The Change: Can I just Drop This Outfielder Please?

Two months in, and you’ve got a millstone, the high draft pick that’s too good to drop, probably, and too bad to shop. Nobody wants them, and they’re starting to look bad in comparison to the options on the wire.

So let’s look at a trio of outfielders first — with their preseasons projections next to their projected end of season line — and then a couple of waiver options that might be better. We’ll see if there is actually a reason to cut bait on a guy we all thought would be studs going into the season.

Justin Upton
Preseason projection: .268/.349/.480, 28 homers, 13 stolen bases
Rest of season projection: .259/.338/.458, 16 homers, 6 stolen bases
Updated projection: .243/.314/.414, 20 homers, 9 stolen bases

The weirdest thing about Justin Upton this year is that the underlying numbers look… normal.

Sure, he’s striking out more than ever and missing more than ever. But his swing rates? They’re the same as ever. His reach and swing rates are literally exactly the same as his career rates. So it’s not that he’s pressing and swinging too often or reaching outside the zone in an effort to impress new teammates and live up to the contract.

Sure, his power is about half of what it’s usually been. But his line drive, fly ball, and pop-up numbers are no different than usual.

He is hitting more fly balls, though, so let’s check in on his launch angle and exit velocities. There’s an idea angle for home run power — 25 to 30 degrees — and you really want to hit it over 95 mph in order to make the home run most likely.

Justin Uptonā€˜s Batted Ball Angles and Velocities
Year % 25-30 degrees Exit Velocity in Band
2015 8.2% 93.8
2016 10.7% 91.1
Year % 10-30 degrees Exit Velocity in Band
2015 24.42% 95.1
2016 30.40% 96.5

Upton is hitting the home run ball softer. That’s not great, but it’s also not something that can’t be overcome by just hitting more balls in that angle, which he’s doing.

He’s also hitting more balls in the line drive band, and hitting those harder, and that’s a bigger sample. And it’s not that he’s just launching pop-ups and useless cans of corn otherwise. At 40+ degrees, outcomes take a dive. He hit 15.9% of his balls in that band last year, and 16.2% of this year. There’s little difference once he makes contact.

I take that to mean the power is intact.

The batting average downturn may not recover, though. It looks like they are pitching him inside more this year than last year, and inside is not a place Upton makes a lot of contact. Pitchers seem to have found a hole and are throwing him more four-seamers than they have since 2010.

Upton probably won’t steal another seven bases, but he can hit you 15+ homers with a .250 average. Only Adam Duvall, Khris Davis, Matt Kemp, Colby Rasmus, and Mike Napoli are possible waiver wire pickups that can equal that rest of season power projection.

Randal Grichuk
Preseason projection: .249/.295/.445, 20 homers, 6 stolen bases
Rest of season projection:.246/.297/.442, 14 homers, 5 stolen bases
Updated projection: .237/.292/.431, 17 homers, 8 stolen bases

The bad news is that Grichuk is basically doing what was projected of him. So the rest of season projection calls for more of the same.

So, as much as we can talk about the fact that he’s turned on the slider machine and is doing a better job recognizing breaking balls, and is whiffing and striking out less, and is going oppo more and oppo on the ground, which should be good for his batting average… after all that change, he’s doing basically what is expected of him.

His launch angle expected wOBA (.321) is better than his actual one (.298), but that’s mostly from balls in play. He ‘should’ have a .293 batting average on balls in play, and actually has a .254 one. But I wouldn’t expect a power surge, and there’s little reason for me to push that rest of season projection any further.

I’d prefer Corey Dickerson, Kendrys Morales, and probably even C.J. Cron over Grichuk going forward.

Jason Heyward
Preason projection: .279/.357/.442, 18 homers, 17 stolen bases
Rest of season projection: .271/.354/.427, 11 homers, 11 stolen bases
Updated projection: .255/.341/.384, 13 homers, 18 stolen bases

We have hard-hit and softly-hit data on our website, which is good for a quick look, but is collected by humans rather than computers, and so has some bias in it. Heyward is hitting for a career worst in both the soft and hard hit buckets right now, so obviously something is wrong, bias or no.

Because he hits so many ground balls, Heyward’s launch angle and velo xBABIP is actually fairly high — .330. But that’s deceptive, since it doesn’t include home runs and he’s actually pulling the ball on the ground, which is not conducive to power and is easily shiftable. Look at his xOBA (.297) against his actual (.287) and you realize that he’s just not putting together the right batted ball mix right now.

He’s swinging at a ton of fastballs out off the plate high right now. More than usual. And also low off the plate for some reason.

