Waiver Wire Offseason: AL

Rajai Davis | Oakland | OF
2009 Final Stats: .305/.360/.423

With a batting average and on-base percentage about the equal of Carl Crawford last year, and a slugging percentage close enough to call “close” after park adjustments, Davis had a 108 OPS+ with 41 SB in just 432 PA, a very Crawford-esque two-thirds of a season all told (Crawford has a career 103 OPS+). Yet the Oakland righty was probably taken as a late-round source of steals and nothing more in 2009. What can be expected from the surprising 29-year-old-to-be? Here are some projections from various sources:

Heater/Graphical Player: 455 AB, .274-69-5-44-42 (AVG-R-HR-RBI-SB)
Bill James Handbook: 496 AB, .284-74-4-44-50
CHONE (baseballprojection.com): 341 AB, .267-48-4-30-31
Career 162-G average (baseball-reference.com): 393 AB, .280-62-3-37-45

The career line is highly warped by the fact that he was used as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement for much of his career before breaking through with a starting job in 2009.

So, the first obvious question is: “How much will he play?” With Ryan Sweeney‘s fielding stats belying his reputation as a just a mediocre center fielder, the A’s appear to have another in-house option to roam center field, though Rajai roams a bit more of it, and certainly looks like more of a center fielder. And though the sample size is still wanting, Scott Hairston’s conversion to the outfield seems to have resulted in about average defensive skills in CF. Cunningham was a center fielder in the minors but appears to be limited to side-field duty now. All this suggests that if the A’s want to try to force some of their slow DH/1B types (Barton, Wallace, Carter, Doolittle, Buck, etc.) into the lineup in 2010, they may reprise the Cust-to-outfield experiment, and Rajai could end up on another team or on the wrong end of a platoon with lefty Ryan Sweeney (though the A’s have been reluctant to use straight platoons in recent years). Our mindset is that Rajai gets his regular gig in CF back (he started playing almost every day about midway through the season), as Oakland has quietly turned into a pitching, speed and defense team. And you can count on Beane heating up the trade lines shopping him around, too—both Chicago teams might have a use for him, for example. In short, anything under 450 AB would be somewhat surprising, but that “surprise” would be predicated on …

“How will he do?” Almost certainly, the CHONE system balanced out his PT based on his expected offensive contributions. They have the lowest predicted OBP at .326, but nobody seems to think he’ll exceed .340 OBP again since his .366 BABIP stemmed from an unlikely .305 batting average. Still, the difference between CHONE and the other predictors is fairly minute—14 points of OBP over 500 PA is just seven times on base all season. And his career average stands at a decent .280, so predicting a decline to .267 seems overly pessimistic. One thing nobody disagrees about is his game-impacting speed, which will lend itself to pinch-running opportunities even if he’s not playing regularly—as it has in seasons past. For raw speed, the “extra bases taken%” (from baseball-reference.com) probably is the most indicative as he’s posted 60% for his career against an MLB average of 39%. His 78% career SB% sounds decent, with 93 SB in 358 SBO, but he’s also been picked off 16 times (10 in 2009 alone), so actual straight steals aren’t necessarily adding as many wins as would be assumed for a guy with one steal per 10 PA. All this combines to suggest that somewhat of a downtick in his stealing attempts could happen in 2010, but he still seems a great bet to log 40-50 SB, given 500 PA.

Wrapping it all up, we have a batter who clearly had a career year in 2009, isn’t terribly efficient in his copious stealing attempts (due to the pickoffs), might get traded away, and yet is still a contributor of the coveted stolen bases needed for fantasy success. There are several risks with Rajai—and some outcomes which could cause his value to crater—but the chances of him finishing at or around 450 AB, a .275 AVG and 45 SB are pretty good. It seems very likely that he’ll be valued much less than that on auction/draft day in most leagues. Not a great pick for a team that is already good and is conservatively trying to protect an advantage, but the “performance over price” possibility is large.

Aaron Hill | Toronto | 2B
2009 Final Stats: .286/.330/.499

When he was first starting out with Toronto, there were many who likened Hill’s approach at the plate to former Blue Jay (and WAY former second baseman) Paul Molitor. Well, in 2007, he started showing some signs of Molitorism, hitting .291/.333/.459. “Molly” would obviously have been chagrined at the lack of patience, but for a guy whose career slugging percentage was .409 entering 2009, the power was a somewhat unanticipated turn in the right direction offensively. But 2008 was a lost season for Hill, with the struggles and the concussion, and then finally being shut down. But worries about his career going the way of Corey Koskie or Ryan Church were assuaged early, as Hill started 2009 with hits in nine straight games, including three multi-hit games and two homers. And he was extremely consistent all season long, driving in 108 runs (tied for fifth in AL) with 36 HR (T-3rd). This sort of production from a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman made him one of the league’s best players in 2009.

Since the three “early” projection systems are almost entirely based on mathematical results derived from past statistical patterns, it’s unsurprising that all think Hill’s power rampage in 2009 was mostly a fluke. CHONE, BJHB, and Heater/GP project his homers at—respectively—21, 20, 22. And all three predict a .282-.283 batting average. Well, we’re here to tell you those are not to be believed!

