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March 1, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks at Catcher, Second Base, and Shortstop

by Michael Jong

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As promised last week, this week's Value Picks contain a set of catchers of interest along with a middle infield name to keep in mind in your mixed league drafts.

This duo of Cincinnati Reds catchers are eye-catching because of the difference in skill level between the two. Did you know that, among catchers with at least 500 PA since 2009, Ryan Hanigan has the third highest walk rate (13.1 percent) and the fifth lowest strikeout rate (9.7 percent)? That combination yields the best BB/K rate among catchers since 2009, besting even Joe Mauer's plate discipline. Hanigan's .280/.381/.374 slash line since 2009 is quite the impressive one among backstops, so why isn't he being regarded more highly? Part of the problem is that low SLG, which can be attributed to Hanigan's ground-pounding ways: he boasts a career 48.5 percent ground ball rate and a below-average 7.1 percent HR/FB rate. The Great American Ballpark and its cozy confines should help Hanigan a tad, but if he keeps hitting ground balls on almost 50 percent of his batted balls, he'll never get enough lift to take advantage.

Of course, all of that is moot if he does not get on the field enough, and that seems to be the largest detriment to his game. Ramon Hernandez returned to Cincinnati on a one-year deal worth $3 million to split time with Hanigan. Hernandez is coming off a bit of a revival after hitting .297/.364/.428, but much of that line was a BABIP mirage; the lifetime .278 BABIP hitter had a .338 BABIP in 2010, owed mostly to an absolutely unsustainable .328 clip on ground balls. Since no one is going to confuse Hernandez as a grounder-beating runner, we can safely suspect that the luck dragon will bring him back down to his career norms.

Hanigan and Hernandez are slated to split time fairly evenly according to manager Dusty Baker, but if one had to bet on one player gaining an advantage over the other as the season progresses, the odds would be on Hanigan and his superior skill set. Keep an eye on the two catchers as the season develops. Neither is a strong bet in a time-share situation, but if Hanigan can squeeze 400 PA in, he should be worthwhile in NL-only leagues.

Yadier Molina is not your average hitting Molina, but he did have an unspectacular hitting season for his standards in 2010. After two straight years batting close to .300, Molina dropped to a .262 mark with a .281 BABIP exactly matching his career value. Like Hanigan, he lacks power, with only a 5.2 percent career HR/FB rate, but unlike Hanigan, his home park plays against him (Busch Stadium's five-year home run park factor is 0.92). Also like Hanigan, Molina can provide an above average batting average due to his low strikeout rates (8.5 percent career strikeout rate) and solid contact. With the average catcher according to these simple weighted projections averaging just over 100 R + RBI and 12 home runs in 500 plate appearances, Molina would need to gather a lot of playing time and continue to hit around .300 to be a valuable fantasy option in mixed leagues, and PECOTA and I do not think this will happen.

Carlos Ruiz is another catcher who shares the low-strikeout skill set, as he has the third-highest BB/K among catchers since 2009. However, Ruiz also has a bit more pop than the other two backstops previously mentioned. His 6.8 percent career HR/FB rate does not scream “power hitter,” but his career fly ball rate of 34.7 percent does suggest that he can push double-digit home runs given 500 plate appearances. Much has been made of his dependence on Citizen's Bank Ballpark for his power offense, and there is something to that, as he has a career .415 SLG at home compared to a .378 mark on the road. With all of his other home/road peripheral splits almost identical, however, the home/road split extends does not suggest a severe deficiency that requires benching during road games.

The only hindrance for Ruiz from being a league average or better fantasy catcher is his playing time. He has never recorded a season with over 500 plate appearances and has missed more than two months over the past three seasons with various injuries. Marc Normandin and I agree that, were Ruiz to receive the sort of playing time he likely deserves, he would be a valuable fantasy catcher in mixed league formats, but expecting more than 450 PA is a risk you should only take late in drafts and with small amounts of auction money.

Walker currently has an ADP of 343 on Mock Draft Central's mixed league ADP report, ranking him as the 279th highest selected player in mixed league drafts. This seems fairly low for a player who just hit 12 home runs in 469 PA at second base and batted .296/.349/.462 along the way. Part of the perceived disrespect is the recognition that Walker's line was inflated with a .340 BABIP, but part of it is also likely due to a poor Pirates lineup and Walker's own falling OBP. The good news is that the power is real: Walker hit homers on 8.5 percent of his fly balls, and his track record in the minors says he is capable of maintaining that mark.

The home run total PECOTA is projecting (14 homers in 600 PA) seems a bit low, and PECOTA's .255/.304/.414 slash line appears to be based on a BABIP slightly lower than .300 (.290 projected BABIP before the Depth Charts came in). I could see a believable 60th or 70th percentile PECOTA projection that has him hitting close to 20 home runs with a batting average around .260 to .270, numbers which are very realistic given his recent production both in the majors and in Triple-A Indianapolis. Those minor bumps alone should also push Walker past the necessary counting stat totals to be well above average for a second baseman. For mixed leagues that use additional infield position spots, Walker is an easy selection to fill that role despite the likely regression from his hot major league start.

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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The BP Wayback Machine... (03/01)
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