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2 To Watch: Choo and Lewis

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Each week during the season, I will profile two players that are interesting either because they are in the midst of a breakout, are performing way above their heads, or are widely available and useful. This week, it's Shin-soo Choo and Colby Lewis

Shin-soo Choo is back? Shin-soo Choo is back!
Shin-soo Choo is back? Shin-soo Choo is back!
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to week 5 of 2 to Watch! To read previous editions of 2 to Watch, check out this link. As usual, we'll start by checking in on last week's players to see how they've done in the past week.

Note: all stats from Fangraphs and current up to 5/13

Evan Scribner: 3.1 innings, 10.8 ERA, 1.80 WHIP, 12.5% K%, 0% BB%, 1.96 FIP, 3.21 xFIP, 0.429 BABIP

Scribner had two bad outings this week and still managed to put up a stellar FIP. That high BABIP really hurt him this week. His strikeouts were a little low, but this is a very small sample, so I'm not worried. I don't see anything in this one week that scares me off. The skills are still there, as evidenced by that FIP, his 10.8% swinging strike rate, and his amazing 81% first strike rate. Weeks like this will be few and far between if he keeps this up. He is clearly being used as the primary setup man and should continue to get holds. When Doolittle returns, he may end up in the 7th inning, but he should still have good value.

Ryan Braun: 1 HR, 11 R, 5 RBI, 23.5% BB%, 14.7% K%, .350 BABIP, 0.308/0.471/0.500 (AVG/OBP/SLG)

Braun may finally be back! Whether it was the mechanics change I mentioned last week or just getting settled in, Braun has found his stroke and has been hot for over two weeks now. He appears to be locked in at the plate. The window may have closed for buying low on him. If someone still isn't a believer in your league, now is the time to pounce.

Shin-soo Choo

The Korean outfielder that once led the league in OBP with above average power and speed was very disappointing last season and this April. If you haven't been paying attention, things have been a little different here in May.

AVG OBP SLG HR R RBI SB BABIP BB% K%
April 2015 0.096 0.254 0.173 1 4 5 0 0.111 11.10% 23.80%
May 2015 0.333 0.375 0.667 4 7 11 0 0.483 7.10% 35.70%

Whoa. That is a huge contrast between two (arbitrary) time frames. Obviously, much of this surge is driven by BABIP, with a huge increase. What's surprising is that his walk rate is down and his K rate is up in a dangerous area in May, but his results have been completely unaffected by it. The BABIP surge doesn't explain his slugging jump completely and certainly doesn't have anything to do with his homers, so let's dive deeper.

LD% GB% FB% Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard% HR/FB%
April 2015 13.50% 54.10% 32.40% 43.20% 32.40% 24.30% 13.50% 59.50% 27.00% 8.20%
May 2015 28.10% 37.50% 34.40% 56.30% 28.10% 15.60% 12.50% 43.80% 43.80% 27.30%

Ok, so here is a table with a bunch of crazy numbers in it. Don't be too intimidated. This is Choo's batted ball data for the two months. The first three are the splits of his balls in play that were line drives, grounders, and fly balls, respectively. The next set of three columns describes where his balls in play went (pull side, center, opposite side, which is left field for the lefty Choo). The next set of three columns describes how hard he hit those same balls in play. I'm not going to get into how soft, medium, and hard are determined, but just trust me on those. Finally, you have the ratio of his flyballs that have been homers.

Breaking this table down, we see a few important trends that back up his recent surge. First, he has started hitting line drives again. He has been over 20% almost every year of his career, so this was nice to see and brings his season rate back up to 20%. Where did those extra liners come from? Well, it looks like he kept his fly ball rate about the same and replaced a bunch of ground balls with liners, which is very good for us, since grounders are the least productive batted balls of all.

He is pulling the ball a lot more than he was, which is not really his usual plan. He has had a very balanced pull/center/opposite split in his career, rarely exceeding a 42% pull %. This explains some of his power surge, since pulling the ball is usually a good way to increase your flyball distance, but it often comes with a price. It means defenses can shift on you more and swinging for the fences can hurt your strikeout rate, which may already be happening with Choo. In fantasy, we are generally ok with hitters making that tradeoff when it leads to more homers.

