2018 Player Profile: Jake Lamb
With the 2017 regular season now officially in the rearview mirror, we turn our attention to the 2018 fantasy baseball season. Each week, I will be evaluating one player’s stock for next year. This week, we’ll look at Jake Lamb, a first-time All-Star coming off of his second consecutive dismal second half.
Jake Lamb, Arizona Diamondbacks
2017 statistics: .248/.357/.487, 30 home runs, 6 stolen bases
Beginning in 2016, Jake Lamb fundamentally reinvented his profile, boosting his average exit velocity by about two miles per hour while increasing his pull rate by nearly five percentage points. No longer did he profile merely as a contact-oriented option that was his reputation entering the league, but as a legitimate power threat, combining to hit 59 home runs with a slugging percentage just shy of .500 over his next two years. While he has never managed to take the next step forward to become an elite offensive player, he combines an ability to make contact with plus plate discipline and that evident power, which should make him a key fantasy asset next season.
Batted Ball Authority
The most impressive aspect of Jake Lamb’s profile is the quality of his contact. He ranks 24th among all qualifiers in hard-contact rate since the beginning of 2016 (tied with Joey Votto and Manny Machado in his ability to square the ball up), while he ranks a stellar 15th in terms of avoiding weak contact. While his exit velocity was down somewhat this season from last, that was offset by a slight increase in his average launch angle and in his fly-ball rate. He was able to elevate enough to hit 30 home runs for the first time in his career, narrowly eclipsing his 29 from the season prior. His HR/FB beginning in 2016 spiked substantially, which would ordinarily be a red flag.
However, it coincides with a substantial increase in Lamb’s pull tendencies and with a league-wide bump in home-run rate, indicating that much of that power output is probably legitimate. Because of the quality of his contact, it is not unreasonable to expect to continue that he run HR/FB rates well above the league-average in the future.
Statcast data further supports this conclusion. Jake Lamb’s expected weighted on-base average (which estimates a player’s offensive output by tracking his strikeouts, walks, and contact quality) over the past two years sits at .351, not far off of his actual .362 mark. (Similarly, his expected batting average of .246 is a near perfect match to the .248 mark that he has managed in that time, and batting average alone fails to account for the wide range of additional offensive skills that Lamb brings to the table.) While the significance of gaudy home run totals is down somewhat in an era where 41 players managed to hit at least 30 homers and 76 more hit between 20 and 30 this year, Lamb nevertheless clearly profiles as a well above-average power threat.
Power is clearly his carrying tool, but Jake Lamb is not exactly a one-trick pony offensively. He has posted chase rates below (better than) the league average in each of his first three full seasons, and, coupled with opposing pitchers now recognizing him as a legitimate power threat, has seen his walk rate climb in each of the past three seasons, up to a stellar 13.7% in 2017. Despite possessing below-average speed, Lamb has graded out fairly well as an overall baserunner (a trend for the Diamondbacks in general). While he certainly will not be targeted for stolen bases, he has chipped in six apiece in each of the past two seasons, which puts him in the middle of the pack among third basemen. More significantly, Lamb’s patience is a big factor in him scoring runs despite being a middle-of-the-order hitter.
Jake Lamb’s contact rates have also tended to hang around the league-average. So while his patience and willingness to work deep counts can work against him a bit with regards to strikeouts, there is little reason to expect that his strikeout rate will reach untenable levels. Lamb has demonstrated two plus offensive tools (his power and plate discipline) as well as average bat-to-ball skills, so he should continue to offer relatively well-rounded offensive contributions.
Like a few other players profiled here recently, Jake Lamb also benefits from some factors beyond his control that artificially inflate his surface numbers. Most notable, of course, is Arizona’s Chase Field, which ranked as the fourth-most home-run friendly park in the majors this year. Somewhat relatedly, the Diamondbacks as a team ranked eighth in MLB in run-scoring, partially enabling him to eclipse 100 RBI for the first time in his career. (Relatedly, Lamb ranked 11th in the league in plate appearances with runners in scoring position, evidence of the ample opportunities that his teammates afforded him.)
While fantasy owners may not be able to count on Lamb having as many chances to drive runners in next season, there is little reason to believe that they will be cut too drastically, as he will presumably slot in the lineup directly behind one of the league’s best hitters in Paul Goldschmidt and return to a fantastic home park. Goldschmidt’s presence also benefits Lamb’s fantasy stock in a subtler way. Despite his reputation as a prospect as a gifted defensive third baseman, he curiously developed a bit of a throwing problem in 2016 that he has not managed to ameliorate, tanking his defensive metrics in the process.
It is possible that some teams would have considered moving Lamb across the diamond to address this, but with the face of the Diamondbacks’ franchise entrenched at first base, Lamb will remain, even if only by default, at the hot corner for the foreseeable future.
Of course, Jake Lamb is not entirely without flaws as a player. While his recent second-half skids have been more noticeable, arguably more significant is his complete inability to hit left-handed pitching. Lamb’s career line against southpaws: an abysmal .159/.265/.301 that inspired Torey Lovullo to start Adam Rosales in lieu of Lamb against Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 of the NLDS. Given that he now has over half a season’s worth of work against same-handed pitching in his career, he may be aggressively platooned moving forward (and, even if he does play, owners probably won’t want him in their lineups against left-handers). As a result, he would likely have to sit more often than expected for a player who will ostensibly require a high draft choice.
Additionally, those second-half struggles will likely scare off some owners, although there is little reason to believe that those are predictive of the future. His results have been drastically different by half, but his walks, strikeouts and contact quality have been largely in line regardless of the time of year. Instead, it appears that the biggest driver of Lamb’s poor finishes is an inexplicable career BABIP differential of .071 points by half, with seemingly no reason beyond luck to much explain this. Owners can draft Jake Lamb fully expecting to deploy him all season long, with the exception of against left-handing pitching.
Jake Lamb profiles near the top of the second tier of fantasy third basemen. While not at the level of superstars like Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant and Josh Donaldson, Lamb looks like a high-end regular moving forward, one who should be able to comfortably eclipse 25-30 home runs per season while scoring and driving in runs at an above-average rate. He also won’t kill owners in the batting average department (his value is, of course, exponentially higher in leagues that prioritize on-base percentage over batting average).
It may be a bit uncomfortable for owners to have to deal with a platoon for such a high draft choice, but the combination of Jake Lamb’s offensive upside, Chase Field and a high-octane Diamondbacks offense should make him well worthwhile. Plus, recency bias (due to his poor second half) may depress his stock enough to make him a solid value in the third or fourth round, despite the fact that there is little reason to expect any carryover effect of that slump heading into 2018.