Sunday, May 27, 2018

Five Under-Performing Hitters To Buy

As Sean and I were discussing in our recent episode 6 of the Roto Pope podcast, much of my written content to date has been pitching-focused. Introspectively, that makes sense for me—for years, my strength has been cobbling together quality pitching staffs and identifying good pitchers, often times before the rest of the market. Having said that, on the other side of the coin, my teams have been consistently lacking on offense! This rings true so far this season, as well, where I rank 6th in pitching and 11th in hitting in both of my primary leagues. I’m not certain why the disparity, even if I do find pitching endlessly fascinating, but it’s clearly an area for me focus … which brings us to today.

While the top hitters are not hard to spot—looking at you, Mike Trout—there are others that may be performing well under the surface but have yet to achieve the commensurate outcomes. Those are the hitters we’re looking for today. The key callout there is “performing well under the surface,” which means many of their peripheral stats that can serve as leading indicators of performance look good. That removes players such Paul Goldschmidt and Ian Desmond—they could be “buy low” recommendations, but that would be purely based on blind faith. Nothing in their underlying numbers suggest that they have been unlucky to this point. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider acquiring one of them or that they won’t turn it around—it just means they won’t be included in this piece.

What will be included then, you ask? Similar to much of the work we’ve done here to date, let’s start with the basics: plate discipline and quality of contact. That means we’ll be focusing on things such as strikeouts, walks, exit velocities, and launch angles. Similarly, we’ll take a peak at Andrew Perpetua’s expected stats “xStats” to assess how a player should be performing based on their exit velocities and launch angles. It stands to reason that we want players who possess a strong approach at the plate and that tear the cover off the ball when they put it in play, right?

Where to start? There has been a lot of discussion around the predictiveness of metrics, particularly new “expected” Statcast metrics, which Jonathan Judge has shown aren’t significantly more meaningful and predictive than previous metrics like FIP—at least for pitchers. Even so, Nate Freiman jumped into the action and showed that “expected” wOBA (xwOBA) is more predictive of future in-season wOBA than current wOBA itself. The point is, that provides us a place to start in this analysis—that is, who are the most “unlucky” to date based on their xwOBA and wOBA differences. 

If Freiman’s analysis holds some truth, then looking at xwOBA will give us a better indicator of things to come than current wOBA.

With that, let’s take a look at five interesting hitters that might be worth buying and may gettable in your leagues (sorted by difference in xwOBA and wOBA):

wOBA: 0.321, xwOBA: 0.396 | Diff: 75 Points
Current 5x5 Rank: 454

After years of being a 35-40% above league average hitter, Matt Carpenter has been on a bit of decline since last season. There was talk of a nagging shoulder injury that he decided not to have surgery on. There was also a career low batting average of .241 last season, in which Carpenter thought he sold out for power too much, leading to more strikeouts and flyballs and fewer line drives. He also entered this season at 32, an age range in the midst of steeper aging curves.

But dammit does he hit the ball hard! Per Andrew Perpetua’s batted ball classifications, he ranks 6th best in the types of batted balls that do the most damage and 6th best in hitting the fewest batted balls that do the least damage. He ranks top 20 in hard hit percentage, barrels per batted ball event and barrel per plate appearance, and top 50 in percentage of balls hit greater than 95 MPH. Yet, his triple slash has been an unsightly .200/.318/.367 and, perhaps more concerning, his strikeout rate has jumped to 26%! His contact % and swinging strike rates have both jumped in the wrong direction too—not good. In particular, the contact % has gone from well above average to well below average.

Still, there are signs for optimism. His swinging strike rate still remains among the top third in the game. His xStats suggest a much juicier triple slash of .269/.380/.551. He’s among the top 30 in line drives and flyballs. He’s still walking nearly 15% of the time. His wRC+ in May is 127, so maybe he’s already turning it around?

The nagging shoulder injury leaves a scary taste in my mouth. Maybe that’s what makes him a true “buy low,” someone potentially gettable if his owner sees his May as a mere hot streak and an opportune selling window. Those same owners might also be looking at his rest-of-season (ROS) projections that peg him as outside of the top 300 overall. I think they’re overweighting last season and his .250 ROS projected batting average is too low—with his more line drive heavy approach this season, his true talent batting average is probably closer to his previous .270. It’s a profile worth betting on for cheap, especially due to the position flexibility he provides across the infield.

wOBA: 0.317, xwOBA: 0.383 | Diff: 66 Points
Current 5x5 Rank: 112

Some analysts in the industry subscribe to the idea that big money free agent signings matter, that their integration into a new situation has an impact on performance. I might buy that to a small degree—these are humans we’re discussing, after all. Having said that, Santana is in a nice situation. The Phillies look like one of the next up-and-coming teams and are currently 13th in team wOBA. Santana opened the season in the number two batting slot and recently has been alternating between fourth and fifth. He hasn’t even been bad—no one in their right mind would describe a player with a 110 wRC+ as “bad.”

And yet, it feels like something is missing. He’s currently hitting .205. Similar to Carpenter, he’s in his age-32 season. Other than that, everything else looks good! His strikeouts are down, his walks are up. Underlying plate discipline metrics look fine—both his contact and swinging strike rates are among the top 30. His current xStats triple slash is .259/.369/.530. He currently has 8 HR but xStats thinks he should have 10. His 17.1-degree launch angle is right in the sweet spot. He’s hitting the ball with authority, ranking in the top 30 among max exit velocity and barrels.

