Surprises from the Last Calendar Year

As sample-size conscious baseball fans, we are slow to trust early-season numbers. That caution is appropriate, but sometimes I wonder whether we are too attached to the idea of a separation between seasons to recognize when solid starts to the season are really just a continuation of an improved level of play that was established the previous season.

Fortunately, FanGraphs leaderboards have a really cool Past 1 Calendar Years split. In perusing those leaderboards of both hitters and pitchers, these are the names that stood out to me as players I may have been underrating.

Daniel Murphy – .292 AVG, 12 HR, 92 R, 75 RBI, 29 SB
Comparable Player: Jason Kipnis – .285 AVG, 18 HR, 89 R, 86 RBI, 28 SB

It was hard to know what to make of Daniel Murphy’s 23 stolen bases in 2012. His previous career high was 10 from the season before, and he only reached double digits once in a season in the minors. However, now that he has six steals already this season, 20+ steals seems repeatable. Combine that with a consistently high batting average—his .286 average from last season was actually his worst of the previous three years—and Murphy seems like a safe, three-category asset in the middle infield. His 6.0 percent career walk rate will probably hold the runs down a bit relative to last season, but Murphy is safely in the top 10 at second base.

Josh Donaldson – .293 AVG, 28 HR, 97 R, 94 RBI, 4 SB
Comparable Player: Evan Longoria – .274 AVG, 30 HR, 89 R, 92 RBI, 1 SB

Josh Donaldson is not exactly a surprise to see so near the top of the leaderboards after a 7.7 WAR season, but somehow the 28 home runs Donaldson has hit over the last calendar year seems so much more than the 24 he hit in 2013. Donaldson is actually in the top 20 in home runs hit over the last year across all positions and trails only Miguel Cabrera, Pedro Alvarez, and Evan Longoria at third base. His two home run deficit to Longoria is the only standard category he trails him in over that time frame. Now that his elite production has extended beyond a full season, he should join Longoria in the overall top 40 players.

Matt Dominguez – .237 AVG, 25 HR, 59 R, 79 RBI, 0 SB
Comparable Player: Justin Smoak – .241 AVG, 23 HR, 61 R, 65 RBI, 0 SB

Speaking of unexpected power at third base, Matt Dominguez has 25 home runs since this time last season. He only hit 21 a year ago, but none of them were before his two-homer day against Texas on May 11. With a bad average, no speed, and a terrible Astros lineup around him that will make runs and RBI hard to come by, he is only an option in deeper formats. However, Dominguez is one of only 30 batters with 25 home runs over the last year. He’s (8 percent owned in Yahoo) a pretty similar player to more popular corner infield options like Justin Smoak (14 percent owned in Yahoo) and Adam LaRoche (63 percent owned in Yahoo). He can make a reasonable replacement for owners looking to trade away LaRoche because of his .380 BABIP-driven hot start.

Victor Martinez – .320 AVG, 18 HR, 73 R, 86 RBI, 1 SB
Comparable Player: Joey Votto – .295 AVG, 24 HR, 96 R, 71 RBI, 6 SB

2013 was a tale of two halves for Victor Martinez. He hit .258 in the first half with a .269 BABIP and hit .361 in the second half with a .371 BABIP. This season, Martinez has continued to hit, which should really be no surprise for a player who has eclipsed a .300 average every season he’s played since 2010. Owners who are reluctant to pay for Martinez because of his lack of position eligibility should quickly reconsider. He already has seven games played at first base and two at catcher. Either way, 600 at bats of a .300-plus average does so much for your overall batting line. That makes him an asset for any team, even if he’s stuck in a utility slot.

