The first homer was innocent enough. It didn’t travel 450 feet or occur on national television. It happened during a 4–1 game in the seventh inning, so it wasn’t like it increased his team’s win expectancy very much. It did happen on Opening Day in the player’s first career game, but other than that, nothing about the homer was special. The pitcher missed his spot with a fastball. The hitter made him pay. It’s an event that occurs so frequently during an MLB season, that a player doing it in his third career plate appearance seems almost routine. Yet this homer was different. This one may have been the launching pad for a 2015 AL Rookie of the Year season. This one was the first in the season, and career, of Devon Travis.
Travis has been one of the biggest surprises through the first four weeks of the year. The 24-year-old second baseman is hitting .318/.394/.625 with seven homers, 20 runs scored and 23 RBI. Travis may have been the gem of the Detroit farm system before landing in Toronto for Anthony Gose, but that wasn’t exactly a high bar to clear. Detroit’s farm system was, and largely still is, bereft of talent. Travis may have been the best player in the Tigers’ pipeline, but he hit .298/.358/.460 with 10 homers and 16 steals at the Double-A level in his age-23 season. Those are fine numbers, but not exactly ones that scream future superstar. In fact, Travis didn’t make any top-100 prospect lists before the 2015 season.
Scouts always figured Travis’ bat would play in the majors from a batting average standpoint. The power has been nothing short of shocking, leaving anyone who saw him hit in the minors nonplussed. What’s more, Travis isn’t simply getting lucky. No one lucks into a 427-foot homer off Julio Teheran, or a 429-foot homer of Ubaldo Jimenez, or a 413-foot homer off Trevor Bauer. Travis’ average true home run distance is a robust 402.4 feet. He’s not hitting many cheapies, and that’s important when diagnosing whether or not he can keep up this level of power.
As you saw in the homers against Teheran and Jimenez, Travis is not a dead-pull hitter. He crushed both of those balls to center field, and that’s another point in his favor. When a smallish guy hits for power by being pull-heavy, it’s easy for pitchers to adjust. That’s why we sold Brian Dozier during draft season. Travis, however, is hitting the ball with authority to all fields. Just check out his spray chart, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
Look at all the blue and black dots in deep right and right-center. The blues are doubles and the blacks are outs, but both show that he can drive the ball to the opposite field. Travis isn’t going to be an easy study for pitchers. Try to pound him inside, and he has quick enough hands to get inside most any pitch, as Joe Kelly learned last week. Pitch him away, and he has shown an ability and willingness to go to right field. Pitch him carefully and he’ll take a walk, evidenced by a 9.1% walk rate, which is rather impressive for a rookie. Pound the zone and you’re unlikely to beat him, as proved by his 82% contact rate.
Travis isn’t going to hit 30 homers. He’s not going to sustain a 24.1% HR/FB ratio all season. His pop, however, is not a mirage, and he’s now manning a key spot in a potent lineup. Everyone was surprised by his power in April, but no one will be if he ends up on a large percentage of fantasy championship teams in September.
Hitters of the Week
Josh Reddick, Athletics: .478 BA (11-for-23), 3 HR, 8 R, 12 RBI, .538 OBP
Reddick went barreling into last week, having picked up five hits in his previous 10 at-bats. That was merely a prelude to the monster week he threw on the Angels and Rangers. Reddick is now on a 10-game hitting streak, and he had multiple hits in four of his six games last week. Reddick was particularly on fire against the Rangers, going 6-for-12 with two homers and eight RBI in the weekend set, in which the A’s won two of three games. We’ve seen gaudy power numbers from Reddick before, most recently in 2012 when he circled the bases 32 times. What’s most encouraging about his 2015 season to this point is his 6.5% strikeout rate. Reddick hasn’t necessarily been a huge strikeout guy in his during his tenure in the majors, but his career strikeout rate is almost exactly three times as high as what it is this season. If he can continue making contact at this rate, as well as keep his line-drive rate at or above 25%, he could approach, or even surpass, his 2012 season.
