Can the Pirates’ Polanco and Cardinals’ Ozuna turn around their fantasy (and team’s) fortunes in the 2nd Half?

The NL Central has certainly seen its share of shakeups this season. After 18 games and a 3-15 start, the Reds fired manager Bryan Price. Even though the club still sits in the cellar of the Central, they have been more competitive as they have posted a record of 40-38 under new manager Jim Riggleman (and Billy Hamilton has increased his fantasy value consequently as well).

The St. Louis Cardinals made a huge move near the end of the first half of the season, firing longtime manager Mike Matheny after a 47-46 start this season. Though the Cardinals were relatively successful in the regular season under Matheny (they never had a losing season and he finished with a winning percentage of .555 in six-and-a-half seasons), the lack of a World Series title, missing the postseason the last two seasons, and rumors that he had lost respect in the clubhouse ultimately led to his relief of duty mid-season.

And lastly, even though the Milwaukee Brewers sat atop the NL Central standings most of the first half, and the Pirates hovered near the bottom part, in the last series before the All-Star break, the Pirates swept the Brew Crew in a FIVE GAME series to knock Milwaukee out of first place, and 2.5 games behind the Chicago Cubs. Consequently, Brewers fans spent the All-Star break in panic mode, fearing deja vu. Last season, they went through a similar swoon in the second half of the year where they went from the top of the standings to out of the playoff picture during the late summer months. Don’t be surprised to see the Brewers an active player at the Trade Deadline in order to prevent the same kind of “burn out” from happening again in 2018. (Though considering the Josh Hader Twitter controversy during the All-Star game, falling out of the playoff race may be the least of Brewer fans’ problems.)

While the AL Central has been pretty much a snoozefest and a showcase of mediocrity (The Cleveland Indians have seemed to be in first place for like…forever), the NL Central has proven to generate its share of excitement, with more drama forecasted over the season’s second half. (I mean, who saw the Cardinals winning 18-5 against Jon Lester in Wrigley Field?)

As the home stretch of the season begins, there will be two outfielders to pay attention to not only for fantasy purposes but also in terms of how they impact the NL Central race in the second half: the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Gregory Polanco and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Marcell Ozuna. Let’s break each player down individually.


MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at New York Mets

Gregory Polanco, OF, Yahoo! Rank: 113; 73% owned, 60% started in Yahoo! Leagues.

Stats: 49 runs scored, 16 home runs, 51 RBI, 5 SB, .235 average, .823 OPS

Gregory Polanco struggled with injuries a year ago, as he only played 108 games and had 411 plate appearances in 2017. Lingering hamstring issues resulted in deflated numbers across the board: .251 average, .695 OPS, 39 runs scored, 11 home runs, and 35 RBI. (To compare here’s the same line in 2016: .258 average, .786 OPS, 79 runs scored, 22 home runs, 86 RBI in 587 plate appearances). It was questionable which Polanco fantasy baseball and Pirates fans were going to see in 2018: the one that looked like a budding All-Star in 2016 or the one who looked injured and impatient at the plate in 2017.

So far, it’s been a bit of both for Polanco in the first half of the year.

Polanco is showcasing the power again, as his .249 ISO is the highest mark of his career thus far, resulting in 16 home runs before the All-Star break. He is also showing a more discerning eye at the plate as well, as his 12.9 BB percentage would also be a career high as well, and almost double his percentage from a year ago. Without a doubt, it seems like Polanco is fully strong and healthy, and his power numbers certainly demonstrate that and then some.

That being said, it hasn’t been all “sunshine and rainbows” for Polanco in 2018. Despite a tick in power numbers and walk percentages, he still is striking out at a decent clip, as his 23 percent strikeout rate is also a career high. This has resulted in him having a low average at .235, 16 points down from a year ago, and 20 points down from his breakout season of 2016. This may be a result of Polanco maturing as a hitter and becoming more selective: his swing percentage is down at 44 percent, nearly 5 percent down from a year ago. But, even though he is more selective, he hasn’t always made his swings count, as his contact rate is down around 77 percent from 82 percent a year ago, and his swinging strike percentage rose from 8.9 last year to 9.8 so far this year.

Polanco has also benefited from wild stretches of play this season, especially when it comes to power. He hit six home runs in the March and April months and five home runs so far in July, but only hit five combined in June and July. However, while he demonstrated more power in March/April and July, he only hit .195 and .229 (thus far), respectively. On the other hand, though his power numbers were down in the May and June months, he hit better for average, as evidenced by a .306 average in the month of June (his .232 average in May was far less impressive and that month was the stretch where he struggled the most).

