Part of the fun of Fantasy is when you "discover" a sleeper or a breakout player who gives you a performance far beyond your expectations.
If you drafted Corey Hart two seasons ago when he was coming off yet another disappointing year, you were tickled to find that you had a top 20 outfielder on your hands. You may have had a similar feeling if you drafted Nick Swisher, who unexpectedly gained value, particularly in Rotisserie leagues. Then you may have been tempted to keep or target Hart or Swisher again in 2011, but only Hart managed to maintain his productivity, at least on a per-game basis.
As gratifying as it is to nab players who outperform their draft position, it is equally agonizing to pin your hopes on someone who turns out to be a bust. In the case of Swisher, some deep digging through his stats would have revealed a sign that he was about to revert to his previous level. Swisher's 2010 surge had its roots in a .288 batting average that was 26 points above his previous career best. An unusually-high .276 average on grounders is what sent Swisher's overall batting average into uncharted territory, and there was little reason to think he could repeat it. By contrast, Hart improved by raising his home run per flyball ratio to a level just a bit higher than what he had established earlier in his career.
Swisher's example points to a way that we can identify busts and disappointments, as well as legitimate breakouts, more reliably, particularly for hitters. First, you have to ask if a player who unexpectedly surges in a particular skill area has ever approached that level before, even in the minor leagues. Then, you also have to see if the area in which the player improved is one that is often subject to random fluctuations. Swisher's heightened performance two years ago was based on an increase in his batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which is one of the components of a hitter's production that is most subject to random change. The variability of BABIP, along with Swisher's lack of precedent for a high average, makes it easier to dismiss his 2010 accomplishments. On the other hand, home run and strikeout rates are much more stable, so when a player improves in one of these areas, especially when the change is long-term and incremental, the result is much easier to trust. Also, if a player has steadily declining power and contact skills, those signs of doom should be taken seriously.
With draft and auction season upon us, now is as good a time as any to put this method to work. We will take a look at eight hitters who, because of their power, strikeout and BABIP trends, appear to be headed for a fall this season. We will also zero in on another four hitters who could cause distress for owners as a result of their stolen base production. (If you aren't in the mood for doom and gloom, don't worry. We'll focus on some surgers, too, but in an upcoming column.)
Hitters with suspect power trends
Adam Lind, 1B, Blue Jays: Just three seasons ago, Lind looked like a budding power source, clouting 35 homers along with 46 doubles. Over the last two years, Lind has become more strikeout prone, and when he does make contact, he's been making more flyball outs. Last season's rebound in home run per flyball rate (HR/FB) -- from 12 to 17 percent -- could be construed as a return towards his '09 power peak. However, ESPN's Hit Tracker categorizes half of Lind's 2011 homers as having just barely enough height and distance to make it out of the park, as compared to 23 percent of his 2009 dingers. Meanwhile, his uptick in flyouts and strikeouts has diminished his doubles totals to 32 and 16 over the last two seasons. Lind has developed a hacking, impatient approach that has not served him well. Until he changes it, don't bank on him reliving his Fantasy glory from '09.
Ryan Howard, 1B, Phillies: Sure, it's obvious to tag Howard as a bust, if for no other reason than the uncertainty around the length of his recovery from Achilles' surgery. It's also no secret that he is no longer the home run threat that he once was, but for how much longer can we count on 30 taters a season? Perhaps his last 30-homer year is already behind him. Howard's HR/FB made a slight U-turn upwards last season, but that was merely a bump after a four-year free fall. The 32-year-old has fallen to the middle rounds in early mocks, and owners should consider passing him over in favor of other options, like Freddie Freeman and Michael Cuddyer, due to the risks implied by his power trends.
Asdrubal Cabrera, SS, Indians: As mentioned above, increases in HR/FB rates are worth taking seriously, but Cabrera's was so outsized that it raises suspicion. His 12 percent rate was nearly double his previous best, and it was built on a tremendous power surge over the season's first two months. Cabrera did hit 11 of his 25 home runs after the All-Star break, but he had to jack up his flyball rate to maintain his earlier pace. An increased second-half K-rate also suggests that Cabrera got homer happy, and maybe he can maintain a 20-plus homer pace into 2012. However, if he does, he will sacrifice his batting average in the process, so one way or another, Cabrera's value should shrink this year.
J.J. Hardy, SS, Orioles: After a couple of down seasons, including one in Minnesota's power-deprived Target Field, Hardy rediscovered his home run thump from earlier years in his first go-around as an Oriole. There was nothing fishy about the 14 percent home run per flyball rate that Hardy posted last year, as that was in line with rates from his time with the Brewers. It was the number of flyballs he lofted that looked out of place. After a consistent pattern of flyball rates in the mid-30s, Hardy hit flies on 44 percent of his hit balls in 2011. Had he been building up to that level, we could trust it, but it is too out of character for us to expect a repeat. Hardy looks like a serious regression candidate and since homers are his main contribution in Fantasy, a dropoff to a total in the low 20s will knock him off the top 12 list for shortstops.
Hitters with suspect BABIP trends
Hunter Pence, OF, Phillies: This won't be the first time that I've tried to steer Fantasy owners away from overpaying for Pence, but it's a message that bears repeating at least through opening day, if not beyond. Pence has probably been a little more popular than his numbers would merit over the last few years, as he has been a consistent, reliable source of mid-range power, run and steals production. That's understandable, but last season's .314 batting average and 97 RBI have brought even more admirers. Those marks were buoyed by an increased line drive rate, which contributed to a .365 BABIP. Both line drive and BABIP rates are highly variable and could easily regress. Pence's strikeout rate, which is a much better indicator of future changes in batting average, actually rose slightly last season. Pence could decline this season, much like Swisher did last year, and it's a big risk to trust him as a No. 1 outfielder. Draft him for your No. 2 slot instead.
