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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Should I give up on the Blue Jays’ Justin Smoak?

Justin Smoak is the epitome of a late-blooming prospect. After mashing in 2009 in Double-A in the Texas Rangers system, and coming out highly heralded out of the University of South Carolina (he was drafted 11th overall by the Rangers), Smoak was identified as the next “big-bopping” first base prospect by most major publications and scouts. However, despite the acclaim nearly a decade earlier, Smoak wasn’t able to transition his “blue chip” prospect status into Major League production early on in his career.

The main piece for the Seattle Mariners in the Cliff Lee trade in 2010, Smoak floundered spectacularly in the Pacific Northwest. In 1,943 plate appearances and five seasons with the Mariners, Smoak only hit 66 home runs and averaged a slash of .226/.308/.384 with a .692 OPS overall. The disappointing production, as well as the Mariners’ own team frustrations and change in management, led to Smoak being waived in 2014, a far fall from grace for a player many thought of as another Mark Teixeira or Chipper Jones when he was drafted in 2008.

However, after being claimed by the Toronto Blue Jays on waivers, Smoak suddenly found the power north of the border that had been dormant in Seattle. He hit 18 home runs in 328 plate appearances in his first season in Toronto, and in 2017, at age 30, Smoak had a career season and became an All-Star player, hitting 38 home runs, 90 RBI, and posting a slash of .270/.355/.529 with an OPS of .883. Suddenly, it appeared that Smoak had not only found a home in Toronto but also could be in the discussion as a top-tier first-basemen in fantasy leagues everywhere going into 2018.

Unfortunately, this season has been closer to what he’s done in Seattle (or his mediocre 2016 season in Toronto) than the magical 2017 campaign.  He’s only hit 9 home runs so far in 299 plate appearances, and his .236/.361/.423 slash and .784 OPS would look good if he was a prolific base-stealing leadoff man, not a first baseman expected to be a major producer in the top half of the lineup. And lastly, after being ranked 90th in Yahoo!’s preseason rankings, Smoak currently ranks 309th overall in leagues, not a great place to be in mixed-leagues when it comes to the first-base position.

So, is Smoak worth keeping? Well, in order to do that, Smoak’s fantasy owners have to look at alternatives on the market, which is probably the only route to go now, since Smoak won’t fetch much of anything in a trade. Using my league as an example (we are a 12-team mixed), I will take a look at seven 1B-eligible candidates who may be worth replacing Smoak.

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  1. Matt Olson, Athletics (110 ranking; 80% owned)
  2. Derek Dietrich, Marlins (132 ranking; 46% owned)
  3. Ian Desmond, Rockies (167 ranking; 74% owned)
  4. Daniel Descalso, Diamondbacks (195 ranking; 30% owned)
  5. Yonder Alonso, Indians (200 ranking, 33% owned)
  6. Yuli Gurriel, Astros (245 ranking, 42% owned)
  7. Ryon Healy, Mariners (269 ranking, 43% owned)

As you can see, all seven rank better than Smoak, so one may be tempted to grab any of the seven as a replacement and think you’re better off. However, if you look deeper at the numbers, some are more skeptical options in comparison to Smoak.

First off, the last three (Alonso, Gurriel, and Healy), despite better rankings than Smoak currently, are probably not likely to finish the year better than Smoak. Smoak’s OPS (.784 OPS) is better than all three (Alonso .776; Gurriel .760; Healy .768), mostly due to Smoak’s much better plate discipline and approach. Furthermore, while Alonso and Healy have more home runs currently, Alonso is going through a similar off-year slump like Smoak (Alonso had 28 home runs last year), and Healy’s plate approach and lack of walks (.292 OBP) makes him a risky pickup, especially if the power tails off in the second half. As for Gurriel, he hits for high average (.306), but his concerning lack of power (4 home runs) doesn’t make him valuable as a starting first-baseman (especially considering that’s the only position he qualifies for).

Desmond is a risky move who has some flexibility (he can also play outfield). He hits homers (15 this year; thanks to Coors), drives in runs (42 RBI) and can get steals (he has 7 so far this year), but a .213 average and .718 OPS is hard to stomach. A lot of his value as a pickup stems on his projected ability in the second half, as many projections expect him to bounce back average-wise come July (he hit .274 last year). So if you are going to go the Desmond route, you might want to make sure your lineup has a lot of high average hitters to protect your weekly average.

Dietrich and Descalso are interesting pickups if you want utility guys who can play multiple positions. Dietrich qualifies as a 2B, 3B, and OF in addition to 1B, and he is hitting .302 for the year with a .850 OPS and 11 home runs. Dietrich has been especially on a tear in June, as he is hitting .389 with a 1.107 OPS and 6 homers in the past 30 days. Descalso provides the same position versatility as the Marlins’ Dietrich, though he isn’t as productive as the Marlins utility man (Descalso is hitting only .266 with a .865 OPS and 6 home runs). However, most owners will have a better shot at picking up Descalso than Dietrich in most leagues, so he is a nice consolation prize for owners who can’t nab Dietrich, but want his combination of flexibility and production.

The biggest debate I’m sure owners may have will be choosing between Smoak or Olson. Olson in a lot of ways is a younger version of Smoak. He doesn’t hit for high average (he’s only hitting .246 and he hit only .259 last year) and he strikes out a lot (27.1 percent K rate). That being said, he has maintained the power for the most part from last year (17 homers this year; .224 ISO), though it’s not as pronounced as it was during his first extended playing stint at the Major League level last season (24 homers; .392 ISO in 101 fewer appearances).

You can do a whole lot worse than Olson if you are dead set on replacing Smoak. At the very least, Olson has some keeper value, as he is only 24 years old; they both have the same kind of skill set (low average, relatively high walk and strikeout rates); and his power seems legitimate (which it has to be in a pitcher-friendly ballpark like the Oakland Coliseum), which means that he may be able to maintain this first half production in the second half. I think Smoak and Olson will have similar second halves, and that’s why I don’t think Olson for Smoak is a no-brainer. But, I know owners may be less patient or feel the pressure to pick up in leagues after slow starts. Hence, if you’re in a position where you have to make a move on Smoak, Olson has been more proven in 2018, and maybe a bit safer based on his better first half.

Overall, Dietrich, Descalso, and Olson would be preferable pickups to replace Smoak. However, if neither of those three is available, you’re probably better off keeping the Smoak monster, as Alonso, Gurriel, Desmond, and Healy aren’t likely to be much better than Smoak (hell, they may be worse) in the second half of the season.

It’s definitely a tough decision. Smoak is replaceable, sure. But be discerning, and don’t automatically drop him. The plate approach is there. Now he just needs some of those hits (and dingers) to fall.