Is It Legit?: Triston Casas, Chas McCormick, Dane Dunning

Will these hot streaks last for the entire second half?

We’re three weeks past the All-Star break and firmly into the second half of the season. It’s a great time for us to dive into the players who have rocketed off to incredible second-half starts to see if we can identify which of them will keep things up over the final two months and which will regress to their usual production levels shortly.

Today we have two hot position players and one starting pitcher to take a look at, so let’s dive in.

Triston Casas, 1B, Boston Red Sox

Up first is the Red Sox’ young first baseman, Triston Casas. He made his MLB debut last September and slashed .197/.358/.408 in 95 plate appearances. The low batting average left a lot to be desired, but his 20% walk rate hinted at the plate discipline skill he carried in his profile.

Now in his first full season at the big league level, Casas has started looking more and more comfortable as the season’s progressed. He was even named the AL Rookie of the Month for July.

Casas’ season-long batting line is looking strong at .251/.353/.479, and it seems like he’s only growing more confident. In a recent interview, Casas noted that he couldn’t quite put his finger on when he started feeling comfortable, but as he’s gotten more opportunities he’s felt better and better at the plate.

“I think its just been a steady progression for sure, I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started to feel more comfortable. But I think as every at-bat has gone on, I’ve felt more and more comfortable at the plate. Things are starting to slow down. I’m starting to get a better awareness of my barrel, trying to get a better feel for my timing, as well.”

Digging into the underlying metrics, the biggest thing that jumps off the page when looking at Casas is that his batted ball profile has continually improved, allowing him to generate more power. In 317 Triple-A plate appearances last year, Casas posted a 32.8% flyball rate. That number rose to 35.8% during his cup of coffee with the big league club in 2022 and is now up to 43.2% this year.

When you combine hitting the ball in the air more often with hitting the ball hard as Casas does, you’re going to start getting really strong results. Each of his average exit velocity, max exit velocity, hard-hit rate, barrel rate, xWOBA, and xSLG are all in the 80th percentile or higher. That’s a recipe for success if I’ve ever seen one. Not only have those statistics looked strong in the season-long line, but they’ve continued to climb recently. Take a look at Casas’ rolling sweet spot rate:

Casas has 17 home runs so far, and eight of them have come since the All-Star break. That’s right in line with where you see that sweet-spot rate peaking on the chart above.

One of my favorite power metrics isn’t just average exit velocity, but flyball exit velocity. I want to know that the balls that are being put in the air are actually being hit well because if they’re not, they’re almost automatic outs. Casas’ exit velocity on fly balls this year is 91.9 mph, a mark that puts him in the 91st percentile of hitters.

Verdict: Legit. Casas carried lots of prospect hype before his debut, and he’s delivering on it. I love seeing the growth from him as the season has worn on, and it’ll be exciting to see how he can finish out his first full season of MLB action. The first week of August hasn’t been as kind to him as July was, but if he can even come close to replicating the results from the last two months, we could see him finish with around 25 home runs and 70 RBI. He’ll be a fun one to target in drafts next spring, and if your league’s trade deadline hasn’t passed yet, he’d be fun to roster the rest of this year too.

Chas McCormick, OF, Houston Astros

It’s been a tough year on the injury front for the Astros with Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez missing large chunks of the season, and Michael Brantley still hasn’t made his season debut. The team has weathered the storm well and is in the heat of the AL West race largely due to role players stepping up and filling in admirably, and no one has done that better than Chas McCormick.

Through 286 plate appearances this year, the 28-year-old outfielder is slashing .275/.368/.522 with 15 home runs, 39 runs, 47 RBI, and 12 stolen bases. Impressively nearly every single one of those stats is a career-best mark for McCormick, including the home runs and stolen bases, despite the fact that we still have about two months of games to play. He’s truly flown under the radar with just how good he’s been. Among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances, McCormick’s 146 wRC+ is the 11th-highest mark among all hitters. Not just AL hitters. Not just outfielders. He’s been one of the best hitters in all of baseball, especially recently.

Since the All-Star break McCormick’s numbers are even better. His slash line is .319/.438/.667 over that time, and the Astros have rewarded his efforts with everyday at-bats. He’s started all but one of the club’s last 26 games.

My first thought when seeing McCormick’s success was that he was taking advantage of the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid Park, a la peak Alex Bregman, pulling cheap shots just enough to clear the fences. Looking through his 15 home runs, that actually isn’t the case. You could classify one, maybe two, of his homers that way, but overall the power jump isn’t just due to his home park.

McCormick’s cut his groundball rate and raised his flyball rate significantly this season. He moved the groundball rate from 43.1% last year to 37.3% this year and upped his flyball rate from 35.1% to 41%. McCormick is doing more than just hitting the ball in the air more often, he’s also getting more of his flyballs out of the park. He’s bumped up his barrel rate just over two points to 12.4% and that’s helped him get to a career-best HR/FB rate of 22.1%, a six-point jump from where it was in 2022.

