Time to Cut Bait?

We’re now halfway through May and there are plenty of high-investment hitters who continue to struggle. I’m generally shy about moving on from hitters early but you can also only be dragged down for so long before doing something. Whether that means benching, trading, or just cutting.

With that in mind, let’s look at five struggling hitters who were taken in the first 10 rounds and were expected to be stalwart starters in 2021 but have instead fallen flat.

*Any mentioned values are calculated using the FanGraphs auction calculator, using a 5×5, 12-team league (one catcher) setup.

 

Yasmani Grandal, C, CHW

100 PA: .130/.384/.333, 4 HR – 16 R – 14 RBI – 0 SB

In what was supposed to be another tragic year at the position, Grandal was drafted as a top-five catcher and was seen as a fairly safe option. He was the #8 catcher ($8.2) in 2020 but was the #2 catcher ($12.1) the last time we had a full season. He has good power and on-base skills, set to bat in the middle of what was anticipated to be one of baseball’s most exciting offenses. At least, it was before Eloy Jimenez, and Luis Robert were lost for the season.

Grandal has responded to drafter’s faith by posting one of the silliest lines you’re likely to see, with a .130 AVG and league-high 29% BB% that’s five-points higher than Max Muncy in second-place and over 10-points higher than Carlos Santana in third. However, outside of OBP-leagues, Grandal and his brutal batting average have been a total sink. He’s currently the 16th-most valuable catcher in 12-team leagues (-$1.4), coming in just ahead of the likes of Kyle Higashioka and Yan Gomes.

There are signs of life in Grandal’s best Chris Davis impersonation, however, as his .116 BABIP and .192 xBA both point to a fair amount of bad luck on his batted balls. Not that it’d be very impressive even if you swapped in his xBA for his average but Grandal is not a .120 hitter.

The plate-discipline is as elite as it’s ever been, with his 6.4% SwStr% and 14.9% Chase% both representing career-lows. While an 80.8% zone contact-rate (up from 77.8% in 2020 and down slightly from 82.8% in 2019) and 56.8% chase contact-rate (up from 50.0% in 2020 and 54.5% in 2019) don’t speak to any issues with putting bat to ball.

His aggression at the plate, though, is at an all-time low, and not by small margins:

Yasmani Grandal Swing Rates
Season Swing% Z-Swing% O-Swing%
2012 39.3 58.4 20.3
2013 43.3 67.4 22.0
2014 39.9 58.5 22.3
2015 38.8 57.2 20.8
2016 39.2 58.8 21.3
2017 46.3 63.5 29.8
2018 38.4 56.0 20.3
2019 38.6 56.3 22.8
2020 34.1 47.7 21.1
2021 25.5 38.6 15.7

Looking at first-pitch swings, the drop is even starker; Grandal has a 7.0% fSw% that is down from 13.9% in 2020 and 21.8% in 2019. But is this a case of Grandal being too passive or pitchers being less interested in throwing him strikes early? Grandal was thrown a first-pitch strike 12.2% of the time from 2017-2019 but that dropped to 10.6% in 2020 and sits at 8.4% thus far in 2021. That’s the second-lowest mark in baseball (min 50 PA).

In fact, overall, his 45.2% Zone% is a career-low, as is his 3.8% Meatball% (down from 6.9% in 2020 and 6.4% in 2019) and 40.9% Edge% (down from 43.4% in 2019 and 44.6% in 2019). Grandal isn’t being given anything; not in the zone, not on the edges of the zone, and certainly not down the middle. And why should they when Grandal is so willing to take a walk and is being followed by sub-par hitters at the bottom of the White Sox order?

Grandal doesn’t just need to swing more, however, he needs to keep it off the ground. While his 28.6% FB% (pop-ups not included) is a career-high, he’s trading line drives for ground balls and topping the ball more than ever.

Yasmani Grandal Career Batted Ball
Season GB % FB % LD % Top%
2015 47.6 22.8 21.0 36.7
2016 45.5 24.7 22.2 32.7
2017 44.2 23.4 23.1 33.0
2018 41.1 27.6 22.3 28.8
2019 40.9 27.2 24.8 29.8
2020 36.2 25.7 31.4 28.6
2021 51.0 28.6 12.2 38.8

 

Verdict: Hold/Buy

Even with the brutal batting average, there’s no reason to dump Grandal. You’d like to see him swing more but not at the expense of chasing and I find it unlikely that his 51.0% GB% will continue for long. And really, it’s only the batting average that is killing his fantasy value. He now has four home runs after going yard on Tuesday and Wednesday, with 16 runs scored and 14 RBI that are both top-10 among catchers.

