Fantasy Baseball: Looking into (and beyond) the numbers to find buy-low hitters like Trevor Story, Joey Votto

Ketel Marte had an absolutely miserable start to the 2022 season, finishing just 0.146/0.211/0.256 by the end of April. It wasn’t just a bad month for Marte – his .467 OPS was the 10th worst in baseball and the worst of his career for a month in which he made at least 90 plate appearances. Unfortunately, since the calendar switched to May, your buy-low window may have already closed.

Marte has the second-highest OPS in the majors so far this month, and he’s hit safely in nine games (including the last two in April) with two homers, five doubles and a triple in that time frame — good for a mammoth. 406/.487/.813 slash. And the thing is, it’s not like Marte’s underlying numbers indicated this type of run was coming, as Marte’s underlying numbers were all pretty bad – he only had an expected batting average of .211 and an expected slugging- percentage of 0.298 and its average exit speed was lower to 88.7 km/h. Marte was cold.

But his track record over the last three seasons has just been too strong for me to ever worry. Players get cold at times, and Marte has been heating up just as quickly, with an average exit speed of 94.4 mph so far in May. It’s obviously a small sample size, but I’m willing to bet that April will be by far the worst month of Marte’s season and until September will be a distant memory.

There is a lesson there. Be patient. Don’t react to small sample sizes just because it’s the start of the season. And while contact quality metrics are useful — although this season it’s fairer to question their utility than ever — they’re a snapshot of where a player is at any given time, not an indicator of how they’re doing will move forward. Marte’s slump coincided with the start of the new season and the underlying numbers backed that up, but his track record gave cause for optimism.

You missed the buy-low window on Marte, but if anyone in your league is still concerned, by all means try to snag him, because I still think he’ll be a top-25 the rest of the way -racquet will be – but he’s obviously not the only buy-low contender out there. Here are four more hitters I want to buy even if they’re past their bad starts.

Merrifield ranks last in most offensive categories so far, with an almost unimaginable three extra base hits in 113 trips to the plate. Merrifield is 33, so he’s at an age when a sudden drop wouldn’t be incredible, and with his already so-so quality of contact metrics and newly cushioned ball, it’s possible he’s particularly vulnerable to such a dramatic drop.

But I’m not sure if we see that. Merrifield is still making contact at around his typical contact rate — his out-of-zone contact rate is down a bit (71% to 56%), but his in-zone contact rate is identical (85.9% to 85.4%), so me don’t think there is much. He also doesn’t swing more than normal on pitches outside of the strike zone. He also currently ranks in the 87th percentile for sprint speed, identical to last season, and the biggest change in his batted ball metrics is a significant drop in his line drive rate.

A drop in line drive rate would be a very bad thing for a hitter who relies on high batting averages like Merrifield does, but it’s also one of the batted ball metrics that takes the longest to stabilize — the sabermetrics from FanGraphs.com The library says it typically takes more than a year for line drive rate to stabilize, so “six weeks of batted data shouldn’t change your opinion of a player’s talent level.” That said, it’s far too early to know if we’re actually seeing a significant drop in his underlying skill level.

I’m willing to bet on the longer-term stability Merrifield has shown, especially with no sign of a significant drop in athleticism. Merrifield may not be the batting average outlier he was when he was routinely batting near .300, but I still see him as an above-average source there (and probably with runs), with likely a high-end stealing Base production will come.

The biggest surprise isn’t that Story was a disappointment – players who switch leagues often struggle early on (think Francisco Lindor last season). No, the biggest surprise is that he hasn’t managed a single cheap homer with the help of the Green Monster. Of course, thanks to those infield popups and his 43 percent strikeout rate at home, he’s not exactly giving himself many opportunities just yet.

This is ugly stuff. Story still hits the ball pretty hard, but if you’re looking for evidence he might be pressing, a career-high flyball rate of 50.8% is compelling evidence; a 20 percent infield fly rate on top of that seems to be the definitive proof. And the truth is we don’t even know what a locked version of story played full time outside of Coors Field would look like so I understand that I’m concerned that, well, this this is how it looks

But it mostly just seems like Story isn’t right yet, and we can’t really judge who he is outside of Coors Field until he’s right. He may be struggling under the weight of contract expectations, but you have to give him the opportunity to get it right. If the person who has him in your league is losing patience I would try to make an offer with a low end top 100 or under player like Ty France and see if that’s enough to add story .

The beauty of trying to buy cheap from Votto now is that it will come at a very low cost. He’s currently in the IL with a COVID bout and had a disastrous start to the season, hitting .122/.278/.135 in his first 90 plate appearances with 29 strikeouts and just one extra base hit. If Votto was done at 38, it would probably look very similar.

But we thought Votto would have finished before then. Granted, this is probably the ugliest streak we’ve seen from him to date, although it’s worth noting that this isn’t even the worst strikeout rate he’s had over a 22-game streak in the past year; Last August he hit a 34% mark in a row. And while it’s true that he was still looking for power when he struck like that, Votto is certainly no stranger to dips; Midway through the 2020 season he had a .257 wOBA while looking for his swing.

Votto is a tinkerer. The final stages of his career were defined by trying to overcome the aging process and we’ve seen ugly results from him from time to time as he adapts. Last season, he took a new approach, aiming to hit a string of homers for the first time in his career, adjusting to a more aggressive swing, and even switching to a new racquet this offseason in hopes of getting more generating power – and then switched back to his regular racquet in late April before moving to IL.

To ask a 38-year-old to reverse such a slump might be asking too much and maybe I just have too much faith in Votto. But he’s one of the most cerebral players in the game and one of the most honest about his approach and skills (especially as they’ve waned), and he expressed optimism about getting his momentum back before going to IL. If Votto still believes in himself then I am confident that he will find out.

You imagine, if nobody gets hit by a dead ball, it’s the gargantuan left-handed power hitter who plays half his games at Yankee Stadium. But while Anthony Rizzo managed to get his best start in years, Gallo was miserable. Even at a time when everyone seems to be “underperforming” their expected stats, Gallo’s 0.297-wOBA versus an expected 0.371-wOBA stands out.

Gallo has actually managed to increase both his fly ball and line drive rates from last season while dramatically reducing his infield fly ball rate so far, and he’s still hitting the ball pretty well tough – he ranks in the 79th percentile in average exit speed and 92nd hit rate; If you only isolate fly balls and line drives, Gallo’s average exit speed of 100.5 mph is in the 99th percentile. It just doesn’t make sense that Gallo’s HR/FB rate is only 18.8%, dead ball or not.

Sure, he’ll always be a drag on batting average if he hits 35% of the time or more. But in an environment where batting averages are low for everyone, Gallo’s trademark Mendoza line flirtation might be even less damaging … if the power generation were there. I think it will be, so I will buy – aggressively in an OBP league.

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