Archive for December, 2008

Should We Keep Tabs on Jed Lowrie?

A supplemental first-round pick out of Stanford in 2005, Jed Lowrie had a disappointing season in the Hi-A Carolina League in 2006 and fell off the radar for most people. Even after a 2007 season in which he hit for average and power split between Double-A and Triple-A, he was not considered an impact player. Baseball America rated him as only the 73rd-best prospect coming into 2008.

But injuries at the major league level gave Lowrie a shot at regular playing time in Boston last year and he held his own in his first exposure to the big leagues. In late August, Lowrie had a .296/.366/.469 line after his first 52 games and 188 plate appearances. But a September swoon, perhaps as teams adjusted their scouting reports, dragged down his final numbers.

Lowrie was a shortstop in college and the minors but found himself switching between there and third base for the Red Sox in 2008, depending upon who was hurt at that time. As a shortstop, he batted .272/.360/.424 in 187 PA while as a 3B he posted a .239/.318/.359 line in 108 PA.

Now, those numbers are too small of a sample to draw any big conclusions from, but it should not surprise anyone that he hit better while playing at his natural position.

The Red Sox have Julio Lugo as their incumbent shortstop and the veteran is owed $18 million over the next two years. However, Lowrie in his brief stint showed strong signs of handling the position defensively, with a UZR/150 of 21 compared to -1.6 for Lugo.

Lowrie showed excellent patience at the plate and drew walks at an 11.9 percent rate. But his strikeout rate was unacceptable at 26.2 percent. Lowrie smacked a lot of line drives, which helped him to a .342 BABIP. He also piled up the line drives and high BABIP in the minors. It’s a nice package if Lowrie can get his strikeout rate down to 20 percent or lower.

Lowrie’s fantasy value is dependent on Boston trading Lugo elsewhere. He showed enough in 2008 for the club to consider the possibility but probably not enough to make it a priority.

Unless the Red Sox trade Lugo prior to the start of the season, Lowrie is not worth drafting in mixed leagues and is at best a late-round lottery ticket in AL-only leagues. But there is enough talent there that he merits following and he is someone who could provide solid production at a weak position if given a shot at the full-time job.


Avoid the Riot

Ryan Theriot had a surprisingly good season, both in real and fantasy baseball. He hit a somewhat impressive .307/.387/.359, striking out 15 times less than he walked and stealing 22 bases (granted, he was caught 13 times). However, his season was fueled by an unsustainably high batting average, and if that BA regresses next season, he could hurt your fantasy team.

Theriot’s BABIP was .335 this year; however, his expected BABIP was a mere .291 (according to a new model I introduced). If we adjust his batting average to be in line with his expected BABIP, his BA falls all the way to .267. Considering that Theriot hits for virtually no power and drives in very few runs, this drop in BA would have a huge impact on his overall value.

The lower BA would result in a lower OBP, which would lead to fewer runs scored and fewer opportunities to steal bases. Additionally, Theriot was downright awful at stealing bases in 2008, getting caught in 37% of his attempts. Unless he improves upon this, it’s possible that the Cubs will become more reluctant to let him steal, depressing his stolen base total even further.

There is little evidence to suggest that the BABIP information about Theriot is incorrect. His career batting average in the minors was .271; his BABIP in the minors was .309. There’s no reason to think that either of these things has suddenly improved significantly, and there’s no reason to think that Theriot can consistently beat his expected BABIP (for reference, in 2007 his actual BABIP was .283 and his expected BABIP was .311).

Considering that nearly all of Theriot’s value revolves around his inflated batting average, it would be a good idea to avoid him in most fantasy drafts next season. That’s not to say he’ll be entirely without value, but just make sure you value him as a ~.270 hitter who may not even reach last year’s SB total, rather than a ~.310 hitter with the chance to surpass 30 steals.


Home Cooking and Bobby Abreu

Bobby Abreu has long been a fantasy favorite due to his ability to provide help in all five categories. Who can’t use 22 SB from a guy posting a .296-20-100-100 line, like Abreu did last year?

But it’s a trying time for Abreu in real life, as he finds himself a free agent with very limited options. He is competing for a roster spot with better and/or younger players in Manny Ramirez, Adam Dunn and Pat Burrell. Garret Anderson and Ken Griffey are also on the market.

Abreu will sign somewhere eventually but fantasy owners still need to be a bit wary that he will remain an impact player. The reason for caution is that the past two seasons, Abreu has been a great hitter in Yankee Stadium and just a run-of-the-mill hitter in away parks.

