Monday, April 15 2024
MLB: Game Two-New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox

MLB: Game Two-New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox

As we inch closer to February, fantasy baseball content is fast-flowing and discussions on Twitter are heating up. It’s exactly one of those Twitter content producers that sparked the kernel of an idea that became this article.

Thomas Nestico (@TJStats on Twitter) is an awesome follow and wrote an article a few months ago called “Modelling Batter Decision Value” (for a detailed breakdown, you can read his full article here). The article used data to identify which hitters make the best swing decisions. To me, this is a crucial aspect of fantasy analysis that often goes under-discussed because hitters can have incredibly quick swings or tremendous raw power or the ideal swing path, but if they have a poor understanding of the strike zone or make bad decisions then they will continuously put themselves at a disadvantage that is hard to overcome. As a result, understanding and quantifying a hitter’s swing decisions is a crucial aspect of analyzing a batter’s performance.

Below, I’m going to use Thomas’ research to highlight hitters who make the best swing decisions and set themselves up for consistent success. In doing so, we’ll hopefully find some potential draft values and then I’ll write another article of the worst swing decision hitters and see if we can find some batters to fade.

If you want to skip right ahead to the analysis, feel free to scroll down, but I think there is some REALLY BRIEF context that’s important before we dig into specific players.

In his article, Thomas mentions that, for each pitching event, MLB provides the change in Run Expectancy before the pitch and after the pitch. Depending on many factors, such as count, runners on base, and outs, the Run Expectancy can differ drastically between two pitches with the same outcome. As MLB calculates this, pitches thrown inside the strike zone are generally called as strikes, but as the pitch location moves towards the edge of the strike zone and beyond, the run expectancy value trends towards being favorable for the batter.

Obviously, pitches swung at inside the zone are more likely to return positive value than pitches swung at outside the zone. Therefore, in general, a batter’s in-zone judgment can be quantified by looking at the pitches that they take. The smaller proportion of favorable “in-zone” pitches a hitter chooses to takes indicates that the batter is more likely to take “bad” pitches than “good” pitches.

Since swing decisions and their run expectancy can be calculated, Thomas had a machine learning model trained to predict the run expectancy of each pitch during the 2023 MLB Season. The first model quantifies a batter’s “In-Zone Awareness” because a batter with a good awareness of pitches inside the zone would have a very large proportion of their takes as balls. This means that a batter with good in-zone awareness is prolific at swinging at favorable pitches. The second model quantifies a batter’s “Out-of-Zone Awareness” because a batter with a good awareness of pitches outside the zone would have a very large proportion of their swings at pitches inside the zone. This means that a batter with good out-of-zone zone awareness is prolific at not swinging at unfavorable pitches.

Thomas then added those two values together to determine which hitters are best at not only swinging at strike but also taking balls. That gave each hitter a “Decision Value” score with Juan Soto, unsurprisingly, leading the way. Yet, as with all “scores” and “values,” we need to dig in to determine to real impact, so I broke the top 50 hitters ranked by Decision Value into three groups and will try to provide some short analysis into ones I find most interesting – some for good reasons and some for concerning ones.

Let’s hunt for value.

(All ADP is taken from NFBC drafts from January 1st – January 23rd which is 70 drafts)

Discipline Value 1Discipline Value 1

Discipline Value 1

J.J. BLEDAY – OF, OAKLAND (ADP: 617)
OK, right off the bat, here’s a pretty big surprise with Bleday ranking 2nd in all of baseball for decision value. The 26-year-old was a former top prospect after the Marlins drafted him 4th overall in the 2019 draft; however, he hasn’t really had much success at any level, aside from 28 games at Triple-A last year as a 25-year-old. He ranked 22nd in In-Zone Awareness and 10th in Out-of-Zone Awareness, so he was elite at both swinging at strikes and taking balls. He also slashed .195/.310/.355, which is, you know, not great.

That came with a 13.9% walk rate, so we can see the plate discipline there, but he had a 12.3% swinging strike rate (SwStr%), which was 45th-percentile, and a 15.5% called strike rate, which was 57th-percentile. However, he also pulls the ball on the ground far too often and has an average exit velocity on fly balls of just 88 mph, so the profile is of a hitter with a good understanding of the strike zone but not a lot of power and a pull-heavy approach with minimal lift in his swing. That’s not ideal for somebody with 44th-percentile sprint speed, but there’s a chance he gets a lot of playing time in Oakland because he’s a solid defender and they don’t have many players challenging him, so he could have value in deeper OBP-leagues but that’s about it.