The 26-year-old Dominican outfielder has been on a tear as of late, and his hot streak has gotten the Pirates back in the Wild Card mix, even if they remain a long shot (it’s hard to see them doing it considering their starting pitching). A big reason for hope is that the Pirates coaching staff has helped Polanco with his approach, having him step back further in the box before his hot streak so he could get the barrel of his bat around balls quicker. Pittsburgh Tribune writer Chris Adamski in his piece about Polanco highlighted this interesting bit which reveals Polanco’s adjustment in the box:

‘”(Manager Clint Hurdle) called me into the office and he said, ‘Hey you have got to move back from the plate because you have long arms,’ ” Polanco said. “So (Hurdle and the Pirates’ two hitting coaches told Polanco), ‘Just move back and give yourself some space because you are getting jammed, but when you’re back that’s when you hit the ball on the barrel.’…Polanco went from flirting with the Mendoza Line to becoming one of the National League’s best hitters over a span of almost a full month. His .447 on-base percentage and 1.104 OPS since June 10 each rank third among all NL players.”

It will be interesting to see if this small adjustment will continue to help Polanco in the late July, August and September months. He’s a notoriously streaky hitter and he has demonstrated that already in the first half with his vastly different months production-wise. Yes, the power is promising and probably legitimate, but non-existent speed on the basepaths (he only has 5 stolen bases; the days of him being a 20-base threat may be gone), and his declining contact rates should tamper fantasy owners’ and Pirates fans’ excitement for “El Coffee” just a little bit in the second half.


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Marcell Ozuna, OF, Yahoo! Rank: 385; 94% owned, 78% started in Yahoo! Leagues.

Stats: 38 runs scored, 10 home runs, 50 RBI, 2 SB, .270 average, .695 OPS

St. Louis has not been kind to newly acquired outfielders coming to the “Arch” city as of late. After putting up a 128 wRC+ and .276/.393/.447 slash line in the Cubs’ World Series championship season in 2016, Dexter Fowler has declined sharply as a Cardinal, as evidenced by his 56 wRC+ this season.

Unfortunately, the same could be true of Marcell Ozuna, who came over from the Miami Marlins this offseason via trade.

Ozuna was an absolute beast with the Marlins a year ago, lost in the spotlight thanks to a crappy market and larger-than-life superstar in Giancarlo Stanton. Though Stanton garnered more attention (and the bigger contract from the New York Yankees this offseason), Ozuna absolutely tore the cover off the ball in his final season in Miami. In 679 plate appearances, Ozuna hit 37 home runs, drove in 124 RBI, scored 93 runs, hit .312 and posted an OPS of .924. Hence it made sense why Ozuna ranked in the Top-50 in Yahoo! leagues this off-season and considered a second-to-third round draft choice.

But much like Fowler, the performance hasn’t translated on the eastern side of Missouri. Ozuna is down all across the board, and his wRC+ sits at 90, nearly 52 points below his mark last season in South Beach. Though Busch Stadium profiles a bit as a pitcher’s park, so does Marlins Park, which makes Ozuna’s sudden decline concerning for Cardinals fans as well as his fantasy owners.

Now, there are a variety of factors in play that can explain Ozuna’s “down” season in St. Louis. For starters, Ozuna hasn’t always been a high-average hitter, as his batting average each year from 2013-2016 (before his breakout year) was .265, .269, .255, and .266. Not terrible by any stretch, but not the .300 plus mark he demonstrated in 2017. The key reason why it went up so much last year? Well, one could credit that to the BABIP monster, as his BABIP was .355 in 2017, his highest mark as a professional. While his BAIP had been in the .320-.330 range before in his career, the .355 mark probably was more an indicator of luck than skill, as 25-35 points higher than typical is just unsustainable. Currently, his BABIP is .312 which is close to league average and more akin to what he had showcased in the past, hence the dip in average.

On the other hand, the dip in power is a bit more concerning, as he hit 23 home runs in 2014 and 2016 prior to his 37 home run output last year. Having only 10 home runs thus far and an ISO of .115 (which would be a career low) is not typical for him and a serious regression for a hitter who was just starting to fully realize his power stroke a year ago. So…what gives with Ozuna’s lack of punch?

