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April 27, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Running In Opposite Directions

by Michael Jong

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Fantasy players all know about the “steal specialist” player type, the guy who is selected primarily for a high steals count and pretty much nothing else. Two names among that hated group that are having interesting seasons (for different reasons) are Michael Bourn and Brett Gardner—they are clearly going in opposite directions to begin the 2011 campaign. Bourn is hitting .304/.375/.418 with 17 runs scored and a league-leading nine steals in nine attempts. Gardner is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, hitting a paltry .136/.190/.254 with just three steals in six attempts to his name.

The fact that they are going in opposite directions is doubled by the fact, from 2008 until the start of this year, they were actually pretty alike (counting stats per 600 PA): 

Name

R

HR

RBI

SB

AVG

OBP

SLG

Bourn

79

3

34

45

0.262

0.331

0.347

Gardner

98

5

52

52

0.268

0.358

0.367

The difference in runs and RBI has a lot to do with the American League and the Yankees offense, but the important numbers in steals rate and batting average are very similar. However this season, Bourn is off to a stellar start while Gardner cannot buy a hit. What exactly is happening? Perhaps a peripherals comparison is in order: 

 

K%

BB%

XB / H

ISO

BABIP

Bourn, 2011

20.5

10.2

0.375

0.114

0.393

Bourn, through 2010

19.7

8.9

0.325

0.085

0.331

Gardner, 2011

29.2

6.2

0.875

0.119

0.179

Gardner, Career

17.2

11.4

0.373

0.099

0.324

So there is your explanation, right? Bourn has an unsustainably high BABIP, and Gardner has an unsustainably low one. End of story?

Well, not exactly. Bourn and Gardner both have situations that merit further investigation with regards to their fantasy performance going forward. Which situations may be more sustainable than we initially thought, and how will that effect these players' fantasy owners?

Bourn to score

Sure, Bourn's BABIP is bound to fall closer to his career values before 2011, but that is not the only thing that has spiked. Early on the season, Bourn has scored on 52 percent of his trips on base, easily a career high (though early in the season). Prior to this year, he had been scoring at a 41 percent clip pretty consistently, straying from a full-season low of 37 percent in 2008 (his worst season in the majors) and a high of 41 percent last year.

Bourn's prowess on the basepaths is more than in just steals: he has led the majors in EqBRR each of the last two seasons. The early returns on his base advancement on hits, however, have been down. According to Baseball-Reference, Bourn has actually advanced fewer bases on hits than in years past, though the sample remains too small to glean anything significant. The only other possible explanation is his Houston teammates behind him. Here is how the three players most commonly batting behind Bourn have fared compared to their PECOTA projections:

Name

AVG

OBP

SLG

Angel Sanchez, 2011

0.291

0.320

0.372

Angel Sanchez, PECOTA

0.263

0.299

0.334

Hunter Pence. 2011

0.273

0.333

0.466

Hunter Pence, PECOTA

0.273

0.323

0.451

Carlos Lee, 2011

0.216

0.250

0.364

Carlos Lee, PECOTA

0.269

0.316

0.444

The success of Angel Sanchez early in the season has at least been partially offset by the poor play of Carlos Lee, while Hunter Pence has been about as even with his PECOTA projection as one could expect at this early mark in the season. With the likelihood that Sanchez and Lee regress closer to their likely means and that Bourn gets in a baserunning groove a la 2009 and 2010 once again, it would not surprise me to see him keep up an enhanced scoring rate, meaning a greater than usual number of runs for Bourn owners. For reference, the difference between a 48 percent run scoring rate and Bourn's three-year rate of 40 percent averages out to about 15 extra runs over the course of a full season; such a performance should put Bourn close to the 100-run mark.

As for the rest of his stats, it seems pretty clear that he is only likely to suffer a BABIP drop and subsequent drop in slash line stats. However, his solid plate discipline and improving walk rate will keep his OBP and steal opportunities high enough to steal 40-plus bases once again this season. Nothing has changed with regards to Bourn's likelihood of taking off, as his rate of stolen base attempts continues to hover around 20 percent.

The lost Gardner

While Bourn's peripherals and steals success continue to appear stable, Gardner's are all over the place compared to his career marks. The odd strikeout and walk rates along with the poor BABIP are reasons for his early season struggles. The BABIP should be on the rise, especially given his speed, but what about the alarming change in some pitch data: 

 

Pitches / PA

Swing%

Whiff%

Called Strike%

Gardner, 2011

4.14

39.8

11.2

46.9

Gardner, through 2010

4.35

33.1

9.7

42.2

Gardner is seeing fewer pitches than he did before 2011, but his current rate does not differ much from his 2008 and 2009 rates; much of the difference in these stats is due to his 4.62 pitches per PA in 2010. The major drastic changes we see here are in his swing rate and called strike rate, which jumped six and four percent respectively.

Pitches per PA and swing rate are stats which require some of the smallest amount of regression, so there may be something to Gardner's sudden increased swing rate beyond simple variation. Furthermore, the increased called strike rate alongside the increased amount of swings leads one to believe that pitchers are simply attempting to throw more strikes at Gardner than before. When looking at first pitches as a measure of intent for pitchers, it seems like this is a possibility; Gardner's rate of 0-1 counts is up to 57 percent from a career average of 53 percent, while his 1-0 counts are down from a career 42 percent mark to 35 percent.

If pitchers indeed are throwing more strikes at Gardner, perhaps he is adjusting by swinging at more pitches. However, while his whiff rate has barely increased, the raw amount of swinging strikes is bound to go up and lead to more favorable pitcher's counts and strikeouts. That aspect alone could help explain of some of the increased strikeout rate, but the added problem of a larger number of pitches in the zone getting in for strikes means that even if Gardner had not begun swinging more often, he would have still seen a larger number of pitcher's counts.

This dual aspect is a serious problem for Gardner. His career .268 batting average was already on the border of acceptability given his one-category status, and any increase in strikeouts may do him in as a successful fantasy option. Furthermore, the increase in strikeouts and drop in walks, both consequences of a potential new approach against him that may stick, have drastically limited his opportunities for stolen bases.

So far the slump has really eaten at his opportunities in 2011, yielding just 0.29 opportunities per plate appearance this season compared to his 0.41 career mark before this year. With the chance that regression to a reasonable BABIP (his current xBABIP of .335 seems in line with his career marks) still does not pull his average and OBP to respectable levels, fantasy owners should be on the lookout. Gardner's spot in the lineup is safe in part because of his stellar defense (though the Yankees have dropped him in the order), but if he cannot adjust to this new attack plan by pitchers, it could mean that fantasy owners may get both unacceptable rate stats and an underwhelming steal total. It is not yet the time to sell on Gardner after just 65 PA in 2011, but this latest challenge by pitchers warrants serious consideration and a watchful eye by owners. Unlike a lot of early season fluky slumps, there is reason to believe his has grounds in reality.

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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