PLV is a big fan of McCormick’s power improvements, grading him as a 65-power hitter on the 20-80 scale. Take a look at how his performance has only improved:

Perhaps the biggest step forward this year for McCormick has been his ability to hit sliders. It’s a pitch that’s always given him fits, but he’s demolishing the breaking ball this season. Here’s how he’s fared against the pitch over the years:

McCormick has been the benefactor of some batted-ball luck this year. His BABIP is at a career-best .346, and he’s outperformed his Statcast X stats throughout the season despite the fact his strikeout rate is up a few points to 28%. Usually an increase in strikeout rate, especially as you approach the dreaded-30% threshold can be deadly for a hitter, but McCormick’s managed to turn in the best season of his career.

Verdict: Legit. I really went into writing about McCormick with the idea that under the hood things wouldn’t point to him continuing this hot streak, but I’m kind of sold on him being an above-average hitter now. I wouldn’t bet that he’ll finish the season with a wRC+ in the top-15 of all hitters as he has right now, but he has plenty of room to regress and still be a helpful part of both the Astros’ lineup and a member of your fantasy team. In standard redraft leagues, I don’t see any reason to sell high on McCormick at the moment, so if you have him I’d ride this out. He should be able to keep the good times going the rest of the way, especially as part of one of baseball’s best lineups.

Dane Dunning, SP, Texas Rangers

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the year has been Dane Dunning. The Rangers’ revamp of their rotation last offseason pushed the 28-year-old righty to the bullpen to start the year, but injuries necessitated his transition back to a starter in early May, and he’s been phenomenal ever since. In his 16 starts this year, Dunning is 7-4 with a 3.43 ERA and 1.21 WHIP – pretty great numbers for a pitcher who entered the year with a career 4.43 ERA and 1.40 WHIP.

A quick glance at Dunning’s player page shows you some troubling signs. His 17% strikeout rate has dropped four straight seasons to a new career-low. He’s been fortunate with batted balls allowing just a .264 BABIP to opposing hitters. His 78.3% LOB% isn’t unsustainably high, but it is over five points above his career mark prior to 2023. Those three statistics immediately scream not legit, but let’s dive a bit deeper and see if we can find anything else that could show us why Dunning is enjoying the best season of his career.

Dunning has made some changes to his pitch mix this year, dropping the usage of his sinker, slider, and changeup while boosting his cutter usage by 10 percent and starting to sparingly toss his four-seamer and curveball just a bit.

Focusing more on his cutter has been a good change for Dunning – PLV grades it as his best pitch. Dunning’s cutter has earned him just a 26.5% CSW%, but hitters haven’t been able to hit the pitch very well. Opposing batters have posted just a .191 BA and .242 wOBA against the pitch. PLA views Dunning’s offering as the 25th-best cutter in baseball with a 2.90 PLA.

That’s all well and good for Dunning, but having a good cutter to go along with five other average or worse pitches is only going to get you so far. Here’s how his entire arsenal grades out:

Looking at Dunning’s velocity and spin rates doesn’t reveal a whole lot. He’s throwing about 1-2 mph faster across the board, but for reference, that means he’s topping out around 91 mph instead of 89 mph. His pitch shapes are about the same, save for his slider. He’s reworked it and added about 300 rpm to the pitch, adding vertical break but cutting horizontal break, and it’s getting better results. He allowed a .292 wOBA against the slider last year and a .240 wOBA against it this year, although if you look at Statcast’s X stats, the xWOBA has actually gotten worse.

Now let’s take a look at Dunning’s batted ball profile. Before this season, Dunning was a prolific groundball pitcher. In 2021 and 2022, Dunning posted a combined groundball rate of 53.6%; that’s the fourth-highest mark among pitchers with at least 250 innings pitched in those two seasons.

The Rangers have one of the best defensive infields in baseball. They rank fifth as a team in infield Outs Above Average. You’d think with Dunning’s success, he’d be leaning into his groundball tendencies more than ever, right? Wrong. Dunning’s groundball rate has fallen to 47.7%, still good for the 77th percentile of pitchers, but a far cry from a number that was near the top of the league. With fewer groundballs, Dunning’s seen increases in each of his line drive, flyball, and infield flyball rates. More pop-ups are good, but more line drives and fly balls are not. On the plus side, Dunning’s HR/FB rate is at a career-low 9.6%.

Verdict: Not Legit. There’s some good and some bad across the board for Dunning, but the bottom line is that nothing he’s doing differently this year points to him finding a new level of success. The results on the field are what count for your fantasy team, not these peripheral numbers I just dove into, so while I think regression is on the way, I wouldn’t blame you for streaming Dunning in good matchups while this hot streak lasts. Just don’t get too comfortable with him as a reliable part of your team, because it seems like these good times won’t hold out the rest of the way.

Featured image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Mark Steubinger

Mark loves everything talking and writing about baseball - from every fantasy league format you can imagine to the unending greatness of Mike Trout. Mark has a degree in Sports Communication from Bradley University and works in radio production. He lives in central Illinois where his TV is permanently tuned to Chicago Cubs games.

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