H – .318-24-111-122-25
R – .260-12-90-101-22

It’s very common for players to hit better in their home parks but 58 points of AVG and twice as many HRs is enjoying home cooking more than most. Is that something Abreu can carry to his next home park?

There’s nothing particularly troubling in Abreu’s batting profile. He doesn’t walk as much as he used to but neither does he fan at similar rates that he did in the past. Abreu is still a line drive machine and he regularly features a robust BABIP. Last year’s mark of .333 was actually beneath his career .352 in the category.

Abreu will turn 35 before the start of the season and is at the age where players can fall off a cliff at any time. He should still be a productive fantasy hitter in 2009, but likely at a rate noticeably below what he’s done the past few years in the Bronx.


Strategy Session – Patience is a Virtue

The season is long. Players go through peaks and slumps. BE PATIENT.

Too many times fantasy players get worried or frustrated and make stupid decisions. For example, last season I traded Adam Wainwright for CC Sabathia, straight up, in April. Wainwright was pitching well and I had high hopes for him, but CC was CC, even though he had been terrible. CC’s owner panicked and dealt him for a solid pitcher, but I was able to take advantage and Sabathia pitched extremely well for me during the rest of the season.

Of course, this is a rather dramatic example. Often times, the more telling examples are knowing when to drop decent players who are in slumps, or knowing when to pick up mediocre players who are hitting well. In general, the best piece of advice is to ignore how a player has performed over the last few weeks, and instead focus on how they have performed over the last few years, as this is a far better predictor of future performance. Bad players can be very good over a few weeks or months, and great players can be very bad. Occasionally a player will come out of nowhere to have a fantastic season – Ryan Ludwick, for example – but this is the exception, rather than the rule. You may miss out on Ryan Ludwick, but it’s worth it to avoid the flash-in-the-pan guys who will fizzle the instant you add them to your roster.

Similarly, there are certainly players who go through season-long funks – like Nick Swisher – but most of the time people with established track records bounce back in the midst of what appears to be a disappointing season. For example, AJ Burnett had a 5.42 ERA on June 19. Many people may have dumped him at that point – but smart players understood that his peripherals were still good (90/46 K/BB ratio in 91 innings), and that Burnett had a track record of success. Owners who held on to Burnett were rewarded, as he had a 3.12 ERA (and 141 strikeouts) over the rest of the season.

When in doubt, defer to a player’s established track record, not their most recent success or failure. And read Rotographs, as we’ll attempt to help you decipher whether a player’s recent play represents a true never level of ability (for better or worse), or is just the fluke of a small sample size.


Corey Patterson? Really?

Hear me out.

Yeah, I know. Corey Patterson redefined the word awful last year. He was abysmal. Atrocious. Embarrassing. But you should still keep a close eye on him in 2009.

Patterson is a unique player: he is much better in fantasy baseball than he is in real life, thanks to his combination of power, speed, and lack of OBP. Last season, Patterson hit a disastrous .205/.238/.344 in 366 at bats for the Reds, but still somehow managed to hit 10 homers and steal 14 bases. Of course, these homer and SB totals do not justify the terrible batting average. But there is hope for the future.

Patterson’s expected BABIP last year (according to a new model I introduced [http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/batters-and-babip/]) was .262. His actual BABIP was a mere .210. The ~24% difference between expected and actual BABIP was the second-highest difference of all qualifying players (behind only Brandon Inge). If we credit Patterson for his “lost” hits, his overall batting average rises to .248. Still not great, but certainly far more palatable than .205.

Interestingly, Patterson’s walk rate in 2008 was right in line with his career rate (granted, that career rate is terribly low, but still), and his strikeout rate was almost 7% below his career average. His line-drive/ground ball/fly ball splits were well within reason and nothing else seems very strange about his season. Furthermore, he was 28 for most of the year (he turned 29 in August), suggesting that age-related decline is unlikely. It appears that Patterson simply suffered from a tremendous amount of bad luck.

If that is indeed the case, it follows that Patterson is likely to bounce back from it in 2009. Or, stated more accurately, Patterson’s poor 2008 season doesn’t make it more likely that he will also struggle in 2009. Don’t forget: as recently as 2006 and 2007, Patterson was a fantasy stud: he hit .276 and .269 those years, and totaled 24 homers and 82 steals in 267 games. Patterson’s career batting average is .253, and he has 182 career steals.

