When Dylan Higgins invited me on to the Field of Streams podcast last week, he asked me what I typically like to write about. My answer was an incoherent, stammering mess, but the gist of it was I like to write about all sorts of things. The trajectory of my writing has changed a lot over time.
I think I originally wanted to write primarily about market inefficiencies in fantasy baseball. The constant instantaneous misvaluation of players fascinates me, and effectively exploiting these inefficiencies make champions. Occasionally, I return to this topic.
That occasion is today, and today, I’m in the mood for blind résumés. I cherry-picked some stats for three players, whose names I stripped away, and I want you to decide, before reading any farther, in which order you would take these players.
I think I goofed it up a little bit because they’re probably already sorted in the order you would take them. Or, maybe not. I’m not sure. Player B has seen fewer trips to the plate, but there’s no saying why, unless you’re psychic or eerily familiar with his stat line or something.
Anyway, let’s break this down. Player A kind of has the upper hand in all facets of the game. He has hit six home runs — a nice tally at this point in the season. The fly ball rate (FB%) north of 50% and the best hard-hit rate (Hard%), from a relatively simplistic standpoint, validate his better power output. His plate discipline barely different from Players B and C, but that was kind of the point.
Player B has his merits, though. Despite not having the best hard-hit rate, he does have the lowest soft-hit rate (Soft%). So, while he’s not making the most solid contact, he is making decent contact more often than Players A and C. All three hitters don’t pop up often, but Player B pops up less than half as often as Player A — a boon to the former’s batting average.
Player C compares favorably to Player B, except C’s fly ball rate doesn’t really impress anyone. No matter how hard you hit the ball, you can’t clear the fence if you’re frequently killing worms.
So, who’s who? Have you figured it out? Did you cheat?
I included Yahoo! ownership rates (Y! Own%) in the table above to illuminate my point. Soler isn’t getting a lot of love, but that’s not entirely surprising. He’s not playing full-time, partly explaining his mere 84 plate appearances so far. The real culprit is a suppressed .208 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) that’s tanking Soler’s batting average.
At the other end of the spectrum, Gonzalez is enjoying a favorable, if not lucky, .341 BABIP. It masks his struggles at the plate, which include career-worst strikeout, fly ball, and hard-hit rates, all of them by wide margins. Gonzalez is producing like a league-average hitter (101 wRC+) at a position that runs deep on excellent bats.
McCutchen hasn’t done much to impress anyone either. The home runs are nice, and the fly ball rate will help prop him up. But Cutch’s lackluster hard-hit rate (surprise! it’s also the worst of his career) don’t bode well for his perennially high BABIP, and neither does his declining speed. McCutchen retains his edge over Soler and Gonzalez, but he’s 31, and he may very well be entering the decline phase of his career.
Meanwhile, Soler is still only 24 years old. Once considered a low-risk, high-ceiling prospect, Soler has yet to make good on his promise. He’s staring down his productive peak, whereas McCutchen and Gonzalez are watching their pass them by, if not already gazing fondly upon them in the rear-view mirror. And Soler’s bad luck on balls in play coaxes headlines such as “Jorge Soler is wasting a great opportunity.” Da Windy City is not wrong. But if Soler were allowed to work through his slow start, maybe Da Windy City wouldn’t have to be right.
If Soler’s batted balls dropped in at a league-average rate, and if Soler’s rate of home runs per fly ball (HR/FB) ranked somewhere near his career rate (13% to 14%) then Soler would be hitting .265-ish with a 20-homer pace as part of one of baseball’s best lineups. If his BABIP settled in at his career rate (.334) — not unheard of, given his quality of contact — he’d be batting .290. That’s a preseason Adrian Beltre or Prince Fielder projection — both top-100 picks by NFBC ADP this year.
Obviously, you can’t do much with Soler until he earns more playing time. With Kyle Schwarber out all year, he should have more frequent opportunities to prove his worth. Point being: that time will come. His underlying metrics don’t jump off the page, but they point toward a hitter who should be a whole lot better than his outcomes.
If this hasn’t convinced you, though, then I hope it at least made you re-think how fantasy owners value McCutchen and Gonzalez. I warned that, at the very least, McCutchen’s slowdown on the basepaths would inhibit his value, likely making him unworthy of a first- or second-round play. It may ultimately be worse than that.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez is stinking up something awful while hitters such as Brandon Belt (92% owned) and Wil Myers (79%) show of their adjustment at the plate. Even Byung-ho Park (49%) and his power would be an adequate swap for Gonzalez’s batting average alongside his not-much-else.
Sample sizes are still fairly small, and there’s merit to any argument condoning the holding onto McCutchen or Gonzalez. But their current ownership rates indicate their perceived values are still very high while their actual values lag behind. They can both be smart sell-high opportunities without being too obvious.
And Soler can be a smart buy-low play in deeper leagues that afford some extra bench space. You’d probably want to wait for him to see more playing time, but that may not happen until he has already heated up — at which point he may no longer be available on your waiver wire. Again, to be very clear, he’s very evidently not the same caliber fantasy asset as McCutchen or Gonzalez at this point in time. But this is as close to the best we’ve seen of Soler’s plate discipline since his debut; now, we just need the hard hits and BABIP (and, uh, defense) to catch up.