We have reached the point of the offseason where there are not many marquee free agents available. Now, that doesn’t mean that we won’t see more exciting transactions to come. Outfielder Michael Conforto is a free agent, A’s starting pitchers Frankie Montas and Sean Manaea are likely to be traded, and we’ll see other moves that may have fantasy baseball implications.
For the most part, though, we know what teams will look like going into this season, allowing us to properly project player performances. After all, the lockout may have delayed the start of the season, but with it over, fantasy baseball drafts are in full swing. We need to solidify our evaluations of players from a fantasy perspective, making now the last time to get in any information before we are on the clock!
Recently, we took a look at expected strikeout rate for pitchers and hitters. Today, we’ll shift our attention from contact quantity to contact quality. When projecting future home run power, it’s important to look at a hitter’s home/run fly ball rate. Sometimes, a hitter’s home run/fly ball rate is deserved. Other times, though, it can be lower or higher than their true underlying power suggests. When that it the case, we need to identify when the stat is misleading.
This led me to create an expected home run/fly ball statistic. Using two key data points: barrel rate per fly ball and pull rate, I was able to create a weighting system by testing the correlation of each of these variables when it comes to predicting NEXT year’s home run/fly ball rate. After all, we’re looking for it be predictive, whereas most expected statistics are descriptive.
After testing the correlations of each of the variables and creating a weighting system, expected home run/fly ball rate was born! Going back to 2014, based on the coefficient of determination, it actually had a stronger relationship with next year’s home run/fly ball rate (r^2=.486) than previous home run/fly ball rate (r^2= .447).
Thus, expected home run/fly ball rate can be used in place of last year’s home run/fly ball rate to predict future home run luck. There will be certain players who naturally overachieve their expected home run/fly ball rate, based on taking advantage of certain ballpark dimensions and other factors. That being said, being able to find which players clearly deserved a better or worse home run/fly ball rate can be critical when finding potential overvalued or undervalued hitters.
Today, we’ll be taking a look at which hitters overachieved and underachieved last season, based on their expected home run/ fly ball rate. By the end of this, we should be able to solidify our evaluation of certain hitters, whether strengthening our case for them or giving more reason to potentially be wary of them. So, who ends up on each end of the spectrum? Let us find out!
Stats via Fangraphs and Baseball Savant
Average Draft Position (ADP) via NFBC Drafts Since March 1st
Expected Home Run/Fly Ball Rate (xHR/FB%)
Hitters With a Higher HR/FB% Than Expected
|Cedric Mullins II||15.50%||12.63%||2.87%|
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||26.50%||23.78%||2.72%|
|Jazz Chisholm Jr.||18.20%||16.54%||1.66%|
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||32.10%||31.00%||1.10%|
1B Josh Bell, Washington Nationals
As a former top prospect, it made sense when Josh Bell broke out by slugging 37 home runs with a 135 weighted-runs-created-plus (wRC+) and .292 ISO. Even when adjusting for the offensive environment that season, that was still an extreme amount of power, and what we had to expect for the then-Pirates team.
Unfortunately, Bell struggled during the shortened 2020 season, and then found himself traded to the Nationals. After a slow start, he got back in a groove, finishing with a .215 ISO and 118 wRC+. While these numbers are above average, he only finished as the 16th-most valuable first baseman in 5×5 leagues, according to Fangraphs‘ dolls values.
Thus, we’ll be looking for a step up from Bell. With absurd quality of contact numbers (92nd percentile average exit velocity, 96th max exit velocity, 93rd percentile hard-hit rate), the potential is in there for him to have another power surge, as he did in 2021. The key, though, will be fewer ground balls:
- 2017: 52.3% GB, 6.4% Barrel
- 2018: 49.8% GB, 7% Barrel
- 2019: 44% GB, 12.7% Barrel
- 2020: 56.4% GB, 8.6% Barrel
- 2021: 54.3% GB, 8.8% Barrel
Last season, Bell had a 54.3% ground-ball rate, which suppressed his barrel rate to 8.8%. With that in mind, it’s surprising he was still able to post a .215 ISO, but he did thanks to a high 25.5% home run/fly ball rate.
