By the Numbers: Check-in time has arrived
There's a piece of conventional baseball wisdom that says that the two-month mark of the season is an appropriate time to take stock of a team's performance. Enough time has passed for players to amass a reasonable sample of stats to analyze, yet there is enough time left in the season to make moves where necessary.
The same logic holds for Fantasy. Particularly for players you may have drafted in the early and middle rounds, five or six weeks is not enough time to accurately judge how well your picks have panned out. Think about how much better Robinson Cano , Jose Bautista and Matt Holliday look now compared to just a couple of weeks ago, or how much worse Michael Young , Jay Bruce and David Freese look. There is still plenty of time for over- and under-performers to adjust, but after close to two months of play, we can get our first decent indication of how some preseason prognostications turned out.
For this analysis, I will focus on a sample of some of the best and worst predictions I made for hitters in the weeks just prior to the heart of draft season. (I'll tackle my pitcher predictions in a future column.) Specifically, I'll take a look at a group of hitters whom I considered to be among the strongest sleeper and bust candidates. I will also highlight a few who appeared to be on the verge of changing their skill profile. For each player featured, I will size up how close he appears to be to meeting his projected level of production. I'm also putting myself on the pass/fail grading system, rating each player prediction as a "hit" or a "miss."
There were reasons to question each hitter's recent track record as an accurate predictor of how he would perform this year, so there is more at stake here than just my taking credit or blame for some predictions. Every player on this list entered 2012 as a question mark in some regard. With nearly two months of current season data at our disposal, we can start to build some certainty into our assessments for at least some of these hitters.
Andre Ethier , OF, Dodgers: I had pegged Ethier as an "underrated home run source," as his knee injury appeared to be a likely culprit for his diminished power output last season. A healthier Ethier has increased his flyball rate back to its normal level around 40 percent and has lifted his home run per flyball rate (HR/FB) to 18.4 percent. Ethier probably won't stay on a 35-homer pace, but he was projected for 24 and should safely reach the 25-to-30 range. Hit.
Drew Stubbs , OF, Reds: Stubbs' customary power went AWOL late last season, due in part to an increase in strikeouts. While there are no signs of Stubbs ever becoming even a decent contact hitter, even a slight reduction in his strikeout rate would help him to get back to being a 20-plus homer threat. A two-homer game on Monday helped to get Stubbs back on a 20-home run pace, but he is also currently on pace to lower his flyball rate for the second straight year. Even though Stubbs is, in fact, striking out a little less often than a year ago, it's a little premature to assume that he is back to being the power hitter he was prior to his slide last season. Miss.
Brian McCann , C, Braves: While McCann continued to his string of 20-plus homer seasons in 2011, his doubles total dropped to 19 -- his lowest-ever total for a full season. I blamed a low line drive rate for McCann's depleted production, and since he had a consistent history of higher rates, a rebound appeared to be in order. Nearing the one-third mark of the season, McCann has just four measly two-baggers. He has all of 11 line drive base hits in total, and if he doesn't increase that pace, he could hit even fewer doubles this year. Line drive rates are highly variable, so there is still a chance that McCann will bounce back, but as of now, he is not the elite producer that I projected him to be. Miss.
Martin Prado , 3B/OF, Braves: Like his teammate McCann, Prado suffered from a dearth of doubles last year, and as a result, he missed badly on his attempt to register a fourth straight season with a .300-plus batting average. Prado is flashing his gap power once again, as he has 13 doubles and a .315 batting average through his first 42 games. The improvements are backed by line drive, BABIP and strikeout rates that are in line with his pre-2011 norms. It's safe to say that Prado is back. Hit.
Austin Jackson , OF, Tigers: I thought that Jackson's .249 batting average last season was a bad-luck fluke, as I put some stock in his high line drive rates from his rookie season and his year in Triple-A. The bad news is that Jackson is replicating last season's 16 percent line drive rate, the good news is that he continues to hit more flyballs, and the even better news is that he is turning those flies into even more extra bases. His current .331 batting average is well above his projected .265 mark, though despite a shrinking K-rate, owners should anticipate a downturn in that category. However, he is making good on his projected increase in doubles and homers. Unless Jackson's abdominal injury keeps him out for an extended period of time, it looks as if he will have been one of this season's top value picks, having emerged from drafts with a 184 ADP. Hit.
