With the first month of the season behind us, I thought now would be a good time to focus on some early surprises among hitters. Brewers slugger Eric Thames is probably the obvious one. We all knew about his amazing numbers in the KBO, but there was understandably some question about whether his success would translate in his return to MLB. Well, he has answered that with authority. Speaking of authority, Aaron Judge hits baseballs very hard. The young slugger has the hardest-hit ball (this 119.4 mph rocket off Kevin Gausman) of the StatCast era and ranks fourth in the majors in average exit velocity.
While Thames and Judge have wowed with their power exploits, the biggest surprise of the first month has been the remarkable resurgence of Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. After posting a career-low .642 OPS last season, he was mostly off the radar in mixed leagues coming into the spring, yet here he is hitting .427/.462/.875 with 11 homers and 30 RBI through 26 games. He’s the top-ranked player in Yahoo leagues going into Thursday’s action.
How is Zimmerman doing it? Well, for one thing, he’s making plenty of hard contact. He ranks eighth in the majors in average exit velocity and 19th in hard-hit percentage. Zimmerman was actually among the league leaders in average exit velocity last season, but he didn’t see the results along with it. That makes sense since nearly half of his batted balls were ground balls, but this year we have seen an uptick in line drives and fly balls. He’s earning what he’s doing right now, though obviously it’s unfair to expect anyone to maintain a .469 BABIP and a 39.3 percent HR/FB rate.
If you took a flier on Zimmerman in your draft or picked him up early off waivers, you are probably sitting pretty in your league, but I still have major concerns about his health. The 32-year-old hasn’t appeared in more than 115 games since 2013. Other fantasy owners are aware of his injury history, so he’s a tough sell, but I’d at least look into the possibility of capitalizing on his molten lava-level start.
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Eduardo Rodriguez SP, Red Sox (Yahoo: 40 percent owned)
Rodriguez deserves a mention here after a strong performance Sunday against the defending World Series champion Cubs in which he tossed six innings of one-run ball while striking out nine and walking a pair. While the 24-year-old southpaw entered spring training with health questions, he now owns a 2.70 ERA through four starts and one relief appearance this season. The control has been shaky at times (14 walks in 23 1/3 innings), but he has struck out 31 batters and his swinging strike percentage is among the league leaders. Pickings are sort of slim, but he’s probably my favorite widely-available starter on the waiver wire right now.
Hernan Perez 2B/3B/OF, Brewers (Yahoo: 41 percent owned)
Perez came out of nowhere to be a useful piece in fantasy leagues last season and he has kept it going so far this year by putting up an .855 OPS with 10 extra-base hits (including three homers), 12 RBI, and two steals through 23 games. Playing time isn’t a sure thing here, but it’s easy to see a path to sustained value if Keon Broxton (hitting .194 with a .594 OPS) continues to scuffle. Those in shallow formats can wait and see how things develop here, but Perez’s speed and multi-position eligibility makes him worth a speculative add elsewhere.
Scott Schebler OF, Reds (Yahoo: 44 percent owned)
I didn’t pay much attention to Schebler in fantasy drafts this spring, but perhaps I should have. The 26-year-old has socked eight homers in 26 games this season, just one off his total from all of last season. There’s reason to believe in the early power spike, as Schebler has seen a dramatic increase in his fly ball rate. In fact, he’s inside the top-20 in the majors right now. We’ve seen the strikeouts go up a bit too, so that helps explain the dip in batting average, but hitting the ball in the air is a pretty good strategy in Great American Ball Park. Look for other options against lefties, but I’m interested to see where this goes.
Josh Bell 1B, Pirates (Yahoo: 33 percent owned)
After slumping to begin the year, Bell has turned things around recently by hitting .286/.397/.531 with four homers and seven RBI over his last 15 games. His batting average still sits at .235, but he’s making plenty of contact and has shown excellent patience so far in the majors. The young switch-hitter made a start out of the No. 5 spot on Wednesday night, but he has mostly hit second against right-handed starters so far this season. Either way, it’s a good spot. Bell has been in the lower-third of the order against lefties, so I sort of see him as more of a plug-and-play option right now rather than a set-and-forget type of player. Still, I think he’s someone to be excited about for 2017 and beyond.
