2013 Draft Prep: Which outliers can you trust

by | Fantasy Writer
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The year is 2011. Egypt goes through a revolution. Alan and his one-man wolf pack return in The Hangover Part II. And Major League Baseball had a pitcher lead the league with an 84 percent winning percentage.

Can you guess who that pitcher was? Roy Halladay? Clayton Kershaw? Justin Verlander? All good guesses, but all surprisingly wrong answers.

The pitcher with the best winning percentage in 2011 was Arizona's Ian Kennedy, who posted a 21-4 record in 33 starts. What's truly amazing is that Kennedy went just 9-10 in 32 starts the year before. Talk about a serious 180.

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Kennedy's breakout performance in 2011 thrust him into the limelight and catapulted his Fantasy value toward the top of the starting pitcher rankings heading into 2012.

Though, if you were like me, you had to be a bit skeptical of Kennedy's turnaround. There was no denying he was a talented pitcher, especially since he was a highly touted prospect coming out of USC. But the chance of winning 21 games or posting an 84 percent winning percentage in 2012 seemed highly unlikely at the time.

Not only did Kennedy's winning percentage decline to .556 in 2012, his ERA jumped from 2.88 to 4.02 and his WHIP from 1.09 to 1.30.

After further evaluation, you could see Kennedy's 2011 numbers were aided by a high strand rate (79.2 percent) and low home run to fly ball ratio (7.7 percent). Both of those numbers saw significant changes in 2012, as Kennedy's strand rate declined to 74.9 percent and his HR/FB rate jumped to 10.8 percent, which were closer to his career averages and league norms.

Kennedy is a prime example of a player that endures a high level of scrutiny coming off a career year. Though, the criticism isn't limited to players coming off good years. There's plenty analysis to go around about underachievers and what to expect in the future.

However, this isn't another typical sleeper, breakout or bust column. The focus here is on statistical outliers, like Kennedy's 21 wins, as we go around the horn evaluating whether or not a given player will exceed or regress (over/under) in that category in 2013.

Matt Harrison, starting pitcher, Texas
2012 stat under evaluation: 18 wins
Verdict: Under
Analysis: Harrison used a strong first half in 2012 on his way to posting 18 wins, which tied for sixth-most in the majors and third-best in the AL. But it's not only Harrison's 2013 win total that concerns me. The signs point to a regression in multiple categories. Last year, his ERA was a career-best 3.29, but his FIP was 4.03 and his xFIP was 4.13, according to FanGraphs.com, indicating he was probably a little lucky. Another stat that supports this theory was Harrison's career-best 78.6 percent strand rate. The league average last year was 72.5 percent, which is also Harrison's career average. Harrison appeared to be pitching more to contact in 2012 as his strikeout rate declined to 5.6 per nine innings. If you take a look at Harrison's second-half numbers last season you can see the regression already began as his ERA spiked to 3.51 in his last 15 starts.

Salvador Perez, catcher, Kansas City
2012 stat under evaluation: .471 slugging percentage
Verdict: Under
Analysis: Before I get into the breakdown, I want to clarify that I'm a believer in Perez and feel he would make for a suitable starting Fantasy catcher in any format. However, I feel Fantasy owners really need to temper expectations. The slugging catcher we have seen through Perez's first 115 MLB games is overstated. There's just no statistical evidence this is the true Perez. He slugged .397 in the minors, and in stops in the minors where he played at least 59 games, he never had an ISO more than .143. ISO is a measure of a hitter's raw power and is a good measure for a player hitting for extra bases. A good power hitter has an ISO above .200 and an above average hitter has about .180. Perez was at .170, which is pretty good for a catcher. His home run/fly ball rate also jumped to 13.1 percent, which was the highest it has been in his career, including the minors. Obviously, you could make the argument Perez is still developing at 22 years old and it's a legitimate point. I do feel Perez will hit for contact and be a good doubles hitter, but I just can't buy into his developing home run power yet.