Alex Avila , C, Tigers: After a 19-homer season, I had no doubt that Avila would be a valuable Fantasy catcher due to his above-average power. He also established himself as a hitter who could put the ball in the air without popping it up very often, so I envisioned Avila hitting somewhere close to last season's .295 batting average. To his credit, Avila has popped out only twice this year, but his ground ball rate has soared from 38 to 52 percent. We can't blame Avila's approach at the plate, as he has become more selective, so he is either due for a correction or there is something seriously wrong with his swing. In either case, he is far enough away from his projected level of production that he is unlikely to live up to his preseason sleeper status. Miss.
Asdrubal Cabrera , SS, Indians: The near-quadrupling of Cabrera's HR/FB rate in 2011 made me suspicious, to put it mildly, so I did not foresee a repeat of his 25-homer season. Through his first 36 games this year, Cabrera has equaled his 11.6 percent HR/FB rate from a year ago, and he is just slightly behind his home run pace. However, he has offset that minor dropoff with dramatic improvements in his strikeout and walk rates. Seven-plus weeks of good production hardly guarantees a great season, but Cabrera's strong start looks like a consolidation of the skills he has shown at various points of his major and minor league careers. I think that's what the kids these days call a breakout. Miss.
J.J. Hardy , SS, Orioles: Hardy established himself as a power threat during his Brewers' days, so on the face of it, his 30 homers in his first season in Baltimore shouldn't have triggered doubts. It was the fact that it took a 44 percent flyball rate for Hardy to accomplish it that looked strange, especially since he hadn't registered a rate above 39 percent in any of his previous three seasons. Those of us waiting for Hardy to regress to his mean will just have to keep waiting, as he has matched last year's flyball rate and mashed nine taters already. Sure, Hardy isn't getting on base (.294 OBP), but that's not what you drafted him for. His home run power is enough to make him a top 12 shortstop in any format, and there are no signs of him falling short of that status. Miss.
Hunter Pence , OF, Phillies: Heading into 2011, Pence had a steady track record of poor line drive rates, so when he batted .314 on the strength of a robust (for him) 19 percent rate, I couldn't buy into it. To start off this year, Pence is back to a typically-modest 13 percent rate, and his BABIP and overall batting average have fallen along with it. Pence has still been a top 15 outfielder this season because he has clouted 10 home runs. However, four of them have travelled less than 375 feet (as compared to the major league average of 399 feet), and according to ESPN's Hit Tracker, another one was wind-aided. Though Pence's overall performance has been better than what I expected, I'll take the sharp drop in his batting average and reliance on short-distance homers as reason enough to score this as a Hit for now.
Alex Gordon , OF, Royals: Gordon was yet another hitter whose apparent breakout was fueled by a fishy-smelling BABIP. His bloated .361 rate helped to create career highs in batting average (.303), runs (101), RBI (87) and doubles (45), but there was nothing in Gordon's batted ball profile that indicated that he could build on this one year of success. So far in 2012, Gordon has put up fairly typical line drive and HR/FB rates, but the hits on balls in play have been far less plentiful. While some of his funk looks like pure, unadulterated regression, he's also in something of a skills-related slump, as Gordon is popping out and grounding out more often than he did last year. Though there is some rebound potential here, the end result will probably be closer to Gordon's current state than the one he occupied last year. Hit.
Brandon Phillips , 2B, Reds: I distrusted Phillips' .300 batting average and the good line drive rate that supported it last year. Sure enough, he's back to hitting fewer liners and more grounders, and so far, he is making good on my prediction that he wouldn't hit above .280. Phillips has also been lacking in extra-base power and has attempted one lone steal. With help from BABIP, Phillips put his previous pattern of decline on hold for a year, but now it appears that he is sliding further into mediocrity. Hit.
