Archive for ‘Statistical Analysis’

Saturday: 02.9.2013

Countdown to Spring Training: 14 Days – Jeff Keppinger

Only 14 days until live game action…

Just two weeks to game time! Well, 13 days. This is Friday’s entry.

Sorry for the delays, I’m stretched a little thinner than anticipated, but it’s a good thing because it’s extra writing work and of course the SP Guide which is coming along nicely.

JEFF KEPPINGER

There are more impactful players on the White Sox I could’ve written about, but I’m intrigued by Jeff Keppinger in 2013. He is going to be the everyday third baseman batting second for them. Third base has been an issue for quite some time in Chicago. The position has been a hole for the Sox for quite some time. It was temporarily filled last year with at least adequate production when Kevin Youkilis came over via trade, but he was far from the Youk of old. Gordon Beckham was above average there for 103 games in 2009, but the last time they had a full season of above average production at the hot corner was Joe Crede in 2006. Keppinger is far from a star, but he should bring some much-needed stability to the position.

On the fantasy landscape Keppinger’s appeal comes from the fact that he has an everyday job and he qualifies at three infield positions: first, second, and third base. That of course adds corner and middle infield for fantasy purposes, too. He even had 20 games as a DH with Tampa Bay last year so those leagues that require you to use an actual DH will like Keppinger even more. His offensive profile isn’t particularly special, but the flexibility he brings your lineup helps the modest production play up. It’s like a pitcher with a modest fastball, but pinpoint command. Yeah, that’s it… best comp ever.

Honestly, Kepp should be a platoon player and not the good side, but the Sox are giving him the role in full perhaps heartened by his work against righties last year (.302/.352/.403) which was well above his career level against righties (.269/.321/.358). The White Sox got nothing out of their #2 hole last year so even falling back to his career level versus righties combined with his sparkling .333/.376/.487 mark against lefties is going to yield a massive improvement over the .221/.296/.354 performance that the White Sox saw batting second last year. The 650 OPS was tied for third-worst in all of baseball with Minnesota and Seattle, just barely topping Oakland’s 649.

With Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, and Alex Rios making up the heart of the order behind Keppinger (career .337 OBP), he should be in line to score plenty of runs. He had a bit of a power surge last year popping nine home runs which could jump up past double digits in his new ballpark. That said he is a groundball/line drive hitter which drives his batting average. His flyball rate is actually on the way down dropping to 27.4 percent last year after a 29.6 percent mark in 2010. His 9.2 percent HR/FB rate – his highest since 2006 when he played just 22 games – was responsible for his power surge last year.

I’m not recommending Keppinger as a shallow mixed league play, there is no need to go that deep, but super deep mixed leagues and of course AL-Only leagues can get some sneaky value with a guy like Keppinger. His batting average will be the meal ticket, but if he maintains everyday play all year we could see 80 runs scored, 10-12 home runs, 60 runs driven in. Think of him as 2012 Marco Scutaro-lite without the speed.

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Thursday: 02.7.2013

Countdown to Spring Training: 15 Days – Ryan Doumit

Only 15 days until live game action…

The backend of the doubleheader to catch up from yesterday’s missed piece and as I mentioned in the Napoli piece, I’m hoping to get several done this weekend to avoid any more delays as we head into the second half of the countdown.

RYAN DOUMIT

For years, fantasy managers would always wonder aloud “what if Ryan Doumit just stayed healthy one year and got 500+ plate appearances?” We finally know the answer. In 2012, he had a career-high 528 PA and put together a .275/.320/.461 line with 18 home runs and 75 RBIs, in other words he did exactly what we should’ve expected once extrapolating his previous numbers out over 500 PA.

The extrapolation game is dangerous with small samples, but after a while Doumit’s several similar small samples became a large body of work. Only twice in his seven seasons before 2012 did he top 450 PA with the other five yielding 304 or fewer each time. His triple slash stats bounced around a bit as he hit .318 one year and .208 in another, enjoyed a .357 OBP one year and .299 the next, and even had a .501 slugging percentage only to fall to .406 two years later (the .318/.357/.501 are all from his 2008 season).

Through it all, his 528 PA pace (number equals his 2012 total) in homers and RBIs was just about the same:

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While not really a catcher in the conventional sense, he has maintained eligibility behind the dish throughout his career giving him a special appeal to fantasy managers. Offensive upside at catcher often costs a pretty penny and in 2008-2009 so did Doumit. He had an 813 OPS in 2007 leading to a high price tag in the spring of 2008. He backed it up with the season of his career which sent his price sky high heading into 2009. He tanked. He tanked hard. Ever since then, he’s been kind of an afterthought with most resigning to the fact that he’s just never going to play enough.

