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Fantasy Baseball | Six hitters primed for a strong second half

Baltimore Orioles' Manny Machado gestures as he crosses home plate after hitting a solo home run in the first inning of a baseball game against the Cleveland Indians in Baltimore, Tuesday, June 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Thanks to next week’s All-Star break, writing a fantasy hitter matchup column proves difficult with a limited three-game slate plus teams not announcing rotations until next week. Things will return to normal next Friday. For now, a bonus six-hitter primer on hitters who could rebound, continue their breakout season or surge in the second half.

  • The curious case of Manny Machado

Those who drafted Manny Machado might be at the end of their rope with the talented young Baltimore Orioles slugger. He just turned 25 on Thursday but he’s in the midst of the worst statistical output for his career. There’s plenty of time to salvage his season, so it’s time to find out why a player on pace for 30 home runs and 78 RBIs can actually improve. Of course, with a .215/.283/.418 line, there’s plenty of room.

For starters, Machado is fourth in baseball using Statcast’s barrel designation. A barrel’s defined as a well-struck ball estimated to produce a .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage. Machado has “barreled” 33 baseballs this season, or 13.3 percent of the time. This places him ahead of Joey Votto (fifth) and Giancarlo Stanton (sixth) in the rankings. Encouraging.

Transitioning to Baseball-Reference.com stats, Machado has career 162-game averages of 92 runs, 28 home runs, 83 RBI and eight stolen bases with a .276/.327/.470 slash line. From 2014 to 2016, he scored 245 runs, hit 84 doubles, 84 home runs, drove in 214 and stole 22 bases over 1,600 at-bats. Prior to turning 25, Machado ranks 17th all-time with 159 doubles and 19th with 288 extra-base hits. He has registered 216 multiple hits games in this time frame and 121 home runs.

However, this year Machado has struggled to gain traction. He’s hitting the ball hard as documented above, but with little to show for it. His BABIP has cratered to .223 this year, dragging his career rate to .300 in the category. In spite of this, Machado’s hard contact rate is up for the fourth straight year and currently at 38.6 percent. Trading ground balls for line drives this year affects both his BABIP and average, but something else seems to be happening.

Within the ground balls, Machado is pulling them far too often. During a time with data readily present, he has succumbed to hitting too many ground balls to the left side of the infield. While this can be natural for a power hitter, look at his heat map and the huge area near shortstop of his balls in play this season, courtesy of MLBfarm.com: This suppresses his gains in hard contact; teams shift to swallow up balls which might have gone through the left side and now result in outs. It’s not really a matter of migration towards career rates or Machado selling out for power. He just needs to put some more batted balls in play to the right side of the field when he hits ground balls to improve his average. His barrel percentage, age and talent suggest Machado is more than capable of adjusting. Perhaps the break will let him clear his head and start fresh in the second half.

If he does, simple regression to the mean puts his career slash lines in play. If he does that and equals his power output from the first half, he’s a worthy addition to owners not afraid to take a chance. Machado’s worth it.

  •  Did regression swallow Yelich? 

Suggesting Christian Yelich’s power would regress this season did not seem like a reach. He hit a career high 21 home runs last year with 98 RBIs. He’s still hitting third and with Giancarlo Stanton moving to second in the Florida Marlins lineup, Yelich’s stolen bases have rebounded with eight through his first 81 games this year. But he has just eight homers and a .273/.353/.395 slash line.

While Yelich’s power can and should rebound, the slugging percentage drop must worry his owners. Yelich has maintained the fly ball increase from last year but his home-run-per-fly-ball percentage is down 8.5 percent in the first half with his hard contact down by two and a half. But, his contact is up, swinging strike percentage plus swings and misses at pitches outside the strike zone are down. So, he’s still displaying strong plate discipline.

Both his BABIP and ISO should rebound in the second half and Yelich is fourth in batted balls of 95 or higher mph with 118 this season. The barrel count’s only at 18 but he has been hitting the ball much harder of late and could be primed for double digit home runs and stolen bases in the second half. This would yield his first chance for 20 of each in a season. Though he could fall just short, Yelich’s increased average and production in the second half makes him enticing.

