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September 21, 2010

Fantasy Beat

Hot Spots: Catcher, Second Base, and Shortstop

by Michael Jong

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As fellow VP author Michael Street mentioned in his excellent article from yesterday morning, this week's topic on Hot Spots is going to focus on fantasy disappointments of the 2010 season. Readers can find these articles everywhere, but our focus will not only be on how they performed this year but how they should be viewed for the 2011 season. Looking specifically at the up-the-middle positions, typically strong fantasy options were wrought with injuries all season, and many struggled to match their lofty expectations at the start of the year. Guys like Chase Utley and Ian Kinsler spent time away with injury and did not contribute nearly as much to their teams (real or fantasy) as people had hoped. A few of these players stood out and will be highlighted here.

(Note: All preseason dollar predictions were taken from the Graphical Player 2010. All year-to-date dollar values were taken from Heater Magazine.)

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One player who missed a lot of time due to injury was Brian Roberts, who spent most of the season out with a herniated disk in his back. He returned in late July and, to the relief of fantasy fans, seemed to be mostly his old self once again. As a result, while he's been only worth $5 in 5x5 roto auctions based on his production (compared to the preseason projection of $25). potential fantasy owners for 2011 can be a bit less concerned about his future prospects. Much was made before the season about Roberts' three-year decline in steals totals, which encompassed a big part of his fantasy value. Starting with his career-high 50-steal season in 2007, Roberts has been taking off 17.2% of stolen base opportunities, succeeding in 83.3% of those attempts. In a meager 99 opportunities this season, Roberts has attempted to swipe a bag just over 13% of the time, but he still has maintained an excellent success rate of around 85%. You likely cannot count on him to steal 50 again, but given his current SB% and a full season's worth of work, over 30 steals should be easily attained.

Though the 226 PA sample isn't large in size, it does seem to point to Roberts being mostly the same as last year. His AVG, OBP, and BABIP are almost identical, with his power slumping in 2010. While it is doubtful he will reach 16 homers again in a full season at age 33, Roberts should be good for 40+ doubles and double-digit homers in 2011. With his perennially solid AVG and steals, he still remains a good option despite the trepidation from the start of the season.

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Aaron Hill, on the other hand, cannot be counted on to be similar to his 2009 model. The Graphical Player 2010 had him worth $25, but he has put up just $12 worth of production in 2010. A lot of that is coming from his power, which seems to have carried on from 2009; Hill's 24 HR have him fourth among qualified second basemen, and among the top five he has the fewest PA. Hill has taken to Toronto's "swing for the fences" approach very well, but perhaps this has left him hitting the ball too often in the air. According to BIS data, Hill's 10.1% LD% is the lowest among qualified players, and it may have something to do with his atrociously-low .202 BABIP.

For 2011, some regression has to take place in terms of Hill's BABIP, but do not expect him to go all the way back up to the .290-.320 range he was in before this season. With Toronto's well-documented hitting philosophy likely leading to more fly balls, Hill's AVG will never be what it was prior to 2008. Expecting an AVG closer to the .250-.260 region is more likely. The good news for prospective fantasy owners is that his power seems legitimate, with his 10.5 HR/FB% seems promising in keeping his HR high. In fact, Hill has averaged almost the same numbers of PA/HR in 2010 (22.3) as in 2009 (20.3). Though he should hurt you a bit in your rate stats and provides nothing on the bases, the surplus in HR should more than help even out some of those losses. As Hill develops as a player, so should your expectations of him.

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After Wieters finished his 2009 season strong, batting .333/.395/.486 and launching four of his nine homers in 124 PA in September, fantasy owners were optimistic about the 2010 season. PECOTA projected a very strong .289/.360/.466 season from the switch-hitting catcher, including 18 homers in just 489 PA in his 50th percentile projection. Wieters almost pulled off that much playing time in 2010 (466 PA), but the rest of the season looked significantly worse than that 50th percentile mark. Wieters' power totals were up slightly from last season, but were still disappointing for a player expected to hit close 25+ homers in a full season. His AVG dropped down to .257 despite a decrease in strikeout rate from 22.3% in 2009 to 17.3% in 2010. After a .356 BABIP inflated by that hot 2009 September, Wieters' BABIP regressed down to league average levels in 2010, leading to his decreased AVG. Those two aspects combined to suppress Wieters' fantasy value, with the projection of $20 value yielding a YTD value of $11. It didn't help that he also had to sit out most of July with a strained hamstring.

