(Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire)
Elvis Andrus made a lot of fantasy owners happy in 2017. His .297 batting average, career-high 20 home runs, 100 runs scored, 88 RBI and typical 25 stolen bases led to him being one of the most productive shortstops in fantasy last year. These numbers were completely out of the ordinary for Andrus, a speedy shortstop whose career total in home runs coming into last season was a mere 35. In a weird way though, we should have seen this coming. He has completely remade himself as a hitter over the past three years, and his numbers this past year were in line with what the batted ball data suggested. Andrus has become a new hitter, and I believe we are going to see him continue to have seasons like the one he just had.
Now, it’s easy to point to his career high HR/FB rate of 11.6% and say that this year was a fluke and that he got lucky on his fly balls. In fact, I’m sure that there are a lot of people who did say that during this past offseason. The balls were juiced, they said, and Andrus had a lucky year. He’ll go back to his old light-hitting ways in 2018. However, that would be ignoring the total change in approach he’s made since 2015. He’s embraced the fly-ball revolution, he’s more aggressive at the plate, and he’s made a real effort to pull the ball more.
Let’s start by looking at his batted ball data over the past few seasons.
From 2012-14, Andrus was pretty much what you’d expect from a light-hitting shortstop. He put the ball on the ground a lot, bunted for hits frequently (BUH%), and generally didn’t put the ball in the air. He also wasn’t hitting the ball very hard, with a hard contact % similar to “hitters” like Yolmer Sanchez and Denard Span. Starting in 2015, you can see a distinct trend as he focused on hitting more fly-balls, and he completely stopped trying to bunt for hits anymore in 2017. This is a hitter who saw that he could become something more than just another fast shortstop and worked at it to become the player he was last year.
Above is Andrus’s launch angle data per Baseball Savant, representing his 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons respectively. According to a report done by Andrew Perpetua, the founder of xStats, the most valuable launch angle for batted balls is somewhere between 19 degrees and 26 degrees, and that most home runs are hit somewhere between 25 and 30 degrees. Looking at Andrus’s launch angle data from 2015, you don’t see a whole lot of batted balls above 19 degrees, in fact, that seems to be where his batted balls drop off most significantly. In 2017 however, you see spikes around 19 degrees and also around 22-23 degrees. To put it in non-degrees terms, he’s getting the ball in the air in a way that is most conducive to getting extra-base hits. One thing I’ve actually failed to mention until this point is that he didn’t just hit a career high in home runs, but he also hit a career-high 44 doubles as well last season. His 303 total bases last season was a 40% increase over his 5-year average prior.
There’s more to increasing your power numbers than just hitting the ball in the air more. Believe it or not, you can’t just simply tell batters to hit home runs. Batters have to have a different approach at the plate if they want to do things differently, and Andrus certainly has changed his approach. The following tables are from Brooks Baseball and show Andrus’s outcomes on different types of pitches. Take note of how Andrus’s swing % changed from 2013-15 to 2016-17.
His swing % increased on every single pitch, and his swing % overall has increased from 37% in 2014 to 47% in 2017. His swing percentage increased very dramatically on four-seam fastballs, a pitch that he has a lot of success against. The numbers bear out the changes he’s made as well. Last season, Andrus had an xAVG of .285, x2B of 36.6, and xHR of 16.1, all of which are close enough to convince me that he is legit, and should be expected to have a similar season again next year.
There’s one last thing that excites me for Andrus in 2018, and that’s where he’s projected to bat in the lineup. He has spent the majority of his career batting in either the 2 spot (3,165 career plate appearances) or at the bottom of the order (1,246 career PAs in spots 7-9). He does have 243 career plate appearances batting third in the lineup, 235 of them coming in 2017, and he is projected to bat 3rd for the Rangers this season. Third is an awesome spot in the lineup, you’ve got two guys in front of you who presumably can get on base at a good clip, and a number of good hitters behind you that can drive you in. If Andrus is able to remain as the number three hitter all year long, then he should be able to replicate last year’s 100 runs scored and 88 RBI. Even if Rangers manager Jeff Bannister decides he doesn’t want to bat Joey Gallo 2nd, and instead Andrus moves there, he still has plenty of opportunities to score runs. Either way, gone are the days of Andrus battling for scraps at the bottom of the order. He will be featured in the Rangers lineup, and he should be featured in yours.
The important takeaway here is that this is not a drill ladies and gentlemen, this is for real. Andrus was the most productive fantasy shortstop in 2017, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be near the top again in 2018. While I still think that the production of the top-tier shortstops will outpace him (those being Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Manny Machado, and Francisco Lindor), I think that Andrus should be firmly in the second tier alongside Alex Bregman and Corey Seager. It’s completely reasonable to expect a .290 average with 20 home runs, 100+ runs, 100+ RBI, and 25+ steals this year. Line up those stats next to what the other top shortstops have done, and I’m not sure you’d be able to definitively say Andrus isn’t equal to or better than those other guys.