Some of the First Half’s Biggest Surprises
While it’s prime time for baseball writers to put together their own All-Star teams, I prefer to save that for the end of the year, along with the All-Bust team. Instead, let’s use the break to identify some of the biggest surprises from the first half, and whether the players in question can continue what they’ve been doing. I’ll try to focus on players who were late-round picks or undrafted altogether in many leagues, so as much as Jose Ramirez and Miguel Sano have impressed, they aren’t quite as surprising from a talent standpoint as some of these breakouts.
Aaron Judge (OF, NYY)
If you don’t know what Judge has been doing so far then you either don’t like baseball or you’ve been underground somewhere for three months. Judge is probably unique and so it’s hard to say what he will or won’t be able to continue. There’s no doubt that he has made clear improvements to his swing to keep his bat in the zone for longer, and that his power is greater than anyone else in baseball, including Giancarlo Stanton.
On the negative side, there is the expectation that his size means that ultimately, pitchers will find a way to exploit his huge strikezone. In support of that point is the fact that he is striking out 29.6% of the time. In spite of that, Judge has a 196 wRC+ and is batting .329 with a 1.139 OPS. In all of baseball history, only one qualified player has ever struck out in at least 29% of plate appearances and still had a wRC+ of over 150: Chris Davis in 2013. Judge can certainly hit 50-plus home runs, as Davis did that year, but the batting average still has to be questioned with that much swing-and-miss. The floor is getting ever higher, however, at least in the short term, because Judge’s reputation is such that he is going to keep getting free passes and his walk rate makes him a monster in OBP leagues even if the average declines.
Justin Smoak (1B, TOR), Logan Morrison (1B, TBR), Yonder Alonso (1B, OAK)
Maybe some people expected good fantasy production from these players a few years ago, but three 29-30 year old first basemen with fairly disappointing careers suddenly turning into fantasy gold in the same year is quite the surprise. All three have 20 or more home runs and OPS marks north of .900. In both Morrison and Alonso’s cases, they’ve clearly joined the fly ball revolution, increasing their FB% by double digits and reaping the rewards. That’s not the change with Smoak, who actually has an identical FB% to 2016; instead, he has made massive improvements in his approach with two strikes, apparently becoming much more selective and consequently slashing his strikeout rate while hitting numerous two-strike homers, as Jeff Sullivan explained.
Smoak has also become much better against lefties as a result, a problem which plagued him for years and cut significantly into his playing time and therefore counting stat potential. All three have made clear changes that have brought them sustained success over the course of more than 300 plate appearances. There’s no way to know if pitchers will find a more effective way to combat the extreme fly ball approach, or if MLB will modify the ball again in such a way that reduces the effectiveness of the strategy. This is the best version we’ve seen of each of these players and it certainly isn’t a fluke, so until there’s evidence that pitchers have found a bigger weakness, we can have confidence in them as significant fantasy contributors, especially in the power department.
Jordan Montgomery (SP, NYY)
This wasn’t supposed to be a Yankees lovefest. However, when an unheralded 24-year-old comes up to the big leagues for the first time and pitches 90-plus innings of a 3.65 ERA, half of them in Yankee Stadium, you need to take notice. The 6’6 lefty has some extremely promising peripherals, including a 13.5% swinging strike rate and a 72.4% contact rate, both tenth-best amongst qualified starters and extremely similar to another rather famous left-hander, Clayton Kershaw.
This isn’t to say that Montgomery is Kershaw, which is obviously ridiculous. What Montgomery does appear to be is an above-average major league starter already, with a good four pitch mix that features a slider, changeup and curve which can all get whiffs. cFIP rates Montgomery at 93, an impressive mark for a rookie pitcher. The 24-year-old doesn’t throw that hard, sitting at 92, but from the left side that’s still just fine and he’s far from reliant on the pitch. The league is likely still figuring out what Montgomery is, but he’s also shown a willingness to significantly alter his pitch mix from start to start, a good sign for his longer-term ability to adjust to the league. If the lack of name recognition makes the young Yankees starter a cheap trade target in your leagues, go ahead and buy.
Jimmy Nelson (SP, MIL)
I’d pretty much given up on Nelson as a fantasy starter with upside this year, and I wasn’t the only one. I knew he wasn’t drafted highly, but I was shocked to see that he was an incredible 137th off the board amongst starters in NFBC this year, behind the likes of R.A. Dickey and Brett Anderson. Nelson naturally chose 2017 as his big breakout year, with a 26.1 K%, just a 6% walk rate, all while maintaining a ground ball percentage near 50%.
Nelson has made some fairly clear changes, dropping his release point and throwing more strikes than at any point in his career. He’s also added a tick to his slider, which seems to have lost a bit of movement and has strangely been less effective than previously in his career, but his curveball has really improved to compensate. It’s also being thrown slightly harder and with less vertical movement, but perhaps that’s helping him to get hitters to chase more: the swing percentage on the pitch is over 40%, well above his 2016 mark of 29.7%, and he’s getting whiffs on 37.8% of those swings, while still getting grounders on almost 56% of the balls in play off the pitch.
The 28-year-old can also still run his fourseam and sinker up to 97, which helps. There’s still a little too much in the way of hard contact, but if Nelson can maintain his gains with the curveball and bring back the success with the slider of previous years, we could be looking at an even better starter than his 3.30 ERA already suggests. That’s a big if, though, and it’s possible that constantly living in the zone will simply lead to continued hard contact. In that case, Nelson’s strikeout upside is still great, but we might not see the ratios get better than this, and if someone will buy him as an ace, that’s a deal worth doing.