His value was always in his catcher eligibility, but at his value peak the tantalizing thing about him was the fact that he was only a part-time catcher – playing first and outfield as well – so if he could stay healthy he could rack up the playing time that other catchers wouldn’t since he didn’t need so many off days. That finally came to fruition in his eighth year in the majors.

He started at catcher 56 times, but also logged starts as a DH (48), LF (16), and RF (6). He got some time at first base in one game, too. Can he repeat? At 32 years old, can he log a 500+ PA season, a feat that eluded him for seven years, for the second straight season? The smart money is on “no”. I like smart money. I’m even more likely to avoid the bet this year because the price is once again on the high side. His current NFBC ADP is 170th overall.

I’d rather wait 60 picks and take Alex Avila.

Thursday: 02.7.2013

Countdown to Spring Training: 16 Days – Mike Napoli

Only 16 days until live game action…

Got some make-up work to do! Wednesday was really busy and all of a sudden it was 11:42 PM and clear that I wasn’t going to finish this piece. Hopefully I will be able to get some Top 10 Right Now stuff done today, too, so I don’t have the same issue I had last week.

MIKE NAPOLI

Back in 2004-2005, Mike Napoli hit a combined 60 home runs with 217 RBIs, 190 runs scored, and 21 stolen bases as a catcher in the Los Angeles Angels system. Unfortunately he wasn’t really much of a catcher behind the dish. This would prove to be a problem given his big league manager, former Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia. Scioscia takes defense behind the plate very seriously so he wasn’t likely to be nearly as enchanted with his three true outcomes catcher as were the fans and fantasy baseball managers.

He debuted in 2006 doing what he does best: rip bombs (16), walk (51), and strikeout (90). All in 325 plate appearances over 90 games. Though he hit a meager .228, his .360 on-base percentage more than made up for it. The next year was more of the same, but in just 75 games. Then 2008 was the best of the bunch. He started a string of 20-homer seasons while also posting a career-best .586 slugging percentage and adding some batting average to a much more palatable .273 mark, but in just 78 games. The “Free Napoli” campaigns were under way by this point. He was on a 36 homer pace over 500 plate appearances.

Fast forward three years.

He played 114 and 140 games during his final two years with the Angels, but he was traded during the offseason following 2010 first to Toronto in that awesome Vernon Wells deal and then four days later to Texas. Finally. It worth noting that not all of time missed was at the hands of Scioscia. Injuries played a role as he had two DL stints in 2007 and another in 2008. In that 2010 season before leaving LA, he’d finally been given a full season (his only 500+ PA season to date) and he was solid, but not special. His walk rate plummeted to a career-worst eight percent while his 27 percent strikeout rate was the second-worst of his career. The trade was almost inevitable.

Staying in Toronto would’ve been perfectly fine, but moving to Texas whetted the appetite of every fantasy baseball manager in the world. What could he do in that park? A lot, it would turn out, but he was hardly feasting on his home venue Coors Field-style. He was actually better on the road that year with 13 homers and a 1011 OPS in Arlington and 17/1078 on the road. He didn’t stay upright as long as in 2010 missing nearly a month to a strained oblique, but he hit 30 home runs for the first time and posting career-best strikeout and walk rates. The most surprising piece of his 2011 was the .320 average. Everyone would’ve bet on 50 home runs before .320.

The follow up wasn’t quite as sweet. To hear some tell it, you’d think he hit eight home runs in 400+ PAs with a .198 batting average. It wasn’t nearly as bad as it is portrayed at some outlets. Coming from 2011’s peak, it was definitely a tumble, but how bad are we really talking about here?

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The singular difference in those two lines seems to explain everything. Elevating your strikeout rate by 10.3 percent is never a good idea and it will unquestionably cut down the production from the previous year if everything remains the same. How different were these two seasons compared to what he was averaging coming into 2011? I gave the raw averages, but then scaled them to 425 PA to better compare them with 2011-2012.

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This is more or less the same as 2012 save a sharp difference in strikeout rate. At this point, it is becoming quite clear that 2011 was the outlier. Most fantasy managers knew this deep down, but in their hearts they wanted to believe he could maintain the level now that he was playing in such a hitter-friendly environment and delivering such incredible value as a catcher. Of course the similarities in his numbers aren’t surprising when you look at his remarkably consistent batted ball profile.

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Only the HR/FB rate and that coincides with moving to Texas. So again, the only significant difference between his 2011 and 2012 seasons is how often he struck out. In 2011, he was striking out far less and it was translating into bundles of hits. In 2012, regression hit hard and actually zoomed by his career rates into a new low.

