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The Buzz: Fantasy baseball's polarizing hitters — is Mike Trout really back?

We're almost to the end of April. Fantasy baseball standings aren't completely meaningful yet, but it's getting close. You have my permission to look at those standings, to analyze the flow of the numbers, to consider what's what. And it's time to start figuring out who might be the right answer for the fresh season.

The focus today will be on hitters. We'll work on the pitchers at a later date.

The Fantasy Baseball Buzz. (Banner by Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)
The Fantasy Baseball Buzz. (Banner by Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)

Are Elly De La Cruz and Mike Trout right answers? It's possible, perhaps likely. And I link those two because they were on my list of polarizing hitters before the season, and they're also two players I never considered drafting. If Elly and Trout continue to smash, I'll be left with nothing but FOMO.

De La Cruz ranks No. 1 on every logical 5x5 calculator, slashing .313/.412/.651 with seven homers and 15 steals. He's still striking out about a third of the time, and his plate-discipline stats have improved only slightly. But De La Cruz has bumped his walk rate by about 5%, and he's still crushing the ball when he makes contact. His hard-hit rate is up a spec, and he's hitting the ball in the air more often.

Player development isn't always linear, but the human mind craves order and attribution. Although there's still plenty of swing-and-miss in Elly's game, at least he's chasing fewer pitches outside the zone. And when he makes contact, you can hear the ball screaming — look at all those Baseball Savant sliders painted red and pinned to the red. We're doing the Yahoo Friends & Family Start Fresh Draft for Monday, and De La Cruz will justly go in the first round. Heck, he might be a top-five pick.

Trout's also off to a hot start, though that's less of a eureka moment for me. Mike Trout is always a good baseball player when he's healthy. His OPS+ the past four years was a robust 164; this year it's at 160. It's not like his 10-homer month tilts the world on its axis.

Trout's slash is slanted toward the power; he's hitting .237 at the moment, with a .321 OBP and .598 slugging. The bigger surprise is Trout's willingness to run; he has stolen five bases after managing six total swipes in his prior four years. New manager Ron Washington wants an aggressive team, and Trout is following suit, taking those uncovered bases and proactively grabbing the extra base when the ball is in play.

Trout's raw speed was never a question, of course. His sprint speed remains in the 90th percentile. But previous manager Phil Nevin wanted his players to eschew the stolen base, and with Trout, perhaps it was in a targeted attempt to keep him healthy. Washington figures that playing conservatively is no sure safeguard; trust your instincts and athleticism, and go take the game at your opponents.

The early Trout stats have some interesting trends. He's walking a little less, striking out less. His BABIP has been comically unlucky (.206), though a drop in his hard-hit rate explains some of that. Baseball Savant suggests his average should be 43 points higher. Trout's getting more mileage out of his swings, with his highest contact rate in four years.

The preseason look of the Angels lineup scared me, but the Halos might be better than I expected. At the moment, they're 16th in runs per game, right at the league average. That's not a boost, of course, but maybe it's not a drain, either. They're beating the March projection thus far.

Trout's final fantasy rank will depend on two things: how healthy he can stay and how many bases he feels like stealing. He hasn't made it to 140 games since 2018, and in the past three seasons, he played in just 48% of his team's games. That's a trend I'm not prepared to ignore for a player in his age-32 season. If I rostered Trout, I'd quietly test the trade market, saying I'm looking to "move an outfielder" and see if my opponent wanted to zero in on Trout.

As for some of the other right answers:

— Marcell Ozuna currently is the No. 3 hitter in banked value, hitting .365 with 18 runs, nine homers and 29 RBI. Over the past 365 games, he has been a devastating slugger, batting .304 with 98 runs, 47 home runs and 127 RBI. Somehow the fantasy market ignored Ozuna all spring; his global ADP was well outside the top 100.

Marcell Ozuna headshot
Marcell Ozuna
DH - ATL - #20
2024 - false season
187
AB
.310
AVG
15
HR
0
SB
.998
OPS

How do we reconcile that market whiff? Ozuna was a DH-lockup in some leagues. His comeback season in 2023 was backloaded with production, which might have skewed perception. He's in his 30s, and his career appeared in decline before last year. But the pop has always been real, he's locked into the middle of baseball's best lineup, and he's going to stock four categories. It's possible he could be the biggest ADP-crusher of the season.

— I'll link Brice Turang, Jordan Westberg and Colton Cowser, as they're all young players with prospect pedigree who find themselves on the top-25-hitter page. Perhaps the screen of talented young teammates allowed these players to fly under the radar; Milwaukee's prospect buzz was always centered around Jackson Chourio, and Baltimore's absurd collection of rising stars is overwhelming at times.

With Turang, the key was chasing the early steals and hoping the average could remain stable. Cowser's case quickly gained steam if you considered the early schedule — Baltimore faced five lefties in the opening 10 games, which kept him grounded, but he quickly moved Austin Hays out of the way after that (and Hays is now hurt). Westberg will swing at some bad pitches, but what's remarkable is how often he puts them in play; he's striking out just 19.4% of the time, and his hard-hit profile is a dream.

You need a tidy conclusion on these guys, and here's my call: Cowser is going to be great all year, I think this Westberg breakout is real even if regression is inevitable, and I'll trust Turang on the strength of his steals and plus defense (which marks his spot in the lineup).