I’m buying too, as the road ahead looks a lot shinier. At least if his x-stats have anything to say about it. He has a .384 xwOBA (.319 wOBA), .378 xwOBAcon (.247 wOBAcon).405 xSLG (.288 SLG), and .832 xOPS (.660 OPS). If someone in your league is tired of his batting average drag, I’d pounce.

 

Jorge Soler, OF, KC

136 PA: .195/.279/.364, 3 HR – 12 R – 22 RBI – 0 SB

After his breakout 2019, Soler crashed and burned in 2020, posting just a .228 AVG and hitting just eight home runs after missing most of September on the IL with an oblique injury. The bad batting average has continued on into 2021 but in a baseball world with tumbling offense, somehow a .200 AVG just isn’t as awful as it used to be. And a .242 xBA and .267 BABIP point to more batted ball success coming his way.

Even in his down 2020, Soler never stopped hitting the ball really, really hard, as the sea of red on his Baseball Savant page can attest to. And while his average exit velocity on fly balls dropped from 97.4 mph (99th percentile) in 2019, to 92.6 mph (76th) in 2020, his Air% (100+ mph) actually rose from 45.7% in 2019 to 61.7% in 2020. And Soler is still punishing he ball in 2021, as evidenced by a 59% Hard% (top-1%), 94.9 average EV (top-2%), and 114.7 mph max EV (top-8%).

Unlike Grandal earlier, Soler doesn’t have a passivity problem because if you throw a strike, there’s a good chance he’s swinging. His 47.3% Swing% is the highest rate since his rookie year, while a 73.2% zSw% and 83.7% Meatball% are both career highs. But like Grandal, Soler’s x-stats are way shinier than what his results have been:

Jorge Soler xStat Differentials
xSLG x – SLG xOPS x – OPS xISO x – ISO xwOBA x – wOBA xwOBAc x – wOBAc
2021 .482 +.118 .814 +.160 .245 +.076 .344 +.061 .454 +.103

 

Verdict: Hold/Buy

This is an easy hold/buy situation for me. Solar is valued below replacement so far (-$0.20) but as the weather heats up, so should he. For his career, Soler has a .319 wOBA and 98 wRC+ in the first half, compared to a .378 wOBA and 138 wRC+ in the second half. In this current offensive environment, I want players near the top of the food chain in hitting the ball hard and in the air and Soler is doing both in spades.

 

Lourdes Gurriel Jr., OF, TOR

121 PA: .193/.216/..277, 2 HR – 9 R – 9 RBI – 1 SB

Okay, raise your hand if you had Yulieski Gurriel ($26.6) being the far superior option to his younger brother Lourdes (-$9.5)?

J’accuse liars! Little brother has been a positive disaster in 2021 and it can’t all be laid at the feet of a basement-level batting average, as his numbers are a category sink across the board. This is a far cry from his breakout 2020 when he slashed .308/.348/.534 with 11 HR – 28 R – 33 RBI – 3 SB, finishing as the OF 18 ($20.8), entering 2021 with a top-90 ADP.

This isn’t a passivity problem but perhaps the opposite. His 56.6% Swing% is a career-high, as is his 76.8% zSw% and 38.3% Chase%, while his 2.4% BB% is a new low. Not that Gurriel has been a bastion of patience in the past (6.3% BB% in 2020, 5.8% BB% in 2019) but his newfound aggression hasn’t done him any favors so far. Whether actual or expected, Gurriel is setting career lows almost everywhere you look, as his.216 wOBA, .258 wOBAcon, .084 ISO, .277 SLG, and .493 OPS have all sunk to new depths.

And while the x-stats are mostly better, Gurriel would still really be struggling even if you swapped them in for his actual results.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. x-Stat Differentials
xwOBA x – wOBA xwOBAcon x – wOBAcon xISO x – ISO xSLG x – SLG xOPS x – OPS
2021 0.264 +.042 .314 +.056 .107 +.023 .347 +.070 .585 +.075

The right-handed Gurriel also has newfound splits problems, virtually a ghost against RHP after three years of relative success. From 2018-2020, Gurriel had a .340 wOBA, .805 OPS, and 113 wRC+ vs RHP (.374 wOBA, .903 OPS, and 136 wRC+ vs LHP). In 90 PA vs RHP in 2021, Gurriel has posted a .190 wOBA, .424 OPS, and 17 wRC+, compared to a (still awful but better) .283 wOBA, .669 OPS, and 80 wRC+ vs LHP.

