3 Up, 3 Down: Swanson on the Rise
Fifteen games and 50 at-bats are hardly enough of a sample size to draw definitive conclusions from. Even so, this won’t prevent your league mates from jumping on or off a bandwagon based on how a player has fared in his first 10 or so games. Baseball went nuts last year when Eric Thames hit 11 home runs in April. On the other side of recency bias, some of us were giving up way too early on hitters like Anthony Rendon and his .551 OPS through his first 60 plate appearances of 2017.
Rendon would go on to have the 13th-best OPS in the league last season (.937). Thames, on the other hand, struggled over the next few months, hitting more than four home runs only once in the final five months of the season. Further proof that “it’s not how you start that matters … it’s how you finish.”
These types of trends are worth monitoring, but before we go making any major moves, let’s examine some of this season’s biggest stock changes.
Tim Anderson, SS, Chicago White Sox – The White Sox 25-year-old speedster has quickly raced to the top of the leaderboard for stolen bases. Anderson has made the best of his opportunities, going six-for-six in stolen base attempts on 11 opportunities to steal. The hyper-aggression on the base paths is great to see this early in the season, but the pace seems pretty unsustainable based on his 2017 attempts. Last season Anderson had 191 opportunities to swipe a bag and finished with 15 steals. On the bright side, his success rate throughout his young career is an impressive 91%. Since his rookie season, Anderson has stolen 21 bases and been caught only once. The speed skills are obviously impressive, but his bat could use some serious work. Anderson has proven the ability to be dangerous while on base, but getting there has been a struggle in his first few seasons. As Bob Brenley, the Diamondbacks broadcaster likes to say, Anderson is what he would call a “DW,” standing for “doesn’t walk.” Not entirely true, as Anderson walked a whole 13 times in his 146 games last year. That number happened to be the fewest by any qualified hitter in 2017. This year Anderson is showing other signs of a disastrous approach at the plate. Early on this season, he has 33% strikeout rate to pair with his slightly improved walk rate of eight percent.
Recommendation: Anderson is going to have hot streaks like this based on his aggressiveness both in the batter’s box and on the bases. This is one of those good stretches. Bad ones also lie ahead. If someone in your league thinks Anderson is going to hit 20 home runs and steal 30 bases, I’d be moving him.
Cesar Hernandez, 2B, Philadelphia Phillies – We’re only 11 games into the season, but Hernandez is already checking a lot of potential breakout player boxes for me. He has seen a steady climb in his wOBA the past four seasons. What was once well below league average (.257 wOBA in 2014) has now peaked at .407 this year. This particular improvement has earned him the leadoff spot in the order, lining him up for a fair number of runs scored in that improved Phillies lineup. In addition to scoring runs, Hernandez is also a well above average contributor in stolen bases and batting average. He ranked top 40 in both categories last year and has picked up in 2018 right where he left off. The knock on Hernandez has always been his lack of power production, but this year early trends look very positive for some increased pop. For one, his pull percentage has gone from 36% last year to 50% in his first 42 at-bats. This is a sizeable increase in pull percentage and likely suggests an increased effort to hit for more power. The beauty of this adjustment so far is that it hasn’t affected his contact percentage as much as I would have expected. If he is able to pull the ball a bit more this year and still maintain a contact percentage above 75% as he is right now, Hernandez could hit close to 20 home runs. An increase in exit velocity from last year to this year supports the idea of a looming increase in power production. So far, Hernandez’s average exit velocity is up more than three miles per hour this year (84.3 in 2017 to 87.6 in 2018). If Hernandez grows into some power production this year, he will be a five-category contributor and likely to be owned in all leagues.
Recommendation: Ownership for Hernandez, even with the strong start, is still very low. If he is available, I’d be looking to add him if at all possible. This is not a drill.
Dansby Swanson, SS, Atlanta Braves – No one should be surprised that former No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson is swinging the bat better this year. His .937 OPS is top 30 in baseball right now among qualified hitters, and he has seen a slight uptick in several key metrics. For one, Swanson is barreling up the ball more consistently, which has resulted in harder hit balls and more extra bases. Last season, his 86.9 MPH average exit velocity ranked 382nd among those with 30 or more batted-ball events. This year, Swanson has an 88.2 average exit velocity and has increased his fly ball percentage from 29% to 34%. This is still an incredibly small sample size, but these are positive signs for him coming off an underwhelming first full season in 2017. At his best, Swanson will likely always be a better real-life baseball player than fantasy player. His lack of stolen bases or elite power limit him to becoming an elite batting average or runs scored contributor, and so far that hasn’t been the case.
Recommendation: With a deep enough bench, I’d be looking to add Swanson if for no other reason than to see how the next few weeks play out. The pedigree is there, and early-season success for a former prospect of his caliber is worth taking a flyer on.
Evan Longoria, 3B, San Francisco Giants – The Giants’ 32-year-old third baseman is only a few years removed from his 2016 season with the Rays where he received some MVP considerations. That being said, he may be farther from fantasy relevance now than ever before. He started his Giants career by batting just .167 in his first 12 games and has just two runs scored and three RBI during that span. Somehow, Longoria still has maintained more than 50% ownership on most sites. Unfortunately for those still hanging on, it may be out of necessity based on the scarcity of quality third base options in deeper formats.
Recommendation: The path for Longoria to be a top producer at third base or to even keep his head above water seems like an unlikely one. Could he hit .260 again with 20 home runs like he did last year? Sure, but that may do more harm than good in your league. I’m looking to move on quickly.
Jason Kipnis, 2B, Cleveland Indians – Jason Kipnis is kind of like The Big Bang Theory of fantasy baseball. He’s been around for a while, he has had some good seasons, some bad seasons, he’s relevant, even somewhat popular, but at this point, he isn’t getting any better. After smashing six home runs in Spring Training, Kipnis has got off to a rather pedestrian start to 2018. He has four doubles but is hitting just .236 after his first 14 games. Kipnis may not ever return to his 2015 form, but I don’t see any reason why he can’t hit .260 with 20 home runs and 10 stolen bases. He’s not going to win you a league, but he can still be a helpful bat in a powerful Indians lineup.
Recommendation: A healthy Kipnis can be a helpful Kipnis. He is no longer a must-own fantasy player, but he is not this bad. I would hold him if you could afford to sit him on the bench until he turns it around.
Lewis Brinson, OF, Miami Marlins – Thirty-four games into Brinson’s MLB career, and his career batting average (.130) is closer to the summer Miami temperatures than it is to the Mendoza Line. It may be too early to move on from Brinson after just 13 games, but you may not be able to wait much longer if he continues to hit like Alcides Escobar. Brinson has 17 strikeouts in his first 13 games and has yet to register an extra-base hit during that span. In 2017, MLB league average wOBA was .321. Using a 10-game rolling wOBA average, Brinson has never exceeded a .306 wOBA. At this point, we are waiting to see Brinson play the brand of baseball he displayed in the minors, but there’s no need to hold on until then.
Recommendation: As much as it pains me, it may be time to let Brinson go in standard formats. Even this early in the season, you will need production from your roster, and he isn’t delivering any of that.