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March 7, 2011
Value Picks at First, Third, and DH
Last week, Hickjim asked whether Indians Shelley Duncan and Travis Hafner would make good DH platoon mates. While some readers may think that Cleveland’s offense seems like an oxymoron, it’s a worthwhile question whether a Duncan/Hafner platoon is a good idea. Manny Acta hasn’t tipped his hand about this yet, and as Christina Kahrl pointed out last month, he didn’t use Duncan and Hafner in a straight platoon last season. But the idea is an enticing one.
In his career, Pronk has hit .263/.372/.452 against lefties and .289/.391/.546 against righties. As you can see from his Scoresheet splits, that’s widened in the last three seasons. Duncan, on the other hand, hits a robust .262/.335/.488 against southpaws, and a paltry .198/.283/.357 against guys facing the other way on the mound.
Duncan’s problem from either side is his inability to make contact; he’s got a career 27 percent strikeout rate, which rose to 29.3 percent last year. There’s a slight difference in his platoon splits (24.3 percent vs. lefties, 29.2 percent vs. righties), but either one makes him a batting average risk. This package—and the fact that he’d get the skinny half of the platoon—makes Duncan a marginal fantasy contributor. He’s someone to watch early in the season or toss a buck at in much deeper AL-only leagues, but the rest of us can safely ignore him.
Pronk, however, could benefit from the help, boosting his ratio categories, even if the playing-time reduction would cut into his counting stats. PECOTA (.252/.353/.416) and GP both see him maintaining his OBP while continuing to drop in power. He’s a good option in AL-only leagues—especially OBP leagues—with his value increasing a bit if Acta chooses to make this a strict platoon.
Cleveland’s other DH option is Austin Kearns, who’ll get time at the outfield corners, too. As Rob McQuown noted in his off-season writeup, Kearns is a favorite of Acta, and BP sees him accumulating nearly 300 at-bats. He’s a far more balanced hitter than Hafner or Duncan, with a career tOPS+ of 107 against lefties and 97 against righties (or 32 points of OPS); last season, that narrowed to tOPS+ of just 101 and 98, respectively (or nine OPS points). Like Pronk, you can also see those in his Scoresheet rankings. Baseball Prospectus 2011 sums it up by calling Kearns a “lousy platoon player” due to reduced power against lefties (10 points less of SLG in his career).
As a fantasy commodity, Kearns is problematic not because of his flat platoon splits, but because his contact rates are dropping. Unlike Duncan, Kearns doesn’t compensate with power: both trends are apparent in his GP mini-browser. Whatever OBP is returned by Kearns’ good walk rates just isn’t worth the drag he’d create in other categories. If he becomes a significant part of the Indians’ 2011 plans, that will only make that oxymoron more applicable—and Indians fans more despondent.
For Oakland, a platoon might help patch the holes in Matsui’s crumbling Godzilla suit. No longer terrorizing Tokyo (or AL pitchers), Matsui still performed respectably in Los Angeles last season, even if he didn’t reach the .509 SLG he posted in 2009, his best finish in that category since 2004. That spike came from the lucky HR/FB rate you see in his mini-browser, well above his career rate, which he equaled last season.
The other trend clearly visible in his peripherals is his diminishing contact rate, itself a product of decreasing production against southpaws. Check out this table to see what’s happened to Godzilla when the opposing artillery shifts to the left.
2008 is a small sample-size outlier after knee problems led to a PA split of 116 against lefties and 262 against righties. And 2009’s reverse tOPS+ split came courtesy of that increased home run luck, since his other peripherals remained largely the same. One consistent trend has been diminishing contact rates and BABIP against lefties, the former accelerating dramatically last season, along with increased impatience.
This resulted in his .236/.270/.421 split against southpaws in 2011 and a more respectable .289/.394/.474 showing against righties. As age continues to erode Matsui’s skills, it’s hard to see this changing. PECOTA projects him having a similar year in Oakland, though the Coliseum will drag his slugging down a good fifty points (like BP, the Graphical Player went to press assuming he’d remain in Los Angeles).
Enter Chris Carter, a five-star prospect ranked first in Oakland’s system according to Kevin Goldstein. Best suited to first base, designated hitter, and left field, Carter is behind Daric Barton, Matsui, and Josh Willingham at those three positions. I’ll let Rob McQuown tackle the Willingham/Carter situation while I focus on Matsui and Barton.
Typical of righties, Carter hit .245/.338/.487 against same-handed pitchers in the PCL last season, while clocking lefties to the tune of .294/.430/.643. This came due to more patience (17.6 percent vs. 11.9 percent walk rate) and a better contact rate against them (74 vs. 69 percent), making him an excellent platoon partner for Matsui, who’d be more healthy and productive.
Limiting Carter’s at-bats to just southpaws, however, would sell this power prospect short and hinder his development (and make Matsui a $4.5 million part-time designated hitter). Regular playing time is essential to Carter’s progress, so he could share time with Willingham and Barton. More likely, however, will be a third season in Triple-A, as a preamble to an eventual midseason call-up. Unless Bob Geren indicates otherwise—or creates a Matsui platoon—Carter remains too iffy at this point to draft in standard leagues, but he’s worth watching as the season progresses.
Carter could always push Daric Barton out of the way, but that’s going to be hard to do with the guy BP called Oakland’s MVP in 2010. Barton’s valuable both on defense (4 FRAA in 2010) and in taking a walk (look at the ascending walk rates in his mini-browser). Though he offers little power, he was a VP regular in 2010 because of his value to fantasy managers willing to use a contrarian approach.
If you’ve depleted your budget on power hitters at other positions, Barton makes an excellent low-cost addition, even in those leagues that don’t recognize his OBP value. Those great walk and contact rates point towards a strong batting average and, with Geren stating that he’s going to ask Barton to drop down fewer bunts in 2011, he might return higher value in counting and ratio categories, too. It also means that, barring injury or trade, Carter’s not going to be Oakland’s first baseman anytime soon.
Feel free to suggest 1B/3B/DH positional battles for future Value Picks columns below!