 

Verdict: Cut if needed

I may be loathed to cut hitters early but Gurriel is a hot mess I no longer want any part of. Maybe if he was still at second base, but he’s (obviously) far less valuable as an outfielder. Frankly, given his lack of offense, splits issues, and frying pan glove defense, I find it unlikely he’d still be playing every day if George Springer were healthy.

Even squinting, it’s hard to see any positive signs through his first 32 games and I can’t imagine anyone but the desperate have been starting him the past weeks. Maybe you can get some pennies on his former dollar from someone trying to buy low but he’d be one of my first cuts if in a roster crunch.

 

Tommy Pham, OF, SD

113 PA: .191/.310/.202, 0 HR – 7 R – 6 RBI – 3 SB

Yes, I too remember when Tommy Pham was good, both before and after the Rays boosted him from the Cardinals for a big ol’ bag of nickels. After being sent to San Diego in the infamous “slap-hitter trade”, Pham has been a sham, both relative to prior performance and any acceptable performance, really. He’s not hitting for power and continues to run less, having failed to hit a home run in 2021 and has only three stolen bases on four attempts.

Pham’s plate discipline hasn’t changed much; he still walks a fair amount (13.3% BB%) and doesn’t strike out much – his 20.4% K% and 8.0% SwStr% are both in line with previous seasons. He is hitting the ball in the air more, with his 21.9% FB% and 50.7% GB% representing a respective career-high and low, as well as an 8.7-degree average launch angle that is also a high. But should he be?

During Pham’s power prime from 2017-19 (23 HR, 21 HR, 21 HR), when he hit the ball in the air, it was with authority. Looking at percentile ranks for his in-air exit velocities, things have taken a large dip:

Tommy Pham Career EV
Season Avg EV (All) Avg EV (Air Only) Air% (100+ mph)
2017 86 93 95
2018 97 94 80
2019 80 86 84
2020 94 89 79
2021 80 63 69

 

Verdict: Hold…For Now

His .247 xBA (.191 AVG), .342 xwOBA (.249 wOBA), .167 ISO (.011 ISO), .788 xOPS (.537 OPS) all make me hopeful for more success and the siren song of power+speed makes me hesitant to cut and run from Pham right now. But let’s just say I’d keep my shoes on and would let him ride the pine until his results on the field start catching up with the expected ones.

 

Dominic Smith, 1B/OF, NYM

112 PA: .250/.295/.356, 2 HR – 7 R – 14 RBI – 0 SB

After posting a .368 wOBA in 2019 and a .412 wOBA in 2020, Smith has struggled in his second year as a full-time starter, with a .283 wOBA and 83 wRC+ over his first 112 PA. Smith has returned value far below replacement (-$4.7) so far in 2021, after finishing behind only Jose Abreu and Freddie Freeman at first base in 2020 ($20.4), or as the OF 21, depending on your positional preference.

Smith’s x-stats hold more promise for the rest of 2021, posting a .357 xwOBA (.283 wOBA), .449 xwOBAcon (.345 wOBAcon), .287 xBA (.250 AVG), .480 xSLG (.356 SLG), and .813 xOPS (.608 OPS). And he’s already having a much better May than April, with a .363 wOBA and 135 wRC+, compared to a .238 wOBA and 54 wRC+.

Verdict: Hold

I wouldn’t be going out of my way to acquire Smith but I’m also not selling low or moving on. He’s already started heating up and as the weather warms up I’m confident his home run total will too. I hate his home park (and their humidor) even more in our modern dead-ball era and the Mets are always going to Mets. But it’s just too early to make a rash decision.





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Webster
Member
Webster

Great piece Nick. Before anyone cuts L Gurriel, they should look at his career monthly splits. It suggests he will go nuts in June and carry that over somewhat to July, for whatever that’s worth.
https://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/players/10616/splits?selectedTable=0&season={%22name%22:%22ALL_SEASONS%22,%22season%22:%22%22,%22seasonPhase%22:%22REGULAR_SEASON%22,%22groupedBySeason%22:false,%22requiredPhase%22:%22season.phase.regular%22,%22displayName%22:true}

LenFuego
Member
LenFuego

Certainly, historically when Lourdes gets hot, he gets scalding hot, for weeks at a time. But man, it is getting really hard to hold on hoping that is going to happen … just about every at-bat is a brutal exercise in failure this season.

winepaul
Member
winepaul

Does that hold up when he’s playing in Florida? Compared to Buffalo or his home dome, it’s already hot.

bluerum29
Member
bluerum29

Webster? Interesting name.

bluerum29
Member
bluerum29

Seriously, that gets downvoted? I’m just curious if he has also used the name ToadKing before.