Justin Smoak has homered in three of his past six games, batting .444 (8-for-18) along the way. There's only one logical thing to do ...
Sell high! Sell high!
It's a funny thing sometimes, the psychology of fantasy baseball. We instinctively want to sell the unexpectedly good, and buy the unexpectedly bad. We've been so conditioned over the years to buy low and sell high that we often lose our grip on the true meaning of trade strategy.
If Daniel Murphy bats .370 in the month of April, we race to try to swap him before his inevitable cold spell arrives. On the other hand, if Jason Heyward bats .224 with only four extra-base hits, all doubles, in April, we attempt to "buy him on the cheap." In fact, we might be quick to want to swap those two for each other.
If that scenario sounds preposterous, consider that it could've happened in your league just last season, as Heyward was the No. 66 pick by ESPN average draft position entering 2016, while Murphy was No. 118. Murphy would bat .342 and swat 23 home runs from May 1 forward, while Heyward would bat .231 and hit only seven homers from that point on. Still think it would have been a smart buy-low, sell-high move?
Those who took a closer look before acting -- and many would have done so and avoided such a disastrous straight-up trade, thankfully -- would've noticed Murphy's late-2015 adjustments that bolstered his case to maintain his up-until-then-unseen pace, and/or Heyward's declining bat speed and rising tendency to roll weak grounders to the right side of the infield. In the absence of an explanation for a player's unexpectedly abnormal performance, by all means he's a rational buy-low or sell-high candidate. When there's supporting evidence for it, the opposite tack might be wiser.
Returning to Smoak, there are two reasons he's a poor fit for the sell-high label:
First, and most obviously, he's a career .226 hitter who has never batted higher than .238 or hit more than 20 home runs in a single year entering 2017, and he's owned in only 14.9 percent of ESPN leagues. In all likelihood, few people believe in him, even accounting for his recent uptick in performance.
Second, and much more importantly, what Smoak is doing actually has more value to his teams going forward than on his likely perceived value on the trade market. Simply put, his track record, coupled with his 30 years of age and eight years of experience at the big-league level, fuels an instinctual feel that he's a mirage. A closer look at what he's done in 2017, however, suggests there might be something to his hot start.
Smoak's adjustments have been well-documented by Toronto beat reporters. First, Smoak told the Toronto Star's Mark Zwolinski that he has been studying more video and focusing more on contact than swinging for the fences. To his credit, Smoak's 16 percent improvement in terms of contact rate this season is the highest of any 2017 batting title-eligible hitter who had at least 250 trips to the plate in 2016. He has also managed career bests in terms of his chase rate with two strikes (28 percent) and swinging-strike rate with two strikes (9 percent), significant improvements upon his 40 percent and 17 percent career percentages in those categories.
Second, Smoak has taken a more aggressive approach early in the count, again backed up by the numbers: He has swung 51 percent of the time with 0-0 and 1-0 counts, up from 45 percent from 2015 and 2016 combined and 3 percent better than the major league average this year.
Finally, Smoak has been much more patient against breaking balls, which were previously his kryptonite. He has swung more than 10 percent less often against breaking balls outside the strike zone, and his .222 batting average against them this season is a significant improvement upon his .114 mark against them from 2015 to 2016.
Summing it up, Smoak has done all this despite minimal change in his batted-ball breakdown or exit velocity, and his launch angle is actually slightly higher this year (15.3 degrees) than in 2016 (14.8 degrees). Isn't that evidence enough that Smoak, once considered a blue-chip prospect (he was Keith Law's No. 9 overall prospect entering his debut year of 2010), might have made the adjustments required to finally break through as a fantasy-relevant player?
Perhaps a "breakthrough" for Smoak means something like a .270 batting average and 20 more home runs, making him more of a top-150-overall candidate. Still, considering the likely trade market for the Toronto Blue Jays first baseman, Smoak makes a more compelling case as a buy-high option.
He's not the only logical buy-high-hitter candidate. Consider these others:
Yonder Alonso: Isn't he simply a higher-profile, recognized-two-weeks-sooner version of Smoak? Alonso's specific adjustments had been reported weeks ago, including here by Eno Sarris in March. Alonso is taking a more aggressive approach, adjusting his launch angle, and you can see the fruits of this in his career-high 53 percent fly ball rate and career-best .216 well-hit average as well as his 14 Statcast "Barrels" -- this measures the number of times the hitter achieved ideal combinations of exit velocity and launch angle (rather than something from an early-1980s video game). This former .270-hitting, line-drive type is now trading batting average for hard contact and power, and a .265 batting average and another 25 home runs isn't out of the question. How many prospective trade partners believe him capable? Inquire.
Ryan Zimmerman: Like Alonso, Zimmerman made distinct adjustments to his swing during the offseason, dating back as far as this mid-February column discussing his decision to utilize analytics, specifically Statcast data, to make improvements. The results are obvious: His 20 Barrels are third-most in the game, and his .287 well-hit average is his highest in a season since 2010 and is currently the highest by any batting title-eligible player since Miguel Cabrera's .303 in 2013. Zimmerman's health, rather than his bat, should be the only pressing question going forward, as he hasn't appeared in more than 115 games in a single year since 2013, but with him seemingly 100 percent today, a valid case can be made he might bat .290 with another 20-plus homers.
Miguel Sano: He's yet another hitter who made an adjustment that has fueled unexpectedly productive fantasy numbers. Sano, as discussed in this Star Tribune column, lowered his hands in an attempt to cut down the amount of time he needs to see the ball. It has paid huge dividends, as the usually selective Sano has seen his walk rate soar to an astronomical 19.6 percent, and his 17 percent chase rate is eighth-best out of 188 batting title-eligible hitters, resulting in a huge batting average spike (.287 thus far). As a three-true-outcomes hitter, Sano will always be subject to streaks, but the small change has greatly increased his chances of a batting average going above .250 rather than below, which makes him considerably more valuable as a 40-homer candidate in an environment where big leaguers are averaging .250 as a whole. This was a hitter who was being selected in the fourth round of ESPN drafts a year ago, and it's easy to make the case that his trade stock once again is at least as good as that.