Speculating on Colin Moran

The surface level stats speak for themselves, even after only four games: .400/.400/1.067 slash line and three HR, five R, and three RBI. If you grabbed Colin Moran at the end of your draft and had the good fortune to use him this weekend, you should be very happy.

But most of us didn’t – he’s rostered in just 6.2% of ottoneu leagues and 11% of CBS leagues as of Tuesday morning, though I am sure those number will rise, and rapidly. Which means we have limited time to decide if we want to buy in on Moran’s explosion, or let someone else roster him for the inevitable return to his old form.

For starters, there are some immediately concerning issues – a .400 AVG is great and a .400 OBP is great, but when they are BOTH .400, it also means you aren’t walking. Moran has never been a guy who walks a ton (7% BB rate for his career) but 0 is still pretty low. He’s also sporting a nifty 60% HR/FB rate. His 11.5% rate career rate coming into the year ranked 199th out of 292 qualified hitters since 2016, so not only is 60% unsustainable for anyone (Aaron Judge and Joey Gallo are the only two over 30% since 2016), Moran isn’t even a guy you would expect to find in the top 10% (or 20% or 50%) of hitters.

Before diving in, a note on sample sizes. Moran has 15 plate appearances. None of these numbers are meaningful or predictive yet. But the reality is you have to gamble in fantasy baseball. You win, in part, by grabbing the Moran’s who stick vs. those who don’t. So, even in small samples, I am looking for signals of something that is worth betting on. I like to figure out what is driving the success and determine how sustainable I think it is. For example, if a player were exploding on a .500 BABIP (Moran’s not, his is an unremarkable .300), I am left saying, “there is no way he runs .500 all year, but maybe he can run .350.” If that player at that BABIP looks enticing…I might be in.

So let’s start with this – Colin Moran will not maintain a .400 average or a 60% HR/FB rate this year. But his projections basically see him doing what he has always done (.322 and .315 wOBA in 2018 and 2019, respectively; ZiPS and Steamer both project .322 this year) and there may be reasons to think he can do more.

Let’s look at his plate discipline. He’s swinging aggressively this year, posting a career high Swing% (63% vs. 52% for his career) and a lot of that is coming on pitches outside the zone. For his career, he has a Z-Swing% (% of pitches swung at inside the zone) of 75% and an O-swing% (percent swung at outside the zone) of 34.8% – this year those numbers are 77.8% and 53.6%. So he is chasing a lot more and it shows up in an increase in his SwStrk% – 13.1% vs. 10.8% for his career and 12.1% last year. The only reason his SwStrk hasn’t jumped more is because he is making more contact both in the zone (92.9% vs. 87.5% for his career) and out (66.7% vs. 65.5%). This is pretty concerning to me, as a whole. The improved contact rates are a good sign, but that O-Swing doesn’t suggest something sustainable – it suggests that pitchers can adjust and get him to chase.

But Moran’s “breakout” is based on what happens after he makes contact, and that is an interesting story. Check out these two visuals from Baseball Savant:

Moran is hitting the ball a lot harder. Like, a lot a lot. In 2019, he was in the bottom third of the league in Exit Velocity, Hard Hit%, and xwOBA, and the bottom half in everything else? Now he is near the top in, basically, everything. These are big changes, even in small samples, but there is an interesting twist here.

In 2017, in an almost-as-small-sample with Houston (trash can caveats may apply), Moran posted a 91.9 average exit velocity and a 13.6° average launch angle on his way to what looked like a breakout that may or may not have influenced the Pirates trading for him. This year, so far, he is at 91.8 average EV and 13.1° average launch angle. He has done this before! And with great results!

Earlier, I said I like to understand what is driving this and figure out if it might be sustainable or, if not, what sustainable might look like. Moran is blowing up thanks to an aggressive approach coupled with good, hard contact, harkening back to his ever-so-brief glory days with Houston. He isn’t getting particularly lucky on balls in play, but does have an inflated HR/FB rate. That HR/FB rate isn’t real, but it is backed by much better contact than he has shown the last couple years in Pittsburgh.

If that isn’t sustainable, what could be? What can we look at and say, “hey, if this continues, he might be well worth adding and playing the rest of the way!” Well, the improved contact could be legit. Maybe he has adjusted something in his swing, gained strength, or has otherwise made a change that is leading to improved contact. Maybe not, of course, but he has shown the ability to adjust before. Even if it is, he’ll see that HR/FB rate decrease, but maybe it goes down to something like 20% (around 45th on that list of 292 players over the last four years), more in line with his batted ball data from Statcast. The aggressive approach might lead to a big jump in Ks, but it hasn’t yet, and it’s also possible he is able to get back to his normal plate discipline while keeping the harder contact. And his .300 BABIP is actually low for his career, despite the harder contact, so there may be positive regression waiting there.

With the caveat that I am NOT a coach or scout, I did notice that in both his HR last night, Moran took a little half step and settled himself before his usual step and swing.

Here are a couple GIFs of 2019 HR. You can see his bat is waggling and he lifts his leg for his step just as the pitcher’s front leg lands – he never fully stops.

And his first HR of 2020 – he lifts and sets his front leg, brings his bat and body to a stop, then goes into his swing.

If you want a higher quality video (apologies for the poor GIFs), here he is hitting a HR last year and you can see the bat moving around and still getting settled as he lifts his front leg and steps into his swing. Here are his two HR Monday night and in both, he briefly lifts his leg, settles his entire body, and then goes into his step-and-swing. Everything pauses before he unleashes on the ball.

That’s the optimistic view – Moran made an adjustment and the new power is legit (not 60% HR/FB rate, 45 HR in a 60 game season legit, but…legit). He keeps hitting the ball hard, gets back to walking once in a while, and sees a few more line drives find grass. Instead of posting the .268/.323/.445 slash, good for a .322 wOBA, projected by Depth Charts projections at FanGraphs, and instead of the .400/.400/1.067 for a .607 wOBA he is posting now, maybe he does something like .270/.340/.480 which would make him something like a rich man’s Brian Anderson, who posted a .261/.342/.468 line last year. It also looks a bit like the projection on Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (.252/.340/.471) or Daniel Murphy (.290/.342/.484) who show up in Justin Vibber’s auction calculator as a $10 OF and a $6 1B in ottoneu FanGraphs Points leagues, based on those projections.

That makes Moran a really useful 3B – probably in the $8 range, maybe a bit more, in ottoneu, and well worth rostering in other formats. In ottoneu, where he qualifies at 2B, that is good enough to lock down a MI spot. The downside, of course, is that he continues to chase, the hard contact drops off, and you end up with the same Moran we saw the last two years, but with more Ks and fewer BBs. In other words, a guy you will cut when he turns back into a pumpkin.

I am going to gamble on Moran. The data from Statcast is really interesting to me, and coupled with increased contact while swinging more, leads me to wonder if he made a change. If he did, and I can buy in now for <$5 in ottoneu or a reasonable FAAB bid in other leagues, I’ll do it. If the changes stick, great. If not, I move on with little lost.

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