On Sunday, all 30 MLB teams surpassed the 41-game mark, meaning we’ve officially reached the end of the 2016 season’s first quarter. Anyone who’s had to explain a poor first-quarter report card to their parents knows this — yes, it’s still early, but you’ve got some work to do to dig your way out of this hole.
On the contrary, a fast start to the year is great, but it’s much too soon to start coasting. With this in mind, Week 7 of Three Up, Three Down looks all the way back to Opening Day to see which players have enjoyed early successes and which have some explaining to do for their sub-par performances, with predictions on how each will fare moving forward.
2B/OF Ben Zobrist, Chicago Cubs
2016 stats: .326/.438/.507, 6 HR, 29 RBI, 30 R, 30 BB, 17 KPercent owned: 94 percent
As abysmal as Jason Heyward has been in his first seven weeks as a Cub, Zobrist has counterbalanced that disappointment with a truly incredible start. Though he’s always been lauded for his on-base skills, the switch-hitting second baseman has taken things to a new level in 2016.
Zobrist’s 16.8 percent walk and 9.5 percent strikeout rate are career bests, and both rank among the top 10 in the Majors. His batting eye has only gotten better with age, as this season marks the fifth straight year with a decline in K-rate.
Even more encouraging than Zobrist’s plate discipline is what he’s done when he actually takes the bat off his shoulders. His line drive rate is at an all-time high, and he hardly ever hits into weak contact.
A skeptic might question whether a soon-to-be 35-year-old can continue spraying line drives all over the place. While his bat might cool off, his feel for the zone should persist, and getting on base in front of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo all summer long will pay big dividends for fantasy owners.
2B/SS Aledmys Diaz, St. Louis Cardinals
2016 stats: .352/.386/.599, 6 HR, 23 RBI, 29 R, 8 BB, 14 KPercent owned: 88 percent
If Zobrist represents the slugger with Zen-like patience, consider Diaz the King of Contact at the opposite end of the spectrum. In 153 plate appearances, the 25-year-old rookie has just eight walks and 14 strikeouts. He’s one of six hitters with strikeout and walk rates under 10 percent, along with Martin Prado, Victor Martinez, Adrian Beltre, Melky Cabrera and Billy Burns.
What separates him from other free-swinging, high-contact hitters is the damage Diaz does when he actually puts the ball in play. Of those five batters, none have an isolated power rating as high as Diaz’s .252. The right-handed hitter has shown a reverse split so far, with a 1.076 OPS against righties.
Diaz’s big-league career got off to a historic start, so much so that he probably should have appeared in this space sooner. It’s highly doubtful his abnormally high batting average on balls in play (.355) is sustainable, and given how infrequently he draws walks, he’s bound to go through some rough stretches soon enough.
Still, he’s done more than enough to remain in the lineup when Jhonny Peralta makes his eventual return. Even when he inevitably comes back down to earth, Diaz will remain a productive player, both from a fantasy and real-world perspective.
2016 stats: 9 GS, 60 IP, 3-3 W-L, 2.85 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 64 K, 11 BB, 5 HRPercent owned: 84 percent
It took Nola just 164.2 minor league innings before he was called up to The Show on July 21, 2015, and he’s been making big-league hitters look silly ever since. The No. 7 pick of the 2014 draft has been perhaps the biggest reason the Phillies, expected to be among the worst teams in the Majors, are currently 25-19.
While Vince Velazquez grabbed most of the early-season headlines thanks to his 16-strikeout performance on April 14, Nola has dominated nearly every time out. In his last six starts, he’s pitched 41 innings with 41 strikeouts, eight walks and a 1.54 ERA. Nola has become mostly a two-pitch pitcher this year, relying more on his curveball than he did as a rookie in 2015.
After throwing the curveball just 24.4 percent of the time last year, Nola has gone to Uncle Charlie 34 percent of the time in his first nine starts this season. That added use has paid off, as batters have hit just .083 against his curveball so far.
Nola has been one of the most difficult pitchers to square up against, allowing hard contact in just 22 percent of all balls put in play. After reaching the 100-pitch mark just once in 13 starts last year, he’s eclipsed that total four times already in 2016. It appears the training wheels are off for Nola, and National League hitters ought to take notice.
2016 stats: 9 GS, 57 IP, 4-3 W-L, 2.21 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 47 K, 25 BB, 5 HRPercent owned: 99 percent
On the surface, it appears as if King Felix still wears the crown. He’s third in the American League with a 2.21 ERA, and the Mariners have the look of a team ready to end its 15-year playoff drought.
Upon closer examination, however, this is not the pitcher we know and love. The velocity decline has continued this year, as Hernandez’s fastball averages 90 miles per hour, the lowest of his career. As a result, his K/9 (7.42) and BB/9 (3.95) are both career worsts.
Hernandez’s shiny ERA is propped up by an unsustainable .239 BABIP. That’s the lowest mark of his career, despite allowing his highest line-drive rate since 2013. The gap between his ERA and his fielding independent pitching, a measure of what a player’s ERA would look like given league average defense and luck, is the largest among all qualified pitchers.
Despite being only 30 years old, Hernandez has a lot of miles on his right arm, with 2,178 innings pitched from 2006 to 2015. He’s clearly a smart pitcher and can still succeed with his diminished stuff, just not at his current rate. Hernandez has done something to appease the BABIP gods so far, but owners should be shopping him now before his luck runs out.
2016 stats: .211/.324/.469, 11 HR, 25 RBI, 20 R, 24 BB, 60 KPercent owned: 99 percent
Quick — name the three Marlins outfielders with the highest OPS. If you said Christian Yelich (.943), Marcell Ozuna (.907) and Ichiro Suzuki (.888) in that order, congratulations! You’re probably a Stanton owner, and you remind yourself of this constantly while lamenting the slugger’s first-quarter woes.
After hitting .253/.362/.582 in April, Stanton has been a mess in May, with 30 strikeouts in 80 plate appearances. Though his swing rate is in line with his career averages, he’s whiffing more often when chasing pitches outside the zone, according to PITCHf/x data. Stanton’s line-drive rate is at a career worst, and his 34.5 percent K-rate is the highest it’s ever been.
Add all of this up, and Stanton has become a little less fearsome in the batter’s box. He can still hit the ball a mile, but those moonshots are interspersed with far too many whiffs, and he’s never been easier to get out than he is right now. He’s way too talented to fail this much, so owners should be wary of any low-ball trade offers — now’s the time the vultures will circle to try and snag a slumping world-class talent.
2016 stats: .248/.337/.467, 8 HR, 19 RBI, 27 R, 1 SB, 20 BB, 42 KPercent owned: 99 percent
After five seasons averaging 6.4 WAR per year, is McCutchen in a decline phase? That he’s only 29 years old would suggest the answer is no, but he’s looked nothing like his usual self. He’s swinging and missing more than ever before, with a career-worst 22.5 percent K-rate. After averaging 24 stolen bases per year from 2010 to 2014, McCutchen only swiped 11 bags last year and has just one steal in three attempts in 2016.
When he has made contact, it hasn’t been pretty. McCutchen’s soft contact rate of 22.8 percent is by far the worst in his career. He’s become an extreme fly-ball hitter, and until he levels off his swing, his struggles at the dish will continue.
The outlook is not completely bleak, however. McCutchen similarly struggled out of the gates last year, posting a .240/.337/.404 slash line through his first 40 games before hitting .310/.423/.517 the rest of the way. Perhaps another turnaround is in store for the player who was the league’s MVP just three seasons ago.