Jesse Hahn SP, Athletics (Yahoo: 22 percent owned)
Hey, remember when Hahn began the year in the Athletics’ bullpen? Fortunately, that didn’t last very long. Hahn has made a strong case to stick in the rotation by posting a 2.42 ERA and 23/8 K/BB ratio in 26 innings across four starts. He has allowed three earned runs or fewer in all of them. Not surprisingly, most of his swinging strikes have come on his beauty of a curveball. After moving back to his old arm slot, Hahn has at least put his ugly 2016 behind him. Things could get tricky when Sean Manaea is deemed ready to return from his shoulder strain, but Hahn is at least worth using against the Tigers this weekend.
Byron Buxton OF, Twins (Yahoo: 30 percent owned)
Perhaps Buxton is finally showing signs of breaking out of his early-season funk? I’m optimistic. While Buxton still owns a rough .158/.256/.250 batting line on the year, he’s hitting .286 (6-for-21) with a homer and a double over his last seven games. Perhaps most importantly, he has struck out just four times in 28 plate appearances during this recent stretch while also drawing seven walks. It’s obviously a small sample, but the improved approach is noteworthy after he looked completely lost to begin the year. Hitting ninth puts a damper on things, but I’m not giving up on his tools. He’s an interesting name to consider if you recently lost Adam Eaton.
Didi Gregorius SS, Yankees (Yahoo: 34 percent owned)
Gregorius was forced to begin the year on the disabled list after he suffered a shoulder strain during the World Baseball Classic, but he has hit the ground running since his return last week, hitting .333 (8-for-24) with two doubles and five RBI through six games. The 27-year-old is coming off a breakout year at the plate where he amassed 20 homers and 70 RBI to go along with seven steals. I’m not sure I fully believe in the power, but he at least increased his fly ball percentage and he still has the advantage of playing half of his games in Yankee Stadium. This lineup is also improved from last year, so I think he’s a solid middle infielder option.
Josh Harrison 2B/3B, Pirates (Yahoo: 43 percent owned)
Harrison has been one of the hottest pickups in fantasy leagues over the past week or so, and for good reason. He has hit safely in nine out of his last 10 games while amassing seven extra-base hits (including four homers) and seven runs scored. With that, Harrison has already topped his home run total from his underwhelming seasons in 2015 and 2016. The recent surge at the plate has earned him a spot at the top of the Pirates’ lineup. It’s quite a turnaround for someone who looked like they could be at risk for losing playing time coming into the year. Speed is still Harrison’s biggest asset from a fantasy perspective, but I can’t ignore that we’ve seen a big uptick in fly balls and his pull percentage so far this year. The multi-position eligibility is a nice bonus.
Mike Foltynewicz SP, Braves (Yahoo: 17 percent owned)
I don’t trust Foltynewicz on a start-to-start basis just yet, but he continues to provide reasons for optimism. After a rough start to the season, the hard-throwing right-hander has bounced back by allowing two earned runs or fewer in each of his last three starts. He has struck out 15 batters with only two walks in 13 innings over his last two starts. Foltynewicz is throwing his slider more often and getting more whiffs with it, so I could see him taking a step forward this year. I like his chances of getting his first win out of the way on Friday against the Cardinals.
Shopping at the five-and-dime:
(Players owned in under 10 percent of Yahoo leagues)
Delino DeShields OF, Rangers (Yahoo: 9 percent owned)
DeShields was a trendy sleeper coming off a very strong showing during spring training, but he barely saw the field in the early part of the season as Jurickson Profar and Ryan Rua received opportunities in left field. Neither did anything to grab ahold of the job, so DeShields has now started seven straight games out of left field and the leadoff spot while putting up a shiny .280/.400/.440 batting line with three steals and eight runs scored. There’s a pretty good chance he sticks there for a while. DeShields had a rough 2016, but he’s only two years removed from posting a .344 on-base percentage with 25 steals and 83 runs scored over 121 games as a rookie. The strikeouts limit the batting average upside and there’s no power here, but he’s a fine speed play.
