By the Numbers: Time for a reality check
Our preseason sleeper, breakout and bust picks were hopefully a useful guide to your drafts and auctions, but they have long outlived their usefulness for finding values. The Scott Kazmir -as-sleeper and Jean Segura -as-bust trains left the station a long time ago.
As I do every year, I'm dusting off those old lists and reviewing them in midseason. It's a humbling experience, but seeing what went wrong with the errant picks offers some important life lessons. Actually, there aren't many life lessons here, but I have learned some new things about the players involved as well as about some of the flaws in my forecasts. And while there is plenty of Fantasy baseball yet to be played this season, it's not too soon to learn from this season's missteps and apply them to our future moves.
Of the 36 picks I made across the three columns, 10 stand out as clear misses, even with a little more than two months left in the season. If you drafted Andrelton Simmons or Marco Estrada based on my expectations of a breakout, I apologize. I also share your pain, as I invested in both players repeatedly back in March. It will be hard for them to salvage their seasons, but at least we can learn a little something from four months of disappointment.
So before bravely setting foot into the dog days, let's take a step back in time...beginning with a couple of sleepers who have yet to wake up.
Note: All season-to-date stats are current for games played through Tuesday, July 22.
Alex Rios , OF, Rangers: Many owners were distrustful of Rios heading into this season, likely because of a perception that he was inconsistent. Because he had been a top-six outfielder in back-to-back seasons, I actually viewed Rios a safe high-end option worthy of a second-round pick. Rios is barely hanging on as a top 30 outfielder, as he has swapped out a 20-ish home run pace for doubles and triples power. Rios' stolen base total has been a letdown, too, as he has made just 24 attempts. Given that he has been caught eight times, you can't really blame him (or manager Ron Washington) for not trying more often. Rios' ranking has also been hurt by reduced run production, but it was hard to foresee the toll that injuries and slumps would take on the Rangers' production as a whole.
With 20-20 hindsight, I would not have projected Rios for 34 stolen bases, as I gave too much weight to Washington's past tendencies towards aggressive base running and not enough to Rios' uneven track record with steals.
Will Venable , OF, Padres: Venable appeared to have broken out in 2013 with 22 home runs and 22 stolen bases, and I assumed he was a beneficiary of the Padres having brought their right field fence in. He has yet to get on track this year, and even in a lineup desperate for thump, Venable is struggling just to get playing time.
This is a tough one to figure out, as Venable is hitting with less power than he has in any major league season. If there was any clue that last season was a fluke, it could be that Venable's average flyball distance actually declined by 14 feet, according to BaseballHeatMaps.com, but that is dwarfed by the additional 25-foot drop that he has experienced this season. It's hard to know how Venable's cliff-dive into powerlessness could have been foreseen, but it would have helped to see him hit for greater distance last season before touting him as a sleeper.
Jason Heyward , OF, Braves: So this was going to be the season in which Heyward would combine the power and stolen base potential we saw two years ago with the batting average potential he showed late last season. As Heyward has stolen as many as a dozen bases only once, that seemed to be the least likely part of the package that he would produce, yet it's the only part he has provided so far. With 11 swipes in 98 games, it's not as if Heyward is doing enough in that category to make up for his .258 batting average and nine home runs.
If nothing else, I should have been suspicious of Heyward's post-break .305 batting average from a year ago, given that it was padded by a .330 BABIP. Heyward is far too prone to popups to maintain a BABIP or overall batting average that high. Where his power has gone is a mystery, as Heyward is now in his second straight season of a decline in that area. Perhaps his plunging Isolated Power against righties last season, which fell from .263 to .165, should have served as a warning sign. Now that he's not hitting for any power against lefties (.082 Iso), the bottom has fallen out of his power game. At least he is hitting .306 with runners in scoring position, which has helped his run production, but there is no particular reason to think he can keep that going.
Brad Miller , SS, Mariners: More hits and more walks...that was my expectation for Miller in his sophomore season. What I didn't see coming was a surge in strikeouts that was unprecedented in his professional career. Though Miller did have a history of frequent walks in the minors, he hasn't typically had long plate appearances, and that caught up to him last season. This year, his pitches per plate appearance ratio has fallen from 3.55 to 3.39. With those ratios, it's no surprise that Miller hasn't established a high walk rate, but it doesn't jive with a high strikeout rate. In fact, Miller hasn't struck out that often lately, getting just 22 Ks in his last 113 at-bats.
Even with a reasonable strikeout rate, Miller has hit .257 with a .315 on-base percentage over that span. Not only has Miller's walk rate not translated to the majors, but neither has his high BABIP rates. Miller is providing a much-needed reminder to trust a player's major league stats more than his minor league stats, especially when he may have been rushed to the big leagues, as Miller apparently was.
