Looking For the Next Ben Zobrist

Finding diamonds in the rough is *the* goal for fantasy owners. Top 100 prospect lists can give you an idea of which young players are up and coming. I am not going to be looking at players experts have been writing about. Instead, I am going to look for non-prospect position players who have a chance to contribute in the majors if given a chance. Your diamonds in the rough.

To help me find these players, I have created a metric which looks for traits which may not get the most notice by the ranking services. Here are the criteria I used to filter the players:

Age: I really didn’t want to consider age at all, but I did set a limit to age 27. Hitters can seem to come out of no where to produce at the major league level (see Jose Bautista), but there are career minor leaguers mashing away in Triple-A at 30 that we aren’t as interested in. No shiny 21-year-olds will make this list on the low end anyway, they usually make a prospect list. As a result, not all the players identified by the search will be 25 or older, but most will be a little older than usual.

Prospect Status: None of the players have ever been ranked in the overall top 100 players by Baseball America at anytime during their careers. I am looking for players that are completely off the radar.

Position: I am not considering first basemen and designated hitters. Plenty of major league players can probably move over and fill in at first base better than these fringy non-prospects. In 2012, the second- and third-best players by my final metric were Clint Robinson (Dodgers) and David Cooper (Indians). Both are basically all bat, no field players. But they probably won’t get a chance to play because their teams — new and old, since they’ve both been on the move recently — can usually find a veteran to move over to first base. Basically, I am looking for players with at least some position flexibility.

Plate Discipline: Walking and not striking out are both highly valued by the metric. Both metrics stabilize quickly, which make them relevant with a small sample set. Additionally with the walk rates, I removed the unintentional ones. Most of the players who have come out of no where in the past got quite a bit of their value from taking the free pass. Ben Zobrist was not a prospect while in the minors with Houston and Tampa. In three Triple-A seasons, he had a walk rate of 15.2% and strikeout rate of 14.1%. He didn’t get a major league job until his age-27 season, when he started to develop more power. The next season he came out of no where and accumulated 8.5 WAR in his first full season (at 28 years old).

Power: In addition to the plate discipline, power was a huge part of the query. All of the batting practice heroes have been noticed by the scouts already. The players I am looking for have doubles power and/or were late in generating their home run power. I counted all extra base hits the same (double = triple = home run). Each minor league park and league has a variety of scoring factors, so I wanted to simplify the data. I wanted see if the player could hit for power, but didn’t want to give too much credit to home runs which would be deep fly balls in certain parks.

Shane Victorino was one player whose power was hidden in the minors. In fact, it stayed hidden until his age-23 and 24 seasons.

Age: ISO, BB%, K%
22: 0.101, 6.2%, 13.6%
23: 0.193, 5.7%, 18.7%
24: 0.224, 8.8%, 13.2%

Additionally, he didn’t get a major league chance until he developed some plate discipline during his age-24 season.

High minors: Finally, the players needed to be close to the majors. Performance against players who are close to being major leaguers is more believable, statistically, so I only looked at the player’s performance in Double-A and Triple-A. I weighted Triple-A stats more than Double-A values because of the increased talent level at Triple-A.

Basically, I went looking for old, untouted, close to the majors hitters who have good plate discipline, can hit for some power and play somewhere besides first base. I went ahead and created a metric to look for these non-respected players and I will call it ZOBRIST.  Right now I have no acronym for it, but no player embodies what I am looking for in these players than Mr. Zobrist. Well, almost nobody.

In 2011, a 25-year-old third basemen had the league’s second highest ZOBRIST value with a 16% BB%, 13% K% and 45 extra-base hits in 535 plate appearances in the minor leagues. While the player didn’t have a great amount of power, his plate discipline got him a small call up. In 2012, he was a part-time major leaguer and generated about one and a half WAR. In 2013, he completely broke out, hitting .318 and leading the league in runs scored at 126. As you have probably guessed by now, the player is Matt Carpenter.

Carpenter was ranked the 19th most valueable player according to our end of season rankings. He was barely picked up on draft day (250th ADP at FantasyPros), but was a second-round talent by the end of the season.

Well, finally, here are the top-ranked players and little information about each.

Note:  On ZOBRIST, a value over 100 is a hitter with the traits of someone who broke out of nowhere in the past.