Diving deeper into his numbers, we see that off-speed pitches ate him alive in 2012, a 180-degree difference from 2011. Was this injury-related? In 2012 Napoli was day-to-day with a head injury, an illness, and twice with quadriceps injuries until the strained left quad finally DL’d him for a month in August.

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If you didn’t know any better, I could convince you that those are the numbers of two different players. The 2012 performance against off-speed stuff isn’t congruent with the 2009-2010 Napoli, either. Those 2012 numbers add up to a 582 OPS with a 43.5 percent strikeout rate, compared to 757 OPS and 30.8 percent in 2009-2010. Yet again the 2011 performance of 908 OPS and 26.7 percent is a major outlier by comparison.

Where does all of this leave us? If he didn’t have a degenerative hip issue that cost him two years and $34 million dollars from his initial deal with the Red Sox that eventually became a one year, $5 million dollar pact, it wouldn’t be too hard to project that a healthy Napoli improves significantly on his 2012 as his strikeout rate regresses toward previously established levels. The problem is determining the likelihood of a healthy Napoli. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty big unknown making it difficult to value him for 2013.

How much risk can you stomach? His current NFBC average draft position is 104, or the seventh round (NFBC uses 15-team leagues). I personally cannot stomach that much risk. Even if this were normal Napoli and not Nahipoli (please shoot me for that one), you are still talking about a guy who has one 500+ PA season and a peak of 432 otherwise. There is seemingly always something amiss with his body so adding a balky hip that we already know is a mess muddies the waters enough for me to pass altogether. It helps that he likely won’t be catching at all to exacerbate his injuries issues, but even still he won’t be on any of my 2013 teams at this current cost. I’d rather Alex Avila 126 picks later.

Tuesday: 02.5.2013

Countdown to Spring Training: 17 Days – Alex Gordon

Only 17 days until live game action…

With 30 days to go, I started profiling a hitter per day highlighting one from each team. I selected my player of note from each team and then randomized them (which was pretty interesting consider who the final two were after the randomization) so that’s the order I’ll be following.

Just under the wire! It’s still Tuesday for me. I went to dinner with my podcast co-host and long-time friend Jason Collette and I was pumping out SP Guide work all afternoon so the Countdown got short shrift until after dinner.

Stupid sidenote: the last four Countdown entrants have first names that start with “A”. Isn’t your life better now?

ALEX GORDON

Drafted with the second overall pick in 2005, Alex Gordon was tabbed as the savior of the franchise almost immediately. He was a mix of George Brett, Ryan Gosling (not yet a mega-star, but he’d done The Notebook so throwing him into the mix was betting on the come back then), and a unicorn. He started his pro career in Double-A and obliterated the league in 2006 vaulting himself to the top of the prospect heap heading into 2007 according to Kevin Goldstein and #2 overall according to Baseball America.

He wasn’t even Gosling circa “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” posting an uninspired .247/.314/.411 line in 601 plate appearances. It got better in 2008, but only because he had set the bar so low. Things actually got worse in 2009-2010 resulting in trips back to the minors in each season where he ended playing 30 and 75 games, respectively, split across a few levels. A hip injury in 2009 cost him three months and that was sandwiched by quadriceps and thumb injuries in 2008 and 2010 that both required time on the disabled list. He was not only failing to live up to the lofty expectations, but through 2010 it was hard not to see him as a bust. He’d had a career 95 OPS+ in 1642 PA.

It all turned around in 2011. He finally stayed healthy again and not only had his best season yet (not a difficult feat given what he’d done to date), but also had a legitimate star-level season. He registered a 7.1 bWAR and 6.9 fWAR in his first full season as a leftfielder, having switched over from third base. He proved to be not only adequate out in left, but exemplary as his 12 kills doubled the next best from a leftfielder (Gerardo Parra, 6) and led all of baseball as he narrowly edged teammate Jeff Francoeur by one.

Finally.

Last year’s follow was a bit off the pace, about a full win at both sites, but still a star level offering. Gordon has hit .298/.372/.478 the past two years in 1411 PA with 37 home runs and 96 doubles, including an MLB-best 51 last year. Are his 37 home runs a disappointment? When he was expected to become Georygos Brettunicornling, I think many were looking at 30 bombs a year. Brett only averaged 17 during his career with a 162-game average of 20, but he never struck out (career 7.8% K rate) so Gordon was supposed to trade those Ks for more homers. It took Brett 9196 PA to strikeout out 634 times; Gordon has fanned 641 times in 3053 PA. Different eras and Gordon isn’t Brett so I’m not holding him to that standard, just showing the incredible gap.

