Early on in what has been another exciting MLB season, we have been introduced to many new players, all while having the privilege of seeing some old ones as well. Over the course of the last two months, we have been introduced to some breakout performers like Aaron Judge of the Yankees and Michael Conforto of the Mets. Along with them, there have been a few players that haven’t lived up to their previous performances, like Matt Harvey of the Mets and Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies (written up wonderfully here). I will illuminate 5 cases of players exceeding expectations and 5 more of those falling short. Along with that there will be an investigation on whether that performance could be sustainable long term. Hopefully you can use some of this to learn more about some exciting major leaguers and glean some insights for your fantasy team!
For explanations for any of the stats below, look to http://www.fangraphs.com/library
Miguel Sano, Minnesota Twins 3B/DH
Relevant Statistics: .299/.408/.592, 13 HR, 41 RBI, 2.6 fWAR
One of the most dramatic over-performers of the new season is the massive man manning the hot corner in the Twin Cities. The 6’4 260 lb. 24 year old is absolutely tearing the cover off the ball and has fueled the Twins to a AL Central leading 28-24 record. Sano is currently in seventh place on the leaderboard for fWAR (the Fangraphs version of Wins Above Replacement), already amassing a career high 2.6. Driving this success is both his bat and his glove. Sano is hitting for a 165 wRC+, signifying that his offense has been worth 65% more runs than league average (for more explanation on this stat look here). Also, the young slugger’s glove work is behind his improvement. In previous seasons, Sano has proven to be an average fielder, using his strong arm to make plays that many others could not, yet also losing nearly seven runs of value from errors. This year however, Sano has improved his defensive play, increasing his fielding percentage from .896 to .959.
Sano has long been known for his prodigious power and strong arm. Despite a down year in 2016, many were still high on his batting ability based on past performance.
Here is his prospect writeup from John Sickels of minorleagueball.com in 2014:
Power-mashing beast, comparable to a young Miguel Cabrera. He may not hit for the high averages that the mature Cabrera has produced, but power should be similar. Sano has made a lot of progress with the glove and a move to first base is not automatic.
Being compared to Miguel Cabrera is impressive for any hitter, let alone a minor leaguer like Sano was in 2014. Sano was a consensus top ten prospect in baseball. There are a few warning signs that some aspects of Sano’s play may slip, such as his .464 batting average on balls in play, while the MLB average hovers around .300. He also has had very shaky defense in the past, and his rapid ascent into the top ten defensive third baseman could be taken with a grain of salt. However, Sano hits the ball harder and more consistently than just about anyone, and he walks enough (15.5% BB) to mitigate some of the risk inherent with his absurd strikeout rate (37.4% K). He easily leads the majors with a 51.6% hard hit percentage, and a 98.7 mph average exit velocity, which both demonstrate that Sano is achieving insane consistency and power when putting bat to ball.
Look out for this young fella. If you tune into a Twins game in the near future, do not be surprised if you see Sano send a ball into orbit. Expect him to take pleasure in ruining ERA’s for years to come.
Robbie Ray, Arizona Diamondbacks SP
Relevant Statistics: 69.0 IP, 5-3, 3.00 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 1.7 fWAR
Robbie Ray has been one of the most frustratingly inconsistent starters in recent memory. Blessed with a fastball that can run up to 98 mph, and a slider that sits around 83 that accumulates a 40% strikeout rate and 20% swinging strike percentage, Ray has all the tools to be a dominant starter. Last year, he dazzled with his outings against the Marlins on June 12th (7.2 IP, 0 ER, 3 H, 1BB, 6K), and the Padres on August 20th (7.0 IP, 1 ER, 1 H, 13 K, 1 BB). He also had a few meltdowns, allowing 5 runs in three innings on April 24th to the Pirates and another 5 runs in 4.2 innings against the Padres on May 27th. Ray has seemingly made adjustments, and is pitching like an ace this season. He is top 12 in the majors among starters in fWAR and is sitting in sixth place in strikeouts per nine innings (10.96). He has managed to avoid too many blowups and produced one of the most impressive starts of the season on May 30. He spun a complete game shutout of the Pirates while only allowing four hits, no walks, and ten strikeouts.