TAYLOR WALLS – INF, TAMPA BAY (ADP: 482)
Taylor Walls comes in 4th on this list, but is another player who has strong plate discipline and not much else. The infielder provides two things for Tampa Bay: defensive versatility and speed. Unfortunately, only one of those is valuable in fantasy leagues. Despite being used at three different spots in the infield in 2023, Walls actually graded out below average at both 2B and 3B and was just an average defensive SS, according to Statcast’s Outs Above Average, so he’s not exactly pushing to get on the field, which is why Tampa went out and traded for Jose Caballero. As these metrics show, Walls doesn’t chase pitches out of the zone, but he can be too passive, with a 17.7% called strike, which leads to pitcher’s counts and an elevated strikeout rate for a player with his skillset. He has some value, which is speed, since he stole 22 bases in 99 games in 2022, but a player who hits the ball at an average exit velocity of 86.1 mph doesn’t need a 43% fly ball rate, so Walls will need to change the approach a bit before he can have much of any fantasy value.

EDOUARD JULIEN – INF, TWINS (ADP: 209)
Julien is an interesting case because his out-of-zone awareness ranks 5th in baseball, but his in-zone-awareness is 189th. This fits the narrative for Julien perfectly since the knock against him is that he’s simply too patient with a 20.6% called strike rate that was 8th-percentile in baseball. He fell behind 0-1 on 58.3% of his at-bats, according to Pitcher List, which was 1st-percentile in baseball. If you keep putting yourself in the hole like that, you’re simply never going to succeed with consistency at the big league level.

The rest of Julien’s profile is pretty solid. He was 92nd-percentile in Ideal Contact Rate (Barrels + Solid + Flares and Burners), pulled the ball a solid 44% of the time, and had a 91.7 mph average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives, which was 91st-percentile. However, he also hits the ball on the ground too much with a 52.5% groundball rate for a hitter with 41st-percentile sprint speed. There’s certainly fantasy value in Julien’s skillset, especially in OBP formats, but we’re going to need to see him be more aggressive in the zone in order for him to reach it. Lifting the ball just a little more wouldn’t hurt either, but I’ll try not to be greedy and just start with aggression since making major approach changes for a hitter is a big deal. Given where he’s going in drafts, it’s tough to take Julien until we can see spring training at bats and see if his approach has shifted at all.

MATT WALLNER – OF TWINS (ADP: 310)
In truth, Matt Wallner was the impetus for this article. If you look at the scatter plot graph below that Thomas put together for swing decisions, you see a lot of the top hitters in baseball in the top/middle of the article as being solid with both in and out of zone awareness. Then you also see Matt Wallner’s name there.

Wallner Swing GraphWallner Swing Graph

Wallner Swing Graph

Wallner ranks 12th overall in Decision Value and appears to have elite plate discipline, so why did he strike out 31.5% of the time in his 254 plate appearances with the Twins last year?

The most immediate issue is that he has a 17.1% SwStr% and has posted elevated swing-and-miss levels at each minor league stop. It worries me a bit that he had a 17% SwStr% or worse in each of his last two stops at Triple-A because it’s rare that a hitter improves on that at the big league level without real changes. Since his zone contact rate is below average, he can get himself into bad counts, which will likely mean the strikeout rate is always pretty high and the batting average is unlikely to exceed .250.

However, we also know that Wallner hits the ball hard with a 16.5% barrel rate and 43% ICR. He also pulls the ball 50% of the time and raised his flyball rate significantly in 2023 to 45.1%. We love to see that from a player who hits the ball hard, but here’s another interesting fact: his average exit velocity on fly balls was 90.1 mph which is fine but not great. Part of it has to do with his 21-degree launch angle, which means he tends to get a lot of loft on his fly balls, which limits their EV. He does have 116 mph max exit velocities in there, and 99.6 mph average exit velocity on pulled fly balls, which led to home runs on 57% of his pulled fly balls, so he can still get to that power, but he may need to limit the moon shots or continue to work on being more pull-focused.

At the end of the day, Wallner will be a plus power asset for fantasy baseball with a .240-ish batting average that will likely be propped up by his strong plate discipline which prevents him from exacerbating his swing and miss tendencies. He’s not good against lefties, so he’s likely a strongside platoon bat for the Twins, but I don’t see anybody really threatening that role, so 450-500 plate appearances feels likely, which could be enough for 25-30 home runs at a fair draft price.