In the midst of his prime at age-29 with back-to-back seasons of 45 and 51 doubles, some are still expecting a home outburst as there is an adage that believes a player with a ton of doubles could start translating some of them into home runs with some added strength and/or a bit of good fortune. The thinking being that with 45+ doubles, several are banging off the wall and just missing their exit from the yard. It’s not a terrible notion, but it’s not a birthright if you are a big doubles hitter, either.

Looking at Gordon’s 2011 with 45 doubles and 23 home runs, there are 79 players with seasons of 45+ and 23 or fewer, but only 12 others including Gordon to have pulled off the feat more than once.

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Hey, it’s George Brett! Gordon is fulfilling the expectation after all! What does this group of players have in common? They never really translated the doubles into an abundance of home runs. Brett’s 30 in 1985 are highest of anyone in that group and he didn’t do it after either of his 45 double seasons. The second name on that list is the one that rings truest when I think about Gordon.

In fact, when I was making my list of which players I wanted to cover for the countdown, I was thinking about Gordon and trying to come up with who he reminded me of after his two big seasons in a row and I kept coming back to Nick Markakis and Shin-Soo Choo. There is nothing with that as both as high quality MLB players. Markakis had run off six straight full season of well above average play (117 OPS+) before being limited to just 104 games last year.

The bottom is that the home runs aren’t coming, not at the quantity that was expected of him as a prospect. He’s going to live in the 15-20 range and may have another season or two where he pushed 25, but barring a major change in his approach, 30 just isn’t happening. He is the prototypical line drive hitter with gap-to-gap power. His line drive rate hit a career-high at 25 percent last year and has lived at or north of 20 for his entire career save that 2009 washout. His flyball rate is on a four year decline hitting a nadir of 32.7 percent a year ago, a far cry from his career-best 47.6 back in 2008.

After spending 172 of his last 312 games as a leadoff hitter, he is currently slated to hit third again with Lorenzo Cain leading off. Hopefully this switch doesn’t prompt Gordon to unnecessarily change his approach thinking he has to be “the man” and go for power in that spot. His work in the 3-hole has been 101 points worse from an OPS standpoint than his leadoff work (883 to 782) and 64 points worse in slugging percentage (.501 to .437).

He needs to stick with his approach from 2011-2012. The move to third in the batting order puts 100+ RBIs into play even if he only hits 14 home runs again. That would be a career high by 13 RBI (2011). Meanwhile he could still score 100 as he did in 2011 (101) provided he maintains or improves his 10 percent walk rate. I think he still viewed as an overall disappointment by some which depresses his fantasy price. Current NFBC draft data has him as the 94th guy off the board, inexplicably behind teammate Eric Hosmer. Don’t be afraid to pay for Gordon, especially at this current discounted rate, but even for a little more should your league price him higher. What he lacks in home run power, he makes up in batting average and runs scored, the two most underrated categories in standard 5×5 leagues.

Monday: 02.4.2013

Chris Carter Addendum

Earlier today after he was dealt to Houston, I did a piece on Chris Carter and how his power should spike with his new home ballpark. I used the Katron.org balls in play information to outline three batted balls from Carter that would’ve been home runs in Minute Maid Park. It was meant to accentuate the point regarding his likely power improvements in his much friendly environs, but it was greatly flawed. You see, the Katron dots are where the ball is fielded not where it landed. I knew this in the recesses of my mind, but I never gave full thought to the notion and what it means when analyzing this kind of data.

Here is the legend for the Katron data:

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The problem comes in that we don’t know the hit type of singles, doubles, triples, and home runs. So I absent-mindedly assumed (never assume, kids) that the doubles were hit in the air either as line drives or flies. They were not. After getting some education about Katron and the potential flaws with using the data as I did, I went back to the video and found out that my particular examples show just how dangerous using the data as I did can be when the dots represent where the ball is fielded and not where it first hits the ground.

First, let’s look at the doubles:

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See the problem now? I apologize for that, I simply didn’t put together the inherent flaws of using the data like that. It’s 100% my fault, though, so I’m not crapping on the folks over at Katron.org as it’s even there in bold below the charts:

Every location is where the ball was fielded by a player, not where it landed. You better read this Paul Sporer you stupid dummy. 

That may not be a fully accurate quote from their site.

Perhaps if I had been reading my now-BP-colleague Sam Miller a year ago when he was writing at the OC Register, this all could’ve been prevented.

