Welcome back to the 3 Things We Learned Series for the 2022 MLB season! This weekly piece will look at the trends, patterns, and interesting statistical touchpoints of the MLB season in order to help you make actionable fantasy decisions.
Baseball fans love their stats. We devour them, dissect them, and build our fantasy rosters around them. Each week of the 2022 baseball season, we will be gifted with another statistical sample size of pitches, plate appearances, and playing time. Knowing it often takes hundreds or even thousands of pitches or batted-ball events for trends to normalize, how should fantasy managers adjust to the ebbs and flows of weekly player performance?
Each week during this season, this piece will look at trends that have emerged over the past week and determine if it is signal or noise moving forward. What is prescriptive in helping build winning fantasy teams and what can be ignored as small sample size noise? Hopefully, we can make sense of what has just happened to help us make smarter roster and free agent budget decisions.
Let's take a look at some of the data from the third scoring period of the 2022 MLB fantasy baseball season.
Ty France Had a Good Month Over the Weekend
Vive la France! After the weekend Ty France just had, you won't find a player rater or rotisserie ranking or points league that doesn't have France near the top of the list of all batters this season.
Over the last four days, France hit three home runs with nine RBI and slashed .579/.619/.1.105 -- which adds up to a 1.724 OPS, or basically double what Aaron Judge has on the season. Small sample size? Sure it is, but the question now becomes will the on-base and power skills continue, and will those who drafted France 143rd overall -- per ADP -- this offseason be looking at a potential fantasy MVP?
France has always had impressive plate discipline skills in his parts of four years in the majors. He has improved his zone contact rate from 85.9% three years ago to 94.4% so far this season. He has cut his first-pitch strike rate every year in the majors, down from 65.2% in 2019 to 52.7% this year. His 22% called-strike-plus-swinging-strike rate this year is now in the top 20 among all batters.
What that's allowed him to do this year is be more selective, which is having tremendous results. He has increased his line-drive rate to 33.9% (24.4% for his career), and his ground-ball rate has plummeted to 41.1%. HIs hard-hit rate is 42.9%, easily a career-high.
France is 92% rostered in Yahoo leagues, so this is not an actionable situation unless you want to pay top dollar in a trade after this weekend. But the more important thing to note is that if you have France on your roster, while he won't keep up a 1.724 OPS, the breakout could be very real. He wasn't drafted like a starting first or second baseman, but he absolutely should be one.
The Eric Lauer Breakout Is Here
I'm not sure what the odds would have been to bet on Eric Lauer to have the most strikeouts in a game through the first few weeks of the season. But it's safe to say you would have made a lot of money after Lauer's 13 punchouts against the hapless Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday Night Baseball.
Those 13 strikeouts are eight more than he had in either of his first two starts this season, so which side of Lauer are we buying?
The first thing to look at is a potential difference in Lauer's pitch mix. And in the least surprising part of this discovery, Lauer falls right in line with the trend of minimizing the use of the fastball and maximizing the use of multiple breaking balls. Here is his pitch mix from the last five years.
Among qualified pitchers, Lauer's fastball rates as the 30th-best in the majors this year, per FanGraphs, but his slider ranks 12th. For a pitch he almost never threw four years ago, the slider has turned into a devastating pitch that has a 22.9% swinging-strike rate, according to Baseball Savant.
Is Lauer all of a sudden Gerrit Cole after one 13-strikeout performance? Absolutely not. But he is rostered in just 37% of Yahoo leagues (more than double what it was 24 hours ago), so he is available for claim in many leagues.
Add: Christian Walker
Christian Walker (4% rostered in Yahoo leagues) - One of the most underrated and under-rostered hitters early this season resides in the deserts of Arizona. With the Arizona Diamondbacks already in last place in their division and with a low batting average through 15 games, Christian Walker isn't getting much love. But that's about to change.
His slash line of .167/.274/.426 isn't outwardly impressive -- until you start to dig into the context of it and the numbers that are driving the underwhelming performance. First is the laughably low batting average on balls in play (BABIP). His .139 BABIP is 160 points below his career average and is almost 150 points below the league average in 2022. Once that corrects in the coming weeks, all numbers in the triple-slash line will improve. How do we know it will improve? Because he is simply smashing the ball right now by any available metric.
In Baseball Savant's leaderboard of the hardest-hit balls in play this season, Walker stands out as a top-30 hitter even though this batting average ranks 246th among hitters with at least 30 plate appearances. Here is how Walker compares to the rest of MLB in the major Statcast categories:
|Stat||Christian Walker||MLB Rank|
|Max EV||111.9 MPH||33rd|
|Avg. EV||92.9 MPH||14th|
|Avg. EV FB/LD||96.3 MPH||22nd|
|Avg. Distance||218 ft.||3rd|
|Hard Hit %||47.50%||30th|
(EV = exit velocity, FB/LD = fly balls and line drives, Barrels/BBE = barrels per batted ball event, Barrels/PA = barrels per plate appearance)
There isn't any one stat that shows Walker shouldn't be listed in one of the top 30 hitters in the majors through three weeks. In addition to the power Walker is showing, the batting eye is elite. His 12.9% walk rate is the highest of his career, and it ranks in the top 45 among all batters with at least 50 plate appearances.
Walker is nearly universally available on Yahoo and many other fantasy platforms. If you need a first baseman, corner infielder, or utility guy to fill in your roster, Walker needs to be added now before the cost and competition goes up.