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Should You Buy Into These Hitters’ Hot Starts?

Image: Wikipedia

Most teams have now played either 10 or 11 games, which would equate to between 16.67% and 18.33% of their regular season. While it’s true that you still have too small of a sample size to draw any meaningful conclusions on most hitters based purely on their surface-level statistics, the underlying numbers often help paint a better picture on if the success is sustainable. From a fantasy baseball perspective, especially in a short season, this can be crucial to your team’s championship hopes. We will take a look at ten hitters off to hot starts and determine whether you should buy into their success. Naturally, the vast majority of hitters won’t maintain any semblance of their current otherworldly slash lines, so this is an attempt to predict whether the hitters are showing meaningful gains or will regress back to their former selves. For the purposes of this article, each player will be graded on a “confidence meter” with a scale of 1-10 on how likely they are to sustain their early gains, with 1 being the least likely to maintain and 10 being the most likely to maintain.

Corey Seager

The Numbers: .375/.432/.700, 209 OPS+, 212 wRC+, .459 wOBA, 0.7 bWAR, 0.8 fWAR

Seager has been off to a blazing start, and the surface level numbers don’t even begin to tell his story. Seager’s numbers are backed up by off-the-charts StatCast metrics, including a 27.3% barrel rate, 94.1 MPH average exit velocity, and 63.6% hard hit rate. Seager’s expected statistics are insane, with a .506 xBA, 1.087 xSLG, .660 xwOBA, and .719 xwOBACON that all dwarf his actual numbers and each rank as the best in the league.

Image: StatCast

While it’s true that he won’t maintain any semblance of those numbers, there’s good reason to be excited about what the future holds for Seager. At the very least, he’s proven he’s fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, the after effects of which likely caused his career worst numbers in 2019. Among the other positive signs in the early going, Seager’s strikeout percentage is at a career-low 7.5%, though his whiff rate hasn’t seen a major improvement. The verdict is still out on whether Seager can finish taking a step to the next level, but at the very least, it seems clear that he’s put his Tommy John surgery in the rear view mirror and can return to pre-2018 levels. 

Confidence Meter: 7

Nick Castellanos

The Numbers: .382/.462/.912, 270 OPS+, 261 wRC+, .563 wOBA, 0.7 bWAR, 0.8 fWAR

Castellanos has begun his Reds career with a 10-game hitting streak, and has hit a handful of home runs already. Much like Seager, his StatCast numbers so far are beyond elite, with a 26.9% barrel rate, 93.3 MPH exit velocity, and 57.7% hard hit rate. His expected metrics also outpace his actual numbers, with a .420 xBA, .917 xSLG, .565 xwOBA, and .713 xwOBACON.

Castellanos also made a notable mechanical change this year, lowering his hands, changing bat movement, and taking a smaller step. That could be a huge part of the reason for his early success. 

Castellanos has also benefited from an increase in BB%, a trend that has so far been present for multiple Reds players, and could signal a change in hitting philosophy under new hitting coach Alan Zinter. The biggest benefit to Castellanos has been his move to the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark. While he won’t maintain his current pace of 81 HR per 162 games, he’s likely to maintain a notable spike with the move to the smaller park, which is supported by a chart overlaying Castellanos’s 2019 batted balls over GABP. In short, it’s probably realistic to expect at least a repeat of Chicago Castellanos as opposed to regressing to his Detroit numbers.

Confidence Meter: 9

Donovan Solano

The Numbers: .457/.474/.657, 220 OPS+, 213 wRC+, .480 wOBA, 0.5 bWAR, 0.7 fWAR

Solano is a veteran infielder that has never been known as an offensive force. His career 87 wRC+ doesn’t inspire confidence. Pair that with a .500 BABIP and no notable increase in BB%, and you have a recipe for regression. Yes, Solano showed flashes of success in 2019, with a 116 wRC+ in 228 PA, but even that was aided by a .409 BABIP. Interestingly, Solano actually had an xwOBA higher than his actual wOBA in 2019, so it is possible that some of his gains were legitimate.

