February 28, 2012
Preseason Value Picks
First, Third, and DH for 2/28/12
Over the last two weeks, I’ve looked at several players that are easy to love based on their history and PECOTA’s projection for a resurgent season. As a result, for many of those players—such as Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, and David Wright—their ADPs tended to closely match their PECOTA rankings. What about the players you (or opposing owners) love to hate? These guys have an ADP below their PECOTA rankings because they’ve disappointed in the past or are just misunderstood by most fantasy owners.
So this week, we get into the real Value Picks—those players outside the Usual Suspects which you can squeeze some value out of. Just like bad medicine, you may find some of this hard to swallow come Draft Day, but it’ll be good for your fantasy team if taken in the right doses. Let’s face it: sometimes it’s good to be hated.
When I covered Pena in a January Keeper Reaper column, I noted that his ADP was low, and it’s actually dropped a spot since then. This hesitation from your fellow fantasy owners comes from one simple cause: his woeful batting average—the same reason that Mark Reynolds is such a Value Pick too. As in Reynolds’s case, Pena’s power and counting numbers offset that batting-average drag considerably. It’s just hard to draft a guy whose four-year batting average of .224 is actually above his PECOTA weighted-mean projection.
Pena typically faces a defensive shift at the plate—one that has produced average-smothering results:
After his breakthrough 2007 season, teams adjusted to his strong pull tendencies with defensive shifts, and his BABIP went down, dragging his average along with it. For the past two seasons, his swing plane has produced more ground balls than ever; the change in groundout percentage between 2010 and 2011 can be partly attributed to the difference between playing on FieldTurf at the Trop and Wrigley’s less-predictable grass.
If he can return to the low ground-ball rates of his most productive years, Pena may reverse his batting average slide, but continued ground-ball tendencies will lead to more low batting averages and perhaps erode his power too. Even with a bad average, however, he’ll still have value in standard leagues, and his projected .346 OBP will bring even more value for those in leagues that use the category. Don’t hate his batting average; just be ready if it continues to be shockingly low.
I really hate James Loney. Not on a personal level, mind you; I’m sure his Bowling Extravaganza is exemplary charity work. Even the weirdness surrounding his nasty car accident last season seems to be a product of a concussion, not drugs or alcohol. I hate him for being a dud at first base for a franchise that has had guys like Steve Garvey, Gil Hodges, and Eddie Murray play the position, and I hate him for stinking up my fantasy team when I’ve drafted him. Who wants a first baseman that has averaged .278/.342/.403 with just 12 home runs and 81 RBI over the past three seasons? As PFM shows, though, he’s got value; it’s just that he suffers from comparison to his once-lofty potential.
Loney, the Dodgers’ number-one pick in the 2002 draft, barely missed BP2003’s Top 40 Prospect List, but so did some guys named David Wright, Kevin Youkilis, Prince Fielder, and Adam Wainwright. Despite excellent secondary rates in the minors (9.4 percent BB%, 14.3 percent K%), he never delivered on the power potential he displayed at lower levels, possibly due to hand and wrist injuries. Even hitter-friendly Las Vegas only boosted his ISO to .141, a far cry from his rookie-ball .253. In the majors, he’s maintained a solid 12.4 percent K% and 8.1 percent BB%, though his ISO hasn’t been above his career .145 average since 2007.
The Dodgers have been thin on first-base prospects not named Jerry Sands, though, and the Divorce McCourt financial stupidity hasn’t helped the club pursue any external options better than the equally light-hitting Juan Rivera. And so Loney stuck, hitting poorly enough to earn him frequent mentions in Jay Jaffe’s Vortices of Suck and Replacement Killer series. Still, Loney earned $5, $8, and $9 in each of the past three seasons and, as Jason Collette points out, the talent pool is so thin at first base in the NL that Loney makes a fine redraft league option if you can’t get Votto or Morse. So wait out your fellow owners and leverage their Loney hatred into a cheap option that will at least help you in batting average while throwing in a few steals and some counting stats.
Like Loney, Gamel is a tale of once bitten, twice shy for some fantasy owners, particularly those in keeper leagues. Once touted for his power and patience (his minor-league line is .304/.376/.498 with a 19.0 percent K% and 9.8 percent BB%), Gamel seemed like a fine fit for the Brewers, a club looking for a long-term option at third base. And so Gamel was a hot add for many keeper owners each time he got a callup—and a hot drop as soon as he fell on his face. Sometimes it was injury, but more often it was pure lousiness at the plate, as if his parents had said, “Matthew? Naw, let’s leave off the last ‘t’ for ‘Take’ and call him Mat!”
Mat actually took a fair amount of pitches (12.5 percent BB%) during his 148 plate appearance chance in 2009, but apparently few of those pitches were anywhere near the plate, as he also boasted an absurd 36.5 percent K%. He didn’t get much of a chance to prove himself after that, since the brief rise of Casey McGehee and the ongoing success of Prince Fielder and Corey Hart left no other place for him to play. Even McGehee’s return to normalcy last season coincided neatly with a lat strain that kept Gamel out for nearly three months.
