Fantasy Baseball: 3 Underpriced Hitters
If you're in the market for underpriced pitchers, you can find them here. Turning my attention to hitters, the following trio of sluggers are underpriced. They share the common thread of having big power, and the Statcast data to back it up.
While homers were up across the board last year thanks in large part to the baseballs used in Major League Baseball, it would be a mistake to assume taters will continue to be mashed at the same prolific clip in 2020. In fact, pitchers Masahiro Tanaka and Zach Eflin have stated this year's baseballs used in spring training feel different from last year's regular season baseballs. Going further, Tanaka compared this year's spring training balls to those used in 2017.
Keeping that in mind, playing the waiting game on thump could be a mistake in drafts this year. Additionally, this is a talented collection of hitters who bring more than dingers to the table. The three hitters highlighted below have an average draft position (ADP) between 60 and 125, according to FantasyPros as of March 11. Two of the three rank within the top-50 players overall in my personal rankings, with the third checking inside the top-100 players.
Matt Olson, 1B, Oakland Athletics
The Oakland Athletics opened last year with a two-game series against the Seattle Mariners in Japan played March 20 and March 21, and they lost power-hitting first baseman Matt Olson until May 7 as the result of a broken hamate suffered during the second game. Despite missing more than a month and having surgery that's traditionally sapped power from hitters, Olson smashed 36 homers in 547 plate appearances.
The left-handed hitting first baseman burst onto the scene in a power-packed, partial-season debut in 2017. He ripped 24 homers in 216 plate appearances that year, but he punched out in a somewhat alarming 27.8 percent of his plate appearances with a 13.4 percent swinging-strike percentage, per FanGraphs.
In 2018, Olson cut his strikeout rate down to 24.7 percent and his swinging-strike percentage down to 11.3 percent, but a nosedive from a 41.4 percent home-run-per-fly-ball rate (HR/FB rate) to 16.1 percent helped knock his batting average down to .247. Last season, he struck out in 25.2 percent of his plate appearances while tallying a new career-low 11.1 percent swinging-strike percentage and recorded a new single-season high batting average of .267.
Olson's batted-ball data last year was a thing of beauty. He hit only 31.4 percent of his balls in play on the ground, whacked a line drive 24.0 percent of the time, and lifted the ball in the air 44.6 percent of the time. Also, he set a new high in pulled-ball percentage at 51.7 percent. Pulling the ball hard in the air is a recipe for long balls, and his HR/FB rate bounced back to 23.7 percent.
Olson's Statcast data was dreamy, too. Out of 250 qualified hitters, Olson's 9.1 percent barrels per plate appearance percentage was the 16th-highest mark, according to Baseball Savant. He also tied for the ninth-highest fly-ball/line-drive exit velocity of 97.1 mph. Olson's tantalizing Statcast data produced an expected batting average of .276 and expected slugging of .576, both higher than his actual marks of .267 and .545, respectively.
Olson's power is legit. Even with the likelihood of a less lively ball being used this year, Olson's a threat for 40-plus homers. Furthermore, his batted-ball data and trend of reducing his empty swings suggests he has untapped potential in batting average. He'll also likely be a sizable contributor in runs batted in while chipping in a helpful total of runs from the heart of the A's order. I have Olsen ranked 45th overall among all players for this year.
Nelson Cruz, DH, Minnesota Twins
As much as I like Olson, I'm even more enamored by the grossly underrated Nelson Cruz. The Minnesota Twins struck gold signing Cruz last year, and he's back to rip the cover off of the ball from the heart of their loaded lineup again. Among hitters last year, Cruz ranked 26th in FantasyPros' value-based ranking metric after a huge year at the dish.
Cruz tied for the seventh-most homers (41) and amassed the 16th-most runs batted in (108) while tying for the 11th-highest batting average (.311) among qualified hitters last year, according to FanGraphs. The 39-year-old designated hitter was awesome in 2019, but he's been a consistently elite producer in recent seasons. Since 2017, he ranks tied for the second-most homers (117), the third-most runs batted in (324), tied for the 46th-most runs scored (242), and tied for the 37th-highest batting average (.284) among qualified hitters.
His Statcast data shows no signs of decline, either. On the contrary, actually. Cruz had the highest percentage of barrels per plate appearance among qualified hitters at 12.5 percent, and he had the third-highest fly-ball/line-drive exit velocity at 99.2 mph.
His ADP overreacts to his position eligibility limitation to only utility usage. I have him ranked 35th overall among players, and that's even more bullish than his minimum pick of 38th overall in NFBC drafts since March 1. Cruz is worth reaching multiple rounds before his ADP to secure in drafts.
Mitch Garver, C, Minnesota Twins
After a solid if unspectacular 2018 season, Mitch Garver went nuts last year. In 359 plate appearances, he belted 31 homers, scored 70 runs, piled up 67 runs batted in, and slashed .273/.365/.630. Minnesota's backstop tapped into substantial power by hitting the ball in the air more often, pulling the ball more frequently, and hitting the ball harder. From 2018 to 2019, his fly-ball rate jumped from 37.7 percent to 47.3 percent, his pulled-ball percentage rose from 38.8 percent to 51.3 percent, and his hard-hit ball percentage ticked up from 40.5 percent to 47.3 percent.
As his rise in fly balls suggests, his launch angle changed. His launch angle was 12.5 degrees in 2018 and rose to 15.3 degrees in 2019. He put good wood on the ball, too. Among qualified hitters, Garver's 9.7 percent barrels per plate appearance percentage was the 10th-highest mark -- sandwiched between Christian Yelich's 10.2 percent and Pete Alonso's 9.5 percent.
Garver's bat looks to be the real deal, but will his defense limit him to under 400 plate appearances again this year? I don't think so. Last year's Twins also had Jason Castro on their team, and he's a solid pitch framer. Out of 37 catchers who caught a minimum of 500 innings, Castro posted the 14th-best framing grade, per FanGraphs. Baseball Prospectus credited him with the 16th-most framing runs out of 113 catchers last season.
Castro's now with the Los Angeles Angels, and Alex Avila has been added to the catching mix for the Twins. Dropping the innings caught threshold to 400, Avila checked in 19th out of 48 catchers in framing value at FanGraphs. His mark was sandwiched between Castro's rank of 17th and Garver's rank of 24th. However, Baseball Prospectus had Garver ranked 24th in framing runs and Avila ranked tied for 58th in framing runs.
Avila was also the least productive offensive catcher of the three in 2019. Garver led the way with 155 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) followed by Castro's 103 wRC+ and rounded out by Avila's 97 wRC+. In summary, Avila's a step down from Castro and should be less of a threat to Garver's playing time.
Projecting Garver to best 400 plate appearances isn't crazy, and I'm a firm believer he'll eclipse that total this year. I have him ranked second behind J.T. Realmuto at catcher and inside the top-100 players overall. In single-catcher leagues, there's still a strong case for punting catcher. In two-catcher formats, however, Garver's worth pulling the trigger on in drafts a round or two ahead of his ADP.