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How Concerned Should We Be About Struggling Superstars?

This piece was inspired by a poll I held over the weekend on Twitter. I asked the question on Twitter regarding the slow starts for both Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger to get a feel for how fantasy owners were handling the stress of the extremely slow starts from their first-round picks.



Both players were no-doubt first-rounders with Yelich a consensus top-three while Bellinger fell somewhere between fourth and seventh overall. While just over half of the respondents aren’t worried at all, 35% are starting to get frustrated. Now, to be fair, we are just 21 days into the season and most teams have played between 17 and 19 games thus far. That’s like performing a full assessment of a player or your team in mid-April. It just doesn’t make sense. That being said, we are nearly 30% of the way through the season (for most teams)! Decisions must be made on the fly and adjustments need to happen now!

In this piece, I want to cover hitters off to slow starts who were top-end talents, AKA first or second-round selections. Before diving into the analysis, I wanted to cite a couple of pieces for two reasons. First off, the articles provide a ton of great information but also can help determine what we should be doing with players off to slow starts. The first is Rob Arthur’s piece which studied the drag on the 2020 ball. Conclusions are in! The ball has less drag than it did in 2019 and 2017.

It’s much closer to the ball we saw in 2018. I ran some numbers as well, looking at barrels per home run (BRL/HR%) and Blast Zone Barrels per Home Run (BZB/HR%), both were down significantly. We are currently well below the 2017 and 2019 levels and sitting between 2016 and 2018 levels. The crazy part is, we started in the dead of summer when balls fly farther, so our 2020 sample hasn’t factored in cold weather. 

With this information, we can reference Connor Kurcon’s piece from Six Man Rotation “Beneficiaries of the 2019 Dragless Baseball.” Save for Nick Castellanos, Kyle Seager, and Mike Yastrzemski, many of the players who benefited the most from the 2019 ball are struggling to start 2020. Now, since this is descriptive from 2019 data, changes in approach, exit velocity, and home park can attribute to how a player is performing relative to the information provided in Conor’s piece. Oh, and then there’s the sample size thing. Most statistics and metrics have not yet stabilized but metrics such as swing%, K%, exit velocity, and launch angle have. So, for this piece, let’s focus on those metrics.


All ADPs are from NFBC from 4/1/20 – 7/24/20

Christian Yelich (OF – MIL) – 2.05 ADP
.164 BA – 9 R – 4 HR – 9 RBI – 0 SB

Typically, the first round is about the floor but these players also have the highest ceilings. You’re not expecting this type of production from a player taken in the top three of nearly every draft. The first thing that jumps out to me is the ZERO in the stolen base category. The knee is a concern and it appears running may not be something Yelich will be doing this year. Bummer. The second thing that jumps out at me is his strikeout rate. He’s currently struck out 32.8% of the time. His career-worst K% in a full season is 20.7% in 2018. It’s odd because his chase rate as career-best 17.2% which backs his 14.1% walk rate. Yelich might be a little too passive to start 2020. He’s swinging at 10% fewer pitches but also seeing fewer pitches in the zone. That will happen to MVP-caliber players. 

His extreme passiveness doesn’t explain why his zone contact rate has dipped a whopping 20%! That’s my concern. I don’t think it’s an injury because his hard hit% and xwOBACON are very strong. Let’s take to the rolling average graph!

There’s some good news and some bad news here. In 2018, when Yelich won the MVP, he had three separate 15-game rolling averages where his wOBA was as low or lower than his current stretch. The good news is, they didn’t last long and he snapped out of it quickly. He’s also had two other stretches where his reach rates (O-Swing%) were as low as they currently are. The bad news is, those stretches coincided with fantastic results (spikes in wOBA). I’m concerned about Yelich but not a whole lot since his quality of contact is still great and his plate discipline is as good as ever. I think he’s a small tweak from busting out. I’d look to acquire him at 85 cents on the dollar.
Level of concern: 10% due to the lack of stolen base attempts

 

Cody Bellinger (1B, OF – LAD) – 4.08 ADP
.167 BA – 11 R – 2 HR – 6 RBI – 1 SB

Bellinger’s Roto line looks similar to Yelich’s but for different reasons. Bellinger made huge strides in terms of lowering his K% last year and he’s kept those gains this year. In fact, his strikeout rate is actually lower (14.3%) than it was last year./ That’s on top of cutting 7.5% from his K% between 2018 and 2019. He’s actually doing a great job of recognizing pitches in the zone. His swing% has gone up nearly five percent while his chase% is nearly identical to last season. Bellinger’s issues are not with zone recognition but with exit velocity.

His exit velocity and hard hit% are in the 18th and 14th percentile, respectively. Not good. His launch angle is the same as last year but that can be deceiving. Average launch angle does not tell the whole story. Let’s take a look at his 50 PA rolling average Sweet Spot% (balls hit between 8 and 32 degrees). 

He’s only been down this far once before and it was in his rookie year back in 2017. Limiting the percentage of balls hit in the Sweet spot range is going to limit his production on batted balls. Not surprisingly, his popup% is up over 5% this year as well. But, his ground ball% is also on the rise this year. That explains why his launch angle remains unchanged from a year ago. It’s difficult to hit the ball hard when your hitting popups and grounder at low launch angle but the lack of hard contact is concerning. Typically, it relates to an injury. But, his max exit velocity is decent at just under 110 mph which is right near where he’s been in the past. It’s possible he’s sacrificing hard contact for just plain contact which is why he’s hitting so many poorly hit balls. Either way, my concern for Bellinger is slightly higher than with Yelich because he could be masking a minor injury here.
Level of Concern: 25%



 

Rafael Devers (3B – BOS) – 23.09 ADP
.175 BA – 8 R – 2 HR – 3 RBI – 0 SB

Devers has missed the last couple of games with an ankle injury. Maybe that’s to blame for his slow start but I’m not buying it. He tweaked it on Sunday, so it doesn’t explain his poor performance to date. He’s nearly doubled his K%and is walking less compared to 2019. We have to remember, Devers is still just 23 years old and went from a league-average bat in 2018 to an MVP candidate in 2019. Regression back down a little should be expected. But, let’s try to figure out what’s wrong with the young third baseman. 

