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The calendar says May, which is great since we now have sufficient 2016 data to allow us to start drawing meaningful conclusions. The sample sizes are still relatively small, but everyday hitters have surpassed the 100-plate appearance mark, giving us something to work with.

Last month, in separate columns, we talked about the key attributes of hitters that hit for power and batting average.

Today, we put that knowledge to the test and examine some hitters off to a slow start. We then will give you a verdict, Wall Street style: Buy, sell, or hold.

We are looking at players that were drafted within the Top 100, using  FantasyPros as our source for ADP.

All hitters go through slumps over the 162-game marathon MLB season. Ups and downs should be expected; however, further analysis is required to determine if the slow start is just a short-term slump, or if it is the beginning of a larger, long-term decline.

 

The Fantasy Lookout: Slow Start; Hitter Edition

 

Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati Reds

 

Other than his 12 RBIs, Votto has posted extremely disappointing numbers across the board to start the season. Known as an OBP machine, Votto’s current figure of .330 would be a career low, easily undercutting his 2008 rookie season mark of .368. I see two reasons for the decline; his BB/K ratio and his BABIP.

With his walk rate down and strikeout rate up, Votto has managed a 0.50 BB/K rate in 2016 against as career mark of 0.90. I am not sure if pitchers have figured him out, but he is seeing a materially higher amount of pitches in the zone, especially on the first pitch. This is consistently putting him in the hole, which has been a clear hindrance to his usual patient approach at the plate.

When you look at his contact rate and swinging strike rate, nothing suggests a large jump is justified with respect to his strikeout rate. The news is better on the BABIP front. With his near 26-percent line drive rate and 44-percent hard hit rate, his .290 BABIP (.356 career BABIP) seems quite unlucky. He has also posted large increases in both his pull rate and his ground ball rate, so we need to see if this will be a trend for the entire year.

For now, Votto is a hold. His batting average should recover as the BABIP gods give him a hand. However, with the slow start and significant deterioration in his BB/K ratio, he will be hard pressed to approach his counting stats and OBP totals of last year.

Anthony Rendon, 2B/3B, Washington Nationals

Rendon put himself on the Fantasy map with his great all-around season in 2014. He entered last year as a consensus first round pick; however, injuries and poor play resulted in him being one of the biggest busts of 2015.

At first glance, Rendon appears to be struggling at the plate so far this year. With zero home runs, one RBI, and one stolen base, Fantasy owners have to be disappointed. Well that is the bad news, now on to the good news.

He has done two things extremely well this year; limit his strikeouts and hit the ball with authority. His strikeout rate sits at 12-percent, a material improvement over his career mark of 17-percent. When he does put the ball into play, he isn’t just making weak contact as he is stinging the ball. His 25.6-percent line drive rate and 38-percent hard hit rate would both rank at career bests. The fact that he has yet to hit a home run and has a BABIP of just .280, appears to be nothing more than bad luck.

He has also posted a .148 batting average with runners on base this year, against a .281 mark with the bases empty. This compares to his career marks of .274 with runners on and .273 with the sacks empty. As this figure regresses, his RBI total should be well supported, making his Fantasy owners very happy.

The rebound is coming for Anthony Rendon, so buy while you still can as his slow start will turn into a solid campaign.

Adam Jones, OF, Baltimore Orioles

 

Jones has been one of the most consistent hitters in baseball over the past half decade, as he has posted five consecutive seasons of at least 25 home runs and 80 RBIs. His slow start this year seems nothing more than noise as most of his underlying peripherals still look like the Adam Jones of old.

He appears to be seeing the ball fine as his strikeout rate is in line with his career numbers, and pleasantly, his walk rate is currently running at a career high. His batting average has been dragged down by a .273 BABIP, partially due to his anemic line drive rate of 12-percent. When you dig a little deeper, you see that his current BABIP on ground balls is .167 and this pales in comparison to his career mark of .267. Expect this to regress back to the mean, which will in turn pull up his batting average.

The remainder of his batted ball profile is consistent with his career figures, so it wouldn’t be shocking if his line drive rate slowly ticked up back to his career mark of over 18-percent as the season wears on.

I see no reason not to slap a buy rating on Jones as his 2016 season has all the makings of another 25 home run and 80 RBI campaign. In fact, including Jones, only 12 outfielders reached both of those marks in 2015.

Justin Upton, OF, Detroit Tigers

I am not sure if it is the new team, new league, or trying to justify the big contract, but Upton has not had the start he wanted in 2016. He has come out swinging for his new club, but unfortunately for the Tigers, he has been missing a lot too. With a strikeout rate of nearly 40-percent and a walk rate of 3-percent, Upton has not done himself many favors in the early going.

When you look at some of his other statistics, such as his swinging strike rate, contact rate, and swing rate, you see slight deterioration, but nothing significant that would suggest such a huge jump in his strikeout rate. Also, his batted ball profile looks as solid as ever, especially when you consider his 28-percent line drive rate, which would be a career best.

Typically streaky, Upton just seems to be going through a cold spell as the plate. The strikeouts are definitely a concern, but the underlying data suggests a turnaround is coming. Look for a disgruntled Upton owner and see if you can pry him away for cheap. Despite the slow start, I would still be buying Justin Upton.

Carlos Gomez, OF, Houston Astros

 

For all those who wrote off Gomez’s 2015 season as an injury plagued hiccup, 2016 has not been your friend. The former power-speed darling has been atrocious in April and the recovery signs are few and far between.

He is walking less than ever, he is striking out more than ever, and he can’t even claim being unlucky given his BABIP of .304. His lack of power, just five doubles and zero home runs shouldn’t be surprising given his pedestrian batted ball profile. He is hitting fewer line drives and fly balls while hitting more balls on the ground. His current hard hit rate of 25-percent would be his lowest mark since 2010.

He has looked lost at the plate. His 17.3-percent swinging strike rate ranks as the sixth worst mark in all of baseball. It is hard enough to steal bases when you never get on base, but when he has tried to swipe a bag, he has only been successful on two of his four attempts.

He also now has a couple of minor dings, a wrist issue from an errant pitch and some soreness in his rib cage. Selling low never feels good, so you could wait for a hot streak to sell then, but you risk the chance that the hot streak never comes. All of the data points to Carlos Gomez being a sell.

 

Numbers can be deceiving, especially without further analysis. Everybody loves to read the headlines, but looking beneath the surface helps put things into perspective. Hitters off to a slow start are nothing new; however, each situation is unique and it helps to know the entire story. Sometimes it makes sense to ignore the slow start, but sometimes you need to act on them. Next week, we will take a look at hitters off to hot starts. Until next time, enjoy the games!

 

 

Data courtesy of www.fangraphs.com

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