First Base Musings: Bellinger and Olson

Usually when I write a post I start by doing a bunch of research and then plan out an argument based on the numbers. Seems reasonable right? But for this article let’s try something different. I’m going to try to peel back the curtain on my thought process and together we can come to a conclusion about the value of a couple of players.

As the Fantasy Assembly team takes a look at first basemen this week, I decided to examine Cody Bellinger and Matt Olson. Why those two? Well, I thought it would be fun to do an article about a group of big swing and miss lefties, but no one else really intriguing came to mind. I could have added in Muncy, but I figured someone else would want to write about him. I also could have picked Matt Carpenter, but we’re focusing on dynasty and keeper leagues at this point, and if you haven’t made up your mind on Carpenter by now it’s not going to be me who sways you. Anyway, let’s jump in.

Cody Bellinger

The first thing that most people notice about Bellinger’s 2018 is the dip in power – just 25 HR compared to 39 HR in his 2017 rookie campaign. We know this wasn’t caused by lack of opportunity because Cody played in 162 games and had 632 PA (139 games and 548 PA in 2017). We know it wasn’t because of a huge drop in batting average – .260 this season and .267 in 2017. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean I can just say it was the dreaded sophomore slump and move on. Now we have to actually look at some more advanced stats.

In regard to a drop in power like this, the first place to check after your cursory glance at playing time and batting average is the player’s home run to fly ball rate. In Bellinger’s monster 2017 season he had an unbelievably high HR/FB of 25.2%. In 2018 only four players had a HR/FB rate of 25% or higher: Christian Yelich, J.D. Martinez, Joey Gallo and Giancarlo Stanton. For context, the average HR/FB rate of all batters qualified for the 2018 batting average title was 13.9%. Bellinger checked in at 15.2% in 2018 (tied with Matt Chapman, just ahead of George Springer and just behind Xander Bogaerts). For the type of swing that Bellinger has I would expect neither 15% nor 25% HR/FB, but something more in the 16-18% range with the likes of Edwin Encarnacion, Justin Bour and Ryon Healy.

So we’re done right? We have found out that Bellinger was luckier his rookie year than last year and he will probably settle somewhere in between. Put him down for 31 bombs and recommend him to everyone because he has 1B/OF eligibility and steals double-digit bases. Well, we could be done, but why don’t we check out a couple more things… you know, just for fun.

A player’s batted ball profile is always a good thing to check if his counting stats seem off.

Stat 2017 2018
Line-drive rate 17.6% 19.9%
ground-ball rate 35.3% 40.0%
fly-ball rate 47.2% 40.2%
hard-hit rate 43.0% 40.1%
strikeout rate 26.9% 23.9%

Bellinger’s batted ball profile confirms that there was indeed a difference in the type of player he was in 2018 than in 2017. Not only did fewer of Bellinger’s fly-balls go for HR as we discovered earlier, but he hit the ball in the air at a significantly lower-rate with his FB% dropping by 7 percent in 2018. As analytically inclined as the Dodgers are, and with the natural upper-cut that Bellinger has to his swing, I would assume this number would increase slightly, but not to the dramatic 47.2% of 2017.

Conclusion: Bellinger isn’t going to win a batting title anytime soon, but his average isn’t going to kill you either. At 23 years-old Cody conceivably hasn’t reached his power potential. In a keeper or dynasty format I think this would be a good time to buy-in. You would probably be paying about market value or a little less at this point if you had to trade for him. I would put this season as a reasonable expectation for Bellinger’s floor going forward with .260/.340/.445 and 27 HR+, 8 SB, 75 RBI being the standard that we hold him to on a yearly basis.

Matt Olson

The best fantasy analysts are able to take personal biases out of their analysis of players. Unfortunately, I can’t. As a former sub-par college pitcher and a possibly slightly over-par college baseball coach I always have a more favorable view of players that do things that help in actual baseball games instead of just fantasy. The same way that Ben Zobrist grinding out at-bats to increase an opposing pitcher’s pitch count won’t win us fantasy titles, Matt Olson’s spectacular defensive work at 1B won’t be much of a factor in a head-to-head points league. However, I’ll probably rank him a spot or two higher because I like him as a ballplayer. I say this in the interest of continuing to let you see my thought process as well as to warn you that should you read anything else I write, you should keep that particular bias in mind.

Olson is a bit of a curious case at the plate. From his limited time in the bigs in 2017 to 2018 his BABIP jumped from .238 to .292, his hard contact rate went from 40.3% to 47.3% and he increased his line-drive rate from 15.9% to 21.1%. Despite making harder contact and having better luck on balls in play his batting average dropped from .259 to .247. The .247 of course could be the result of Khris Davis’ influence, as he seems to have decided that it’s the number to target. Additionally, he set the bar so high by hitting 24 HR in 59 games in 2017 that anything south of 40 HR this season was going to seem like a disappointment. Similar to Bellinger, Olson had an unsustainably high HR/FB% of 41.4% in 2017 that was going to lead to some serious power regression.

For some 24 year-olds going through their first full MLB season hitting .247/.335/.453 with 29 HR, 84 RBI and 85 runs would seem like a success, but Olson didn’t get much recognition for these numbers. In this instance I think the most important thing to look for with Olson is if there are any numbers that support growth as a hitter. My favorite place to begin for this is the Plate Discipline section of a player’s stats page on Fangraphs. Most of Olson’s numbers are within one percentage point from 2017 to 2018, but one thing that gives me some hope that Olson is making strides is his O-Swing% (sometimes referred to as chase-rate), or the rate at which a player swings at pitches outside of the zone. Olson dropped his chase-rate from 28.3% to 25.1% which is not insignificant given that he did this over 660 PAs.

The next thing I want to look at for Olson is whether there are areas that it looks like he can reasonably make improvements. Are there any numbers that look strangely low (or negative statistics like K% that are abnormally high)? For Olson, it’s his performance against fastballs. According to Fangraphs’ Pitch Info Pitch Values, Olson had a -4.0 runs above average against four-seam fastballs this season. Olson has a longer swing than most and that doesn’t bode well with teams parading in an endless strings of  relievers throwing 98 MPH. But, if a player is going to have an issue with a pitch I would rather it be having to adjust to consistent higher velocity than having an issue picking up the spin on breaking balls.

Conclusion: Olson should be a consistent power source for years to come at 1B, even in the spacious confines of the Oakland Coliseum. However, First base has other power options which means that anyone not providing help in additional categories does not have huge value. If you believed in Olson enough to keep him at the start of last season, then I would say that you should continue to trust that instinct moving forward.

Jake Blodgett

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Like most of you I am addicted to fantasy baseball. Since I spend most of my time talking about it, I figured I would write some of my thoughts down. I am a shameless promoter of Mike Trout and an even more shameless Shohei Ohtani apologist.

One thought on “First Base Musings: Bellinger and Olson”

  1. This was a nice article. Thank you!

    Any chance you could write a piece on Nick Pivetta? I’m curious if you think his underlying numbers have him primed for a breakout. I read that the Phillies defense was historically bad. Perhaps that could have something to do with why he disappointed this season? Thanks agian!

    Chuck

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