Tuma: Fantasy Baseball Rookie Report (Hitters)

Aug 21st 2022

Brendan Tuma

Today's piece focuses on 5 rookie hitters who I felt were due for a check-in. A few of them are raking right now. A couple of them are struggling. Regardless of how they're performing, I'm focusing on the why and what fantasy managers can expect moving forward, both for the remainder of 2022 and in long-term dynasty leagues.

I shied away from the Julio Rodriguez/Michael Harris/Vinnie Pasquantino types, just because there's been so much written about them recently. This didn't stop me from waxing poetic about Adley Rutschman, though.

Reminder to reach out on Twitter anytime @toomuchtuma. All stats entering Sunday.

Oneil Cruz, SS, Pirates

The 6'7" shortstop arrived with plenty of fanfare this summer. For starters, the 23-year-old is a 6'7" shortstop. Of course he's going to be interesting. Additionally, we already had hard data on his unique abilities. Cruz played two games with the Pirates at the end of '21 and hit a ball 118.2 mph. This was a record for the organization in the Statcast era, which dates back to 2015. Again, Cruz accomplished this in just nine plate appearances.

Cruz's game is perfect for experiencing baseball through Twitter highlights. He has a 99th percentile max exit velocity, a 99th percentile sprint speed, and a rocket for a throwing arm. That's fun to watch, but the offensive results haven't been all that enjoyable for fantasy managers.

Cruz has 9 homers and 6 stolen bases through 50 big league games this year, which is great, but they come with a 37.9 K%, a 6.6 BB%, and a .196/.247/.386 triple slash line. Further concerns include a growing number of ground balls and swinging strikes as the season has moved along.

Ultimately, Cruz's physical gifts give him 30/30 upside in any given season beginning in 2023, but his rookie campaign has hopefully been a humbling wake up call that he'll need to refine his long-term approach at the plate. While his redraft value has cratered, he remains an enticing dynasty hold due to the aforementioned potential.

Adley Rutschman, C, Orioles

One of the themes among a few of these rookie hitters is how much they've improved after getting their feet wet in the majors. For Rutschman, the magical date is June 10th. Since then, the 2019 No. 1 overall pick is slashing .292/.403/.533 (165 wRC+) with 8 homers. Reminder that he's a catcher!

Yet the most incredible numbers during this stretch are Rutschman's plate discipline - a 15.3 BB% and a 15.7 K%. Mercy. Rutschman is absolutely spitting on pitches outside the zone right now. Here's the evidence:

Catchers aren't supposed to hit this well. Rookies aren't supposed to perform this well. Yet Rutschman isn't just proving to be "good for a rookie." He's great, period.

Since the magical June 10th date, Rutschman is tied for the 4th most fWAR among all position players. Oh yeah, we forgot to mention his defense is elite as well. He's been surging into contention for the American League Rookie of the Year award, and I think he's going to ultimately steal it from Julio Rodriguez.

Jose Miranda, 1B/3B, Twins

Through June 2nd, Miranda was pulling just 10% of his fly balls and was batting .169/.200/.312 (40 wRC+).

Since then the rookie has pulled 31.9% of his fly balls and is hitting .328/.380/.539 (164 wRC+).

Pulling fly balls is better for power production, particularly with the de-juiced baseballs this season. Miranda doesn't possess an elite barrel rate (34th percentile) and doesn't walk all that much, but he limits strikeouts and makes plenty of contact. By maximizing the power output of his fly balls, he's able to perform as a high-end fantasy contributor.

Alek Thomas, OF, Diamondbacks

I haven't given Thomas a lot of thought to since his initial call-up. Unfortunately, this is because he hasn't lit the world on fire as a first-year player.

Thomas has compiled 327 PAs entering Sunday's action, but he's hitting just .241/.294/.370 (84 wRC+). The 8 homers and 4 thefts are good to see, but he's also been caught stealing three times. He has a 94th percentile spring speed so I'm not overly concerned about that yet.

What's more bothersome is the absence of impact contact.

Thomas' Statcast page has a whole lot of blue on it. And unlike Miranda, the Arizona center fielder doesn't maximize his fly balls by pulling them. In fact, he's one of the worst at that in all of the majors.

Among hitters with at least 55 fly ball events, Thomas has the highest rate of opposite field flies in the league (64.3%). His overall fly ball distribution is similar to Ke'Bryan Hayes, who is another young hitter who has the raw power to do damage in the air, but whose approach isn't optimal.

This doesn't mean Thomas is doomed. Look at the Statcast page again - his max exit velo is in the 63rd percentile. Now is the time for the 22-year-old to start figuring out who he is. Does he want to specialize in an oppo line drive approach? Or is there just enough raw power to start selling out for more of it? Either decision would lead to an improvement on the current approach.

Lars Nootbaar, OF, Cardinals

Things weren't clicking for the 24-year-old to begin the season. Nootbaar was up and down between Triple-A and with the Cardinals for a couple of months. In his limited big league action through the middle of June he was batting .143 while striking out over 30% of the time.

Nootbaar's magic date is June 23rd. Since then he's legitimately been one of the hottest bats in baseball, slashing .295/.421/.543, good for a 170 wRC+ with an 18 K% and a 18 BB%. Among hitters with at least 130 plate appearance during this span, only Juan Soto and Daniel Vogelbach have walked at a higher clip.

Nootbaar's power production hasn't necessarily been elite, though it's been quite good. What makes him special right now is the combination of plate discipline and barrel% (25th best in MLB since 6/13).

So what changed? It seems as if consistent playing time has finally allowed the rookie to take advantage of his Driveline training from the past few offseasons. Nootbaar's focus on biomechanics allowed him to gain an astonishing 8 mph of bat speed on his swing.

Faster bat speed has led to a higher max exit velocity, more consistent hard contact, and a better barrel rate. Add in strong swing decisions dating back to the minor leagues and this is a breakout to buy into.