Yonder Alonso 1B, Athletics (Yahoo: 4 percent owned)
Where did this come from? After hitting just seven homers last season (and never topping nine in a full season in the majors), Alonso already has six homers through 25 games this season. His .981 OPS is 250 points higher than his career average. We’re seeing a major shift in approach here, as he’s giving up contact in an attempt to hit for power. His fly ball rate sits at 49.1 percent (higher than Scott Schebler, who I mentioned above). Keep in mind that Alonso never had a fly ball rate higher than 38.5 percent in his previous seasons in the majors. Perhaps we should have seen this coming, as Eno Sarris from FanGraphs wrote an interesting piece on his approach in he spring. Alonso's stock is improving with each fly ball.
Michael A. Taylor OF, Nationals (Yahoo: 3 percent owned)
Taylor will get the first crack at filling in for Adam Eaton in center field with the Nationals, but as far as fantasy replacements go, I would put him behind probably all of the outfield-eligible players I have listed in this week’s column. He’s a .229/.280/.361 hitter over 832 plate appearances in the majors. Still, we saw him reach 14 homers and 16 steals in 138 games back in 2015, so there’s some interesting power/speed potential as long as you can live with the flaws in his approach. It looks like he’s mostly going to hit seventh, but this lineup is deep enough where that’s not a total drain on his value.
Bruce Maxwell C, Athletics (Yahoo: 0 percent owned)
I’m working on the assumption that Luis Valbuena (Yahoo: 1 percent owned) might already be owned in your league. If he isn’t, he would be my top choice to pick up now that he’s back from a right hamstring injury. Abraham Almonte (Yahoo: 1 percent owned) is another solid option, but I’m going to focus on the Athletics’ catcher situation right now. Josh Phegley landed on the 7-day concussion disabled list Thursday and Stephen Vogt has really struggled in the early part of the season, so I could see an opening for Maxwell to make some noise. The 26-year-old doesn’t have much power, but he has shown an ability to hit for average and get on base in the minors.
Ben Gamel OF, Mariners (Yahoo: 0 percent owned)
Getting a chance to play right field with Mitch Haniger sidelined due to an oblique injury, Gamel has produced a .259/.355/.481 batting line with one homer and three doubles over seven games since his call-up from Triple-A Tacoma. This includes five straight starts out of the No. 2 spot in the order. There’s not a lot of power here, but the 24-year-old stole 19 bases in 116 games with the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate this year. He’s worth rolling with as long as the opportunities are there.
Dustin Garneau C, Rockies (Yahoo: 0 percent owned)
Tom Murphy isn’t quite ready to return from his fractured right wrist and Tony Wolters went down with a concussion this week, so Garneau should see the bulk of the catching duties over the next week or so. The 29-year-old hasn’t done much in his previous opportunities in the majors and his minor league numbers must be taken with a grain of salt given the environment, but the Rockies are about to begin a 10-game homestand. The timing is right to take a flier. Also make sure Wilmer Flores (Yahoo: 3 percent owned) is owned in your league, as the Mets have a string of left-handed starters coming up.
Wandy Peralta RP, Reds (Yahoo: 1 percent owned)
Sorry, I just can’t get into Rafael Montero, A.J. Cole, or Justin Nicolino as potential rotation replacements, so I’ll use this opportunity to make sure that Peralta has been scooped up in your league. The 25-year-old lefty has been flat-out dominant out of the Reds’ bullpen so far, posting a 1.42 ERA and 19/3 K/BB ratio over 12 2/3 innings. Only the Rangers’ Jose Leclerc has a higher swinging strike percentage so far this season. You aren’t picking Peralta up for saves, but he’s doing enough to warrant attention even in some deeper mixed formats.