Doing this column as long as I have, it’s been interesting to see how analysis has evolved regarding players getting off to unlikely hot starts. It’s also really exciting. The part that really hasn’t changed with me is that I’m mostly reluctant to drop proven players who might be having a slow start, but I think it’s much more possible to be aggressive on a player off to a hot start if there’s tangible evidence to back it up. We have more of those tools with each passing day.
That brings us to Diamondbacks first baseman Christian Walker, who entered play Thursday hitting .291/.371/.636 with five home runs and four doubles over 17 games. The 28-year-old did next to nothing in a similar sample size with the Diamondbacks last year, so maybe we’d just set this aside in the past. After all, he has a .344 BABIP propping him up. However, Walker has earned this by sitting among the game’s best in terms of average exit velocity, hard-hit percentage, and barrel percentage. Thanks for Baseball Savant for this information. It’s a lot easier to vouch for a player rating highly in these areas than not.
I thought the dream was over after Walker’s recent skid at the plate, but I’m back in for the time being. Homering in back-to-back games will do that. Walker is getting regular at-bats with Jake Lamb out and hitting fifth in Arizona’s lineup. He's still out there in 81 percent of Yahoo leagues for some reason. Those in deeper formats can afford to see where this goes.
Have specific questions about your roster? Ask @djshort on Twitter.
(Players rostered in under 50 percent of Yahoo leagues)
Percentages are from the morning of Thursday, April 18th
Mike Minor SP, Rangers (Yahoo: 42 percent rostered)
I promise, you didn’t get transported back to 2013. Minor was roughed up in his season debut against the Cubs, but he’s posted a 0.78 ERA in three starts since. This includes a shutout against the Angels on Tuesday night. Minor has gone at least seven innings in all three starts during this recent surge while posting a 19/6 K/BB ratio in 23 innings. The southpaw was actually an above average pitcher with the Rangers last season, posting a 41.8 ERA (115 ERA+) with 132 strikeouts and 38 walks in 157 innings over 28 starts. I didn’t think much of him as a mixed league option coming into the year, but he’s pitching well and there have been some rumors about a possible trade back to the National League. That would be a great thing for his value. As a final starter on a mixed league staff, this should work.
Scott Kingery 3B/SS/OF, Phillies (Yahoo: 24 percent rostered)
I guess we were all a year early here? Kingery inked a six-year, $24 million extension with the Phillies last March before even playing a day in the majors. In fact, signing that extension is what expedited his timetable to make the Opening Day roster. Still, even without a clear spot in the Phillies’ lineup, he deserved the promotion after posting some impressive numbers in the minors. It just didn’t translate as a rookie, as he batted just .226/.267/.338 over 147 games. His .605 OPS was fourth-lowest among all players with at least 450 plate appearances. With a set starting lineup, there wasn’t much reason to be excited among into this year, but Kingery has impressed in a small sample by going 12-for-25 (.480) with two homers and four doubles through 12 games. It’s such a small sample that I don’t want to overanalyze. He’s sporting a .526 BABIP and the batted ball metrics don’t show huge signs of progress, but he’s making the case for more playing time. He’s worth a speculative add in deeper formats on the chances that he begins to deliver on the prospect hype. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen so many top prospects hit the ground running in recent years (Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna, Jr. two notable examples from last year), but we give up on young players far too early sometimes.
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Hector Neris RP, Phillies (Yahoo: 20 percent rostered)
Trying to figure out which direction Gabe Kapler is going with save chances is a fool’s errand, but at least we can take one name out of the running after David Robertson landed on the injured list this week with a Grade 1 flexor strain in his right elbow. Robertson had a 5.40 ERA and 2.10 WHIP in seven appearances before going down, so this certainly provides some context. Seranthony Dominguez has begun to settle down after a shaky start to the year, but Neris still looks like the favorite for saves in this bullpen. The 29-year-old walked the tightrope to finish off Wednesday’s win over the Mets and now owns a 2.57 ERA with a 10/2 K/BB ratio over seven innings this season. He’s been a strikeout monster since returning from the minors last year and should provide value in mixed leagues even if Kapler continues to mix and match.
Franmil Reyes OF, Padres (Yahoo: 41 percent rostered)
Reyes showed some promise as a rookie last year by launching 16 homers with an .838 OPS over 285 plate appearances, but he entered this season with his playing time in question. It didn’t help that he began the year in a 2-for-22 (.091) funk, but he’s turned things around by hitting .333 (9-for-27) with four home runs and one double over his last nine games while finding a home in the No. 2 spot in the Padres’ lineup. There was reason to keep the faith, as he has ranked among the elite in average exit velocity and barrel percentage in the early going. He’s also greatly improved his contact while not giving up anything in terms of hard contact, so he could be ready to take off. Get on board now.
