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March 19, 2014

The Darkhorses

Runs Batted In

by BP Fantasy Staff

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One of the fun ways we all try to outsmart our opponents in fantasy is by searching for hidden value in players who, for one reason or another, we suspect have the ability to outpace their projections (and, relatedly, their draft cost). Our Darkhorses series features staff picks for players who could very well outpace their PECOTA projections for the year and provide the top overall production in one of the standard five-by-five categories. We’ve all picked one player currently projected by PECOTA to fall outside of the top 10 and one longer-shot player currently projected outside of the top 25. We’ll take a look at offense this week and pitching next. For the earlier editions in this series, click below:

Here are some players with the potentially lethal combination of convenient lineup geography and run production #want to lead the league in RBI this season.

OUTSIDE THE TOP 10

Carlos Beltran, OF, NYY
PECOTA projects Beltran to finish tied for 22nd in RBI this season, driving in 84 runs. It’s a fair projection for a player with nagging injuries entering his age-37 season, but it doesn't speak to Beltran's upside in a decent lineup in one of the best ballparks for hitters in baseball. Beltran has averaged 90 RBI over the past two seasons, averaging 610 PA and 28 homers during those years as well. The ability to DH on occasion should help keep Beltran in the lineup often, and Yankees Stadium should help him challenge for 30 homers again, too. If Jacoby Ellsbury stays healthy and Derek Jeter and Brett Gardner can reach base at a semi-regular clip, Beltran could challenge for 100 RBI in a perfect world. —Ben Carsley

Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, LAD
The Dodgers main “butter and egg” man (© Vin Scully), Gonzalez is poised to perch again in the clean-up spot in one of the National League’s best offensive teams. Hopefully full seasons of Puig and Hanley in front of him should create that many more opportunities for the man who finished 13th in RBI last year to drive in runs. A healthy Kemp behind him would be an additional boost if you’re so inclined to buy into lineup protection, but even without he’s been one of the best hitters in baseball at converting (ample) RBI opportunities into runs scored for several years now. He finished 18th in RBI percentage last year, and a rebound to his third-place finish of 2012, coupled with more opportunities, would give Gonzalez a fairly clear path for a run at the RBI title. —Wilson Karaman

Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, LAD
Gonzalez is a bit of a forgotten asset at first base. He doesn’t have the transcendent power anymore, he’s not the star of that Dodger team, and he’s hardly any sort of upside target at age 32. That said, he’s posted fewer than 100 RBI just once since 2007, and he had 99 that year. He had 100 on the dot last year without full seasons from Hanley Ramirez or Yasiel Puig, plus the Dodgers posted fewer than 100 runs in each of the first two months (3.5 runs per game in 53 games). While his 99-119 range of RBIs over the last seven years hasn’t pushed to lead the league, he’s been consistently strong at getting guys in and if the Dodgers do as expected with a huge season start to finish, it’s easy to envision their no. 4 hitter popping 125-plus, en route to a league RBI title. —Paul Sporer

Adam Jones, OF, BAL
A lot of this depends on Chris Davis, the guy batting in front of Jones. If Davis’s home run total drops by 10-15, there will be more RBI opportunities for Jones. He obviously won’t be able to capitalize every time, but a scenario where Jones picks up 20-30 more RBI due to a slight decrease in Davis’ production isn’t out of the question. —Mike Gianella

Evan Longoria, 3B, TAM
Longoria is five years removed from top-10 RBI numbers, when he knocked in 113 Rays in 2009. He accomplished that feat in just his second major-league season and has since topped 100 RBI only once (in 2010). While Tampa Bay’s lineup isn’t stacked with All-Stars, it’s an underrated group that scored the 11th most runs (700) last year. A one-two punch of David DeJesus and Ben Zobrist is far from the best in baseball, but both can get on base at an above-average clip; and, as a team, the Rays had the fourth highest on-base percentage (.329) in 2013. At first glance, Longoria’s 88 RBI from last season represent an underwhelming total from a middle-of-the-order superstar who appeared in all but two games; however, the third baseman would have likely challenged 100 RBI if not for 22 of his 32 home runs being of the solo variety. In addition to 32 long balls, Longoria recorded 39 doubles, the 15th-highest total in baseball. With a few more runners clogging up the base paths, there’s no reason why Longoria shouldn’t reach and surpass 100 RBI, and he could just as easily threaten the league leaders. —Alex Kantecki

