By the Numbers: Outfield/DH hits and misses
As the saying goes, you can't win 'em all. Our Al Melchior knows that, but he tries anyway. Here, he takes a look back at what went right and what when oh so wrong in his By the Numbers 2011 predictions recap, outfielders and designated hitters edition.
Our player projections for the 2011 season may be long forgotten by many, as the Fantasy Baseball season fades from our memories. Before we forget about those projections for good, it's time to revisit them and see what lessons they offer heading into 2012.
In crafting the projections over the course of several weeks last fall and winter, I managed to come close on many players' actual output, but I swung and missed on plenty of others. Over the next month, I'll be looking back at some of the more intriguing hits and misses, seeing what they can teach us about the players in question for next year. In this first installment, I will be focusing on players who were primarily eligible at outfield and designated hitter this season.
In the interest of brevity, I won't touch on all of the biggest hits and misses, but rather the ones that were either the most surprising or offer insight as to why a player's perceived value has changed over the past year. That means that we will skip over some out-of-nowhere surprises like Melky Cabrera and Michael Morse, super-sized disappointments like Carl Crawford and Alex Rios, and players who saw unexpected changes in playing time, like Emilio Bonifacio.
Peter Bourjos, L.A. Angels: I nailed Bourjos' Fantasy point total of 350 exactly, but he didn't quite achieve that total the way I expected. He had 10 fewer steals than projected, as he was successful on 22 of 31 attempts. Angels manager Mike Scioscia likes an aggressive running game, so it's puzzling as to why Bourjos didn't steal more often. Fortunately, for Fantasy owners, he showed more power and and scored more runs than expected. If he can continue to hit for extra-base power while upping his stolen base total, Bourjos could become relevant for owners in shallower leagues.
Seth Smith, Colorado: Smith hit for a little less power than was anticipated, but he made up for it by getting more playing time. Smith was a risky pick for owners in standard mixed leagues, because it wasn't clear how often he would get to play against lefties. While he was not quite an everyday player all season long, he did get more of a chance to face lefties than he had in the past. For the most part, his production held up with the increased exposure, but the Rockies say that they have bailed on the experiment going into next season, wanting to use him as a platoon player going forward. Before owners downgrade Smith on their 2012 draft lists, though, they should be prepared for the possibility of Smith getting traded. If another team wants to make Smith an everyday outfielder, what we learned in 2011 is that he can be counted on for power and run production even if his overall stats get watered down by his splits against lefties.
Dexter Fowler, Colorado: Fowler made the small steps of progress expected of him, but if we discount his slow start, he actually exceeded expectations. After returning from a midseason stint in the minors, Fowler was a different hitter with a new batting stance, making more frequent and harder contact. He was also a greater threat to steal bases. He may never be a big-time home-run hitter, but Fowler flashed the doubles and triples power that he showed as a prospect. Given that his improvement could have been foretold by his prior track record, we can expect even better things from Fowler next season.
Josh Willingham, Oakland: Oakland can be an unwelcome destination for power hitters, but Willingham made the most of his move to the AL by cranking a career-high 29 homers. Most of his numbers took a decided turn upward, as he made more plate appearances than in any season since 2007. Willingham's overall value was only slightly above projections, though, as he struck out at an unusually-high 27 percent rate. Both his power numbers and his strikeout rate could regress towards his norm next year, but what this season proved is that, as long as he can stay healthy, Willingham can produce runs wherever he goes.
Mike Stanton, Florida: Stanton came into his own in his first full major league season, finishing fifth in the NL in home runs with 34. While there is always some risk in assuming that a prospect will fulfill his promise right away, Stanton made notable improvements to his hitting approach this year as predicted, walking more, striking out less and hitting fewer popups. Since there was no sophomore slump for Stanton, we can feel safe in expecting him to take at least another small step forward next season.
B.J. Upton, Tampa Bay: It's something of an upset that Upton met his projections, as he had been highly inconsistent from year-to-year coming into this season. Aside from notable upticks in home runs and RBI, Upton turned in a very similar season to the one he produced in 2010. With a third straight season with a batting average below .250, Fantasy owners should give up any hopes of him replicating the .300 average he posted in 2007 -- or anything even close to it. What Upton can produce with certainty is 20-plus home runs and 30-plus stolen bases, and that's enough for him to be a No. 2 OF in mixed leagues.
Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh: McCutchen finished the season ranking 10th among outfielders in Fantasy points, exactly as predicted, but he didn't build his value the way I expected. Instead of toying with an average close to .300 and providing 35 steals, McCutchen took a Grandersonian turn and swapped growth in average and steals for more power. The third-year outfielder upped his flyball rate from 37 to 42 percent, which had the dual effect of increasing his home run total and lowering his batting average by 27 points. McCutchen is still just 25, so he may still yet develop his power without having to jack up his flyball rate to do it. Even if he doesn't, he is already a reliable 20-20 threat who should rank among the top outfielders again in 2012.
Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston: Ellsbury was one of my biggest misses, as I underestimated his Fantasy production by exactly 200 points. I actually overestimated his stolen base total by 10 (49 projected, 39 actual) but his power and run production dwarfed his projected numbers. His 32 homers seemingly came out of nowhere; Ellsbury had never hit more than nine in a season, including his years in the minors. By every indication, his power binge was very much for real. His home run per flyball rate and line drive rate both increased substantially, and the increase in pitches per plate appearance suggests that he may have taken to "waiting for his pitch" rather sacrifice his power with an aggressive slap-hitting approach. Also, according to the ESPN Hit Tracker, only five of his 32 long balls were classified as "lucky" or as having "just enough" distance. That's pretty incredible when you consider that the typical hitter has about one-third of his homers fall into those categories. Oh, and he also ranked third in the majors in doubles with 46. While it's always risky to assume that a player can sustain such a dramatic improvement, all of the signs point to Ellsbury being a legitimate power threat.
Curtis Granderson, N.Y. Yankees: Thanks to an increased flyball rate, Granderson hit a career-high 41 homers, but it was on his run production where he really got cheated by my projections. The former Tiger drove in 119 runs, even though he was usually hitting out of the two-hole, and his 136 runs scored exceeded his previous career best by 14 runs. It helped Granderson's cause that he hit home runs in a higher proportion of his at-bats with men on base than he did with the bases empty (in the AL, homers were hit with empty bases at a slightly higher rate than with men on). His run total was also aided by Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano all hitting better with runners in scoring position than they did overall. The stars may not align as favorably next season, so even with another strong power display, Granderson could see a dip in his RBI and runs scored totals.
Jose Bautista, Toronto: I was skeptical that Bautista could come close to replicating his surprising 2010 numbers, but he had yet another dominant season. Though his Fantasy point total came up a little short compared to '10 (615.5, as compared to 652.0), his Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) actually jumped by more than two runs, from 8.5 to 10.6. Bautista arguably was a more productive player in 2011, thanks to huge spikes in his walk rate and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Most impressive was his ability to hit 40-plus homers, even though he shaved eight percentage points off of his flyball rate. Bautista's power is obviously legitimate, and now that he is not as reliant on flyballs to boost his numbers, he can be an asset in the batting average category as well.
Jeff Francoeur, Kansas City: I actually took bigger whiffs on Francoeur's outfield cohorts, Melky Cabrera and Alex Gordon, but there were signs within the last three seasons that either of them could be ready to take a step forward. Francoeur, on the other hand, had been an absolute dud in every season following his 2007 campaign. Frenchy's 40-double output in '07 looked like a complete anomaly, but he bounced back this year with 47 two-baggers. The increase in doubles was largely due to better hitting on flyballs (his flyball BABIP increased from .112 in '10 to .167 in '11), and his growing tendency to hit to the opposite field may have played a role in that development. Luck may have been a factor as well, and owners can't be encouraged by Francoeur's persistent impatience at the plate. While he could be an extra-base threat again next year, it would be assuming a lot to think that he will be safe to draft as a No. 2 Fantasy OF next season.
Josh Hamilton, Texas: While I came close to getting Hamilton's Isolated Power on the nose (.241 projected, .238 actual), I overestimated his batting average. With his actual .297 average falling 19 points short of his projection, I was also overly optimistic about his run scoring, predicting 97 runs instead of the 80 he actually got. I should have been far more suspicious of last season's .285 BABIP on flyballs, which has been bested only once (Adrian Gonzalez's, .287 in 2011) over the last four years. I also gave Hamilton too much credit for staying healthy, as I gave him 75 plate appearances too many in his projections. While Hamilton still had a fairly productive season this year, going forward, he will probably be closer to being the No. 2 OF option that he was this season than the elite producer he was in 2010.
Vladimir Guerrero, Baltimore: I considered myself to be a skeptic of Guerrero's 2010 "renaissance," when he had 29 homers and 115 RBI for the Rangers, but apparently, I wasn't skeptical enough. While Guerrero continued to hit for a good average (.290), his power and run production took a bigger nosedive than anticipated this season. Even with the move from hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark to even hitter-friendlier Camden Yards, Guerrero saw his home run per flyball ratio drop from 13 percent to eight percent. Guerrero was actually fine in his new home park, but he was miserable on the road, slugging just .382 in away games. Guerrero wants to continue to play next season, but if someone offers him a deal, Fantasy owners shouldn't be looking for another comeback. Even with a favorable home environment, Guerrero is too much of a liability in pitchers' parks to trust outside of AL-only leagues (assuming he would wind up in the AL as a DH).
Adam Lind, Toronto: The good news is that Lind will begin next year as a Fantasy-eligible 1B, whereas he started this year solely as a DH. The bad news is that it was a second straight year of disappointing power production for Lind, and that's doubly bad for someone who will be eligible at a position that requires power. I had expected that Lind's home run per flyball ratio would rebound after a precipitous drop in 2010, and sure enough, he added five percentage points onto his rate. Unfortunately, he did that by hitting a high proportion of short-distance homers; ESPN's Hit Tracker placed half of his 26 dingers in the "just enough" distance category. Meanwhile, Lind's doubles power dissipated, as he hit just .069 on flyballs in play. Perhaps his doubles and flyball BABIP numbers from 2011 were a bad-luck fluke, but an increasingly impatient approach at the plate suggests there may be some real long-term problems. Owners in standard mixed leagues should not look to Lind as a middle-round option as they did this past spring. He should be a late-rounder in those formats at best.
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