Top 10 2013 ZOBRIST values (min. 100 PA in Double-A and Triple-A)

Name Position Team Age ZOBRIST total_PA
Kole Calhoun OF Angels 25 151 274
Cole Figueroa 2B/3B Rays 27 151 533
Eric Campbell 1B/3B/OF Mets 27 147 425
Mike O’Neill OF Cardinals 26 135 567
Dean Anna 2B/SS Yankees 27 131 582
L.J. Hoes 2B/OF Astros 23 104 430
Marcus Semien SS White Sox 22 98 625
Steve Clevenger C Orioles 27 96 143
Scott Van Slyke OF Dodgers 26 84 263
Ty Kelly 2B/3B Mariners 25 84 595

Kole Calhoun (projected wRC+, Steamer: 121, Oliver: 120): I have too much of a love affair with Calhoun and my opinion on how great a fantasy sleeper he is can be read in this previous Rotographs article.

Cole Figueroa (projected wRC+, Steamer: 96, Oliver: 85): Figueroa’s value is coming from his non-existent strikeout rate (5.6%). His main issue looks to be opportunity. The Rays have a full time third baseman, Longoria, at Figueroa’s main position. His best chance may be turning into Zobrist-lite since he played at second, short, third and in the outfield in Triple-A last season.

Eric Campbell (projected wRC+, Steamer: 102, Oliver: 102): Campbell projects to be an above average hitter for a team which is desperate for outfielders. Campbell has played all four corner spots (first, third, and left and right field), so he has several options. He isn’t going to push David Wright off third and his bat isn’t good enough for first, so if he makes the Mets out of spring training, it will be in the outfield.

Mike O’Neill (projected wRC+, Steamer: 111, Oliver: 110): Carson Cistulli noticed O’Neil’s insane walk rate early in the 2013 season. O’Neill has a couple of issues going against him. He currently doesn’t have any power. Also, the Cardinals have a full outfield with Holliday, Jay, Bourjos and eventually Taveras. His his near-two walk-to-strikeout rate supported his high ZOBRIST value, but O’Neill looks like he will be searching for both opportunity and a power stroke.

Dean Anna (projected wRC+, Steamer: 96, Oliver: 88): Here is a player I like quite a bit going into 2013. He was recently traded by the Padres to the Yankees. From various reports, he defense is a little iffy, but he can play either second or short. His power is respectable and his BB/K almost reached one the last couple of seasons. Additionally, he looks to have a decent opportunity for playing time with Yankees. They don’t have a reliable second baseman (Brian Roberts). Additionally, I doubt Jeter can make it through an entire season without seeing the disabled list. He is even a possibility at third now that A-Rod is suspended. He is projected to preform as good or better than all the Yankee middle infield options including Jeter.

L.J. Hoes (projected wRC+, Steamer: 100, Oliver: 94): Hoes projects to be the Astros 2014 starting right fielder after playing in 46 MLB games in 2013. The one issue I seem to have with him is he doesn’t really stick out in any way. Slightly above average batting average. Below average power. Okay speed. Average defense. Above average walk rate. Below average strikeout rate. If he could just improve one of the attributes, his value would jump.

Marcus Semien (projected wRC+, Steamer: 95, Oliver: 89): Semien is one of the younger players I will examine. Over all levels in 2013, he hit 21 home runs and stole 26 bases. As he moved from Double-A to the majors his walk rate dropped (17% to 1%) and his strikeout rate shot up (14% to 31%). It might be nice for the White Sox to give him a little more time in Triple-A to improve before before promoting him to the majors again.  Additionally, it looks like Semien could be competing with Jake Elmore (see below) for the Triple-A shortstop job.

Steve Clevenger (projected wRC+, Steamer: 86, Oliver: 87): Clevenger has gotten four MLB call ups from which he has produced very little. He was a little weak in the power department, but was able to have a BB% that was bigger than his K% while in the minors. His plate discipline has not translated to the majors yet.

Scott Van Slyke (projected wRC+, Steamer: 111, Oliver: 109): The young Van Slyke really needs a change of scenery. Right now, the  four other Dodger outfielders project to outperform Van Slyke. He may only see playing time in order to give a rest to some of the left-handed bats against tough left-handed pitchers. If he happens to get traded, look for his value to jump.

