I’m not one to usually market the buy-high trade. Instead, I would much rather spill some virtual ink on the buy-lows and sell highs of the sport. But every now and then a guy pops up with a breakout season who warrants enough attention to be put in the group.
It’s not exactly a surprise to prospect watchers that Francisco Lindor would breakout into a star, with defense elite enough to give him a spot in the everyday lineup. Lindor’s bat was somewhat of a concern; there was potential for fantastic contact, but concern over how the power would play in game situations. He kept his discipline stats strong, but there was no real power showing or projection from the young Lindor.
Since he made it to the show, Lindor continued to exhibit his elite discipline and showed great contact, as expected. His rookie year he struck out just 15.8% of the time, and in his first full year he shrunk that to a minuscule 12.9%. His full season isolated slugging of .134 again showed a real lack of game power, but his .301 batting average with strong peripheral numbers confirmed that he was going to hit enough to be worth an early pick, especially with the position scarcity that shortstop allows for offensive output.
Fast forward to 2017. Lindor enters the season as a freshly turned 23-year-old coming off a pennant win and a few runs away from a World Series championship. He maintains insane zone control, with his strikeout rate getting down to just 12.8% while maintaining average walk rates. But his contact has dipped – something owners wouldn’t be happy about, yet it came with an increase in power production. We’ve seen his isolated slugging climb to .227 while hitting 30 homers, putting him in some seriously powerful company. It’s been a pleasant surprise, but keeper league owners and ones looking to next year remain weary and skeptical over how much he can keep next year. The answer to that seems to be that he can do it all.
To look at the legitimacy of a breakout, one of the most telling signs is a change in approach. For Lindor to have such a massive swing in his stat lines, he’s hitting the ball on a different path to be swinging with more authority. While in years past he has had close to average batted ball profiles with a slight ground ball lean, reaching towards 50%, this year he’s been hitting the ball in the air as much as possible. His fly ball rate has reached 41.7% from 28.4%, one of the largest leaps in the majors. It’s not rocket science to see the logic behind this – hitting the ball in the air means hitting more homers as well as increasing power doubles.
It’s not just hitting the ball in the air, but it’s also the quality of the contact. His hard contact rate has jumped from 27.5% to 35.1% – again one of that largest jumps in the league, but one that fits the new profile and approach he’s had this season. His average fly ball distance hasn’t changed, still sitting at 283 feet, but hitting the ball harder and in the air more often, it’s not a surprise to see him slugging the way he has.
While the numbers are important, it’s always vital to get some confirmation from the player himself. Read his quote about his newfound power and approach:
“I’m not a power hitter. I’m not going to be a power hitter,” Lindor said. “But I guarantee if I swing at good pitches I am going to drive the ball. I can’t guarantee I will hit them out of the park, but I will drive them.”
While it’s humorous to find a 30 homer hitter saying he doesn’t hit for power, the critical point is him talking explicitly about driving the ball.
Some would perhaps raise some concern about the decrease in contact, but the trade-off is more than worth it. His wRC+ has jumped from 111 to 118 this year, taking into account his entire offensive output. While his average at .278 isn’t exactly high contact anymore, there’s still reason to think he could project for more hits while maintaining power. His BABIP over his career has been .321 until this season, thanks to the large portion of grounder. By hitting more fly balls it’s expected to see some decrease in his batted ball luck, but he’s dropped a large portion to just .281 this year. We can expect some rebound on that going forward since he’s still hitting the ball so hard, so don’t believe his contact will stay as low as it was this year.
When combining huge power in the shortstop spot, you’re going to get massive value. Lindor has done just that with no reason to believe that he’s going to slow down. His contact has dipped this year, but again it looks like he has the potential for increases in that next year while maintaining his elite power. Even if the contact doesn’t improve, I’d take that average given the power gains. Don’t be afraid that the sudden jump in power cannot be sustained; it’s legit. Buy whatever you can on Francisco Lindor, and pay a premium if need be.
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