April Hitter Improvements

I find early season performances fascinating (or perhaps it’s our responses to these performances that’s fascinating.) With every owner competitive and paying attention in April – maybe for the only time all year – league wide perception of talent levels can be unrealistically altered. For example, Trevor Story hits 7 home runs in his first 8 games, then precedes to hit .200 over his next 60 plate appearances. That’s about as stark a difference as you can find in a player’s performances this early in the season. Given this, how do your league-mates value him? My wager is that they value him more as the 7 HR guy that the .200 hitter, but that’s just a guess. Would the view of Story be different if those 7 HR in 8 games occurred in July?

This is all hypothetical conjecture on my part, but it does help to show the crazy swings in performance that occur over small samples. If a player (especially a prospect) has a hot start, their trade value can be boosted by that helium all year. However, some hot starts still fall through the cracks, and many players who have performed well can still be bought relatively cheaply. Hopefully this will help you consider buying some of the players who’ve had great starts to 2016. Some of them appear to have made core improvements thus far.

One of the updates I run weekly is to look at the plate discipline and batted ball leaderboards here on Fangraphs. I look for players who are swinging less than last year, while also making more contact. Eno covered some of this in his post last week, but this early in the season it can be difficult to have enough data to make any concrete conclusions about player performances. A disclaimer – at the time I wrote this I didn’t realize how similar it was to Eno’s analysis. His piece goes into more detail and you should definitely read it.

The general premise: I want to find players who are being more patient than last year, but are also making contact at a higher rate. I also track changes in hard hit percentage, but admit that I don’t focus on this nearly as much. I plan to start incorporating exit velocity and launch angle, but have not been able to at this point. This is far from a full proof method or some statistical wizardry, but it’s a quick sniff test. Given that swing% becomes reliable around 50 PAs, and contact rate around 100 PAs, I would put a little more weight on those numbers at this time. I use this to help me bid in the early season Ottoneu FA auctions, or to help target players in trades. The last thing I want to do is waste precious dollars or trade assets on what is likely to be a mirage. (This is probably more important in Ottoneu than other formats where cap penalties can hamstring you if you aren’t careful). Anyways, here’s the list of all players swinging less, making more contact, and hitting the ball with a higher hard hit frequency in 2016.

2016 Hitter Improvements (4/26/2016)
Name PA 2015 Swing% 2016 Swing % Change 2015 Contact 2016 Contact Change 2015 Hard Hit 2016 Hard Hit Change
Jean Segura 95 54% 48% -6% 85% 90% 5% 20% 21% 2%
Joe Mauer 88 41% 34% -7% 85% 92% 7% 30% 38% 8%
Starling Marte 88 58% 51% -7% 76% 78% 2% 29% 34% 5%
Gregory Polanco 87 44% 44% 0% 82% 85% 3% 30% 32% 2%
Nolan Arenado 82 55% 47% -8% 80% 89% 9% 36% 47% 10%
Angel Pagan 81 42% 41% -1% 90% 90% 0% 23% 27% 4%
Eugenio Suarez 80 46% 44% -2% 77% 82% 5% 29% 35% 7%
Mike Moustakas 79 48% 43% -6% 85% 89% 4% 32% 44% 12%
Colby Rasmus 79 46% 39% -8% 70% 72% 1% 34% 46% 11%
Eric Hosmer 79 46% 45% -1% 81% 81% 0% 33% 36% 3%
Brandon Crawford 79 53% 52% -1% 74% 76% 3% 33% 33% 0%
Domingo Santana 78 44% 40% -5% 67% 73% 6% 32% 41% 9%
Josh Reddick 78 44% 42% -2% 86% 87% 1% 26% 30% 4%
Freddy Galvis 75 51% 49% -2% 83% 86% 4% 25% 29% 4%
Jake Lamb 75 43% 41% -1% 77% 80% 3% 36% 37% 0%
David Ortiz 74 46% 44% -2% 78% 80% 2% 42% 42% 0%
Addison Russell 72 49% 46% -3% 71% 76% 5% 27% 29% 2%
Chris Carter 72 47% 41% -6% 64% 69% 5% 37% 39% 2%
Randal Grichuk 70 52% 46% -6% 70% 74% 5% 37% 39% 2%
Michael Conforto 69 43% 42% -2% 79% 80% 1% 41% 51% 10%
Matt Holliday 69 51% 48% -3% 78% 85% 7% 33% 35% 2%
Brett Gardner 68 38% 32% -6% 81% 91% 9% 26% 33% 7%
Billy Burns 68 58% 53% -5% 86% 92% 7% 14% 17% 3%
Jonathan Schoop 65 61% 61% -1% 72% 74% 2% 36% 37% 1%
Jose Iglesias 64 46% 43% -3% 91% 94% 3% 16% 25% 8%
J.J. Hardy 63 40% 34% -7% 84% 85% 1% 24% 38% 14%
Victor Martinez 62 49% 43% -6% 87% 92% 5% 31% 42% 12%
Jimmy Rollins 62 45% 44% -1% 84% 87% 3% 25% 26% 0%
Adeiny Hechavarria 60 53% 50% -2% 83% 87% 4% 25% 28% 3%
Wilson Ramos 58 54% 54% 0% 78% 85% 8% 26% 28% 2%

