Oak's Corner: Home Run Surge

Oak's Corner: Home Run Surge

This article is part of our Oak's Corner series.

I feel like every year, around this time of year, we all say how weird the season is so far. But when I look at the home run leaders, it's hard not to think this may be the weirdest start we have had to a fantasy season. Aaron Judge currently leads all of baseball with 18 homers, and there are 21 players who have hit 15 or more homers. Incredibly, only five of those 21 were players drafted in the top 100 overall (using NFBC ADP). Even more amazingly, of the six players with 17 or more homers, five of them were drafted after pick 300, and the highest was Khris Davis at pick 102. Of the 21 players with 15 or more homers, nearly half of them (10) were picked after pick 300, and four of them (Justin Smoak, Mark Reynolds, Yonder Alonso and Logan Morrison) were selected after pick 500! Now, the season is still young, but we are a third of the way through and half the home run leaders were either drafted very late or not at all; that is pretty damn wild. There are usually a few power breakouts, but this year has been exceptional in that regard and has really rewarded teams that took early shots in FAAB on these power breakouts.

The Week That Was


  • The Cub's Jon Lester struggled on Thursday night, allowing four runs to the Rockies (at Wrigley) in only five innings. The start pushed his

I feel like every year, around this time of year, we all say how weird the season is so far. But when I look at the home run leaders, it's hard not to think this may be the weirdest start we have had to a fantasy season. Aaron Judge currently leads all of baseball with 18 homers, and there are 21 players who have hit 15 or more homers. Incredibly, only five of those 21 were players drafted in the top 100 overall (using NFBC ADP). Even more amazingly, of the six players with 17 or more homers, five of them were drafted after pick 300, and the highest was Khris Davis at pick 102. Of the 21 players with 15 or more homers, nearly half of them (10) were picked after pick 300, and four of them (Justin Smoak, Mark Reynolds, Yonder Alonso and Logan Morrison) were selected after pick 500! Now, the season is still young, but we are a third of the way through and half the home run leaders were either drafted very late or not at all; that is pretty damn wild. There are usually a few power breakouts, but this year has been exceptional in that regard and has really rewarded teams that took early shots in FAAB on these power breakouts.

The Week That Was


  • The Cub's Jon Lester struggled on Thursday night, allowing four runs to the Rockies (at Wrigley) in only five innings. The start pushed his ERA to 4.13 through 13 starts, a far cry from his 2.44 ERA in 2016. He especially has struggled recently, allowing 13 earned runs in his last three starts over only 14.1 innings. Lester has seen his babip rise from .235 in 2016 to .323 this and his strand rate drop from a career-high 84.9 percent in 2016 to 72.3 percent. His strikeouts are in the same range in the last three years, but he's having issues with walks; his current walk rate (3.28 BB/9) is a full walk per nine higher than last season. His batted ball profile looks fairly similar to last year, with a slight bump up in his ground ball rate to 50 percent and a slight drop in his hard hit rate down to a nice 25.5 percent. His swinging strike rate is at an eight-year high of 10.8 percent. So Lester has been a little off of last year's work mostly due to the walks but has also has some bad luck while allowing less hard hit balls and is striking guys out at the same rate. Lester is a prime trade target for me, and I'll be making offers for him in my trade leagues over the weekend after this most recent outing.

  • Nick Castellanos had three hits and homered on Thursday, but even with the big game, he still sits at a .230 average with only six home runs. After a consistent upward trend in his fly ball rate peaked at 43 percent in 2016, Castellanos has surprisingly slipped to a career-low this season of only 33.1 percent. This has helped to mitigate his power while hiding his utterly elite 49.1 percent hard hit rate, more than 13 points higher than last year's previous high of 35.7 percent. If Castellanos can move close to his 2016 fly ball rate, the homers are going to come in bunches and the batting average will come along for the ride, too. Sometimes it can be hard to buy low on struggling studs, but Castellanos is probably attainable since his draft price wasn't too expensive. If he's been dropped, grab him now; if not, see if you can get him a discount, but do it quickly.

  • Justin Smoak is having a monster season for the Blue Jays with 17 homers in his first 59 games. Many people have been waiting for years for Smoak to break out, but he topped out at 20 homers and combined that middling power with a consistently low batting average. The biggest wow factor in Smoak's season so far has been the dramatic drop off in his strikeout rate. After peaking at a 32.8 percent K Rate in 2016, Smoak is at only 17.9 percent so far this year, which would be the lowest of his MLB career. The change in approach hasn't affected Smoak's ability to hit the ball hard, as his hard hit rate is up two points from 2016 to his current 41.5 percent. Smoak's 26.2 percent HR/FB rate likely is going to come down some, but he was at 25.4 percent in 2015 before dropping to 17.7 percent last year. Hitting the ball hard has never been the issue for Smoak, but if he can maintain the newfound contact rate, he suddenly becomes a power threat who won't kill you in batting average. He is hitting .291 at the moment, but it comes with only a .282 babip, so the average isn't being driven by an extremely lucky babip. Smoak has moved from a home matchup play to an every-week guy for the time being, and I'm at a full hold on Smoak wherever I own him.

