The performance of baseball players is often predictable. Within their abilities, they tend to settle into a certain profile when they find something that works. That is what makes projections so useful. Past performance is highly predictive of future performance. Fantasy players can rely on that information and find success, but to compete at a higher level they must understand how player profiles can change so that they can predict possible outcomes that the projections may not be capturing. One example of this practice is to look at players with elite power who hit the ball on the ground more often than they hit it in the air. These players have the ability to make a modest swing adjustment and unlock their power potential.
As an example, Vlad Guerrero Jr. had the highest maximum exit velocity in baseball in 2019 (118.9 mph) and the third highest in 2020 (116.1 mph). He also had a ground ball rate north of 50% across those two seasons (49.7% in 2019 and 54.6% in 2020). Hitting all of those balls on the ground limited him to only 24 home runs across those two seasons (757 total plate appearances). In 2021, Vlad cut his ground ball rate to 44.8% and increased his fly ball rate by nearly 10 percentage points. That doesn't tell the entire story of his increase to 48 home runs in 2021, but it is a significant piece of the puzzle. The power was already there. He figured out how to harness it. Those smart enough to look (like Carmen Ciardiello in this April 7, 2021 Fangraphs article), saw the potential.
Vlad is a generational talent, but where could we find some hidden power potential?
I conducted a search of players with at least 300 plate appearances in 2021.
First, I looked for players with average exit velocity of at least 90 miles per hour, which gave me a pool of 87 players to start with.
Next, I eliminated players with a maximum exit velocity lower than 110 miles per hour, which cut the pool down to 80.
Filtering out players whose hard hit rate was lower than 45% eliminated another 18 players, leaving 62 players who hit the ball extremely hard and with regularity.
Finally, I looked at ground ball rate and kept only the players who hit the ball on the ground at a 50% or higher clip.
That left a very interesting list of only 10 players. Let's talk about them in no particular order:
1. Juan Soto, WSH OF
Soto is already recognized as an elite talent and is regularly drafted in the first round of fantasy drafts. He had the best walk rate (22.2%) and on-base percentage (.465) in the league in 2021. He was among league leaders in wRC+ (3rd), batting average (3rd), exit velocity (12th), maximum exit velocity (14th), hard hit rate (11th), slugging percentage (16th), and a host of other categories all at age 22. He is already in the conversation for best hitter in the game and he still has years of growth coming. Soto is currently viewed as a 30-35 home run threat, but a 40+ home run season is imminent. A 50+ home run season is entirely within the range of plausible outcomes and it would not take much of an adjustment to make that happen.
2. Josh Bell, WSH 1B
Bell's maximum exit velocity numbers have consistently been in the 114 mph to 116 mph range for four straight seasons, which is elite territory. Also consistent is his ground ball rate, which in four of his five seasons in the majors has fallen between 48.5% and 55.7%. The one exception to that consistency was 2019, in which Bell cut his ground ball rate to 44% and hit 37 home runs. In 2021, Bell hit 27 home runs despite a 53.5% ground ball rate and he did it with a career best hard hit rate of 51.5%. Fantasy players think of Bell as an average power 1B, which is what he is if he changes nothing heading into 2022. You should pay for that average power knowing that the pieces are there for another 35+ home run season.
3. Alec Bohm. PHI 3B
Bohm made splashy debut in 2020 at age 23 with 4 home runs and a .338 batting average in 180 plate appearances. Expectations were high heading into 2021, but he disappointed with 7 home runs and a .247 batting average in 417 plate appearances. Now, he'll cost very little in 2022 drafts as a back end dart throw 3B. He's young and powerful. One swing adjustment and that dart throw could pay off in spades. Steamer is projecting 15 home runs. I'm taking the over. It'll cost you next to nothing to find out if I'm right.
4. Jorge Alfaro, MIA C
I was surprised to find Alfaro on this list, but Fangraphs grades his raw power at 70. With six seasons under his belt, Alfaro has shown flashes (see 2019), but his poor contact rates and consistently high ground ball rates have prevented him from capitalizing on his raw power. That seems unlikely to change at this point, but you can Frankenstein a good season if you take his consistent raw power and pair it with his career best contact rate of 68.3% (2021), career best strikeout rate of 28.9% (2017), and career best ground ball rate of 47.8% (2018) (Note: I recognize that none of those career bests are particularly good!). Something like that could produce a 20+ home run season. And though he doesn't have the youth of Alec Bohm on his side, stranger things have happened.
