Get all of Michael Beller’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
The 2016 MLB season is just five weeks old, and the sample remains small enough where one short hot streak can skew a player’s season-long numbers. With that in mind, it is a bit surprising that the list of the top-10 hitters in standard fantasy leagues looks like it came straight from central casting:
|Jose Altuve||Houston Astros|
|Bryce Harper||Washington Nationals|
|Anthony Rizzo||Chicago Cubs|
|Josh Donaldson||Toronto Blue Jays|
|Dexter Fowler||Chicago Cubs|
|Trevor Story||Colorado Rockies|
|Nolan Arenado||Colorado Rockies|
|Rougned Odor||Texas Rangers|
|Carlos Correa||Houston Astros|
|Ryan Braun||Milwaukee Brewers|
There are a couple of players conspicuous for the unlikelihood that they would be on that list in the second week of May. Enough ink has been spilled on Trevor Story, an obvious regression case since the nascent days of his home-run binge thanks to an alarming tendency to swing and miss. Comparatively little coverage has been dedicated to Dexter Fowler, who’s last-minute return to Chicago sparked the beginning of what is likely to be the best season of his career.
The centerfielder has led off mostly every game for the Cubs this season, and is among the league leaders in just about every rate statistic. He’s hitting .340/.462/.575 through 132 plate appearances. His slash line rates rank seventh, first and 18th, respectively. His .444 wOBA is seventh in the majors, while he’s tied for ninth in weighted runs created plus with 175. The Cubs are the best team in the majors, and Fowler has been a big part of their 24-6 start.
You might think that Fowler is doing something dramatically different at the plate this season, a reasonable assumption after the five weeks he has put together. In fact, Fowler’s start is made even more remarkable for how similar his peripheral stats have been with respect to career totals. His walk rate (15.9%) is up and his strikeout rate (19.7%) is down, but he has always been willing to take a walk, and he has never had a serious issue with the whiff. Fowler’s excellent walk rate has turned into an elite one, while his average strikeout rate has been slightly better than the mean. His line-drive, ground-ball and fly-ball rates are all within a percentage point of his career norms. When Fowler puts the ball in play, he’s doing so in typically the same fashion he always has. Nothing explains Fowler’s surge.
However one aspect of Fowler’s performance that bears watching the rest of the season is his hitting from the left side of the plate. Fowler is a switch-hitter, but he has always been better as a righty. Including this season, he’s a career .305/.394/.441 hitter as a righty, and .255/.355/.415 hitter as a lefty. In 2016, however, he’s been equally deadly from both sides of the plate. In 98 plate appearances as a lefty, he’s hitting .333/.459/.577.
Unsatisfying as this may be, Fowler hasn’t changed a thing from the left side of the plate. Below are two GIFs, the first one from last August, and the second from last week. Fowler used to be slightly open in his stance, whereas now his feet are directly in line. Everything else, from where he stands in the box, to his hand placement, to his load and stride, is identical. He’s simply getting better results this season.
Fowler is making significantly more solid contact this year, with a hard-hit rate at 43.2%, compared with 29.9% for his career. That’s responsible for his .423 BABIP, and while it’s potentially sustainable—assuming it’s being driven by a substantive change—it’s a lot to ask for from any hitter. Last year, eight players had hard-hit rates of 40% or better, with the top rate, 42.8%, belonging to J.D. Martinez.
Good news, Fowler backers and Cubs fans. There’s reason to believe he has made a substantive change that has helped him to one of the best slash lines in the league this season. Like everyone in the Cubs lineup, Fowler’s approach this season has been a patient one. He’s seeing 4.24 pitches per plate appearances, which would be a new career high and ranks 25th in the league. He’s also on pace to set career lows in swing rate, and o-swing rate, the frequency with which a hitter offers at pitches outside the strike zone. There’s evidence that approach is paying dividends.
Fowler has already been in 43 counts of 2–0 or 3–1 this season. To give you an idea of how many that is, Bryce Harper has been in 44 such counts. Paul Goldschmidt, who leads the league in walks, has been in a 2–0 or 3–1 count 49 times. In other words, Fowler is among the league leaders in getting himself into traditional hitters’ counts, and he is making pitchers pay in those situations.
