The Singleton Pattern

Our quest for deep sleepers continues, and as former academics now seeking the Fantasy Baseball equivalent of tenure, we know the value of using as much of other people’s research as we can get away with.

Thus, first came Robert Arthur, an inhabitant of sabermetric Valhalla by virtue of his ability to combine meticulous and microscopic analysis of baseball stats with enjoyable prose. He demonstrated—we’re dumbing this down a bit, but it’s substantially accurate—that sluggers see fewer fastballs than other hitters. He noted that “fastball frequency normally varies according to the pop of the batter, so that when it changes, it may be indicating a change in the skill level of the same batter.”

Beloved Fangraphs editor Eno Sarris then built upon Arthur’s research. He observed, as Arthur had, that “the more we know about a player’s major-league work, the less powerful a change in fastball percentage is for prediction.” In other words, if we want to use fastball frequency to find players who might start hitting home runs in unexpected clusters, look at guys who don’t have much in the way of established performance. So Eno looked for hitters who (1) had fewer than 800 career plate appearances through the end of 2014, and (2) saw fewer fastballs in the second half of the season. This produced a list of power breakout candidates for 2015: Corey Dickerson, Rougned Odor, Kolten Wong, Nick Castellanos, Travis d’Arnaud, Scooter Gennett, Marwin Gonzalez, Mike Zunnino, Yasmani Grandal, and Jon Singleton.

As Eno points out, this is a group of striplings (average age 23). The thing about young players, though, is that they may be seeing fewer fastballs because pitchers have deduced that they can’t hit anything else, or perhaps even that they can’t hit anything else and swing promiscuously at anything-elses that aren’t in the strike zone. So, we wondered, how can we identify which hitters are true candidates for a power burst? We thought of a study of our own that we introduced in our second Fangraphs post. For those of you who haven’t been taking notes: We looked for hitters who saw fewer strikes and took fewer swings at bad pitches in the second half of the 2014 season, on the theory that this betokens increased wisdom for both the hitters in question and the pitchers who face them.

This left four guys from Eno’s list still standing: Yasmani Grandal, Nick Castellanos, Rougned Odor, and Jon Singleton. Now the question is: does any of them represent draft-day value? The answer: quite possibly. The projections we’ve seen for them call for them to hit roughly the same number of home runs as they did last season, and their NFBC Average Draft Positions aren’t especially high: Grandal is ADP 198, the 14th most popular catcher; Castellanos is 258, the # 19 third baseman; Odor is 261, the 16th highest second baseman; and Singleton can barely be viewed with the naked eye, at ADP 372, the number 29 first baseman.

For each of these guys, moreover, there are additional data kernels that point to a power breakout. Let’s take them in descending order of popularity. Grandal we probably don’t have to tell you about. He’s the most frequently-named “sleeper” this side of Kolten Wong. Everyone notes that he’s moving away from Petco Park, where batted balls go to die; that he’s another year away from surgery; that he’s going to get significant playing time, because the only competition on the horizon is A.J. Ellis (great guy, and future Hall of Fame manager, mark our words; but not, at this point, more than a part-time catcher); and that his career minor league average is about 100 points higher than his career major league average. You’ll pay for him on draft day. Our point is that he’s got an even bigger upside than people think—that he’s got a non-trivial shot at a Mesoracoesque breakout, and of being the third- or fourth-best Fantasy catcher rather than the 14th.

As for Castellanos: He’ll be only 23 this season, and is supposedly growing into his body. (Our bodies, by contrast, are growing into us.) His line-drive rate last season was an obscene 28.5% (MLB average is about 20%), and some of those line drives are going to become fly-ball home runs as he fills out.

There are all kinds of good signs for Odor—enough, maybe, so that he’ll wind up not being a bargain if you’re not drafting for another month. As Eno notes, Odor’s Double-A performance was almost 50% above league average. Moreover, in his 2013-2014 minor league games he averaged a home run every 23.5 plate appearances—not shabby for a middle infielder, even playing in a bandbox—and his rate improved month to month during his time with the Rangers. Playing time is less of an issue for him with Jurickson Profar now sidelined for the season. And if Odor gets even 450 plate appearances, which is likely if he stays healthy, 15 home runs is a real possibility. Combine that with double-digit stolen-base speed, a high contact rate, and (in 2014) a hard contact rate that improved as the year went on, and it’s easy to see a top-10 2nd Baseman. He may start low in the batting order, but he could end up hitting much higher – where he bats in the order in spring training will be useful information. And he just turned 21, so it’s not as if he’s peaked.

And attention shoppers: Odor is looking like the Duff to Kolten Wong’s Homecoming Queen. Jeff Zimmermann and Zach Sanders put Wong’s auction value between $5 and $10, with Odor not even at $1. Yet along comparable minor league stops, Odor outhit, outhomered, and outran Wong. And in a delicious bit of irony, Odor’s Baseball Prospectus comparables are Ryan Zimmermann, Brett Lawrie and…Kolten Wong! Wong’s, by the way, are Luis Valbuena, Steve Lombardozzi and Josh Barfield. We like Wong quite a bit (hell, we drafted him), but Odor should provide better value.

Of Jon Singleton, we can speak only in superlatives. Let us review the situation. He is on a team that holds the major-league record for strikeouts by batters in a single season. Said team has recently acquired—and, in the process, euchred Singleton out of a starting job with—Colby Rasmus, who strikes out more than almost anyone else on the team except Singleton. Yet even the Astros think that Singleton strikes out too much. In the second half of last season, Singleton saw fewer fastballs and chased fewer bad pitches, yet struck out even more often and hit even worse, which is hard to do when your first-half slash line is .184/.277/.360.

Plainly, he’s a world-historical figure, and the bouquet of failed-prospect grows stronger as we roll his stats around our tongues. And yet, and yet. He is a left-handed hitter, and throughout his minor-league career, hit left-handed pitching a lot worse than he hit righties. No surprise there, of course. What’s surprising is that, in the majors last year, he did okay (.247/.337/.468 with 4 home runs in 89 plate appearances) against lefties, whereas he was helpless against righties. There are plenty of explanations for this that aren’t benign. And, as indicated, Singleton’s got no place to play at the moment. But accidents will happen to A-team players, and imagine for a moment that Singleton’s performance against righties last season is an aberration, that he’s figured out left-handed pitching, and that he does as well against all pitching as he did against lefties last year in, say, 250 plate appearances. Worth a reserve-round pick, right?

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The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.

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How much would you adjust each of these players’ Steamer projections in order to account for a possible power breakthrough?