5. Christian Yelich, MIL OF
Yelich is one I knew would be in here. I digressed into Yelich's career as a worm killer in a piece about Jesus Sanchez before the 2021 season. As I explained in that piece:
An old 2014 article on Christian Yelich from Fangraphs is burned into my memory, mostly because of the title: Christian Yelich, Worm Killer. The content of that article is not particularly relevant to this discussion, but the obvious reference is that in 2014, Yelich had shown very little power, and had consistently hit balls on the ground at a league-leading clip. He had done so in the minor leagues, and continued to do so in the majors. The reason I remember this article, other than the cool title, is that from 2015 onward, Yelich cut his ground ball rate every season, and increased his launch angle every season (except for 2020, which I'm excluding because I can!). Take a look:
Yelich always had the ability to hit for power and gradually unlocked it with launch angle adjustments. Players do this.
Yelich was back to his worm-killing ways in 2021 with a 54.4% ground ball rate, his highest since 2017.
We all know the risk/reward proposition that Yelich presents at this point. It goes far beyond the scope of this article.
6. Willson Contreras, CHC C
Contreras has already established himself as a reliable catching option, and the power has been consistent across six seasons. Except for an outlier in 2018 (10 home runs in 544 plate appearances), Willson Contreras's power output has held relatively steady. Though you'd like to see him put more balls in the air, his only season with a ground ball rate south of 50% was 2020, and that was his second worst of six seasons in terms of home run rate. One trend worth noting is that Contreras is in the midst of a four-year trade off of contact rate for hard hit rate:
He appears to be working harder every season to swing for the fences, which means he is trying to make adjustments, and maybe there's another level yet.
7. Eric Hosmer, SDP 1B
Ten years in, we know who Eric Hosmer is. He typically hits 15-20 home runs over the course of a full season. That is why it surprised me to learn how hard he hits the ball and how often. His average exit velocity (90.5 mph) was 40th in the league among qualified batters, his maximum exit velocity (112.5 mph) was 57th, and his hard hit rate (47%) was 27th. In all three of those metrics, Hosmer is surrounded by power hitters. The problem is that Hosmer is a ground ball hitter and has been his entire career. In 2021, Hosmer's ground ball rate of 55.5% was second (to last) place among qualified hitters, behind only Raimel Tapia. His career ground ball rate across ten seasons is 54.4%. On only one occasion did Hosmer lower that rate to the mid 40s. He hit ground balls at a rate of 46.2% in the short 2020 season. The result was a career high home run rate (9 HR in 156 PA). 2020 is an outlier in an otherwise steady profile. I would not expect a repeat over a full season, but put him on your watch list, just in case.
8. Nate Lowe, TEX 1B
I like this one. Lowe was a much heralded prospect in the Tampa system and expectations were high when he came up for Tampa in 2019 (and 2020). They were even higher when he was traded to Texas before the 2021 season. Some may view Lowe's 2021 season as a disappointment. I don't. Playing every day, Lowe nearly went 20/10 with an acceptable .264 batting average. That plays really well as a corner infielder in a 15-team league. Still just 26 years old, there is growth in Lowe's profile. He hit 18 home runs in 2021 despite a 54.5% ground ball rate, which is the highest of his career (both MLB and MiLB). Regression alone should bring it back down under 50%. 20+ home runs are likely. 25-30 home runs are perfectly within the range of plausible outcomes.
9. Harold Ramirez, CLE OF
Easily the least interesting name on this list, Harold Ramirez's presence here makes me raise an eyebrow. He has been a part-time player since coming up for the Marlins in 2019. At first glance, nothing in his profile really stands out, but if you squint, there might be something there. He hit 11 home runs in his rookie season, was a non-factor in 2020, and then, after a move to Cleveland, essentially stayed the course in the power department in 2021. However, from 2019 to 2021, Ramirez improved as a hitter in several categories:
Not included in the chart is ground ball rate, which also improved from 57.4% in 2019 to 53.1% in 2021. Still very high, but better, and at age 26 he can still improve. Is Harold Ramirez the kind of hitter who can capitalize on having the ability to consistently hit the ball hard? I doubt it, but he'll likely get a chance to show you in 2022 with so few options in Cleveland, so take a shot in a deep draft and hold.
10. Ke'Bryan Hayes, PIT 3B
I'm already seeing a lot of talk about people being back in on Hayes after a lackluster 2021. He was a top prospect and everyone knows he nursed a wrist injury throughout the year. Despite that fact, he still qualified for this list with elite exit velocities and hard hit rate. Going back all the way to the beginning of his professional career in 2015, Hayes had never posted a ground ball rate higher than 50%, so that 56.7% in 2021 is an extreme outlier almost certainly tied to the injury. Go get him.
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