Fantasy baseball: Which red-hot hitters have staying power?

Tommy La Stella has tapped into power he never showed in previous seasons. Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Karabell recently broke down what's gotten into Hunter Pence over on ESPN+, which got me thinking about other out-of-nowhere hitters who've exceeded expectations early this season.

You might want to shout "juiced ball!" at all of these, but let's be fair and try to dig for the reasons they're excelling.

Plus, why not talk about some usually ignored players?

Tommy La Stella, 2B/3B, Los Angeles Angels

La Stella does mean "The Star" in Italian. Although no one expected his 10-homer start to 2019, he had a whisper of prospect allure years ago in the Braves organization, but he failed to climb higher than a platoon bench name before getting this opportunity with a club starved of infield talent.

He has already matched this season the 10 homers he hit before 2019 and, true to type, is crushing righty hurlers (.311/.374/.633, 9 HRs). The fun bonus: He has shrunk his strikeout rate to a ridiculously clean 6.6 percent while walking 9.8 percent of the time.

La Stella's launch angle (13.5) and exit velocity (89.2 mph) don't stray wildly from his norms, but thanks to swing alterations described in The Athletic, he's doing more when he lifts the ball, averaging a career-best 335-foot average fly ball distance and pelting 39.3 percent of his batted balls at least 95 mph. His 52.8 grounder percentage last season has dipped to 39 percent.

With his changes, the pull hitter is tapping into more pop as he turns 30 while enjoying a clear path to playing time. La Stella should continue occupying the heavier side of a platoon arrangement at second base -- and lead off versus righties -- and if he shows any spark against lefties, he could stay in the lineup every day. His realistic-looking growth and dual-positional eligibility should convince you to stick with him.

Expect: Perhaps the biggest power ceiling of anyone on this list, with 20-plus homers looking likely if he can accrue another 300 or so plate appearances.

Mitch Moreland, 1B, Boston Red Sox

Moreland is no stranger to the fantasy world, likely occupying your Watch List at varying times during many a season and checking in when you need a matchup play versus a right-handed pitcher. The 33-year-old's 12 homers put him on pace to top his career best of 23, which he last accomplished in 2015.

Shocker: All of his big flies have left the yard off righties. Shifts have robbed the lefty stick of many a single -- he has just 10 one-baggers to contribute to his lackluster .235 clip -- but his 2019 has been weird in many positive ways.


  • leads the Red Sox with 30 RBIs

  • is keeping career-high paces of fly ball percentage (42.4) and HR/FB (30.8 percent)

  • has cleared the opposite-field fences three times, halfway to meeting his season best

  • is averaging a career-best 94.3 mph exit velocity, tied for seventh among all batters

Many of these improvements have arrived on the back of his .300/.405/.733, four-homer May. Moreland ranks among the top 20 in hard pitches seen (62.5 percent), but he has turned them around: 10 of his dingers have come against fastballs (five each off four-seamers and sinkers, respectively).

Unfortunately, this might mean pitchers start leaning more on breaking stuff and off-speeds when facing him. He'll also grab the pine against southpaws, which caps his upside for plate appearances, and his batting average won't climb too high, thanks to his fly ball tendency.

Still, planning for him to slide into your lineup for a stretch of right-handers (weekly lineup managers must pay special attention) will counteract much of his drop-off in pace and keep him as a useful deep-league piece. After all, hitting cleanup most days for the Red Sox has its benefits.

Expect: Enhanced version of the Moreland we know and (sometimes) love.

Melky Cabrera, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates

Fun fact: The Melk Man has delivered at least 39.4 percent of his batted balls at least 95 mph in each of the past five seasons, which justifies his shocking .342 average, the league's third-best as of Wednesday morning.

The 34-year-old had to settle for a spring training invite with Pittsburgh this spring, but he has quietly been raking since last year's All-Star Break, hitting .302/.363/.458 in that second half. The switch-hitter still doesn't carry much power: Cabrera has just three homers and has never topped 18 in a season, so pleasantly surprised fantasy investors should realize that he might eventually struggle to supplement any batting average downturns with extra-base hits.

With Corey Dickerson (shoulder) possibly returning before the end of May, the Bucs might find few reasons to keep Cabrera out of the lineup if he keeps this going. Maybe they'll sell Cabrera to another club that'll keep him in the lineup a few times per week. Empty batting average can help in an increasingly strikeout-centric sport, especially average backed up by stats like his recent form.

He'd have a longer shelf life in OPS leagues that favor those who are keen on compiling doubles instead of homers.

Expect: .280 or better batting average but not much else.

Jonathan Lucroy, C, Los Angeles Angels

I guess I can't ignore catcher. The Angels gain a second entry on this list with Lucroy, who has five homers in 33 games after totaling 10 in his previous 249 in 2017-2018. He posted his highest average exit velocity (89.6 mph) and notched his best rate of contact that travels 95 mph or faster (43.5 percent).

