Tuma: 7 Helpful Hitters

Jun 21st 2022

Brendan Tuma

About a month ago I reminded managers that no fantasy baseball league has ever been won before Memorial Day. April and May is when our game has the most eyeballs, but true winning is done during the dog days of summer.

This is when folks head out for summer vacation and when the stats get trickier to sift through. Injuries begin piling up and we start needing contributions from unlikely sources, which is what this post is dedicated to -- finding those sources.

Below are 7 helpful hitters to know about as we approach the end of June. If you have questions please don't hesitate to reach out on Twitter @toomuchtuma.

Michael Harris, OF, Braves

The first couple of names that we'll discuss should already be rostered in any self-respecting fantasy baseball league, but I often find the decision of whether or not to cut someone more difficult than whether or not to add someone. Roster space is precious, and we'll therefore highlight Harris and Cruz so that managers are familiar with what to expect.

Harris didn't arrive with crazy fanfare in late-May, but that had more to do with the surprise promotion than anything against him specifically. The 21-year-old had never played above High-A entering 2022, and after just 43 games at Double-A the Braves promoted him to the majors. It was an incredibly short amount of time to spend in the upper minors before debuting, but Atlanta's outfield defense was struggling. For fantasy players, it was tough to be overly excited about Harris' immediate outlook given all the struggles of top prospects in recent years.

Yet through 22 games Harris has registered a 160 wRC+, batting .346/.369/.580 with 3 homers and 2 stolen bases. He has more than held his own. Add in a 94th percentile sprint speed and strong defense (which allowed Adam Duvall to shift to left field and Marcell Ozuna to full-time DH) and you can argue that his promotion partly helped save the Braves' season. The club dropped 3-of-4 upon his arrival, but they've since gone 16-2 in their past 18 contests. Harris has started all 22 games since his call-up.

As for potential concerns, Harris is chasing a bit too much for my liking (42.6 O-swing%) and his 49.2% ground ball rate doesn't leave much margin for error. His .417 BABIP will regress, but Harris also underwent an on-the-fly swing change in late May to lower his hands - and therefore reduce the number of grounders. It's working:

The swing change could help Harris remain a fantasy contributor for the duration of his rookie campaign. It also might come with some growing pains as big league pitchers begin adjusting. The keys to watch for are his chase rate, and as a byproduct, the number of grounders that he hits.

Oneil Cruz, SS, Pirates

The 6'7" specimen became the tallest shortstop in major league history when he debuted with Pittsburgh in September 2021. During that two-game cameo Cruz connected with a ball at 118.2 mph, which is the hardest hit ball by a Pirates player during the Statcast era (since 2015).

He made his '22 debut on Monday night against the Cubs and instantly set more records. Have a look:

So yeah, the 23-year-old has some ridiculous tools. What will determine his early-career success is the approach at the plate. There was an at-bat on Monday (haven't been able to find the video yet) where he rolled over a grounder to second base on a 3-1 pitch that was low and outside. At 3-1 you want to be targeting specific locations down the heart of the plate. Cruz's plate coverage is outrageous, but working on the finer details of hitting is critical. Big league pitchers are eager to exploit any perceived weaknesses.

Jack Suwinski, OF, Pirates

We're 3 players into today's blog and we're already on our second Pirate. What a world.

Suwinski made headlines on Father's Day when he popped 3 homers, including a walk-off blast, to stun the Giants. He became the first rookie in MLB history to accomplish that feat.

So who is he? The 23-year-old was acquired at the 2021 trade deadline as part of the package from the Padres in exchange for Adam Frazier. He opened this year in Double-A, lit it up for a couple of weeks, and joined the big league club in late-April.

So far Suwinski has demonstrated the ability to barrel up baseballs (90th percentile), particularly against righties. Among all outfielders with at least 110 plate appearances against right-handed pitching, Suwinski has the 9th highest slugging percentage in the league. He doesn't rank as favorably if we sort by OBP or OPS, but he's 7th in ISO.

Suwinski can mash, but his profile also includes a near-30% strikeout rate and a bottom 24th percentile whiff rate. The good news is that his chase rate on Baseball Savant is in the 68th percentile. He's a little toolsy too with an 86th percentile sprint speed.

Overall, he certainly isn't a perfect player. I like that he waits for his pitch, but swing-and-miss is seemingly a big part of his game. Barrel rate is worth buying into in smaller samples. His current profile reminds of Christian Walker and Rowdy Tellez back in April, before their respective breakouts. Suwinski is worth adding in deeper leagues if you need power. He might even be available in some keeper/dynasty formats as well.

Luis Gonzalez, OF, Giants

Speaking of outfielders who are crushing righties, let's talk about another National League rookie in Luis Gonzalez, who is just one spot below Suwinski in the aforementioned SLG% leaderboard (10th overall).