Ty Kelly (projected wRC+, Steamer: 94, Oliver: 91): Kelly’s walk rate is be fueling his value. His main problem will be opportunity, as the Mariners have a plethora of middle infielders.

Besides just looking at the 2013 leaders, here are the 2012 leaders. These players may have already got a foot hold with a MLB team and are ready to take the next step.

Top 2012 ZOBRIST values (min 100 PA in Double- and Triple-A)

Name Position Team Age ZOBRIST total_PA
Jake Elmore 2B White Sox 25 181 511
Clint Robinson 1B/DH Dodgers 27 166 570
David Cooper 1B Indians 25 157 304
J.B. Shuck OF Angels 25 123 358
Corban Joseph 2B Yankees 23 122 488
Johnny Giavotella 2B Royals 24 122 418
Chris Coghlan 2B/OF Unsigned 27 120 368
Scott Van Slyke OF Dodgers 25 118 411
Cole Figueroa 2B/3B Rays 25 113 452
Eric Sogard 2B Athletics (AAA) 26 105 180

Jake Elmore (projected wRC+, Steamer: 89, Oliver: 91): Recently, Elmore was claimed off waivers by the White Sox after playing in the Astros organization in 2013. In 136 MLB plate appearances, he had a nice 10% BB% and was able to hit a couple of home runs while playing shortstop. He looks like he will be competing with Marcus Semien (see above) for the Triple-A shortstop position.

Clint Robinson (projected wRC+, Steamer:99, Oliver:85): Basically a full time DH because of defensive limitations.

David Cooper (projected wRC+, Steamer: 114, Oliver: 105): Like Robinson above, he is basically a full time DH because of defensive limitations.

J.B. Shuck (projected wRC+, Steamer: 96, Oliver: 91): Shuck got his chance in 2013 because of injuries to the Angels outfield. He was able to hit .293 in 478 PA. Also he had a few stolen bases (eight) and a couple home runs. Right now, he is the fourth outfielder with Kole Calhoun (see above) as the person he would likely replace.

Corban Joseph (projected wRC+, Steamer: 94, Oliver: 98): Joseph did get a short 2013 call up. His 2013 season was not as good as his 2012 season because of the triple whammy of fewer walks, more strikeouts and a lower batting average on balls in play. Joseph and Dean Anna (see above) both will be waiting for an opening on the Yankees MLB roster.

Johnny Giavotella (projected wRC+, Steamer: 98, Oliver: 81): I think Giavotella’s chance to make the Royals has passed and he will need to go to another team. While he hit for power and displayed plate discipline in the minors, his MLB stints have been a disaster. He has hit .240/.278/.335 with a nearly four strikeouts for every walk. His defense at second is definitely below league average which is also limiting his chances.

Chris Coghlan (projected wRC+, Steamer: 89, Oliver: 80): Coghlan just could never put together another season like his rookie campaign in 2009. He signed with the Cubs and could challenge for a reserve spot on the team with a good spring.

Scott Van Slyke (projected wRC+, Steamer: 111, Oliver: 109): see above

Cole Figueroa (projected wRC+, Steamer: 96, Oliver: 85): see above

Eric Sogard (projected wRC+, Steamer: 95, Oliver: 96): Eric just hasn’t been able to get his major league stats close to his minor league values. Right now he looks to have lost much of his playing time with the recent addition of Nick Punto.

Overall, a few names stick out to really watch in 2013. Kole Calhoun is the cream of the crop and should be drafted in pretty much all formats. Next would be L.J. Hoes, not based as much on his talent, but on the opportunity as a regular starting player. In the next tier down, most of the players are blocked by an MLB regular, but the talent could find its way to the majors. I would include Scott Van Slyke, Dean Anna, Marcus Semien and Mike O’Neill in this list. Digging deep for possible breakout players will lead to many misses, but you need to take these kinds of chances in order to get the next Ben Zobrist or Matt Carpenter.

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Jeff writes for FanGraphs, The Hardball Times and Royals Review, as well as his own website, Baseball Heat Maps with his brother Darrell. In tandem with Bill Petti, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.
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1 year 7 months ago

Might want to adjust Mike O’Neill’s paragraph just a touch, the outfield is a little less crowded than you allege.