The formerly elite fantasy backstop has benefitted from increased rest and some mechanical changes at the dish to cut his K% to 10.4. He and La Stella have been helped by joining an Angels organization that generally emphasizes contact, which played into what made him elite for several seasons.

Catchers often display more offensive prowess later in their careers, but the 32-year-old has been there, done that. Lucroy could return to at least being an occasional starter in one-catcher games.

Expect: Top-15 fantasy catcher value for the remainder of this season -- not for success in any general category but for competence across the board of offensive categories.

Derek Dietrich, 1B/2B/OF, Cincinnati Reds

Dietrich has emerged as an unlikely stalwart amidst a Reds middle infield that has remained crowded even after Scooter Gennett's groin injury prevented him from starting the season on time. The versatile lefty bat, who turns 31 in July, has lifted five homers in his past nine games and sits with career-best paces of 10.0 BB% and 18.0 K%.

Although he has been plunked for doing so, he has spent plenty of time staring at lofts: His 52.3 fly ball percentage, 18.2 percent HR/FB (on outfield flies) and 20.3-degree average launch angle are by far his top marks.

Dietrich doesn't often send pitches the opposite way, though, which when combined with his focus on aerial work will limit his batting average upside. The Reds have Jose Peraza, Jose Iglesias and Josh VanMeter waiting to take work from him against lefties, and Gennett might be back in a few weeks. The Reds eventually might have trouble finding Dietrich the extent of work he has enjoyed early on, barring an injury to a starter.

In the meantime, keep using him while he's on the card at Great American Ball Park, where his .725 slugging percentage dwarfs his extra-base upside elsewhere.

Expect: Ten or 15 home runs if he can get another 300 PA, but I'd bet he doesn't make it that far without other dominoes falling.

Jarrod Dyson, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks

With nine steals already, the 34-year-old continues to defy his age to preserve his base-stealing prowess in 2019. His 12.3 BB% since the start of 2018 helps, and his ability to beat ground balls should preserve a useful batting average.

An even bigger surprise has been his three homers in 89 at-bats. Although there's an outside shot that he's following the "Brett Gardner: aging speedster" path and adding thump as he ages, he has probably been more lucky than skillful, considering his average fly ball distance of 333.1 feet. He previously didn't post higher than 292.1 since 2013.

Enjoy the steals while he occupies leadoff against righties for the Diamondbacks, but plan on having to make up for the batted-ball success he might lose.

Expect: Ten to 20 steals, depending on playing time, with a .250-.270 clip, with maybe a double-digit-homer season as his absolute best, yet highly unlikely, outcome.

Gio Urshela, 3B, New York Yankees

Owner of a .225/.274/.315 triple slash and the deflating "gap power" scouting report heading into 2019, the 27-year-old has emerged in place of Miguel Andujar (shoulder), who's already back on the injured list and might need surgery.

Urshela has done his best to shed his former defense-first reputation by flashing more power. Yankees hitting coach Marcus Thames said Urshela is "staying in his legs a little bit more," which seems to have bolstered his leg drive. His career-best paces in average home run distance (414.8 feet) and exit velocity (91.1 mph) dwarf his 396.8 and 87.9, respectively, from his rookie 2015 season.

Of course, he has only two homers, which doesn't play well for a corner infielder in a mixed fantasy format. His .392 batting average on balls in play should retreat toward a more rational level. If Urshela's bat cools, the Yankees could save him for defensive replacements and turn to DJ LeMahieu as their primary hot corner patroller. And the Yankees might simply choose to upgrade the position through trade if Urshela cools and Andujar is lost for a long time.

Even with this legit fear, Urshela probably has discovered a new offensive floor, which could help you in a pinch in some mixed formats that value OPS, as he can still rattle off extra-base hits. While he could be a long-term asset in Scoresheet leagues, which value defense, that unfortunately can't help him in ESPN games.

Expect: Continued playing time with the run and RBI perks of a great lineup for at least the next few weeks.

Eric Sogard, 2B, Toronto Blue Jays

Like La Stella, Sogard has shrunk his strikeout rate into the single-digit percentage (9.5) and has already set a season high in homers (four). The 32-year-old's 19.4-degree average launch angle is a career best.

While playing time helps in AL-only games, Sogard doesn't appear to have changed much about his approach or technique: Although it's his best annual rate, his average exit velocity tops out at 85.5 mph. (Yes, you can say "juiced ball" here, most likely.)

As Freddy Galvis did earlier in the year for the Blue Jays, Sogard is taking advantage of time given before a prospect comes up, but Cavan Biggio might have a quicker claim to second base than the injured Bo Bichette might have, thanks to his fractured hand. Any hint of Sogard slowing down might lead to a call-up.

Expect: Another few weeks of solid play before Sogard cools and Biggio's knocking grows louder.