Jon Jay , OF, Cardinals: I was not a believer in the career .347 BABIP -- or .298 overall batting average -- that Jay brought into this season, simply because he hadn't been anything more than an average line drive hitter. In retrospect, that was just plain silly. Not only does Jay have enough speed that he garnered 21 infield hits in 455 at-bats last season, but he also doesn't give away plate appearances with popups. Jay has just one infield fly to date this year, and for his career, his rate is a modest 3.8 percent. Overlooking that constitutes a major whiff on my part. When Jay is healthy enough to return from his shoulder injury, owners in Rotisserie formats can look to him as a legitimate source of help with batting average. Miss.
Cameron Maybin , OF, Padres: With a reduced strikeout rate, Maybin increased his batting average 30 points last season, and at 25, he is young enough to build on that success. To look at Maybin's .205 batting average, it would be easy to assume that he is back to his whiffing ways. Instead, his strikeout rate is up only one percentage point, and he is actually swinging and missing less often. Maybin's problem has been too many groundouts, as he is batting just .211 on grounders, even though he has hit above .300 with the ball on the ground in each of the last two seasons. Maybin has too much speed to languish near the Mendoza Line, especially since his improved contact skills seems to be sticking. Hit.
Howie Kendrick , 2B, Angels: Kendrick took his power game up a notch last season, belting 18 homers, besting his previous career high of 10. The increase in his HR/FB rate looked plausible because he had taken a more patient approach, and this season, his 13.3 percent FB/HR rate falls just a little short of last year's mark of 14.7 percent. With just four homers, Kendrick is a bit behind his 2011 pace, but it would be hard for him to hit for more power with a 59 percent ground ball rate. Still, most of Kendrick's rate stats are not too far off last year's pace, and he is still showing more power than he did in 2010. He is striking out more often, though, and that's hurting Kendrick's batting average and run production. Since I thought Kendrick would be a top 10 second baseman, and he's far from it right now, I've got to call this one a Miss.
Travis Hafner , DH, Indians: Of all of the components of a hitter's production, BABIP is one of the most vulnerable ones to random statistical fluctuations. Still, some hitters have a knack for getting hits on balls in play, and Hafner had increased success on flyballs in play in each of the previous two seasons. Hafner himself credited the improvement to a new approach to hitting, which put less of a premium on swinging for the fences and more emphasis on being aggressive and making contact. Despite a lower strikeout rate, Hafner is hitting just .240 this season, as success on flyballs in play has eluded him. With a pedestrian .114 flyball BABIP, Hafner is batting a lowly .263 on all balls in play. Then again, he has put just 35 flyballs in play so far, so this could easily be an artifact of a small sample. It's probably too early for the jury to decide on this one, but based on the available evidence, this looks like a Miss.
Ryan Sweeney , OF, Red Sox: Sweeney had made strides in improving his batting eye in his final season with Oakland, and some of that progress has carried over to his first year in Boston. Sweeney isn't walking much (only five in 130 plate appearances), but he continues to be highly selective with his swings (40 percent swing rate) and stretch his plate appearances out (4.32 P/PA). Sweeney has a long history of good line drive rates, so with his discerning eye, he has been able to take full advantage of doubles-friendly Fenway Park. His 14 two-baggers surpasses last year's total by three, and he has done it in fewer than half of the at-bats. Assuming that Sweeney's "mild concussion" is nothing more than that, he should continue to be a useful outfielder for owners in points leagues, especially if he starts drawing walks again. Hit.
xFIP: Also known as Expected Fielding Independent Pitching.
It is an estimate of what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were
based on factors that a pitcher can control, such as strikeouts,
walks and flyballs. xFIP is a derivative of FIP, which was
developed by Tom Tango.
Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
GO/AO -- Ground out-air out ratio
GB/FB -- Ground ball-fly ball ratio
Batting Average per Balls in Play (BABIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats
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