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September 25, 2012
First, Third, and DH Review
As the season winds down, Value Picks takes a fond look back at our picks from the season, looking at the hits and misses we collected in our efforts to find value among the overlooked players on your league’s waiver wire. As with assessing fantasy players, the notion of “value” can be slippery to pin down, especially when looking at players who are largely castoffs from other fantasy squads.
As a result, I didn’t count all of my valuable players, like two of my best and longest-tenured Value Picks. In his second stint as a VP (his first lasted just a week), Yonder Alonso hit .293/.371/.435 in 313 plate appearances, adding seven home runs, 41 RBI, 25 runs, and even a stolen base. Brandon Belt had two good stretches as a VP. In the first one, Belt hit .277/.397/.500 in 116 plate appearances with four home runs, 22 RBI, 11 runs, and three steals. He wasn’t as powerful the next time around but still brought a .277/.326/.458 triple slash in 89 plate appearances with two home runs, 16 RBI, eight runs, and two more swipes. In the end, however, Alonso and Belt only broke even on their mixed-league dollar returns (courtesy of Last Player Picked), making them decent Value Picks, but not exceptional ones.
The players that follow either brought or lost significant money for their owners, with the exception of the short-timers at the end of the season, many of whom hadn’t played much of the year and couldn’t rise into positive territory. I also ignored many single-league choices, who are extremely marginal to begin with, or those I gave up on after a week or two.
I can tip my hat to PECOTA for some of my earliest Value Picks, which I used to look at players expected to rebound the most in 2012. Picking players like Adam Dunn, David Wright, Chris Davis, and Albert Pujols doesn’t seem too courageous in retrospect, but the first three didn’t do much in 2011, and Dunn in particular seemed like fantasy poison. Interestingly, PECOTA did a fine job with the dollar projections for all but Pujols, the “safest” pick of the bunch:
But my real Value Picks began when I started looking at undervalued players, those often overlooked by other fantasy owners.
I noted that owners often overlook Chase Headley since he plays for a small-market team in a run-suppressing park but that his core statistics were solid, noting that he’d “deliver batting average and OBP dividends, if not power.” Headley did that and more, nearly matching last season’s excellent .289 batting average and .374 OBP with marks of .282 and .371, respectively. Additionally, he set a career high in slugging (.489) and homers (29, more than double his previous career best of 12 in 2009). As you might expect, he hit most of those homers (18) on the road, but he still managed a respectable .265/.350/.434 slash at home. Had he played all of his games in PETCO, those numbers would still have represented a career high in slugging, so it looks like he’s taken a step forward. Whether it continues or not, the $27 he brought to mixed-league owners was fourth-best among third basemen, and the $32 to NL-only owners was tops in that same category.
The second-best mixed-league dollar return at third base came from Edwin Encarnacion, whom I chose as an undervalued player in 2012. At the time, his ADP was 55 spots below his PECOTA ranking, a yawning gap that just screamed, “Bargain!” Like Headley, E5 exceeded even my expectations, since I noted in his write-up that “owners in redraft leagues can bank on that multi-position eligibility, however, as long as you don’t expect too much power.” Encarnacion blew through PECOTA’s 90th percentile projection of 25 home runs (which would have been one below his career best) to hammer 41 long-balls while also setting a career best in OBP with .386 and falling just short of his best batting average of .289 with a .281 mark. His final mixed-league return of $31 was more than six times PECOTA’s $5 projection, while his $34 AL-only return nearly tripled PECOTA’s $13 expectation. After years of being a fantasy stathead favorite, E5 looks like the latest power hitter to blossom in Toronto.
Though I noted that Mark Reynolds is more subject to the vagaries of BABIP due to his high-strikeout, high-walk approach, even a .297 BABIP (his best mark since 2009) wasn’t enough to lift his performance into acceptable territory. In my write-up, I said that “most owners fail to recognize that his power production and his ability to swipe a few bags more than compensate for his batting average drag.” Though a late surge from Reynolds salvaged a season that looked like it was going south, his .230 batting average wasn’t buoyed enough by his power and (relative) speed. His 22 homers are his worst since his 2007 debut, and his 67 RBI are more than 30 below his 162-game average over the four previous seasons. The bag he swiped in the 17-inning marathon on May 6 against Boston was his only steal of the season. This package meant that his final line ($3 in mixed leagues, $13 in AL-only) was well below the expectations of both PECOTA ($20 mixed, $19 AL-only) and analysts like me.
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.
