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December 13, 2012
The Keeper Reaper
First, Third, and DH for 12/13/12
With the Winter Meetings in the rearview mirror, the Hot Stove League continues to crank up, and big deals seem to appear every day in Transaction Analysis. To start our own Hot Stove League, I’m playing Keeper Reaper catch-up by looking at some of the bigger deals that went down during our postseason fantasy hiatus. Each of the keeper league designations is linked to a PFM page with 2012 dollar values for that size league.
If you’re interested in hearing about a corner infielder or designated hitter, please leave a suggestion in the comments section.
I caught some flak last year when I seemed to rank Wright at the same level as Lonnie Chisenhall in Keeper Reaper; I was actually expressing my skepticism that Wright would be properly valued in most leagues. In fact, Wright ended up rebounding nicely in 2012, and his average ADP of 31 ended up being very similar to his medium-league value of 29th overall. Will he continue his keeper-worthy performance, as the Mets expect given the $122 million extension they gave him?
In 2012, Wright looked better than he has in years; more importantly, he stayed healthy, missing just four games due to injury. Even a spring training ribcage muscle tear and an early season broken finger couldn’t hold him back, as he recorded a .312 TAv, his best since 2008. Moving in the fences at Citi Field did seem to help his homers, with Hit Tracker rating eight of his 12 home runs there as “Just Enough.” Despite this improvement, his .492 SLG and .186 ISO didn’t approach his pre-2009 levels, thanks to a 35 percent fly-ball rate, his lowest since 2005. His peripherals remain solid, however, reaching those earlier levels of greatness with a 17 percent K% and 12 percent BB% that combined to create the solid contact exemplified by his 22 percent line drive rate.
A sound batting eye tells me that his concussion issues— one of the reasons I was skeptical about him in 2012—are past. Until he returns to launching home runs well over the Citi Field fences, however, I would expect him to complement his high average and high OBP numbers with just middling power and decent steals. Still, even this relative mediocrity would place him in the top tier of fantasy third baseman due to the weak competition, but his production isn’t good enough to put him into the top tier of all players.
I’ve written about James “Only the” Loney a few times in my Value Picks column, mostly because of his reassuring mediocrity. No matter how poorly he hit, Loney always seemed to find his name in the Dodgers’ lineup card at first base, and playing time is the most valuable commodity in fantasy. When you’re looking for a fill-in first baseman, Loney could at least be counted on for those ABs.
Tampa Bay seemed to take this attitude too, signing Loney to a one-year, $2 million deal after Carlos Pena could only muster a mere .197/.300/.354 slash with the club in 2012. Loney is praised for his glove, his clubhouse presence, and his durability, but fantasy owners are only interested in the last area… and even then, Loney needs to deliver at least a skosh of value to merit his inclusion on any team’s roster, let alone in a keeper slot. In 2012, he lost owners $8 in Medium leagues, but he brought a solid buck (wahoo!) in the deepest of leagues.
One of the other hopeful aspects of Loney’s game—and the subject of debate in the comments section of Transaction Analysis—are his home-road splits. He hit .271/.332/.375 at Chavez Ravine but .293/.345/.462 on the road and .417/.481/.708 at the Trop, his new home, in a micro-sample of 27 plate appearances (about half of them in last season’s stint with Boston). That adds a dash of optimism to a player who’s always showed solid contact skills (12 percent career K%). Since he’s expected to get most of the starts at first base as the Rays’ roster now stands, Loney remains an adequate choice for conservative owners in Super Deep leagues, but the rest of us can safely ignore him for keeper purposes.
The fantasy rap against Reynolds has been his all-or-nothing, three true outcomes plate approach. His single-season strikeout totals represent four of the top ten highest of all-time, numbers he achieved each season from 2008 to 2011. In 2012, however, Reynolds suddenly went from whiffing like Adam Dunn to whiffing more like Jay Buehner, dropping from his average of 208 strikeouts over that four-year span to just 159 last season.
Those totals fell in part because Reynolds missed a little over two weeks with an oblique strain, his first trip to the DL in six seasons. But they also came because Reynolds made better contact; his 29.6 percent K% was his first ever below 30 percent and was reflected in career highs in contact rate and career lows in swing rate, both stats including pitches in and out of the strike zone. His walk rate even crept up to 13.6 percent, a shade below his career best in that department, a 13.9 percent mark in 2010. In short, Reynolds discovered patience, swinging less often and achieving better contact as a result.
The other result, however, came in the form of diminished power, which had always been the complement to his titanic whiffs, averaging 35 homers in his four full major league seasons. But in 2012, that also changed. For the first time since 2008, he failed to hit 30 longballs, and his .429 SLG and .208 ISO were both career worsts. As analysts expected, cutting down on Reynolds’ swing improved his contact rate but diminished his power production.
In addition, Reynolds struggled mightily with this new approach, beginning the season with a .143/.260/.206 average in the first month, en route to a .207/.335/.383 first half with just seven home runs. He recovered to more than double that home run total in the second half of the season, hitting .231/.334/.462 along the way. For fantasy owners, however, the gain in batting average didn’t offset the loss of power nearly enough, and he earned just $1.67 in Medium-sized mixed leagues.
In his new Cleveland digs, Reynolds could reverse his approach and return to his more free-swinging ways, or he might try to find a better balance between the two extremes. That level of uncertainty, as well as the diminished talent around him, makes him an even dicier proposition for 2013. I still like him as an undervalued asset on draft day, but I’d keep my keeper paws off him in all but the deepest leagues until then.
As R.J. Anderson points out in his Transaction Analysis, few players rose as swiftly and unexpectedly as Keppinger in 2012. He went from the San Francisco scrap heap to being Evan Longoria’s fill-in, parlaying a career-best .294 TAv into a three-year, $12 million deal with Chicago earlier this month. I didn’t believe in Keppinger last year, leaving him off my Value Picks list as I kept waiting for him to revert to his career performance. Despite that great season, however, I still don’t believe in him.
The table below shows the difference in performance for Kepp, starting with the easiest metric to measure my disbelief. The BABIP fairy bestowed 38 points’ worth of magic dust on Keppinger, almost exactly equal to the margin between Keppinger’s career batting average and last season’s. His secondary stats show a player even less patient and less able to make contact than usual, albeit by a small margin:
Most of his other peripherals show the same Keppinger as always, the only notable difference being a higher percentage of first-pitch strikes, part of an increasing trend against the impatient Keppinger over the last five seasons. He did more against those first pitches, hitting 30 points higher than his career average, so this might account for some of his improvement, but he remains the same lefty-masher he’s always been; his 168 OPS differential against southpaws in 2012 was only a bit narrower than his career average of 184.
To me, this makes Keppinger the same player he always was: a high-contact, low-power hitter who can’t even swipe more than a bag or two to boost his fantasy value. Just as with the real free-agent market, third basemen are hard to come by. This gives him some value, albeit one that’s saddled with mean reversion and a potential platoon. In all likelihood, you’re going to get a player who’s much more like the 2004-2011 model than what you saw in 2012. Buyer (and keeper) beware.