Now, Gamel has a clear path to playing time at first base, the spot that most scouts had picked out for him and his Glove Full o’ Errors anyway. PECOTA gives him a nice shot at helping you in the home run department, even if his projected 24.5 percent K% pegs him for the middling batting average you see above. For what it’s worth, Gamel has reported to Spring Training in “the best shape of his life,” something that may reflect a mental attitude as much as a physical one. He’s being given a “long leash” to establish himself—something he didn’t enjoy before—which may allow him to beat PECOTA. BP2012 notes his improved swing plane, producing greater loft (and more home runs) in the PCL last season, so this could be the year he finally realizes his potential. As noted in the Loney writeup, if you don’t get a top first baseman in NL-only leagues, wait for Gamel much later; that seven-spot spread between ADP and PECOTA represents a drop of 114 spots overall. In many leagues, Gamel may also have retained his third base eligibility, making him a late-round pickup to love, indeed.
It’s hard to hate a guy that Kevin Goldstein ranked as the third-best White Sox prospect heading into last season, but Kevin was cautious with his praise, emphasizing Morel’s makeup and work ethic as much as his good glove and quick hands and wrists at the plate. Morel, however, showed a lot of both last season. Given the third base job out of Spring Training, he hit just .203/.214/.261 in the season’s first month, failing to collect a single free pass until May 30 (124 plate appearances into the year). It took him another 66 plate appearances to collect his second walk, and he really didn’t show a knack for patience until he surpassed 309 plate appearances on August 20, at which point he was hitting .254/.270/.324 with only two home runs and 22 RBI.
Many owners gave up on him by then; I’d even lost patience on him as a Value Pick, cutting him loose just before his September home run tear, making Morel a late-season miss for me. That’s because from August 20 until the end of the season, Morel walked 18 times in 138 plate appearances, hitting .216/.321/.466 with eight home runs and 19 RBI, earning him a split vote from Derek Carty for Fantasy Championship Maker.
Morel’s reckless impatience was nothing new. In the minors, he walked just 6.6 percent of the time but only struck out 14.2 percent of the time, reiterating his oft-cited excellent plate coverage. And he shot up through the minors, taking just three seasons to get his first major-league cup of Joe, so he was a bit rawer than most. As I noted in my Keeper Reaper write-up in October, Morel’s awesome finish to the season also came courtesy of unreal home run rates (29.6 HR/FB), and it’s generally a mistake to judge a player based on just one month. Still, given his history of development and his abilities, he’s someone I’d definitely overcome any personal animosity towards to chuck a buck (or more) at in the late rounds. If he can keep growing this season the way he did in 2011, Morel should beat that PECOTA projection easily.
It’s not that owners hate Chase Headley so much as they forget that he exists, which isn’t hard to do; he plays for the Padres, is known mostly for his glove, and lost his mixed-league owners $0.15 last year (though he did earn NL-only owners $10.64). In his career, Headley has hit only .269/.343/.392 with a grand total of 36 home runs in 2114 plate appearances—not the best production from a third baseman. But, as BP2012 points out, Headley realized that, as a light-hitting lefty, he wasn’t going to turn into Babe Ruth at Petco and changed his approach in 2011, trying to get on base for others to knock him in.
That seemed to work, as he set a career high with an 11.9 percent BB%, leading to a career-high .289 batting average and a .399 SLG that was his best since his rookie year mark of .420 despite belting a career-low four home runs. That may not earn him any Valentine’s Day cards from fantasy owners, but when you’re looking for value, you have to take it where you find it, and Headley’s value might come from this shift in approach. One thing that seem didn’t change about Headley was his modest 21.0 percent K%, consistent with his three-year average of 21.1 percent.
Still, digging deeper unearths some good trends; Headley has improved his overall contact rate each of the past three seasons, driven by his ability to make contact on pitches outside the zone. This enabled him to protect the edges of the strike zone and post great improvements over his career averages with two strikes:
Headley could build on these gains in 2012 and deliver batting average and OBP dividends, if not power. PECOTA sees some regression from his 2011 levels, projecting him with a triple-slash of .261/.337/.397 after last season’s .289/.374/.399. This projected decline is reflective of his .368 BABIP in 2011, which was well above his .339 career standard. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if Headley blossomed into the Bill Mueller comp that BP offers for him. Just remember that Mueller was noted more for his OBP, but that brought him an AL batting title in 2003 and five other seasons hitting above the .290 mark. Headley’s differential between PECOTA and ADP is fairly marginal, but take any edge you can get, particularly if you play in a league with East Coast owners who forget about (or even hate) small-market teams way out in the Pacific Time Zone.