Hey, at least the flyball I highlighted doesn’t have the same issues. There is no guarantee it would’ve been out in Minute Maid, but we see the 367 sign behind Josh Hamilton when he catches it and we know that Minute Maid is 315 for a large portion of leftfield known as the Crawford Boxes.

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click for huge picture

click for huge picture

Monday: 02.4.2013

2013 Starting Pitcher Guide Sample

As we turn the calendar over to February, baseball season is right around the corner. Many football fans close the book on that sport with the end of the Super Bowl and turn their attention back to baseball. Two weeks ago, I began taking pre-orders on the 2013 Starting Pitcher Guide and that will continue for another 10 days through Valentine’s Day. Perhaps you’re on the fence about the purchase and a trip down memory lane through the previous guides isn’t what you looking for to get you over the proverbial hump. Well how about a sample of what you will be getting in this year’s guide? Yeah, that does sound nice, doesn’t it?

I had Doug send over his report card on Oakland youngster Jarrod Parker and paired it with my profile on him to give you a taste of the 2013 guide in the PDF found below.

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(left-click to view in browser;
right-click to save file to desktop)

Notice how robust the coverage is for the 24-year old Parker. Nearly 500 words went into it. I mentioned this in the SP Guide Announcement, but I’ll reiterate here that the effort expended in the guide will be spent on those who can move the needle forward on your 2013 season. There will still be prospect coverage without question, but there were instances in last year’s guide of a Low-A prospect with no shot of contributing in 2012 getting a 200-plus word write up when 75-100 would’ve been sufficient and that surplus could’ve been better spent elsewhere.

This is especially important because not the majority of folks do no play in dynasty leagues or leagues with a minor league taxi roster of three to five guys. Don’t worry, dynasty leaguers, I’m not leaving you out in the cold. The top prospects and those are on the rise will still get their due, but I can tell who to chase down in a more efficient way than I did last year.

Finally, for those unfamiliar with 20-80 scale used in Doug’s Mechanics Report Card, don’t fret as it will be explained in an essay from him in the guide. In the meantime, understand that a 50 grade is average and not at all an indictment of talent.

Questions & comments can be directed to thespguide@gmail.com

Order now to save 25%!!!

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Monday: 02.4.2013

Countdown to Spring Training: 18 Days – Allen Craig

Only 18 days until live game action…

With 30 days to go, I started profiling a hitter per day highlighting one from each team. I selected my player of note from each team and then randomized them (which was pretty interesting consider who the final two were after the randomization) so that’s the order I’ll be following.

ALLEN CRAIG

You had to know this was coming.

I mean seriously, who else would I choose for St. Louis? I basically already wrote his Countdown piece back in December, I just didn’t know it yet. So I’m going to rely heavily on that for today’s entry as I don’t need to simply regurgitate what I said there or what I’ve said on Twitter (and elsewhere) since November. Allen Craig is my player in 2013. That much is clear. The wagon is hitched. Next stop: promised land.

I’ve taken him just about everywhere in mocks (missed getting him in just one) so far this winter though it appears I’m driving a relatively full bandwagon. Looking at this ADP data from NFBC provided by Baseball HQ we see that Craig is slotted 53rd overall and while I’ve been taking him higher–I’m actually the 21 that qualifies as Craig’s earliest pick which I did here (Team 10) in a November draft during the Arizona Fall League event by Baseball HQ–usually in the 30s, others have are seeing the upside within The Wrench.

Since I did this write up about two months ago and some of you have likely already read it, I made something for you to still get your daily baseball fix on the day we* officially turn the page from football to baseball.

*I never closed the book personally, I just had both open.

Enjoy:

Sunday: 02.3.2013

Countdown to Spring Training: 19 Days – Adam Jones

Only 19 days until live game action… and many folks officially turn their attention back to baseball tonight after the Super Bowl (Go Niners!)

With 30 days to go, I started profiling a hitter per day highlighting one from each team. I selected my player of note from each team and then randomized them (which was pretty interesting consider who the final two were after the randomization) so that’s the order I’ll be following.

ADAM JONES

I talk often about how we can’t expect linear growth (and I’m hardly the only one) from young players. As exciting as it is to see a big age-22 season as a 380 PA/100 game call-up, we can’t just assume that they’ll take the experience and expound on it the following year as a full-time player. Hell, even if they log 500+ playing 140-something games as a full-time player in that age-22 season, there are still no guarantees that, even with good base skills, they’ll improve the following year.