Unfortunately for Patterson, he accepted a minor league deal with the Nationals and an invitation to spring training. Jim Bowden has a particular fondness for outfielders, and the Nationals currently have Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge, Austin Kearns, Wily Mo Pena, Josh Willingham and Willie Harris. Even if Patterson returns to form, there’s almost no way he vaults ahead of three of those guys on the depth chart to make the team, let alone accumulate significant at bats.

However, there’s always room on some for a toolsy player who can play a mean center field. This is the exact type of player that sets the great fantasy owners apart from the good ones – Patterson can be had off of the waiver wire in just about every league, and if he gets even semi-regular playing time he will almost certainly rack up enough stolen bases to help you.

Keep your eye very closely on Corey Patterson.


Buy Low on Bard

Despite his last name, there was nothing at all poetic about Josh Bard’s 2008 campaign. If anything, his season read like a Shakespearean tragedy. Coming off of a solid showing in 2007 that included a .285/.364/.404 line in cavernous Petco Park, Bard must have felt more blindsided than Polonius upon seeing his line crash down to a paltry .202/.279/.270 in 2008. Coming off of a season marred by poor performance and three trips to the disabled list for groin, ankle and triceps injuries, the switch-hitter was forced to take a non-guaranteed one-year deal from the Red Sox. Bard’s pact will apparently pay $1.7 million if he makes the club, with $800K in possible incentives.

A member of Boston’s squad in 2006, Bard was shipped off to San Diego along with worm-killer Cla Meredith in exchange for flutterball specialist Doug Mirabelli. Now back in the fold (and presumably keeping an arms-length away from Tim Wakefield), Bard may have the opportunity to compete for a starting job. Can he rebound, or will he just end up as the next job for the gravediggers?

In most every category, Bard’s 2008 numbers mirrored his work from previous seasons. The Texas Tech product walked 9.2% of the time and struck out fourteen percent, showing control of the strike zone that was very similar to his career averages (9.4 BB%, 15.4 K%). His line-drive rate was also a healthy 21.6%, suggesting that he was still squaring the ball up pretty often. Bard didn’t put the ball on the ground any more than he typically does either, with a 47.1 GB% (49.5% career). He didn’t show much of any power while dealing with a multitude of ailments, but the only major difference in Bard’s stat line was a laughably low .230 BABIP. Given his line drive rate, that figure will likely jump a considerable amount in 2009.

Marcel projects Bard to hit .266/.342/.395 with a wOBA of .325 in 2009. Let’s stick with that projection for the time being, roughly estimating that the shift back to the AL is offset by his moving from the run-suppressing environs of Petco to a more favorable ballpark in Fenway. Marcel has Bard taking 343 PA in ’09- let’s up that figure a bit to reflect more frequent playing time. I’ll give him a theoretical 450 PA.

In 450 PA, Bard projects to be worth -3.91 runs compared to an average hitter (.335 wOBA). He comes with a relatively poor defensive reputation, so let’s dock him -5 runs for his glove work. The positional adjustment for catchers is +12.5 runs per 150 games and the replacement level adjustment is +20 runs per 700 PA. Pro-rating both of those figures, Bard gets about an 8.5 run positional adjustment and 12.9 run replacement level adjustment.

Add all of those elements up (-3.91 offense + -5 defense +8.5 position + 12.9 replacement level), and you get about 12.5 runs above replacement, or 1.25 WAR. That level of production is worth about $6 million on the open market, using a $4.8 million/1 WAR scale. For comparison, Jason Varitek posted a nearly identical 1.3 WAR in 2008.

Josh Bard should not be your plan A on draft day, but he could be a nice value if he snags the starting job in Boston. It’s pretty easy to get stuck with an Ausmusian cipher behind the plate in deeper leagues-Bard isn’t going to light it up in any category, but he’s unlikely to be a liability, either. He won’t give you a whole lot of pop, but his solid on-base skills and control of the strike zone suggest that this Bard could get poetic justice with the Red Sox in 2009.


What to Make of McCutchen

Andrew McCutchen is a top prospect. Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein rated him as a five-star prospect, second in the Pirates system to Pedro Alvarez. Similarly, Baseball America ranked him as the Pirates best prospect heading into the 2008 season. McCutchen spent 2008 at triple-A, and may be poised for a call up to the majors. Let’s look at what to expect from him from a fantasy perspective.

