I had an opportunity to pick up Max Muncy in both Tout Wars and The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational this weekend and decided to pass. I determined I didn’t need to take a flier on his six home runs and five doubles in 99 plate appearances (.277 Iso) or his 14.1 percent walk rate, the latter of which could be useful in Tout Wars, which is an OBP league. His multi-positional eligibility (1B/3B/OF) was of no interest to me, even though Muncy may soon pick up some starts at second base. Yet had I taken a look at Muncy’s batted ball distribution — and his high drive rate, a stat that incorporates exit velocity and launch angle — I just might own the 27-year-old Dodger in a pair of industry leagues.
Instead, it’s Derek VanRiper of RotoWire who can proudly lay claim to Muncy in both leagues, and he was able to add him cheaply ($22/$1000 FAAB in Tout Wars, $1/$1000 in TGFBI). I may have missed out on Muncy, but you probably don’t have to; he is still unowned in eight out of nine Fantrax leagues. And as I alluded to above, he is doing something special on batted balls that owners in all formats should be aware of.
Exit Velocity, Launch Angle and High Drive Rate
We are all familiar with launch angle and exit velocity, and generally speaking, a high exit velocity on elevated balls is a good thing. Muncy’s average exit velocity of 95.4 mph on fly balls and line drives puts him in the top quarter of all hitters with at least 50 batted balls, but by another measure he has been truly elite. Only four hitters who have made at least 75 plate appearances this season have hit high drives at a rate of 24 percent or higher. The top three are J.D. Martinez, Joey Gallo and Mookie Betts. Muncy is No. 4.
While it’s useful to know a hitter’s flyball, line drive and ground ball rates, xStats.org breaks batted balls into more granular categories based on launch angle and exit velocity. Of all of their categories, none is associated with a higher level of production (as measured by wOBA) than high drives are. Heading into Monday night’s game against the Phillies, Muncy had pounded 24.1 percent of his batted balls as high drives, as compared to an 11.4 percent rate for the majors as a whole. During his first two years in the majors (2015 and 2016 with the Athletics), Muncy had notched 17 hard drives on his 161 batted balls for a rate of 10.6 percent. While he could be a regression candidate, he is far enough ahead of his prior rate and the current major league rate that it seems fair to assume that he has improved as a hitter to some degree. The biggest question left to answer is, to what degree has he actually improved?
That’s a question that can be answered with more playing time, and given that he has started 13 of out of the Dodgers’ last 17 games, he seems like a safe bet to get it. While owners, like me, have been slow to catch on to Muncy’s power and OBP potential, he may not be widely available for long. He is worth a look in 12- and 14-team mixed leagues and needs to be owned in all leagues deeper than that.
OTHER HIGH DRIVE RATE SURGERS
Max Stassi, C, Astros (15 percent owned, 21.2 percent high drive rate)
Stassi has become A.J. Hinch’s go-to catcher against left-handed starters, and he is playing enough against righties to be a viable option in two-catcher leagues. In fact, he entered this week as the 13th-ranked catcher in Roto value. Playing time isn’t the only factor driving Stassi’s arrival as a fantasy-relevant backstop, as he is batting .300 with four home runs, 14 RBI and 13 runs in 89 plate appearances. His batting average is boosted by a .426 BABIP that would be due for a fall regardless of his batted ball profile. Even with his robust high drive rate, Stassi’s xBABIP is just .282. You may not be able to count on him to help you with batting average, but Stassi is profiling like a potential power source who gets to hit in the midst of one of the most prolific lineups in the majors.
Francisco Cervelli, C, Pirates (83 percent owned, 21.4 percent high drive rate)
Cervelli may not appear to be underowned, but then again, he ranks third among all catchers in Roto value, so he should be close to universally rostered. The reason he is not is probably because owners are skeptical of his seven home runs and 30 RBI in 161 plate appearances. The latter number is likely inflated, as Cervelli has batted .353 with runners in scoring position — a mark he will likely not sustain. He has already tied his career high for home runs, but in each of his three previous seasons as the Pirates’ primary catcher, Cervelli posted a below-average high drive rate. So far this season, his rate is nearly double the major league average.
As with the two Maxes — Muncy and Stassi — time will tell us more about whether Cervelli’s improvements will stick. The veteran catcher credits a leg kick and adjustments to his hitting stance and mental approach for the uptick in productivity. Very few catchers can make consistent contact and hit for power, but so far, Cervelli is doing both. He should be started in virtually all leagues as soon as he returns from having flu-like symptoms, just for the possibility that he can continue to pull off this rare combination for the next four months.
Niko Goodrum, 1B/2B, Tigers (24 percent owned, 20.0 percent high drive rate)
Goodrum has been scorching hot over the last three weeks, going 17-for-55 (.309) with four home runs, four doubles and a triple. The extended run has kept Goodrum in the Tigers’ lineup, after he had been used infrequently right through the first week of May. He has started 13 of the team’s last 15 games, and the only thing that might prevent him from making it 14 out of 16 is the heat exhaustion that caused him to leave Monday’s game against the Angels early. Now that he is getting playing time, Goodrum has an outside shot of recording a 20-20 season in his first full year in the majors. Due to a 28.4 percent strikeout rate, the 26-year-old may have a hard time maintaining his .250 batting average, but as long as he continues to hit high drives near his current rate, the extra-base hits should continue to come.
Statistical credits: FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, xStats.org, ESPN.com.