During the early and middle portions of the baseball season, if a player doesn't meet our expectations -- for good or for bad -- we can look at the meaty portion of the schedule that remains and wait for that player to regress. As we enter the final month, that's harder to do.
Instead, we start to craft stories about what happened. After all, if we shrug our shoulders and give up on trying to explain what seems unexplainable, we don't have a way to evaluate a player's future value.
This excerpt from an e-mail I received from Jay from Vancouver illustrates the phenomenon.
Yoenis Cespedes has been struggling big time. Pitchers are not throwing strikes at him yet he cannot keep the bat on his shoulders. I was counting on "(regression) to the mean" but I am not sure if I can trust him for the playoffs.
I was wondering the same thing about Cespedes, along with dozens of other players who have put forth mystifying performances in 2013. For the purposes of this column, I have winnowed that list down to eight players -- all hitters. Each of them, and many others, were suggested to me via Twitter in response to my call for the most enigmatic players of this season. I'll save the pitchers for another column and plan on revisiting some of the hitters not covered here in the not-too- distant future.
Like Jay from Vancouver, I have my own suspicions about what has gone right and wrong with certain players this year. For each hitter featured here, I have keyed in on the statistical trends that offer the most compelling basis for building a story about their season. In addition to trying to make sense of each hitter's stat line, I'll take a look ahead to see where each one should be drafted next season, barring any meaningful developments that could occur between now and then. Which, of course, they will.
Note: Season-to-date stats are current for games through Monday, Aug. 26.
Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Athletics
Story behind the numbers: It's true that Cespedes has been more prone to swing in recent weeks, and all season long he's had problems making contact with fastballs, according to the PitchFX data on BrooksBaseball.net. That's something of a concern, but owners shouldn't get too discouraged by Cespedes' 2013 numbers. He is hitting home runs at roughly the same rate he did last year, and his batting average has been sunk by an .044 BABIP on flyballs that is probably the product of bad luck, given that he doesn't appear to be lacking power. Still, Cespedes' struggles with contact and stolen base efficiency (6 for 13) make him hard to trust as a top 20 Rotisserie outfielder, like he was a year ago. Since we can't count on him for batting average or stolen bases, we shouldn't consider Cespedes to be an early-round option in any format going into next season.
2014 draft status: Middle-rounder with bounceback potential.
Albert Pujols, 1B, Angels
Story behind the numbers: Pujols is no longer a cinch for 35 homers and a .300 average, but what exactly can we expect from him? His home run-to-flyball ratio is in its third straight year of decline, but the drops hadn't been precipitous until this season. Pujols' strong second half of 2012 looked like reason enough to trust him to return first-round value this year, but there was no similar surge in this abbreviated season. Pujols is a more skilled hitter than Ryan Howard, but I see a parallel in that both experienced power decline in their early 30s, even before dealing with debilitating foot-related injuries. Like Howard a year ago, Pujols could put himself on a 30-homer pace in 2014, and unlike the Phillies' first baseman, he could raise his batting average 10 to 20 points in the process. That will leave Pujols with enough value to be worth taking in the early rounds, but he's nowhere close to being a first-rounder anymore.
2014 draft status: A top eight first baseman who could drop to the fourth or fifth round.
Prince Fielder, 1B, Tigers
Story behind the numbers: Thanks to Torii Hunter's comments earlier this month and subsequent media reports, we already have an explanation for Fielder's disappointing season: his filing for divorce, which occurred back in May. Fielder's power stats are down notably, but aside from that, the most noteworthy peripheral trend for Fielder is an 84.2 percent contact rate on pitches in the strike zone (per FanGraphs.com) that is the lowest of his career. Then again, it's not substantially worse than the 85.4 percent rate he put up in 2009 when he banged 46 home runs. It's hard to pinpoint the reason behind Fielder's 10 percent home run-to-flyball ratio, and given the lack of clear warning signs, I'm inclined to think he's just having an off year. Fielder's power numbers have generally been inconsistent (Isolated Power trend prior to this year: .213, .330, .231, .303, .209, .267, .215), so he may just be hitting his floor this season.
2014 draft status: Potential third-round steal.
Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks
Story behind the numbers: Goldschmidt has taken surprisingly, but not shockingly, bold steps of progress in his batting average and on-base percentage this year, but it's his home run total that's really turning heads. Though he still has 27 fewer at-bats than last season, he has increased his homers from 20 to 31. Goldschmidt gave us little reason to doubt his power as a prospect, especially since he continued to clobber balls when not aided by the high altitude of Missoula in the Pioneer League or the hitter-friendly parks of the California League. Last season's middling power production, relative to his position, set up diminished expectations for 2013, but there's no reason to expect Goldschmidt to hit fewer than 35 home runs next year. If his overall production suffers, it's only because he may not match a .333/.457/.684 slash line with runners in scoring position, limiting his RBI total.
2014 draft status: First-rounder.
Chase Headley, 3B, Padres
Story behind the numbers: After treating owners to 31 home runs, 115 RBI and 95 runs last season, Headley has played this year as if 2012 never happened. His home run power has evaporated, as he has regressed to being a doubles hitter who knows how to draw a walk. Worse yet, Headley is posting the worst strikeout and BABIP rates since his first full season in 2009, and a .239 batting average is the result. His season was delayed due to a broken thumb, but that injury doesn't appear to be the culprit for Headley's slide, as he was highly productive upon his return. While Headley put up a .305/.389/.537 slash line through his first 22 games, Those marks have fallen to .223/.317/.328 in 94 games since. There is no obvious explanation for Headley's woes. All that is clear is that last season looks like a crazy outlier, much like Jacoby Ellsbury's lonely 2011 power spurt. Unlike Ellsbury, at least Headley had a precedent for home run power in the minors, and he's also hit for decent power from the right side (four home runs in 131 at-bats, .183 Iso) this year, so I wouldn't rule out a rebound. I just won't bet an early-round pick on it.
2014 draft status: Middle-rounder.
Jean Segura, SS, Brewers
Story behind the numbers: Segura's story is a particularly confusing one, as he has appeared to be a completely different player since late June. Through his first 71 games, Segura had hit .336 with 11 home runs and 22 stolen bases in 23 tries. In 55 games since then, Segura's batting average is a mere .266, and he's hit one lone homer while nabbing 16 bags and getting caught seven times. Going forward this year and into next, we can expect greater base-stealing efficiency from Segura, but otherwise, his track record over the last two months is probably a better indicator of future performance than the first two-plus months. As Segura climbed the ladder in the Angels' system, he put up good, but not great, batting averages at the higher levels, despite his speed and strong contact skills. Aside from his early-season homer binge, Segura's never been much of a power source, and nine of his 12 home runs this year have been categorized by ESPN's Home Run Tracker as having "just enough" distance. Next year, Segura may have more in common with Alcides Escobar or Emilio Bonifacio than, say, Jason Kipnis.
2014 draft status: Could be drafted as an early rounder, though shouldn't be taken prior to the middle rounds, and may only provide a late-round return.
Starlin Castro, SS, Cubs
Story behind the numbers: While Castro looked like a long shot to have a 20-20 season coming into this year, he did appear to offer Fantasy owners a nice speed-power combination along with the potential for a .300 batting average. Neither the speed nor power has materialized this season, and with 20-20 hindsight (seriously, I just noticed the pun while editing), we can now see a few warning signs that emerged in 2012. According to FanGraphs.com, Castro's swinging strike and contact rates took a turn for the worse a year ago, and he's had even more difficulty making contact this season. Even more striking is the lack of stolen base efficiency that Castro has shown, and last season's 66 percent rate should have clued us in to the problems he has had on the basepaths this year, having been thrown out six times in just 14 attempts. While in his first two seasons, Castro showed that he is capable of hitting for average and some power, the last two years should caution us against hoping for those outcomes. A .260ish average with 10 homers and 10 steals might be a more realistic expectation.
2014 draft status: Middle-rounder with some upside potential.
Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Giants
Story behind the numbers: Prior to this year, Sandoval had already established a pattern of inconsistency, bobbing between seasons with near-elite-level power and merely moderate power. Sandoval was on course for a moderate-power campaign through the first quarter of the season, as he compiled a .172 Isolated Power through May 17. He notched only one extra-base hit over his next 16 games and then went on the disabled list with a strained tendon in his foot. Sandoval has been nagged by foot and back injuries for much of the season, but he showed earlier on that he is still capable of hitting for power when healthy. Given that Sandoval hasn't played more than 117 games in any of the previous two seasons, he's a risk to draft next year, even though he still has 25-homer potential.
2014 draft status: Injury-risk flyer to gamble on in the late rounds.
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