Yonder Alonso, first baseman, San Diego
2012 stat under evaluation: 39 doubles
Verdict: Over
Analysis: Fantasy owners are probably more concerned about Alonso's home run total rising as opposed to his doubles count improving. You just have to realize, however, Alonso has more of a line-drive swing. We probably should expect more homers from Alonso this season because his ground ball rate (45 percent) was a little high and his fly ball rate (31.3 percent) was a little lower than expected last season. Still, it's not like Alonso was a great home run hitter in the minors. He hit just 15 homers in 132 games in 2010 and 12 homers in 91 games in 2011. If you extend those to 162-game seasons, Alonso would have hit 18 homers in 2010 and 21 homers in 2011, which are just modest totals for a Fantasy first baseman. But Alonso hit 36 doubles in 2010 and 24 in 2011. If you extend those totals to 162 games, then you get 44 doubles and 43 doubles, respectively. It probably can't hurt Alonso that the Padres are bringing in the fences at PETCO Park. Perhaps our best hope for Alonso is that he develops into Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, who is a good line-drive hitter with 20-25 homer power.

Jose Altuve, second base, Houston
2012 stat under evaluation: 33 stolen bases
Verdict: Over
Analysis: Altuve was one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2012 season. He was either a late-round flier or went undrafted, but he ended up as a Top 10 Fantasy second baseman in Head-to-Head and Rotisserie formats. At first glance at Altuve's numbers you see a .290 average, seven homers and 37 RBI, and probably think how in the heck did he end up as a Top 10 Fantasy second baseman? The category that boosted his value was stolen bases. His 33 steals ranked 12th in the majors and first among all second baseman. When Altuve was emerging from obscurity in the minors, everyone was enamored with his ability to make contact at the plate and his defense. No one talked about his base running abilities, which are legit. Altuve had a 72.2 percent stolen base conversion rate (117 for 162) in 382 minor-league games and has a 74.1 conversion rate in 204 MLB games. The arrival of first-year manager Bo Porter should benefit Altuve. Porter was a productive base stealer in his minor-league career and has had extensive experience as a base running coach in the majors. If Porter's philosophies follow his playing career, then Altuve might continue to get the green light.

Kyle Seager, third baseman, Seattle
2012 stat under evaluation: .259 batting average
Verdict: Over
Analysis: Seager showed signs in 2012 of emerging offensive potential. He finished the season with 20 homers, 35 doubles and 86 RBI. But his stat line (BA/OBP/SLG/OPS), especially his .259 average, left a lot to be desired. My biggest reason for an uptick in batting average is this: Seager is a predominantly line-drive hitter, and line-drive hitters tend to have good BABIPs. For instance, Seager had a .390 BABIP in 135 games at Class A in 2010 and had a .350 BABIP in 66 games at Double-A. In his first stint in the majors in 2011, Seager had just a .303 BABIP and it regressed to .286 in his first full season in the majors last year. Another disappointing stat for Seager last season was his 82.4 percent contact rate, which was below what he did in the minors. Seager did seem to be improving as the season progressed and finished 2012 on a high note. He hit .298 with a .330 BABIP in the final weeks of the season (29 games), adding five homers and nine doubles. I definitely can get behind Seager being a breakout candidate in 2013.

Ian Desmond, shortstop, Washington
2012 stat under evaluation: 73 RBI
Verdict: Over
Analysis: After two mediocre offensive seasons, Desmond finally enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2012. Now the question beckons -- Will he be able to sustain it in 2013? I'm in the camp that not only will Desmond remain productive, but he will exceed expectations, especially in the RBI column. Desmond started last season as the Nationals' leadoff hitter, but he clearly wasn't comfortable in that role. He really didn't start to become a power hitter until he was moved lower in the lineup. Desmond did his best work batting sixth. He hit .316 with a .532 slugging percentage, .894 OPS, 12 homers, 16 doubles and 38 RBI in 66 games batting sixth. You extend those numbers over a 162-game season and Desmond has 93 RBI. The addition of Denard Span means the Nationals can afford to keep Desmond in the heart of the lineup, batting fifth or sixth. Now, let's also take a closer look at his home run breakdown from 2012. Desmond had 11 solo shots among his first 12 homers. From June 28 to the end of the season, seven of his final 13 homers produced at least two RBI. If teams pitch around the likes of Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche, then Desmond will have the chance to rack up some nice numbers following those power bats.