Now, the question is: will that be something Bell can sustain. It’s going to be hard for Bell to keep such a high home run/fly ball rate, especially since his barrel/fly ball rate (.33) was certainly above average. That being said, it’s not at a mark to support such a high home run/fly ball rate, nor was he getting by with pulled fly balls.
Yet, there are metrics to support Bell’s home run/fly ball rate. Bell’s 96.5 average exit velocity on fly balls and ground balls is among the highest in the league, and he hit the ball over 95 MPH in 52% of his batted balls. Those are extremely impressive marks and speak to the raw power he has.
I’m not sure why this didn’t show up in a higher barrel rate per fly ball for Bell. Perhaps some of his batted balls didn’t have a high enough launch angle? Regardless, I don’t think he’ll drop down in his home run/fly ball rate as much as xHR/FB% would indicate.
Now, Bell could make all of this go away with a swing change, hitting more fly balls like he did in 2019. Still, if the swing remains where it’s at, a .215 ISO is probably the cap on where it’s going to be at. As long as Bell keeps hitting the ball as hard as he can, he’ll bring some clear power to the middle of the Nationals lineup. However, for him to unlock his ceiling, there is certainly work to be done in terms of the approach. Hopefully, we’ll be riding the bell a lot in 2022!
SS/2B Javier Baez, Detroit Tigers
How crazy is it that essentially the entire backbone of the Cubs’ rebuild that led to a World Series championship entered free agency at the same time? At the time of the team’s World Series championship, Javier Baez wasn’t a premier force for them, hitting 9th in Game 7 and posting a 94 wRC+. After that, though, he emerged as a fan favorite and will look to do the same now as a member of the Tigers.
That’s right; after signing a six-year, $140 million contract, Baez now will be asked to be an anchor for a Tigers team that has eyes on the postseason. A young pitching staff coming together, as well as contributions from a few other veterans, as well as rookies Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, will be key. However, I think it’s safe to say that the pressure won’t be higher for any player on that team than Baez.
Baez has never been a player with strong plate discipline or contact skills. In 2021, though, it went to a new level with a 44.5% chase rate and 40.5% whiff rate. As you can see, the strikeouts have only continued to become a more pressing issue:
Please note that 2014 and 2015 were extremely limited sample sizes. From 2016 on, his strikeout rate has generally been on the rise consistently, and it reached a new peak in 2021 at 33.6%. When you need an extremely high .352 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) just to have a .265 batting average, you’re walking a very thin line.
For the most part, Baez’s fantasy profile is going to be reliant on his power and speed. Unfortunately, there are some reasons to be concerned with the former. Baez’s 28.2% home run/fly ball rate is extremely high. Even with a very high 39% barrel/fly ball rate and the ability to pull his fly balls, it’s going to be difficult to repeat those power numbers.
Baez may have been someone to take advantage of the ballparks he played in. Here are his expected home runs in Wrigley Field (Cubs) and Citi Field (Mets), as long as what it would be at Comerica Park (Tigers):
- Wrigley Field: 30
- Citi Field: 33
- Comerica Field: 24
Detroit has the seventh-lowest park factor for right-handed hitting home runs, per Baseball Savant. As a result, not only should the expected home run/fly ball be a better guide here, but, considering the ballpark he’ll be playing at, it may be closer to his ceiling than we’d hope for. There is still enough power and speed to get excited about here, especially with multi-positional eligibility up the middle. Yet, there are some red flags here that can’t go unnoticed.
2B/SS Marcus Semien, Texas Rangers
Speaking of marquee free agent middle infield signings, it’s crazy to think about the “180 turn” Marcus Semien has taken recently. In 2019, he burst onto the scene with a 138 wRC+ and .237 ISO for the A’s but was a below-league average hitter (91 wRC+). This resulted in him having to sign a one-year, “prove it” deal with the Blue Jays, hoping to recapture the magic he had in 2019.