Michael Brantley – .281 AVG, 14 HR, 68 R, 87 RBI, 21 SB
Comparable Player: Alex Rios – .288 AVG, 13 HR, 79 R, 83 RBI, 41 SB

Chad Young made the case for Michael Brantley a little more than a week ago. I think the reason I failed to internalize it is because Brantley does not stand out in any particular category. However, there is something to be said for not hurting you in any category, and as I combed the outfield leaderboards for comparable players, players without negatives are really hard to find after the top 10 or so players. Plus, Brantley really is a plus contributor in RBI and steals. He is in the top 25 in both categories over the last year.

Jonathan Lucroy – .295 AVG, 16 HR, 60 R, 75 RBI, 9 SB
Comparable Player: Buster Posey – .294 AVG, 18 HR, 65 R, 70 RBI, 2 SB

Jonathan Lucroy is similar to Daniel Murphy in that his 7.0 percent career walk rate makes him less valuable than a player like Buster Posey (9.7 percent career walk rate) in reality, but that different is felt less in fantasy in roto formats. Also like Murphy, Lucroy’s batting average is consistently high. He even added nine steals to lead all catchers over the last calendar year. It makes it difficult to justify taking Posey in a one-catcher format when you can have Lucroy 100 picks later.

C.J. Wilson – 224.1 IP, 18-9 record, 3.25 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 202 K
Comparable Player: Justin Verlander – 219.0 IP, 13-11 record, 3.70 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 205 K

On the pitcher side, year-to-year consistency is such a huge part of valuation. That is why I can look at a near 100 spot difference in rankings between pitchers like Justin Verlander and C.J. Wilson and understand and accept it. That said, I think Wilson’s consistency is being somewhat overlooked. His 3.83 ERA in 2012 was his worst as a starter, and that season also featured his worst HR/FB rate (10.8 percent) and strand rate (70.0 percent) since he made the move from the bullpen. Otherwise, Wilson has lived in the 2.80-3.40 range in ERA with 170-210 strikeouts per season.

Chris Tillman – 214.1 IP, 17-7 record, 3.74 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 188 K
Comparable Player: Homer Bailey – 212.0 IP, 12-11 record, 3.86 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 202 K

Chris Tillman does not share Wilson’s track record. Last season was the first time Tillman exceeded 15 starts in a season in the majors. However, his first full season stats were pretty good, and his numbers are eerily similar so far this year (3.80 ERA, 7.8 K/9, 3.0 BB/9 in 2014 compared to 3.71 ERA, 7.8 K/9, 3.0 BB/9 in 2013). Like with Homer Bailey, the a hitter-friendly home ballpark will scare you out of using Tillman in certain matchups, but the end-of-season numbers will likely be there. And even after Bailey’s poor start, you could trade him for Tillman-plus.

Jose Quintana – 210.1 IP, 8-9 record, 3.47 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 174 K
Comparable Player: Jordan Zimmermann – 206.1 IP, 16-9 record, 3.53 ERA, 1.20 ERA, 172 K

The White Sox always seem to find a way to create quality starters out of non-prospects and reclamation projects. Jose Quintana is the latest such find. Quintana falls short of the elite class of arms because of a strikeout rate in the low sevens per nine innings, but he has good command. His 1-2 record so far this season is worse than it should be considering his performance level, but the White Sox have been better than expected and so the wins may well come. If they do, Quintana may well become the Michael Brantley of pitchers: contributor in all categories, elite in none.



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Scott Spratt contributes to ESPN Insider as a research analyst for Baseball Info Solutions. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt


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Emcee Peepants
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Emcee Peepants

For funzies I looked at how your surprise comps stacked up using more advanced numbers since XBH, BB, and K factor into fantasy value as well (I realize you looked at typical fantasy counting stats):

Name – wOBA/wRC+
Kipnis – 364/135
Murphy – 322/107

Donaldson – 378/144
Longoria – 346/124

Dominguez – 307/93
Smoak – 337/113

Martinez – 364/129
Votto – 393/151

Brantley – 325/108
Rios – 327/101

Lucroy – 357/126
Posey – 356/132

Hungry Jack
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Hungry Jack

Tsk tsk. Using counting stats to compare players is sophomoric.

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