The biggest change in his profile are his flyballs—he’s pushed them up from 39% to 49% this season! That’s good for power, although it has come at the expense of line drives thus far—a development likely to have a drag on his batting average. He’s hitting those flyballs with authority though, ranking in the top 50 for exit velocity on flyballs and line drives. ROS projections have him as a top 150 overall player and a top-12 first baseman. Given his current 112 rank, despite the disparity between his current and expected performance, I think his upside his higher than top 150. In fact, given that 112 rank, I’m not sure he even is a buy low! Like Carpenter, he started slow in April (64 wRC+) but has turned up the heat in May (176 wRC+). But if his owner is getting frustrated with the batting average drag, now might be the time to swoop in before he really heats up.

wOBA: 0.319, xwOBA: 0.383 | Diff: 64 Points
Current 5x5 Rank: 265

Molina underwent emergency surgery after a hit to the groin back on May 6th. I understand if you don’t want to even consider this one. Our thoughts remain with him. I don’t think I’d want my name associated with the evolution of athletic cups. That can’t be a good sign.

Even so, Molina has reportedly resumed light workouts. I am not suggesting that you drop everything you’re doing to acquire him. But don’t forget about him—perhaps remember his name as a potential throw-in during your negotiations. Owners might not be optimistic about his timetable for return and performance once active. Despite his advanced age of 35, he’s been a top 100 player the last two season. Catcher is a wasteland.

And he was hitting the ball well in his 120 plate appearances before going down. His actual triple slash was respectable as-is, but his expected triple slash looks even tastier: .331/.347/.556. He was top 30 in batted balls that do the most damage and top 50 in barrels per plate appearance. His strikeout rate is up slightly, but it’s still a tidy 14%. And yet his contact is up and swinging strike rate down. Try to scoop him up cheaply if you can, I think he’s still got it.

wOBA: 0.300, xwOBA: 0.355 | Diff: 55 Points
Current 5x5 Rank: 436

Zimmerman was placed on the DL on May 12th with a strained oblique—typically a four-week injury. Being conservative, he should return to a murky playing time situation in mid-to-late June. I say “murky” because, prior to injury, Zimmerman had been playing at 1B but scuffled to a .217/.280/.409 triple slash. Meanwhile, Fat err Matt Adams had taken fire and suddenly looked like the best player in the game, banging out 12 dingers while hitting .270/.368/.626 and taking playing time away from Zimmerman.

Needless to say, between Zimmerman’s struggles and health questions, and with Adams’ hot hitting and 19-year-old phenom Juan Soto now in Washington, it’s fair to question if Zimmerman will be an everyday player when he returns. The situation has created a potential buying opportunity.

Despite his production struggles, Zimmerman was hitting the shit out of the ball, ranking 5th in average exit velocity, 8th in line drive and flyball exit velocity, and 6th in percentage of hits at least 95 MPH. Just for good measure, he also ranked top 40 in barrels and batted balls that do the most damage. His plate discipline is roughly similar to last season’s—his strikeouts and walks are actually slightly better this season—when he hit .303/.358/.573 and finished as a top-40 player in standard 5x5.

Add all of this up and xStats actually thinks Zimmerman has been better than his current line shows, with his xStats triple slash standing at .282/.340/.479. There are plenty of reasons not to like Zimmerman. At his current 8-degree launch angle and 44% groundball rate, he could probably benefit from hitting more flyballs. Last season was his first fantasy relevant season since 2013. He’s 33, potentially injury prone, and currently, well, injured. Add the playing time concerns and “meh” ROS projections (roughly 250th overall) and you’re likely looking at a low price. Hell, he probably didn’t cost owners much in the first place (preseason ADP: 155)! Still, I think he’s a potentially valuable piece well worth an inquiry or adding as a throw-in.

wOBA: 0.372, xwOBA: 0.415 | Diff: 43 Points
Current 5x5 Rank: 120

I won’t spend much time on Votto other than to say, if an owner in your league sees his age of 34 and current uncharacteristic production (.279/.401/.425) and wants to get out before the house of cards come falling down, then sign me up. His walks are down and strikeouts are up, but still sit at elite levels. He also remains in the top 25 in both contact and swinging strikeout rate. He’s one of the brightest minds in the game and still one of the most talented hitters, recently dissecting how he’s always adjusting and staying ahead of the game with The Athletic’s Eno Sarris ($). 

Don’t get me wrong, his time will come, and I hope to get out too early rather than too late. I just don’t think that time is now, nor does xStats, who gives Votto an xStats triple slash of .321/.437/.515. ROS projections still have him as a top-5 option at 1B, and top 40 overall player—perhaps a tad disappointing considering draft day cost, but certainly not a bust. Buy at any material discount.


We must remember, of course, that many of the metrics above help us better understand past performance. In the case of expected stats, they’re not predictive per se, just slightly more predictive than current performance. Use them to your advantage and work the trade talks in your league; don’t stop until you’ve found appropriate discounts and hopefully rest-of-season performance converges with their current expected performance.

And while comparing xwOBA to actual wOBA is a good place to start, it’s certainly not comprehensive and will miss buying interesting opportunities—any others that especially stand out to you?

  • Projections, xStats, and rankings are as of 5/22/18
  • All other stats are as of 5/25/18
  • Sources: FanGraphs,, Baseball Savant
  • Projections are averages of Steamer, ZiPS, THE BAT (downloaded from FanGraphs)

Aaron Sauceda Web Developer

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