Eight Hot Starts. Eight Players To Buy.
For months, we spend countless amounts of time preparing for the MLB season by researching players and projecting their future performance. This shouldn't be such a difficult process, right? After all, players are expected to regress to their natural performance which should be quantified by what they've done in the past!
Of course, baseball isn't so simple! Players are able to make improvements and until the season progresses fantasy owners are hard-pressed to know whether these improvements are sustainable or if they should look to cash in.
Generally, it is reasonable to anticipate that most players will not continue to outperform all projections; the law of large numbers suggests that the greater the sample size the more the number of events regresses to the mean. Yet, that isn't the case with all players, and being able to make that distinction is critical. With these eight players, I believe that our prior projections for them need to be adjusted significantly in a positive fashion. If these players are owned by those who might be more skeptical of them or are available to claim via waivers, they should be immediate targets for your team.
Stats To Know:
wRC+= Weighted Runs Created Plus
wOBA= Weighted On-Base Average
xwOBA= Expected Weighted On-Base Average
SIERA= Skill Interactive ERA
*All Stats As Of Wednesday April 21st
#1: OF Tyler Naquin, Cincinnati Reds
Preseason ADP: 600
ESPN % Rostered: 72.8%
Stats: .244/.346/.667, 165 wrc+, .425 wOBA, .489 xwOBA
As a former first-round pick expectations were always very high for Tyler Naquin in Cleveland. Instead, he became another part of a continuous cycle of poor outfield production for the organization.
That's not to say the 29-year-old was completely unproductive. His .272/.324/.443 slash line is about league average and his peaks were very high. Unfortunately, his troughs were very low. Due to injuries the most plate appearances he's ever had in a season was 294 in 2019, and after posting a 51 wrc+ in 2020, Cleveland officially cut ties with him.
Despite a crowded outfield situation the Reds brought Naquin in this offseason wisely seeing the opportunity to add a player who has shown the capability to be a very productive player when he's not dealing with injuries. Even then I'm sure they weren't expecting a 165 wrc+! He's now found himself with everyday plate appearances at all three outfield spots and could play a critical role for a playoff hopeful if he can keep this up.
Can he? Obviously he is unlikely to maintain a 165 wrc+ but there's a lot to suggest that Naquin should be seen as an everyday player moving forward. This has always been a player with a lot of raw power (top 5% max exit velo in 2019), and he's already registered a 113.5 MPH batted-ball event this season. Meanwhile, his sprint speed (27.5 ft/sec) is the highest it's been since 2018, which would also suggest that he's finally healthy. Remember this isn't a player that doesn't have talent.
Then there is the approach shift. Since he possesses a lot of raw power, Naquin has acted much more like someone with those skills. That means fewer chases (31%) in the zone and fewer swings on the edges of the plate. This isn't simply just a more passive approach, however, as he's swung at every "meatball" offering to him this season. Rather he's looking for pitches to do more damage on even if that means more strikeouts. Obviously, you can look at his xwOBA, barrel rate (23.3%), and average exit velocity (96.5 MPH), but it's important when these improvements appear to be process-driven and I believe that to be the case with Naquin. This is something that many hitters have made when they have gone to new organizations and if he can maintain this new style of hitting he can be comparable fantasy-wise to the likes of Mike Yastrzemski and Ian Happ. Each of whom has made similar approach changes and would be quite the outcome for a player who was non-tendered just this past offseason.
#2: 3B Evan Longoria, San Francisco Giants
ESPN % Rostered: 48.6%
Stats: .291/.361/.582, 153 wrc+, .398 wOBA, .451 xwOBA
Evan Longoria? That isn't a new name to get excited about! It's easy to overlook older players who have a) declined from peak performance and b) have had long careers. For Longoria, his 14-year career, in which his last 4.5 fWAR season came in 2016 would appear to be on the downward trend.
Yet, quietly the 35-year-old has been a fine player for the Giants. Since being traded there from Tampa Bay he's been a league-average offensive producer (99 OPS+) and an above-average defender despite running wOBAs below his xwOBA. With a ground ball rate over 40% and a pull-happy approach you'd expect him not to reach his xwOBA but a .54 point differential in 2020 was quite extreme. Nevertheless, he wasn't a commonly drafted player in most standard fantasy formats.
The Giants have quietly improved their hitting process significantly, adopting an approach more focused on power than contact. Similar to the Dodgers they'll be passive earlier in the count and aren't worried about potential strikeouts, which has correlated with improved production from their players and them overachieving expectations. Longoria appears to be the latest to buy into that approach. His chase rate (17.4%) is down 10% and despite this, his zone swing rate has actually gone up (66.9% vs 62.4%). That's a remarkable plate discipline improvement and these are the changes that tend to indicate legitimate changes.
Thus, even if Longoria's raw power hasn't changed he should optimize it better. As his batted-ball numbers are showing, he's not only hitting the ball much harder but also less in the air (36.6% GB vs 50% in 2020). That optimized quality of contact will translate to strong power production even in a tough ballpark to hit in which makes him much more useful than anticipated in fantasy. Third base is a deeper position but if he continues to get everyday at-bats in San Francisco he's definitely worth rostering at least as someone to play versus lefties. All of a sudden he's gone from a contract problem for the Giants to someone they could expect to play a meaningful role for them in 2022 which is quite the turnaround.
#3: 2B Jazz Chisholm, Miami Marlins
ESPN % Rostered: 60.3%