With over a third of the MLB season in the books, fantasy owners and MLB teams alike have started to get a sense of where they sit moving forward. As always, owners will be scrambling to find buy-low acquisitions and betting on various early-season performances.Today, we look at Brian Dozier and Chris Taylor, a pair of middle infielders whose early-season performances aren’t truly indicative of their fantasy value moving forward.
Brian Dozier, Minnesota Twins
Dozier’s 2018 season can only be described as a disappointment so far. After averaging 35 home runs per year from 2015-2017, he is currently sporting a mediocre .241/.313/.420 line with only eight homers in over a third of his regular playing time. Dozier’s Statcast data support the drop-off in production. Consider his expected slugging percentage of .393; that is nearly .100 points lower than his expected slugging percentages over the past two seasons and suggests that Dozier’s power outage is not simply a reflection of poor luck. His hard contact rate is down about six percentage points from last season, further confirmation that Dozier has not been as consistent at the plate as fantasy owners would’ve hoped.
That doesn’t mean that all hope is lost, though. There is no indication that Dozier’s process has deteriorated. Neither his in-zone or out-of-zone swing rates have moved meaningfully from the past few seasons, and his swinging strike rate is down somewhat from recent seasons. Perhaps most meaningful is that Dozier’s spray chart has not changed. Dozier made his mark selling out for pull power, combining underrated bat-to-ball skills with enough raw power to yank fly balls out to left field. He had the perfect approach for the juiced ball era. It is therefore encouraging to see that Dozier’s 45% pull rate is a perfect match for last season’s mark and that his 17% opposite field rate (where Dozier has very little success, because he doesn’t have elite raw power enabling him to hit the ball out to all fields) is in line with his career mark. It might be tempting to say that this approach has caught up to Dozier, that pitchers have finally adjusted, but that doesn’t seem to be true either. Mookie Betts has adopted the same “hit everything in the air pull side” mentality, and pitchers certainly haven’t figured out how to attack him.
If the process is no different, why the difference in results? It seems to be execution. Dozier’s just not squaring the ball up right now; his line drive rate is down, his pop-up rate is up, and Statcast’s bucketing data indicate that he has topped — swung over and hit straight into the ground — more balls than in years past. It seems that Dozier has just yet to find his footing at the plate, that he is struggling through a rather prolonged slump. If he were nearing the end of his career, this would be cause for alarm, but Dozier just turned 31. It’s hard to believe that he has suddenly lost his bat-to-ball skills entirely.
The projections remain optimistic. Depth Charts forecasts Dozier to slug .464 with 18 home runs from here out, and it isn’t hard to take the over on those estimates. In each of the past two seasons, Dozier has offered far better production in the season’s second half than the first. Maybe this is just a fluke, but it isn’t inconceivable that Dozier’s approach is weather-dependent. He’s had his success from getting just enough distance on fly balls, and it is well-established that the ball tends to carry better in warm weather. As the summer hits, Dozier should see stronger results if he continues to pull and elevate the baseball as he has for years. Thus far, he’s shown no signs of abandoning that approach. It’s been a disappointing start, but Dozier has carried fantasy teams with homers before, and he just might do it again.
Chris Taylor, Los Angeles Dodgers
The projections aren’t as optimistic on Taylor, for whom Depth Charts sees a forthcoming .256/.326/.422 line with 10 home runs and nine stolen bases. Taylor’s a good real-life player with a well-rounded collection of tools, but he lacks the standout skill to make him an elite fantasy asset. Even in his breakout last year, he struck out more often than average, but a .361 BABIP had him hitting near .300. That was never sustainable, and his BABIP has normalized in 2018 while his contact rate has fallen a few percentage points. Taylor hits the ball hard and his strikeout rate is far from fatal, so he won’t crater your batting average, but he won’t carry you there, either. He makes loud contact, but he hits the ball to all fields and plays in a pitcher-friendly park, so it’s not surprising that his projected home run output is rather modest.
Most worrisome, though, are Taylor’s early struggles as a base-stealer. After going 17-for-21 in stolen base attempts in 2017, Taylor is just 2-for-6 this year, and he’s attempted only one steal (unsuccessfully) since May 9. Taylor may just be too valuable to a Dodger team decimated by injuries to give free reign as a baserunner, even though he retains his elite speed. If Taylor isn’t running, then his fantasy stock takes a rather significant hit. His collection of above-average skills is more useful to the Dodgers than it is to fantasy owners. With dual shortstop and outfield eligibility in most leagues, it is likely that there will be a rather significant market for Taylor on the trade block, so he’s probably at least worth shopping. If there isn’t much interest, he’s worth keeping. If there are owners who see Taylor as a borderline star rather than as a useful but unexciting fantasy asset, this may be a good time to sell high.