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Don’t change the channel with these players up to bat

Bryce Harper needs to prove his monster season of 2015 wasn’t a fluke — and we’ll all be watching him try to do so. 

The bosses gave me an impossible assignment: Write up the definitive list of players whose at-bats you can’t afford to miss.

How many players can I include on the list? Because I have one below, and I know I’m going to hear it from Rockies fans for not including Nolan Arenado and Orioles fans for not including Manny Machado and Blue Jays fans for missing Josh Donaldson and Red Sox fans for leaving off Mookie Betts. But this is my list, at least for this Tuesday. It would change if I did it again next week. I might include Corey Seager or Robinson Cano or Matt Carpenter or maybe even Bartolo Colon. In other words, it’s not definitive. But it is a group of guys I love to watch hit, and I never, ever change the channel if they’re due up.

Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds

Key attribute: Plate discipline

Stat to know: Had the seventh-lowest chase rate in 2016

There’s this perception — at least in some corners of Cincinnati — that Votto should focus more on RBIs and less on walks. In other words, he should perhaps expand his strike zone and swing more when runners are on base. This, of course, is silly and stupid. What makes Votto so valuable and so good is his ability to seek out his pitch and not chase something from the pitcher out of the strike zone. That is why he owns a .312 career average and has led the NL in OBP five times. Over the past two seasons, Votto has hit .357 and slugged .633 on pitches in the strike zone and hit .213 and slugged .300 on pitches outside the strike zone (with a .600 OBP). Why would you want him swinging at bad pitches?

Votto actually swings more often than some might think. When the pitch was in the strike zone, his swing rate in 2016 was 66.4 percent, which ranked 70th out of 146 qualified hitters. He ranked 55th in first-pitch swing percentage, at 30.4 percent (compare that to Mike Trout, who swung at the first pitch just 17.2 percent of the time). As for 2017, Votto would love to get off to better start than he has the past two seasons. In 2016, he was hitting .213 at the end of May but hit .392 the final two months. In 2015, he had an .876 OPS in the first half but hit .362/.535/.617 in the second half.

Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

Key attribute: Plate coverage

Stat to know: Led majors with .519 average with zero strikes in 2016

We know Trout is the best player in the game, even though he doesn’t hit for the highest average or hit the most home runs or steal the most bases or play the best center field. He just does everything well. His offense is kind of like that: He isn’t the best against fastballs or the best against off-speed pitches, and he doesn’t chase the fewest pitches or have one of the highest contact rates. But he has no major weakness. He used to struggle against fastballs up in the zone, but he has improved there, and sure, you can bust him up and in or low and away, but you better hit your spot. He has a consistent approach in that he doesn’t offer too often at the first pitch — and if you miss there, watch out.

Edwin Encarnacion, Cleveland Indians

Key attribute: Power

Stat to know: Second in the majors in home runs since 2012 (194, Chris Davis has 198)

Encarnacion seems to get overlooked in the power department, perhaps because he has never led his league in home runs, despite averaging 39 per season the past five years. He also doesn’t get credit for hitting his home runs a long way: He led the majors with 20 “no doubters” in 2016, according to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, five more than Mark Trumbo, Nelson Cruz or Mike Napoli hit. He’s a dead pull hitter — only three of his 42 home runs last year went to the opposite field.

The one thing I’ve liked about Encarnacion is that, until last season at least, he did this without an excessive number of strikeouts. He did strike out 138 times last year but had been under 100 the previous four seasons. He has fewer strikeouts the past five seasons than Howie Kendrick — and 149 more home runs. Of course, given that he’s now 34, the increased K rate is something to watch in 2017, as is the move away from an obvious comfort zone in Toronto. Still, he hit more home runs on the road than in Toronto the past five seasons, and Cleveland has rated as one of the better home run parks the past few seasons. I’d suggest another season approaching 40 home runs is in order.

Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers

Key attribute: Can’t outsmart him

Stat to know: Led majors with .332 average against off-speed pitches (curves/sliders/changeups/splitters) in 2016

Cabrera has hit .300 11 times in his career and has won four batting titles. He has nine seasons hitting at least .320; since World War II, only Wade Boggs and Stan Musial (10 apiece) have more. That makes him one of the best hitters for average in the past 70 years — oh, and he’s hit 446 home runs, won two home run titles and is capable of blasts such as this one:

Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs

Key attribute: Hits fly balls

Stat to know: Hit .364 with 10 home runs against the Reds in 2016

Bryant is the prototype of the new generation of sluggers, analytical in approach with a swing path that generates as many fly balls as possible. He ranked 10th in the majors in fly ball rate in 2016 (though he changed his plane a little last season, flattening it out in order to produce more contact). With his size, he obviously has enormous raw power, but he has become a dead pull slugger, with only one of his 39 home runs hit to the opposite field.

I pulled out the stat above because I believe — even after he won MVP honors — Bryant has room for even better results. He has shown great improvement from his rookie season by cutting his strikeout rate from 31 percent to 22 percent. But he did much of his damage against the little sisters of the poor in 2016, cleaning up on the Reds, Pirates and Brewers but hitting just one home run in 19 games against the Cardinals. He also hit great in low-leverage situations (1.030 OPS) and not as great in high-leverage moments (.754 OPS). In other words, he won the MVP even though he wasn’t all that clutch. If he cuts down even more on the K’s and learns to drive the ball to the opposite field, 45 home runs are possible and 50 are not out of reach.

Yoenis Cespedes, New York Mets

Key attribute: Showmanship

Stat to know: Ranked seventh in the majors in well-hit average in 2016 (.214)

Cespedes is just fun to watch, a hitter with charisma to match his production. He might never match those amazing two months he had with the Mets at the end of 2015, but he has come a long way from 2013 and 2014, when he struggled to post a .300 OBP. He doesn’t get himself out as much as he once did and is a guy who seems to thrive in the big moment: He hit .317/.442/.667 in late and close situations last season. If the general guideline is “you don’t want to miss this guy’s at-bats,” you don’t want to miss Cespedes’ at-bats because this can happen:

Daniel Murphy, Washington Nationals

Key attribute: Sprays the ball everywhere

Stat to know: Led majors in 2016 with a .517 slugging percentage with two strikes

That two-strike number is even more impressive when you learn that David Ortiz was the only other hitter to slug higher than .427. Sure, Bryce Harper is a don’t-change-the-channel guy, but I love Murphy for what I’ll call his old-school 1980s George Brett style of hitting. He isn’t trying to jack every pitch out of the park but has amazing contact ability, and you can’t shift a guy who does this:

We know about the swing changes Murphy made in 2015, adding more loft and thus the ability to turn on a pitch, which led to a career-high 25 home runs and 47 doubles to go with that .347 average. He had 77 extra-base hits and just 57 strikeouts. The last players before Murphy with at least 75 extra-base hits and fewer than 75 strikeouts were Robinson Cano and Albert Pujols in 2009. Can Murphy do it again? He’s off to a great start, with a .480 average and four extra-base hits in six games.

Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins

Key attribute: Light-tower power

Stat to know: Has 34 home runs of 450 feet since his debut, 14 more than any other player

I don’t think I need to explain this one. Nobody hits the ball as far as Stanton does.

Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

Key attribute: Hype

Stat to know: Has seen the lowest percentage of pitches in the strike zone the past two seasons

What, you didn’t think I’d leave Harper out, did you? OK, so it’s been one season for the ages book-ended by two good-not-great seasons. If you want to put a measure on fear, however, consider that even while Harper struggled last year after a big April, just 40.6 percent of the pitches he saw were in the strike zone, beating David Ortiz in this area.

In fact, while we’ve known about Harper’s power since he was a 16-year-old on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the thing that made him so good in 2015 and still valuable in 2016, even as injuries affected his numbers, was the one attribute most difficult to scout: his approach and discipline. He has drawn 232 walks the past two seasons — 35 of those intentional — because pitchers just don’t give him a lot of meaty pitches to hit.

It will be interesting to see what happens in 2017. Despite his reputation and the 42 home runs he hit in 2015, his exit velocity numbers aren’t in the same league as those of guys such as Stanton, Cruz and Cabrera. Will pitchers challenge him more often and make him show that his .330/.460/.649 season wasn’t a fluke? This is why we watch.

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