McCutchen was only 21 years old in 2008, but played the entire year at triple-A. Therefore, his line of .283/.372/.398 is actually a lot more impressive than it looks. Age is a crucially important factor in determining a prospect’s status, and any 21-year-old who can simply hold his own in triple-A is well ahead of the game. Although McCutchen didn’t show much power, a .372 OBP is quite a feat for someone so young.

However, McCutchen had an underwhelming line in double-A in 2007 as well, hitting .258/.327/.383. Again, he was only 20 at the time, so his line is a lot more impressive than it looks. Still, that’s two straight underwhelming seasons – so why is he even worth writing about?

Three reasons: first of all, McCutchen is probably a lot better than his lines from 2007 and 2008 showed; secondly, he is very likely to get called to the majors in 2009; finally, he could contribute to your fantasy team right away.

I’ve covered the idea that McCutchen is better than his lines showed – scouts love him, and he was so young for his level that simply being decent is quite an achievement. Furthermore, he has shown consistent improvement in both his walk rate and strikeout rate since 2006 – his walk rate has risen every year (even though he’s played against tougher competition), and his strikeout rate has fallen. Again, this is doubly impressive considering that McCutchen has moved up a level each year and is still so young.

Furthermore, the Pirates have an opening in center field. Yes, I know that Nate McLouth played there last season, hit quite well and even won a Gold Glove. However, simply put, McLouth is not even an average defensive center fielder – he was a whopping 40 plays below average (last among qualified “center fielders”), according to John Dewan’s numbers. Even if he’s not quite that bad in center, McLouth should hit enough to man a corner, and McCutchen is supposedly an above-average defender. Center field is McCutchen’s for the taking, and he should grab it some point in 2009.

Finally, McCutchen is an excellent long-term prospect, and many believe that he will develop power to complement his speed, defense, and improving plate discipline. However, his career slugging percentage in the minors is .414, and he’s hit a total of 39 homers in 462 career games. Therefore, it’s fair to surmise that while power may come in the future, he’s probably not going to hit 25 homers at the major league level in 2009.

However, McCutchen may be able to help you in the steals department. He stole 34 bases in 135 games in 2008, and even though he was caught 18 times, he’s only been caught 25% of the time he’s attempted a steal in the minors. In other words, McCutchen is probably an efficient enough base stealer that the Pirates won’t hesitate to turn him loose on the base paths.

Furthermore, McCutchen’s improving strikeout- and walk-rates suggest that he may be able to maintain a respectable batting average (and OBP) in the majors. The BA would help you for obvious reasons, but the OBP will help him get more opportunities to steal bases (and score runs).

McCutchen is unlikely to break camp with the team, and I’d guess that the Pirates are savvy enough (and far enough out of contention) so as to wait until late May or early June to bring McCutchen to the majors, thereby preventing him from attaining Super Two status in three years. He’s probably not going to make enough of an impact to make him draft-worthy in shallow mixed leagues (although those of you who play in leagues like this may want to snatch him up if/when he does get the call to the majors). However, anyone in deeper mixed leagues or NL Only leagues may want to stash him on your bench, as McCutchen could be an excellent source of steals when he finally gets called to the big leagues.

And for those of you in keeper leagues, there are few better long-term prospects than Andrew McCutchen.


Advancing Age and Brian Roberts

Brian Roberts is a three-category fantasy star at a tough defensive position. While he does not have the cachet of playing for the World Series winner, like Chase Utley, or as his league’s reigning MVP, like Dustin Pedroia, Roberts is one of the elite 2B available. A top-notch contributor at AVG, R and SB, Roberts has turned in five straight seasons in which he’s made fantasy players happy.

The only warning sign around Roberts is his age. He turned 31 in October, which is not generally old for baseball players but is for 2B. For every player like Jeff Kent, who retained excellent production past 35, one could name several elite players at the position who lost fantasy relevance at an early age. Roberto Alomar had his last big season at age 33. Carlos Baerga peaked at 26. Steve Sax was done at 31. And just in case you want more examples, how about Edgardo Alfonzo, Glenn Beckert, Dave Cash, Delino DeShields, Marcus Giles, Tom Herr, Chuck Knoblauch, Harold Reynolds, Juan Samuel and Robby Thompson – all former All Stars who lost effectiveness early.