His hard hit% is down a massive 15% and he’s really been struggling against fastballs slugging just .259 against heaters. Contrast that with 2019 where he had a SLG of .545 against fastballs. Let’s check the two charts below. 

The first shows his in-zone swing and miss% by year. It’s not often you see a player with higher whiff rates on fastballs compared to offspeed or breaking balls, but that’s Devers. While his whiff% in the zone against offspeed pitches has increased by 10%, it’s up 14% against heaters! The second chart shows his average launch angle by pitch type. He’s pounding fastballs into the ground. So, not only is he making less contact against fastballs but he’s also been unsuccessful in elevating them. He’s not being pitched differently either. Most of the fastballs he’s seen are up in the zone or up and out of the zone. 

This looks like one of two things. Either he’s hiding a potential injury or he played a bit over his head last year. Either way, I’m concerned. The loss of Mookie Betts hurts this team’s productivity and word just got out that a humidor was installed at Fenway Park. Fenway was already one of the worst parks for home runs over the last three seasons. Devers and other Red Sox could see a power dip as a result. Additionally, he’s not running and now has a bum ankle. He’s known to go on some heaters but providing second-round value this year seems unlikely.
Level of Concern: 25% 

J.D. Martinez (OF – BOS) – 23.76 ADP
.222-7-1-4-0 (BA-R-HR-RBI-SB)

Martinez hasn’t changed his approach or batted ball distribution all that much. He’s essentially the same guy he’s been over the last several years but without much to show through the first three weeks. The difference is his hard contact. His barrel% is right in line where it’s been the last few seasons but his average exit velocity is way down. Like, bottom 35% down. This is a guy who has finished inside the top 10% in hard hit% each of the last five seasons. He’s also been in the top 10% in terms of exit velocity in four of the last five years. The only year he fell short was last season.


I wrote him up as a faller on my Blast Zone Barrels (BZB) article when looking at three-year trends. As average exit velocities have increased league-wide, Martinez is slipping. There are several reasons for this. First, his age. He’s 32 years old and while not a dinosaur, we don’t typically see players improve their exit velocity in their 30s. Second, his ground balls have been hit weakly (76.6 mph). That’s fine because he can’t do damage with grounders. His AVG EV on FB/LD is 93 mph is in the top half but not quite the JDM we are used to. Lastly, that damn humidor news. It’s going to suppress exit velocity and power.

I think he’ll bust out but not to the 2017 and 2018 levels we are used to seeing. The humidor scares me as well. I’m not buying JDM unless I can get him for 80 cents on the dollar.
Level of Concern: 20%

Anthony Rendon (3B – WSH) – 31.82 ADP
.174 BA – 10 R – 3 HR – 7 RBI – 0 SB

Rendon seems to be pressing. A star player in a new home off to a slow start. Sound familiar Bryce Harper? First, let’s focus on the positives. He’s walking more than he’s struck out (17 BB: 12 K). That’s nothing new for Rendon who has nearly as many strikeouts as walks since the start of 2018. However, he’s swinging less often this year. His chase% is at a career-low 12.6%, so that’s great but he’s dropped over 6% on his zone contact rate. Additionally, he’s hitting everything in the air but not necessarily in a good way. His launch angle is dangerously high at 28.6 degrees. His popup rate has almost doubled since 2019.

Since he’s ultra-passive, he’s getting fewer opportunities to do damage. Most of the time he’s miss-hitting the ball getting under it a little bit. He made an approach change in 2016 to get more loft and it’s done wonders to his production. I think he’s just working through early-season timing issues. Most pitchers have been ahead of the hitters with the lack of spring/summer training. Hitters haven’t quite had the reps they are used to seeing before the season starts. I’d look to acquire Rendon on the cheap but he did blast back to back homers this week, so you may not get much of a discount.
Level of Concern: 5%

Gleyber Torres (SS – NYY) – 28.66 ADP
.154 BA – 4 R – 1 HR – 2 RBI – 0 SB

To get Torres in a 15-team format, you needed to get him right at the end of the second round or at the turn in the third. So far, his hard hit% and K% are better than a year ago but he’s been unable to barrel many baseballs. Just one to date, in fact. His batted ball profile looks identical to a year ago, so what’s the problem? Well, he’s being fed a ton of breaking balls, nearly 10% more than in 2019. He’s done absolutely nothing with them slugging a scant .043 against the bendy pitches. While he was passable against breaking balls in 2019, the expected metrics painted a different picture. His xSLG was 70 points lower versus breaking balls and his xwOBA was .282.


I think this is the league adjusting to Torres. The book is out and he needs to adjust back. He’s only 23 years old and in a similar boat to Devers. There’s plenty of time for him to figure it out and I think he’ll be a star but in a 60-game season, we don’t have time to wait for changes to take shape. On the plus side, he’s chasing less often, so he’s not far from making the necessary adjustment. Like Devers, I certainly love him longterm but feel like he’s going fail on turning any type of profit in 2020.
Level of Concern: 20%


Photo by: Stacy Revere/Getty Images)



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