In a strikeout world, contact is king

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ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - JULY 29:  Kyle Seager #15 of the Seattle Mariners runs to first after hitting an RBI single during the sixth inning of a game against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 29, 2020 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Kyle Seager is very quietly off to an excellent start in 2020. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Is your team batting average off to a lousy start? Don’t fret it. That’s the story for most of us.

Everyone knows the caveats with a small sample — they’ve played 332 games thus far this year — but stay with me. They’re currently batting .230 in the majors, which would stand as the lowest league average in history.

The shape of baseball is different these days, no doubt about that. The doubles rate is the lowest in 39 years, the triples rate is the lowest in history. Of course you can’t get those extra-base hits if the balls aren’t in play, and that’s a problem — the strikeout rate is off to a record start.

Defense also seems to be improved, judging on error rate — but that could be a lot of things. Defenders are likely better at their craft and positioning is a lot smarter, but official scorers are also extremely reluctant to call a fielding error on anyone. When you rule something a hit, you keep 2/3 men happy (the hitter and the fielder). If a defender doesn’t saw the ball in half and airmail it into the empty box seats, the official scorer will likely cut him a break.

So we’re living in a .230 world. Good grief, Charlie Brown. Good thing the National League adopted the DH this year.

To be fair, they’re still scoring runs and still knocking home runs — just not at the rate of last year. Teams average 4.37 runs per game, which is notably down from 2019 (4.83), but higher than the baseball played in 2013, 2014, or 2015. Teams are sitting at 1.19 homers per game, which is a big drop from last year’s 1.39 record, but still would be the third-highest in history.

So if you like home runs and strikeouts, you’re still being served.

How do we beat the batting-average blues? Focus on the players who can put the ball in play.

David Fletcher has emerged as the Angels leadoff man, and he qualifies at a bunch of positions (second, third, short, outfield). Fletcher has the best contact rate in the majors, 92.9 percent. He’s not just an empty-average man, either — he has two homers and two stolen bases.

J.P. Crawford checks all the boxes for a juicy post-hype sleeper — still just 25, on his second organization, recently promoted in the lineup. Crawford stands ninth in contact rate. The Mariners are running aggressively this year — their top four batters all had a steal Wednesday — and Crawford has three steals on the season. He’s still unrostered in 72 percent of Yahoo leagues.

The Orioles have been plucky in early action, and Hanser Alberto is part of that mix. He’s 11th in contact rate. The stat production is just fine — .326 average, two homers, a steal, decent run production. Alberto qualifies at second and third, and is free to add in about half of Yahoo.

You’d have to trade for Whit Merrifield (universally rostered), but maybe that’s worth the ask. Merrifield has three homers and a bag, scoring eight runs and driving in nine. His batted-ball profile is a mixed bag, but he has elite sprint speed and is always one of the toughest batters to strike out.

I never thought of Kyle Seager as a contact-rate guy, but his 86.4 mark is a career high and a notable step up from recent seasons. Seager has significantly improved his ability to recognize and lay off bad pitches, and that leads to him controlling more at-bats. (Last I checked, nobody was banging trash cans in Seattle.) While Seager’s brother Corey is having a legendary batted-ball season (his Baseball Savant page will make you dizzy), the older sibling is also doing some fun things.

You’d think a .314 average, two homers, two steals and 14 RBIs would lead to more fantasy respect, but older brother Kyle is rostered in a modest one-third of Yahoo leagues.

Cardinals closing gig up for grabs

It’s been so long since the Cardinals played, I swear Ozzie Smith was in their previous lineup. But eventually St. Louis baseball will return, and when it does, the ninth-inning plan has changed.

Kwang-Hyun Kim was the nominal closer for the team at the open of the year, but he’s shifting to the rotation. With that, saves are up for grabs. Ryan Helsley has the look (and blazing fastball) of a closer, so he’d be a priority grab for me. He’s been smooth through his opening 2.2 innings — no runs or baserunners, two strikeouts.

Giovanny Gallegos also deserves a mention, after an outstanding relief year last season (2.31 ERA, 5.81 K/BB ratio). Nine home runs were his bugaboo, but given how he limited baserunners (0.81 WHIP), it wasn’t that penal.

The Cardinals say they’ll use a closer-by-committee, but we’ll see if they stick to that. Sometimes “committee” is merely shorthand for “let’s see who runs with the job.” But to be fair, there are a handful of MLB clubs who actually do live that committee life in the late innings.

Gallegos is harder to grab in Yahoo — he’s rostered at 63 percent — while Helsley has a 12-percent tag.

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