Passing the Whiff Test: Early K% Improvements

This is a tough part of the season for fantasy analysts. There just isn’t a ton to go off with the small samples making it difficult to come up with useful content. However, just saying “it’s a small sample, don’t worry; it’s a small sample, it doesn’t mean anything; it’s a small sample, just wait” doesn’t do anyone any good. We no longer play in an era of fantasy sports where you can wait for data to stabilize before making moves.

One of the quickest stats to “stabilize” is strikeout rate at 60 plate appearances. Now just because it stabilizes around that point, doesn’t mean it’s the new level for that player, it just means that what we’ve seen in those 60 PA has some legitimacy. Only five guys have reached 60 plate appearances through April 9th, but many are just a game or three away so I felt like we could check in on some these early strikeout rate improvements.

Matt Chapman, OAK | -14 points to 10% K% in 63 PA

Chapman had a small improvement in strikeout rate last year, slicing four points down to a 24%. That works for a power hitter, but he’s dialed in so far this year with just six punchouts. In fact, sixes are wild for stud 3B as he also has six walks, runs, and RBIs. Three-point improvements on both his swinging strike and chase rates to 5.5% and 22%, respectively, are supporting Chappy’s gains. The hits aren’t quite falling yet (.261 BABIP), but as long as Chapman holds some of these gains, he has a good shot to best last year’s .278 AVG.

Cody Bellinger, LAD | -13 pts to 11% K% in 56 PA

Belly’s been the best in hitter baseball early on and like Chapman he has matching strikeout and walk rates. He has damn-near halved his swinging strike and chase rates in the process. His swinging strike rate is a very nice 6.9%, down 5.4 points from last year, while his chase rate is down to a brilliant 15% clip (-13 pts), 4th in the MLB. No one stays this hot, but Bellinger could be on his way to a new career year, which is saying something given his electric rookie campaign when he clubbed 39 HRs with a 138 wRC+ and even chipped in 10 SBs to establish his fantasy superstar status.

It’ll be interesting to see how he holds up when divisional games start to ramp up as the NL West has the most lefty starters in rotations. For now, he’s got back-to-back weeks of all righties and won’t face a lefty-heavy rotation until a 3-game set in Chicago starting on April 23rd. Currently both Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels are slated to pitch in that series.

Joey Gallo, TEX | -10 pts to 26% K% in 42 PA

You know you’re a brutal batting average hitter when people say stuff like “well, if he can just surge up to .230, that’d be huge”. We know what we’re getting with Gallo, though. For his career, he has more homers (92) than singles (84) and he’s never come close to hitting his weight, checking in at 235 lbs with a career .204 AVG. He’s the only guy on this list whose improved strikeout rate is still pretty poor, but when you have a career 38% mark, then your early season 26% rate is notable.

His swinging strike rate improvement is just four points to 15%, though the 19% chase rate is really nice for him. It’s 13 points better than his 2018 mark and even 10 points better than league average. Walk rates don’t start stabilizing until about 120 plate appearances so I’ll check in on those after another 10-12 games or so, but Gallo has doubled his 2018 rate to 24% early on, aiding him to a .405 OBP thus far. Unfortunately, smacking the hell out of the ball (66% Hard Contact rate), trimming his whiffs, and amping up his walks still hasn’t helped the hits fall as he’s toting a .219 AVG, thanks in part to a paltry .176 BABIP. I’ll tell you what, if he can just surge up to .230, that’d be huge!

Domingo Santana, SEA | -10 pts to 23% K% in 64 PA

One of the best early season standouts has definitely seen plate approach improvements underneath the gaudy .417 BABIP and 31% HR/FB. If the 23% K rate stuck, it’d easily be a career-best as even his breakout 2017 season saw him at 29%. His swinging strike rate is half his 2018 mark at 8% as he’s making a ton more contact in and out of the zone and chasing at just a 21% clip.

The opposition has shifted their approach, giving Santana a career-low 49% fastballs (career .907 OPS against heat), but he’s pummeling off-speed with a 1.230 OPS against breaking balls and changeups. He’s already 3-for-3 on the bases, too. Even accounting for the fact that he will come down off this 1.047 OPS pace, this is one of the early surges I’m buying. I think with free and clear playing, the 26-year old can approach the 30 HR/15 SB line from 2017 again.

Ozzie Albies, ATL | -9 pts to 8% K% in 49 PA

The rest of this group has been power hitters so I wanted to shine a little light on a contact-first guy shaving his early season strikeout rate down. I think Albies was feeling himself a bit on the early power surge in 2018 (9 HR in April) and wound up hitting just .254 from May on with a 17% K rate. That isn’t such an awful rate, but he also walked just 5% of the time after an 8% minor league rate and 9% in his 244 PA sample of 2017.

He just seemed to lose his patience a bit after hitting those early homers. So far this year he has more walks (5) than strikeouts (4) and he’s out to a quick .364 AVG. I can’t complain about the 24 HR/14 SB from last year. I just think for fantasy he’s better off flipping those numbers, hitting .290+, and scoring a bunch of runs (although, he’d likely have to get out of the 6-spot for that part to happen).

We hoped you liked reading Passing the Whiff Test: Early K% Improvements by Paul Sporer!

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Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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Yoan Moncada, 2018: 33.4% K

Yoan Moncada, 2019 so far in 46 PA: 23.9% K