Kris Bryant's Shoulder and the Erosion of his Power from the Inside Third of the Plate
Everyone knows Kris Bryant suffered through a disappointing 2018 season. But if I were to ask most people in Chicago whether they thought Kris Bryant has had two straight seasons of statistical decline across the board - from results stats to sabermetrics - most would tell me to take my hotdog with ketchup and get lost. It's hard to fathom (for anyone, let alone Cubs fans) how a generational talent with prodigious power like Kris Bryant went from being a Super 2 cover boy to having his Statcast batted ball profile be most similar to players like Daniel Descalso, Billy McKinney and Jorge Bonifacio. Unfortunately, all of this is true - Kris Bryant hasn't posted elite underlying metrics since the last time the Cubs won the World Series. To better understand what the numbers are saying, I decided to dig head first into the Statcast pool of metrics.
Let's begin with what I know for sure. Kris Bryant saw his (Statcast) hard hit rate fall from 44% in 2015, to 39% in 2016, to 37% in 2017 to 34% in 2018. Similarly, we saw related drops in both his barrel % and average exit velocity over that range, as well. His average launch angle in 2018 was 17.7, down from a career high of 20.4 in his breakout 2016 campaign. All of these numbers obviously point towards a change occurring, but why exactly it happened isn't inherently clear.
Let's talk about what I might know. From my limited experience with Statcast data, I have typically observed these types of declines with three possible causes - age related decline, injury related decline or normal variance / regression to the mean. At 27, it doesn't make much sense to label Bryant's performance as age-related - in fact, he should only be getting better as he enters his prime years. Conversely, we do know Bryant dealt with injuries a season ago and it's highly possible he first felt discomfort beginning in 2017. Could it also be a hybrid of the injury in 2018 and a form of regression experienced in 2017? Absolutely, but Bryant's raw talent makes his numbers in 2017 a little hard to label as regression.
Let's talk about what I observed. So we know Kris Bryant suffered a drop in speed off the bat and we know his average launch angle dropped - that's a fact. From my own personal observation, I can also add that it *seemed* (dangerous word!) Bryant was getting out in front of more pitches last season, resulting in him getting on top of the ball, leading to weaker contact and soft groundballs. Luckily, we've advanced to an age where Statcast can support my presumption, at least to the extent of the data I have access to see. Supporting my hypothesis is a plethora of metrics ranging from lower exit velocity, higher groundball totals, higher topped %, lower barrels %, and an increase to his pull % in 2018/2017.
Let's talk about why. We know Kris Bryant dealt with his shoulder injury in 2018 (maybe 2017!?) and we know injuries can wreck havoc on swinging mechanics. In this case, it seems plausible that the shoulder injury to Bryant could have caused him to have difficulty getting to the pitches on the inside of the strike zone, therefore causing him to overcompensate by swinging earlier to get to the inside pitches, resulting in weaker, topped contact. To further support my hypothesis, take a look at the two zone charts published by Statcast. The first is Bryant's barrels/swing% by zone location and the second is Bryant's flyball distribution by zone location. Take a look at how the inside zone for Bryant changed from red to blue from 2016 to 2018.
Conclusion: So what does all this mean for Kris Bryant and his outlook for 2019? It gives us a very specific assignment to look for during Spring Training. If Bryant can recapture his ability to hit pitches on the inside of the plate, there's a pretty good chance we will see him rebound closer to the player he was in 2016 with more lift to his batted balls and more power. With that said, all of this offers an alternative view of ADP discounts and how they relate to injured players. Even at an ADP in the third round, if Bryant proves his shoulder is still bothering him and he's unable to hit the inside pitch during his time in Arizona, that selection will easily turn out to be one of the worst in the draft. As fantasy players, everything you need to make sound decisions is available - it's simply whether you're motivated enough to cut through the noise, determine the root cause and identify the possible solution, or in this case, something to look for in the mechanics of Bryant's swing.