  • After his 208 inning/2.60 ERA year of 2016, Gerrit Cole was a hot commodity heading into drafts in March 2016, being selected in the third round of most drafts. He muddled through an injury-riddled 2016, throwing only 116 innings with a 3.88 ERA. He dropped in 2017 drafts but was still around the 100th pick overall. After a solid first 10 starts this season, Cole has been absolutely brutal in his last four starts, allowing a massive 23 earned runs over his last four starts. After Thursday's shellacking at the hands of the Marlins (11 hits over 4.2 innings), Cole now has a 4.83 ERA and 1.34 WHIP, numbers that are significantly hurting fantasy teams. After strikeout rates near nine K's per 9 in 2014 and 2015, Cole's K Rate has dropped under eight for the last two seasons. He's having home run issues this year and has already allowed a career high (yes, already a career high!) 15 home runs though only 12 starts. After posting a hard hit rate close to or under 30 percent for the prior three seasons, Cole is currently sporting a 35.1 percent hard hit rate paired with a career-low 17.1 percent soft contact rate. His HR/FB is more than double his career levels, and while he should see that number drop some, he's also allowing a career-high 36 percent fly balls, which is a bad sign when he's giving up more hard hit balls than ever. After a deeper look at Cole, I don't like what I see, and I'm not looking to buy, even at his currently discounted price.

  • Every time Mike Zunino gets called up to the Mariners, he strikes out a ton and hits for a brutal batting average. Every time he goes back to Triple-A, he strikes out a lot less and hits for a decent average. In 2016, Zunino struck out 21.1 percent of the time while hitting .286 in 79 Triple-A games but hit .207 with a 33.9 percent strikeout rate in 55 MLB games. In his 37 games this year in the majors, Zunino has hit .229 with an immense 40 percent K Rate, and in his quick time down in Triple-A, he managed to only strike out 11.1 percent of the time while hitting .293. Over the course of his career, Zunino has hit .198 with a 33 percent K Rate in the majors, but his career minor league numbers look completely different with a .288 average and a 21.7 percent K Rate. So the question becomes whether Zunino can ever take his minor league success to the majors, or if he will always be a Quad-A hitter. Zunino was sent down to Triple-A this year in early May after hitting .167 with zero homers. Zunino was called back up three weeks later and has been mashing ever since his call-up, hitting .326 with four homers and 15 RBI in 46 at-bats. On the downside, before anyone gets too excited, the strikeouts are still a major issue with 22 punch-outs in the span. Zunino was picked up in some 15 and 12-team leagues last week but is still available in many spots. With the mindset that with the K's still there, he's likely to still end up hurting you in average, I think he's worth a bid because catcher is a disaster this year, maybe even more than usual. With his potential power upside at a weak position, I'm bidding in every league with the outside chance that this is the time he at least kind of sticks, but I'm watching the strikeouts closely and punting if he starts to hurt the average too much.

FAAB Feelings

  • CC Sabathia: The former Cy Young award winner is in the midst of his best season since he was an All-Star in 2012. Sabathia has been especially good lately, posting a 1.11 ERA over 32.1 innings while going 5-0 in his last five starts. In that stretch, Sabathia has an impressive 31:6 K:BB ratio. Overall on the season, Sabathia's numbers looks similar to the past couple of years in terms of strikeouts, walks, fly ball and ground ball rates, and swinging strike rate. Note that his hard hit rate is a bit higher than usual at 33.8 percent. But I want to focus a little more on the recent stretch of starts. Over those five starts, along with the sparkling ERA, he has an 8.6 K/9 strikeout rate, a 1.7 BB/9 walk rate and a WHIP just under 1.00. Granted, it's only five starts and while the first three were against the Royals, Rays and A's, the last two were against the newly healthy Jays in Toronto and the Red Sox. I have seen enough good in this stretch, particularly the strikeout numbers, to put in a bid on him this week for his two starts, both in good landing spots, at the Angels and at the A's, in both 12 and 15-team formats.

  • Luis Perdomo: I have discussed Perdomo in this space before, and with a couple of recent blowups, there's a good chance that he has been dropped in your league. He gets two starts this week, one at Petco against the Reds and the other, a tough one at Miller Park against the Brewers. Since struggling in his first start of the year, he has seven outings where he allowed three runs or fewer but he also has had two other starts against the powerful Diamondbacks. In those two starts, one at home and one on the road, Perdomo allowed 13 runs over 7 innings, which has spiked his ERA on the season to 5.47. His strikeout rate still stands at 7.79 K/9 and he has maintained his strong 66 percent ground ball rate, which I particularly like in combination with his hard hit rate still coming in under 30 percent. I'm willing to think he just has an issue with the Diamondbacks and am bidding this week where I need starters, but I admit the start at Miller Park is a scary one and it will lower my bid prices on him.

