December 17, 2013
Putting Stock in the Best Hitters of the Second Half
It’s relatively easy to tell when a player has a full-on breakout. Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt both had easily the strongest seasons of their respective careers in 2013—it doesn’t take a baseball genius to figure that out. However, every pre-season, there is always be a lot of talk about how a player had a “breakout second half,” leading to talk that they will be able to build off that experience in the following season. At face value, that makes sense. But at face value, we’re also clearly dealing with sample size issues. For every Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson, who hinted at their offensive explosions towards the end of the prior season, there are many more who never capitalize on said promise.
For the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to be looking at hitters with a .900+ OPS during the second half of the previous season in at least 100 plate appearances. But before we dig into the 2013 members of this group, we’re going to take it one step further and look back at the last couple of seasons to see exactly how this control group fared.
Let’s start with the 2012 second-half stars, sorted by 2013 fantasy profit (all valuations courtesy of BP’s own Mike Gianella):
The first thing that jumps out here is that only four of the 20 players who were “hot” in the second half of 2012 turned it into fantasy profit in 2013. Now, there are a couple of different arguments to make here as to why this happened. The first is injuries (or other extracurriculars which led to missing time) to some star-level players, but that really only applies to four or five names on this list. The second is that the recency effect of the second half caused some of these players to be overvalued the following draft day. The third, and far less exciting, philosophy is that a hot half barely moves the needle when projecting out the following season.
But let’s move on before jumping to any conclusions. Here now is that same data, but for the second half of 2011 and its effect on 2012 profit and/or loss:
This time it’s 10 out of 37 players who had an OPS of .900 or better in the previous second half and returned a profit on their draft day price the following season. Again, the same three arguments can be made looking at this sample. The 2011 group was better on the whole, only averaging $6.30 of loss versus the $7.20 of loss from the 2012 group—though not exactly woohoo worthy.
For the current year’s group, we’re going to count them down backwards because it’s more fun to do it that way. So without any further ado (or tables), here are the twenty-two players who had an OPS of .900 or higher in the second half of 2013 (in at least 100 plate appearances):
22) Joey Votto, .284/.438/.467 in 297 PA (.905 OPS)
Amazingly for Votto, a .905 OPS would have registered as the second-worst mark of his seven-year career.
21) Will Venable, .315/.357/.549 in 252 PA (.906 OPS)
There was some pre-season talk that Venable would be one of the players most helped by the fences moving in at Petco, and a career-high 22 homers bore that talk out. On the other hand, despite this great production at the plate after the All-Star break, Venable amazingly had only 21 RBI to show for his 29 extra-base hits (including 11 homers).
20) Colby Rasmus, .314/.357/.552 in 112 PA (.910 OPS)
Rasmus was on his way to a career-best season, when injuries got the best of him in August and September—including missing the final week and a half of the season when he was hit in the face by a warm-up throw from Anthony Gose. He also has the luxury of being consistently a dollar or three cheaper than he should be because it’s hard to find anyone who likes him. And those cornrows didn’t help.
19) Hunter Pence, .314/.387/.525 in 287 PA(.912 OPS)
One of the more surprising names in the group of top-10 outfielders in 2013, Pence stole nine more bases than in 2011 and 2012 combined—at an excellent rate to boot, especially when compared to his career numbers. And he hit a career-high 27 homers in what was by far the most difficult home park he’s played in. Sometimes things make sense, and sometimes there’s just Hunter Pence.
18) Victor Martinez, .361/.413/.500 in 276 PA(.913 OPS)
This was the Martinez the Tigers needed down the stretch, but with no catcher eligibility moving forward, he’s going to have to be a lot closer to his second half than the .693 OPS he had in the first half.
17) Brandon Belt, .326/.390/.525 in 247 PA (.915 OPS)
The biggest question with Belt is, how many of those doubles can turn into homers? He doesn’t make enough contact to sustain a batting average nearly as high as he had in the second half, and without 20 homers, he’s just not someone you can get too excited about in mixed leagues.
16) Aramis Ramirez, .301/.387/.528 in 142 PA (.916 OPS)
A constant on any second-half performers list, Ramirez’ demise has been greatly exaggerated. His age and left knee issues are going to keep his price deflated in 2014, and he’s someone I’ll be targeting as a value pick.
