Well Ladies and Gents, week one of the circus we call the 2020 MLB baseball season is officially in the books! With several games already being postponed due to COVID-19 outbreaks, many fantasy baseball managers are already feeling the pinch of players being unavailable for an indefinite period. With benches now crowded with otherwise healthy players that have no discernable timetable for return, desperate managers are turning to the waiver wire earlier in the season than usual, as they attempt to get enough at-bats to compete in their leagues. This coupled with an already shortened season (and one that could be canceled at any moment!), means that more than ever, savvy managers are following playing time and riding the “hot hand”. But how to decide whether a player is a one week wonder, or has made skill changes that could result in an extended run of excellence? Below are five mid or low owned players who are off to hotter than expected starts and an analysis of whether their hot streak is likely to continue. Please remember that the standard “small sample size” caveat applies to all performances.
Dansby Swanson – ATL – SS – 69% owned (Yahoo)
Depending on the size of your league, Swanson may already be owned. The first overall pick in the 2015 draft, Swanson has long been known as a defense over offense shortstop. True to form, since reaching the big leagues in 2016, Swanson has posted below-average wRC+ in each of his three full seasons (2017 – 64, 2018 – 80, 2019 – 92). Possessing a modest power-speed blend, Swanson’s best full offensive season came in 2019 when he posted a .251/.325/.422 in 545 PA with 17 homers and 10 steals. Swanson is off to a torrid start at the plate in 2020, currently boasting a .391/.391/.739 in 23 PA to go along with 2 homers and a stolen bag. His 212 wRC+ is currently more than double his career mark of 83. Although Swanson’s current pace is certainly unsustainable, the under the hood metrics suggest Swanson could be in the midst of a legitimate power breakout, and may actually be turning a corner in his age 26 seasons. According to Baseball Savant, Swanson currently has a hard-hit rate of 50% (balls hit 95+ MPH or higher) which is tied for 35th best in the league. Additionally, Swanson’s Barrel rate currently sits at 25%, good for 8th in the league (a barrel is a ball hit roughly 98+ with a launch angle between 26 and 30 degrees, these types of hits are some of the most valuable in baseball as they generally lead to a minimum .500 batting average and a .1500 slugging percentage). If Swanson continues to hit the ball as hard as he has so far, owners could be rewarded with a sizeable power binge over the next few weeks. However, look for Swanson to eventually give back some of his Batting averages, as his swinging strike rate has spiked to a career-high 14.4% to go along with a drop in his overall contact percentage to 70.8% (74.3% in 2019, 76.2% career). Given Swanson’s current power metrics, I expect him to continue to hit for power, but his ugly 39.1% strikeout rate will probably catch up to him at some point. Pick him up where you can, and ride him while he’s hot.
Teoscar Hernandez – TOR – OF—33% owned (Yahoo)
A perennial power-speed tease since his time as a prospect in the Astros system, Hernandez was traded to the Blue Jays in 2017 and has been a slightly above-average offensive player ever since (despite possessing a 31.8% career strikeout rate). While he has slowed some entering his age 27 season, his 64th percentile sprint speed and good instincts on the basepaths still allow Hernandez to be a decent speed threat. Currently hitting a blistering .321/.355/.821, Hernandez has also chipped in 4 home runs and 2 stolen bases in just 31 PA. Hernandez’s 70% hard-hit rate on the young season is currently good for 4th in the league, and his 14 batted balls hit harder than 95 MPH trails only Corey Seager. Like Swanson, the quality of contact Hernandez is making is currently masking some underlying contact issues. While Hernandez has trimmed his overall strikeout rate by 4% (29% in 2020, 33% in 2019), his swinging strike rate has jumped to over 17% (league average is roughly 9.5%) and his overall contact rate has correspondingly dropped to 63.5%. Hernandez’s early-season success is at least in part because he is making better contact with pitches in the zone, as his contact rate on in-zone pitches has jumped from 75.8% in 2019 to 81.8% in 2020. While Hernandez has the underlying skills to continue this torrid stretch of power and speed, expect him also to give back a fair amount of BA in the long run. Unfortunately, as the Blue Jays upcoming series against the Nationals has been postponed, we may have to wait a few days to see how long Hernandez can keep his streak going.