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Carlos Beltran, outfield, St. Louis
2012 stat under evaluation: 32 homers
Verdict: Under
Analysis: Beltran's 2012 numbers were aided by a ridiculous first half. Beltran looked like a player that was in the prime of his career and not that of an aging 35-year-old slugger. Before the All-Star break, Beltran hit .296 with a .542 slugging percentage, .924 OPS, 20 homers and 65 RBI. After the break, Beltran started to hit more like a declining slugger. He finished the season batting .236 with a .440 slugging percentage, .742 OPS, 12 homers and 32 RBI in the second half. Perhaps the most-telling sign on why I expect Beltran's home run total to decline in 2013 is that his home run to fly ball ratio last season was 19.9 percent, which was the second-highest mark in his career and well above his career average of 15.8 percent. FanGraphs considers 20 percent to be excellent, 15 percent to be great and 12.5 percent to be above average. In Beltran's previous three seasons, his HR/FB ratio was 10.8, 9.6 and 12.9 percent, respectively. You digest all that information and you have to conclude that Beltran's power outburst in 2012 was an aberration and he is due to regress in 2013.

Torii Hunter, outfield, Detroit
2012 stat under evaluation: .313 average
Verdict: Under
Analysis: Where do we begin with Hunter? Some of his numbers were so astronomically off the charts, much like Beltran, you have to expect a regression in 2013. Hunter's most notable anomaly was his elevated ground ball rate. Hunter had a career-high 52 percent ground ball rate last season, which was above his career average (47.8 percent) and above the league average (45.1 percent, per FanGraphs). His ground ball to fly ball ratio was 2.05, which again was well above his career average (1.39) and the league average (1.33). Last season was the first time Hunter hit better than .300 in his career and it was aided by his ground ball tendencies. He had a .338 ground ball batting average last season, as opposed to .248 in 2010 and .230 in 2011. Hunter might see a lot of good pitches hitting in front of the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez, but I'm going to trust the numbers here and anticipate Hunter's batting average will decline in 2013.

Michael Brantley, outfield, Cleveland
2012 stat under evaluation: 12 stolen bases
Verdict: Over
Analysis: Brantley has just 39 steals in 363 major-league games and has averaged 12 stolen bases per season in the majors since 2010. When Brantley was making his name as a prospect, some of his strengths were plus speed and good instincts on the base paths. You really can't see that from his major-league numbers, but Brantley did average 27 stolen bases per year in six minor-league seasons and had two seasons with at least 35 stolen bases. A major hindrance thus far in Brantley's career has been his .329 on-base percentage. However, he hit .303 and sported a .388 on-base percentage in the minors. He also had a .288 average and .366 on-base percentage in the second half last season, so it seems Brantley is starting to settle in at the major-league level. We also shouldn't overlook the managerial change in Cleveland. From 2007 to 2011, Terry Francona-led Boston teams generally finished the season in the top half of the league in stolen bases. Players like Coco Crisp, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia often had good stolen base totals. Even Francona's Philadelphia teams in the late 1990s finished with good stolen base numbers. If Brantley gets on base at a better clip in 2013, then it wouldn't be surprising if he gets the green light to steal more often.

John Axford, closer, Milwaukee
2012 stat under evaluation: 35 saves
Verdict: Over
Analysis: Axford's struggles last season centered on his increased walk rate and home run to fly ball ratio. Axford walked 5.1 batters per nine innings, which far exceeded his career average of 4.2 batters per nine innings, and those mistakes came back to hurt him in the form of 19.2 percent HR/FB rate, which again well surpassed his career average (8.9) and the league average (11.3, per FanGraphs). Axford definitely seemed to struggle with his command last season. His first-pitch strike rate dropped to a career-low 54.2 percent, which was below the league average of 59.8 percent. That meant Axford got behind hitters and opponents started to take advantage. Opponents swung at 65 percent of pitches inside the strike zone against Axford, which was a significant increase from the previous two years, which were 60.4 percent in 2010 and 60.7 percent in 2011. Axford also threw a career-high 4.5 pitches per plate appearances. He hadn't previously been above 4.16 in his career. So why am I so encouraged? Well, Axford's fortunes seemed to turn late in the year. After posting a 5.37 ERA in his first 52 innings, Axford finished the year with a 2.60 ERA in his last 17 1/3 innings. He also went 15 of 16 in save chances over his final 19 appearances and increased his strikeout rate from 11.8 in his first 52 innings to 13.2 in his final 17 1/3 innings. Axford is probably going to be overlooked on Draft Day after one bad season, but some of his numbers were way off his norms and he finished strong, so Axford in my eyes could end up a Draft Day steal.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Michael Hurcomb at @cbshurc . You can also send us an e- mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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