June 18, 2014
Checking in on Cinderella: Hitters
In covering fantasy baseball for the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that one of the biggest struggles for fantasy owners is evaluating players who enjoyed surprisingly good starts. Some owners wait out the subsequent rough patch because they’re convinced the good times will return. More often, though, the decline in performance goes relatively unnoticed because it is masked by the torrid start to the season. That is, the overall statistics for a player can seem palatable, while that guy is actually an anchor that drags the whole team down the standings for weeks before the downturn in performance becomes obvious in the seasonal numbers.
This article aims to cut through the fog of early-season overperformance in an attempt to determine whether a guy still has fantasy value. After all, a pumpkin can be transformed into a beautiful carriage for a while, but it’s only temporary. Its real identity eventually shines through, and ultimately, it is what we thought it was: an unattractive orange gourd that we pretend to care about for a few weeks around the end of October (note: this is ignoring the revelation that is pumpkin pie, which I’m throwing a comfortable 70 on and won’t listen to any arguments to the contrary).
However, not all surprise fantasy stories shrink back into irrelevance. Some players continue to buck their preseason expectations and actually maintain above-average performance across the board. In many ways, that’s just as notable as the guys who suddenly fall off a cliff.
The trick is determining whether a guy has already turned back into a pumpkin, or if he’s one of the handful of pop-up guys who manages to maintain his unexpected performance throughout the course of the season. We’re hoping to make that cursory distinction in this space. We’ll do position players this week and jump 60-feet, six-inches away to the pitcher’s mound next week.
Gordon is currently the fifth-ranked fantasy player in ESPN leagues. Much of that value stems from the first month of the season, but I want to be careful when highlighting his significant dropoff in performance. He has still been the 49th-ranked fantasy player in the past 30 days. That’s primarily due to the lofty stolen base numbers, but he still carries some value in the runs category and hasn’t been a death sentence in the average category.
For fantasy owners who can manipulate a daily lineup, be aware that Gordon is hitting .298/.348/.424 against righties and only .241/.279/.328 against lefties. Once Alex Guerrero has a fully-functional ear again, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him begin to snipe significant at-bats from Gordon against southpaws. However, Gordon will remain the strong side of the platoon and has remained effective enough against righties that he should still see ample playing time.
The 26-year-old isn’t the top-10 fantasy stud that he was to begin the year, but he’s still plenty useful. Understand his strengths and weaknesses, and utilize him properly.
Blackmon still resides in the top-10 fantasy players in ESPN leagues. His numbers have taken a bit of a nosedive, but there’s still plenty to like in what the 27-year-old offers. He’s still batting atop a potent Rockies lineup; thus, he should remain a source of runs and stolen bases. The Coors Field factor also plays a part in Blackmon’s fantasy profile, as he seems to be a safe bet to be a 20/20 player by the end of the year—and even during this recent down stretch, he may still hit double-digit homers in a two-month period.
With Carlos Gonzalez on the disabled list, Blackmon won’t be fighting for regular playing time. Even if one were to assume this latter stretch represents his “down side,” one would still be looking at a potential 20/20 outfielder with a .250-.270 batting average. That’s plenty valuable. Only nine 20/20 players existed last year. And looking at that low BABIP, one could even make a convincing case Blackmon’s true talent is better than what he’s shown in the past couple months.
His ungodly start to the season obviously isn’t what fantasy owners should expect going forward, but I do think Charlie Blackmon is more real than not. Owners shouldn’t panic over his recent stretch. He’s still worth a roster spot.
Perhaps no player in baseball has had his ineptitude better hidden in his overall stats than Bonifacio. The numbers from May through June are unappealing, but it’s worse than that. After his first eight games, Bonifacio is hitting .222/.269/.300. He’s solely carrying a .266 batting average and an on-base percentage over .300 because he hit obscenely well for eight games. Eight games.
At this point, he’s not even accumulating stolen bases for fantasy owners because he can’t get on base enough to matter. He has been the epitome of dead weight. If you own Emilio Bonifacio and continue to start him, please stop. Try to dump him on someone else in your league. Oh, and if someone comes with a trade that includes Emilio Bonifacio, just say no. He’s not a “buy-low” candidate. He’s just not very good.
Here is a guy who has completely blown the door of his preseason expectations and has continued to mash the baseball into the summer months. He’s the 21st-ranked outfielder in ESPN leagues and has remained a top-50 outfielder in the past 30 days. He’s providing value in runs, homers, RBI, and average. No fantasy owners are complaining about his production this year. His numbers have even remained consistent after his torrid start, when most people expected the Michael Morse from a year ago to return.
Interesting note: Morse has been dreadful against left-handed pitching this year. He’s hitting .197/.260/.521 against lefties, but that’s being suppressed by a .182 BABIP. Although the numbers against righties should decline as the season progresses, they may balance out through an improvement against southpaws.
It’s tough to get excited about a guy like Morse in the difficult run environment of AT&T Park, but kudos to him. He’s avoided a decline in performance thus far. He also owns the 3rd-best fly ball distance in baseball this year, so I’m not ready to assume the power will fall off a cliff, even in San Francisco.
Viciedo was interesting this spring not only because he dominated for the first month of the season, but also because his peripheral numbers experienced a significant change. His walk rate skyrocketed. His strikeout rate declined. His ground-ball rate declined, which allowed him to sting the ball more consistently and post a near-.200 ISO. Considering he just turned 25 years old, some fantasy owners started to hope the light bulb flicked on and he finally “got it.”
Unfortunately, that excitement was short-lived. His walk rate plummeted back to his career norms (read: terrible), and his strikeout rate has correspondingly increased. The BABIP has been low, but that’s because his ground-ball rate is back north of 50 percent in the past couple months and he doesn’t have the profile to produce a solid batting average when he’s pounding baseballs into the dirt.
Maybe Viciedo will offer 15-ish homers with a batting average around .250, but with no meaningful help in other categories. It’s not good, and I guess we always knew that it wasn’t good. That glimmer of hope to begin the season hurts in retrospect, though. Crushed hope only brings pain.
In some ways, Trevor Plouffe was very similar to Viciedo to begin the season. He magically started laying off pitches outside the strike zone and his walk rate blew up. While the BABIP was always high, the underlying plate discipline numbers suggested something significant had changed in his approach.
A couple months later, we’re back to thinking Trevor Plouffe is what we thought he was coming into the season. The Minnesota Twins have been a middling offense throughout the year, but Plouffe is no longer a contributor. Ya know, Eduardo Nunez isn’t good, but he could tiptoe his way into the lineup more often in the near future. That’s how bad Plouffe has been over his last 40 games.
Solarte flew off the waiver wire in early April, as he burst onto the scene with a solid approach at the plate and a .303 batting average. His positional flexibility and the high-profile nature of starting off well with the Yankees helped augment his attractiveness for fantasy owners. However, Solarte carries more value in real life than he does the fantasy world. He doesn’t hit for enough power to be overly relevant at the hot corner, nor does he swipe bases. His entire fantasy value stems from his batting average and run totals, which have been pedestrian as of late. That’s why he is the 40th-ranked third baseman in ESPN leagues over the past 30 days. And don’t think second base is much better; he’s only been the 39th-best fantasy second baseman over the past month.
Solarte is a really nice utility guy for a contending team, someone who can handle multiple positions with a solid glove and doesn’t sacrifice too much with the bat. In terms of fantasy production, though, his overall value is limited to the deepest of leagues.