It just doesn’t happen that way. Sometimes it does and it’s magical, but often we see players experience a series of ups and downs in the early 20s as they amble about like a baby goat trying to establish themselves on firm ground. Regardless of their pedigree coming up, they may bounce around statistically for multiple seasons before finally becoming what we saw in the minors. And of course, they might not ever reach those minor league expectations. Adam Jones fits the former description.

Jones, a supplemental first round pick of the Mariners back in 2003, was a well-regarded prospect landing in the Baseball America Top 100 in both 2006 (64) and 2007 (28). He had a few cups of coffee with the Mariners, but was eventually traded to Baltimore in that huge Erik Bedard trade. His 2008 Oriole debut wasn’t particularly special as he showed just a bit of the power and speed that we’ve now come to expect from him yearly. He’s now headed into what he hopes will be his sixth straight *full* season (500+ PA) and fifth straight of better than league average performance.

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He surged forward in his second full season adding 10 home runs and improving his strikeout and walk rates, all in virtually the same amount of playing time. Despite adding 102 plate appearances the following year his production was essentially static in the counting number while his walk rate plummeted while the strikeout rate ticked back up. He rebounded at age 25 and then took another step forward last year for his best year yet. And depending on how you delineate it, he either just entered his prime or has yet to do so, either way the future is bright.

Is 2012’s power jump for real? The 18.8 percent HR/FB rate isn’t outlandish given his 2009 and 2011 rates. He did a lot of his home run damage in May hitting 10 with a 31.3 percent HR/FB rate, but at the other end of the outlier spectrum he had just a 9.1 HR/FB rate in August when he hit just two home runs so they cancel each other out a bit, though it’s reasonable to say May’s outburst contributed a good bit to his surplus over 2011. Nothing within his profile loudly screams that the 32 home runs were a fluke, though I’d probably land in 25-28 range for a projection. He didn’t hit a ton of flyballs (32.6 percent), but his 21.5 line drive rate offset that a bit.

Jones now has three straight seasons of established performance averaging a .284 batting average, 25 HRs, and 12 SBs, with the latter two categories on the rise year over year. The 2012 season may be the best of his career, but there is legitimate room for improvement given his skills and age especially since we’ve seen him do better with the walk rate in the past. I happen to think he can take another step forward with his batting average and put together a handful of .300+ seasons. It’s not much of a jump from the .280s anyway so I’m not exactly going out on a limb, just outlining something that is a reasonable expectation in the near future. Taking it a step further, a .320 or better season where he contends for a batting title in the near future wouldn’t surprise me at all.

Bet on a big batting average jump before another 32 HR season.

Saturday: 02.2.2013

Countdown to Spring Training: 20 Days – Anthony Rizzo

Only 20 days until live game action…

With 30 days to go, I started profiling a hitter per day highlighting one from each team. I selected my player of note from each team and then randomized them (which was pretty interesting consider who the final two were after the randomization) so that’s the order I’ll be following.

ANTHONY RIZZO

One of the winter’s rising sleepers (which of course cuts into his sleeper value) is Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo. He had a brief, but ugly debut in 2011 that saw him hit just .141 with a 523 OPS in 153 plate appearances with the San Diego Padres. Jed Hoyer, formerly of the Padres, joined forces with Theo Epstein to run the Cubs that offseason so they wanted to get their prized prospect, whom they’d discovered as part of the Boston Red Sox organization when they drafted him in 2007. He was traded for that offseason and instantly became part of their future foundation with Starlin Castro.

Rizzo ripped through the PCL in 2011 with 26 home runs, 101 RBIS, and a 1056 OPS in 413 plate appearances and yet he somehow topped that in his follow-up as a Cub farmhand hitting 23 home runs, driving in 62, and posting an 1101 OPS in just 284 plate appearances. He’d have been called up earlier, but Bryan LaHair was having an unexpected great start to the season. Once he reached the majors again on June 26th, he showed that his 2011 flop was merely a blip. He hit .285 with 15 home runs, 48 RBIs, and an 805 OPS in 368 plate appearances. His seven percent walk rate was below average, but the 17 percent strikeout rate was very good (3% better than league average for the position).

A lot of outlets are looking for a big breakout in 2013 now that he will have a full season of playing time. The Bill James projection at Fangraphs has him down for a .283-33-109 season. Yes, really. The “Fans”, which consists of 41 Fangraph reader projections, weren’t far from James at .285-28-103. Those are definitely… optimistic… to say the least. I can’t help but wonder if we, the baseball community, learned nothing from last year. Doesn’t Rizzo fit the mold of some heavily favored sleepers from 2012? Namely guys like Eric Hosmer, Brett Lawrie, and Desmond Jennings?