His expected metrics, including a .331 xBA, .547 xSLG, and .376 xwOBA, all lag behind his actual numbers in the early goings this year, but suggest there may be at least some potential for future success. The upside with Solano is probably a high average, low walk rate player with limited power, but given his less than ideal track record, he’s a guy you’re probably better off fading. 

Confidence Meter: 3

JaCoby Jones

The Numbers: .379/.419/.793, 234 OPS+, 236 wRC+, .509 wOBA, 0.4 bWAR, 0.6 fWAR

Jones is an interesting case. He finally showed some semblance of offensive ability in 2019, though was still below league average. His early showings have led many to believe he’s taking the next step toward stardom, but how legitimate are the gains? While his strikeout rate has dipped in the early goings, so has his walk rate, though he’s also swinging at fewer pitches than he ever has. His plate discipline is hard to peg this early, but it’s likely he will need to sustain gains there in order to have future success.

Jones has a barrel rate of 18.2% to go along with a 50.0% hard hit rate so far in 2020. Both are increases from his 2019 numbers, though he did flash some solid numbers in 2019, with a 10.7% barrel rate and 47.5% hard hit rate. His expected numbers so far in 2020 lag behind his actual numbers, with a .305 xBA, .641 xSLG, and .413 xwOBA, but each of those numbers are still impressive in their own right. In the case of Jones, it would be nice to see how he performs over a larger sample size, though it seems possible he’s made some legitimate gains. 

Confidence Meter: 6

Colin Moran

The Numbers: .273/.314/.758, 187 OPS+, 186 wRC+, .444 wOBA, 0.5 bWAR, 0.5 fWAR

A quick glance at Moran’s stats show a batting average and OBP near his career averages, but his slugging percentage has seen quite the spike. Moran has hit 5 HR already in 2020, after hitting just 11 in 2018 and 13 in 2019. The StatCast metrics are there, with a 26.1% barrel rate, 95.8 MPH exit velocity, and 52.2% hard hit rate. His expected metrics are inclined to agree, with a .350 xBA, .859 xSLG, and .504 xwOBA, all better than his actual marks.

The damage, however, hasn’t been done against great pitching. His 5 HR are against Dakota Hudson, Adrian Houser, Devin Williams, Craig Kimbrel, and Kyle Ryan, none of which are among the league’s best pitchers at this point. Though Houser has definite potential, he’s yet to prove himself over an extended period, and Hudson had a good season in 2019, but notably struggled with the long ball. This just feels like Moran is beating up against weaker pitching and won’t sustain the power surge, though the underlying metrics are admittedly tantalizing in the early going. With Moran, I’d caution to take the metrics as a small sample size anomaly, as he’s never really shown much power in his career. 

Confidence Meter: 3

Hanser Alberto

The Numbers: .429/.459/.686, 222 OPS+, 223 wRC+, .491 wOBA, 0.7 bWAR, 0.7 fWAR

Alberto’s success is fueled by a .433 BABIP. His StatCast numbers don’t inspire any sort of confidence, as his 85.7 MPH exit velocity and 21.9% hard hit rate rank toward the bottom of the league, continuing a trend he’s shown his whole career. While his low strikeout rate and high-contact approach will lead to a relatively safe batting average floor even with BABIP regression, it’s going to be an empty batting average.

Alberto can not be counted on to provide any sort of power, and his walk rate is miniscule as well. His .267 xBA, .371 xSLG, and .300 xwOBA are all even below his 2019 numbers, meaning not only will he likely fall quickly from his current numbers, he could fall even below his 2019 numbers. That would be an absolute disaster in fantasy, so he’s on the list of players to avoid. 

Confidence Meter: 1

Teoscar Hernandez

The Numbers: .321/.355/.821, 226 OPS+, 215 wRC+, .476 wOBA, 0.6 bWAR, 0.6 fWAR

Hernandez has shown flashes of brilliance in the past, but has never been able to sustain them. Is 2020 going to be the same, or can we expect more sustainability this time around? The StatCast numbers give reason for confidence, as his 20.0% barrel rate, 95.9 MPH exit velocity and stellar 70.0% hard hit rate rank among the league’s best. Hernandez still strikes out too much, ranking in the 16th percentile for whiff rate and in the 27th percentile in K% so far this year, something that’s always been a problem for him.