Wieters' most recent 134 PA have met PECOTA's preseason projections fairly well (.289/.353/.446), indicating that he is more than capable of stretches of fantasy-valuable play. But his power may not be as impressive as we initially thought, and expecting above 20 HR for next season may not be wise. Wieters has also shown some struggles versus lefties despite his switch-hitting status, batting just .230/.279/.343 with drastically higher K% and lower BB%. While that is not likely his true talent rates, it may be worth avoiding Wieters against lefty starters until he proves capable of handling them. Do not be surprised if Wieters' BABIP rebounds next season, as his career .321 mark looks like it may be sustainable over a full season. He may not be the top fantasy option at catcher that fantasy owners were hoping for, but you could do worse than a league average hitter with high upside at the catcher position.

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Chris Iannetta was a personally disappointing example for Hot Spots, as he held a spot in the VP portfolio a couple of times during the season. Iannetta wasn't undervalued because of his unknown talent levels; fantasy owners were more than knowledgeable about his home run power and contact issues. No, his status as undervalued was due in part because of his fellow backstop, Miguel Olivo, and the surprisingly good season he has had. Olivo's early hot streak, combined with a lackluster .133/.235/.333 performance in just 34 (!) PA by Iannetta, convinced the Rockies to demote the younger and better catcher for a month. When Iannetta returned, he was on a lot of fantasy owners' radars, but never regained a starting job despite Olivo's difficult last three months (.235/.262/.352 since the start of July).

Olivo has a club option for the 2011 season, and Jim Tracy seems to be a fan of his regardless of his performance on the field, so Iannetta's future value will be tied to this Rockies offseason decision. Iannetta should get the majority of playing time next season, but the fear is that his vanishing AVG have the Rockies ignoring the other positive aspects of his game. Iannetta is still walking at a large pace (13.1% BB% this season, 13.0% career) and has always had the power to reach a .220+ ISO. Despite only 191 PA this season, he still has reached almost 10 HR for the third straight season, and more playing time should guarantee almost 20 HR. The AVG will always be low, due to a combination of perenially low BABIP and a consistently high strikeout rate, making him not a top fantasy option even with consistent playing time. However, Iannetta will always be good for a power boost, and fantasy players in OBP leagues should not be concerned about his on-base rate stats, as Iannetta has posted an above average OBP for his career.

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Jimmy Rollins scared a lot of fantasy players with his relatively ugly .250/.296/.423 season, his worst since 2003. However, while fantasy fans struggled with a lower AVG, they were still rewarded with a 100-R campaign and 21 home runs from the shortstop position, still providing a lot of value. PECOTA projected a 50th percentile projection of .284/.342/.469 with 18 HR and 26 SB in almost 600 PA. Furthermore, players drafting Rollins had to like the chances of him getting another 600+ PA season, as he had hit that mark in every season after 2000 and had reached 700+ PA seven times in that span. However, the injury bug finally hit the Phillies, and Rollins was not immune. He has accrued only 374 PA this season, spending much of April, May, and June out with a strained right calf. To compound the problem, while Rollins has been on the field, he has not performed well either, essentially matching his 2009 line with a similar .245/.324/.374 2010 line.

The 2010 mark seems odd, as Rollins has struck out less than he has walked and still could not force a better than .250 AVG. His BABIP is down again this year, hovering at .250; in fact, over the last 1100 PA, Rollins BABIP has been at .251. Rollins never has had a great BABIP, getting away with a decent AVG by avoiding strikeouts as he has this season. The most alarming thing about his 2010 is the lack of power, as Rollins' ISO is down to .124, the lowest total he has had since 2003. Going forward, fantasy owners should not be surprised to see similar results from Rollins as they have the last two seasons. His BABIP is certain to rise, as he has failed to hit better than .180 on grounders in the last two years compared to his career .225 mark. Rollins is aging, but the mostly injured season could be playing a role in his diminished power. Until Rollins fails to produce a .150 ISO once again, fantasy owners can expect the HR/FB% rates to regress towards his 8.6% career rate and produce double-digit homers once again. Most importantly, health should naturally yield another 100+ R season with 30+ steals at the top of a loaded (and hopefully healthy) Phillies lineup. There is cause for concern in terms of AVG/OBP, but he still remains one of the better shortstops in fantasy.

Michael Jong is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Michael's other articles. You can contact Michael by clicking here

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