Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening — whichever is applicable to you. Four years ago my son started his High School Soccer career. His first season featured a Senior Class of 13 players. I recall being warned, by each senior parent, of just how quickly the time goes by. The warnings of yesteryear became a reality this past week as my oldest son tied up the laces one final time. Despite having known this day was quickly approaching, the formality of it occurred over a 15 minute window between losing a shootout 4-3 and him crossing the field after his final post-game meeting.
Sports lends itself to these sudden changes of reality. Last Sunday Night I lived pitch by pitch as the Cubs looked to split the first two in LA. Tied 1-1 in the bottom of the 9th, Justin Turner hit a Walk-Off 3-Run home run giving the Dodgers a 2-0 Series lead. Seconds before the home run I’m playing out scenario’s on just what the Cubs need to do in order to take the game into extras. In case you’re wondering, the distance between eternal optimism and the endless road of hopelessness is about 3 seconds and one swing of the bat.
Fantasy sports often forces us to quickly reassess our realities from time to time. In March, Jonathan Villar was a consensus Top 30-40 pick. Those who supported his status among the games best wouldn’t have hesitated to nab those 60 stolen bases with a Top 25 pick. For those not sold on the limited track record, Villar was viewed as a draft day overpay. A solid source of steals, but simply too limited of a track record to invest so heavily. No one envisioned Villar being regulated to a backup role to Eric Sogard during a Brewers playoff push.
At present, Aaron Judge is a Top 15-20 pick in 2018 Mock Drafts – this past draft season Judge was reserved for those paying 2K to sit behind home plate at Yankee Stadium. Naysayers were quick to point at the strikeout woes and would have suggested there simply wouldn’t be enough contact. The optimist would’ve suggested his size alone would find 30 home runs. No one could have envisioned a MVP type season would be in store.
Examples such as these arise each and every season, and the question for Fantasy Owners is simply. “How can you identify these breakouts?”
For most players, success, or failure for that matter, is of the stair step variety. These players can be discovered by using statistical trends that are often very apparent. Others, however, come from nowhere. These are the types of players that will win your league. The stair-step improvers build draft day momentum during the offseason. Talking heads build them up, and each draft features a race to be the guy who nabbed _________, more often than not five-rounds too early. These unidentifiable breakouts, meanwhile, continue to be passed over, burying them deeper and deeper into the draft pool.
Despite not having a magical formula for identifying these types of players, I’m willing to go out on a limb and offer up a few early season guesses. At this point I wouldn’t say I love or hate any of these players. I certainly wouldn’t avoid my target due to concerns, nor would I feel obligated to snatch up my potential breakouts. These are simply players that I feel the hypothetical outcomes would come as no surprise to me.
In early mock drafts Ramirez is hovering in the Top 20-40 range. Having owned him last season his production will have me wanting a second helping. I have no interest in Ramirez in the 20 range, but my excitement requires shades the closer it gets to 40. Excellent contact skills, good mix of speed with 20 HR pop, solid average. and an excellent supporting cast around him.
What Gives: Two schools of thought here with both being centered around contact and a 34% Hard Hit rate.
Last season Ramirez changed from a ground ball lean to slightly more fly balls. The adjustment paired with the hard hit rate led to a 14.1 HR/FB rate, more than double his career mark prior to 2017. Should the hard hit rate decline, will it begin to eat at the HR/FB rate? What if Ramirez continues his fly ball trend without the hard hit rate? Should the hit type continue you could be looking at a regression in BABIP. A regression in BABIP paired with a high contact player creates the possibility of extreme shifts in batting average potential.
Final Thought: At the end of the day I see several scenarios that could bleed into both the 20 home run power and .300 batting average. In order for Ramirez to warrant a Top 25 selection, you simply cannot have one without the other.
It seems you can’t mention a player’s contract without being reminded of the 23-Million Heyward is making annually. I understand the humor in terms of fantasy, stating the exploits of ones glove is much like saying “but she has a great personality” when talking about a potential lady friend. Two years of struggles combined with this contract has Heyward firmly off the minds of the fantasy community – and rightfully so.
What Gives: Lost in last season pedestrian numbers were areas of improvement. Heyward’s OPS of .715 was 34 points higher than in 2016. His K% of 13.9 was a career best. Finally, he managed to pull the ball at a career high clip of 46.3%. As a spectator for the overwhelming majority of Cubs games, I can say with 100% certainty that Heyward looked much better at the plate this season compared to last. Of course last season Heyward was a -19.2 offensive player on fangraphs – this season Heyward was a -8.4.
Heyward is only 28 and has an athletic build, standing at 6-5 and weighing in at 240 lbs. He has managed a 27 home runs season along with 3 seasons of 20 or more stolen bases. What if the Cubs playoff struggles prompts the removal of hitting coach John Mallee? Would a new voice tap into something? What if Mallee is retained? Could last season small strides become big steps this season? What if the improved K rate becomes matched with better plate discipline? Less chases out of the zone would lead to more pitches in the zone. Ultimately what is needed is improved contact in both quantity and quality.
Final Thought: There will be a season in which Jason Heyward will hit 30 home runs with the Cubs. I also see it happening without notice. Improved production on balls in the middle of the plate, better discipline on balls outside of the zone, and an uptick in hard hit rate may be just what is needed to accomplish this.
While the juiced baseballs of today has turned the typical 10 home run threats into 20, the 40 plateau is still rather sacred. Last season only 4 players managed to hit 40, one of which was Gallo who finally started to live up to the prospect status of three years ago. People will quickly lump Gallo in that group of prominent power sluggers with batting average risk – the combo that effectively puts a cap on potential fantasy earnings. Adam Dunn, Chris Carter, and Chris Davis are likely the first three names that come to mind.
What Gives: While the three players previously mentioned offer much the same skill set, only Davis managed to post a fantasy season worthy of Top 10 status. In 2013 Davis was among the Top 5 players in fantasy, while the 2015 version was good enough for a Top 15-20. Could Gallo make this jump as soon as next year?
The most pressing issue with this proposal would be the batting average risk Gallo possesses. His 36.8 strikeout rate was a huge improvement over his first two stints, but still a far cry from the low 30’s Davis carried during his run among the games best. If you look closely, however, you would see that from August on that K-rate was around 33%. Gallo also made really solid strides in both Contact and SwStr%.
While Gallo manage to establish a really low bar in 2016, progress is still progress. Mix these improvements with a slight uptick in ground balls during the second half and .250 could be in play. Now pair the power with the batting average growth and you can begin to pencil in a big uptick in RBI production as well as a bump in run totals.
Final Thought: All this could put Gallo in the Top 40 range. Throw in some BABIP luck and he could have himself a Chris Davis type season. Gallo will also qualify for first and third base as well as outfield in 2018 – bonus points!
What is to be will be they say. We knew that final game would come at some point. We just didn’t know exactly when that would be. In many ways it followed a progressive pattern one could prepare themselves for: we were the lower seed, recent struggles, recent matchup history favored the opposition. All of this pointed toward one last showdown, one in which could be viewed as predictable.
In the end it played out just as is, but for 90 minutes we were one favorable bounce from changing the entire story. One unexpected event that would have pushed the end ever so slightly back. If only identifying it could be so simple.
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