Expected metrics are favorable for Hernandez, with a .336 xBA, .795 xSLG, and .458 xwOBA that are all in the range of his actual numbers. Again, the concern is that this is just one of Hernandez’s patented hot streaks, so he’s a guy you’d really like to see sustain the success over a longer period before getting too excited. For now, he’s a hot hand I’d be comfortable playing or grabbing off the waiver wire, but not someone I’d go all out to acquire. 

Confidence Meter: 6

Kevin Pillar

The Numbers: .387/.406/.613, 180 OPS+, 183 wRC+, .437 wOBA, 0.5 bWAR, 0.4 fWAR

Pillar seems to be another obvious BABIP-boosted strong starter this year, with a .423 BABIP. A quick glance at StatCast gives you much of the same idea, as his 86.2 MPH exit velocity and 33.3% hard hit rate are both near his career averages. His .304 xBA provides some slight confidence, but his .409 xSLG and .320 xwOBA certainly do not.

Simply put, Pillar is not an offensive threat and never has been. He’s the type of guy you can ride during a hot stretch in fantasy only if you’re desperate, and one you can never really expect to sustain value. I’d be fading Pillar nearly everywhere unless you’re just in need of healthy bodies on your roster, and would expect heavy regression in the near future. 

Confidence Meter: 1

Marcell Ozuna

The Numbers: .324/.444/.649, 194 OPS+, 192 wRC+, .457 wOBA, 0.5 bWAR, 0.7 fWAR

Ozuna is in need of a big year after signing a one year deal with the Braves. Early returns are impressive, and the underlying metrics back it up. Ozuna has long been a StatCast darling, and his 11.5% barrel rate, 95 MPH exit velocity, and 57.7% hard hit rate in 2020 continue that trend. His expected metrics do all slightly lag his actual numbers, but it would be hard to be disappointed with a .304 xBA, .576 xSLG, and .417 xwOBA.

Ozuna has consistently put up StatCast numbers that are better than his actual results in every season of his career except 2017, his career best season. Perhaps the change of scenery to Atlanta, which also meant playing in a smaller park, will prove to be a good move for Ozuna. At this point, the hope is just that his actual results will live up to the underlying metrics, and there’s no real reason to doubt that possibility. 

Confidence Meter: 9

Joey Votto

The Numbers: .267/.389/.567, 162 OPS+, 154 wRC+, .401 wOBA, 0.1 bWAR, 0.2 fWAR

Votto differs from the rest of the players on the list in that his numbers haven’t been off-the-chart. However, his early showings in 2020 have been notable, in that he’s returned to looking like Joey Votto. The question with Votto is whether he can sustain this rejuvenation and avoid slipping back to his 2019 numbers, which was by far his career worst season to date.

The most notable stat for Votto so far is his minuscule 2.8% strikeout rate, easily the best in the league. Votto brings with it a .192 BABIP, however, which could indicate poor luck, or that he’s making less quality contact. A quick look at the numbers favors the latter, as his 81.5 MPH exit velocity and 17.2% hard hit rate indicate poor contact. He has also yet to barrel a ball. His expected metrics lag his actual numbers, with a .443 xSLG and .364 xwOBA, though neither is exactly bad, and his .279 xBA is actually better than his real average. With Votto, he will need to make better contact to truly return to his superstar self, though if anyone can make the adjustment, it’s probably Votto. 

Confidence Meter: 5

Conclusion

The long story short is that to truly be confident that a hitter’s early success is legitimate, you’re usually looking for one of two things. The first is that the hitter is continuing a trend they’ve shown previously, whether that be from last season as a whole, or even a 2019 second half surge. The other thing you’re looking for is a meaningful change in quality of contact. Not all changes in contact quality are meaningful in this small of a sample size however. You need to be looking for quality of contact changes that were brought about by a significant adjustment, such as a new home ballpark, batting stance change, or a return to previous career levels in the case of a hitter that was hampered by injury in 2019.

Kyle Berger

Reds contributor for Max’s Sporting Studio. Follow on Twitter @KB_48