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June 18, 2014

Dynasty Dynamics

Progress Report: MLB Edition

by Ben Carsley and Craig Goldstein

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When you’ve done rankings and mock drafts for two straight months, you kind of wonder… why would anyone write about anything else? Sure there are draft grades, but those aren’t nearly as applicable to fantasy.

Then it hits you like a ton of bricks. Something like a… a stock watch. No. Everyone does that. What if you just called it something else. Yes, now you’re cooking with gas. What about a Progress Report? Perfect.

Really though, this is meant to be something a bit different than your standard stock watch. Fantasy stocks are easy to keep track of. If someone’s doing well, then their stock is high. If not, it goes the other direction. The progress report is meant to tell you about players who have seen their actual value change in the long-term dynasty sense - not just guys riding a hot streak.

To that end, we’re also including a “neutral” section for guys that have performed awfully or admirably but haven’t moved the needle in a substantial direction long-term.

Last week, we brought you a prospect edition of this exercise, and this week we bring you this column with a major-league spin. It’s something Craig and I plan to do a few more times before the season is over, so feel free to give us your feedback below!

Improved

Ben: Masahiro Tanaka, SP, NYY
I never doubted that Tanaka would be a successful MLB pitcher. I ignored all of the “Japanese pitchers can struggle” groupthink that had others drawing bizarre, unfair comparisons between he and some of his fellow countrymen, and I was impressed by what I’d see of his stuff online. I thought I was blending optimism with realism when I projected him to perform as a solid no. 3 fantasy starter this season, as I figured his unfamiliarity with the league and unfavorable home ballpark could bring down his overall stat line.

Welp, you win some you lose some. I was way too low on Tanaka, didn’t acquire him in any leagues as a result and now I’m paying the price. He’s a legitimate front-of-the-rotation pitcher with three plus-pitches and a few other show-me weapons that have led to a 9.90 K/9 and a 2.02 ERA through his first 93. 2/3 innings. Do I think Tanaka is going to keep up a sub-2.25 ERA pace? No. But I do think he can finish the year with a sub-3.00 mark, and if he adds 220 strikeouts and 18-plus wins, he could finish as fantasy’s most valuable starter. I’m late to the party, but I’m a believer now.

Craig: Yasiel Puig, OF, LAD
This is something of a gimme, but hear me out. Entering the season Puig was a borderline first-round pick—acceptable anywhere outside the top four—who carried significant risk. We knew he was amazing and captivating his first (abbreviated) year on the field, that he could make adjustments after slumps, but also that he played recklessly and that could result in injuries.

The reckless play and nagging injuries haven’t gone anywhere, but neither has the production. Just by proving not to be some false-batflipping-god, Puig has improved his dynasty value. Removal of doubt has pushed him into the top 10 dynasty values, if not the top five.

Ben: Michael Wacha, SP, STL
When Wacha and Shelby Miller were both prospects in the Cardinals organization, I was one of the staunchest pro-Miller people around our corner of the internet. I still love Miller, and I think he’ll be a no. 2 starter for many years. But it’s clear to me now that my hesitancy to anoint Wacha as the better player was a mistake. Coming out of college, Wacha profiled as a no. 3/4 starter and I was unwilling to move the needle much based on his MiLB results. I needed to pay more attention to the scouting reports, though, because they would have told me that Wacha could perform as a no. 2 starter at the MLB level.

Wacha is now at 149 regular season innings in his MLB career, and what he’s done during that time is truly impressive. The soon-to-be 23-year-old owns a 2.84 ERA, 22.0 percent strikeout rate, and 6.9 percent walk rate over that span, and there’s really no reason to forecast and regression. Wacha’s changeup is ungodly, his fastball and curve are both quite good and he clearly has the makeup to succeed on the mound. Wacha is a phenomenal No. 3 fantasy starter and an acceptable no. 2 fantasy starter, and he should be for a very long time. I’m all-in on him moving forward.

Craig: Anthony Rizzo, 1B, CHC
I’ve long been tepid on Rizzo, thinking that he was either going to hit for power or average but be unable to blend the two for an extended period as he did over half a season in 2012. I’m often slow to change my opinion, which both makes me miss out on potential values but also avoid a lot of pitfalls, but am coming around to Rizzo.

The Cubs first baseman has pushed his walk rate to career high without seeing a similar adjustment to his strikeout percentage. He’s getting himself into better counts and punishing hittable pitches. It might be that his HR:FB rate (up almost 11 percentage points) isn’t sustainable at it’s current figure, but even if it settles down a bit, he’ll be closer to his optimal output than he appeared capable of in the offseason.

Neutral

Craig: Carlos Santana, C/3B/1B, CLE
I wrote about Santana a few weeks ago while he was in the midst of his season-long slump, and he had just suffered a head injury. Since his return, Santana has slashed .343/.452/.571 in 10 games. Admittedly, it’s a small sample, but it’s also a better 10-game stretch than he’s produced all season. This isn’t necessarily the beginning of full scale regression to Santana’s mean happening at once so much as it is variance at work.