The Cubs Bullpen Conundrum:
Figuring out how Joe Maddon will construct his lineup everyday is challenging enough. Now, thanks to Brandon Morrow's recovery timeline, fantasy owners will be forced to figure out Maddon's closer utilization strategy for at least a month. Pedro Strop is the most obvious choice to fill the role and he pitched well for the Cubs as the closer in September. However, Maddon has a tendency to mix-and-match his bullpen, meaning Strop is no lock to see every save in Morrow's absence, especially since newly signed Brad Brach has closing experience from his time in Baltimore. On the flip side, Pedro Strop and his elite 67% contact rate and 16% swinging strike rate could easily take the job and run with it, forcing Morrow into a role that will allow for him to see more consistent rest. All of this uncertainty makes drafting any of these players a risky proposition, but if you had to choose one, Strop has the underlying skillset and a better health track record.
The Forgotten Third Wheel:
As recently as last season, Billy Hamilton was being drafted in the 5th round of fantasy leagues despite contributing primarily only in the stolen base category. However, after his 5th straight disappointing season and a 40% dip in his stolen base totals (although he still finished 6th overall), the Reds decided to let Hamilton walk, opening the door for Kansas City to sign the speedster. This time, however, the pressure will be off Billy Hamilton and he won't even be considered the primary speed option for the team. That change in scenery and the change in production has caused his average draft position to plummet in the NFBC this year, down all the way to 162 overall. Hamilton probably won't hit in a favorable lineup position and he's going to be a drag in the batting average department, but from a production standpoint, his expected production in 2019 isn't that far off from where he has been over the last several season, which begs the question - those of you who drafted Hamilton in the 5th round last year, should be giddy at the draft price deflation this year. He hasn't changed as a player and he still has massive contact and plate approach concerns, but he's a huge speed weapon and in a time where most speed is getting inflated, Hamilton suddenly looks affordable. Fantistics is projecting him for 514 at-bats, .250 batting average, 77 runs, 4 home runs, 41 RBIs, and 48 stolen bases.
Salvador Perez: Picking Up The Pieces:
For the second season in a row, Salvador Perez suffered an injury during Spring Training. While this year's injury happened much earlier, allowing most fantasy baseball managers to avoid drafting him, the severity of his most recent injury is far more severe than the knee injury he dealt with at the beginning of last season. News broke last week that Salvador Perez has damage to his ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, the same injury that many pitchers suffer that requires Tommy John reconstructive surgery. On the record, the team has yet to recommend surgery and Perez is reportedly seeking additional opinions, but an injury like this is one that's going to greatly impact the catcher landscape across fantasy baseball. Our draft advisory program Is projecting just 11 catchers to have more than 400 at-bats this season and just 5 catchers with more than 450. That means in a standard 12-team league with one catcher, nearly half the teams will need to roster more than one catcher to capture enough at-bats at the position. The tried and true strategy of "waiting at catcher" will surely be tossed around in full force this spring, but the position is even more shallow than usual and in leagues where bench spots are at a premium, it's essential to roster a catcher that can give your team regular at-bats.
Eric Hosmer: The Christian Yelich That Never Christian Yelich'd
Eric Hosmer and Christian Yelich have always shared a special spot in the heart's of the fantasy analysts at Fantistics. Both had tremendous upside as top prospects that sported above average hard hit rate and both were held back by their insanely high GB/FB ratios. For years, we beat the drum saying that as soon as they get a little more lift in their swing, the results will be plentiful. Unfortunately, while Christian Yelich has managed to drop his groundball rate each of the last four season, Eric Hosmer has only increased his groundball rate each year over the same period. Additionally, while Christian Yelich has managed to remain at or above the league average hard hit rate during those seasons, Eric Hosmer has been below league average since 2013. While the presence of Manny Machado and the arrival of the Padres top prospects will help strengthen the lineup around Hosmer, it may come at the expense of Hosmer's lineup position if he can't change his plate approach and begin lifting the ball more often. Hosmer will get more attention this draft season since the first base pool is shallow, and while we do expect a slight bounce back in his batting average due to a slightly unlucky BABIP (.302 in 2018 vs career avg .314), there's little statistical backup to support an improvement in his other categories.