Nolan Arenado is amazing! I feel like we already know that, but the improvements definitely justify the awesome year he has had so far. He has the largest 2016 improvements in swing and contact rates of all names listed. I didn’t have the gap too large at the start of the season, but it looks like he has closed in on Donaldson as the top Ottoneu 3B. He’s a stud. Not much else to say that hasn’t already been said. Owen Watson covers Arenado in more detail here. Definitely check it out.

Victor Martinez, Chris Carter, and Joe Mauer are some interesting 1B only names. I’d buy any of them. Each can be had cheaply (Mauer was available in each of my leagues prior to this week) but I would feel comfortable playing any of them at the UTIL spot. (If only Mauer still had C eligibility…) Of these three, Mauer is probably the best bang for your buck. Perhaps it’s just my impression, but I feel like no one has wanted him in any league I’ve put him up for auction. If you’re locked in at 1B and UTIL, with a mid-tier 1B, I’d play Mauer at UTIL and trade the higher salaried player. Typically, 1B like this can be pretty cheap to acquire in Ottoneu (they can be difficult to trade away), since the bar for viable 1B option is so high. Given this, stud 1B can typically return a haul, while middle tier options are ignored, so it may be worth parting with one of the top tier options (Miggy, Votto, Rizzo, etc) if you can make a viable upgrade elsewhere. Holding one or two guys like Mauer or Carter allows you to float above water at 1B/UTIL, so that you can use your 1B teams may actually want to trade for in order to upgrade. On to the outfielders.

A pair of NL central outfielders, Grichuk and Santana are both playing well, but have not been stars to this point. A glance at either’s player card and you can see the improvements in BB% and K% that corresponds to the changes above. Jeff Sullivan and August Fagerstrom have written up Santana and Grichuk in depth. While neither may develop into stars, both have shown strong improvements to this point. I see both as strong FGpt OF4 going forward, but if these improvements hold they could move up to the OF3 catagory. You’ll have to trade for them, but they should provide decent OF upgrades relative to the cost.

Last but not least, Jean Segura. Of all players on this list he probably represents the best buying opportunity. Middle infield eligibility is always at a premium, and the bar is so low (especially at SS) that he shouldn’t have to do much to be relevant. Perhaps it’s his hot start to 2013, but he definitely falls into the post-hype camp. It feels like he’s been around forever. He’s still only 26 and plays in a good park. The Diamondbacks don’t have many inspiring options in the middle infield. Plus, they traded for him, so I feel like his leash is long enough that we don’t have to worry about him suddenly losing playing time. He leads this list in PAs (having nearly 100 so far), is swinging less, and making more contact than nearly everyone on this list – so there is potential that these improvements are a little more real than others. Don’t expect a star performance, but he could easily vault into the $10 SS range.

This early in the season, you can only buy performance so much. However, even given the small samples we are dealing with, we still have to make decisions on free agent auctions and trades. Hopefully this helps with that. As always, what’s important to consider is the opportunity cost of acquiring a player. It’s a lot of fun to own a Trevor Story share, but when you’d have to pay through the nose to get him is it worthwhile? I’d trade for a number of players on this list over him for that reason.

Joe works at a consulting firm in Pittsburgh. When he isn't working or studying for actuarial exams, he focuses on baseball. He also writes @thepointofpgh. Follow him on twitter @Ottoneutrades

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Go Jean! Scooped him up in a shallow league, he looks back to his old self.