Potential fantasy buys and sells based off line-drive rates

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/teams/nym" data-ylk="slk:New York Mets">New York Mets</a> outfielder <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/9875/" data-ylk="slk:Michael Conforto">Michael Conforto</a> is a line drive hitter who seems to have fallen in the homer trap. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
New York Mets outfielder Michael Conforto is a line drive hitter who seems to have fallen in the homer trap. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Line drives are the ultimate measure of hitting success. Even our well-hit averages that include strikeouts count ground balls that are well-struck. And those are less likely to be hits than line drives, which result in a hit about 70% of the time, according to Chris Moran at Beyond the Box Score. Moran adds that line drives produce 1.26 runs per out compared with .013 for fly balls and .005 for grounders.

So what’s the problem with this stat? Well, the vast majority of homers are not technically line drives. And the punch and Judy hitters get much less bang for the line-drive buck than more powerful batsman — so mileage can vary greatly.

Still, it can illustrate which players are making optimal contact, even if only for them. These rates are line drives divided by batted balls (a line drive homer counts; we don’t care about balls in play here). The data is courtesy of our friends at Inside Edge, stat provider to MLB teams.

The leaders are two players widely acknowledged to be among the handful of best hitters in the game: Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto (35.3%) and Atlanta Braves first/third baseman Freddie Freeman (33.8%).

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But the San Francisco Giants have three players in the top 10, Brandon Belt (33.3%), Andrew McCutchen (31.9%) and Brandon Crawford (31.5%).

McCutchen is only hitting .253, crazy given that rate. He should be hitting more like Brandon Crawford, who is actually behind him in line drives and batting .324. It’s hard to argue that Crawford is a fluke given that line drive rate, calculated by Inside Edge video scouts. Crawford is 65% owned.

Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar was an early well-hit leader who at that time seemed boxed out of playing time. When the spot opened up, it’s not at all surprising that Aguilar hit. But his line drive rate is 10th best (30.4%). He’s now 70% owned though.

We have to go some ways down the list to make a solid recommendation based on ownership rates. Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Colin Moran is 5% owned but tied with Jose Altuve for 17th with a 28.1% rate. Pick him up immediately. He has enough power too if he decides to (or is able to) lift the ball a little more.

Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar is seventh (31%) and has nine steals and five jacks. He should be hitting closer to .300, not .254; Pillar’s strikeout rate is only 18.2% (below average). He’s currently owned at a 48% clip.

There are a lot of concerns at the bottom of the line-drive rankings. Tied for last place out of 180 qualifiers are Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger and Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Carlos Santana. My colleague and @breakfast_pod partner and Yahoo anaylst Scott Pianowski wrote about Bellinger recently.

Santana has 24 liners in 177 at bats. So maybe the reason why Santana struggles in batting average despite great plate discipline and a lower K% is that he just doesn’t hit the ball on the screws nearly enough.

Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier is 15.3%, 177th. Dozier has nine homers and three steals. His .271 BABIP looks too low (.300 last year). But that .247 average looks right when you see that he’s not making solid contact. Note his career BABIP is about the same as this year. Dozier’s infield fly ball rate is also high (17%). He has a reputation of being a second-half hitter but that is all arbitrary end points unless you’re looking to buy low. For his career, Dozier has a higher OPS in the second half (.813) than in the first (.753), according to Baseball Reference.

New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius is 175th (16.7%). I am guilty with getting carried away with Gregorius given this still elite ratio of Ks to BBs (35 to 24). But he was 3-to-13 in the early going so just 32 Ks to 11 BBs since. Gregorius is still crushing counting stats and even has eight steals. But he needs to understand his power is about average (11.8% HR/FB) and that he should not strive to clear the fences so much with fly balls that are mostly easy outs.

Young players Rafael Devers and Michael Conforto are similar in that they are good hitters who seem to have fallen into the homer trap. These guys should be line drive hitters but are instead rated 173rd and 165th, respectively.

Devers is far more lost than Conforto though. His OPS adjusted for park (and that’s not a big deal) is 80 on a scale where 100 is exactly league average — that’s a big price to pay for nine homers.

Conforto is above water (105) and has 32 walks and a .351 OBP. His homer/flyball is down to 12.3% from over 19% last year. You can swing for the fences at the last-year’s level this year he should level it out and be the No. 3 hitter Keith Hernandez told me long ago he strongly believed Conforto would be.

Hernandez via my Wall Street Journal interview in 2016:

“He focused too much on homers and got pull happy and started dropping his shoulder [to hit the ball in the air]. He’s so strong that he’s going to hit 20 homers without even trying, especially in today’s smaller parks. He can be the guy you want up late in the game with the tying run on, not some home-run hitter who you can pitch to and strike out. There are enough home-run hitters in this game.”

While Inside Edge is a tougher scorer on line drives than the other sites, Conforto’s liner rate no matter how you slice it is down about 30%. I’ll bet Conforto will figure it out and is a pick up (available in more than half of leagues).

Another guy with a worse line-drive rate than Hanley Ramirez, who is currently out of baseball, is Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez (17.5%). You see that a lot of these bad batting averages are not bad luck as much as bad hitting. Guys have to forget about this hit trajectory mania and just swing like they have their entire lives. Sanchez’s line-drive rate is down about 25-30%, too. And his IFFB rate has spiked to an absurd 21% (average is about 12%).

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