The Best Undrafted 15/15 Option?:
Maybe it's his age. Maybe it's his new team. Or, maybe it's simply that he's burned too many people over the last several seasons. Regardless of the reason, Ian Kinsler's current ADP is sitting at 370, just outside the draft range of most 12-team leagues. While many aging players initially see signs of age-related regression come through their chase rates and contact rates, Kinsler actually posted his lowest chase rate since 2013 and the highest contact rate since 2015 during his 2018 season. With that said, he did see a substantial drop in his hard contact rate down to 29%, which is magnified when you consider the league saw an overall inflation to hard contact rate around 10-11% last year. The best part about Kinsler is that he's been relatively stable and healthy for most of his career. He dealt with a pair of soft tissue injuries in 2018, which is something that he's more at risk with as he ages, but he's been relatively available. The Padres do appear committed to let their top infield prospects develop in the minor leagues, so Kinsler will have a shot at regular at-bats, at least for the first half of the regular season. As a target for middle infield depth, don't sleep on Ian Kinsler, who right now projects at the Padres leadoff hitter and would be a lock for double digit home runs and stolen bases, if he gets the opportunity to start the entire season. Currently being drafted before per NFBC ADP include: Hernan Perez, Adam Frazier, Jeff McNeil, and Niko Goodrum.
Around The League:
Ahmed Rosario (SS - NYM) - Ahmed Rosario was hit by a pitch in his left hand and underwent x-rays. Thankfully, no bones were broken, so Rosario escaped with just a bruise. The shortstop is an intriguing fantasy option as nice source of power and speed from a middle infield position. How many home runs and how many stolen bases you're building into his projection, however, will go a long way to determine the value you're able to derive from his draft position. Rosario improved his walk rate to just 4.9% last season, which is a big reason for his paltry .295 on-base percentage. His 9 home runs last season came with a HR/FB rate of 7%, not completely out of line with his hard hit rate of 27.7%. Interestingly, however, he did manage an impressive 105 MPH on his homeruns and an above average 104 MPH exit velocity. That's good news because it indicates a player who is able to take advantage of mistakes, despite typically hitting the ball at an average velocity of 87.3 MPH, which is right on the league average mark. It will limit his overall upside, but provides a certain level of substance to support his production from a season ago. Look for him to once again hit in the bottom third of the batting order for the Mets, but if he has a nice spring and can hit near the top, his stolen base upside increases substantially.
Clayton Kershaw (SP - LAD) - The enigma, Clayton Kershaw, played catch for a third time over the weekend since being shut down early last week with shoulder soreness. On Monday, his manager Dave Roberts told reporters that he's not sure if Kershaw will be able to be ready for the start of the season since he still hasn't thrown off a mound since initially feeling pain. If there can be a silver lining in any of this, it's that the lefty continues to throw and never actually underwent an MRI. The latter is an important distinguishing point because if the team had any serious concerns about the type of pain or the integrity of the structural components of his shoulder, he would have most likely undergone testing. Right now the entire news flow is creating an interesting buying opportunity for Clayton Kershaw, who has seen his ADP fall from 38th in drafts completed prior to February 24th down to 62nd in drafts after his injury was revealed. Kershaw, who will turn 31 in a couple of weeks, has nearly 2,100 innings in his MLB career, a number that matters far more than the one on his birth certificate. He showed massive regression to his swinging strike rate and in-zone contact rate in 2018, an indication he was no longer fooling hitters as consistently. How much of that was due to injury and how much was due to natural skill/age regression? The answer to that will need to be determined from you before you decide how much risk you're willing to take on.
George Springer (HOU - OF) - George Springer mentioned to reporters that he lost 12 pounds over the winter and indicated that he might want to try to steal more bases this season. Springer hasn't had much success at base stealing at the major league level, despite plenty of success in the minor leagues. While it's positive that Springer wants to steal more, he followed up that remark with a comment that he will ultimately do whatever his manager, AJ Hinch, asks him to do. Given the fire power behind Springer in the Astros lineup, stealing bases might not be at the top of Hinch's wishlist. For what it's worth, Springer is 3-for-3 in stolen bases this spring.