15) Jason Heyward, .305/.397/.534 in 151 PA (.932 OPS)
Well, THERE is the Jason Heyward we were expecting to see in 2013. It was just buried under the three layers of rubble that was his first half (.227/.324/.371 in 289 PA).
14) Mike Napoli, .259/.389/.546 in 211 PA (.935 OPS)
I can’t unsee shirtless Mike Napoli, no matter how hard I try. It’s practically tattooed on the back wall of my eyelids.
13) Edwin Encarnacion, .286/.401/.538 in 222 PA (.939 OPS)
12) Danny Valencia, .350/.371/.580 in 105 PA (.951 OPS)
Fluke. I’m calling fluke.
11) Freddie Freeman, .335/.408/.544 in 277 PA (.952 OPS)
It’s merely coincidence that two of the National League’s best first basemen had the exact same second-half OPS. It’s not even a contest as to who I’d want going forward, but if Freeman’s 14 second half homers are a sign of what’s to come, these two may end up closer than you’d think.
9) Ike Davis, .286/.449/.505 in 138 PA (.954 OPS)
Of course. The National League leader in on-base percentage after the break, Davis returned from Triple-A with a vengeance for plate discipline, but without much of his trademark power. In 2014, if you don’t really believe in the Davis bounce-back, you likely won’t get him—there’s going to be at least one person in each league who reaches for him based on his ADP. However, even Davis at a reach could net a very nice profit.
8) Hanley Ramirez, .316/.371/.599 in 194 PA (.970 OPS)
It’s getting hot in here.
6) Brandon Moss, .296/.374/.615 in 203 PA (.989 OPS)
This now makes two years in a row that Moss has eclipsed a .950 OPS in the second half of the season. His 29 extra-base hits after the break led the American League, and his 14 homers tied Miguel Cabrera for the same honor. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
5) Matt Holliday, .348/.442/.552 in 249 PA (.994 OPS)
Is there more of a lunch-pail fantasy performer in baseball these days? Year in and year out, he puts up numbers and no one gets particularly excited about him. All he wants is for us to love him.
4) Andrew McCutchen, .339/.441/.561 in 286 PA (1.001 OPS)
M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!
3) Khris Davis, .294/.366/.639 in 134 PA (1.004 OPS)
Yes, the major league leader in slugging percentage during the second half is just one letter off from the person who accomplished that feat in the first half. With Nori Aoki now in Kansas City, the other Davis will have as much playing time as he can handle in 2014. The biggest thing going for him at this point is not the power (which has been there), but that he showed no substantial drop in contact rate upon getting to the majors. Of course, it may just be that pitchers haven’t figured out his weak spots yet.
2) Mike Trout, .324/.479/.543 in 290 PA (1.023 OPS)
Who’s this Mark Trowet guy? He seems good.
1) Jayson Werth, .339/.432/.600 in 273 PA (1.032 OPS)
The powers of the beard cannot be understated. The hottest hitter on the planet in the second half was none other than the disappointing big free agent signing in the nation’s capital. He carried forward a good amount of the contact rate improvement from a shortened 2012 and turned in the best OPS+ of his career at age-34.
So what does this all mean? Just using the last two years of data we have, this group of hitters have carried their success forward by earning a fantasy profit 14 times out of 57 attempts—around half of what should be expected across the board. That is lower than B.J. Upton’s career batting average. And in the end, I think this is due to a confluence of two main reasons we partially discussed earlier. First of all, this group of players skews towards high-end talents, and as we know, high-end talents are less likely to produce a profit than lower-end talent. And secondly, the last things these players do stick in our heads on draft day and either consciously or subconsciously causes owners to overspend on players who may just have seen their performance fluctuate due to random variation.
Each of the 22 players on this list who is not an elite fantasy option is going to be drafted at a higher draft slot of price than if we had conducted the same exercise at the All-Star break last season. It’s up to all of you to decide how much you want 60 games (or less in some cases) to dictate the premium you’re going to have to pay. Recent history says not to get too carried away.