As it turned out, Pena nearly matched last season’s BABIP and improved his ground-ball rate a skosh, but with much poorer results. His worst home run rate since 2006 (when he had just 37 plate appearances with Boston) and a career low in infield flies (16 percent, seventh worst in MLB) produced a putrid .356 SLG; only Casey Kotchman and Justin Smoak were weaker among first basemen. Without pop, Pena lost $4 in mixed leagues and earned just $9 in AL-only leagues, also well below the expectations of both me and PECOTA, which saw him earning $12 more in mixed leagues and $7 more in AL-only leagues.
Early Season Hits
Taking Chris Davis was a bit more of a stretch, even after covering him in the preseason, but he’s long been a fantasy stathead darling and Baltimore gave him a chance to prove that he was worth the hype. Though most valuable as a third-base qualifier, Davis played everywhere else for the Orioles, including his first major league stint in the outfield. As I said when I added him, “expect ups and downs in batting average and the possibility of injury… but there are few fantasy third basemen with his power ceiling.” Sure enough, after his production peaked on June 14, when he was hitting .308/.350/.542, he hit .184/.244/.302 from then until August 16, a long midseason dry spell. This instability came, as I’d warned, from Davis’ elevated strikeout rate (30 percent K% this season) and lukewarm walk rate (7 percent BB%, which was actually a tad above his career norms). His 203 ISO, sixth among third basemen, made up for this, yielding 26 homers, 72 RBI, and returns of $10 in mixed and $18 in AL-only leagues.
Beginning as an NL-only pick, Todd Frazier eventually graduated from mixed-league status to stick on the VP list for over three months before his ownership rates finally crested VP thresholds. In that time, he hit .296/.353/.564 in 309 plate appearances with 17 home runs, 52 RBI, and 43 runs, even stealing three bases. While I expected Frazier to succeed because of his skills and I knew that Scott Rolen was likely to lose time to injury, I didn’t foresee the long absence of Joey Votto that would allow Frazier to add to his production. Although his late-season swoon, combined with the healthy return of both Rolen and Votto, meant that Frazier has had fewer starts down the stretch, he still delivered a whopping $17 for NL-only owners and $6 for those in mixed leagues.
The shining star of Value Picks for his longevity and production was Jordan Pacheco. I added Pacheco to the VP list on June 12, and he never left. Most fantasy owners were willing to overlook him due to his weak power, something I’d said was a question mark, but he still hit .312/.356/.412 as a VP with three home runs, 33 RBI, 32 runs, and five steals in 338 plate appearances, earning $11 for his mixed league owners and $15 in NL-only leagues. He may not hold Nolan Arenado back next season, but Pacheco did well enough this year to shift to the opposite side of the diamond, giving him further positional flexibility that will add to his fantasy value next season.
Early Season Misses
I recommended Luke Scott at several points in the season, but he didn’t deliver on those expectations, due in part to his two stints on the disabled list with back and oblique problems but also due to poor performance. Though streaky in the past, Scott’s streaks in 2012 were mostly of the cold variety.
Some of that poor performance can be chalked up to his injuries, but Scott wasn’t all that productive even when he was seemingly healthy, losing mixed league owners $5 while gaining AL-only owners $9.
Late Season Hits
Although Chris Carter didn’t deliver value across the board, he did bring home-run power to owners who followed my advice. In his 164 plate appearances on the VP list, Carter slugged seven home runs to go with his .232/.335/.457 triple-slash. His 32 percent K% deflated his batting average, as I expected it might, though he showed much-improved patience with a career-high 15 percent BB% that kept his OBP more acceptable. Keeper league owners will want to hang onto Carter to see if he can diminish his strikeouts while retaining that absurd 283 ISO.
Late Season Misses
Playing time is the key to fantasy value, which Luis Valbuena had after Chicago lost Ian Stewart. A major-league retread with time in the Seattle and Cleveland systems, Valbuena had one skill (power) that gave him another chance with Chicago. He showed that power in his third game for the Cubs, three days before I added him as a VP, with a long home run. Unfortunately, in 99 plate appearances and five weeks on the VP list, he only hit one more long-ball to accompany an awful .196/.242/.315 triple-slash. Along with playing time, fantasy players must deliver production, and Valbuena couldn’t bring any of that to his fantasy owners, losing NL-only owners a buck despite extended playing time.
Thanks for a great season at Value Picks. It’s an honor to write for the smartest readers in the baseball universe, and I look forward to hearing from you again once our offseason coverage begins!