Three Up, Three Down: The Studs and Duds of the First Half
The 2016 MLB season has reached the unofficial midway point as teams rest up during the All-Star break. The first half has given fantasy owners plenty to be surprised about, both in good ways and frustrating, pull-your-hair-out ways.
In the All-Star break edition of Three Up, Three Down, we’ll take a look at three studs who have made owners look like geniuses during the first three-plus months of the season. On the other hand are three high-draft-pick players who haven’t given owners a substantial return on their investment.
1B/OF Wil Myers, San Diego Padres
2016 stats: .286 AVG/.351 OBP/.522 SLG, 19 HR, 60 RBI, 61 R, 15 SBPercent owned: 92 percent
Myers’ stellar first half earned him his first All-Star bid, a banner moment for what’s been a whirlwind of a career. The former third-round pick in the 2009 draft was ranked as the game’s No. 4 prospect in 2013 by Baseball America, but had become somewhat damaged goods after two injury-plagued seasons in 2014 and 2015, during which he appeared in just 147 combined games.
That lack of durability sent his draft stock tumbling — his average draft pick in Yahoo leagues was barely inside the top 250. Owners who took a flyer on the 2013 American League Rookie of the Year have been rewarded with a first base-eligible player with power, speed and on-base skills that make him one of the league’s most versatile hitters.
Myers has a career-low strikeout rate (20.6 percent) and an isolated power rating of .236, his highest by a wide margin. Wrist injuries sapped him of his power the past two season, but he appears to have fully recovered now. He’s hitting line drives more often than ever and has his highest home run-fly ball ratio of his young career.
While Myers has always shown the ability to hit (when healthy), he’s never been viewed as a stolen base threat. After topping out a 12 stolen bases in the minors and never stealing more than six in the Majors, Myers has already swiped 15 this year, by far the most among first basemen.
Last season, only two first basemen topped the 15-stolen base mark: Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rizzo. Myers is on pace for 27 swipes to go along with 35 home runs. If he can pick up the pace a bit on the base paths, he could become just the second first basemen ever to join the 30 home run-30 stolen base club, along with Jeff Bagwell, who hit 42 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 1997.
All of this is music to the ears of fantasy owners who took a chance on the reclamation project. The Padres haven’t had much to cheer about this summer, but the 25-year-old Myers has been a legitimate sign of hope for the struggling franchise.
1B/2B/3B Daniel Murphy, Washington Nationals
2016 stats: .348/.387/.598, 17 HR, 66 RBI, 53 R, 46 XBHPercent owned: 96 percent
Despite his breakout 2015 postseason, fantasy owners weren’t as enamored with Murphy as perhaps they should have been. On average, he was barely being drafted inside the top 150 and was not among the top-10 drafted second basemen, but he’s since become one of the most productive hitters in the league.
Murphy has always been a low-walk, high-contact hitter, though one with only average pop. He’s suddenly transformed into a power hitter in 2016, supplementing his high batting average with a career-high .250 ISO.
Only Matt Carpenter ranks ahead of Murphy in ISO among second basemen, and Carpenter spends most of his time these days at third base. Murphy has already set a career high with 17 home runs this season, breaking last season’s mark of 14. He’s done this by hitting the ball in the air more — as evidenced by his career-high 43.1 percent fly ball rate — and by making hard contact more often than in past seasons.
Even with his stellar batted ball numbers, Murphy’s .356 batting average on balls in play is unlikely to continue. Still, he’ll remain one of the league’s most dangerous hitters if he continues his aggressive approach. Given his ample power potential at a home-run-starved position, owners should resist the temptation to sell high, even if the batting average starts to dip in the second half of the season.
3B Jake Lamb, Arizona Diamondbacks
2016 stats: .291/.371/.612, 20 HR, 61 RBI, 49 RPercent owned: 83 percent
Lamb has been one of the biggest surprises in baseball this season. The former sixth-round pick got his first extended taste of big league action in 2015, playing in 107 games and slashing .263/.331/.386. He mustered only six home runs in 390 plate appearances, showing little signs of the power potential he flashed in the minors. With 20 home runs at the midway point, he’s broken out in a big way this year.
Lamb is tied with Kris Bryant and Kyle Seager for fourth among all third basemen in extra-base hits, right behind the upper echelon of superstars that includes Nolan Arenado, Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado. His seven triples are tied with Adam Eaton for the most among all Major Leaguers, regardless of position.