David Ortiz, DH, BOS
With his skills refusing to decline (his strikeout and walk rates were better at 37 in 2013 than they were at 27 in 2003), the only thing that is stopping Ortiz from being a top RBI contributor is health. And what could go wrong health-wise with a 38-year-old professional athlete? Plenty, but I will still roll the dice with Ortiz given the skill set and team. —Jeff Quinton

Albert Pujols, 1B, LAA
The demise of The Machine has been well documented on the interwebs over the last season or two, but aging superstars rarely decline on a straight line. Frankly, I could have chosen Pujols for either of the first two Darkhorses pieces, but this one gets the nod because he's going to see Mike Trout on the base paths while he stands at the plate a ton this year and could approach 125 RBI as a result, if he stays on the field. Of course, that hasn't been the easiest thing for him recently, but the plantar fascia tear he finally suffered should greatly reduce any lingering effects of the injury going forward—as the tearing, and subsequent healing process, has the same effect as a surgical procedure. Pujols is moving well this spring and should be moving up draft boards concurrently. —Bret Sayre

Alex Rios, OF, TEX
RBIs are a completely contextual stat and predicting exact numbers is nearly impossible. All we can do is look at the team around a player and wonder how many opportunities they’ll have to be in a position to drive in runs.

Rios has been consistently good the past two seasons and he gets to now hit fifth behind guys like Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder, who both have .389 career OBPs. The lineup in front of Rios will be on base a pretty good portion of the time and he has enough power to take advantage of hitting with runners in scoring position. Rios is in a prime position to have one of those years where he leads the league in RBI out of nowhere. The talent and context are both there for this to happen. —Mauricio Rubio

Mark Trumbo, 1B/OF, ARI
To be blunt, I don’t often think in terms of RBI, as it’s a contextual statistic and can change drastically on the whim of a manager (lineup spot, etc.), but there’s no denying its value in fantasy. Trumbo is a realistic threat for 40 home runs, going from the power-depressing confines of Angels Stadium to the thin air of the desert, and with home runs come RBI. It’s not that simple, of course, but he’s got talented hitters in front of him (Aaron Hill, Paul Goldschmidt) who should be adept at getting on base and presenting those RBI opportunities. Especially with Goldschmidt’s breakout last season, teams might be more interesting in challenging the talented but obviously flawed Trumbo instead. While there are those with more realistic chances (Prince Fielder or Adrian Beltre, namely), Trumbo’s ability to go deep is unquestioned and his hitting environment is well suited to his talents. If the top of the Diamondbacks order can get on base, it’s not difficult to envision Trumbo atop the RBI leaderboard at season’s end. —Craig Goldstein

OUTSIDE THE TOP 25

Billy Butler, DH, KCR
Butler knocked in 82 last year despite a notable uptick in walks and a 1-2 lineup combination that produced a sub-par .316 OBP for the season. This year Butler figures to hit behind the likes of Norichika Aoki (career .355 OBP), Omar Infante (marks north of .340 in three of the past five seasons), and Eric Hosmer (.379 OBP in the second half last year). If the Royals get smart and replace Infante with a hopefully rebounding Alex Gordon in that two-hole Butler could suddenly find himself residing in some of the most prime batting order real estate in baseball. Couple that with a .315 career RISP average and you’ve got the ingredients you need for a darkhorse league leader. —Wilson Karaman

Yoenis Cespedes, OF, OAK
Paul Sporer laid out the case for Cespedes as a home run darkhorse yesterday, and I couldn’t agree more. Since hitting for power is a skill that should generally translate into RBI, it stands to reason that Cespedes would be an option to take home one third of the triple crown (if healthy) as well. If he can play a full season (or close), there’s no reason he can’t advantage of the speed (Crisp/Gentry) and on-base ability (Donaldson) that will be hitting ahead of him this season, not to mention all those games against Houston where Oakland can run up the score. —Craig Goldstein

Nelson Cruz, OF, BAL
Cruz was on his way to a career year before a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs sidelined his season. The 33-year-old finished with 27 home runs and 76 RBI in 109 games, putting him on pace for 40 home runs and 113 RBI over a full 162-game schedule. Of course, the likelihood of anyone playing in 162 games these days is very small, but Cruz did play in 159 contests in 2012. I’m not really concerned about his offensive production post-Biogenesis, as he’s been a consistent run producer throughout his nine-year career. Leaving Texas for somewhere like Seattle would have really dented the slugger’s value, but Baltimore plays to Cruz’s strengths. It’s a great lineup filled with two of baseball’s leading RBI men, Chris Davis and Adam Jones, so Cruz won’t be depended on to shoulder the offensive load. I can see Cruz flirting with 100 RBI in an offensive environment that’s among the best in baseball, and a full season could sneak him into the upper echelons of RBI men in the game. —Alex Kantecki

