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May 10, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

Four Hot Hitters

by Josh Shepardson

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Selling high on fast starters is largely a myth these days. There is simply too much information available for fantasy gamers. Not all fast starts are created equal, though, and sometimes it pays to inquire on the availability of some of these players. Occasionally, owners will feel like they are selling at peak value, and now is the time to make a deal with them. In other cases, those owners are selling a player at peak value, and it is best to avoid acquiring him now. The key is determining which hot players are likely to sustain their high level of success.

There were quite a few players for me to pick from, and I opted to eliminate superstars from the discussion. Superstars do great things, and telling you that Miguel Cabrera will continue to play well and is worth acquiring isn't terribly useful. With that in mind, I selected four hitters that had an ADP outside the top 100 at the end of March for NFBC leagues.

Carlos Gomez, OF, Milwaukee Brewers

  • ADP: 108
  • 2013 Stats: 22 R, 6 HR, 14 RBI, 7 SB, .386 AVG

Gomez is dialed in. He's leading all qualified batters in batting average, and he's providing his owners with the type of power and speed they sought when they drafted him. His homer and stolen-base totals aren't outlandish, and actually line up nicely with last year's breakout totals. In fact, he's pacing to fall short of the number of bases he stole last year.

The real outlier in the early going is his MLB leading batting average. His .447 BABIP is 151 points higher than last year's mark of .296, but while it’s safe to say he won't maintain his current clip, it's also not helpful to end the discussion there. His BABIP this year isn't just good luck. Last year, he had a line-drive rate of 16.9 percent and a popup rate of 10.1 percent. In the early going, those rates have improved to 25.3 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively. Little from the rest of his batted-ball and plate-discipline stats stands out as a substantial improvement, though. His contact rate is up less than two percent, and he's not being much more selective, still walking in less than five percent of his plate appearance, and swinging at more than one-third of the balls thrown out of the strike zone (38.62 percent o-swing rate in 2012 and 34.66 percent o-swing rate this year).

His batting average is going to fall hard, as pitchers will eventually exploit his free-swinging approach. Expectations should be up some from what they were in the spring, and an improved final line from last season's is highly likely. That said, if you own him and someone is willing to pay through the nose for his services, take advantage of that. Otherwise, sit tight and enjoy the unique combination of thump and speed he'll add to your fantasy team. If you don't own him, now is an awful time to try and acquire him. He has improved, but many of his faults that made him a .260 hitter last year remain. An average in the .270-.280 range going forward this season feels about right.

Starling Marte, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates

  • ADP: 203
  • 2013 Stats: 26 R, 5 HR, 16 RBI, 10 SB, .331 AVG

Prior to the 2012 season, while Marte was still a prospect, Kevin Goldstein ranked him fifth in the Pirates system and threw a 65 grade on his speed tool. Marte's speed is legitimately a plus tool, and other than a 156-plate-appearance professional debut in 2007, he's never fallen short of 20 stolen bases in a season. He matched his career best of 33 steals set in 2011 again last year, and he's well on his way to setting a new high this season. Nick Faleris mentioned Marte's "emerging power" in his section about the Pirates Top 10 Talents 25 and Under, and it certainly is emerging this year, with five long balls already on his line. Marte set a new single-season best last year for homers with 17 split between Triple-A and the bigs, and he could best that this year.

The tools are exciting, but Marte still needs to refine his craft. His walk rate remains low, which doesn't directly hurt his standard-league stats, but does speak volumes about his aggressive approach. Though his walk rate is up from 4.4 percent to 4.9 percent this year, he's swinging at a little over 2.5 percent more pitches this season. His contact rate is up significantly, from 72.92 percent in 2012 to 79.17 percent this year, but that's entirely the result of a leap in contact made on pitches outside the strike zone. Last year, he hit under 50 percent of the pitches he chased (49.24 percent o-contact rate), and this year he's hitting 66.35 percent of the balls he chases. His BABIP of .404 this year looks extra fluky, knowing that his increased contact is on pitches that pitchers want him swinging at. Factor in that his line-drive rate is up under one percent from last year's mark and is offset by a slight uptick in popups, and you have a player whose average is due for serious correction if he doesn't make some changes to his approach.