I've long been infatuated with the Giants, who have come close to perfecting player development at the big league level in recent years. A lot of their success stories have been aging veterans such as Brandon Crawford, Evan Longoria, and the retired Buster Posey. But the pattern of getting the most out of who they have extends to players of all ages, minor leagues included.

Also like Suwinski, Gonzalez began 2022 in the minors, and was brought up to San Francisco in late-April. He performed well for a few weeks but his roster spot was then squeezed due to veterans returning. He played one more game in Triple-A in mid-May and has since come back up for good (for now).

Through 175 MLB PAs he's batting .308/.366/.455 (133 wRC+) with 3 homers and 7 stolen bases. Among hitters with that many plate appearances, Gonzalez has the 32nd best OBP in the majors. It's why he has hit leadoff in each of the Giants' past 6 games against right-handers.

Tools-wise, he doesn't pop in any one area, but the 26-year-old is making the most of his opportunities with the Giants. He's over performing his expected stats, though I'm not positive how reliable those are with the ever-changing league-wide environment. Gonzalez's best format is a daily lineup league where OBP and stolen bases are valued, which I know is oddly specific.

Note that Gonzalez could theoretically get optioned when LaMonte Wade Jr. comes back from injury. Gonzalez has been fantastic but he's one of the club's only outfielders who still has options.

Ezequiel Duran, 2B/3B, Rangers

The 23-year-old infielder was acquired by Texas as part of the July 2021 Joey Gallo trade with the Yankees. (Note that minor trade deadline moves are being featured here so far - neat!) Duran's immediate success combined with Gallo's struggles likely has New York regretting the deal so far.

Similar to Harris, Duran's promotion was sudden. He impressed at High-A last year, totaling 19 homers and 19 stolen bases, but it came with a worrisome strikeout rate (27.6%). The K% really improved in 200 PAs at Double-A to open 2022 (18.0%), and the Rangers evidently saw enough to give him a chance in the majors.

Since his June 4th debut, Duran has operated as Texas' primary third baseman. He's hitting .291/.316/.491 with 2 homers and 2 steals. He has a 97th percentile sprint speed and a 61st percentile max exit velocity.

My concerns are relatively high chase and whiff rates. Duran has a 15:2 K:BB ratio so far. Most of his success has come against fastballs so we need to see how he responds once the league adjusts. For redraft leagues it's worth squeezing the juice on his power/speed traits for now, but this could get ugly if plate discipline corrections aren't made.

Luis Garcia, 2B/SS, Nationals

About a week ago, Garcia was sporting a high chase rate, a high BABIP, and was getting a ton of hits. I was going to tweet about him and then held back, wanting to collect a bigger sample size. As the week moved along, Garcia kept chasing, continued sporting a high BABIP, and relentlessly piled up more hits.

So, I finally tweeted.

Garcia is like Duran in the sense that he hit the ground running, but the chase rate and whiff rate worry me. Chasing and whiffing aren't a death sentence for a hitter by any means, but they're skills that I like buying into, especially in small samples. It took years for the fantasy industry to realize that Javier Baez was an outlier in terms of "bad process, good results." I'm not ready to say that Garcia will follow suit.

Through 19 games he has a 16:1 K:BB with a .431 BABIP. The 92nd percentile max exit velocity is thrilling, but more so from a long-term dynasty perspective.

What brings me back around is that while the whiff rate is troublesome (18.4 SwStr% would be top 5 in baseball), it hasn't caught up to his 20.5 K%. According to Garcia's prospect profiles at both Baseball America and Fangraphs, bat-to-ball skills and bat control are traits that he possesses.

So maybe he can maintain an approach centered around chasing with a high BABIP, but I'd still say that his current marks are unsustainable. The long-term move for Garcia is to avoid becoming too aggressive to where he's blindly swinging. That could take some time, and it's why that, while I acknowledge Garcia could be an outlier, I'm most interested in rostering him in keeper formats.

Nathaniel Lowe, 1B, Rangers

The 26-year-old has had a white-hot June, homering 5 times to bump his season-long slash line to .274/.318/.426 (114 wRC+). The biggest change in his overall approach this year has been to swing more, including on pitches outside the strike zone. Lowe's swing% is at 53.1% in 2022 compared to 46.1% for his career.

A big part of his June production has been an unsustainable 29.4 HR/FB%, but he also made changes under the hood, mainly his ground ball rate:

As you can tell, Lowe has had a stretch like this in his career before. The key is going to be maintaining an elevated swing for the duration of a season. Perhaps working with someone like Donnie Ecker, formerly of the Giants, is beginning to pay off. We'll have to wait and see.