Discipline Value 2Discipline Value 2

Discipline Value 2

DAVIS SCHNEIDER – 2B/3B, TORONTO (ADP: 425)
Schneider burst onto the fantasy scene last year after hitting .275/.416/.553 in 87 games at Triple-A with 21 HRs, 61 Runs, 64 RBI, and nine steals. He also struck out just 22% of the time and posted a 34% hard-hit rate, which helped earn him the call-up. As we can see from the table above, Schneider gets most of his plate discipline value by making elite decisions on pitches out of the strike zone. He had just a 19.8% chase rate in 2023, which is good because his contact rate on pitches out of the zone was 17th-percentile, so he essentially, he knows what he can’t reach and is good at avoiding it.

The reason Schneider’s zone awareness score is so low is that he has just a 39% swing rate, which is 4th-percentile in all of baseball. That passivity led to a 20.2% called strike rate, which was 11th-percentile and caused Schneider to fall behind in the count often, much like Edouard Julien. While Schneider did swing and miss more in the big leagues, he’s never had a SwStr% in the double digits in his entire minor league career, so I believe he’ll get that in check in 2024. When he does make contact, he posted a 17.8% barrel rate in his brief MLB debut and 91st-percentile ICR. He pulls and lifts the ball often, which he’ll need to keep doing because he has just a 90.3 mph exit velocity on fly balls but a 99.7 mph exit velocity when he can pull those fly balls. Given the dimensions in the Rogers Centre, he’s going to need to stay pull-centric to hit for lots of power, but there is certainly 20 HR upside if he wins the second base job; I just think it comes with more of a .250 average.

With that being said, why is he going 200 plus picks after Julien? They have similar concerns in their profile, potential playing time issues, and while Julien has more power in his bat, they can both drive the ball and Schneider will likely run more. Also, Schneider posted solid defensive value at 2B, so the Blue Jays can actually use him there, while the Twins seem to be finding a way to hide Julien defensively. I’d feel way more comfortable about just waiting (a LONG time) and taking Schneider.

CAVAN BIGGIO – INF/OF, TORONTO (ADP: 449)
Much like his teammate, Cavan Biggio makes elite swing decisions on pitches out of the zone, but is too passive in the zone. However, I wanted to discuss him briefly because I’m not sure people really notice the changes he made mid-season in 2023.

In his first 52 games, Biggio slashed .197/.265/.380 with a 31% strikeout rate. He was pulling the ball 52% of the time and hitting it in the air 48% of the time. That approach might work for some, but not a middle infielder with a 7.4% barrel rate and a 94 mph average exit velocity on pulled fly balls in a park that ranked 21st for left-handed pull power. In the second half of the season, Biggio dropped his pull rate to 38% and his fly ball rate to 36% and slashed .272/.404/.361. While this approach may limit his power upside, it actually fits Biggio’s skillset more because he had an ICR of 41%, which is above league average. Since ICR factors in hard hit groundballs, we see that, despite a middling barrel rate, he actually makes quality contact overall. We don’t mind hard hit groundballs from a left-handed hitter with 76th-percentile sprint speed. Considering Biggio played 1B, 2B, 3B, and RF last season, there’s a good chance he can fill a super UTIL role in Toronto and push over 400 plate appearances. If he carries over this approach change, it could prop up his batting average much higher than projections have it, while also chipping in 10 HR/10 SB. That could be good for deep league value.

YANDY DIAZ – 1B, TAMPA BAY (ADP: 123)
Since Yandy Díaz has always been known as an OBP asset, it’s no surprise to see his name here. In 2023, he enjoyed the best season of his career, posting career highs in home runs, runs, RBI, and batting average. Part of that success can be attributed to him being more aggressive in the zone, raising his zone swing rate by 3% and trading away some of the zone contact but still keeping an elite 90.1% rate. He slight increase in aggression added a little bit more swing-and-miss to his profile but he made more authoritative contact with career highs in ISO, barrel rate, and hard hit rate

However, despite all of that, the power improvement we saw seems to be a bit misleading. Díaz hit 12 of his 22 home runs in the first two months of the season with a 9.4-degree launch angle but an unsustainable 23.5% HR/FB rate. From June 1st on, the launch angle fell back to 3.9-degrees, and he posted a 25% fly ball rate with a still solid 13.7% HR/FB rate. On the season, he only pulled the ball 30% of the time while hitting it on the ground 52% of the time, which is not the profile of a hitter with power. Díaz will continue to show elite plate discipline and will likely hit at the top of the Rays lineup and post a solid batting average, but he’s unlikely to hit 20 homers again and he doesn’t steal bases, so while he can be a great fantasy asset in the right team context, he may not be perfect for every roster.