Heyward1516

While he can change the balls he swings at — and is there fore probably sill a decent play in on-base percentage leagues — can he change how hard he’s hitting the ball? In batting average leagues, I’d prefer guys like Yasiel Puig, Matt Holliday, Nomar Mazara, and even down-list, guys like Matt Adams and Steven Souza at this point. If Domingo Santana shows his health, he could be on your wire and interesting. He should at least hit for more power, if his batting average and stolen bases are more up in the air.

Here are two guys that might be more interesting than the guys above, if we can believe their current work more than their rest of season projections.

Trayce Thompson
Rest of season projection: 232 PA, .236/.296/.413, 8 homers, 5 stolen bases

With the Carl Crawford release, there’s suddenly an outfield job open, even when Yasiel Puig returns from injury. Howie Kendrick was the primary left fielder for a bit, but he’s not super healthy and his performance hasn’t been great. Joc Pederson could maybe still use a platoon partner in center, so even when righty Scott Van Slyke is playing regularly… the door is open, is the point.

Even with three strikeouts last night, Trayce Thompson has really made strides with the contact, and he’s done so on the back of great swing and reach changes — both are down without effecting his zone swing rate much. He’s seen 617 pitches and only whiffed at 7.9% of them, so that’s a decent sample. Steamer’s projected 23.6% strikeout rate is a win for him, and is believable.

Dunno why Steamer is giving him a .277 BABIP the rest of the way, though. Dude hits a lot of balls on the ground, and they aren’t pulled — he’s 8th in the bigs in balls up the middle, which is a great way to get hits. While the 32% home runs per fly ball will go down, the BABIP should remain the same.

Take the over on that projected batting average, on-base percentage and playing time. I think a .255/.320/.450 type line is totally within reach the rest of the way, and that should come with something like 10 homers and 10 stolen bases. Hey, that compares favorably with Heyward’s projected line…

Leonys Martin
Rest of season projection: .241/.299/.363, 8 homers, 16 stolen bases

Back when I wrote about guys that had dropped their ground-ball rate, I said a stupid thing. I said that Martin should probably hit more grounders, not fewer, because he doesn’t have great power. So then he went out and hit a home run every day just to make me look dumb — almost literally. That piece published May 18th and he hit a home run that day, the next day, took a day off and then hit another one.

Since, he went on the disabled list for a hamstring injury, but it seems to be minor. He’s already running and will be back in four days. Maybe it’ll change his rest of season stolen base projections, or maybe not a ton. The real news is his power.

Martin had this kind of power in the minor leagues, so it’s not crazy to think he could keep this up. He’s never hit fewer than 1.5 ground balls per fly ball and he’s currently at .93. Even if the home run per fly ball rate (currently 21.4%) comes down to closer to his personal average (8.9%), the volume of fly balls will mean a career high homer output. On top of the GB/FB change, though, Martin is pulling the ball more than he has in four years, and hittting it hard.

The launch angle and exit velocity xBABIP (.226) and xOBA (.284) don’t believe, though. Not all balls in the air are worth the same, and his fly balls are averaging 91 mph. Not quite enough to get in the good home run band. Still, that rest of season projection gives him no credit for the changed batted ball mix, and is still interesting. Perhaps even more interesting than Heyward’s line in a batting average league, with more upside since Martin has stolen more bases than the Cub in every year save last year, when he was hurt for half the year.

It feels dangerous to do it, but the indications seem to be that Randal Grichuk and Jason Heyward are droppable in batting average leagues, and that Trayce Thompson and Leonys Martin could be better options. After all, there are lost seasons, and you don’t want to hold on to a losing hand too long.

We hoped you liked reading The Change: Can I just Drop This Outfielder Please? by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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MoreCowbell
Member
MoreCowbell

Excellent article Eno! Would love to see a similar exercise on Jose Abreu, who has tormented me all season. I did read an article where it seems, similar to Upton, that pitchers are pounding him inside much of the time, effectively neutralizing his power. But he’s made adjustments in the past, can’t see why he wouldn’t adjust again.

Mike Podhorzer
Editor
Member

I’m not Eno, but Abreu’s batted ball distance sits at 315 feet, ranking 5th in baseball. I’d be buying everywhere.

jimcal
Member
Member
jimcal

Question for you, Mike. Can you tell me why the source of your comment on Abreu’s batted ball distance? I go by Baseballsavant and don’t see the same stats. https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/statcast_leaderboard?year=2016&abs=30&player_type=batter

Mike Podhorzer
Editor
Member

It’s Jeff Zimmerman’s Baseball Heat Maps site

http://www.baseballheatmaps.com/graph/distanceleader.php