Hunter Dozier 1B/3B, Royals (Yahoo: 37 percent rostered)
I’m not a huge fan of the term “fantasy expert.” I know it’s a way folks are often described in an attempt to adorn them with credibility, but let’s be real here. It’s largely an exaggeration. The best way I can describe what we do is that we’re trying to gather the most information possible to make educated guesses about which way the wind is blowing. Still, we’re going to miss things and need to hold ourselves accountable more often. Dozier is an example of that for me. I dismissed him as a possible pickup when asked by a reader about a week and a half ago. Why would we pick up someone who had a lowly .673 OPS as a 26-year-old rookie in 2018? I should have looked a little bit deeper, as Dozier is trending in an encouraging direction so far this season. Per Baseball Savant, his average exit velocity is up to 93.7 mph (among the best in the league) after checking in at 89.5 mph last season. He’s also seen a jump in his hard-hit rate while making strides with his plate discipline. Yes, we’re only talking about 16 games here, but there’s proof behind the strong numbers (.298/.288/.596 with five homers) so far. I’m intrigued. Better late than never.
Frankie Montas SP, Athletics (Yahoo: 28 percent rostered)
I had the Athletics/Astros game on last night while I was writing this column and I couldn’t help but be impressed with the way Montas looked against a really good lineup. The 26-year-old right-hander carved them up with just one run allowed on three hits and two walks over 6 1/3 innings while fanning six. He also hit a batter. Given his high fastball velocity (top 10 among starters), you’d certainly like to see more strikeouts in general, but his ground ball rate has been way up this year and he’s had good results with his new splitter even though he relied more on his slider on Wednesday. He also has a pitcher-friendly home stadium as the backdrop. You can at least see the potential path to sustained value in mixed leagues. Give him a try against the Rangers at home next time out.
Jordan Lyles SP/RP, Pirates (Yahoo: 16 percent rostered)
In looking at streaming options for the weekend, Lyles stands out as a good one, as he’s lined up to face the weak-hitting Giants on Friday at home. The 28-year-old right-hander missed the start of the season due to cramping in his side, but he’s allowed just one run in 11 innings with a 12/4 K/BB ratio through his first two starts. This includes a 10-strikeout performance against the Cubs last Wednesday. His velocity is down a tick from what he showed last year while mostly pitching in shorter bursts, but it hasn’t stopped him from getting a healthy dose of whiffs so far. Only the Marlins, Indians, and Tigers rank lower in team OPS than the Giants (.609) so far this season. Speaking of the Marlins, Anibal Sanchez (Yahoo: 20 percent rostered) is another strong streaming option in his start against them on Friday.
Danny Jansen C, Blue Jays (Yahoo: 41 percent rostered)
It would be easy to only talk about hitters who are doing well right now, but that’s not always super helpful. Sure, go ahead and grab Josh Phegley and Omar Narvaez if you want, maybe even Mitch Garver. The catcher landscape is dreary and depressing enough. What’s going on with Buster Posey, anyway? I totally get it. But are we going to let 15 games really change our preseason valuation? Going into drafts, Jansen was being discussed as a potential top-10 fantasy catcher. Obviously he hasn’t been that until now, sporting a weak .152/.235/.174 batting line in 14 games. The hard-hit percentage is up sharply from what he showed as a rookie last year, but he’s pounding the ball into the ground while striking out at an uncharacteristically high clip. I guess I’m willing to be a little bit forgiving since catchers have other things to think about on a daily basis. With his minor league track record and decent debut last year, I’d rather bank on a rebound from him than any of the three players above outperforming him the rest of the way.
Diego Castillo RP, Rays (Yahoo: 33 percent rostered)
The Rays are off to a roaring start this season, with Castillo and Jose Alvarado providing a potent 1-2 punch at the end of games. This dynamic duo has combined for 18 1/3 scoreless innings to begin the 2019 season. However, we’ve already seen that Alvarado isn’t going to get all of the save chances here, as he pitched the eighth inning on Tuesday against the Orioles while Castillo finished things off. Maybe Alvarado will end up with more saves when it's all said and done, but Castillo will get chances too and with a 2.70 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 66 2/3 career innings, he can provide solid value in ratios even in a set-up role.
