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Statcast Trends: Struggling Stars (Hitters)

Statcast technology has changed the game of baseball over the last several years. Statcast data is used by many to make decisions, both in real life and Fantasy Baseball. While still a small sample in 2020, some exciting Statcast trends are worth monitoring.

Often, Fantasy players put too much emphasis on Statcast data. Statcast data should not be the only research you do when evaluating players. Statcast is just another tool in the toolshed that can help you make decisions about a player. This weekly piece will look at Statcast trends in different categories and look at the legitimacy of a player’s performance.

This week’s article will take a deeper dive into star hitters who are struggling. Each of these hitters had an ADP of 25 or higher on Fantrax this season. Given the struggles, if you drafted one of these hitters, your team is possibly hurting. At the halfway point of the season, what can we expect moving forward? Can these players return to form?

*All statistics current as of games completed on August 23.

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Statcast Trends for Struggling Star Hitters

Christian Yelich, OF, Milwaukee Brewers

Christian Yelich was on a torrid pace in 2019 before a fractured knee cap ended his season in September. In just 130 games, Yelich was able to hit 44 home runs and steal 30 bases with a .329 batting average. He was likely going to be the National League MVP before his season-ending injury. Given the injury, there were concerns about how much he would run moving forward, and so far, he only has one steal in 2020.

Despite his seven home run in his first 110 plate appearances, Yelich has been a disappointment for Fantasy purposes. His current slash line of .194/.318/.473 has left many wondering what happened? After 2018 and 2019 season where he batted .327 between the two-seasons, where has his batting average gone?

Looking at his statcast page on Baseball Savant, everything seems okay. His exit velocity of 93.8 mph and hard-hit rate of 54.2 percent, place him 96th and 93rd percentile among hitters. Yelich’s xBA also suggests he will perform at a higher level, moving forward. Unfortunately, his sprint speed is down nearly one foot-per-second. While this may not seem like much, Yelich is coming off knee surgery. His 27.7 feet-per-second sprint speed places him much closer to the league average of 27. Has a loss in speed led to Yelich attempting less stolen bases?

The root of Yelich’s problems at the plate can be traced back to several things. First, he is swinging less, but missing more. His swing percent is down over 10 percentage points, but his swing-and-miss percent is up by seven percentage points. Yelich is seeing plenty of first-pitch strikes(47.3 percent) but only swinging at 13.6 percent, down from 29.5 percent last season. Has he become too selective?

Yelich is also struggling against right-handed pitching (.138 batting average), despite being a career .304 hitter against them. The low batting average can be attributed to an increased groundball and strikeout rate. If he can return to form against right-handers, his stats should improve. Moving forward, Yelich should hit closer to a .300 average with solid power.

Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland Indians

Francisco Lindor is another first-round Fantasy player who has been struggling in 2020. Known for his power/speed combo, Lindor currently has four home runs and zero stolen bases in 124 plate appearances. A .245 batting average is also disappointing, considering Lindor is a career .286 hitter.

Lindor has never been a statcast darling, but this year looks rough so far. His average exit velocity of 88.5 is a little concerning. But on fly balls and line drives, Lindor has a 94.3 mph exit velocity, putting him in line with Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts. That is one of the few encouraging signs in his statcast profile. Lindor’s hard-hit rate is down six percentage points, and he only has three barrels in 90 batted balls.

Lindor’s batted-ball profile does not show anything that explains his regression. Other than his contact percent being down by four percentage points, the overall profile looks similar to 2019. Fewer swings in the zone could explain the lower contact rate. Lindor’s line-drive rate is also up, which should naturally lead to more base hits. But unfortunately, that has not been the case.

Looking at his splits, Lindor is struggling from the left side of the plate. He is currently batting .217 and has 22 strikeouts as opposed to two from the right side. Lindor is a career .278 hitter from the left side, which leads me to believe he is just not comfortable at the moment from that side. Pitchers have also exploited his weakness against breaking and offspeed pitches. Lindor has seen a 10 percent increase in those pitches this season, and he is batting .167 against breaking and .250 against offspeed pitches.

The outlook is not overly promising for Lindor as his statcast data, and other metrics do not look great. The good thing is, nothing stands out that has gone wrong. His rolling wOBA chart below shows that he is trending in the right direction. Lindor has been a slow starter in the past, and that could be the case here.

Ronald Acuña Jr, OF, Atlanta Braves

In addition to a slow start, Ronald Acuña has also been on the injured list due to wrist inflammation but could return on Tuesday when eligible. Before going on the IL,  Acuña was hitting .258 with four home runs and one stolen base in 78 plate appearances. The numbers are not terrible, but also not what you want from a player many took first overall in drafts.

Acuña was heating up before the injury, which is encouraging. Three of his four home runs came within a day of going on the IL. Fantasy owner and the Braves alike both hope Acuña can pick up where he left off on that three home run day.

Statcast data suggest that Acuña will get on track given his elite hard-hit rate of 53.7 percent along with many other substantial statcast numbers. Acuña’s sprint speed is also elite and in the 96th percentile of all hitters. If he wants to run, he should have no problem stealing bases at a high rate as he did in 2019. Acuña’s launch angle, exit velocity, and sweet spot percentage are all right in line with his 2019 season, which should give Fantasy owners a peace of mind.

Acuña has seen a spike in his strikeout rate to 32.1 percent, up from 26.3 percent last season. On the flip side, his walk rate is also up to 14.1 percent, which is encouraging. Much of Acuña’s struggles have come against left-handed pitching so far. While it is a small sample of 18 plate appearances, he is batting .071 with six strikeouts. Last season, Acuña hit .270 against lefties, which means with time, he should get back on track. There is nothing in his batted ball profile to be concerned about, which leads me to believe if his wrist is okay, he should perform at a high level moving forward.

J.D. Martinez, OF, Boston Red Sox

Is father time catching up with J.D. Martinez, or is it just a slow start for the 33-year-old? Over the last three seasons, Martinez has been one of the most consistent hitters in baseball, averaging 41 home runs, 113 RBI, and a .313 batting average per season. Nolan Arenando may be the only other hitter who has been as consistent during that time period.

Unfortunately, it has been a rough start to 2020 for Martinez, batting .228 with just three home runs in 115 plate appearances. His strikeout rate is up 2.5 percentage points to 23.5 percent, but it is not an extreme spike. Martinez’s statcast data does look concerning at first glance. His exit velocity has trended down each of the last two seasons, falling from 93 mph in 2018, to 91.3 in 2019, and 88.8 this season. Exit velocity is a small part of the picture, but other statcast numbers are concerning for Martinez. His hard-hit rate has fallen from 47.9 percent to 36.5 percent, and his barrel percent is a career-low of 10.8 percent. Statcast expected stats suggest that Martinez has underperformed but not by much giving him a .251 xBA

Pitch recognition could be a problem for Martinez. Historically, he has dominated fastballs and offspeed pitches. In 2020, that trend has flipped as Martinez has hit breaking balls well but struggled with fastballs and offspeed pitches. Last season, Martinez hit .318 and .403 against fastballs and offspeed, respectively. In 2020, those numbers sit at .196 and .158. If Martinez can begin to see those pitches better, he should return to form. The lack of power is concerning, and with his age, it is easy to wonder if he is having a similar decline to Joey Votto. I won’t say that is the case just yet, but it is worth monitoring moving forward.

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