It’s safe to say that more than that happened. Not only did Semien post a 131 wRC+, but he slugged 45 home runs, had over 100 runs and RBIs each, and was an AL MVP candidate. Overall, he finished as the 7th-most valuable hitter in 5×5 leagues, per Fangraphs’ dollar values; not bad for a player who wasn’t being selected in the top 100.
After signing a seven-year, $175 million contract with the Rangers, expectations are going to be high for Semien to continue to produce at an extremely high level. There are some clear concerns within the fantasy baseball community as to whether Semien can replicate his success from last year. The chances of re-producing a career are indeed unlikely, so there is some validity there.
However, I’m definitely not here to tell you to fade Semien based on this information. As I wrote about in September, there is a clear method to his madness that cannot be captured in expected power stats. When you combine a 36.7% fly-ball rate with a 47% pull rate, you’re going to get the most out of your power. As you can see, that’s exactly what Semien did:
This type of power can play anywhere, as Mike Kurland of The Athletic and SK Playbook recently dove into:
I think we are over reacting with #Rangers Marcus Semien production output in the AL West. The approach allows the power to play regardless. Should bat at the top of the order and other than RBI (if he bats top 2), the rest should be fine. I doubt they're done making moves in TX pic.twitter.com/m7Jhgzb0Q8
— Mike Kurland (@Mike_Kurland) January 19, 2022
Sure, there is going to be some power regression for Semien going to a worse ballpark after taking advantage of his circumstances last year. However, I’m not sure the expected home run/fly ball rate is truly capturing his true talent. I’d expect him to continue to overachieve those numbers, allowing him to post strong power production. In the third round in your fantasy draft, I’d bank on him accumulating strong stats all-around simply based on volume, while providing a lot of power for your team in the middle infield.
Hitters With a Lower HR/FB% Than Expected
3B Josh Donaldson, New York Yankees
|Jackie Bradley Jr.||7.60%||10.75%||-3.15%|
|Lourdes Gurriel Jr.||15.30%||16.72%||-1.42%|
|Michael A. Taylor||10.30%||11.64%||-1.34%|
The “bringer of rain” is back in the AL East! Between 2015 and 2017, there were few hitters who can match what Josh Donaldson produced. Overall, he posted a 154 wRC+ and .274 ISO, while, for real-life purposes, he was one of the league’s most valuable players based on Wins Above Replacement. The 2015 AL MVP made quite an impact on the Blue Jays, but, now, he’ll be looking to beat them.
That’s right; Donaldson was traded, along with Isiah Kiner-Falefa, from the Twins to the Yankees, in exchange for Gary Sanchez and Gio Urshela. By taking on all $50 million he’s owed for the next two years, the Yankees are placing a lot of faith in him to be a very productive everyday third baseman for them. Considering his defense is on the decline, it’ll be up to his offense to carry the way. Luckily, he’s well-suited to perform in that capacity.
On the surface, Donaldson’s 26 home runs in 543 plate appearances don’t stand out. However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Quietly, Donaldson had the third-most barrels per plate appearance (11.2%) last season among qualified hitters, while the quality of contact numbers are all at the top of the league. In fact, his 98.7 MPH exit velocity on fly balls and line drives tied for sixth in all of baseball, which is going to usually portend to a lot of home runs being hit.
Yet, Donaldson’s home run/fly ball was massively lower than his expected home run/fly ball rate. Meanwhile, he had five fewer home runs than expected, per Baseball Savant, and there isn’t any clear way to explain it; he pulled the ball often and he hit the ball as hard as anyone.