Shopping at the five-and-dime:
(Players rostered in under 10 percent of Yahoo leagues)
Delino DeShields OF, Rangers (Yahoo: 7 percent rostered)
It’s not often that I’ll recommend a player who is hitting .200 and actually has a .214 batting average in 450 plate appearances dating back to the start of last season, but DeShields is already 6-for-7 in stolen base attempts over 16 games. Only Dee Gordon (seven) has stolen more bases so far this season. While the hits aren’t falling, DeShields is still sporting a solid .357 on-base percentage with a 10/10 K/BB ratio. If he can keep getting on base — and with a 10.4 percent career walk rate, there’s reason to believe he can — there’s going to be value here. Even as a mostly one-trick pony, he needs to be scooped up in more leagues.
Nick Anderson RP, Marlins (Yahoo: 3 percent rostered)
Acquired from the Twins in an under-the-radar deal back in November, Anderson has thrived with a 2.08 ERA and 17/2 K/BB ratio over his first 8 2/3 innings in the majors. He’s pumping mid-90s fastball velocity and getting a ridiculous number of swings and misses on his slider. Tayron Guerrero has also looked really good so far, but Sergio Romo, Drew Steckenrider, and Adam Conley really haven’t. It’s not like there was a runaway favorite for saves to begin with here, so perhaps Anderson can emerge. With the way he’s missing bats, he could end up having value even it doesn’t turn out that way.
Howie Kendrick 2B/OF, Nationals (Yahoo: 4 percent rostered)
Brian Dozier is a notoriously slow starter, but this is rough. He’s hitting just .170/.235/.234 over 14 games. This was after posting his worst numbers since his rookie season last year. Meanwhile, Howie Kendrick is 10-for-20 (.500) with three homers and three doubles through his first nine games since returning from a hamstring strain. Swinging a hot bat, he’s started three out of the last four games at second base while hitting second and fifth in the Nationals’ lineup. It’s possible he could see semi-regular playing time in the short-term, making him a worthy add in deeper formats.
Danny Santana OF, Rangers (Yahoo: 1 percent rostered)
Santana returned to the majors last weekend after Rougned Odor hit the 10-day injured list with a right knee sprain. He’s 4-for-14 (.286) with a double, a triple, three RBI, and two stolen bases through his first four games while filling in at second base. The speed is the key here. Santana, best known for his impressive rookie season with the Twins in 2014, has swiped 50 bases over 368 games in the majors. That has come with a weak .256/.292/.377 batting line, so don’t expect much help in other areas.
Mike Tauchman OF, Yankees (Yahoo: 0 percent rostered)
The injuries keep on coming for the Yankees. Greg Bird was the latest, going down with a plantar fascia tear on Tuesday. He was struggling anyway and it’s increasingly likely things just might not even work out for him with the Yankees. I’m not overly optimistic on Tauchman taking advantage of playing time, but he’s getting opportunities right now and even hit his first homer in a four-RBI game against the Red Sox on Tuesday. While we haven’t seen it yet, Tauchman showed an ability to make contact in the minors while contributing in the stolen base department. Worth a short-term pickup.
Jerad Eickhoff P, Phillies (Yahoo: 2 percent rostered)
Nick Pivetta was seemingly everyone’s favorite breakout candidate this spring, but he was demoted on Wednesday after posting an 8.35 ERA over four starts. There’s really no way to sugarcoat how he has looked this season. He’s just been bad. According to Sarah Langs of MLB.com, Pivetta has had the worst xBA (.351) in the majors this season, so we’re not talking about bad luck. Obviously he’s worth keeping an eye in the minors for signs of progress, but Eickhoff will take his spot in the Phillies’ rotation for now. Injuries limited him to just three appearances with the Phillies last year, but he’s had some success in the past. Avoid him this weekend against the Rockies, but he’s interesting enough with this great offense behind him.
Nick Burdi RP, Pirates (Yahoo: 1 percent rostered)
I mentioned Nick Anderson earlier, but Burdi is another reliever I’m keeping an eye on. Not necessarily as a closing option — Felipe Vazquez is one of the best in the game — but the hard-throwing Burdi has fanned 15 batters with just one walk in his 7 2/3 innings of work so far this season. He’s allowed three runs in that time, but that’s partially the product of a .429 BABIP. The point is, he’s missing bats at an elite rate. Burdi was selected from the Twins as a Rule 5 pick in December of 2017, but he spent most of last year in rehab mode after Tommy John surgery. He’s certainly been worth the wait so far.