Those 43 counts have occurred across 34 plate appearances (in nine instances, Fowler got to 2–0 and 3–1 in the same plate appearance). Fowler is 8-for-21 with a homer, three doubles, 12 walks and a hit by pitch in those 34 plate appearances, which represent more than one-fourth of his trips to the plate this season. His performance in those plate appearances translates to a .381/.618/.667 slash line. The Cubs team-wide approach is helping everyone in the lineup, and it might help Fowler have the best season of his career.
Hitters to watch this week
Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros
Altuve is seventh in the majors in slugging percentage. Think about that for a second. When was the last time we saw a player enjoy this significant a power surge without sacrificing much, if anything, in the batting average and OBP departments? Altuve has nine homers and 13 steals, and should easily be the first player to reach double-digits in both stats, unless Bryce Harper somehow steals five bags before Altuve next goes yard. There’s an argument to be made that he’s the best hitter in baseball right now.
Christian Yelich, OF, Marlins
Yelich supporters, and they are legion, may have finally given up the notion that he can be a 25-homer player. That is, until last week. Yelich went yard three times in a four-day span last week, and racked up eight hits total in Miami’s six games. It should be noted that he had just one homer before last week, so he quadrupled his season total with those three round-trippers. The power, especially in abundance, may not be here for long, but Yelich is hitting .333 with a .447 OBP. He’s doing everything a top-of-the order hitter should do, and he’s still just 24 years old. It seems Yelich has turned a corner.
Stephen Piscotty, OF, Cardinals
Piscotty is coming off a monster week during which he went 12-for-29 with one homer, three doubles, six RBI and five runs scored, raising his season slash line to .323/.382/.532. He has become one of the stabilizing forces in the middle of the St. Louis lineup while players like Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina pass the torch.
Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox
The White Sox have managed to start 22-10, outdone only by the team with which they share a city, despite the fact that Abreu is hitting .242/.327/.414 in 147 plate appearances. That’s obviously not going to last, and the slugger is showing signs that he is starting to break out of his season-long slump. Before Monday’s 0-for-5 day, he had at least one hit in 11 of his previous 12 games, going 18-for-49 (.367) with two homers, three doubles and 12 RBI in that span. If the White Sox can get him and Todd Frazier going alongside a rotation and bullpen that have been excellent, the rest of the AL Central will be looking up at them for a long time.
Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers
Seager hasn’t quite taken off as expected, hitting .261/.333/.400 in his first 129 plate appearances this season. He hasn’t been able to find any measure of consistency, but he did do something over the weekend he had yet to do in 2016: post consecutive multi-hit games. Seager had four hits in wins over the Blue Jays on Saturday and Sunday, a mini-roll his owners are doubtlessly hoping can get him going on an extended run at the plate. Luckily for them, as well as Seager, the Dodgers face all righties the rest of the week after drawing Steven Matz on Monday.
Jesse Winker, OF, Reds
The Reds are 13–19 and have a -53 run differential, second worst in the majors. Their outfielders have a .305 wOBA, which ranks 21st in the league, and they’re dead last with a .280 OBP. Nothing outside of organizational patience is keeping Winker in the minors, and that will soon run out.
Winker entered the season as Cincinnati’s top prospect, as well as the No. 30 overall prospect, according to MLB.com. In 115 plate appearances with Triple A Louisville, he’s hitting .302/.409/.396 with two homers and three doubles. He’s expected to hit for moderate power at his ceiling, and indeed smacked 13 homers at Double A Pensacola last season. Winker, however, is going to make his mark in the majors as something Billy Hamilton has failed to become for the Reds, and that’s a prototypical leadoff man. Winker doesn’t have elite speed, but he does possess supreme on-base skills, both in terms of making solid contact and working counts to draw walks. He has never had a season-long walk rate lower than 13%, and has 263 walks against 306 strikeouts in his professional career. You can bet on seeing Winker with the Reds at some point this season, and he’ll be immediately relevant in fantasy leagues upon his promotion. The Reds may not be suited to take full advantage of his on-base skills this season, but they will make him a weapon in all fantasy formats.
GIF of the Week
A pitcher always knows. For more on that, let’s check out Gio Gonzalez a second or two after Kris Bryant connected with what turned out to be a mammoth home run.