The best explanation? The AL Central, between Detroit, Kansas City, and Minnesota, feature three poor ballparks for right-handed hitting home runs, especially the first two. Now, Donaldson not only gets to play half his games at Yankee Stadium but enters into a much more friendly offensive environment in the AL East. With the depth the Yankees have, we could see his plate appearances limited to keep him healthy- he is 36-years-old, after all. However, with the damage he is likely going to do on a per-plate appearance basis, he’s a great target based on where he’s going in NFBC drafts (3B #16) currently.
2B/SS Gleyber Torres, New York Yankees
Sticking with the Yankees here, a player who could be impacted by the team’s trade for Donaldson and Kiner-Falefa is Gleyber Torres. Now, the team has five infielders to try to give playing time to. As a result, there is extra pressure placed on each individual player to produce; there are plenty of mouths to feed here.
Torres particularly stands out as someone who will need to produce to keep his starting job. The team doesn’t appear comfortable with him playing shortstop, while DJ LeMahieu was signed to a large contract and is obviously going to play. Plus, after posting just a 94 wRC+ with only nine home runs, he is also the one coming off the worst season.
This is a fry cry from the former top prospect that slugged 38 home runs in 2019. Even in a high offensive environment, his production was very impressive, and he seemed to be cementing himself as one of the top young offensive middle infielders in the sport. Prior to the 2020 season, he was a fringe top-30 pick in the NFBC Main Event, while he was still a top-60 pick after struggling the power department in 2020.
Of course, the power still wasn’t where you’d want it to be (.107 ISO) at all in 2021. Even with 14 stolen bases chipped in, he failed to finish as a top-30 shortstop in 5×5 leagues based on Fangraphs’ dollar values. However, I wouldn’t bank on that happening again in 2022.
Torres’ 7.8% barrel rate isn’t great, but much better than the power production would suggest. His barrel/home run ratio (32%) was one of the lowest in the league, and he massively underachieved his expected home run/fly ball rate. His two home runs below expectation (per Baseball Savant) certainly stand out, but considering the ballpark he plays in, that number is even harder to understand how it happened. That’s the beauty of variance, everyone.
With a 10.5% barrel rate from July 1st on, Torres started to demonstrate some of the underlying power numbers he had in 2019. Will he ever hit 38 home runs again? Almost certainly not. That being said, with improved home run luck, he could end up returning strong value based on where he’s going (SS #20) in drafts right now. Let’s have more “Gleyber days” this season, shall we?
OF Andrew Vaughn, Chicago White Sox
Want to know what the White Sox organization thinks of Andrew Vaughn? This is a player the team was confident in drafting third overall in the 2019 draft, despite having limited defensive value. Then, after just 229 plate appearances in the minors and not playing a game above High-A, the team put him on the Opening Day roster; that’s quite the quick ascension!
To be fair, this was one of the best college hitters in recent memory with a 1.183 OPS over his career at the University of California-Berkley. Coming into the 2021 season, he was considered the 14th-best prospect in the sport, per Baseball Prospectus, which is impressive for someone without strong defensive value.
With just a 94 wRC+, you may think that Vaughn’s rookie season was a disappointment. However, there were a lot of exciting tools that he demonstrated. For starters, he made above-average contact in the zone (85.8%), and struck out just 21.5% of the time, a fine amount for a slugger. Then, there is the power.
With a 10.9% barrel rate, Vaughn showcased some strong power. All of his quality of contact metrics were at a high level, portending to more power in the future. Sadly, though, this went under the radar due to a 12.9% home run/fly ball rate, which is quite low considering his underlying power numbers.
To help with this, Vaughn could look to improve his pull rate (30.8%); pulled fly balls perform better than non-pulled fly balls. However, it’s very likely that this was mainly due to poor luck, and in a very favorable home ballpark for hitters, he’ll show much more power in 2021. Now, with some concerns about playing time and no speed, he may not be the most optimal target for 5×5 leagues. However, for points leagues, his value goes up significantly; he’s also a great trade target in dynasty leagues. All told, expect Vaughn’s numbers to match up to his true talent in 2022!