The xHR/FB Rate Underachievers

Yesterday, I unveiled the xHR/FB rate equation I devised a year ago. So today I’ll begin my look back at 2014 and discuss a selection of hitters whose xHR/FB rates suggest serious HR/FB rate upside this year, assuming of course they sustain similar batted ball distances, average absolute angles and standard deviation of distances (SDD). Since my formula ignores home ballpark which absolutely plays a major role, I will mention it as a possible explanation for such underperformance as warranted.

Ryan Zimmerman — 14.6% xHR/FB vs 7.8% actual HR/FB

Two months ago, I asked whether Zimmerman was suddenly a sleeper. It’s odd to consider an established veteran a sleeper, or undervalued commodity, but coming off an injury-riddled season that saw him post the lowest HR/FB rate of his career, it’s not such a crazy label. In that article, I graphed his batted ball distance vs his HR/FB rate, which generally trended with each other. But his HR/FB rate seemingly fell much further than his distance suggested it should have in 2014. His batted ball distance remained above the league average, while his SDD actually set a new career high (which fueled the strong xHR/FB rate despite a dip in distance). So he had no trouble hitting blasts, but for whatever reason, balls just weren’t jumping over the fence. This is likely the cheapest he’ll ever come on draft day and the potential is there for a nearly full rebound.

Howie Kendrick — 13.3% xHR/FB vs 6.5% actual HR/FB

Kendrick’s actual HR/FB rate has bounced around like a yo-yo. Seriously, I’ve never seen a HR/FB rate trend as up and down as his. Yet, his xHR/FB rate has actually remained rather consistent. Check it out:

Howie Kendrick HR-FB

His batted ball distance did slip in 2014, hitting its lowest mark since 2008. However, he made up for it with a career high angle and SDD. All of it added up to what should have resulted in a much higher than 6.5% HR/FB rate. If he remained with the Angels, we would have expected a rebound. However, his move to the Dodgers offers even better news. Angels stadium suppressed right-handed homers, sporting a factor of 93. On the other hand, Dodger Stadium was perfectly neutral in 2014. Based on positive regression and the boost the ballpark switch should provide, Kendrick should enjoy a nice HR/FB rate rebound.

Christian Yelich — 17.8% xHR/FB vs 11.5% actual HR/FB

There’s no doubt that Marlins Park has wreaked havoc on Yelich’s home run output. It sported an 85 left-handed home run factor, which was second worst in all of baseball. And his performance bears it out — his home HR/FB rate was just 5.1% vs a 17.9% mark away. But his batted ball distance of 289 feet ranked a very solid 67th among all hitters, just above guys like Chris Carter, Adam Jones, Anthony Rizzo and Edwin Encarnacion. He also ranked 18th highest in SDD. If he didn’t hit grounders over 60%, he would be a serious power threat. With his speed, a perfect profile to sustain a high BABIP and power upside, just a bunch more fly balls are all that’s needed to become a 20/25 candidate and a top fantasy outfielder.

Freddie Freeman — 18.2% xHR/FB vs 11.9% actual HR/FB

Raise your hand if you have been awaiting a major Freeman power breakout for several years now. We all have been, and while he possesses a very solid overall skill set, his power growth has seemingly stalled. A homer total in the low 20s and a 2014 mark of just 18 is no great shakes from a first baseman. But his batted ball distance has gradually increased each year and just set a new career high, driving a career best xHR/FB rate. He’ll need to get his fly ball rate back up and stop being so darn good that every ball off his bat is a line drive (who does he think he is, Joey Votto?!) to realize that power upside though. And with the pathetic surrounding cast he’ll have this year, he’ll also have to somehow avoid setting a new intentional walk high so he actually has a chance to swing the bat enough to hit more homers.

Russell Martin — 17.3% xHR/FB vs 11.3% actual HR/FB

Here’s another park factor casualty. In 2014, his home HR/FB rate was just 6.1% vs 16.7% away, and it wasn’t much different in 2013 when he posted 10.5%/17.6% home/away marks. PNC Park kills right-handed home run power with its 85 park factor, which is worst in baseball. But better things are on the horizon because Martin is now calling the Rogers Centre and its 110 RHH homer park factor home. That’s the fourth highest in baseball. Park switches don’t get much better than that. While his BABIP is due to tumble, an increase in power and move to a significantly better lineup should offset such a decline and ensure he remains a strong fantasy catcher option.

Yasiel Puig — 17.0% xHR/FB vs 11.1% actual HR/FB

Puig took the world by storm in 2013 and we all assumed there had to be some regression during his sophomore season. There indeed was, but he actually improved most of his skills to look like an overall better hitter. However, his HR/FB rate was almost cut in half and he hit three fewer homers over an additional 176 at-bats. But his batted ball distance actually rose by about three feet! His 2013 HR/FB rate was driven by an impossibly high SDD above 70, a mark that dropped to a much more sustainable 62.1 in 2014. Puig is still being drafted very early in mocks and will likely be one of the most expensive outfielders in auctions, so perhaps fantasy owners are assuming a power rebound. So even a jump in HR/FB rate might not lead to a profit, but simply returning his draft cost.

Justin Smoak — 15.4% xHR/FB vs 9.7% actual HR/FB

And here’s your deep sleeper in AL-Only leagues. Smoak was a massive disappointment during his Mariners career, victimized by a low BABIP and displaying just mediocre power for a first baseman. But until the fences were moved in at Safeco, that park was seriously pitcher friendly and really hampered Smoak’s performance. For his career, his home HR/FB rate was just 9.4% vs a 14.6% mark in away parks. His BABIP also jumped from just .238 at home to .281 away. Clearly, the park played a major role here. And now he gets to call home a park that sported 106 LHH and 110 RHH home run park factors. And check out this batted ball distance trend:

Justin Smoak Distance Trend

How delicious is that trend? And who woulda thunk that Smoak actually smoaked the ball in 2014, posting a distance mark that would have ranked 24th in baseball had he qualified for the leaderboard? As of today, Dioner Navarro sits atop the Blue Jays depth chart at designated hitter. Really? A catcher who posted a .315 wOBA last year and is projected for something similar is going to be your DH? So the opportunity is there for Smoak to steal at-bats with the upside of taking over the role full-time. Or at least against right-handers.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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9 years ago

At the very least, this approach has the value of highlighting some really reasonable breakout candidates. It’s going to be fascinating to see how it works.