They were the shiny new toys of 2011 with various levels of kick-assery and they became the object of many fantasy managers’ affection leading into the March draft season for 2012. Hosmer had more or less a full season logging 128 games and 563 plate appearances while Lawrie and Jennings merely gave a taste at 43 and 63 games played, respectively. And how did that all work out?

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Hosmer is least like Rizzo from an experience standpoint, but most like him in every other avenue as the pair are both 23-year old left-handed first basemen. Hosmer had the relatively full season of success in 2011, but that second time around the league was brutal as the struggles against lefties continued and he couldn’t stay great against righties. His 886 OPS against righties dropped to 700 in 2012 while his performance against lefties improved just six points to a still-meager 591 OPS.

Rizzo posted an 892 OPS against righties in 2012 compared to just 599 against lefties. As lefties with groundballs tendencies, they are going to be more susceptible to the infield shift. I don’t know how much either Hosmer or Rizzo faced the shift in 2012, but I do know they hit .091 and .161, respectively, on grounders to the pull field against lefties. It’s a thin slice of data as they had just 44 and 31 such plate appearances, but still worth noting especially if either or both weren’t facing the shift often.

League average for lefties in those situations was .174 so Rizzo wasn’t too far off, but his margin for error is scant if he is to have the breakout season projected at Fangraphs as he can’t give anything back against righties (and probably needs to jump up some) and needs massively improve against lefties. He was great in a half of 2012, but it is a lot different going through the grind of all six months in the big leagues. Even hitting the extrapolation of his 2012 numbers would be a major achievement.

Taking his 2012 rates over 630 plate appearances yields a 26 homer/82 RBI season which would be fantastic for the 23-year old and I still think that should be on the outer end of his projection. After all, look what another sweet-swinging first baseman did in 2012 compared to his 2011 extrapolation. Paul Goldschmidt skipped Triple-A in 2011 coming up to the bigs for a 177-plate appearance carafe of coffee during which he crushed eight bombs with 26 RBIs and a .250/.333/.474 line. Extrapolating that out would’ve been a 28/93 season yet he was far from a disappointment when he “only” went 20/82 last year. (Sidenote: I’ve got more on him coming up soon. Big fan. Big, big fan.)

The extrapolation game with youngsters is dangerous, and frankly kind of stupid. We already know that they aren’t guaranteed to progress in a linear fashion thus expecting someone like Rizzo to essentially just double his 2012 production in his first full season at such a young age is foolhardy. In order to hit any of these home run projections, he’s either going to have to maintain his 18 percent HR/FB rate or add some flyballs to the 30 percent he hit last year. He wasn’t struggling to hit the ball hard with an awesome 24.4 percent line drive rate, but sustaining that over a full season won’t be easy, either.

Just 10 percent (14-of-143) of qualified hitters were at or above his 24.4 LD rate meanwhile only four of those players were at or below his 30 percent flyball rate. So it’s basically one or the other. Two of them were Buster Posey and Robinson Cano, so there is precedent for Rizzo… as long as he’s an all-world player. And only six players maintained an 18.1 HR/FB rate or better with a flyball rate south of 30 percent. Posey and Cano were two of them along with David Freese, Kendrys Morales, Billy Butler, and Carlos Gonzalez. Note that none of those players were both 23 years old and entering their first full year in the majors.

Despite the negative slant to this piece, I’m not down on Rizzo’s long-term prospects at all. I’m simply preaching caution with him for 2013. Last year wasn’t the first year that prospects failed to live up to their billing, but rather the most recent examples thus they’re still fresh in our memories. We should learn from last year’s mistakes, not make them again. Sure there is going to be some under-25 stud who tears the league apart, but betting a significant amount of your auction budget or a high round draft pick that you found the needle is a good way to finish sixth.

One final note is that obviously all bets are off in keeper and dynasty leagues as you’re going to have to pay a little more on the front-end to enjoy the future. In current keeper & dynasty leagues, he is already cheap and likely not for sale, but in new leagues he will have a bit of an elevated price based on his hot 2013, age, and overall prospects. If you are the type who likes to build the future juggernaut in those leagues, he’s definitely one to target.

 

Saturday: 02.2.2013

Countdown to Spring Training: 21 Days – Jason Heyward

Only 21* days until live game action…

With 30 days to go, I started profiling a hitter per day highlighting one from each team. I selected my player of note from each team and then randomized them (which was pretty interesting consider who the final two were after the randomization) so that’s the order I’ll be following.

*Sorry for missing Friday’s entry, but I’m doubling up today so technically there are 20 days until live game action, but we’ll get to that later today!

