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Which hitters off to surprisingly good fantasy starts should we believe in?

There’s reason to believe Odubel Herrera’s breakout with the Philadelphia Phillies is for real. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

After covering pitchers earlier in the week, let’s look at some of the most surprisingly good hitters at the quarter turn. The objective is to see whether the unexpected returns are more fact than fluke. We’ll look at the most disappointing hitters the same way next week.

Odubel Herrera is the league’s leading hitter at .356 — that includes .420 on fastballs, according to MLB-stat provider Inside Edge. Further proof of his excellence on fastballs is that he’s swung and missed on just 10.3% of pitches 94 mph or greater (average is 21%). Bunts are his secret weapon — with 14 attempts trying to bunt for a hit. (Billy Hamilton leads with 39 attempts to bunt for a hit.) This is one of the reasons that he’s hitting .407 on grounders (average is .253) — if you bunt often, you can’t be shifted. Herrera’s well-hit rate is .189, well above average of .151. One of the things I look for in a quality hitter is OBP with two strikes. Herrera is .349, nearly 100 points above average. The biggest difference between this year and last year is that his chase rate has gone down across the board. Last year he was far below average in chasing early in the count and non-competitive pitches. This year he is about average. Bottom line: I believe in Herrera.

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Brandon Belt is an extreme flyball hitter now, with grounders at about half the league average. He’s the 14th most shifted hitter so not hitting grounders is a pretty good adjustment. Of course, you need power to make this work. And he’s slugging .562 and has a well-hit rate of .192. His pace is about 35 homers. I buy the power with Belt, who was on his way to about 30 bombs before getting hurt last year. But his average is going to come down below .300 for the balance of the year almost certainly given that flyball rate — his owners should sign for .280 right now.

Mitch Haniger is someone I feel stupid for missing. He had a 126 OPS+ last year and is just 27 this year. So maybe this level of production (159 OPS+) is unexpected but there was ample evidence that Haniger was a good hitter. There’s unsurprisingly no weaknesses in his profile. His location performance according to Inside Edge has no holes — he’s dangerous in every area of the strike zone. His power is up significantly, not a shock given his age. Expect 15-to-20 homers and 5-to-10 bags the rest of the way.

Michael Brantley was always a great hitter but just unhealthy. He’s very bettable for batting average, though of course he’s unlikely to keep hitting .338. He hits in a good spot and thus should continue to be productive in RBI. But there’s not a lot of category juice elsewhere. He’s basically stopped running, given his injury history. If you are struggling in average and have surplus power, trade for Brantley. And vice-versa if you own him.

Matt Davidson’s OPS has jumped over 200 points. He is 27 though, so some improvement was likely. Still, this is insane. He has 11 bombs but shut five doubles. His BABIP is only .292, about what it was last year. So there’s not a lot of downside in his average as long as he keeps hitting balls out of play (homers). Last year, Corey Dickerson had a .998 OPS at about this stage of the season and for the balance of the year it was .729. I would bet on something similar happening with Davidson, though his on-base skills will help him here. I’d sell but it’s hard to find many believers. I think he’s going to be playable in mixers, to be clear.

Nick Markakis is among the league leaders in not striking out and hitting to all fields. He’s been a poor-man’s Michael Brantley in the past, with less homers and no speed. Now he’s hitting homers. He’s not really fundamentally changed with a well-hit rate of .171 vs. .162 last year. I respect his average and not that it’s even more valuable with him leading the league in hits. Remember, surplus hits for the slot in your fantasy starting lineup is more important than surplus batting average. But I’ll be surprised if Markakis even doubles his current homer total (seven).

Jed Lowrie has been touted here consistently all year. His well-hit rate is .183. We expected he would turn more of those 49 doubles into homers. But now he’s out of whack the other way with nine of each. I’m still expecting just 20-to-25 homers. But he does seem to be sacrificing strikeouts for power. Yet his batting average is a career high. I think Lowrie is mixed-league worthy all year but this is likely a high-water mark.

Ozzie Albies was ticketed for stardom as a result of a 112 OPS+ as a 20-year-old rookie. That’s Hall of Fame trajectory stuff and here we are with him leading the league in both doubles and homers and sporting an isolated slugging (slugging average minus batting average) of over .300. Albies leads the league in total bases. The last 21-year-old to do that: Alex Rodriguez (age 20). But Albies’ well-hit rate is “only” .179. He’s pretty much a grade B hitter in the Inside Edge 24 categories. His biggest weakness is his on-base average with two strikes (.211), but the Braves hitters are very aggressive early. And to be clear, being a B-grade MLB hitter at 21 still means you are on a Hall of Fame path.

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