Andrelton Simmons , SS, Braves: Part of Simmons' appeal as a breakout was his untapped potential for infield hits, and he has actually come through with a higher rate. He is just four short of last season's total of 23, even though he has 248 fewer at-bats. Simmons also continues to be a contact hitter extraordinaire, yet all he has to show for it is a .257 batting average. While he is demolishing last year's singles pace, Simmons has fallen far behind his previous extra-base hit pace. It turns out that Simmons' increase in infield hits doesn't come entirely from better utilization of his speed, as he is simply hitting more grounders now. The increase in his ground ball rate from 43 to 53 percent has not worked in his favor.
In my initial analysis of Simmons, I acknowledged that he might lose some of the power gains he made in 2013. That has, in fact, occurred, but it's done more than just lower his home run total. It's hurt his run production, and an underlying decrease in line drive rate has helped to squelch his batting average.
Oswaldo Arcia , OF, Twins: As I'm writing this bit on what's gone wrong for Arcia, I saw him hit a home run on TV. Maybe I just need to watch more Twins games.
That homer was just the sixth for Arcia this season, and his lack of power has been downright puzzling. He has actually reduced his ground ball rate from 45 to 39 percent, and while he doesn't possess the best plate discipline, he managed to hit 14 homers and 17 doubles in 97 games while striking out in one-third of his at-bats in his rookie season.
Though Arcia's season was slow getting underway due to a wrist injury, he actually hit well through his first 16 games. He hasn't been the same since sustaining an ankle injury on June 6, at which point he owned a .297/.308/.578 slash line. His woes could be health-related, and if so, there is hope for a rebound at some point this year.
Marco Estrada , SP, Brewers: I basically got greedy with this pick. High flyball rates are nothing new for Estrada, but I figured his fortunes would only improve after he allowed 19 home runs over 128 innings last season. That was child's play compared to the meltdowns that fellow flyballers Phil Hughes and Colby Lewis experienced in past years, and as was the case with those two pitchers, Estrada pitches his home games at a homer-friendly park.
Of course, things did get much worse for Estrada, as he was jettisoned to the bullpen after allowing 27 home runs in 18 starts. While I neglected the possibility of a home run spike, I did see the potential for Estrada to improve his BABIP, given that opponents batted .294 on ground balls last season. I should have figured, though, that batters would also increase their .493 line drive BABIP against him, and with a .605 rate, the impact of better luck on ground balls has been neutralized.
Jose Bautista , 1B/OF, Blue Jays: It's hard to call Bautista a bust when he is the sixth-ranked outfielder in standard Head-to-Head leagues and 13th in Roto leagues, but my fears about him were somewhat founded. My worries centered around a decreasing Isolated Power trend and a pattern of missing time with injuries. While Bautista has managed to play in all but six of the Blue Jays' 101 games to date, his Isolated Power (.239 in 2013, .202 in 2014) and home run-to-flyball ratio (13.8 percent in 2013, 13.1 percent in 2014) have dipped yet again.
With Bautista currently outside of the top 10 outfielders in Roto without much missed time, owners should think twice about using a pick within the first three rounds on him next season, especially since he is now in his fourth straight season of power decline.
Albert Pujols , 1B, Angels: I expressed doubt that Pujols could be a top eight first baseman, as I worried he may still suffer from lingering effects of plantar fasciitis. There has been no evidence of health issues for Pujols, and while he hasn't been quite as productive as he was in his first season with the Angels, he currently ranks fifth in Head-to-Head value and seventh in Roto value among first basemen. Pujols' power rebound has been very mild, but he is posting his lowest strikeout rate in three seasons.
It's a good thing that Pujols has increased his home run-to-flyball ratio (HR/FB) from 9.6 to 13.1 percent, because he is hitting grounders at a much higher rate. Pujols' 47 percent ground ball rate might sound high, but keep in mind that it's only slightly higher than the 45 percent rate he posted in 2011, when he hit 37 homers. This season's level of performance may be as good as it gets for Pujols from here on out, but he will still be a viable option in the first five rounds next season.
Zack Greinke , SP, Dodgers: I shed doubt on the 2.63 ERA that Greinke put up last season and thought that his mediocre 7.5 K/9 ratio could fall even further. There seemed to be all sorts of warning signs: a 79 percent strand rate, 7.6 percent HR/FB ratio and an 11.4 percent whiff rate that all seemed poised to worsen. Only the HR/FB ratio has moved in the wrong direction, but then again, Greinke is allowing fewer flyballs.
I still doubt that Greinke will maintain his strand rate, which currently stands at 80 percent, but given his ability to get whiffs and avoid walks, his regression won't be significant. To be sure, Greinke's peripherals from 2013 were a little distressing, but he had bounced back from mediocre strikeout and ground ball rates before. Calling Joe Nathan a potential bust because of some erosion in his supporting stats made sense given that he's 39. Doing the same with 30-year-old Greinke was an overreaction.