Kyle Lewis – SEA – OF – 66% owned (Yahoo)
One of baseballs hottest hitters over the first week of 2020, Kyle Lewis picked up where he left off after his 6 home run binge that came during a brief late-season call-up last September. A former 1st round pick (11th overall in 2016), Lewis has always had substantial power potential but has struggled to hit for average during his time in the minor leagues. Currently sporting a .448/.500/.655 slash line to go along with his 2 home runs, early results have been positive for Lewis, while the underlying metrics are not. Although Lewis has slightly improved his strikeout rate (37.5% in 2020, 38.7% in 2019) and his swinging strike rate (15.2% in 2020, 17.7% in 2019), Lewis is actually making less overall contact in 2020 than last season. Lewis’s contact rate has fallen from an abysmal 63.7% in 2019 to a truly tragic 59.6% (yikes!) in 2020. What is perhaps even more concerning, is that unlike Swanson and Hernandez, Lewis’ exit velocity and hard-hit rates do not support his current rate of production. Lewis currently sports a 29.4% hard-hit rate according to Baseball Savant, tied for 172nd in the league. While his 11.8% barrel percentage is better, it’s still only good for 73rd in the league and is not good enough to make up for the complete lack of contact skills over the long run. I do not expect Kyle Lewis to continue his magical run of success for much longer.
Jacoby Jones – DET – OF – 18% owned (Yahoo)
A 28-year-old bench outfielder playing for the current iteration of the Detroit Tigers does not scream fantasy relevance. Nevertheless, Jones is currently sporting a .409/.458/.909 line with 3 home runs in 24 plate appearances. While Jones is clearly playing over his head, it does appear Jones has made some adjustments in 2020 that are aiding his improved production. In the young season, Jones has trimmed his strikeout rate roughly 8% (20.8% in 2020, 28.2% in 2019), however, this reduction does not appear to be a result of making better contact as his overall contact rate has actually decreased compared to last season (70% in 2020, 75.8% in 2019). It appears this decrease in strikeout rate is mostly the result of swinging less overall, as his swing percentage on all pitches has dropped to a career-low 38.8% (48.9% career), with the majority of that drop coming from swinging less at pitches outside the zone. Couple that with a healthy 52.9% hard-hit rate (81st percentile), and you have a slightly elevated profile over previous performance. Although I don’t expect Jones to carry this type of production long term, the marginal gains he has made suggest he might provide useable stats over the shortened season.
J.P. Crawford – SEA – SS – 9% owned (Yahoo)
Another former top prospect (16th overall 2013 draft), Crawford has never quite lived up to the hype he had coming up through the Phillies system. Traded to the Mariners in 2019, Crawford appears to be living up to some of his prospect pedigree in his age 25 seasons. Currently slashing .375/.516/.583 with no homers and 2 steals, Crawford is currently sporting an elite 22% walk rate that has owners in OBP leagues salivating. Crawford has further trimmed his career 22.1% strikeout rate by nearly 16% (6.5%) by halving his swinging strike rate (4% in 2020, 8.1% in 2019) and boosting his already respectable 80% career contact rate to a career-high 88.4%. Just as encouraging as his plate discipline gains, Crawford is hitting the ball harder than ever before, boasting a 72nd percentile hard-hit rate at 45.5%. While Crawford is unlikely to ever contribute in the power department, his newfound contact skills and plate discipline should put him in a position to utilize his above-average speed to chip in a few stolen bases over the course of the shortened season. While Crawford’s current line is unsustainable over a full season, look for him to be a legitimate contributor in BA and OBP with the potential to chip in a handful of home runs and stolen bases.