Revisiting his power output, Marte will have a difficult time eclipsing 20 homers if he doesn't hit the ball in the air more often. Last year, he had a fly-ball rate of 18.2 percent, and while he's hitting a few more balls in the air this year, that rate remains low at 21.2 percent. Because Marte is a speedster, spraying line drives and ground balls is far from the end of the world, but it does make it unlikely that he'll continue to hit homers at anything approaching his current pace. Marte leads off for the Pirates, so he should help fantasy teams in runs scored, and his speed is real, so 30-plus stolen bases at season's end is a realistic expectation, too. Temper homer and batting-average expectations, though, and be happy with another 10 bombs and an average in the neighborhood of .285. 

Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore Orioles

  • ADP: 194
  • 2013 Stats: 25 R, 5 HR, 22 RBI, 4 SB, .313 AVG

Machado is the latest cautionary tale of why placing too much weight on minor-league stats can often be a big mistake. His numbers for Double-A Bowie last year were solid, but unspectacular, yet the Orioles called him up to fill a need at third base and provide a spark. They trusted that his talent would keep him afloat while he adjusted to facing major-league pitching. Machado showed the Orioles that their faith in calling on him down the stretch last season was well placed. He wasn't a world-beater last year, but he did flash some power, slugging seven homers in 202 plate appearances. Of course, there were other facets of his game that hinted at him still being quite green.

For supremely talented youngsters, sometimes the light just goes on, and it appears that is the case for Machado this year. His walk rate is up slightly from 4.5 percent to 5.8 percent, but that doesn't do his improved plate discipline in the early going justice. His swing rate has dropped from 54.26 percent in 2012 to 48.40 percent in 2013, and nearly all of his newfound patience is the result of chasing fewer pitches out of the strike zone (29.71 percent o-swing in 2012 and 23.10 percent o-swing in 2013). Not only is he being more selective at the dish, but he's also making more contact, raising his contact rate by close to six percent this year. Machado isn't just making more contact, he's making harder contact, hitting line drives 20.3 percent of the time in 2013 compared to hitting them just 14.8 percent of the time last year. He'll need to hit the ball in the air more than his current fly-ball rate of 17.1 percent if he hopes to fully enjoy his homer power, but everything else is coming up roses thus far. Machado looks like a top-10 third baseman the rest of the year, and the only players I don't believe he has a chance to outperform at the position, barring an injury, are Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria, David Wright, Adrian Beltre, and Chase Headley.  

Chris Davis, 1B/OF, Baltimore Orioles

  • ADP: 121
  • 2013 Stats: 20 R, 9 HR, 30 RBI, .309 AVG

The Orioles’ willingness to overlook Davis's high strikeout rate last year allowed him to hit over 30 homers for the first time in a single season in the bigs. His power has never come into question, but the utility of it has. You have to make contact to drive the ball out of the yard, and Davis overcame a 30.1 percent strikeout rate and made the power play last season. The shocker was that he was able to hit .270 in spite of his propensity for striking out. Davis put the league, and fantasy gamers, on notice by hitting a homer in each of his first four games of the season. That's some start to the year, but he's enjoying more than a hot streak.

Davis is displaying signs of becoming a better hitter. His walk rate of 14.8 percent is more than double his career rate of 7.1 percent. Part of that could be pitchers pitching more carefully to him while he's locked in, but even if you eliminate his three intentional passes, his walk rate would still be impressive at 12.59 percent. As his uptick in walk rate would suggest, he's chasing less often. Davis's chase rate has dropped from 39.49 percent to 33.10 percent. The most exciting development in Davis's game is an increase to his contact rate on pitches in the strike zone from 82.09 percent last season to 89.73 percent this year.

I've yet to caution that we're dealing with small samples, but now seems like a good time to do so. It's possible Davis reverts back to the form he's showcased in the past, but the early signs are good that a player with over 1,700 plate appearances in the majors is making some adjustments to maximize his offensive talent. Davis is a candidate to lead the majors in homers, and 30-plus again this year is nearly a foregone conclusion. He's a long shot to continue to hit over .300 even with his improvements, but if his changes stick, there is no reason to write off a .285 average.

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