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December 7, 2012

Resident Fantasy Genius

Valuing Offensive Players in New Homes

by Derek Carty

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On Wednesday, I obliged a reader request to go over the various factors that impact the value of a player who is changing teams. We’re currently in the thick of the free-agent signing period, so this couldn’t have been a more topical request. After receiving a lot of positive feedback on my look at the things that affect a pitcher’s value, I decided to look today at the things that can affect a hitter’s value.

Role
The most important piece of the puzzle, if also the most obvious, is role. All else equal, the more at-bats a player gets, the more valuable he’s going to be. For a guy like Josh Hamilton, this is a non-issue—he’s going to start as many games as he’s physically capable of wherever he goes—but for fringier players, this is important. Is the player going to be a starter, a bench player, a platoon player, or will he have to compete for a role? We could be talking the difference between $0 and $15 or $20 here.

Position
This one comes up less frequently but can be important, especially for a guy like Mike Napoli this offseason. Napoli will have catcher eligibility this season in all fantasy leagues but will be getting non-catcher, full-time at-bats while playing first base for Boston (with a few games behind the plate). The difference between being a starting catcher and a starting first baseman can be 100-200 plate appearances. While Napoli was bound to go up no matter where he signed, Napoli accrued just 417 plate appearances last year. He should exceed 600 this year, maybe even approaching 700 (which wouldn’t be the case had he signed somewhere as a catcher). Even for non-catchers, their new position is important to consider as it could cause them to gain in-season eligibility or lose eligibility at their old position in keeper leagues.

League
As with pitchers, I’ve found that hitters perform better in the National League than in the American League, but the effects are rather minimal. While league was perhaps the most important consideration for pitchers, for their hitting counterparts we’re talking a 0.003 point gain in batting average with two extra homers and one extra steal, on average, over the course of a full season.

Ballpark
Particularly for hitters, ballparks are a trickier subject than most assume they are. We can make some general assumptions—Coors Field will help, Petco will hurt—but different hitters are impacted differently by different parks (that’s a mouthful).

For example, HitTracker’s Greg Rybarczyk showed in an old THT Annual that high-power hitters tend to be affected less by Dodger Stadium than low-power hitters. While the fences are deep all around, its center-field fence is actually relatively shallow compared to other parks, and high-power hitters (who generally hit a bunch of their homers to center) will continue to succeed in that regard while their low-power counterparts see more of their balls die on the left- and right-field warning tracks.

We also need to take into consideration hitter handedness and the park’s platoon splits. Petco, for instance, absolutely destroys lefty power and is merely bad for righty power.

Essentially, every hitter has their own pattern for where they hit home runs in terms of height, distance, and field (not to mention potential mentality and approach changes when facing a daunting field). Because every park has its own unique arrangements and quirks, some will be more suitable for a particular hitter than another. For a good example of this, check out what I said about Ryan Ludwick before last season.

In general terms, an extreme park will make a 20-to-30 percent dent in a hitter’s home-run rate. For an average hitter, that’s works out to four or five extra (or fewer) homers per 650 PA. Of course, as I said, that number can be much higher or much lower depending on exact circumstances.

Of a more qualitative nature, be a little wary of players with injury issues (particularly leg and back) who move to Toronto or Tampa Bay, where home games are played on artificial turf, which is said to aggravate such injuries.

Lineup Position

Spot

AB

R

RBI

1

679

99

58

2

662

94

71

3

633

95

95

4

622

87

100

5

617

80

90

6

601

71

76

7

590

65

72

8

566

59

60

9*

550

63

56

Lineup position is a topic that may deserve a series of articles unto itself, but we can work with some generalities for now. High in order: good. Low in order: bad. The table at right shows MLB average stats, by batting order spot, for the 2012 season (except for the ninth spot, which is American League only). This kind of analysis is a bit simplistic and invokes some selection bias, but it still presents some general guidelines we can follow. The most striking (and probably obvious) observation is that the higher in the order you bat, the more at-bats you’ll accrue. The first two spots in the order score plenty of runs, but they lack in the RBI department because 1) they have poor hitters ahead of them, and 2) those poor hitters don’t come to the plate very often. Once you reach the third-through fifth spot, most of those runs stay intact while RBI skyrocket. After that, it all falls off pretty steadily.

Some implications: The difference between batting first and ninth is over 100 at-bats and 25 runs. This is hugely important for speedsters who, if they’re not batting first or second, generally get plopped into the nine-hole to be a “second leadoff hitter.”

In the National League, that speedster is even worse off, since he’ll bat eighth in front of the pitcher. Most managers are reluctant to let the speedster loose for fear of a making an out (or the last out) with the pitcher up, which can destroy their value. Alcides Escobar, for instance, stole just 10 bases in Milwaukee in 2010 before nabbing 26 and 35 in 2011 and 2012.

Also be sure to keep an eye on middle-of-the-order hitters who aren’t quite good enough to bat cleanup. The fall-off from fifth to sixth is the biggest of all (sequentially), and it’s a very common batting order shift for a batter to make.

Lineup Protection
Studies have shown “protection” to be an innocuous concept, at least when it comes to the final results. Even if a team adds a big bat to protect their number-three hitter, or a player signs onto a new team that will hit him ahead of an established slugger, we shouldn’t expect much of an increase in production.

Manager Stolen Base Aggressiveness
As I noted in the comments to my last article, I’m still working through some issues with running my manager stolen base study (though you can see some preliminary work I did here). Essentially, the most and least aggressive managers seem to add or subtract four or five percentage points from a hitter’s stolen base attempt rate. The average hitter attempts to steal in 10 percent of opportunities (or 15 attempts over 650 PAs), which means an addition of six to eight attempts and five or six successful steals. These effects may be mitigated or eliminated for elite speedsters since they usually get a green light regardless of who’s managing. More on this (hopefully) next week.

If we’re trying to put these factors in a loose order, we might come up with something like 1) role, 2) lineup position, 3) manager stolen base aggressiveness, 4) ballpark, 5) position, 6) league. Like I said with pitchers, though, this can change from player to player depending on the circumstances. Also, be sure to pay just as much attention to where the player is coming from as you do to where he’s going. It’s the change that’s really important. It’s great if a hitter is entering Great American Ballpark, but if he’s coming from the Rogers Centre, it may not make much difference. 

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