We’ve updated both the shortstops and the second basemen fairly recently, so it’s time to take a look at a deep-league middle infield option. Full disclosure: I own Mark Ellis in the Blog Wars fantasy league put on by FanGraphs user/commenter MDS or Million Dollar Sleeper. So this is a completely self-serving look at whether or not I have ‘solved’ my middle infield situation. I hope you get some use out of it, hah.
First, the good news. The batting average looks safe. Not only is Ellis walking about the same as ever (8.8% 2010, 8.3% career) and striking out a little less (13.4% 2010, 15.3% career), but his BABIP is neutral as well (.309 2010, .290 career). He’s reaching a little much (29.8% 2010, 21.3% career), but making the same amount of contact overall (85.7% 2010, 85.5% career). We also have to remember that the league-wide reach rate (28.6%) is up big from last year (25.1%), so his absolute reach rate, or difference between his reach rate and the league reach rate, has gone down this year from last year. He hasn’t changed much.
The overall plate discipline package looks like one that is about average everywhere except in one spot. Ellis can make contact with pitches in the zone at an above average rate. How’s that for a niche – it should go on page one of his agent’s presentation. His zone contact percentage rate has been steadily and significantly above-average across his career, and this year is no different (96.2% zone contact, 88.1% league-wide average). With his average walk rate in hand, and above-average ability to make contact on balls in the zone, Ellis should always put up a middling batting average when his BABIP is neutral. His career numbers in those regards (.290 career BABIP, .266 career batting average) provide good sign posts as they usually do.
In our league, which sports 15 owners and 31 roster spots (including CI, MI, and five OFs), any middle infielder that starts and puts up a decent batting average is ownable. For example, the best MI available on the wire, ranked by ownership, are Yuniesky Betancourt (74 wRC+), Omar “All-Star” Infante (93 wRC+), and Adam Kennedy (84 wRC+). That’s a craptacular grab bag of mediocrity, and Ellis’ 98 wRC+ stacks up well against all of them.
On the other hand, the almost-regular Infante could put up a better batting average (.268 career, but over .293 over the past three years) even though his BABIP right now (.370) is propping up his current average. The line separating Ellis from meh waiver wire fill-in at a position (like Infante) and an actual strong pickup is populated with counting stats. Can he put up some power or speed?
Short answer: not really. His career ISO (.139) is below-average for all of the MLB (usually around .155), and would be just about average for a batting-average qualifying second baseman this year (.138). He may barely crack double-digit home runs in an average year, but probably not this year. He’s putting a career-low percentage of his balls in the air (34.7% this year, 42.1% career), and yet he’s also sporting a career-low HR/FB rate (3.8% this year, 6.9% career). But maybe his 2010 ISO (.081), which is not yet accrued in a significant-enough sample size, will regress towards his career number and allow him to crack 10 home runs.
If he was a speedster, the power would be forgivable from a fantasy standpoint. And Ellis’ last two season have produced his career-high stolen base totals (14 and 10 respectively), so maybe Ellis will actually crack double-digits in that category. His speed scores (3.3 this year, 4.7 career, 5.0 average) don’t scream ‘speed demon,’ but at least he’s successful when he goes (75%) so he should continue to put up the odd steal. He’s batting seventh, so he’ll have some chances to steal in front of poor batters, but he’s no speedster at the top of the lineup. On the other hand, the overall suckitude of the A’s lineup (11th in the AL in runs) will keep his contributions in runs and RBI down.
Still, Mark Ellis is really just a filler. In a league as deep as ours, it’s important to have at least an average major league starter in each of your positions, and Ellis can be that. His lack of upside in the counting stats, however, soften any further impact he might have.