The wisdom from last week’s column applies doubly to hitters; whereas sometimes pitchers make non-negligible changes to their game -- adding a new pitch, picking up a few ticks of velocity -- batters largely are who they are throughout their career.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Guys like Jose Bautista and J.D. Martinez enjoyed breakouts later in their careers after making changes to their swings. Every year a few Max Muncys pop up like daisies in the midst of the weeds.
Identifying who’s for real and who’s a pretender is a tougher task. Equally difficult is trying to figure whether a struggling player is in for a down year or if he just needs some time to figure it out.
The aim of this column isn’t to simply highlight guys off to good or bad starts, so let’s dive in and see what the numbers tell us about a few noteworthy starts to the year.
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Santana is the breakout-season poster boy for a Mariners club that recently set a record by hitting a homer in each of its first 15 games of the season. Calling a great 2019 season a “breakout” would be a bit of a misnomer, though, since Santana’s true breakout came in 2017 when he hit 30 homers and stole 15 bases while batting .278/.371/.505 with the Brewers. Any player with a history of performance automatically gets a little more credibility when discussing whether his current success is sustainable, but the advanced metrics tell the same story: Santana has a 41.9 percent hard-hit percentage and is barreling balls at almost twice the league average rate. Nothing is guaranteed, but it’s hard to find red flags that suggest he’s due to turn into a pumpkin any time soon.
Ramirez has been getting it from all sides to start the year; he’s been pretty bad at the plate, and a pedestrian supporting cast has failed to give him any boost in the counting stats to this point. And while he’s deserved a lot of that early-season disappointment -- he’s swinging and missing more often, he’s hitting more fly balls which are less conducive to hitting for average, he’s virtually stopped walking -- the metrics aren’t alarming to the point that fantasy players should be concerned for the long haul. Keep in mind as well that Ramirez started the 2018 season 2-for-33 before going bananas, so precedent exists for him to overcome such a slow start. The return of Francisco Lindor should benefit Ramirez’s numbers, too. It’s a tough storm to weather, but his track record of performance and the absence of any panic alarms means owners should ride this one out.
There was a time we would temper expectations for any rookie making his season-long debut, but guys like Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto, among others, are proof that some players’ learning curves are less steep than the norm. Such appears to be the case with Alonso, who already has six homers and 17 RBI through the season’s first 14 games. And he’s not just swinging for the fences at all costs -- the 24-year-old ranks among the league leaders in barrels per plate appearance, behind only Gary Sanchez among qualified hitters; hard-hit percentage and average exit velocity, among other metrics. This didn’t come out of nowhere, either, after Alonso tore up the minors with 36 homers and 119 RBI between Double-A and Triple-A last year. There may be an adjustment made by pitchers once they get a book on the slugging first baseman, but there’s little fluky about his first three weeks in the major leagues.
Coming into this season, Blackmon was widely viewed as one of the safety fantasy options around. And for good reason: He’s scored at least 111 runs and hit at least 29 homers in each of the past three seasons, he hits at the top of a good Rockies lineup and he plays half his games in Coors Field. It’s hard to explain away the reasons he’s struggled to a .233/.288/.317 line with no homers through 14 games -- his swinging strike percentage is up, and his exit velocity is down a few ticks despite a relatively normal .292 BABIP -- but maybe the biggest reason to hold is the fact that his early season schedule wasn’t terribly conducive to strong offensive numbers. The Rockies have played just four of their 14 games at home thus far, and after a season-opening four-game slate with the Marlins -- after which Blackmon was hitting .333 with a .777 OPS -- the Rox have faced the Rays, Dodgers, Braves and Giants, teams that boast above-average pitching. Fantasy baseball players would do well to give him some more time, given his history and environment.
The Pirates gave up on Meadows at last year’s trade deadline, shipping him, Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz to the Rays for Chris Archer, but it appears their impatience -- especially for a team that’s relied heavily on J.B. Shuck, Melky Cabrera and Pablo Reyes to man their outfield to start the year -- was the Rays’ good fortune. Meadows has been featured prominently and has been a top performer this season, batting .385/.467/.788 with six homers and two stolen bases while primarily batting atop the Rays’ order. There’s not a long track record of major league success to go on, but Meadows was a top prospect who’s long been viewed as having these kinds of tools, so this isn’t entirely out of nowhere. Statcast tells a similar story, of a guy being selective at the dish but hitting it hard when he does swing. That Rays lineup is sneaky good and while their home park isn’t much to write, uh, home about, they play in a division with some of the more hitter-friendly stadiums in the majors. Simply put, Meadows is a 23-year-old who sure seems like he’s in the early days of a 2019 breakout.
Here we are again. Betting against Votto, or even talking about whether this is his new normal, is so dangerous given what we know about his understanding of himself and his abilities. Perhaps the fact that he’s got one homer is by his own design, as he emphasizes seeing more pitches in the early days of the season; maybe he’s trying to hit more liners because he knows fly balls carry less in colder air. And while we have to consider those possibilities when it comes to Votto, the fact is, they’re likely not true -- he’s walking less and striking out more than his career norms, and he’s hitting fly balls 51.5 percent of the time. The more likely explanation is that the 12 homers he delivered in 145 games last year was a sign that his power-hitting days are over. That’s not to say he won’t hit something like 20 homers, still being a fantastic hitter playing in a hitter-friendly ballpark, but there was hope as recently as this spring that he could again approach 30 homers after a 2018 season perceived as an outlier. He’ll still get on base at an elite level and should hit for average, but it’s probably time to temper our expectations for anything more.
Vogelbach has been a cult favorite among prospect watchers and fantasy players, who have hoped he might finally find enough at-bats to show his hitting ability at the major league level. He has found that this year, and boy howdy, he’s delivered. The large adult son has six homers in 11 games to date and has an exit velocity of 96.7 mph, in the top 1 percent of the league. He’s got similarly strong marks in barrel percentage and hard-hit percentage and has generally been a lot of fun to watch through the season’s first few weeks. There’s a little bit of concern about his long-term viability given the fact that he’s 26 years old and took a longer path than normal to the majors -- including struggles in major league cameos in 2016, 2017 and 2018 before gaining traction this year -- but Vogelbach has been a bat-only prospect from the get-go and has still managed to reach the majors, an impressive feat for any player. That speaks to how strong his hitting ability is, and now that he’s getting comfortable with the Mariners, it’s not hard to see him sticking around for good.