On the plus side, Roberts posted his highest AVG/OB/SLG marks since his standout 2005 season. Additionally, his BB% remains strong at 11.8 percent. On the flip side Roberts’ K% of 17 percent in 2008 was the highest of his career. Roberts hit 18 HR in 2005 but fell to single digits last year. And with a HR/FB% of 4.9 percent, owners should not expect a big rebound in that category.

Roberts has always been a strong performer in BABIP (lifetime mark of .320) but his .345 was tied for 14th-best in the majors last year.

In 2008, Roberts was a Top 30 fantasy hitter. While I don’t expect a collapse, I think it is wise to knock him down a bit due to last year’s high BABIP and his advancing age at a position at which players generally do not age gracefully.


Will Zimmerman Fly Under Radar?

Heading into the 2008 season, Ryan Zimmerman was a Top 10 fantasy third baseman according to most cheat sheets. Then he suffered a shoulder injury that caused him to miss 47 days during the year. Prior to the injury, Zimmerman was having a poor season. He posted a .257/.291/.427 line in 220 plate appearances before hitting the DL. Upon returning to the active roster, Zimmerman went .306/.370/.455 in his final 245 PA. And there has been no reports of lingering problems with the shoulder in the off-season.

Zimmerman hits for a pretty good AVG but does not offer the slugging one would expect from a top 3B. His HR/FB% has been remarkably consistent the past three seasons, with last year’s 11.5 percent a tenth of a percent higher than his previous two campaigns. The problem is he doesn’t hit enough fly balls. Last year his FB% was just 34.1 percent.

Since we know Zimmerman is not going to be a big HR threat, he needs to maximize his other categories in order to be an elite player at the hot corner. A .300 AVG is not out of the question nor is 100 RBIs and Runs.

If Zimmerman can hit those targets, he could be a top 10 3B even with a HR output in the low 20s. One thing to keep in mind is the depth of the 3B position, which gets a big boost from players at other positions (like Kevin Youkilis, Aubrey Huff and Christopher Davis) who played mostly elsewhere in 2008 yet still surpassed the 20-game mark at the hot corner. It’s not a given Zimmerman will be a starting-quality 3B.

But fantasy owners can’t simply allow Zimmerman to fall off the radar, either. Because of last year’s injury problems and his lack of big HR numbers throughout his career, he’s likely to be under-valued in many drafts. And with a decent chance to approach triple-digits in Runs and RBIs, Zimmerman offers a lot of upside for a player apt to be available in the bottom half of most drafts.


Strategy Session – Beneficial Ballparks

By now, many fantasy players are familiar with park effects. It’s easier to hit a home run in Colorado than in San Diego. Seattle is tough on right handed hitters, but Texas is great for lefties. Etc.

Even though park effects are widely known and considered, they can still be exploited in many fantasy leagues. For example, I can count on one hand (okay, maybe two) the pitchers I’d be willing to start in Colorado. Meanwhile, I’d probably be willing to start half of the guys available on the waiver wire if they had a two-start week in San Diego and San Francisco.

Know your matchups, and know when to bench players – especially pitchers. Fly ball pitchers are going to have good starts in big ballparks. Even decent pitchers are going to have good starts against the hapless Nationals. Pitchers with control problems won’t necessarily have a problem with the Angels, but will really struggle against the Red Sox (then again, most pitchers will struggle against the Red Sox). The general rule of thumb is that several awful starts are difficult to overcome (especially in head-to-head leagues), so unless you have one of the best pitchers in the game, you want to avoid most matchups against the Yankees and Red Sox (especially in Fenway), as well as games played in Colorado, Chicago (mainly the southsiders), Arizona, Texas, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. Again, use your judgment, but many times the best decision is avoiding a potentially dangerous start.

And if you have the time/desire, you can often exploit matchups as well. Perhaps that last spot on your rotation is best served by rotating between pitchers on the waiver wire, depending on who is starting against whom. Perhaps one pitcher is slightly better than another but has a far worse matchup – bad offenses and certain ballparks can make some pitchers look a lot better than they actually are.

While it is easier to rotate pitchers than hitters, you can exploit hitters’ matchups too. In daily leagues it is sometimes worthwhile picking up a decent hitter if he has a roadtrip that sends him to Colorado and Arizona for six games, for example. Or it might be worth benching or dropping someone who has a road trip against the top two pitching staffs in baseball. Possibilities for exploitation abound.

Yes, most people know about park effects, but not many of them attempt to take full advantage of these effects. If you do take advantage of park effects, you will have a rather significant competitive advantage.