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Hidden Gems 2.0: Using Advanced Metrics to Uncover Sleepers at the Plate

 

With baseball just around the corner, we’re giving fantasy players an opportunity to get a jump on the competition by taking a data-driven look at which hitters could be headed for a breakout shortened season.  

By: Bryan Holcomb and Micah Parshall

At last, baseball is back.

And not only is the anticipation building for fans ahead of Opening Day on July 23, but also for fantasy players who are having to quickly scramble and jump into their leagues to claim the short season’s top players and sleepers.

The unique format of the 2020 schedule could help produce all kinds of surprise performances, as it allows more opportunities for some because of the addition of the designated hitter in the National League, expanded rosters in both leagues and the fact that several key players have opted not to play the 60-game sprint.

So, who do we expect to break out at the plate this season?

Using traditional statistics from the last three seasons, advanced tracking data, proprietary metrics such as BIP+ and our own slash line projections, Stats Perform’s advanced analytics and research groups have come together to select our favorite candidates to break out – or bounce back – in 2020. 

Kevin Cron hits during a summer training camp workout at Chase Field July 9, 2020.

KEVIN CRON, ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

With the introduction of the DH to the NL, Cron no longer has to compete with Christian Walker for full-time plate appearances. Cron posted a 186 OPS+ with AAA Reno last season, second in the Pacific Coast League (min. 200 PA). That ranked two spots ahead of Yordan Alvarez (177), who exploded for 27 homers in 87 games with Houston and slashed .329/.420/.703 in his first 60 games in the big leagues.

Though the results were a bit underwhelming, Cron made good contact on balls in play in his limited action last season, posting a 216 BIP+ over his 39 games. That, along with his incredible minor league results and the hitter-friendly Chase Field, has our model projecting big numbers in 2020. In fact, Cron’s .543 projected slugging percentage would have ranked 13th in the NL last season, between Juan Soto and Joc Pederson.

Projection: .255/.321/.543

Austin Riley in action against the Phillies Sept. 10, 2019.

AUSTIN RILEY, ATLANTA BRAVES

If you’re looking for a guy with exceptional power batting in the Braves’ loaded lineup, look no further than Riley. The projected DH/first baseman was a top performer during spring training with a .357/.438/.643 slash line in 28 at-bats prior to the shutdown.

Although our model reveals Riley really struggles with plate discipline and contact, he really capitalizes on ball-in-play quality. Last season, Riley finished with a BIP+ of 169. To put in that perspective, Riley was just behind Bryce Harper (171) in BIP+ among those with a minimum of 200 at-bats last season. Though he might not put up an impressive batting average or OBP, Riley’s tantalizing power potential makes him a gamble worth taking late in a fantasy draft.

Projection: .259/.310/.538

Franmil Reyes celebrates his home run in a spring training baseball game March 9, 2020.

 FRANMIL REYES, CLEVELAND INDIANS

After coming over via trade from the San Diego Padres, Reyes saw a slight dip in production from an OPS+ of 120 with San Diego to 97 in roughly half the games in Cleveland. Despite the downturn, there’s a lot to unravel from Reyes’ 2019 season. For starters, Reyes had a whopping 175 BIP+ between teams. Comparatively, Christian Yelich finished last season with a 179 BIP+. Reyes is not Yelich, but in terms of putting quality balls in play, Reyes can swing it with the best of them.

Our 2020 model is quite fond of Franmil as well. It has Reyes with a projected 127 wRC+ and a projected wOBA of .380. Last season, other players that had a wOBA of .380 included Trevor Story, Kris Bryant, Mookie Betts and Yoan Moncada. There’s no question Reyes is a talented bat, but can he put it all together to help Cleveland battle for a playoff spot in a 60 game season? We think so.

Projection: .277/.339/.560

Christian Walker takes a big swing during an intrasquad game at Chase Field July 6, 2020.

CHRISTIAN WALKER, ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Walker impressed in his first full-time season as Arizona’s first baseman, slugging 29 home runs and posting an impressive .354 wOBA. Much of that was due to his patience at the plate, as he took 51.3% of the pitches he saw, well above his career average of 44.4% over his first four seasons.

His balls in play had good results as well. His 152 BIP+ was on par with Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto and yielded a .312 BABIP. Our model indicates that Walker’s quality contact should continue, and projects him to have a .310 BABIP. His patience at the plate and quality contact on the pitches he likes could lead to a continued breakout in 2020.

Projections: .257/.330/.502

Willie Calhoun follows through on a swing during an intrasquad game at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, July 9, 2020.

WILLIE CALHOUN, TEXAS RANGERS

Despite bouncing back and forth between Arlington and AAA Nashville last season, Calhoun made the most of his limited MLB action, slugging .524 with 21 home runs in 83 games. More impressive still was his low 15.9% whiff rate in this high-strikeout era – by far the lowest on the Rangers. Our model points to that dropping even more and we project him to have a 14.4% strikeout rate in 2020, with 76.7% of his plate appearances leading to a ball in play.

Speaking of balls in play, Calhoun’s quality slugging numbers came despite just a .262 BABIP – possibly the result of some poor luck. We project him to post a .278 BABIP this season, which should elevate his offensive numbers across the board when combining an increase in balls in play with an uptick in playing time.

Projection: .281/.342/.531 (These are neutral-park projections as we don’t have data on the new Globe Life Park as yet)

 

Advanced analytics and data analysis provided by Lucas Haupt