Evaluating Hitters Over 30 for 2020 Fantasy Baseball

Photo Credit: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty

It’s been nearly eight months since we watched the Washington Nationals win the World Series. With many fantasy players putting redraft leagues in the rearview mirror, dynasty leagues will reign supreme until next season. There’s so much focus on young players, the new draftees, and players in their prime. What about the aging ones who could be losing their last opportunities to make an impact? After last season, I decided to go all-in for 2020 in a few dynasty leagues. Damn, do I wish I knew then what I know now. This compelled me to take a look at hitters age 30 and over. Those who could be past or near the end of their prime. Where do they stand? Let’s dive in and see what’s up.

In evaluating these aging players, I looked at plate discipline, contact rate, and exit velocity on line drives and fly balls. These are common areas where players decline as they age. While there may be something to a one-year decline, I focused on trends. Is there a pattern of consecutive seasons?

Exit Velocity

The first stat that interested me was the exit velocity. It’s important to note that it’s only one piece to the puzzle when looking at a player’s skill set. But it’s a significant one. You can think of it like a pitcher’s fastball velocity. Many can get by on pure stuff, but as their fastball declines, the better they have to be in other areas like control, command, pitch sequencing, and movement. Exit velocity works similarly. A hitter who strikes out a ton is gonna get away with it a lot easier if they’re smoking the ball. The chart below shows that. As exit velocity on line drives and fly balls increases, so do the results. So if we’re seeing a decline, the more things like contact, sprint speed, and launch angle are going to matter.

Let’s take a look at some trends. The following chart shows hitters that have declined in average exit velocity on line drives and fly balls for two consecutive seasons.

This next chart actually shows hitters that saw the biggest improvements in exit velocity, raising their average by at least one mile per hour.

Contact/Plate Discipline

Contact and plate discipline go hand in hand. And like a hitter’s ability to hit the ball hard, it’s among the skills we see deteriorate as players age. When it comes to plate discipline, chase rate(O-swing%) correlates strongly to a hitter’s walk rate. And contact is pretty straightforward. Though I will note that a player’s overall contact rate can be misleading. We want to see a higher percentage in the zone. Sometimes we’ll see someone chasing more pitches and making more O-Contact but not able to make more contact where it matters most, in the strike zone.

The following charts show hitters who’ve seen their contact percentage decline over consecutive seasons in order of largest to smallest declines, followed by those who’ve chased more pitches outside the zone.

With the data in hand, let’s take a look at some hitters that stand out.

J.D. Martinez – OF/DH, Boston Red Sox

JD Martinez is great example of how well EV on LD/FB correlates with barrel rate. Martinez saw his Barrel% drop from 19.5% in 2017, to 16% in 2018, and down to 12% in 2019. In those years, he hit 45, 43, and 36 home runs. But we know how good of a hitter Martinez is. Despite the decline in exit velocity, he raised his contact rate year-over-year and has been able to maintain a batting average over .300. With no full season in 2020, his 40 home runs days could be behind him. Even if he’s a .300 hitter with right around 30-35 home runs going forward, that is still pretty darn good in today’s game. In fact, you can argue this type of profile plays better in a 60-game season as his stats are more reliable than someone more volatile.

Paul Goldschmidt – 1B, St. Louis Cardinals

Paul Goldschmidt has been on a slow and steady decline according to a few underlying metrics. So it’s not a surprise he had his worst statistical season since his rookie year. Not only has his exit velocity decreased, but his plate discipline has sunk as he’s increased his chase rate every year since 2015. With that, his walk rate has declined every year since. Remember what I said about doing all the other things well when hitters aren’t hitting the ball as hard? Well, Goldschmidt isn’t doing those things necessary to age well. He’d have to increase his contact rate, as his Z-Con%(contact in the zone) of 80.1% is below the league average of about 85%. Not that he couldn’t, but I’m not counting on the Goldy of old to make a comeback.

Khris Davis – DH, Oakland A’s

Death, taxes, and Khris Davis hitting .247 with 40 home runs. It’s comical how consistent he had been from 2015-2018. So it’s easy to blame his down year on an injury Davis suffered early in May. Especially after he launched 10 home runs through April. But even before he was hurt, his exit velocity on LD/FB had been at 95.1 MPH. This was down significantly from the 97.2 MPH he was at in 2018. His barrel rate dropped from 17.2% to 10.1%. And though he underperformed his xWOBA by .029, hitting only 13 home runs the rest of the way, there’s not enough there for me to believe he would have hit the 40 home runs we were accustomed to.

