Examining Some Fast Starters

Fantasy baseball rosters are littered with the corpses of hot start mirages turned albatrosses. Chris Shelton, Matt Moore, Yasmany Tomas . . . all have teased early and faded late, taking many a fantasy season with them. Let’s take a look at some fast starters and see if any late-March stars might catch you some lightning in a bottle.

Kolten Wong

Aren’t tiny samples the best? Through the end of March 31 – that’s fifteen plate appearances – the Cardinals second sacker was hitting .571/.600/1.071, good for a .688 wOBA and 288 wRC+. That seems pretty good, right? Wong probably went undrafted in your league after posting just a 98 wRC+ last year with 15 HR+SB, and production like that won’t get it done at a position as deep as second base.

What makes Wong interesting is that last year, he hit like a man possessed in the second half: .317/.384/.439 (126 wRC+) with improved walk (9.3%) and strikeout (12.1%) rates. Wong raked by doing what you want to see – cutting his soft contact (from 24.4% in the first half to just 16.5% in the second half) and hitting the ball harder (an incredible 47% hard contact rate in September/October). So far this year – admittedly in the tiniest of tiny samples – Wong is hitting the ball at similar rates to his second-half run last year, which means that there’s reason to believe that this isn’t entirely a mirage.

In fact, Wong is hitting the ball a lot harder this year – 89.3 mph in 2019, as compared to just 84.4 mph last year. That’s a big jump, and would reverse a four-year decline. Wong has also doubled his launch angle from last year, from nine degrees to twenty degrees. That looks a lot like an uppercut swing-changer, actually.

If there’s one thing to worry about – besides the fact that we’re talking just fifteen plate appearances here – it’s that Wong has seen a grand total of nine (9) non-fastballs across those fifteen place appearances, and eventually pitchers are going to figure out that Kolten Wong can hit fastballs and try something else. Still, between the second half of 2018 and this hot start, there’s at least enough here to be intriguing. If you lost Daniel Murphy to injury, you could do worse than give Wong a flier as his injury replacement in case this is a real skill change. If nothing else, there’s talent here you could dream on.

Tim Beckham

Picked up by the Mariners as a placeholder until the team has sufficiently manipulated J.P. Crawford’s service time, Beckham declined to cooperate, destroying everything he saw in Japan before coming back to the States and wrecking Chris Sale with a pair of looooong home runs in Seattle. A few things make Beckham intriguing: his pedigree (he’s a former first overall pick), his past success (he posted a 22-homer, 3-WAR season back in 2017), and his role (he has a clear path to playing time with Crawford in the minors and Kyle Seager on the shelf). Thus far, Beckham is hitting a LOL-worthy .474/.545/1.053, with as many walks as strikeouts. So how much of Bondsian Beckham for real?

Actually, there’s real talent supporting the early breakout here. Beckham has flashed an elite exit velocity early of 93.9 mph, which is in the top 1% of the league in the early going. Like Wong, that’s a big leap from last year, but there are some other reasons for hope as well. Beckham is swinging and missing at (for him) unprecedentedly low rates, whiffing on just 14% of fastballs. He’s also swinging at lower rates overall, continuing a four-year trend of swinging less, striking out less, and taking more outside the strike zone.

Beckham has always been notoriously streaky; back in August 2017, he destroyed the American League to the tune of a .394/.417/.646 line. But Beckham has legitimate tools; you can’t fake that kind of exit velocity. He probably isn’t a star, but he may well be on his way to replicating his 2017 breakout. That has real value, so if you have an open roster spot, pick him up. Keep in mind that Beckham is likely to be streaky all year even if he does repeat 2017, so make a contingency plan for the cold weeks.

Marcus Semien

Very quietly, the Athletics’ shortstop reached double digits in homers and steals last year whilst posting respectable rate stats. This year, Semien seems on the surface to have taken things one step further, with a .429/.500/.619 (I love early-season rate stats) triple slash and more walks than strikeouts. Semien is an interesting case, though, in that a look under the hood seems to suggest he’s the same hitter he’s always been. He’s not hitting the ball any harder (87 mph vs. 86.7 mph last year).

He’s yet to barrel a pitch this year. He’s hit well – a .413 xwOBA supports that – but there are also some troubling signs. His launch angle has been cut in half, from 15 degrees down to 8 degrees, which could sap his already-limited power if he keeps it up. He’s hitting just .143 with a .180 xBA and .315 xwOBA on fastballs, which could be mall sample noise by mirrors the trouble he had on fastballs last year. Instead, his early-season performance is buoyed by an unsustainable .896 xwOBA on breaking balls, which he’s posted despite a negative launch angle on those moving pitches.

This isn’t to say Semien is going to collapse. It’s just that he seems to be the same hitter he’s always been, off to a good start. That has value, but don’t drop a better player for him.

Austin Barnes

Barnes has been a popular pickup in the vast wasteland that is catcher. That’s understandable! He’s hitting .625/.700/1.375 with more home runs (2) than strikeouts (0), so it’s understandable why you’d rush to put in a waiver claim. I’m here to tell you not to bother. Barnes has value; his elite eye will keep him afloat, and you can do worse in OBP leagues. But Barnes this year has faced nineteen fastballs, and gotten no hits.

On those nineteen fastballs, he has a .000 BA, .000 SLG, and .230 wOBA. And lest you thank that’s just bad luck, Statcast says he’s “earned” a .137 xBA and .240 xSLG. Last year, Austin Barnes hit .185 with a .261 SLG on fastballs, and “earned” a .187 xBA and .259 xSLG. In other words, Austin Barnes has done nothing to solve his biggest weakness: he can’t hit fastballs. At all.

Barnes’ early success has been driven by opposing pitchers’ strange insistence on throwing him breaking balls (against which Barnes is merely below average) and off-speed pitches (which Barnes destroys). Almost two-thirds (64.4%) of the pitches Barnes saw last year were fastballs; so far this year, it’s less than half (48%). As soon as pitchers realize that there’s no point throwing Barnes anything other than heaters and the pitch mix he sees starts looking more like 2018, his numbers are going to take a nosedive. If you need a stopgap catcher, Barnes is okay, but don’t expect much more than you’ve already gotten. He’ll turn into a pumpkin at any time.

We hoped you liked reading Examining Some Fast Starters by Sheryl Ring!

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Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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chuckswann
Member
chuckswann

Great use of data — very useful.

WARonEverything
Member
WARonEverything

Hmm. Think about if a player has 5 great games in a season and they are spread out to evenly throughout the 6 months vs 5 games at the beginning of the season. Shouldn’t we really compare the 6 best games of the season to these games? Why, because those games likely had better contact than the player’s average contact so maybe that is a better baseline for comparison. To say Wong may be hitting it harder with a better launch angle assumes a LOT. If we looked at his 5 most productive games last season and compared them to these, I would bet those 5 games he hit the ball hard with a decent launch angle. If you compared those games and saw a big difference, then I would think that maybe something could be different this season. At this point, I think a talented guy hit a few balls the right way and clustered those hits at a time when people are looking at such things. Do this to a random 5 game stretch in June and you could find totally opposite results – would we think it any more useful?