Freddie Freeman, 1B, ATL
This is probably just PECOTA being very superior to my mind, but this one kind of feels like stealing. I am not even a Freddie guy, but when we are talking about a contrived statistic like runs batted in, sure I’ll take the guy who had the 11th-highest line-drive rate in baseball last season, who also hits for power, and who also has some great hitters in front of him. For sure. —Jeff Quinton

Alex Gordon, LF, KCR
Gordon doesn’t have a 90 RBI season yet, so picking him for a darkhorse RBI league leader definitely fits the bill. He’s also spent 62 percent of his games in the leadoff spot, including 76 percent a season ago, so his low RBI totals are rather understandable. This year he drops into the fifth spot and he will be asked to be a run-producer for the first time since he was labeled as the Next George Brett. The four hitters in front of him ranged from .345 (Omar Infante) to .374 (Billy Butler) in OBP so the table should be plentiful for Gordon to have his biggest RBI effort yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if also got some work in the cleanup role this year, too. I think he gets back up in the .290-.300 range from 2011-2012 and a run at the RBI title comes with it! —Paul Sporer

Eric Hosmer, 1B, KCR
By the end of this series it may feel like we're beating you over the head with Hosmer, but that's for a reason. He's about to explode, and you're going to want to capitalize on those who've given up on him by acquiring him wherever you can. Projected by PECOTA way down at 45th in the league with 77 RBI this season—a lower total than he achieved even in his up-and-down 2013 campaign—I'd be willing to bet a substantial amount if Internet dollars that Hosmer is closer to 100 RBI than to 75 this year. Norichi Aoki and Omar Infante form a decent 1-2 punch atop Kansas City's lineup—though replacing the latter with Alex Gordon would do wonders—and both the statistically inclined and the scouting inclined agree that Hosmer could be primed for a significant uptick in power. The world is divided between people who still think Hosmer will be a franchise cornerstone and people who are wrong stupidheads who don't like nice things. —Ben Carsley

Buster Posey, C, SFG
Picking a catcher to lead the league in a counting statistic is usually a rough game. There’s no question about Posey’s talent, it’s obvious and to this point consistent. The issue will be Games Played Posey suffered a mild power outage in September as he was dealing with a finger injury. There’s a real risk in projecting a full slate of games for catchers but hopefully some of that is mitigated by increased playing time at another position.

Posey is coming off a down year; he posted a career low WARP and TAv. The Giants are similarly coming off a down year as their offense went into the tank. Posey’s in a tough park and the lineup isn’t exactly young but he has the talent and track record to bounce back and if there’s a dead-cat bounce in San Francisco you can get an environment where Posey can lead the league in RBI. —Mauricio Rubio

Aramis Ramirez, 3B MIL
This one is admittedly a long shot, even in a post of long shots, but Ramirez can still rake at 35 years of age and he'll be hitting in the middle of a much-improved Brewers lineup. In fact, he's projected to be hitting fourth, behind Ryan Braun, Jean Segura, and Carlos Gomez. On top of that, he's just one season removed from a 105 RBI year in 2012. The biggest problem is whether he can stay primarily healthy for a full season—and even if he avoids the DL, he hasn't played 150 games in a season since 2006 (cherry picking alert--he's played 149 games three different times). But he's smooth, plays in a great park and does a good job of putting the ball in play, which naturally means he's going to drive in 150. Book it. —Bret Sayre

Hanley Ramirez, SS, LAD
If Ramirez can stay on the field all season long—or at least for most of the season–he’ll have Yasiel Puig batting in front of him, and there’s a good chance Hanley can amass 100-plus RBI. Whether or not he can win an RBI title depends on luck more than skill, but Hanley certainly has the talent/ability to get the hits he needs to get there. —Mike Gianella

BP Fantasy Staff is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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<< Previous Article
Overthinking It: The B... (03/18)
<< Previous Column
Fantasy Article The Darkhorses: Home R... (03/18)
Next Column >>
Fantasy Article The Darkhorses: Runs S... (03/20)
Next Article >>
Fantasy Article Fantasy Freestyle: Pic... (03/19)

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