December 15, 2010
Hot Spots: Outfield
One thing is clear – the Red Sox organization is confident that the addition of Carl Crawford is going to dramatically improve their playoff chances. One of baseball's most astute organizations, Boston is ably directed by the brilliant Theo Epstein, advised by the Babe Ruth of Sabermetrics, Bill James, and funded by the deep pockets of principle owner John Henry. And the Yankees were unlikely to sign Crawford with two good left-handed outfielders already in Granderson and Gardner, so there wasn't really much of a “blocking” aspect to the signing. Meanwhile, some analysts are skeptical of his ability to live up to his price tag (such as Christina Kahrl's treatment of the signing last week) compounded by the fact - also alluded to by Kahrl – that Fenway has a lot less left field territory than most parks. Further, the comparison she makes to the elder Tony Gwynn has the difficulty that Gwynn's career K% was just 4.7% (K/PA), while Crawford's is 15.4%, meaning that Crawford would have to generate approximately 13% more offense when he puts the ball in play to reach Gwynn's levels. The seeming contradiction between Boston's actions and “min-max” value analysis is probably as simple as Boston being able to afford the inefficiency and needing another good outfielder.
Enough of this “reality” talk, which seems to conclude only that a) Crawford is probably “fine”, as Kahrl describes him, and b) the Red Sox significantly upgraded their woeful outfield by the addition of a “fine” player in LF, and could afford to. How will Crawford do in fantasy? As with Konerko, it's difficult to dismiss the fact that Crawford had his best season by far in a contract season (7.1 WARP in 2010, previous best of 5.3). But, as Epstein points out (from John Perrotto's “On the Beat” last week ), Crawford will only be 35 in his final season, so age degradation isn't likely to be a major issue. Looking at hit charts for Crawford over the past two seasons confirms the “book” on him – a spray hitter who sometimes loads up to pull the ball for power. Other than his homers to right field, the rest of the diamond gets peppered in a very egalitarian manner when he makes contact. There's no overly high incidence of fly balls to left field, but it seems likely that he'll experience a typical boost from Fenway's park characteristics, and improve his at-the-plate stats across the board by the 5% that most hitters see while playing there. That will accompany a 3% boost from leaving Tampa Bay, though if the Rays keep churning out top-flight pitching, some of that benefit will be lost in quality of opposition. An 8% improvement in offense can be accomplished in many ways, but for the sake of discussion, it seems reasonable that Crawford's walk rate won't improve in that lineup, so something like +8/+8/+20 for AVG/OBP/SLG would make sense. Even assuming that his “real level” is his career line of .296/.337/.444, that pushes his expected average over .300, with 15+ HR.
Of course, in most fantasy formats, “at the plate” isn't where Crawford will be earning his auction dollars back. Crawford has played full seasons in seven of his eight in the majors, and has never failed to swipe 46 or more bases in those seven seasons, topping out at 60 in 2009 and leading the league four times. In a standard 12-team mixed 5x5 league with a $260 budget, each steal is worth about 28 cents and “replacement value” could probably produce ex nihilo an outfielder who could steal half a dozen bases without harming other categories. That means that even if he steals just 47 bases again, he'll earn $11 above replacement value on the steals alone, with another $3 in “upside” in that category if he gets back to his career high. The good news for fantasy managers is that his new manager, Terry Francona, has shown a willingness to run, with fellow speed-demon Jacoby Ellsbury twice leading the league in steals.
In a strange quirk of the players selected by PECOTA as comparables, Jeff Francoeur's MORP averaged almost $10mil/yr for seasons from 2010-2015, based on his career stats through 2009. He's still a former first-round pick with 101 career homers entering his age-27 season, but probably isn't really worth more than the $2.5-$3.0 million the Royals will end up paying him (after bonuses). “Manager Ned Yost said that Francoeur will be the Royals' regular right fielder and bat somewhere in the middle of the lineup.” (MLB.com) With a career OPS split of 699/824 (R/L), Yost's planned usage pattern seems likely to give back some of the millions Francoeur could add in a platoon role by allowing him to create critical outs in key situations against righty starters.
Again, the real-life information is just a backdrop to the fantasy context. Kansas City's ballpark does not hinder righty power as much as lefty power (just -12% park factor for righty homers). At this point in his career, not even a BABIP miracle and the full support of his manager is likely to make Jeff Francoeur relevant in a mixed-league context (other than daily-move leagues with deep rosters able to support a large bench), so the real question is whether he should even be on the radar in AL-only leagues. Here's where fantasy's distortions provide an unintuitive answer - “yes”. In the majority of formats, walks don't help a fantasy player at all, and playing time is still king.
For the playing time question, consider the so-called competition for outfield playing time in KC: Last September, Yost was asked if Betemit could play the outfield. “He's very adequate out there,” Yost said. “That's what we like about Wilson Betemit – his versatility.” (MLB.com) That “versatility” translated into, er, zero (0) more games in the outfield for Betemit (he'd played there two games before the interview). Alex Gordon is a failed 3b mega-prospect who is trying to rediscover his batting stroke at a new position, and probably also has a lock on a job for the first two months. None of Mitch Maier, Jarrod Dyson, or Gregor Blanco are likely to pull their weight in a side outfield slot, though if Dyson or Blanco gets a line on playing time, they are worth fantasy attention with their speed. Betemit is mentioned first due to the pressure of latest 3b mega-prospect Mike Moustakas, who seems quite likely to stake claim to the third base job in June, and if Betemit is still raking, space will have to be found for him as well. So, if Kila Ka'aihue and/or Josh Fields are getting the DH job done (far from a certainty), one of the aforementioned mediocrities will lose playing time. All that's to say that Francoeur has a lot more job security than most players with his modest skills.