With the 2017 season now officially in the rearview mirror, and with the Houston Astros first-time champions, 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 look at Wilmer Flores, a player whose career-defining on-field moment had nothing to do with his performance, yet who may soon develop a mainstream reputation that goes beyond an unusual display of emotion.
Wilmer Flores, New York Mets
2017 statistics: .271/.307/.488, 18 home runs, 1 stolen base
Wilmer Flores’ national reputation has largely been tied to July 29, 2015, when he took the field in tears after hearing that the Mets, with whom he had signed in August 2007, were planning to trade him to Milwaukee as part of a package to acquire Carlos Gomez. Of course, the deal fell through, reportedly due to concerns about Gomez’s medical records. The story came full-circle two days later when Flores hit a crucial walk-off home run against Washington to narrow the gap in the NL East (New York, of course, overtook Washington and ended up winning the National League championship that season). While those few days made for a compelling news story, Flores’ 2015 performance on the whole was unremarkable (he hit only .263/.295/.408). More recently, however, he has improved his batted-ball data, and, still to be just 26 years old on Opening Day 2018, he could be a strong late-round fantasy target next season.
Flores’ biggest strides in 2017 came in his contact quality. He cut his soft contact rate by nearly four percentage points from last season, while his hard contact rate spiked by eight percentage points. An uptick to that extent may not be entirely sustainable, but it is undoubtedly encouraging that he was making more authoritative contact. His line drive rate dropped by three percentage points from the past two seasons, which, although on the surface seems poor (line drives are, after all, the ideal outcome for hitters), actually bodes well for his future. A hitter’s line drive rate tends to regress to his mean very quickly, and wild peaks or valleys in line drives tend not to be sustainable. If Flores’ line drive rate bounces back into the 20-21% range next season (it was at 18.4% this year), as it should be expected to, then his batting average and his slugging percentage should both be expected to increase correspondingly.
Flores’ most notable attribute, however, is his rare ability both to make high amounts of contact while hitting a large number of fly balls, which gives him substantial fantasy upside. He has long run strikeout rates well below the league-average, a combination of well above-average bat-to-ball skills and a swing-happy approach. Last season, Flores swung at 51.6% of pitches that he saw (in comparison to the league-average of 46.5%). This approach, of course, has its drawbacks. (Some previous profiles have focused on players whose patient approaches have enabled them to run high on-base percentages and inflate their run-scoring totals, while Flores’ extremely low walk rates have depressed his on-base percentage throughout his career.) That said, it has also enabled him to run decent batting averages despite subpar BABIPs, as his aggressiveness early in counts makes him very difficult to strike out. Additionally, Flores offers a power upside not often seen by players who strike out as infrequently as he does, both because of his contact quality and his tendency to hit the ball in the air.
Many players with a strikeout rate as low as Flores’ tend to prioritize contact at all costs, often slapping weakly hit ground-balls to take advantage of their speed. It is quite rare to see players make this level of contact while hitting as many fly balls as Flores does. Consider: Last season, only 11 players (including Flores) had strikeout rates below 15%, hard contact rates north of 30%, and fly-ball rates above 40%. (That list narrows to five when the fly-ball rate minimum is upped to 45%, which Flores has narrowly exceeded in each of the past two seasons.) These limits are, of course, arbitrary. However, Flores has a substantial history at this point of limiting strikeouts, making decent contact, and hitting the ball in the air. Among his peers in this regard are offensive superstars like Justin Turner, Anthony Rendon, Francisco Lindor and Mookie Betts, as well one extremely-promising rookie. (Of those 11, only Ian Kinsler and Yangervis Solarte had below-average offensive seasons last year, and both players, particularly Kinsler, have a history of above-average production in the past.) While Flores is clearly not at the level of Turner and Rendon, this is a good list to be a part of, a collection of players who have a history of outperforming their expected power numbers because of the frequency with which they make solid, air-ball contact.
Of course, Flores is projected to be a late-round draft choice next season because he is not without weaknesses as a player. Most important is Flores’ drastic platoon split, particularly in the power department (his .520 career slugging percentage against left-handed pitching significantly dwarfs his .392 mark against right-handers), which has caused the Mets to deploy him in a somewhat platoon role over the past two years. There are very few differences in his underlying metrics based on opposing pitcher handedness, however, so there is reason to believe that he could be capable of hitting same-handed pitching in the future. Additionally, with Jose Reyes seemingly unlikely to return, the Mets could be in a position to offer Flores more consistent playing time in 2018. Admittedly, the team’s decision to play a subpar performer in Reyes over Flores last season could indicate that the organization does not consider him an integral core piece, and Flores’ poor defensive metrics likely do not help him in that regard. On the other hand, former manager Terry Collins has been replaced by a younger manager in Mickey Calloway, one who may be more willing to sit veteran players in favor of younger options. Plus, General Manager Sandy Alderson has spoken openly about his preference for offense-first players, so there are some speculative reasons to believe that Flores could be in line for a career-best year in terms of playing time. His speed, on the other hand, has no upside. It is clearly an unequivocal weakness (he has only three career stolen bases), and owners taking a chance on Flores would have to be willing to punt steals entirely from his spot on the roster.
Despite his flaws, Flores has managed to hit a combined 34 home runs in just under 700 plate appearances over the past two seasons, with a decent batting average of .269 over that time frame. Because of his air-ball tendencies, he has substantial extra-base hit upside, which could serve to inflate his runs scored and RBI totals. Even in a league where home runs are running rampant, 30-home run power from a premium position (Flores has eligibility at all of the infield positions except for shortstop) is not easy to find, particularly in the later rounds of drafts. Obviously, this upside could change if the Mets acquire an everyday option at second or third base to push Flores onto the bench. However, the list of players who make contact, hit the ball hard, and hit the ball into the air at comparable rates as Flores does is cluttered with late bloomers, players (including Justin Turner, Ian Kinsler, and Whit Merrifield) whose teams were reluctant to give them opportunities but who thrived when given the chance to play regularly. While it would be extremely ambitious to hope that Flores could perform like Turner, identifying the next Merrifield could pay big dividends for fantasy owners. Since there is very little risk in grabbing him as a late-round flyer, owners should seriously consider drafting Wilmer Flores in the hopes that he is the next to join player to join that list in 2018.