Jake Arrieta (PHI) - While Clayton Kershaw might be the injured enigma, Jake Arrieta may be the healthy enigma. His fall from grace happened nearly as quickly as Kershaw's, but without all the fanfare. Arrieta is a tough was to analyze because of various factors, none of which seem to be getting much attention from the fantasy industry valuing him well beyond pick 200. The biggest thing to keep in mind about Arrieta is that he signed on March 11th, not only shortening his spring training and season prep, but also requiring him to move and get settled in a new city in a rush. For starting pitchers, especially one who relies on a routine as heavily as Arrieta does, this type of short-turnaround may have had a profound impact on his 2018 disappointment. In a more quantitative sense, Arrieta actually pitched better in the second half despite posting a 3.23 ERA in the first half and 5.04 ERA in the second half. How? For one, his xFIP in the first was 4.14 while his xFIP in the second was 3.99, but beyond that, Arrieta saw a 2% improvement to his SwStr%, 5% increase to his strikeout rate, and most notably, a 4% drop in his in-zone contact rate. All these signs point the picture of a starting pitcher that got more comfortable as the season went on and started fooling hitters once a again. Look for Arrieta to take a step forward in his second year with the Phillies and return value at his current ADP well into the mid-teens in terms of rounds. On Sunday, he fired three scoreless innings while striking out four batters.
Josh Harrison (DET - 2B) - Josh Harrison has started off his career in Detroit in strong fashion, greeting 4 hits in 8 at-bats and scoring 3 runs. There's not much competition in Detroit for the second base job, so Harrison should be able to win the starting job with relative ease. Harrison dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness in 2018 with the Pirates, but at just 31, he still has a some gas left in the tank. The biggest drop in Harrison's production from a season ago was his batting average, his fell to the lowest mark since 2013, coinciding with a drop in his BABIP to .286 which is roughly 30 points below his career mark. He managed relatively flat hard hit rates, meaning there's some potential for a bounce back here. At his age, he might not be running as much as he had in the past, but he should make a case for batting lead off this spring and could be a sleeper for middle infield depth in most fantasy drafts.
Christian Walker (AZ - 1B) - The Paul Goldschmidt deal cleared the way for 27-year old Christian Walker to compete for the Diamondbacks' starting first base job and early indications prove that he's taking advantage. Through 6 games, Walker has hit .467/.500/.867 with a home run and 10 runs batted in. Walker is worth monitoring in NL-only formats after posting nice power and batting average numbers in recent years in the minors, but with some discount since they came in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League.
Franchy Cordero (SD - OF) - Franchy Cordero had a nice day at the dish on Monday, recording a double and a walk. Both were the first of the spring for Franchy, who was on the verge of a breakout before getting injured after just 40 games last season. Plate discipline has long been Cordero's biggest enemy and given his 1:7 batting EYE this spring, he still has some work to do. Unless he displays enough raw power to overcome the strikeouts, he's likely headed for a platoon role with the Padres in 2019. His window for impressing the Padres brass is closing quickly with the approach of their excellent farm system.
Lewis Brinson (MIA - OF) - Post-hype sleeper alert! Lewis Brinson hit his 4th and 5th homeruns of the spring on Monday, and in true Marlins fashion, recorded his 4th and 5th runs batted in. The big day improved his slash line to .438/.471/1.438 through 7 games and has also added 1 stolen base with a a 0.25 batting EYE. It wouldn't be the first time a top prospect has put it all together in his second full season (in terms of at-bats) and for that reason, Brinson still carries some intrigue. The Marlins offense will limit his overall upside and the helium potential is here if he continues raking this spring. If getting shares is a priority, getting him now makes more sense than paying a premium for him later this spring since there's still plenty of risk here (2nd half underlying metrics showed very little improvement vs 1st half).
Pablo Lopez (MIA - SP) - Pablo Lopez tossed three scoreless inning against the Nationals on Monday and remains in the mix for the Marlins rotation. Lopez has one of the most well-rounded repertoires of any player with his level of experience. All of his pitches - from his sinker to his curveball to his change - are effective at inducing either ground balls or swing-and-misses. His chase rate (35%) and 10.3% swinging strike rate indicate there is likely still some upside to his 18% strikeout rate. He's a great sleeper option at starting pitching and no one is on him yet.
Willians Astudillo (MIN - C) - Willians Astudillo will draw the start at shortstop for the Twins today. The catcher has better offensive potential than fellow backstops Mitch Garner or Jason Castro, so the Twins seem to be willing to experiment him at various positions to get his bat into the lineup. In a year where catchers are scarce, finding one who has the at-bat upside of Astudillo (assuming he wins a utility job) at his ADP could go a long way in salvaging the "waiting for a catcher" strategy.