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May 29, 2012

Value Picks

First, Third, and DH for 5/29/12

by Michael Street

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Memorial Day is a good time to reflect on the relative unimportance of fantasy sports, where injuries are rarely life-threatening, the battles are (mostly) metaphorical, and hitting a bomb is considered a good thing. My deepest thanks to the uniformed men and women who allow (among many other freedoms) these players in a different sort of uniform to play a kids’ game while we fans to watch, before spending inordinate amounts of time dissecting their exploits for the sole purpose of bragging rights in our fantasy leagues. Play ball!

Departures
Injuries were always a concern for Travis Hafner (Yahoo! 12%, ESPN 3%, CBS 32%), and an irritation in the meniscus of his right knee has kept him out of action since last Wednesday. He’s had a good season thus far, and Hafner owners should wait and see what the prognosis is after he tests the knee this week, but until he’s active again, he won’t be a Value Pick.

Although hot for a spell, John Mayberry, Jr.(Yahoo! 4%, ESPN 3%, CBS 19%) has cooled off with just one hit in his last 18 plate appearances. Charlie Manuel has been starting Ty Wigginton at first base and Juan Pierre in left, with Mayberry replacing Pierre against some lefties. Pierre will regress from his current .303/.345/.341 triple-slash (nearly a perfect match for PECOTA’s 90th percentile projection), but until that happens, Mayberry isn’t bringing enough playing time or production to merit a VP spot.

Arrivals
About a month ago, I wrote that Placido Polanco (Yahoo! 8%, ESPN 4%, CBS 26%) wasn’t “as bad as his .192/.222/.212 line suggests” and that a return to his weighted mean would bring value in deeper leagues. Since I wrote that, Polanco has hit .330/.356/.440 to bring his overall line to .282/.313/.359, a near-match for that .280/.323/.359 weighted mean. His 106 plate appearances since that article have included 10 multi-hit games in 23 starts and a .352 BABIP, so his luck has truly rebounded (his BABIP was .224 before then).

With an excellent career 6.8 percent strikeout rate and a measly 5.4 percent walk rate, Polanco puts tons of pitches into play, making him more of a victim to the whims of the BABIP Fairy. And, as might be expected from a 36 year old, some of those secondary skills have been slipping. Polanco’s strikeout rate has held steady or risen each year since 2007, when his walk rate also reached 7.5 percent—a peak from which he also slid steadily downward before last season’s sudden 8 percent spike. This year, he’s walking at a 3.6 percent clip, on pace for his worst rate since 2006’s career-low 3.4 percent; he’s walked just twice in 89 plate appearances this month.

Unsurprisingly, this lower walk rate is fueled by greater aggressiveness outside the zone, a trend to which pitchers have responded by throwing him fewer strikes in recent years.

Year

O-Swing %

O-Contact%

Zone%

2005

16.5

63.9

55.5

2006

21.6

79.6

58.6

2007

22.3

84.4

54.1

2008

23.9

83.0

52.1

2009

23.7

81.0

53.0

2010

27.0

79.0

52.8

2011

27.7

85.0

48.3

2012

29.8

85.7

45.0

This increased aggressiveness will lead to further BABIP-fueled batting average unsteadiness, and owners in OBP leagues can safely ignore him as they did before. But Polanco’s high contact skills atop a Phillies lineup that’s productive even without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley should deliver fantasy value in deep and NL-only leagues for owners patient enough to ride out the rough batting-average waters.

Last season, Justin Smoak (Yahoo! 10%, ESPN 2%, CBS 39%) saved his season by hitting .284/.393/.527 in April and .301/.354/.438 in September. In between, he hit .204/.296/.350 to give him an overall .217/.257/.355 triple-slash that was his worst as a major leaguer. Some of that was due to a thumb injury, some of it due to his father dying, but some of it may have been due to a poor approach at the plate.

This year, he is working more on hitting the ball where it’s pitched instead of waiting for his perfect pitch, an approach that’s starting to pay dividends after an ice-cold start to the season. Through May 9, Smoak was hitting .173/.229/.264 thanks to a .203 BABIP, and his 23.7 percent whiff rate remained consistent with his career averages while his 6.8 percent walk rate was well below his 11.4 percent career mark.

Soon after that low-water mark, Smoak began to heat up, hitting .317/.328/.533 with a .349 BABIP. His BABIP doesn’t explain everything, since Smoak’s also found his power stroke. After delivering just four extra-base hits (three doubles and a homer) in the 118 plate appearances through May 9, Smoak has exceeded that mark (four homers and a double) in about half the plate appearances (61). Though his strikeouts have barely budged (21.3 percent K%), he’s suddenly swinging at everything, walking just once in his last 61 plate appearances.