Lamb ranks sixth among all qualified hitters in rate of hard-hit contact, ahead of players like Donaldson, Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton and Corey Seager. He also ranks second behind only David Ortiz with a .325 ISO, an impressive feat considering how dominant Ortiz has been in his final season.
Lamb slashed .321/.408/.552 in 247 career minor league games, excelling at every level. After 523 plate appearances in the Majors from 2014-15, he appears to have fully adjusted to big-league pitching and shouldn’t be viewed as a flash in the pan by any stretch of the imagination. The Diamondbacks have largely disappointed after going all-in this offseason, but Lamb has provided hope that the future is not completely bleak in the desert.
1B Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox
2016 stats: .272/.326/.430, 11 HR, 52 RBI, 33 R, 77 K, 22 BBPercent owned: 97 percent
Fantasy owners who took Abreu in the top 20 — his average draft position — have spent the first three months mostly disappointed. When Abreu was featured here in late May, he was hitting .248/.311/.391, with a .143 ISO, a far cry from his rookie year in which he posted a .264 ISO.
Since then, Abreu has looked more like the feared hitter he was during his rookie season. In his last 35 games, he’s slashed .307/.348/.486 with 15 extra-base hits, this after mustering just 16 XBH in his first 51 games.
Abreu has always struggled the most against curveballs, and he’s been thrown more of them this season than in the past two seasons. His improved performance at the plate suggests that he’s starting to close up some of the holes pitchers have been exploiting in the first two months.
Owners have been understandably frustrated with Abreu in the first half, but as he rounds into form, rival fantasy owners should try to pounce on the opportunity and see if they can snag Abreu in a buy-low trade. His overall numbers still don’t appear too impressive — he currently ranks outside the top 200 — and he could be a steal down the stretch if he continues to improve.
3B/OF Miguel Sano, Minnesota Twins
2016 stats: .243/.350/.472, 14 HR, 36 RBI, 34 R, 85 K, 36 BBPercent owned: 87 percent
Sano spent years as one of the most hyped prospects in the game, peaking at No. 6 by Baseball America before the 2014 season. In 80 games at the big league level last year, he showed off his big-time power potential with an ISO of .261 and 17 home runs in 80 games.
Sano still hits the ball out of the yard frequently, but his slash line has fallen from .269/.386/.530 in 2015 to .243/.350/.472 this year. He’s improved his plate discipline only slightly from last year, chasing fewer pitches outside the zone, but still is among the league leaders in strikeout rate.
Sano’s batting average last year was boosted by his unsustainably high .396 BABIP. That number has dropped to .322 this year, though he’s making hard contact nearly just as often as he did in 2015. Sano ranks 15th in the league in average exit velocity after ranking second in that category last year, with only a 1.2 mile-per-hour decrease.
All of this suggests that this year’s version of Sano is a more accurate representation of his true talent than last year’s numbers would indicate. He’s still a valuable player, both in fantasy and real-life purposes, but his extreme three true outcomes approach will always hinder his batting average and on-base percentage.
Combine that with his subpar supporting cast, and there are few run-scoring and RBI chances for Sano to cash in on. Owners shouldn’t expect a big second-half breakout that’s much better than what he’s done so far.
SS Troy Tulowitzki, Toronto Blue Jays
2016 stats: .239/.315/.453, 15 HR, 43 RBI, 28 R, 63 K, 26 BBPercent owned: 95 percent
In his prime years, Tulowitzki was a rare reliable source of home run production from a shortstop position that’s largely lacking in power. These days, he’s still able to make pitchers pay for their mistakes — his current ISO of .215 is right in line with his career mark of .212 — but his slash line of .239/.315/.453 has him ranked outside the top 300 fantasy players.
Tulowitzki’s strikeout rate is the highest it’s been since 2006, and his .256 BABIP is largely a result of his career-worst line-drive rate, though his hard-hit rate is right in line with his career average. He missed nearly a month from late May to mid-June with a quad strain but returned on June 18, looking more like the Tulo of old.
In his 20 games since coming off the DL, Tulowitzki has hit .313/.371/.600 with seven home runs in 89 plate appearances. The Blue Jays have caught fire heading into the break, and Tulowitzki’s resurgence is a big reason why. Fantasy owners who showed patience with the five-time All-Star are finally being rewarded for sticking to their guns.