Playing time:

Certainly, the concussive symptoms could return, but this is a guy who played 155, 160, and 158 games in the three years surrounding his concussion-impacted 2008. So, CHONE and BJHB predicting lots of missed time seems off base. The GP projection is based on the Toronto expert for the book, and is a more-reasonable 643 AB. Hill’s the type of player who doesn’t come out of the lineup easily, and with his combination of offense and defense, no manager is going to be in a hurry to give him an off day, though giving him “rest” when the team faces an extremely hard righty like Jered Weaver will probably happen a handful of times. If the power stays high, it will be hard for the Jays to continue to bat him second 100 percent of the time, but his opportunities for runs and RBIs should only be dampened by Scutaro’s departure. Whether he’ll capitalize as well on them is another question…

Home runs:

Hill’s HR/FB% was 3.6% in 2006, 8.6% in 2007, and 14.9% in 2009 (again, we’re not treating 2008 with much gravity). In the same span, he’s slightly increased his fly ball% (to 41% in 2009, compared to 39% for his career). The net result is that 15% of 41% of his 584 balls in play went for home runs, or about 6%. With his relatively high contact percentage (for a power hitter), he struck out only 14.4% of the time, which is why he was able to put almost 600 balls into play. For comparison, these numbers are quite similar to Aramis Ramirez’s career rates (15.2% strikeouts, 44.5% FB%, and 13.7% HR/FB). While Hill has improved his strength, we think an Aramis Ramirez comparison is still out of reach, but many aspects of that type of power/contact hitter are likely to be repeating qualities. Expect around the same total of 584 balls in play. To fall back to 20 HR, Hill would have to reduce his HR/BIP% to just 3.5%. That’s essentially what his HR/BIP% was in 2007 (3.36%). We’re going to temper our enthusiasm, and use a 3:2 weighted average of 2009 and 2007 percentages of HR/FIP (which comes out at almost exactly 5%), and predict 29 HR for Hill in 2010.

Batting Average:

As we know, batting average is a tough stat to predict. For beginners, there’s so much variance that a spot-on prediction can easily look terrible due to random sampling. But—as I noted in an article on Freddy Sanchez at the time of the trade—the better the contact skills, the less variance (duh!). Anyway, Hill has a .310 career BABIP. While he’s hitting more fly balls than ever before and this number may drop a little, his .290 in 2009 seems overly low. We see a good chance that his batting average tops .290 with an increase in his BABIP more than making up for the decline in homers we’ve anticipated.

May I Have Your Autograph, Please?
The payoff of being polite.

Putting together the pieces, it seems like Hill is a great buy-low candidate, in leagues where people put too much stock in the standard projection systems. He might not come up with a .290-29-90 season, but it seems very likely he’ll come close to it.

Edwin Jackson | Detroit | SP
2009 Final Stats: 6.8 K/9, 2.3 K/BB, 3.62 ERA

2009 was a coming-out party of sorts for the former Dodgers phenom who has bounced around. His value was so low preseason that one well-known blogger called the trade of Matt Joyce for him “ridiculous” for the Tigers. Clearly, the trade didn’t hurt the Tigers, but there are reasons for the Tigers (and E-Jax owners) to be worried that perhaps he won’t repeat.

Starting with the list of accomplishments—he was just 25 years old, and had his innings bumped up to 214 in 2009, a total arrived at gradually, which should alleviate the risk of overuse. He went 13-9, 3.62, and helped the Tigers almost make the playoffs. He struck out 161 to just 70 walks. His WHIP was 1.262, just missing the top 10 in the AL.

But it really is a “what have you done for me lately?” sport, and Jackson was far better than this at the break, with a 7-4 record, 2.52 ERA, 97 K in 121.2 IP, and just 10 HR allowed with a 2.77 K:BB ratio. The second half, though, was more of “bad Edwin” (that would be the pitcher who had a career ERA of 5.15 entering 2009, with a 1.632 WHIP and 55 HR allowed in 456 IP). After the break, Jackson was over .500 (6-5), but his ERA was 5.05, and his WHIP soared to 1.527 (it had been barely over 1.0 in the first half). Possibly worst of all was the fact that he managed to allow 17 HR in just 92.1 IP.

In the final stats for the 2009 season (or two half-seasons in Jackson’s case), he had a 4.34 FIP, which was an improvement over past seasons. He had a 4.58 xFIP, which—again—was an improvement. One thing that has been shown with pitchers is that second-half performance is roughly as predictive of next-year performance as using the entire season is. But what to do when the two are completely different? The conservative approach would be to assume that either a) the lucky BABIP and HR/FB% in the first half was lending him confidence, and he was pitching far over his head, or b) that he was hiding an injury in the second half. In either the (a) or the (b) case, it’s prudent to stay away from him in fantasy.

The less conservative approach would be that all pitchers are unpredictable, and Edwin Jackson was downright nasty in the first half, even if his “luck” stats made him look better than he was. He has one of the fastest fastballs in the game (94.5 MPH on average), and his O-Swing% (from fangraphs.com) is 5% higher than MLB average, showing that hitters are often fooled into swinging at pitches not in the zone.

We won’t suggest that predicting pitchers is easy. Bill James has declared it to be impossible in the past, and there are certainly enough examples every single season to make this declaration seem valid. But E-Jax is even less predictable than most. It’s not like Daniel Cabrera was, with the “stuff” but never getting “results,” since Jackson got the results. But the concept is similar, in that he could help a team in every single SP category if he pitches like he did in the first half of 2009. Yet, he could easily be an almost complete waste of auction money if the second half (and his entire career before) is really him. He probably has the biggest difference between his likely upside (i.e. an upside which is likely to occur, not something that’s more akin to dreaming, as is true of listed “upsides” for many other pitchers) and his likely downside of anyone entering the 2010 season.

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