Evan Gattis, Astros: .318 BA (7-for-22), 5 HR, 7 R, 12 RBI, .312 OBP
Typically, a player isn’t going to be anywhere near one of the best hitters of the week with just seven hits to his name. When five of those hits leave the yard, however, there’s room for an exception. As such, Gattis became the first player to be a Hitter of the Week after previously being a Hitter of the Weak in 2015. With the Astros starting the week in San Diego, Gattis actually sat for two of the first three games of the week, getting pinch-hit appearances in both of them. He homered in his only start in San Diego, presaging what was to come when the Astros returned to AL play. In the four-game weekend series with the Mariners, Gattis went 5-for-17 with four homers and 10 RBI, helping lead the Astros to a sweep. He homered twice in the series finale, including the ultimate game-winner in a tie game in the eighth inning. Gattis is regularly a boom-or-bust player, and he has shown off both ends of that spectrum this season.
Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks: .556 BA (15-for-27), 1 HR 5 R, 6 RBI, 2 SB, .571 OBP
With apologies to Jose Altuve and George Springer, who joined Gattis in the Houston hit parade last week, Goldschmidt earned the final spot in our Hitters of the Week. He got at least one hit in all six of Arizona’s games last week, and had three hits in an astounding four games. After another huge week, Goldschmidt is now slashing .356/.448/.622 with six homers this season. We’re one month into the season, and it’s very realistic that he ends the year with the lionized .300/.400/.500 slash line, 30 homers, 15 steals, 80 runs and 90 RBI. There’s nothing he can’t do on a baseball field, both for real-life and fantasy purposes.
Hitters of the Weak
Josh Harrison, Pirates: .043 BA (1-for-23), 0 HR, 0 R, 1 RBI, 0 SB, .043 OBP
Through four games last week, it seemed like things really couldn’t get much worse for Harrison. He had gone 1-for-16, and sat on the bench one game for a day of rest that was probably as much mental as it was physical. And then came Sunday. The Pirates and Cardinals needed 14 innings to decide the final game of their weekend series. Harrison went 0-for-7 with a pair of strikeouts in the marathon affair. After his breakout 2014 campaign, it has been nothing but headaches for Harrison this year. He’s hitting just .188/.220/.313 and has struck out in nearly 18% of his plate appearances. His batted-ball rates suggest he’s earning every bit of his ugly slash line. It’s getting to a point where Harrison can be dropped in standard mixed leagues.
Steven Souza, Rays: .080 BA (2-for-25), 0 HR, 2 R, 0 RBI, .148 OBP
Souza’s starting to learn that life with an everyday job in a major league lineup isn’t all that easy. After a hot start to the season, Souza’s bat has cooled off considerably over the last few weeks. The Rays dropped four of six games last week, and Souza was right at the center of the poor effort, getting just two hits in six games. The Rays lost two of three in a weekend set to Balitmore, in which Souza went 0-for-12 with nine strikeouts and wore a golden sombrero twice. At the beginning of the week, he was hitting .254/.347/.492. Seven days later, his slash line had fallen all the way to .205/.293/.375.
Yadier Molina, Cardinals: .111 BA (3-for-27), 0 HR, 1 R, 2 RBI, .194 OBP
Perhaps Molina was still feeling the effects last week of the foul tip he took off his knee that forced him to miss two games two weekends ago. Molina returned to action last Monday, going 0-for-4 in a loss to the Phillies. He got one hit, scored a run and drove in two the next night, but that was it for him, in terms of offensive production, for the week. Over the next five games, Molina went 2-for-20 and didn’t factor at all into any of the Cardinals’ run scoring. Like Souza, his slash line looks a whole lot worse at the end of the week than it did at the start. He’s now hitting .231/.291/.282 after slashing .294/.345/.373 one week ago. All the innings he has logged behind the plate during his career may finally be catching up with him.
Buy, sell or hold
Buy: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
Judging by the number of questions I’ve received on him in the last week or so, now is the best time to snag McCutchen from his understandably frustrated fantasy owner. It’s no secret that McCutchen has dealt with a knee problem for most of the season. He tweaked that injury over the weekend, but Clint Hurdle still had him in the lineup the following day.