First, lets look at the issues that led to Ray’s disappointing performance (4.90 ERA) in 2016. First off, he calls Chase Field home. Known as an extreme hitters park, Chase ranked third from the bottom for pitchers when considering the whole major leagues, behind only noted hitting havens Coors and Fenway. Ray also led the majors in batting average on balls in play allowed. Again, where the major league average is around .300, Ray’s was at .352, indicating a bit of bad luck. He was no doubt hurt by the injury to his rangy centerfielder A.J. Pollack. Finally, Ray issued too many free passes, in the bottom ten among qualified starters in BB%. This year, Ray once again has Pollack manning center, and his BABIP has plummeted nearly 100 points to .252. Meanwhile, his strikeouts are marginally down, while his walks are up. This points to Ray maybe getting a bit more lucky this year, or at least regressing to the median, and this stands while looking at his left on base rates. Ray has allowed a much lower percentage runners to score after reaching base compared to last year.
Ray still calls the desert his home, and will always have a challenging home park. Considering his penchant for striking out or walking seemingly every batter he faces, expect Ray to continue to be challenging into the future, with a few dud outings and a few masterpieces.
Zack Cozart, Cincinnati Reds SS
Relevant statistics: .335/.423/.574, 7 HR, 5 Defensive Runs Saved, 2.7 fWAR
Notice my surprise the other day, when I was browsing the WAR leaderboards on Fangraphs and saw who was in third place. I was so astounded I sent a tweet to High Heat Stats (awesome account by the way, well worth the follow). Please ignore the misspelling of the player’s name, I was excited!
This was my inspiration for this whole article. For years, the only thing you heard when hearing about Zack Cozart was how mediocre he was. It was simply incredible that such an unremarkable performer had ascended to such heights. Under the surface though, Cozart has been making improvements for years. First off, Cozart has always been a great fielder, peaking at 19 defensive runs saved in 2014. After being a slap hitter for many years, Cozart has increased his isolated power from .079 in 2013 all the way to .239 here in 2017. He also has gone from a career 5.9% BB to 13.9% BB this year.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but everything in Cozart’s profile screams regression to something more like last year’s numbers. His average exit velocity is about three miles per hour below the MLB average. He has not dramatically increased his fly ball percentage or pull percentage, both indicators of swing transformations that can lead to increased power. Zach Cozart is riding what seems to be a wave of good fortune to a batting line 61% better than league average. I say these things, and as I am writing this article I have been tuned in to the Reds game, where he has hit another two home runs, and a triple to boot! I’m already starting to regret this.
All signs point to Cozart slowing down here in the near future. Despite this, Cozart remains a solid performer who the Reds may ship off at the trade deadline for some young talent to build around.
Jason Vargas, Kansas City Royals SP
Relevant Statistics: 69.1 IP, 7-3, 2.08 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 1.8 fWAR
Jason Vargas is one of the most puzzling players of 2017. He was last seen prominently in 2015, pitching for the Royals in the regular season leading up to their World Series winning playoff run. However, Vargas needed Tommy John surgery during the season, and along with the playoffs, missed the entire 2016 season sans 12 innings. Vargas, a 34-year-old lefty, has never been anything close to an ace. However, through a third of the MLB season, he is only trailing Dallas Keuchel of the Astros in ERA. Call me crazy, but I never saw a breakout coming from a 34-year-old coming off of Tommy John surgery that has never shown anything like this in his career.
Vargas may have made some improvements, but there is no way that he continues to dominate major league hitting like this over the course of the year. First, I’ll go over the improvements. He is striking out an extra batter every nine innings over his career rate, and issuing .5 less walks. He also is leaning on his changeup that is striking out batters over 30% of the time. However, he is not inducing ground balls at an increased rate, and his overall swinging strike percentage outside his changeup (24%), is dismal. His fielding-independent pitching indicates that his ERA should be around a run higher. His BABIP is at .278, which is a bit low. Vargas appears to be getting a bit lucky this year, but also seems to have improved a bit too.
Verdict: While Vargas may have made improvements on the player he was early on in his career, he also seems to be a bit lucky this year, benefitting from a home stadium that is kind to pitchers and some grace from the baseball gods. I doubt Vargas will continue to run an ERA in the low 2’s.
Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals 3B
Relevant Statistics: .368/.416/.695, 15 HR, 45 RBI, 2.1 fWAR
Ryan Zimmerman was once the face of the Washington Nationals. Before their youth movement started and the #1 overall picks started rolling in, he was a rock for a new team. In recent years however, Zimmerman has declined, finally bottoming out at -1.3 fWAR last year, signifying he was far worse than an average replacement player. Zimmerman has been on a tear this year though, capturing NL player of the month for April and hitting as many long balls as he did last year. Zimmerman is one of the driving forces on one of the best offenses in baseball, and has a ton of RBI opportunities with former MVP Bryce Harper hitting in front of him. Thus far, he has put up an offensive line 89% better than league average!
Zimmerman is yet another MLB player who has undergone a significant swing change that has seemingly overnight turned him back into a slugger. In 2016, Zimmerman just hit the ball on the ground too much, and in 2017 has reduced that percentage by 7%. His average exit velocity was always high, so putting the ball into the air has maximized the damage that he can do with his prodigious power. Zimmerman has a unsustainably high .404 BABIP, and that will fall back to earth, but he should remain a great hitter.
Zimmerman should no longer be the awful drag on the franchise that he was in 2016, yet going forward may suffer some regression to the mean. He should however be a dynamic cog in the Nationals lineup for the rest of the year, and remain an above average player.
Relevant Statistics: .223/.277/.359, 6 HR, 28 RBI, -.3 fWAR
Franco, like Sano, was also a top 3B prospect in 2014, usually falling in the top 30 or so prospects on most lists.
Here is John Sickel’s writeup of Franco that year:
Posted .926 OPS in Double-A at age 20 with a low strikeout rate, 31 homers on the season, 36 doubles with just 70 whiffs in 581 PA. Despite impeccable performance at young age, some observers still critique his swing and overall approach. Usually serious swing problems show up with an elevated strikeout rate and/or serious production slippage in the high minors, but so far that hasn’t occurred. We’ll see what happens in Triple-A, but overall I can’t see how Franco is anything but an elite prospect.
Franco is not trending well across the last three seasons. His wRC+ has gone from 129, to 92, to 67. He is now firmly a below average hitter this season. His average is down to .223, and the on base percentage is only .277. His exit velocity is still far above the MLB average, so he is still hitting the ball with authority. Franco has been a disappointment, and as his prospect sheen wears off, he will need to start to play better to stay in the long term plans of the Phillies front office.
Franco seems like one of those players, like Ryan Zimmerman, Josh Donaldson, and J.D. Martinez, that would benefit from a swing change. His fly ball percentage is low and he hits too many balls on the ground. His BABIP is extremely low right now, so he could creep back to an average hitting line with a dynamic hitting line with a bit of luck. Alex Stumpf wrote a great piece about Franco’s struggles with sliders here, and iterated that Franco has a lot of developing still to do. The projections seem to still hold Franco in high esteem, with ZiPS being the low man and still projecting a +.9 fWAR rest of season performance.
Franco may never live up to his high prospect billing, and has a few steps he should take to return to being an above average hitter. Expect this to take time, and his numbers the rest of the year may not be what many expected coming into the season.
Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves SP
Relevant Statistics: 61.2 IP, 4-4, 4.82 ERA, 5.51 FIP, -.2 fWAR
Before diving into Julio Teheran and the next guy, Jose Quintana, I would encourage anyone to read this article, which delves into why Quintana has been the pitcher credited with more fWAR over the years. Teheran has always been someone with much better results than the underlying numbers dictate. This can be attributed to many things, but overall Teheran has a career ERA of 3.49 and a career FIP of 3.97. Things have fallen apart for Teheran this season, attributable to his BB/9 jumping up nearly two walks and his K/9 falling by over a strikeout. FIP sees Teheran as someone deserving of a 5.5 ERA thus far, and Teheran has compiled -.2 fWAR and has had his worst season to date.
