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May 15, 2012

Value Picks

First, Third, and DH for 5/15/12

by Michael Street

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Statistically speaking, a single home run (like a single hit) is fairly meaningless. It’s the ultimate small sample, showing how one batter did against one pitcher (and one pitch) under one specific set of conditions. But psychologically speaking, when it’s the first home run of the season, it can mean so much more. The hitter feels confident in his swing or relieved at having gotten his first longball of the season out of the way, and it could mean a turnaround is coming. Look at Albert Pujols: in 27 plate appearances since his first jack of the season, he’s picked up 5 RBI—as many as he picked up in the 114 plate appearances before he finally went yard.

Since we analysts live in that land between the statistical and the psychological, trying to understand whether a batter’s performance is driven by the former or the latter, we know that first home run might be something more than just a small-sample statistic—or it might mean nothing more. Several of this week’s new VPs hit their first home runs of the season recently, and I’m hoping it represents a breakthrough for some underperforming stars you should be able to find on your league’s waiver wire.

I warned last week that Alex Liddi (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 1%, CBS 8%) would need to play and produce to remain a VP, but he hasn’t done either, starting twice and going hitless in one of those starts. It’s not a good sign when you’re sharing the bench with Chone Figgins, but at least Liddi (unlike Figgy) has a promising future in the bigs. He’s someone to watch, but he won’t bring you value without an increase in playing time.

That was fast. Will Middlebrooks (Yahoo! 37%, ESPN 36%, CBS 67%) started seven of the last eight Red Sox games, racking up an impressive four home runs and five doubles in his first 42 plate appearances while tying a record for most RBI to begin a player’s career. This high level of performance (.310/.356/.714 overall), combined with his high profile as a top prospect for a team that always draws attention, led to Middlebrooks’ rapid rise up the ownership charts and graduation from the VP list. Although Middlebrooks won’t stick around after Youkilis comes off the DL, the date of Youk’s return remains uncertain, so redraft owners should hang onto Middlebrooks until that happens.

St. Louis activated Lance Berkman off the disabled list, pushing Matt Carpenter (Yahoo! 7%, ESPN 4%, CBS 19%) to the bench and off the VP list. He remains a good reserve player in NL-only leagues, but mixed league owners have more productive options, even in deeper leagues.

San Francisco decided to go with Joaquin Arias over Conor Gillaspie (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 3%) at third base, optioning Gillaspie to the minors on Sunday. You can read more about Arias in Playing Pepper below.

Low ownership rates for Brandon Belt (Yahoo! 21%, ESPN 19%, CBS 45%) come from his weak performance and increased bench time, but he’s only sitting because the Giants faced five lefties over their past eight games; Belt usually gives way to Buster Posey at first base in these circumstances, as he did this week. He’s also been skidding a bit with just one hit in his last 17 plate appearances. Along the way, however, he picked up three walks (two intentional), which explains why his OBP is the only good part of his current .246/.347/.354 triple-slash line. Despite a lack of contact early in the year, Belt is also improving his whiffs: after striking out 11 times in his first 38 plate appearances, he struck out six times over his next 37.

I shouldn’t need to tell BP readers about Belt’s talent, but it probably doesn’t hurt to remind you that his .259/.354/.437, 16-home run weighted-mean projection becomes .274/.371/.461 in his 70th PECOTA percentile. His ceiling is around 20 home runs for the season, but he should otherwise provide batting average and moderate R and RBI production. Unlike others on this list, Belt has yet to go yard this season; when he does, we could see those homers come in bunches. Aubrey Huff, returning from an anxiety-driven DL stint, is still easing his way back into the lineup and won’t push Belt too hard even when he’s healthy. Belt’s upside and chance to shine make him a Value Pick, though any uptick in production will lead to a rise in ownership rates, so buy him while he’s cheap.

I mentioned that Yonder Alonso (Yahoo! 19%, ESPN 6%, CBS 47%) was heating up in last week’s Playing Pepper, and Alonso responded by going yard for the first time this season on Friday. Hitting in Citizen’s Bank Ballpark (and not PETCO) helped, though at 394 feet, that longball would have gone out of his home park too. It was part of a nine-game hit streak, lifting his overall line to .296/.366/.414 thanks to a 9.5 percent walk and 15.8 percent strikeout rate.

That kind of patience and contact should allow Alonso to exceed PECOTA’s .257/.327/.406 weighted-mean for him, although (like Belt) his home run expectations are modest, topping out at just 19 in his 90th percentile. Still, his outfield qualification, assured starting role, and solid minor-league skills (.293/.370/.466 in the minors, supported by a 15.2 percent K% and 11.0 percent BB%) should spell fantasy strength for Alonso, whose ownership rates will not be this low for much longer.