If the knee were truly at the root of his struggles, I believe the Pirates would sit him down for a few days, or maybe even place him on the DL, to give him the rest necessary for the injury to heal. Given that they haven’t done that, I think we’re just seeing a prolonged slump from a player who has never been in a funk like this in his career. The 9.6% line-drive rate is serious cause for concern and worthy for further examination. Still, that speaks to a slow bat more than anything else. If it were a hip injury, or something else in his lower half that impeded his core rotation, it would be one thing. A knee injury may keep him from being aggressive on the bases, but it shouldn’t mess with his bat all that much, especially if it’s one that the Pirates are comfortable with him playing on in center field. Buying opportunities for a player of McCutchen’s caliber don’t occur very often. Act while you still can.
Sell: Mark Teixeira, Yankees
Let’s start this off with a point against being able to sell Teixeira at an inflated price. The power has been great, but he has a .202 batting average. What owner in a batting average league is going to be willing to take on that unsightly rate? The answer is a desperate one. However, those owners are out there, and Teixeira is eminently more tradeable in a league that uses OBP or OPS. Power will always be attractive on the open market, even if it comes attached to an ugly batting average, and Teixeira has been one of the best power hitters this season. Teixeira may have nine homers, and that’s going to look nice to an owner who needs to add pop to the lineup.
There’s reason to believe, though, that he’s getting a bit lucky. Among players with at least three homers this year, Teixeira has the eighth-shortest average true home run distance. Part of that is because he has so many data points, and not every homer can travel 450 feet. It owes more to the fact that he has had a number of balls that just barely cleared the fences. Five of his nine homers have come in the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium, and another was at Camden Yards. These aren’t exactly high degree-of-difficulty homers Teixeira is hitting. It will be hard for a rival owner who needs to power to turn a blind eye to the absolute number, and that can help you sell Teixiera at peak value.
Hold: Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
The buy-low offers for Encarnacion may be pouring into your inbox if he’s on your roster. I’m here to tell you to turn a blind eye to any that doesn’t still value him as the star hitter he is. It has undoubtedly been a frustrating year this far, as Encarnacion is hitting just .220/.273/.370 with four homers through 110 plate appearances. Yes, it’s troubling that his strikeout rate is up to 20% while his fly-ball rate is down to 35%, which would be by far a career low if it remained there all season. With no injury in the mix, however, this sees to be nothing more than a matter of timing. Encarnacion is off at the plate, and that’s making him jump at pitches he would normally let pass. His o-swing rate, the number of pitches he swings at outside the zone, is up to 30.2%. He hasn’t been north of 26.1% since 2010. All this points not to a player whose skills are deteriorating, but one who simply needs a strong run to get back on track. Encarnacion could be in the midst of that, as he has gone 9-for-26 with a pair of doubles in his last six games. This is not to say you should be completely against the idea of trading him, only that you have no reason to settle for anything less than you would have had the trade been proposed the day after your draft.
Jose Peraza, 2B/SS, Braves
Jace Peterson and Phil Gosselin have split the duties at second base for the Braves this year. If you read those names and said, “Who?,” take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Unless you’re a complete baseball junkie or a Braves fan, you probably haven’t heard of either of them, with good reason. Peterson is the starter, but the two have combined to hit .241/.306/.276 this season. Atlanta second basemen rank 22nd in the league in both wOBA and wRC+. At some point, the Braves may have to look elsewhere for an answer. Luckily, they have a great candidate in the organization.
Peraza could have made the big league club straight out of spring training, but he had never played above Double-A, and the front office understandably wanted him to get some time at the highest level of the minors before breaking through to Atlanta. Peraza has proved himself capable at Triple-A Gwinnett, hitting .301 with a .347 OBP and seven steals in 107 plate appearances. The three major prospect ratings services all ranked Peraza in their respective top 100s this year, with him reaching a high watermark of No. 38 on MLB.com. He’s never going to hit for power, but his bat will play for average, potentially immediately upon his entering the majors. He has never had trouble getting on base, hitting a combined .339/.364/.441 at High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi in his age-20 season last year. Sooner or later, the Braves are going to give Peraza his chance. When they do, he’ll be able to help a needy owner in nearly all fantasy formats.
GIF of the Week
We started this week’s Hitting Report with one of the best AL rookies of the month. It’s only fitting that we finish it with one of the best first-year players in the NL. Joc Pederson’s career is off to a great start, with the .271/.422/.600 with six homers in 91 plate appearances. His latest homer came last weekend, a 450-foot bomb off Evan Marshall. In GIF form, it looked like this.