By the Numbers: Bridging the rankings gap
Ranking every player in the league can be a bear of a task, but it's always wise to consider other opinions. Al Melchior was motivated to both stand pat and make some changes in his latest By the Numbers
We like it when you visit our rest-of-season rankings page, and we like it even more when you give it a close inspection. When our ordering of players looks askew to you, we often hear about it, and in many cases, that provides an excuse to research the players in question in depth.
When I peruse my own rankings alongside the season-to-date Fantasy point rankings and they're not even close to matching up, sometimes it makes me wonder what I've missed. Sometimes, though, I'm so confident in a player (or so mistrustful, in the case of a low ranking) that I stubbornly stick with my assessment, despite all of the evidence that has piled up over the months. At this point in the season, that's not the best practice, so more and more, I'm questioning these discrepancies as they come up.
I'm focusing on six of the deepest discrepancies here, some of which were suggested by readers via Twitter. It just so happens that I'm willing to defend three of them, while upon closer inspection, the other three need adjustments. So that will keep things nice and symmetrical for this column.
Not only do these analyses delve into why I see certain players as being due for a change in value, but I've enlisted the help of some performance indicators that can help us to understand a player's performance above and beyond what the surface stats tell us. As I have noted in other forums recently, I'm finding the batted ball distance data on BaseballHeatMaps.com especially enlightening, and all references to average distances of hit balls are from that source.
Note: Season-to-date stats are current for games played through Tuesday, Aug. 5.
Rankings that won't change
Chris Davis, 1B, Orioles (My H2H ranking: 9; Actual H2H ranking: 33): Davis is struggling mightily just to put the ball in play lately, as he has struck out 44 times in his last 85 at-bats. No matter how much power a hitter may have, he won't produce much of anything striking out in more than half of his at-bats. If there's an encouraging sign, it's that Davis has maintained his home run pace from the first three months of the season, even though he is striking out nearly 50 percent more often since then. If Davis can only get back to being a bad contact hitter instead of a horrific one, he has a chance to finish out the season as an elite first baseman. Davis is hitting flies almost as far on average as he did last year (305 feet versus 309 feet), which makes his 18.4 percent home run-to-flyball ratio -- as compared to last season's 28.0 percent rate -- look unlucky. His .152 batting average on grounders also looks primed to improve. At full bore, Davis is a top five first baseman, so his current ranking isn't built on the expectation of a return to 2013 levels. The signs of an impending power and batting average rebound are still enough for me to keep him in my top 10.
J.J. Hardy, SS, Orioles (My H2H ranking: 14; Actual H2H ranking: 22): We have been waiting all season for Hardy's power to show up, but so far it's stood us up. There is really no clear explanation as to why Hardy has made it through four months of the season with just four homers. He has not become more of a ground ball hitter, and his average flyball distance of 277 feet is right in line with his averages from the last two seasons. The biggest clues lie in Hardy's strikeout per at-bat rate, which has increased from last season's 12 percent to 20 percent, and his spray chart which shows that he isn't pulling the ball quite as often as he had in 2012 and 2013. Those developments are enough for me to keep Hardy out of the top 10, where he has resided the last two years, but not dramatic enough for me to expect that he won't improve his power production going forward.
Andrelton Simmons, SS, Braves (My H2H ranking: 7; Actual H2H ranking: 18): Simmons is still elite at making contact, striking out 39 times in 394 at-bats. He is also hitting flyballs 12 feet farther on average than he did last year and popping up at less than half the rate. So why isn't Simmons hitting for average or power? After dropping his ground ball rate to 43 percent last season, he's cranked it back up to 53 percent, but that's not a convincing explanation. Most of the regression on Simmons' ground ball rate has come over the past month, but his power slump preceded that by two months. Also, even with a high ground ball rate two seasons ago, Simmons showed more power than he has this year. Now that he is hitting near the bottom of the Braves' order again, Simmons might not be able to pick up his RBI pace, but his low batting average, run total and extra-base hit rate seem like a fluke, even with two-thirds of the season elapsed. Given how shallow the shortstop pool is, it still feels premature to drop Simmons in the rankings. Of course, it won't be if his ankle injury turns out to be serious, but for now, I'll keep Simmons at No. 7.
Rankings due for an adjustment
Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies (My H2H ranking: 16; Actual H2H ranking: 80): Gonzalez owes his low ranking mostly to missing 46 games, but the finger, ankle and knee injuries that have kept him out of action may have taken their toll when he has played. Though a total of 10 home runs and 14 doubles in 67 games hasn't put Gonzalez too far off his typical pace, he is still being hurt by a relative lack of power. In each of the last two years, Gonzalez has been among the leaders in average flyball distance, topping 310 feet in both campaigns. This season, Gonzalez is averaging 293 feet per flyball, which could explain why his BABIP on flyballs (.067) and line drives (.596) are well below his norms. So, yes, Gonzalez has lost some power and speed, which is affecting his batting average, run production and stolen base total, and he's still dealing with an ankle injury. Though he has more upside than the outfielders just behind him in the rankings, his health issues are enough to drop him behind Yoenis Cespedes and Jay Bruce, among others. Gonzalez will move down a few spots in my next rankings update.
Michael Brantley, OF, Indians (My H2H ranking: 18; Actual H2H ranking: 3): Brantley has always been a very good contact hitter and mild stolen base threat, but he has added power and run production to the mix this season. His home run production has slowed down since mid-May, as he has clouted just seven homers in his last 66 games. That's a far cry from the 30-plus homer pace Brantley embarked on in the early weeks, but he's made up for the dropoff by clubbing 19 doubles since May 20. Given how rarely Brantley strikes out and how often he hits line drives, that impressive pace seems sustainable. Maybe Brantley's 31 percent line drive rate will decline at least a little, but he could still hit .310 with a dozen doubles over the remainder of the season. That type of production, along with moderate contributions to home runs and steals, leapfrogs him over several outfielders and gives him a slight edge over Hunter Pence and a disappointing Bryce Harper. That makes Brantley a top 10 outfielder going forward.
Gerrit Cole, SP, Pirates (My H2H ranking: 32; Actual H2H ranking: 129): As a rookie, Cole established his potential as a top 40 starting pitcher. He really picked up steam over the season's final month and a half, as he got more than a strikeout per inning and allowed just a single home run over his last eight starts. With an 8.2 K/9 ratio and 9.6 percent swinging strike rate, Cole has been slightly less effective at avoiding contact this season, but those rates are plenty high, especially when he can get grounders on 54 percent of hit balls. On the surface, it looks like Cole should be able to match last season's 3.22 ERA and 1.17 WHIP once he returns from the disabled list, but there are two troubling signs. He has already allowed three more line drive doubles than he did last season (per Baseball-Reference.com), even though he has made five fewer starts. Given that he has allowed the average liner to travel 22 feet farther than he did last year, it may not be a matter of bad luck. Also, with a 26 percent chase rate for pitches out of the strike zone (according to FanGraphs.com), Cole's wilder offerings have been among the least tempting in the majors. That makes him a poor bet to improve on a mediocre 3.0 BB/9 ratio. Even if he is ready to return fully recovered from his lat injury for next week, it's time for me to lower my expectations for Cole. Pitchers outside the top 50 all have some substantial flaws, so Cole won't fall that far in my rankings.
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