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Fantasy baseball exit velocity sleepers

We're a month into the 2024 baseball season and while it's still early, we're starting to see a few stats begin to stabilize which is often a good time to look at which breakouts might be for real or which slumps are just unlucky starts. It's important to note that "beginning to stabilize" doesn't mean this is who the hitter is for the year; it means the performance is beginning to become more realistic.

Many batted ball stats start to stabilize around 80 batted ball events, which means exit velocity data is getting a little interesting. I wanted to look at one stat in particular: Statcast's new metric called EV50, which takes the average exit velocity of the top 50% of a hitter’s batted balls. The benefit of this stat is that it doesn’t just show us how hard a hitter can hit the ball once but what his consistent top-end exit velocities are. Carlos Marcano also found that, for players with at least 80 batted ball events, EV50 in 2022 had a better correlation with HR in 2023 than MaxEV2022, so while it's unclear if these hitters will see major power breakouts in the immediate future, it appears to be a good indication of future power production.

Below is the top 15 leaderboard, which has a couple of interesting names on it. I'll also highlight some of the more interesting names in the top 40.

Rank

Player

EV50

EV FB/LD

Brls/PA

1

Ohtani, Shohei

107.1

98.9

15.7

2

Witt Jr., Bobby

106.3

97.3

13.3

3

Schwarber, Kyle

105.7

97.8

7.4

4

Henderson, Gunnar

105.6

98.9

9.5

5

Contreras, William

105.4

99.6

7.8

6

Soto, Juan

105.2

100.8

12.6

7

Stanton, Giancarlo

105.1

98

11.4

8

Guerrero Jr., Vladimir

104.6

95.3

6.5

9

Judge, Aaron

104.5

98.4

6.5

10

García, Adolis

104

97.7

11.1

11

Marte, Ketel

103.9

97.9

7.7

12

Alvarez, Yordan

103.9

94.8

12.3

13

Westburg, Jordan

103.9

95.1

9.1

14

Chapman, Matt

103.8

97.1

7.7

15

McMahon, Ryan

103.6

95.7

6.7

Jordan Westburg - 2B/3B, Baltimore Orioles

I was not in on Jordan Westburg coming into the year, writing in my 2024 Josh Lowe article that Westburg "had a 33.3% hard-hit rate in Triple-A, which shows a bit of power potential that was supported by a 111.4 mph max exit velocity in the major leagues. However, Westburg bats right-handed in a park that isn’t conducive to power, and despite pulling the ball 46.5% of the time in 2023, he only pulled nine fly balls with an average exit velocity of just 91.6 mph, and none of them resulted in home runs."

So far in 2024, Westburg has five home runs, a .316 batting average, and a 12.7% barrel rate, which means my questions about his power were unfounded. That early production also lines up with him being on this list since he's making a tremendous amount of hard contact. However, there are some concerns under the hood here. Westburg is chasing out of the zone more, making significantly less contact out of the zone, and has a 62.4% contact rate overall, which is well below the league average of 70%. For comparison sake, he has a 73.% zone contact rate but Javier Baez has a 68.4% contact rate and 79.2% zone contact rate. So Jordan Westburg makes way less contact than Javier Baez.

All of that, when paired with a 16.7% swinging strike rate (SwStr%) indicates a hitter who is due for some regression in his batting average and 19.6% strikeout rate. Perhaps the power production stays, but he's clearly selling out for it right now and I'm not sure the whole picture will be as rosy soon.

Matt Chapman - 3B, San Francisco Giants

We've seen this story from Chapman before. He's going to make a good amount of hard contact and intrigue people with his barrel rate, but he's not going to produce much on the surface level. His profile to start 2024 is incredibly strange. He's cut his strikeout rate down to 22% and his SwStr% is down under 10%, Yet, he's also swinging outside of the zone 12% more yet making far more contact both in and out of the zone. So we have a guy swinging at more non-strikes, swinging at fewer strikes, but making more contact both on strikes and non-strikes and swinging and missing less. Weird. OK. It might also be because he has a career-low pull rate and is using the whole field more. Yet, even with that, he's hitting .228.

I dunno, man. He'll probably hit .230 with 20-25 home runs like he always does.

Rank

Player

EV50

EV FB/LD

Brls/PA

20

Cruz, Oneil

103

93.3

4

26

Marte, Starling

102.6

95.8

7.8

28

Drury, Brandon

102.6

96.6

2.7

33

Greene, Riley

102.1

99.1

10.8

34

Doyle, Brenton

102.1

91.8

4.5

37

France, Ty

101.8

93.9

5.1

42

Garcia, Maikel

101.4

95.9

8.8

44

Nimmo, Brandon

101.4

95.2

4.8

47

Ward, Taylor

101.2

93.5

10.6

48

Profar, Jurickson

101.2

93.4

3.1

50

Encarnacion-Strand, Christian

101.1

96

7.7

51

Carpenter, Kerry

101.1

92.7

8.6

53

Suwinski, Jack

101

89.4

4.8

54

García Jr., Luis

101

96.8

10

55

Freeman, Tyler

101

92.3

7

I've had all of Jack Suwinski, Luis Garcia Jr., Tyler Freeman, and Ty France on my waiver wire columns over the past few weeks, so it's nice to see them here as well. France famously went to Driveline this offseason and while he's making more authoritative contact this season, the homers haven't come yet. Garcia is just 23 years old and is certainly not done growing as a player. He's not likely to break out like his teammate CJ Abrams, but he's making solid contact and he makes a lot of contact, so he can be a great MIF target. I covered Suwinski in my pre-season article on plate discipline values and now Suwinski is making the changes we want to see. His strikeout rate and swinging strike rates are both down. He’s swinging in the zone way more than before and is making 90% contact in the zone. The barrels haven’t been there yet, but we know the contact has been hard from his presence here, so I think it's coming.