Too many groundballs, and not making his flyballs count.

Ozuna has always hit a lot of groundballs before, as he had a 1.41 GB/FB rate a year ago during his power surge. This year though, not only is he hitting even more groundballs, as evidenced by a 1.51 rate, but his fly balls don’t pack the same punch. Last season, he had an HR/FB of 23.4 percent. This year? That percent is 10.8 percent. That needs to improve if he wants to salvage something at the plate in the second half. On a positive note, Ozuna still hits the ball hard, as his hard-hit balls percentage is actually up at 46.5 percent (it was 39.1 percent a year ago). Thus, it may be a sign that he just needs more luck and see some of those balls to go out of the park rather than stay in the yard or worse, in the gloves of opposing outfielders.

Ozuna doesn’t exactly have the most patient eye (especially in contrast to Polanco), and that has never been more evident this year with his 0.29 BB/K ratio. And yet, other than BB/K ratio and the standard scoring categories, a lot looks the same statistically for Ozuna in comparison to previous years: his plate discipline numbers are close to his career average, and he has actually improved in contact rate and swinging strike percentage. Yes, Ozuna isn’t duplicating his 2017 numbers, but he still has the potential skill-wise to replicate what he did before from 2013-2016 if some breaks go his way in the second half.

Who knows what has been the true reason behind Ozuna’s underwhelming season in the Cardinals red. Overembellished expectations from Cardinals fans and fantasy owners? Not gelling with his new club? Pressing under former manager Matheny? The list could go on and on, really.

But, Ozuna isn’t as mediocre as what he’s showed in the first half. And if he can get back to his normal, average numbers, (especially in power and run production) then well…not only will his fantasy owners be happy, but the Cardinals faithful will also be too. (Not easy to do considering they’re the “best fans in baseball.”)

/vomiting after re-reading the last sentence I just wrote…

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Is the Reds’ Billy Hamilton Finally Figuring It Out?

Only seven players in the Majors have over 20 stolen bases thus far as the first half of the Major League Season comes to a close (as of July 14th). Right in the mix is Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds, who is tied for the fourth-most stolen bases in Major League baseball with 22, along with the Washington Nationals’ Trea Turner and the Seattle Mariners’ Dee Gordon (who led the Majors last season in stolen bases with 60 with the Miami Marlins). Hamilton, who finished with 59 stolen bases, second-most in the Major Leagues, a year ago, trails only Ender Inciarte of the Atlanta Braves (23), as well as the Washington Nationals’ Michael Taylor, and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Starling Marte, who both have 24.

Despite him being in the mix as the league’s stolen base king in 2018, it has been an inconsistent year for the Reds’ speedy outfielder. Projected to take a step forward as a player this year (Yahoo! projected his overall ranking at 59 going into the season), Hamilton got off to a painful start. In his first 26 games and 100 plate appearances to begin the year in March and April, Hamilton hit only .172, with only four total extra-base hits, and he struck out a whopping 33 times. While there were some promising signs (he walked 13 times and he stole five bases in five attempts), it was safe to say that Hamilton, much like the Reds team as a whole, had failed to live up to expectations to start off 2018.

After a slow beginning to the year as a whole organization, the Reds fired manager Bryan Price after a 3-15 start to the year, and a 279-387 record overall (the Reds never had a winning record under Price since he took over in 2014). Furthermore, Reds GM Nick Krall promoted Jim Riggleman, who formerly managed the Washington Nationals. Under Riggleman, the Reds have turned it around, as they are 39-37 under him as of July 14th, and rate as one of the best offensive teams in baseball, as they rank 7th in the Majors in team WAR, a stark difference from their 42-52 record and 5th place standing currently in the NL Central (though to be frank, the Central may be the best division in the National League).

Hamilton has also turned it around after the managerial change, though it may not look like it at first when you see his .233 average and .636 OPS to go along with only three home runs, 19 RBI, and 51 runs scored. If you judge him over the past month though, there hasn’t been a more dynamic player in the Majors than Hamilton. In the last 30 days, Hamilton not only leads the league in stolen bases (17), but he is also hitting .337 with a .825 OPS to go along with a home run, 5 RBI and 20 runs scored in 83 AB. Furthermore, the 27-year-old outfielder has also made a habit of making spectacular plays like the one below against the Cardinals on July 13th.

