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Trend Tracking: Early-Season Performances

After only one week of MLB play, every stat comes with a number of sample size caveats. Players’ actual results mean very little for the rest of the season (sorry, Matt Davidson and Yolmer Sanchez). On the other hand, there is a full season’s worth of potential value to be had for owners who identify sustainable early-season breakouts, so it’s worth examining some players who have shown interesting underlying skills, which are more likely to be meaningful than a player’s batting average or home run total to this point.

Garrett Richards’ Velocity/Spin

Case in point: Richards’ results to this point have been poor; he’s allowed six runs, including three home runs, over his first 10.2 innings. More noteworthy, especially given his lengthy injury history, is that his pure stuff has been strong out of the gate. At a time when most pitchers are still attempting to build up strength (league velocities tend to be at their lowest in April), Richards has come out firing. His fastball thus far has averaged 96.4 MPH, a dead-match for his 2015-16 peak. Perhaps most interesting, though, is that Richards’ spin rate on both his fastball and curveball is up in the early going. In a recent chat (subscription only), The Athletic’s Eno Sarris noted that spin rates often serve as a proxy for a pitcher’s health. Richards, of course, has endured numerous arm injuries, including a stem cell treatment that took a good portion of two seasons. That injury history undoubtedly drove down his fantasy stock entering the season, so his early-season stuff is encouraging. His small-sample results are not, but Richards’ ability is uncontested. Richards looks healthy, and given the questions surrounding his arm, that’s all one could ask for.

Adam Duvall’s Swing Rate

Another player whose early-season results have been abysmal (Duvall is slashing .150/.182/.500 through Friday), Duvall has shown glimpses of an approach change. His swing rate to this point is down 13 percentage points from his career mark. This could be noteworthy for a player whose plate discipline has held him back in years past. Duvall’s long had plus power, but a high-strikeout, low-walk combination has kept him from being much more than an average hitter overall. A more passive approach to run up his on-base percentage may now be in the cards. After all, Duvall did not have a six-game stretch with a swing rate this low in the entire 2017 season. Given his current slash line, one could argue that Duvall should be more aggressive and again sell out for power. However, he is not hitting the ball any weaker in the early going (his average exit velocity is right in line with previous levels), and Duvall’s contact rate is up. A more passive approach would seem to cost him some home runs, but he could raise his batting average beyond its previous levels to compensate. Even if Duvall has consciously changed his approach, it is not clear that he’s a better hitter; he might be a slightly different type of hitter moving forward, though.

Ketel Marte’s Exit Velocity

Continuing with the theme of players with underwhelming results, Ketel Marte has hidden some interesting developments underneath a .207/.233/.345 line. This offseason, Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan named Marte a 2018 breakout candidate based on an exciting collection of tools. Marte has always had strong bat-to-ball skills and speed, and Sullivan pointed out that Marte had shown some unexpected raw power. From 2015-2017, Marte put six balls into play at over 110 miles per hour, touching peak velocities that most slap-hitting middle infielders never reach. In the first week of this year, Marte has eclipsed that 110 MPH mark three more times. He’s yet to hit a home run because, despite a retooled swing to generate more loft, he has hit a bunch of ground balls so far. Even if he will never be a huge home run threat, Marte’s batted ball authority could go a long way toward propping up the rest of his game. He should, at least, demonstrate consistent gap power with double-digit stolen base upside. Most impressively, he has done this while substantially improving his contact rate. A glance at his slash line would never indicate it, but Marte has continued to demonstrate the power on contact and bat-to-ball skills that inspired the Diamondbacks to extend him on a $24 million contract. This may be the time for owners to grab Marte before it’s too late.

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