JASON HEYWARD

On the heels of a brilliant 2009 campaign at age 19, Atlanta outfielder Jason Heyward entered the 2010 season as the #1 prospect in all of baseball. You’d have thought it was a full season when you saw his numbers with a .323/.408/.555 line including 17 HRs, 63 RBIs, 10 SBs, and 25 2Bs, but injuries limited him to just 99 games which he split pretty evenly between High-A (49) and Double-A (47) tacking on three more at Triple-A to close the season out. Despite the hype there was no guarantee he’d start the 2010 season with the Braves, but then a big Spring Training during which he hit .305 with five extra-base hits, four stolen bases, and a near1:1 K:BB ratio (11 K/10 BB) sealed his fate as the starting rightfielder for good in Atlanta.

Well, for good so far.

You know what happened next. He hit a three-run home in his first major league at-bat and went on to have an excellent, near-Rookie of the Year campaign falling short to Buster Posey by just 22 points.  Unfortunately that was followed by the fabled sophomore slump in which he dropped 50 points from his batting average, saw his walk rate & OBP tumble in concert, and he missed 34 games due to injury including right shoulder injury that sent him to the disabled list in late May. He first missed time with the shoulder on May 11, but looking at the numbers suggests it was plaguing him throughout the month before finally hitting the DL on May 22nd:

heywardmay2011

Ouch. And that doesn’t even show the fact that he managed one line drive all month. He had 12 groundballs, nine flyballs, four popups, and the one line drive. So while it is speculation on my part that the shoulder was ailing him all month, I think the evidence is strong. He rebounded a bit when he returned on June 15th finishing out the month relatively, but then fell back into a deep slump that last all of July and August. In the two months he hit just .212/.281/.394 with 6 HRs, 20 RBIs, and 2 SBs. Perhaps most alarming was that his usually solid walk plummeted to seven percent.

He was lost.

A major problem facing Heyward in his dismal 2011 season was an inability to hit anything with a wrinkle. This is not a new problem facing youngsters and he didn’t exactly crush off-speed in 2010, but his 2011 work against the pitches especially awful and the 2012 rebound no doubt aided his resurgence:

heywardoffspeed

He didn’t exactly pound the ball against off-speed stuff last year, either, but the bar was so low that just returning to 2010 levels was enough to really help his overall numbers. Isolating his work against curveballs specifically shows that to have been his problem pitch above all in that 2011 season. Though his .143 batting average against the changeup in 54 plate appearances wasn’t carrying him to any batting titles, either.

heywardcurveball

He still has to get better to become the superstar that many see him becoming (myself included). His 35 percent strikeout rate against off-speed stuff in 2012 was the 13th-highest in baseball. That put him in the company of new teammate B.J. Upton (36.4%) and Colby Rasmus (36%), a pair of supremely talented, highly touted prospects (Upton peaked as the #2 overall prospect in ’04; Rasmus at #3 in ’09) who have never quite lived up to their expectations. Look at their numbers against off-speed since 2009 (as far as back as the data goes):

prospectOFvoffspeed

Heyward is the “best” of the three, but the lead is marginal and entirely tied to his extra plate discipline with a walk rate that is nearly two times that of the other two guys. It might worth noting that within the 2012 season, Heyward did show some improvement against non-fastballs from half to half posting a 689 OPS against the pitches through the All-Star break and followed it up with a 761 OPS from mid-July to the end of the season. The splits were small samples of about 115 plate appearances apiece, but maybe he adjusted something in-season to improve.

One thing that stuck out was that he killed changeups in the first half hitting .346 with a 991 OPS against them albeit in just 30 plate appearances before falling back to a .174 average and 513 OPS against them in the second half, again in a scant 24 plate appearances. Perhaps his luck was just evening out and the split in halves has no real significance.

The bottom line is that pitchers are beating him with off-speed pitches on a consistent basis and he will need to adjust if he is to become a superstar, face of the franchise-type who will take the torch from the now-retired Chipper Jones. For those wondering how he fares against fastballs, he has an 867 career OPS against them with single season marks of 903 in 2010, 827 in 2011, and 860 last year. He does have one particular trend that has been going in his favor year-over-year: his groundball rate is shrinking while his flyball rate climbs. He started with 55 percent groundball and 27 flyball rates in 2010, moving to 55 and 33 percent in 2011, and finally 44 and 37 percent a year ago. He was very close to the league average batted ball profile of 45 groundball, 34 flyball, and 21 percent line drive.

I hope y’all realize how much restraint I showed by not once referencing that Heyward has Trouble with the Curve.

You’re welcome.