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Trend Tracking: Don’t Give up on Tanaka

With a couple of weeks of the season now in the books, some early-season performances can start to become meaningful predictors for the rest of a player’s season. While we have not quite hit the stabilization point for most batted-ball statistics, trends are beginning to emerge which may be predictive of the player’s future results. In this edition, one of the league’s hottest hitters, one of its coldest pitchers, and a post-hype prospect who is showing some signs of offensive maturation.

Jed Lowrie, 2B, Oakland A’s

Lowrie has enjoyed a late-career renaissance, following up a strong 2017 season with a blistering start to 2018 that has him near the top of most of the league’s offensive categories. It would be easy to dismiss this as a fluke early-season performance, but Lowrie’s indicators are strong across the board. To be sure, he will not continue to slash .372/.426/.640, but his average exit velocity is up nearly two miles per hour from 2017. Further, three of his 10 hardest-hit balls since 2015 have come in this year’s first three weeks, indicating that, even at age 34, his bat speed remains intact. Nor has he had to sacrifice his bread-and-butter skill; his contact rate to this point is at its highest level in four years. Lowrie has arguably been a more complete hitter in 2018 than ever before in his career. Every player with an OPS north of 1.000 has benefited from some level of luck, and Lowrie’s .404 BABIP is clearly unsustainable. He might not be in for as much regression as one would expect at first glance, though. Given his early-season batted-ball profile, Lowrie looks decidedly better than his Depth Charts projection of .270/.342/.416 with 12 home runs.

Masahiro Tanaka, SP, New York Yankees

In contrast to Lowrie, Tanaka is off to a dreadful start, sitting on a 6.45 ERA in 22.1 innings. The problem for Tanaka has been a familiar one; he is currently serving up over two home runs per nine innings. After finishing as the third most homer-prone qualifier in 2017, Tanaka has seen his home run rate increase thanks to a significant drop in his ground-ball rate. All is not lost, though. Tanaka’s walk rate is at its lowest ever point, and he has struck out nearly a quarter of opposing hitters, right in line with his past levels. He ranks 23rd out of 94 qualifiers in strikeout and walk rate differential, better than Johnny Cueto, Stephen Strasburg, and Robbie Ray. Given his home run trouble, it could be tempting for owners to consider Tanaka a lost cause. However, the Statcast data indicates that those longball issues should subside. The average fly ball that he has allowed this season has been hit at 95.2 MPH. While high, that is far from outlandish. Gerrit Cole, for instance, has allowed only three homers this season despite a nearly identical exit velocity on fly balls.

Playing in the hitter-friendly AL East will always work against Tanaka to some extent, but he remains a worthwhile fantasy asset. All three projection systems at Fangraphs forecast an ERA around 3.80 from Tanaka moving forward, and the Yankees offense should give him a strong chance at a win every fifth day. If owners are overreacting to Tanaka’s abysmal start, he presents a strong buy-low opportunity, much as he would have last year at this time.

Maikel Franco, 3B, Philadelphia Phillies

Coming off a season in which he was below replacement-level, Franco is on a short leash in Philadelphia. On the surface, he has done very little to ensure himself a long-term role, slashing .245/.300/.434. His peripherals indicate some level of improvement, though. For one, Franco is simultaneously running a career-high contact rate and average exit velocity. Perhaps more importantly, Franco has raised his fly-ball rate by seven percentage points, which could enable him to become a more consistent power threat. Admittedly, some of that fly ball rate spike is related to a drop-off in his line drive rate from prior seasons. Even still, Franco has hit 1.1 ground ball per fly ball this year after averaging a 1.26 GB:FB ratio for his career. On his last leg in Philadelphia, Franco appears to have made modest strides in every aspect of his offensive game, giving some reason for cautious optimism that he can finally make good on some of his prospect hype.

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