NOLAN SCHANUEL – 1B LOS ANGELES ANGELS (ADP: 442)
Schanuel made headlines after the Angels called him up just 22 games into his minor league career. The elite plate discipline carried over to the majors where he had an 89th percentile chase rate and made elite contact with just a 7.4% SwStr%. However, he, like many of the young hitters with great eyes in this article, was too passive, with a 19% called strike rate which caused him to fall behind in the count 60% of the time. While I can live with some passivity with a middle infield bat who has good speed or good power for the position, I can’t take it with a first baseman who also had a poor barrel rate and 27th-percentile ICR. His average exit velocity on fly balls was just 86.5 mph, and he also doesn’t steal bases, so drafting Schanuel means taking a .270-.280 hitter with good OBP who will hit 10 HRs and steal no bases on a bad offense with poor counting stats. I think I’ll pass.

JACK SUWINSKI – OF, PITTSBURGH PIRATES (ADP: 237)
People always want to rag on Suwinski for his strikeout rate, so it’s fun to see him on this leaderboard because it forces us to dig in. When we dig in, we see that Suwinski actually had a 10.9% SwStr% last year, and the league average is 12.2%, so Suwinski actually swings and misses less than league average. He also had a two-strike chase rate of just 16.3%, which means his strikeouts don’t come on pitches out of the zone. However, he had a 19.5% called strike rate in each of his two seasons, which is 17th-percentile, and his overall swing rate actually decreased in 2023 to just 39%. That means that the truth of Suwinski’s plate strikeout issues is that he swings and misses at slightly better than league average rates, but his passivity causes him to get into bad counts, so when he does swing and miss, it leads to a strikeout more often than we’d expect.

That’s actually a profile I can live with because, with his 15.7% barrel rate and 42% ICR, I really just need Suwinski to hit .230 to be useful in fantasy leagues. He hit 26 home runs in 2023 despite lowering his pull rate by over 5% because he hit the ball in the air 53.6% of the time and his average exit velocity on pulled fly balls is 100.1 mph. That’s why 54.5% of Suwinski’s pulled fly balls left the yard. If he can be a touch more aggressive and hunt fastballs early in counts, then we can maybe get that pull rate back up to 45-46% and we could see Suwinski hit 25-30 homers with 10 steals while hitting .230. Given his ADP, I don’t mind that one bit if I’ve secured batting average boosters elsewhere.

Discipline Value 3Discipline Value 3

Discipline Value 3

TRISTON CASAS – 1B, BOSTON (ADP: 95)
Casas came into the 2023 season as Boston’s top prospect and one of the top first base prospects in all of baseball. After a slow start to the year, he was tremendous from June 1st on, slashing .299/.397/.556 with 18 home runs, 43 runs, and 49 RBI in 85 games. He posted a 13% barrel rate and 13.6% walk rate over that span and ranked 5th among 1B in OPS and wRC+. We can see some of the evidence of that here with his elite in zone awareness score.

Casas had just a 22.7% chase rate in 2023 and a slightly above average 15.5% called strike rate, which means he doesn’t get himself into bad counts too often. He also doesn’t chase out of the zone late in counts, with an 88th-percentile chase rate in two-strike counts. That’s important because it means he’s not getting himself out. Now, he does have some swing and miss with an 11% SwStr% but that’s still better than league average and is fine when you consider that he pairs that with strong barrel rates and a 41.6% ICR.

The concern is that his pull rates are not what we’d normally like to see from a player with his kind of power; yet, it’s important to note that his strong run form June on actually coincided with him pulling the ball LESS. Casas’ average exit velocity on all fly balls is 92.1 mph, which is 93rd-percentile. While his average exit velocity on pulled fly ball is 100 mph, it’s important to note that Casas hits the ball hard enough to do damage even if he the fly ball off his bat isn’t pulled. When he started being less pull-centric in the second half, he did more damage, which may have just been him letting the ball get deeper or hitting the ball where it’s pitched. Considering his plus raw power, he can have that approach and still hit 25-30 home runs, but he can actually do it with a .260-.270 average, and that’s a profile that we can get behind.