Hitting more line drives and pulling the ball more leads (surprise!) to more hard-hit balls! He exchanged those medium-strength balls in play for some hard hit balls, which is usually a good thing. It's nice to see his batted ball data back up his surge in performance. His HR/FB ratio is too high and will likely sink back to the 10-15% range, closer to his career marks, but that doesn't mean he won't keep hitting homers. It just means he won't keep hitting two every week.

Before we leave Mr. Choo behind, I'm going to throw in two swing .gifs: one from before his hot streak and one from tonight (5/13). First up, a randomly-selected fly/line drive out from April 27 against a hard-throwing right handed young starter (Taijuan Walker). Walker misses his spot on this hard (88 mph) breaking ball and it kind of hangs up there. Choo hits it well to the opposite field but it is right at the left fielder. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a slow-mo capture to match the next one, but you can still see his swing pretty well.

choo line out

Second, a May 13th homer off of hard-throwing young righty Yordano Ventura. This time, it's a hard fastball that he somehow has time to wait on and still pull to the right field stands. His hands seem to be very quick as he turns on this high fastball.

choo homer may 13

A reminder, I'm a very amateur swing analyst guy who watches gifs 500 times to find swing changes. Also, these are just two swings. That being said, I guess I see much more of a weight transfer from the back foot to the front in the second .gif. That back foot's heel barely lifts off the ground in the first .gif but is completely up in the second. His whole torso has much more torque in the second, but that's mostly due to the fact he recognized the pitch much faster and started his swing earlier. He waited too long in the first .gif before deciding to swing to pull the ball, so he took it the other way.

I don't really see anything else different between the two swings, but I thought it would be worth a look and hey, everyone loves .gifs, right? I don't see enough here to diagnose why he has started surging in May, but his batted ball data tells us that something has changed with his approach.

So, are we buying Choo? I'm buying in because he has a great career track record, was playing through injury most of last season (explaining his poor numbers), and is showing real improvement in his batted ball data that doesn't seem unsustainable.

Colby Lewis

So, here we are again, old friend. This 35-year-old righty starter for Choo's Rangers team has been around a long time. He has been on many fantasy teams off and on during that time. He's never had overpowering stuff, but has put together a few good seasons where he was useful as a fantasy regular. But then he's had some very bad seasons filled with injuries and ERAs over 5, like last year.

This is what his stat line looks like in 2015 compared to 2014:

ERA FIP xFIP WHIP K% BB% BABIP LOB% GB%
2014 5.18 4.46 4.36 1.52 17.50% 6.30% 0.339 69% 33%
2015 2.40 3.32 4.37 1.02 19.80% 6.40% 0.260 81.80% 34.10%

Hmmm. His ERA has dropped by more than 50% and seems to be backed up by his very good FIP. However, look at that xFIP. It is almost identical. The very good walk rates are also identical. His strikeouts are up a little, which is nice, but pay close attention to those last three columns. His BABIP went from above average (0.300) to below, the same is true for his left-on-base percentage (how often he strands baserunners). HIs groundball percentage stayed the same, and is pretty low, since he is a flyball pitcher. Basically, we can attribute much of his ERA drop to better BABIP luck and better luck with stranding runners. Neither of those things can be counted on going forward. His luck could change back quickly.

He throws an 88 mph fastball, a slider, a curve, and a change. Overall, he gets a below-average 7.4% swinging strike rate. Looking by pitch type, only his slider gets above average swinging strike rates. The rest range from bad to abysmal. Only the curveball gets a good groundball rate. The rest are, once again, poor. Throw in the fact that his velocity is already very low and you get a very dangerous and risky flyball pitcher. Don't be fooled by his early season success. Lewis is still the same pitcher he was last year. He relies very heavily on that slow fastball and his admittedly good slider.

He has upped the movement on his fastball this year, which is contributing heavily to his increased strikeout rate, but it just won't be enough to keep up his ERA or FIP once regression hits. Stay a safe distance away from Lewis and thank me later. Tschus!