Alex Gordon, OF, Royals: Each of the starters from last season's Royals outfield is due for a dropoff this year, but none is likely to have a greater impact in Fantasy than Gordon's. Perhaps because he has the pedigree of a second-overall pick in the amateur draft, owners in early mock drafts have much higher expectations for Gordon than either Melky Cabrera or Jeff Francoeur. Gordon's potential for a 20-20 season is legitimate, but last season's .303 average was both uncharacteristic and apparently unsupported. Gordon did reduce his strikeout rate by three percentage points, but the improvement in batting average rested on his .361 BABIP. A rate that high is usually backed up by highly favorable line drive and popup rates, but Gordon had neither going for him. With his batting average and run production stats likely headed for deflation, Gordon could be a huge letdown for those owners reaching for him in the first five rounds. He is actually one of the less enticing options for the No. 2 outfield slot in mixed leagues.
Jon Jay, OF, Cardinals: Through his first two seasons, Jay looks like a steady .300 hitter with some decent on-base and run-scoring potential. However, his minor league batting average history is a little spottier, and a scan of his BABIP rates illustrates why. Jay has enough speed to post a high ground ball batting average, but he's not enough of a line drive hitter to post a BABIP over .340 on a regular basis, yet that is what he has done so far as a Cardinal. In his one full season in Triple-A, Jay's BABIP was just .297 and his highest rate in Double-A was .317. He could remain a .300 hitter with more frequent contact, but until he makes that leap, Jay's production in what could be his first season as a regular is likely to sag. Taking him in most mixed league formats is likely a reach.
Brandon Phillips, 2B, Reds: At the age of 26, Phillips had it all going. He had a 30-30 season with 90-plus RBI and runs, and he was an elite among second basemen. His prime years in terms of age have been marked by decline, as first his power receded, and then he ceased to be a stolen base threat. Last season, though, Phillips enjoyed a minor rebound due to his first-ever .300 batting average. He has always had good contact skills, so it may be surprising that he had never hit .300 or higher before, but a lack of line drive power has typically kept his averages mired in the .270s. Phillips finally got his line drive rate above league average last year with a 21 percent mark. Like most hitters, Phillips' rate has fluctuated, but he normally hovers in the 16 to 18 percent range. Even though his high average was supported by his batted ball profile, the longer-term track record suggests that Phillips will be back to hitting below .280 again. Given his other declining trends, it would be a mistake to treat Phillips like the top five option at second base that he was in 2011.
Hitters at risk of losing steals
Dexter Fowler, OF, Rockies: As a rookie in 2009, Fowler made good on his potential to steal bases by nabbing 27 bags in 135 games. Fantasy owners were probably expecting Fowler to take a step or two forward from there, but despite the other improvements he has made, he has gone backwards as a source of steals. Not only has Fowler managed to steal only 25 bases over the last two years combined, but he has been thrown out 17 times. That is a horrible success rate, and it shouldn't be surprising if manager Jim Tracy pulls the plug on Fowler's 20-plus attempts this season. Because of his burgeoning doubles and triples power, Fowler is a solid late-round option in Head-to-Head formats, but without the potential for 20-plus steals, he is barely viable in standard mixed Rotisserie leagues.
Angel Pagan, OF, Giants: Pagan is a strong candidate for a BABIP bounce-back, and for that reason, I had been touting him as a sleeper this year. However, a realization has made me temper my enthusiasm. Pagan had the luxury of playing for Jerry Manuel and Terry Collins with the Mets, and both managers like to run. Now with the Giants, he may not get 40-plus steal opportunities under Bruce Bochy. Granted, Bochy's reticence to go for the stolen base may have something to do with his personnel, but when he has had threats like Andres Torres and Eugenio Velez, he allowed them a relatively modest number of opportunties. With better health and a higher batting average, you might think that Pagan is due for a bonanza of stolen base chances, but with a new manager making the calls, a 30-steal season might be his ceiling.
Endy Chavez, OF, Orioles: Chavez hasn't had a 30-steal season since 2004 with the Expos, but then again, he hasn't had a chance for regular playing time since then. That could change in 2012, as he is in the running to be the Orioles' everyday left fielder. Even as a part-timer, though, Chavez has a chance to help AL-only owners with steals, but only if he has a manager who likes to run. Buck Showalter, unfortunately, is not that manager. With regular playing time, Chavez could still be a decent low-end pick-up in AL-only leagues, but he may not provide enough steals to compensate for his lack of thump.
Jason Bartlett, SS, Padres: After back-to-back seasons with poor power production and low batting averages, owners in standard mixed leagues have learned to lay off Bartlett. However, he did rank fifth among NL shortstops last year with 23 stolen bases, and that could make Bartlett look appealing in NL-only leagues, at least as a mid-round option. Bear in mind, though, that Bartlett has succeeded on only 68 percent of his steal attempts over the last two years, so his opportunities could start to dry up. Better to save him as a last-ditch option in the late rounds of your NL-only drafts.
| xFIP: Also known as Expected Fielding Independent Pitching. It is an estimate of what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based on factors that a pitcher can control, such as strikeouts, walks and flyballs. xFIP is a derivative of FIP, which was developed by Tom Tango. |
Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
GO/AO -- Ground out-fly out ratio
GB/FB -- Ground ball-fly ball ratio
Batting Average per Balls in Play (BABIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats
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