2017 Pleasant Surprises: The Bats

For the first time in 12 years with RotoWire, I knocked out two fantasy baseball drafts for the upcoming season prior to the completion of the World Series.

There are benefits and drawbacks to drafting early, with the lack of groupthink topping my list for the former. With a long window for roles to change and injuries to strike before Opening Day, the draft-day approach can be changed slightly knowing that the first FAAB period when the season gets underway will offer up a slew of viable talent.

One of the two drafts will be played out, although there are some restrictions regarding the amount of information I can share from that particular league. The other was one of four 15-team mock drafts hosted by Justin Mason of Friends with Fantasy Benefits and FanGraphs. A complete average draft position (ADP) chart from the Mason Mocks is available here.

Looking back at my disappointing teams from 2017 (there were several), one common thread was an over-reliance on players who reached a completely different level the previous season. Over the years, my attitude toward breakouts has shifted to the more optimistic end of the scale, in part because I was too slow to get on board with late bloomers like Jose Bautista (2010) and Edwin Encarnacion (2012) in the past.

Too much optimism can be a bad thing, however, and last year’s surprises — good and bad — are often among the most polarizing players on draft day. Here’s a look at how the industry treated the biggest offensive surprises of 2017 in their first crack at building rosters for 2018.

Ryan Zimmerman, 1B, WAS ($31) | MMADP: 134.75 — There were only 15 hitters who earned $30 or more in 15-team mixers last season. Skepticism with Zimmerman should come more from his lengthy injury history than from his spike in production in 2017. Zimmerman was hitting the ball very hard in 2016, but the results were terrible as he struggled to generate loft. He made adjustments in the offseason in an attempt to generate a better launch angle with his swing. It worked, and he did it without adding a lot of strikeouts, although his K% jumped from 19.1% to 25.4% from the first half to the second, and his .269/.337/.542 line with 17 homers and 45 RBI in the second half (125 wRC+, .879 OPS) is probably a more realistic expectation going forward if the rise in strikeouts is part of the profile going forward from pitchers adjusting to his new approach. As an above-average power hitter in an above-average lineup, Zimmerman can be a .270-30-85-85 player with health (relatively…130-135 games) in 2018, well worth a pick around the Round 9-10 turn of a 15-team league (approximately Round 12 or later in a 12-team format).

Tommy Pham, OF, STL ($26) | MMADP: 75.25  — Pham’s success as a 29-year-old breakout is an inspirational story when you consider that he put everything together after undergoing surgery to combat a degenerative eye condition called keratoconus (check out this great detailed write-up of Pham and his condition from Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch). The lingering fear is that his condition could worsen to the point where quick and relatively easy adjustments to his contacts don’t provide immediate relief, but that he can now see the ball the way his teammates always have goes a very long way in explaining how he compiled his 2017 numbers (.306/.411/.520, 23 HR, 73 RBI, 95 runs, 25 SB) after he looked overmatched in previous attempts to handle big-league pitching.

The power and speed appear to be completely legitimate, it’s just a question as to how much his hit tool will hold up now that opposing teams have a full season’s worth of at-bats to dissect as they adjust their plans to get him out. Even with his ability to make a steady supply of hard contact, Pham’s 26.7% HR/FB rate is likely unsustainable. Fortunately, the expected drop in HR/FB is offset by his opportunity to be an everyday player for a complete season. The batting average is also in danger of sliding, as he hit .368 on balls in play, so it’s reasonable to pencil him for .275-.285 as you project the 2018 line. Still, he could be somewhat unlucky on balls in play, and/or give back some of the K% gains and drop all the way to .260 in the AVG department, only to offset it with another 20-20 homer-steal combo.

RotoWire has the best daily fantasy football tools on the web.
Try Our NFL Lineup Optimizer Now

Travis Shaw, 3B, MIL ($24) | MMADP: 102.75 — Shaw won the park factors lottery for a left-handed home-run hitter when the Brewers acquired him from the Red Sox last offseason. He improved enough against southpaws to avoid falling into a platoon, which helped his counting stats across the board, but it’s easy to wonder if the league started to figure him out in the second half as he hit .242/.326/.442 (.768 OPS) after carrying a .299/.367/.570 line (.938 OPS) in the first half. There is more in his skills profile to suggest the former is the more likely outcome if he were to stretch one of those halves over a full season, though splitting the difference toward the lower end could make him a .250-.255 hitter with 25+ HR and a good number of RBI again (80-85). After some reflection, I’ve decided that I took him too early (79th overall in my Mason Mock), by as many as five rounds, thanks in part to the number of similar players available later.

Whit Merrifield, 2B, KC ($23) | MMADP: 65.5 — Of the players in this piece, Merrifield is one that I want to fade the most. The Steamer projections for 2018 suggest that I am right to do that, as he’s projected for a .271/.314/.406 line, 12 HR, 70 runs, 56 RBI, and 24 SB with a 600 PA playing-time neutral baseline. From the 19 homers he swatted last season, 16 were pulled, with just one going to center and two going the opposite way. This looks like Josh Harrison 2.0 — a nice real-life player with the chance to produce more than his raw talent would suggest because the team he’s on may leave him in a favorable position to make it happen. For Merrifield, that means plenty of green lights on the basepaths, and an opportunity to lead off for manager Ned Yost. Forced to pick a side on an over/under of 10 homers in 2018, I would take the under, but I think he can swipe 20 bases again with relative ease.