So what has been the cause of Hamilton’s turnaround? And can he sustain this offensive onslaught in the second half? Or is he due to regress, and be the low average, low OPS fantasy option that has frustrated fantasy owners over the past few years?

Here are a couple of reasons for optimism:

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Riggleman batting Hamilton 9th

It’s very tempting for managers to look at a guy of Hamilton’s speed and think automatically “leadoff” hitter. So far this year, Hamilton never really took to the role, as he only hit .167 with a .546 OPS and BB/K ratio of 0.29 in 12 games and 41 plate appearances in the leadoff spot this year. Since Price was fired though, Riggleman made the decision to bat him 9th (meaning the pitcher would bat in front of him), a strategy fellow NL Central managers such as the Pirates’ Clint Hurdle and Cubs’ Joe Maddon have employed with their teams. The move has paid off somewhat, as Hamilton is batting .244 with a .651 OPS and a BB/K ratio of 0.42 in 72 games and 274 plate appearances in the bottom of the order. Getting to see a pitcher go through eight hitters beforehand, and being relieved of having to “jump start” the offense from the leadoff spot has seemed to have a positive effect on Hamilton, and Riggleman’s unorthodox strategy has paid off for the Reds’ offense (and Hamilton personally) thus far.

Cincinnati Reds v Washington Nationals

Hamilton is developing his eye at the plate

Hamilton’s walk rate this year is 10.2 percent, which is 3.2 percent higher than last season and would be the highest walk rate of his career if the season ended today. Some might say “he’s more patient” at the plate, but that probably would be misleading. Hamilton’s swing percentage of 46.8 percent his highest percentage since his call-up in 2013 (where it was 50 percent), and his contact rate (77 percent) is lower while his swinging strike percentage (10.7 percent) is higher as well. That being said, he has swung at fewer pitches out of the strike zone (29.5 compared to 29.9 percent) compared to last year, and he is knowing what counts are his strong suit. He is batting .450 when swinging on the first pitch, and .350 when the count even, showing that he is taking advantage of opportunities when he is aggressive, and laying off when counts are not in his favor (as evidenced by the higher walk rate). It has resulted in an increase in strikeouts (25.7 percent), but it’s obvious that Hamilton has honed is hitting a bit as he has matured as a Major League player.

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He’s hitting the ball harder

The negative of Hamilton’s approach? The strikeouts. The positive? Walks and getting on base. Both we have talked about in the previous section. However, another positive byproduct of Hamilton’s refined approach at the plate is that he’s hitting the ball harder than ever before.

If you check out batted ball information via Fangraphs, his line drive percentage sits at 25.8 percent and his fly ball percentage sits at 34.8 percent, both major increases from the previous two years. Furthermore, his groundball percentage is at 39.4 percent, the lowest of his Major League career thus far. And though his medium hit percentage is down to 50 percent (from 59 percent in previous years), his hard-hit ball percentage is 23.8 percent, a career high and nearly a seven percent increase from last year, thus resulting in an HR/FB ratio of 4.3 percent, another career high.

Hamilton is not going to confuse people with Mike Trout anytime soon. But he is hitting the ball harder at the plate in 2018, and that should be promising enough for fantasy owners who are skeptical of his latest hot streak.

What’s the verdict on Hamilton?

A lot of fantasy owners have been patient on Hamilton, as evidenced by him being owned in 77 percent of Yahoo! leagues. However, it finally looks like Hamilton is starting to make owners’ patience a wise decision. He’s hitting the ball harder, he’s getting on base more, and more importantly, he’s stealing bases at his usual, high-end clip. And he’s been more judicious on the basepaths, as he is getting caught less, as his 84 percent success rate is an improvement from his 81 percent rate a season ago.

ZiPS projects Hamilton to steal 22 more stolen bases for the remainder of the year, but it’s plausible that Hamilton may touch the 50 or more mark by the end of this season as well, as long as he stays healthy. He has improved under Riggleman, and Riggleman’s openness to let him run wild on the basepaths, and bat him in the order in an unconventional way has done wonders for Hamilton in terms of bouncing back after a slow start. It’s hard to imagine Hamilton benefitting fantasy teams beyond stolen bases in a major way for the remainder of the year (and perhaps in the future as well). That being said, Hamilton’s speed and stolen base ability are so good and rare that it may not matter as long as fantasy owners have the right combination of power and high-average hitting elsewhere in their lineup to make up for Hamilton’s deficiencies.