Starling Marte - OF, New York Mets

The 35-year-old Marte has been battling injuries over the last couple of years, enduring a double groin surgery that many worried would sap his speed, which was his primary fantasy asset. However, he has six steals in 24 games so far this season but has seemingly added more thump back to his game, hitting four home runs to go along with this EV50 metric and a barrel rate that's over twice as high as last year. In terms of what is leading to this, much of it seems to be connected to a more selective approach. He's swinging outside of the zone way less often and also swinging slightly less in the zone. He's not making more contact or swinging and missing less, but he's swinging more often earlier in the count, so the pitches he's choosing to swing at are ones that he can do more damage on. His flyball rate is actually down and his HR/FB ratio is way elevated, so I don't think you'll see this power keep pace, but I think the new approach will continue to lead to meaningful contact and a strong batting average.

Brenton Doyle - OF, Colorado Rockies

Brenton Doyle has been one of the bigger batting average surprises of the season, hitting .313 through 23 games after batting just .203 last year. While I don’t believe he will continue to run this hot, it’s important to note that Doyle has also cut his chase rate tremendously. He’s also swinging less overall, which has helped boost his zone contact rate to 87%. According to PitcherList’s rolling graphs, he has demonstrated elite strike zone judgment in 2024 and has been making above-average decisions at the plate. Now, he still has a 13% SwStr% and he ran 30% strikeout rates in the minors, so he’s always going to have some swing and miss, but he also has elite speed, which will help him run high BABIPs and could make a .260 batting average more likely. If Doyle can hit .260, that would be a game-changer since he swiped 22 bases in 126 games last year and is currently in the top 40 among all qualified hitters on this leaderboard. Exit velocities can be important in showing us who is making authoritative contact and who is doing it more regularly, and so the top 50% of Doyle’s batted balls are among the best in baseball, which gives him a better-than-average chance to do damage on those and might be why he has three HR already after hitting 10 all season last year.  The positive swing decisions may not last, and Doyle could lose fantasy value if his average plummets, but he’s certainly worth taking a chance on right now.

Riley Greene - OF, Detroit Tigers

Riley Greene was written off as more of a slap hitter, but his max exit velocities last year seemed to suggest otherwise. Now, he's among the league leaders in EV50 and I think it's time to take him more seriously. A big reason for Greene's presence on this list and his near 19% barrel rate is his more selective approach at the plate. He's swinging less overall and is also chasing less out of the zone when he's behind in the count, which has allowed him to do more damage on the pitches he does swing at. He's also lifting the ball slightly more and has a 98 mph average exit velocity on his fly balls and line drives, which is up from just 90 mph last season. Considering he was coming back from injury last year, this is potentially the result of health and a more selective approach at the plate. Greene is still hitting less than 30% flyballs, so I wouldn't expect a major home run surge, but he has elite speed, so we don't mind him not fully selling out for power. I'm buying what this exit velocity data is telling me.

Maikel Garcia - 3B, Kansas City Royals

I wrote up Garcia as a player to hold in my weekly waiver wire column because I had been getting many questions about whether it was time to drop him. To start this week, he's 5-for-11 with one run, one RBI, and two steals. I'm sure people are panicking a little less about him, but I just wanted to highlight his quality of contact here to counsel that patience is needed with him. His strikeout rate is barely up from last year and his SwStr% is just 8.5%. He’s making more contact in the zone but chasing a bit more out of the zone, which has caused his contact rate to fall a touch. He’s lifting the ball more and pulling the ball more this year while barreling it 13%. However, he’s also being pitched away nearly 10% more than last year. So while he’s trying to pull, pitchers are countering by throwing him outside more. I think this may just be a simple adjustment where he goes back to using the whole field more and we don’t see the 15 home run season we wanted, but we get the batting average back up.

Oneil Cruz - SS, Pittsburgh Pirates

We have one more player to write about, but I saved it for the end because it might not be as pleasant as some of the others. Cruz has had a rough start to the year, with a .237 average and a 36% strikeout rate but nothing under the hood seems as concerning as the numbers would indicate.

He's swinging slightly more outside of the zone but less than 3% more and a sub-35% O-Swing% isn't great but it isn't alarming. His SwStr% is down to 13% and his contact rate is actually up; yet, 71% isn't exactly great but an 80% zone contact rate isn't terrible. The issue is more than he's being too patient with a 21.1% called strike rate, which is well under the league average. As a result, he's seeing far more two-strike counts, which means that even though he's not swinging and missing more, his misses are coming in deeper counts. Seeing more two-strike counts also means he's not getting as many good pitches to hit, which might be why his groundball rate is up 17% to 58%.

At the end of the day, Cruz has never had a great approach at the plate, but it doesn't seem to be any worse this year. It's just a bit too passive right now which is putting him in bad spots, but he still can make authoritative contact regularly. The only downside could be his organization. We've wanted certain Pirates hitters to be more aggressive or look to get to their pull power more and the Pirates have a history of firing coaches that help hitters do that. There is a fix here for Cruz, but I'm not 100% certain he's in the place to make that happen.