RYAN NODA – 1B, OAKLAND (ADP: 441)
Oakland is not going to be a really good team in 2024, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have some interesting fantasy players. Noda has actually hit leadoff for the A’s precisely because of his elite plate discipline. He doesn’t chase pitches out of the zone, with just a 22.3% chase rate, which means he doesn’t get himself out and will likely keep posting high walk rates. He also posted a 13% barrel rate and 44.1% ICR, which was 85th-percentile, so he doesn’t get himself out and he can make authoritative contact when he gets his pitch in the zone.

However, there are some issues. First of all, his 89.1 mph average exit velocity on fly balls is 68th-percentile and his 97.5 mph exit velocity on pulled fly balls shows that this is not Suwinski and Casas level of raw power. He has basically the same average exit velocities on pulled fly balls as Gunnar Henderson and Bryan Reynolds. Also, Noda had a 15.8% SwStr%, which was 8th-percentile in baseball, and way worse than what we saw from Suwinski and Casas. He also has a 16.8% called strike rate and 43% swing rate overall, so he is a bit too selective which can often put him in pitcher’s counts. When you pair that with his elevated SwStr%, it becomes easier to see why he posted a 34.3% strikeout rate and that feels like a rate that isn’t likely to decrease by much.

Given that Noda has some power, but more like 20 HR power, and his team context is poor, it’s becoming a bit harder to talk myself into Noda has an option outside of really deep formats which makes sense because that’s where his ADP suggests he’s going. Given he’s likely to get a lot of at-bats for Oakland, he can be a value in draft-and-hold type formats.

GEORGE SPRINGER – OF, TORONTO (ADP: 111)
I’ve highlighted mostly value picks, or potential value picks, in this article, but I wanted to take a second to talk about Springer because he’s an interesting player for fantasy purposes. As we can see from the chart above, he remains a hitter with strong plate discipline despite his walk rate going down in each of the last two seasons. He’s not chasing any more out of the zone, but pitchers appear to be challenging him in the zone more and he’s been swinging more frequently over the last two years as a result.

It’s not surprising to see hitters challenge Springer more since he’s now 34-years-old and is certainly no longer in his prime. His barrel rates have plummeted down to 7.7% and his pull rate also dropped 10% this past season, which could be a sign of his bat speed slowing or could have maybe been an adjustment to the new park dimensions which made pulled fly balls less likely to leave the yard. However, Springer now appears to be a 32% fly ball hitter who will use all fields but now has just 62nd-percentile sprint speed. That profile suggests that Springer may simply be a .260-.270 hitter with 20 HR/20 SB upside who is more likely to see a decrease in production than increase. He remains a solid contact hitter who won’t strikeout a ton and could hit at the top of a solid but not elite lineup, which will give him good production in runs, so I can be talked into Springer if he falls in drafts, but he’s certainly not the fantasy player he once was and he might be too rich for my blood near the top 100.

LUIS RENGIFO – INF, LOS ANGELES ANGELS (ADP: 231)
I’ll end with a player who seems to be getting a lot of helium in drafts. Rengifo picked up 445 plate appearances last year while playing all over the diamond for the Angels. As you see from this leaderboard, he has strong in zone awareness and above average out of zone awareness. In 2023, he posted a 32.2% chase rate, which is a little bit higher than we’d like to see, but he also made contact on 63.2% of pitches out of the zone, which is 5% above league average and speaks to Rengifo’s ability to understand what he can and can’t get to.

He has a bit of an aggressive approach with a 11.6% SwStr%, but it makes more sense when you realize that Rengifo is not actually a speed-first MIF. At 5’10” 195 pounds, he’s a strong dude and he has just 50th-percentile sprint speed, but therein lies the issue. Rengifo is not a speed player and has only slightly above average zone contact while swinging and missing like a power bat; yet, he only had a 7.4% barrel rate and 33rd-percentile ICR, so he doesn’t really hit the ball hard either. His average exit velocity on pulled fly balls in 96.5 mph, so he can yank it out of the yard, as he did 10 times on 22 pulled fly balls last year, but he has just a 42% pull rate and 36.4% fly ball rate, so he’s not really getting into that power zone often.

The aggressive approach means he won’t strike out too much, but he’s also probably a .260 hitter with 15-20 HR and single-digit steals in a bad lineup. That’s not incredibly exciting, but it can certainly be useful as a versatile bench piece on deeper formats. I just think this ADP may be a bit too high.

Source: Yahoo Sports

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