I wrote up John Mayberry, Jr. (Yahoo! 4%, ESPN 3%, CBS 17%) in one of my preseason VP columns, noting that Ryan Howard’s injury would lead to increased playing time at first for Mayberry and that Mayberry’s .250/.308/.432 PECOTA projection seemed low because of a mechanical adjustment he made to his swing last season. For the first few weeks of the season, however, Mayberry did his best to prove me wrong, hitting .175/.175/.200 with 13 whiffs and nary a walk over his first 40 plate appearances.

In his 45 plate appearances since, Mayberry has hit .293/.333/.439 while walking three times and whiffing nine times. This includes the five-game hit streak (broken on Sunday) that saw Mayberry finally club his first homer of the season on Friday, a line-drive shot over the left-center wall in Philly. Hot hitting from Ty Wigginton has pushed Mayberry into right field rather than first base, but Mayberry has played regardless; he’s one of four Phillies to have appeared in every game this season. That outfield qualification—though it suggests I’m poaching from Rob McQuown’s VP column—adds to Mayberry’s value, which is certainly strong enough for a roster spot in most deep leagues.

Garrett Jones (Yahoo! 4%, ESPN 2%, CBS 12%) started just two times last week thanks to a preponderance of southpaws facing the Pirates, and he had an all-or-nothing week. He hit a game-tying dinger on Tuesday, the night before fanning three times against Stephen Strasburg (who whiffed 13 batters on the night). Assuming neither his production nor his playing time is a trend, Jones remains a good option for owners in deeper and NL-only leagues.

Continuing to play nearly every day, Travis Hafner (Yahoo! 14%, ESPN 6%, CBS 31%) has not seen his playing time diminish since the arrival of Johnny Damon, even against lefties. Last week, Pronk started against Felix Doubront, collecting one of his four hits since my last column while also walking four times. His .250 batting average and .423 SLG are right where PECOTA and I expect them to be. His .394 OBP may soften a bit (it’s above his 90th PECOTA percentile), but he’s looking as strong as ever for teams looking for on-base skills.

AL-only VP
In last week’s comments, npb7768 compared Chris Parmelee (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 0%, CBS 8%) to stale Soviet Safeway bread, which has proven not only funny but also apt, as Parmelee (whose name sounds more like a brand of milk designed not to go stale) failed to pick up a hit in two starts last week. To avoid overreacting to small samples, I give VPs at least two weeks to show their stuff, but Parmelee may be past his expiration date soon.

NL-only VP
After Scott Rolen hit the DL once again, the Reds called up Mike Costanzo to take his roster spot, but Todd Frazier (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 3%) is a better fantasy play at third. Though Costanzo was once a highly-regarded lefty hitter, he’s been unable to simultaneously control his strikeouts and provide power. Frazier, meanwhile, has more MLB experience and a higher ceiling. He did moderately well in 41 plate appearances last season, hitting .232/.289/.438 (.270 TAv) as a utility player for the Reds, and he’s hit .346/.414/.692 in limited action (29 plate appearances) so far this year.

Though both small samples show Frazier’s power, his PECOTA weighted-mean projection for this season (.258/.317/.443) falls between those two extremes, suggesting that he’ll hit a home run every 28 plate appearances. He’d top out at .302/.362/.518 in his 90th percentile—a great example of his high ceiling, which is supported by his strong .280/.353/.475 minor league line. Rolen’s return date is uncertain—some have said it could be the end of his career—which gives Frazier plenty of time to build on his hot start and give NL-only owners some value.

Playing Pepper
Former VP Nick Johnson (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 0%) picked up his first homer of the year on Friday, then followed it up with another on Sunday. He’s hit in each of his last five starts, collecting two hits in three of them. Those starts are spread over the whole month of May, but if he starts playing more, he could creep back into AL-only viability.

Let the countdown begin; Manny Ramirez (Yahoo! 2%, ESPN 1%, CBS 8%) will finish his suspension on May 30 and should become Oakland’s DH after a minor-league tuneup, a move that will also resolve the Kila Ka’aihue-Daric Barton roster puzzle.

As Pablo Sandoval’s replacement, Joaquin Arias (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 1%) is a much better play as a middle infielder and will bring you double-digit steals, but his 90th percentile PECOTA projection of .289/.320/.382 speaks volumes about his value (or lack thereof) in any other category.

Since becoming an Athletic, Brandon Inge (Yahoo! 9%, ESPN 2%, CBS 15%) has been clobbering the ball, clubbing three grand slams and a three-run jack over a four-game span within his first 50 plate appearances in Oakland. That won’t continue; regression to his .224/.297/.359 weighted mean projection is coming soon.

The demotion of Danny Valencia to Triple-A leaves the Twins’ hot corner to Trevor Plouffe (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 0%, CBS 1%), Jamey Carroll (Yahoo! 2%, ESPN 1%, CBS 5%), and Alexi Casilla (Yahoo! 3%, ESPN 1%, CBS 11%). As their ownership numbers suggest, only Casilla has any value, thanks to the 18 steals in PECOTA’s weighted mean projection for him, but Plouffe has been the only one to get playing time so far.

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