From the charts above, Davis is the only player that shows up on all three lists going the wrong way. He’s someone that needs to make the most of his power given his lack of contact skills. Should his exit velocity on line drives and fly balls stay at 95.1 MPH or lower, we’re probably looking at 30-35 home runs and a batting average south of the .247 he’s known for.

Anthony Rizzo – 1B, Chicago Cubs

Speaking of consistency, Anthony Rizzo has been the epitome of it since 2014. Never one to put up gaudy hard hit or barrel rates, Rizzo has just done everything well as one of the most well-rounded hitters in the game. While we’ve seen a drop in his exit velocity, he remains one of the most disciplined hitters, with a 2.4% K-BB rate. His contact numbers remain well-above league average as well. But there’s reason to proceed with caution.

While Rizzo’s contact rates are still excellent, his 88.6% rate was a 3.3% drop from 2018 and the lowest since his 2011 rookie season. He’s also seen his O-Swing% climb to 33.8%, his highest mark since 2012. It’ll be worth monitoring his contact and plate discipline this season. So, while Rizzo should continue to be a productive player and will only turn 31 this summer, now may be the time to sell in dynasty leagues.

Whit Merrifield – 2B/OF, Kansas City Royals

Despite it being Merrifield’s fifth year in the league, he’s entering his age-31 season. He’s been a great source of speed and batting average since his debut, but there has been a downward trend in his contact rate over the last three seasons. Merrifield’s Z-Contact% has fallen from 91.8% in 2017, to 88.4% in 2018, to 87.2% in 2019. With that, his strikeout rate has slightly increased as well, going from 14% in 2017, to 16.1% in 2018, and 17.1% in 2019. That’s not the direction you want things to go. Add a decline in exit velocity, and it’s fair to wonder how much longer Merrifield could maintain his level of play with a declining trend in multiple skill sets.

Jose Abreu – 1B, Chicago White Sox

Jose Abreu shows up in both the contact and plate discipline list. Yet he still had a stellar season, hitting .284 with 33 home runs thanks to a career-high 96.1 MPH average exit velocity on line drives and fly balls. This was tied for 26th best along with Josh Bell and Javier Baez, and slightly above Joc Pederson and Gary Sanchez. It’s nice to see Abreu smashing the ball harder than ever at 33 years old. But given his contact decline and already poor plate discipline, any drop in exit velocity could mean a swift fall in his numbers. I’m banking on him producing in a much-improved lineup for at least another year.

Starling Marte – OF, Arizona Diamondbacks

Starling Marte is an intriguing case. Over the last five years, Marte put up his lowest average exit velocity on line drives and fly balls in 2017, at 89.3 MPH. It was the peak of a three-year increase in his contact rates, as he had been trending upward every season since 2014 leading up to that year. Marte ended that 2017 season batting .275, the lowest since his rookie year. Granted, he only played half a season due to an 80-game suspension for violating MLB’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Starting in 2018, he went back to what brought him so much success in 2015, hitting the ball harder. Though now we’ve seen his contact and plate discipline decline in consecutive seasons, so his exit velocity will be well worth monitoring.

Charlie Blackmon – OF, Colorado Rockies

Charlie Blackmon is on a similar path as Marte, with declining contact rate and plate discipline, but higher exit velocities. Blackmon’s decline in contact goes all the way back to 2015, with his numbers falling every year since. It really goes to show how much Coors Field really helps, especially when you look at Blackmon’s home/road splits with a .349 average in Coors and .261 away. Unless you’re a contender going for the win in this 2020 sprint, now might be the last chance you have to sell if you’re still holding onto Blackmon in dynasty leagues.

More noteworthy mentions

  • DJ LeMahieu got out of Coors and knew what he had to do, hit the ball harder. His contact rate and plate discipline have gone down, but he made a big leap in his exit velocity. The skills support the big 2019, especially in that park. Look for more success in Yankee Stadium this season. 
  • Jose Altuve’s 4.1% decrease in contact rate since 2017 is the eighth highest decrease among hitters 30 and older. Though his exit velocity remains the same. He hit under .300 for the first time since 2013. A career-high 50% pull rate and 31 home runs show he’s becoming a different hitter, perhaps out of necessity.
     
  • What out for CJ Cron. Could this be the year he puts it all together? It would not surprise me to see him finish with similar numbers to Paul Goldschmidt outside of OBP leagues. 

  • Nelson Cruz is still the man. You want to win a 60-game sprint, get Cruz.  

  • Josh Donaldson is going to be ridiculous in Minnesota. Twins hitters across the board pulled the ball more in 2019 than they had previously in their careers. Get Donaldson to do the same, and we’re looking at a potential home run leader. 

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