  • Greek God of Hard Contact

Nothing dirty here, but Nick Castellanos continues to hit baseballs at a hard rate without a power spike this year for the Detroit Tigers. He has increased his hard contact by 13 percent compared to his “breakout” season last year but with only 10 home runs through 82 games. He’s on pace for 19 home runs and 87 RBIs, which represent potential career bests, but there’s room for more.

Castellanos is hitting .253/.318/.446 with a .311 BABIP compared to a .326 rate for his career. His home run per fly ball rate has held steady compared to last year and he has reduced his swings and misses at pitches outside the strike zone by 2.3 percent. He already has barreled 27 balls in play this year to tie him with teammate Miguel Cabrera and Mike Moustakas. Also, Castellanos owns 107 batted balls with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher. It’s not rocket science to see he’s on the precipice of home run binge. Question is, will it happen in the second half? Definitely be willing to find out.

  • Buying Pirates? 

It has been a frustrating first half for Gregory Polanco of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 69 games he has 29 runs, seven home runs, 22 RBIs, eight stolen bases and a .258/.316/.397 slash line. Before labeling him a bust, keep in mind his career slash of .253/.318/.403. Fantasy owners might expect too much from Polanco. In fact, he probably pressed trying to hit cleanup since he’s miscast in this role.

Since dropping in the lineup, akin to teammate Andrew McCutchen, Polanco has improved. He’s in the midst of a six-game hit streak and hit safely in eight of his past nine. Polanco is only pacing towards 55 rus, 13 home runs and 15 steals, but there’s time to salvage his season. Power will not be a huge part of his game but his hard contact cratering to 21.1 percent will improve. He hit .310 in May but dropped off to .183 in June. However, in July, Polanco’s hard contact is up to 26.1 percent, in a small sample of 24 at-bats, with a .458 average. He fell prey to pulling the ball in June at 54.4 percent trying to sell out for power.

Polanco’s game should be getting on base, hitting for some power to all fields and stealing bases. He’s in line to do all of these things and could reach double digits in home runs along with stolen bases in the second half. His window to buy low could close a week after the break. Part of this can be attributed to Josh Bell taking over the cleanup spot in the lineup. Bell is on pace to hit 30 home runs with 79 RBI. He’s also due for some positive migration in average, being a career .303/.373/.454 hitter in the minors. Once Bell returns to hitting the ball to all fields, his average will rise and settle in as a .275-to-.280 hitter with 25 home run power.

PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 28:  Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell #55 reacts after hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning during the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at PNC Park on June 27, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Icon Sportswire)

PITTSBURGH, PA – JUNE 28: Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell #55 reacts after hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning during the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at PNC Park on June 27, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Icon Sportswire)

  • Do you know Domingo? 

Part of the reason for the Milwaukee Brewers’ surge in the standings is the breakout season by Domingo Santana. Through 83 games he has 52 runs with 14 home runs, 47 RBIs, nine stolen bases and a .288/.380/.488 slash. Santana’s on pace for 96 runs, 26 home runs, 87 RBIs and 17 steals with little love in the fantasy community. He has dropped his strikeout percentage by six points, pulls the ball less and still hits for power. Since May 15, he’s tied for seventh in the National League for RBIs with 34 and over his past 62 games he is hitting .323 with 12 home runs and 42 RBIs.

  • Under-owned Astro

Last but not least, Alex Bregman could be in line for a strong second half. He’s pacing towards 15 home runs and 13 stolen bases. However, after a strong power month in May with six home runs, he collapsed in June, hitting .215 in what might be consolidation of his skill set. Bregman has improved his walk percentage by three this year and cut his strikeout rate by more seven percent with all of his plate discipline peripherals heading in the right direction.

Five of his past seven hits have been doubles. If he takes the improved plate discipline and adds the power displayed in May, his second half could produce 8-10 homers with 6-8 more stolen bases in a high-powered offense.

Be sure to check back this weekend for Jim Finch’s fantasy All-Stars along with Al Melchior’s Sunday stream article to win head-to-head pitching matchups.

Statistical Credits: Fangraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com, BaseballSavant.com (links to Statcast), MLBfarm.com, MiLB.com

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