If his approach has truly changed, owners should adjust their expectations to a lower OBP and batting average but more power. PECOTA gave him a .235/.332/.382 weighted-mean, topping out at .267/.370/.434, and his current .217/.257/.355 hovers around his 30th percentile. If his approach hasn’t changed, a simple rise to the mean will spell improvement for Smoak, who has no real competition for the first-base job. Fantasy owners won’t find players with this kind of playing time and upside at the corner infield spots, and seeing if Smoak catches fire represents a fine opportunity for speculation.

Incumbents
James Loney (Yahoo! 9%, ESPN 9%, CBS 30%) went 0-for-5 after being named a VP last week, one night after his pinch-hit two-run homer (just his second longball of the season). He picked up four more hits for the week, most of them in a three-hit night on Saturday. Loney has even been intentionally walked twice in the past two games, giving him almost as many intentional passes this season (five) as all of 2011 (seven). With Juan Rivera on the DL, Scott Van Slyke has become Loney’s platoon partner, cutting into Loney’s counting numbers, but Loney’s career .300/.360/.455 line against righties makes for a tasty fantasy play.

Ownership rates for Matt Adams (Yahoo! 16%, ESPN 9%, CBS 51%) shot up across the board after Adams began his major-league career with three multi-hit games in his first seven starts. His overall line of .345/.387/.586 will undoubtedly settle, but he’s a hot young hitter and won’t stay on your waiver wire much longer.

I’m giving Brandon Belt (Yahoo! 18%, ESPN 14%, CBS 39%) another week to show that his .228/.342/.326 line will rise, but he’s seen his playing time cut into by Brent Pill (already his platoon partner) and Aubrey Huff, who is returning from anxiety issues. Huff is hitting .167/.317/.271 and Pill just .209/.264/.388. If Belt can’t find playing time and production against that kind of competition, he doesn’t deserve a VP slot either.

Todd Frazier (Yahoo! 2%, ESPN 1%, CBS 10%) earned himself a rare promotion to mixed-league status after hitting .313/.353/.813 for the week with two homers. His .222/.250/.50 line since securing the starting gig also highlights his primary skill—power—and his 28.4 percent K% is troubling. He’s got the playing time and skills to bop at the corners, though, giving him value in NL-only and deeper mixed leagues.

AL-only VP
Daric Barton  (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 2%) started three times last week, sitting against CC Sabathia on Saturday to give Kila Ka’aihue his first start in two weeks at the first sack. In his 10 plate appearances, Barton picked up two hits and one walk for a .222/.300/.333 line. Manny Ramirez may not return when expected, prolonging the DH-decision agony, but Barton appears to be the front runner at first base when it does happen. His double on Saturday off Ivan Nova was his first extra-base hit in 49 plate appearances; hopefully this is a sign that his power stroke (feeble though it may be) is returning. Ride him until Manny’s return resolves the positional logjam, but I’m betting he sticks thereafter.

NL-only VP
With the punchless Casey McGehee and Garrett Jones combining to deliver a .212/.275/.321 line at first base, Pittsburgh promoted former VP Matt Hague (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 0%) on Saturday after DFAing Nate McLouth. Clint Hurdle said he’d be giving Hague “consistent at-bats” and a chance to “string together starts” at first base. I covered Hague’s skills in that earlier VP column as well as this Preseason VP column; owners can expect good contact rates but only middling power (he was hitting just .278/.325/.333 in Triple-A before his promotion). With the playing time to show off his skills and no competition outside of aging veterans, Hague deserves a spot on NL-only rosters, unless those skills turn out to be a mirage.

Playing Pepper
After giving a shot to Yan Gomes, the major league’s first Brazilian-born player, Toronto called up David Cooper (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 2%) to replace him, filling in at first base while the Jays decide what to do with Adam Lind. PECOTA’s .261/.325/.404 weighted mean for Cooper turns into .303/.373/.470 in his 90th percentile, highlighting his patience and lack of pop.

Nick Johnson (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 0%, CBS 1%) hit two home runs last Tuesday, giving him a tight cluster for the year and inching him closer to AL-only viability.

Teetering on the edge of VP ownership rates, Todd Helton (Yahoo! 15%, ESPN 22%, CBS 45%) has run hot and cold this season, but he had his first back-to-back multi-hit games of the season last week and is certainly worth stashing away, since his current .231/.322/.415 line is below PECOTA’s 10th percentile in all but power.

Demoted to the minors, Gaby Sanchez (Yahoo! 18%, ESPN 27%, CBS 41%) is also worth hanging onto, since he could be back very soon and is hitting .348/.516/.522 in Triple-A.

After being released by the Padres, Orlando Hudson (Yahoo! 2%, ESPN 1%, CBS 6%) is filling in for Brent Morel in Chicago, but he’s more valuable as a fantasy middle infielder and will return to the bench when Morel comes back in a few weeks.

Related Content:  First Career Hit,  Matt Hague,  Espn

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