Justin Smoak, 1B, TOR ($23) | MMADP: 99.5 — He disappointed us despite elite prospect status for a very long time. My colleague Jason Thornbury once said that God himself could not convince him that Smoak is good now because he had seen him struggle so much during his time in Seattle. Even though they are going to provide value in completely different ways, I would rather take Smoak than Merrifield and look for those 20-25 steals elsewhere. Smoak joined elite company in 2017, finishing in the top-1o in barrels per plate appearance (min. 100 batted-ball events) according to Statcast. Like Shaw, Smoak slowed down slightly in the second half, perhaps the result of adjustments that were made by opposing pitchers to counteract his new approach. For me, investing in Smoak at this price for 2018 is less about my belief in his new core skills, and more about the belief that I can find similar players later while targeting an SP2 or SP3, or even a closer around his time in drafts because those pools dwindle much faster than the corner-infield one does.

Scooter Gennett, 2B, CIN ($22) | MMADP: 149.5 — Admittedly, I was surprised that the Brewers didn’t get a low-level pitcher in a small trade for Gennett late in spring training, but the Reds scooped him up off waivers and landed a 2.4-win player for nothing. When Jose Peraza struggled, Gennett reaped the benefits, and his four-homer game may go down as one of the most surprising performances in baseball history. Nevertheless, I thought he was a solid regular with defensive limitations capable of being an above-average hitter on the large side of a platoon. Instead, nearly doubled his home-run total from 2016, swatting 27 homers while posting a career high .531 slugging percentage in his age-27 season. Zack Cozart is a free agent, which opens up shortstop for Peraza and leaves Gennett with a chance to play regularly at second base again. As a career .283 hitter with a 5.2% walk rate, I’m still tempering expectations and like Steamer, penciling him in for fewer than 20 long balls in 2018. After Gennett slugged .419 against four-seamers in 2016, teams thought they could simply overpower him with heat. That plan failed, as he slugged .607 against four-seamers last season, crushing 15 of his 27 homers on that particular pitch. The scouting report will be adjusted accordingly, and he’s much more likely to hit 17 homers in 2018 than he is to repeat last season’s total.

Eddie Rosario, OF, MIN ($20) | MMADP: 184.5  — Like Gennett, Rosario had difficulty with fastballs in 2016 (.413 SLG, 2 HR) before feasting on them last season (.572 SLG, 14 HR). Overall, his adjustments included an improved swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone, more contact when he took hacks at pitches outside the zone, and more contact when pitchers challenged him inside the strike zone. The significant improvement to his K% — down to 18.0 from 25.7% in 2016 — looks to be mostly sustainable. Rosario has never been very patient, but he does much better in that regard against righties (7.4% BB%), and a permanent place on the large side of a platoon seems reasonable.

A second-half home-run surge was supported by an increase in flyball rate (from 32.7 to 42.0% in the second half) and a higher HR/FB rate to boot, but he became more of a dead-pull hitter with that approach, which could make him a batting-average risk if he carries it forward. If opposing pitchers can locate down and away against Rosario with more consistency next season, he may have to go back to a more balanced approach that yields less power.

In fact, in the video above, you can see that the pitch was a pretty big mistake from a down-and-away target.

 

There are plenty of positives, however, as he generates a lot of pop with a short stroke, and should have a place in the middle-third of a rapidly improving lineup. The early pricing here suggests that he’s a potential good value heading into next season despite the aforementioned risk.

Marwin Gonzalez, INF/OF, HOU ($20) | MMADP: 194.75 — Count me among those who thought Gonzalez was simply a utility player who could do a little bit of everything well enough to stick on a 25-man roster, but one who offered only temporary relief to fantasy owners thanks to his multi-position eligibility. Gonzalez turns 29 in March, and his .303/.377/.530 season line jumps off the page thanks to his career .268/.317/.421 line. He drew more walks last season, more than doubling his rate from the previous two seasons to 9.5%, but Gonzalez’s HR/FB slipped to 11.5% in the second half, which is right in line with his career mark (12.3%). The market appears to be right in hesitating to buy into last year’s surprising step forward, but there were warning signs pointed out by Andrew Perpetua of FanGraphs in the second half that are a good guide of setting expectations for 2018 and beyond.

Chris Taylor, 2B/SS/OF, LAD ($19) | MMADP: 114  — Even while searching and hoping to find flaws, I’m having a difficult time seeing any in Taylor’s 2017 breakout. He was split-neutral as a right-handed bat, he didn’t fade in the second half (his strikeout rate actually improved from the first half), and he’s shown defensive versatility at positions of high value. If he were to lead off and play every day for a full season, it’s possible that his plate appearance volume jumps up one more level and maxes out completely in 2018 (although 140 games and 568 plate appearances are plenty). Throughout the postseason, the changes made to his swing were frequently discussed, and they’re covered well in this piece by Tyler Kepner of the New York Times. As you will see in the first video below, Taylor now has an uppercut path that generates a very good launch angle. In the second video (from spring training of 2015), he has a much flatter swing plane.

The interesting debate might be a choice between Pham and Taylor for the upcoming season. Although the ADP above for Taylor is approximately 40 picks later, he was taken 75th overall in a magazine mock draft I participated in Wednesday night (Pham was taken 66th overall in the same draft). Both appear to have legitimate 20-20 skills, and Taylor offers the added benefit of eligibility at both middle-infield spots along with the outfield, but Pham’s plate discipline was slightly better in 2017, and he posted a slightly better barrel rate (5.8% BBL/PA) than Taylor’s 5.3% last season.

Follow me on Twitter @DerekVanRiper