 26.9 percent strikeout rate, 6.7 percent walk rate and 47.3 percent ground ball rate were all significantly better than league average. On the other hand, there were always doubts about his ability to start, as he's close to a two-pitch pitcher, using his largely ineffective change-up just 6.6 percent of the time last year.

Oneil Cruz, SS, Pirates: I rarely include minor leaguers in this column, but Cruz felt worthy of a mention given how many people are likely still stashing him after drafting him in hopes that he'd break camp in the majors. The Pirates drew the ire of many fans after electing to start Cruz in Triple-A, but that decision looks wise at this point. Yes, he did hit the ball incredibly hard in his two-game debut last season, but we can't forget how raw he is. Prior to this season, he'd played a grand total of eight games above Double-A. Through 14 games for Triple-A Indianapolis this year, it sure looks as though he still has some things to figure out. He's slashing just .204/.295/.333 with just one homer and is striking out 31.1 percent of the time. He does have six steals, but the uncompetitive Pirates probably aren't in any rush to let him show that speed at the big-league level until he proves his bat is ready. There's still very high upside here given his tools, but you may want to adjust your expectations of when he'll debut and rethink stashing him accordingly.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erik Halterman
Erik Halterman is a Deputy Editor for RotoWire, covering MLB and the KBO.
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