December 18, 2012
The Keeper Reaper
First, Third, and DH for 12/18/12
Next season, Youkilis changes from one set of pinstripes to another, a move that will have Sox fans of both colors, and even Yankee fans, trying to adjust to the change. For fantasy owners, however, a far more important question is whether the Greek God of Walks will change from the player who earned just over a buck in Medium leagues last season.
Some of that decline came from assorted injuries that held him out of nearly a month’s worth of games last season. Since those injuries were to his trunk and legs, they could account for some of his diminished power production; his .174 ISO was his worst since 2007. Injuries are nothing new to Youk, who has hit the DL each of the past four seasons for reasons ranging from a sports hernia to a torn thumb tendon. This fragility is an obvious red flag; remaining healthy is a skill, and it’s one that Youkilis has yet to demonstrate he possesses. Maybe it’s that goofball swing, which is part Sadaharu Oh and part Fast Eddie Felson.
Whatever the source of his declining production, it has manifested itself in several ways. His .268 BABIP last season, a career low, came from his increasing groundball rate, which has risen in lockstep with his declining BABIP over the past four seasons—one of the reasons such declines can’t always be chalked up to mere misfortune. As Youk’s ground balls have increased, his fly balls have diminished, bottoming out at a career low 36 percent in 2012. Only a 16 percent HR/FB ratio (his second-best ever) prevented last season from being even worse in the power department.
What hasn’t changed much is Youk’s batting eye. Last year’s 10.0 percent walk rate was his worst since 2008, but he is likely to recover some of that with the ever-patient Yankees, coming closer to his 12.3 percent career average. The same could be said for his 21.2 percent whiff rate in 2012, also part of a three-year trend in the wrong direction (but not too far from his 18.5 percent average). What may be gone forever is Youk’s modest power, along with the durability he never possessed. His skills make him valuable in many medium leagues, especially those that count OBP, but so many question marks about his health and performance going forward drops him from the top ranks of keepers into the company of the mere demigods of walks.
In last season’s Keeper Reaper about the Moose, I warned about Moustakas’ potential for an “up-and-down sophomore season,” and the Royals’ third baseman delivered just that. After bursting from the gates with a .315/.375/.534 triple-slash in April, the Moose lost his antlers, or whatever it is that gave this Kansas City ungulate his super-moose powers. Entering May 16 with a .303 average, Moustakas picked up one hit in six plate appearances and never cracked .300 again in 2012, hitting .224/.278/.380 the rest of the way. He earned a little over $5 in medium-sized leagues—hardly a good return for someone that I liked coming into the year.
So perhaps Moose was more down than up in his sophomore season, something that, as I also warned in that earlier Keeper Reaper, comes from his impatient plate approach. Though he edged up his walk rate from 6.0 to 6.4 percent in 2012, it was still low enough to make him more subject to the whims of BABIP than your average bear (or average moose, for that matter). His BABIP fell 22 points last season and—presto!—his batting average fell 21 points. His 20 percent K% was also the highest in his pro career, as he improved against fastballs and curves but flailed versus everything else.
All of these are marks of a young player figuring out major league pitching, and this roller-coaster ride is to be expected. A BABIP bounceback would boost his batting average, while his 50 percent fly ball rate should point to continued improvement in power. Owners in deep leagues or those with a long horizon can afford to be patient, and every Moustakas owner should be rewarded with modest production and assured playing time in 2013. Those looking to win now, on the other hand, should look elsewhere for steady production at the hot corner, at least until the Moose shows more signs of patience and consistency.
As Young has slid down the defensive spectrum, so has his fantasy value. Once a top-notch shortstop, he’s gone from a good third baseman to an adequate corner infielder and utility bat. For all those misgivings, however, he still delivered $5.14 in Medium-sized leagues and $12.96 in AL-only leagues last season. With his trade to the Phillies, he’s now available to NL-only owners, who will be about the only ones interested in keeping him for 2012. Let’s look at why:
Amid a steady decline of other statistics, 2011’s OPS+ sticks out, but it’s driven largely by his .338 batting average (itself a product of that gaudy BABIP, a career high for Young), not his slipping power numbers. While he’s become steadily less patient, Young has produced better contact, especially on pitches outside the zone. That trend will keep his batting average more elevated than we’d expect from his low walk rate, but his dwindling power cuts his value sharply.
Young’s .093 ISO was the seventh-worst in baseball last season, landing him amid such middling middle infielders as Jemile Weeks, Jamey Carroll, and Alcides Escobar. His plummeting fly ball rate indicates that this power slide will continue, even as his aging legs (and climbing groundball rate) virtually assures a lower BABIP and lower batting average. Moving to a new league will mean further adjustments for Young, who is also shifting to a home park much less homer-friendly than Arlington.
What Young will offer fantasy owners is durability (he missed just one game last season and has never been on the DL), versatility (he played every infield position in 2012), and playing time. Despite his fading power, this combination means Young can provide value in the deepest of leagues, but he offers little incentive for other owners to waste a keeper spot on him.
Once he’d filled his back-surgery punch card with the Athletics, Chavez cashed it in for a two-year stint with the Yankees, where he acted like the Chavez of old, at least in 2012. Filling in for an injured A-Rod, Chavez appeared in over 100 games (64 of them at the hot corner) for the first time in six years while cresting a .200 ISO for the first time in five years. Though his peripheral stats were within career norms, this sudden resurgence came mostly from a career-best 21 percent HR/FB, but it was good enough for Arizona to throw $3 million at him, hoping he’d make a good platoon partner for Chris Johnson.
The lefty-hitting Chavez has always mashed port-sided pitching, posting an OPS 181 points higher against them in his career. Last season, careful usage against lefties (he faced them just 33 times) widened that platoon split to a whopping 526 points. Johnson, however, sports a reverse split, though his career differential against fellow righties is just 108 OPS points. This gives Arizona an insurance policy in case Chavez decides to start a new injury punch card with them; Johnson looked solid in a small-sample 160 games with Arizona, hitting .286/.321/.503 after joining them last season.
Both men face competition from Matt Davidson, one of Arizona’s top prospects, but he shouldn’t push them until later in 2013, which should be his first season at Triple-A. If Chavez can remain healthy, he could deliver value in deeper mixed leagues as the heavy half of a platoon. He’s been too brittle and inconsistent, however, to use a keeper spot on unless you’re either in the deepest of leagues or a nostalgic NL-only owner who likes to roll the dice.
Leave your suggestion for other corner infield and DH keepers in the comments section below!