Teheran has always been a man on the edge, outperforming his peripherals for the bulk of his career. His fastball velocity is down almost a full mile per hour, and he is striking out less batters and walking more than he has in recent years. His skills seem to be demonstrably eroding, and he will need to make some sort of change to get back to his normal self. This does not seem to be a slump, and the only thing that could be attributed to luck is his 14% HR/FB rate that has his HR/9 at a career high 1.75.
Teheran is a pitcher that seems to be regressing. He is still over-performing his fielding independent numbers and may be someone that the Braves may not be able to rely on to be a part of their core long term.
Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox SP
Relevant Statistics: 64.1 IP, 2-7, 5.60 ERA, 4.28 FIP, .9 fWAR
Quintana is the opposite side of the coin from Teheran. He has never been someone to consistently over-perform his fielding independent numbers. He pitches in a tough park, and has been notorious for racking up low win totals despite his efforts, in part due to languid offensive support. Quintana has struggled this year, because of an increased walk rate (up to 3.36 in 2017 after 2.16 in 2016), and a sky high HR/9 rate (1.40, up from .95 last year). He still is not getting his wins or racking up insane strikeout numbers either, and many outside the organization are pondering whether or not the White Sox should have sold high this summer on someone that is having a down year.
To me, all signs point to Quintana bouncing back. If he could get his homers and walks under control, he could once again establish himself as an above average option. His velocity hasn’t plummeted, the projections are all still supporting him, and his BABIP is slightly higher than his career average.
If I had to guess, I would say that Quintana moves back into the role of an under appreciated quality option. All the trade rumors this summer made the general public more aware of his quiet performance, and this may be enough for him to stay toiling in Guaranteed Rate Field a year longer.
Adrian Gonzalez, Los Angeles Dodgers 1B
Relevant Statistics: .262/.309/.356, 1 HR, 21 RBI, -.5 fWAR
Adrian Gonzalez was once an incredible player, posting a 6.1 fWAR season and racking up over 1100 career RBI’s. Yet Gonzalez has been dismal this season, posting an 80 wRC+ and being completely pushed out of the Dodgers long term plans by a certain someone. Gonzalez has also gone on the DL this year, part of the Dodgers plan so seemingly stick half of their roster on there at once. Gonzalez is hitting for almost no power, as his .094 isolated power demonstrates.
You would think someone hitting this poorly after such a storied career would have a low BABIP. Nope, Gonzalez has a BABIP of .311, above the MLB average. His average exit velocity is slightly higher than the MLB average, but there is not a lot of promise in Gonzalez’ profile. His walk rate has never been this low in a full season. His ground ball rate is above his career average, and his fly ball rate is below his career average.
Time catches up to all of us, and sometimes rookies that turn Dodger Stadium into launching pads do too. Gonzalez will eventually be phased out of the Dodgers 1st base pecking order. It seems I am more down on him than anyone else on this list.
Jonathan Villar, Milwaukee Brewers 2B
Relevant Statistics: .210/.284/.319, 5 HR, 24 RBI, -.5 fWAR
Villar was a godsend to fantasy teams across America last year, as his 62 stolen bases paced the majors. However, Villar has gone from a 118 wRC+ in 2016 to a 59 wRC+ in 2017. In 2016 he found his power stroke, but his ISO has dropped precipitously in 2017. His baserunning value was always overstated by his steals totals, but has already accumulated more than half of last year’s value on the bases this year, so that does not seem to be the problem. Villar was expected to be a top fantasy option this year, and has thus far been an enormous disappointment.
Villar’s regression seems to be completely tied to his bat. His defense and baserunning are actually both improved on a rate basis from last year, impressive considering a position change. With both his walk rate up, his strikeouts down, and his power down, the general trend is not positive. His ground ball percentage is up around 8%, and his fly balls are down. It seems like Villar is going against the changes being implemented in the league as a whole, and it is not going to well for him.
While Villar will always be good for some swipes, he has not done anything this year to indicate that his monster 2016 was anything but a flash in the pan. If I were in a fantasy league, I would sell while he has some semblance of fantasy value.
Thanks for reading! If you have any criticisms or want something else looked into, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me on twitter @Stanonis_
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*all stats from fangraphs.com, updated as of June 4, 2017
*Average exit velocity courtesy of MLB’s Statcast
*All photos courtesy of Getty Images