  • Joe Ross: Oh, what to do with Joe Ross. Over his last four outings, Ross has now sandwiched two gems with two total blowups. In the two blowups (to the Padres and A's of all teams!), he allowed 12 runs and 19 hits over only seven innings. Then, just as I'm finally ready to quit Ross, he looks completely unhittable on Thursday night against the Orioles, allowing one run over 7.1 innings while striking out 12. Ross has only thrown 38 MLB innings so far in 2017 as he spent some time in Triple-A, but the two stats that stick out on the negative side are his hard hit rate of 39.4 percent (prior to his Thursday start) and 2.13 HR/9 home run rate. Looking at his historical numbers from 181.2 MLB innings combined over 2015 and 2016, his home run is around 0.80 HR/9 and his hard hit rate has been around 30 percent. After Thursday's outing, his strikeout rate stands at 9.71 K/9 and his walk rate is 1.66 BB/9, a really exceptional combination. Ross has been held in my 15-team leagues, but he was dropped after last week's blowups in many 12-team leagues and is only owned in 62.4 percent of 12-teamers in the NFBC. His price will be significantly higher than it would have been before the Thursday gem, especially considering he's scheduled to make two starts next week, home vs. the Braves and at the Mets. I believe Ross' current strikeout/walk profile, plus his past history, makes him a certain bid for me this week as he has significant upside, not always something easy to find in FAAB this deep into the season.

A Closer Look

We have talked about the Pirates closer situation over the last couple of weeks and that continues to be the primary spot where we may see a closer switch shortly. Tony Watson allowed two runs in back-to-back outings this week, taking a blown save in each of them. If he wasn't fully on the hot seat before this week, he certainly is now. Manager Clint Hurdle indicated after the second blown save that he hasn't decided to make a change at closer, but mentioned he has two guys to consider if he does remove Watson and those two guys are Felipe Rivero and Juan Nicasio.

I have stated my affection for Rivero here, and nothing has changed since he was discussed two weeks ago. Rivero has continued his exceptional season and currently sports a 0.58 ERA to go with a 0.74 Whip. He has a strikeout rate of 9.87 K/9 and combines that with an elite-level 64 percent ground ball rate. Rounding out his incredible stat line is a 15.3 percent swinging strike rate and a 15.8 percent hard hit rate. He fills all the components of a successful closer right now, but it's possible that Hurdle may not want to mess with his role and could turn to Nicasio. Nicasio moved to the Pirates bullpen in June 2016 and he has also been excellent this season. Nicasio has a 1.35 ERA in 26.2 innings this year with a strikeout rate of 8.44 K/9. He doesn't have the dominance or the hard hit avoidance than Rivero has shown, but sometimes managers prefer to change the role of the veteran and slot him in as closer when making these type of changes. I'd bid on Rivero in all leagues if he somehow hasn't been added yet, but I think anyone in a deeper league should take a look at Nicasio as a speculative play if you have a roster spot available.

Series of the Weekend

Brewers at Diamondbacks. Well, if you want to see offense for your fantasy squads, look no further than this desert matchup this weekend. Both teams are top five in the NL in runs scored and will be playing in the offensive fun house that is Chase Field. Arizona leads all of baseball in runs scored at home, even while playing less games than the two teams ranked behind them. They are averaging an incredible 6.2 runs per game at Chase with a fantastic team OPS of .872. They have three hitters with an OPS over .975 at home: Paul Goldschmidt, Jake Lamb and Brandon Drury. Good luck to any opposing pitchers heading into Chase this year.

The Brewers will be throwing three righties this weekend, Zach Davies, Junior Guerra and Chase Anderson, and the D'Backs currently rank second in the NL in OPS vs. righties. If you are playing DFS this weekend, Arizona should be your first stop for stacking options. Both Guerra and Anderson have been strong so far this year with ERAs under 3.00, but I'm cool stacking against almost any pitcher (there are a few Clayton and Max exceptions) going into Chase Field.

On the other side of the field, the Brewers can score, too. Newcomers Eric Thames and Travis Shaw have been the stars on offense so far with 26 combined homers and an OPS over 1.000 in the case of Thames. Domingo Santana quietly has gotten hot, raising his average to .284 after an April where he only hit .197. However, the most surprising Brewer on offense has been Eric Sogard. The utility man has played 22 games with Milwaukee, hitting an absurd .414 with an equally absurd OPS of 1.213. Sogard played in 120 games for the A's in 2016 with one homer and an OPS under .600. It's a fun story that surely will fade away, but I didn't think he would be still hitting this well 22 games in either.

The Brewers are especially nasty against lefties as they have the second highest OPS against lefties in all of baseball at .771. This should make Sunday's matchup especially fun, as they see red hot lefty Robbie Ray who has allowed one run total in his last four starts while striking nine batters per start over that stretch. It will be a fascinating test for the Brewers lefty-mashing offense, and I'll definitely be checking out that final game of the series on Sunday.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Jenstad
Scott Jenstad is a veteran of both NFBC and CDM fantasy games. He has won five NFBC Main Event league titles and finished twice in the Top 10 Overall. Scott is a hardcore fan of the San Francisco 49ers, Oakland A's and Golden State Warriors. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenstad.
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