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3 Surprising Fantasy Baseball Veterans Off To Hot Starts

Fantasy Baseball Veterans
Photo Credit: Keith Allison

We are now roughly six weeks into the Fantasy Baseball season. While not necessarily a huge sample to draw from, things generally have evened out by this point in the year.

I mean, look no further than the league’s wRC+ leaderboard. Is it any surprise to see, among qualified hitters, that Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, and Manny Machado have been the best offensive players in the game? Of course not.

Still, it wouldn’t be baseball if we didn’t have a few new and interesting names checked throughout the Top-20. Jorge Soler appears to be breaking out. As do Javier Baez and Mitch Haniger, but that’s all wrapped up in the time-honored aging curve. Nothing really outside the ordinary. No, what’s truly astounding are the old names. The players over the age of 30, once left for dead, suddenly impactful once again. Can what’s old stay new? With these three players, it’s very possible.

3 Surprising Fantasy Baseball Veterans

Jed Lowrie, Oakland Athletics – 170 wRC+ (6th)

The first thing that’s critical to note with Lowrie is that this isn’t exactly something we haven’t seen before. The 34-year-old switch-hitter produced a very respectable 119 wRC+ in 2017, heavily predicated on the same principles of launch angle that saw former Oakland teammates Ryon Healy and Yonder Alonso find success. Lowrie saw his GB/FB ratio jump from 1.33 in 2016 to 0.68 last year, which, in turn, helped his isolated power rise from .059 to .171.

Really, 2016 kind of stands as the outlier in Lowrie’s career batted ball profile. From 2010 to 2015, Lowrie possessed a 46.5% fly ball rate – the seventh-highest figure for any player with over 2,000 plate appearances in that span. So, it stands to reason that if 2017 was Lowrie’s best full season, that version of Lowrie is closer to what we’ve always seen than the outlier that 2016 appears to be.

Now, things will obviously get worse from this point on. Lowrie is currently maintaining a .385 BABIP and a 19.0% HR/FB ratio that looks downright foolish when compared to his career rate. However, let’s once again turn our attention back to last year. While Lowrie did manage just 14 home runs in his 645 plate appearances, he also hit 49 doubles – second in the league to only Jose Ramirez. According to expected wOBA, Lowrie’s wOBA should have been 27 points higher last season based upon launch angle and exit velocity. That difference could easily be explained by a few should-have-been home runs turning into doubles.

They say we create our own luck. If Lowrie can continue driving the ball like the past two seasons, he’s creating opportunities for his HR/FB ratio to skew towards the abnormal. If that sustains even a little bit, he’ll remain not just Fantasy relevant, but straight up impactful.

Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers – 165 wRC+ (10th)

If you heard about Kemp heading back to Los Angeles this winter and decided you couldn’t possibly care less, you’re not alone. Kemp had been the definition of “meh” over the past three seasons, divided between San Diego and Atlanta, hitting .269 with a 107 wRC+ across nearly 1,800 plate appearances. Sure, the 77 home runs were nice, but Kemp was little more than a husk of the perennial MVP candidate we’d seen just a half-decade prior and, entering his age 33 season, why should we have expected that to change?

Well, it did. Kemp is currently murdering baseballs on a nightly basis in a Dodgers uniform. So much so, you’d be excused in thinking we’d traveled back in time. The veteran is hitting .353 with a .216 ISO and is also one of only 15 players with over 70 batted ball events to tout a barrels per plate appearance rate above 10%. So, what changed?

First and foremost, Kemp has been exceedingly fortunate on balls in play – something very clearly denoted by a .425 BABIP, the second-highest mark in all of baseball. Still, BABIP is a perk of quality contact. If the MLB classifies a “barrel” as an event with a 50% likelihood of being a hit, averaging a barrel essentially once for every seven BBEs would stand to help keep one’s BABIP high. Also, for his career, Kemp is a .321 hitter with a .364 BABIP off left-handed pitching. An important factor as seemingly all LHPs reside in the National League West.

In 2018, Kemp has a 196 wRC+ against southpaws. It’s a skill that kept him relevant even in the lean three-year period previously discussed – specifically in 2016 when he produced a 144 wRC+ in 146 plate appearances. The Dodgers, entering play Wednesday, sit sixth in the league in right-handed PAs against left-handed pitching. The Giants, Diamondbacks, and Rockies also sit inside the Top-10. They have an uninspiring rotation of mediocre lefties like Kyle Freeland, Clayton Richard, and Eric Lauer to thank for this.

There’s some regression coming for Kemp to be sure, but, with a steady diet of subpar lefties always on the horizon, he should be able to keep afloat and continue producing respectable numbers.

Nick Markakis, Atlanta Braves – 162 wRC+ (13th)

Two things immediately stand out about Markakis’ rebirth in 2018. Firstly, while his .333 average appears high, it’s more an example of his National League low 8.3% strikeout rate than it is an absurd BABIP. In fact, his .333 BABIP is not only identical to his average, its well within his career norms and wouldn’t even rate as the highest number he’s produced for a full campaign.

The second thing that stands out about Markakis is the power. He already has six home runs this season, just two fewer than his output from all of 2017. Still, instead of asking whether the new found power surge is legitimate, you should be wondering if he can remain Fantasy viable without the long ball. Short answer? He can.

Don’t even allow yourself to get comfortable with the idea that Markakis is now a true clean-up hitter who has “taken on the task of being the veteran run producer a young organization needs”. I’m not 100% sure that’s been said this season, but I’m almost positive some announcer has tried to spin that yarn. No, we’ve seen nothing to indicate a massive shift in approach from the 34-year-old. He’s not hitting the ball harder, he not elevating it more often, he’s not doing anything aside from consistently stringing together good at-bats where the ball ends up in play or over the fence.

The more pressing factor here is Markakis’ surroundings – and I don’t just mean the lefty-friendly confines of SunTrust Park. The Braves suddenly have one of baseball’s most potent lineups. Markakis finds himself hitting ahead of three generational talents in Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna, and Freddie Freeman. That means base runners. That means RBI opportunities. Markakis leads the NL in plate appearances with runners in scoring position. He’s hit with RISP 48 times already in 2018. Imagine that number if Acuna had broken camp with the big club.

Again, its a bit insane to think that, at this point in his career arc, Nick Markakis would suddenly become a power threat. However, with threats all around him, Markakis’ steady, contact-oriented approach is now the perfect complement to his situation.

 

Garion Thorne
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Garion Thorne

Garion Thorne grew up in Toronto in the mid-2000s as a Jays, Raptors, Dolphins fan, so you know the only championships he cares about are of the Fantasy persuasion. Garion was a Host/Senior Analyst at the FNTSY Sports Network, most of the time taking a specific focus on Fantasy Baseball and deep baseball analytics. You might have also stumbled across his work for the New York Daily News, the Associated Press, USA Today's HoopsHype, or NBA.com. Garion keeps a FanGraphs tab open in his browser at all times and he has never seen a bunt he agreed with.
Garion Thorne
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