That said, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone as good as Santana is at hitting baseballs to suffer from a sub .200 BABIP, which is what plagued him for much of the season. If his balls-in-play numbers return to normal, the rest should follow suit. It’s been an ugly go of it so far, but Santana’s long-term outlook is virtually unchanged.

Ben: Robinson Cano, 2B, SEA
I’m not sure if anyone has mentioned this as of late, but Cano, the first player to leave his home organization for more money elsewhere in baseball history, only has three homers this year. This is a surprise, you see, as Cano had averaged 29 homers per 162 games from 2009-2013. This year, Cano is on pace to hit, like, eight, and that has a lot of fantasy owners very upset with him. That’s understandable, as Cano was a late-first or early-second round pick in most drafts.

I fully admit that Cano’s 25-plus homer days may behind him, but a) he can still be a very useful fantasy player and b) I don’t think he’ll suffer this type of a power outage for the rest of his career. Yes, Seattle is a much worse place to hit than is Yankees Stadium, but it’s not “let’s take away 20 homers from your total” bad. Obviously Cano’s odds of hitting 20-plus homers this year are next to nil, but unless you believe he’s seriously regressed over night, he’s probably not going to hit for only a 21.9 fly-ball rate again next year. Cano’s bat speed hasn’t appeared to regress, and as fun as it is to mock the Mariners, they’re probably not asking Cano to pound the ball into the ground more often. Plus, a .327/.382/.428 line to fall back on isn’t so bad. He’s still an elite second baseman.

Craig: Alfredo Simon, SP, CIN
Simon’s value in the short-term has absolutely skyrocketed. It might seem weird that this is actually the third straight season that Simon is posting with a sub-3.00 ERA, but it’s true. The last two came as a reliever though, so Simon’s ability to replicate his results despite the switch to starting has been a pleasant surprise to Cincinnati and fantasy owners alike.

Still, the long-term outlook isn’t so rosy for the Reds’ starter. PECOTA gives him a rest of season projection that includes a 4.55 ERA and only 46 strikeouts in 63 2/3 innings. Part of the innings shortage is due to his past as a reliever, but given his 4.48 FIP, it’s fair to wonder how long Simon can outpitch his peripherals. He’s worth using until he cools off, but once he does, you can go back to treating him as you did before this year.

Ben: Mark Buehrle, SP, TOR
Crafty lefties with so-so stuff who aren’t Joe Saunders are a guilty baseball pleasure of mine, so Buehrle holds a special place in my heart. What he’s done so far this year is truly incredible, as he deserves to be an AL All-Star, boasts a 10-3 record after winning just 12 games a year ago and is on pace to have his best season since 2008. Unfortunately, Buehrle checks off just about every “this might be a fluke” box on the list when it comes to pitchers, and there’s not much reason to expect his dominance to continue.

Buehrle owns a 2.28 ERA this year, but his FIP is up at 3.36 for a few simple reasons. Buehrle’s BABIP actually isn’t the problem—it’s at .287 compared to a .290 career average. But the left-hander has a LOB rate of 81 percent and a HR:FB rate of 4.0 percent, and those stats simply aren’t sustainable. Add in that his strikeout rate has taken another hit without his ground ball rate seeing a substantial uptick, and Buehrle is due for regression pretty soon. He still profiles as someone who’s serviceable in deep leagues, but think of him as a low-strikeout, 4.00-ERA guy moving forward.

Decline

Ben: CC Sabathia, SP, NYY
When it comes to the stars of a generation, I think we often expect their declines to be graceful and gentle. “Surely he has a few good years left,” we tell ourselves. “He was soo good just a short while ago.” This is largely the thought process many had with Sabathia heading into the year. But when you take a deeper look at the quality of his stuff both this season and last, plus his recently shoddy health record, it’s pretty clear that there are no genuine reasons for optimism moving forward.

Sabathia gave up 27 earned runs in 46 innings pitched this year, and while his strikeout and walk rates both improved from a year ago, his average velocity continued to decline while his homer rate skyrocketed. He’s thrown his changeup more often in recent years despite evidence that it’s not one of his more effective pitches, and he’s allowed a collective 1.38 WHIP over the past two seasons. Sabathia will turn 34 next month and has logged more than 2,800 IP over his career. Yes, his homer rate should stabilizing and he might not be 5.25 ERA-bad. But there’s no reason to think his stuff will return to what we were seeing a few years ago, and he’s in a pretty bad spot in terms of contextual factors. He might make a nice gamble later in drafts moving forward, but you can’t realistically consider him a top-50 fantasy starter any longer.

Craig: Matt Holliday, OF, STL
Holliday is mostly the same player he’s always been—a good aspect for someone drafted based on their reliability—but there are a few things that don’t look so good going forward. He’s walking more than he has in the past, as his 13.6 percent walk rate would be a career high, while striking out at the same reduced clip his showed last year. The issue thus far has been the absence of power.

Holliday’s HR/FB rate has dipped from 15 percent to seven percent and while his line drive rate is down as well, the year-to-year correlation on that isn’t strong enough for us to think that will continue. Mostly, Holliday is ok, and in the short term I’d group him in the same way I would Carlos Santana, but in the long-term, this is the first sign of decline Holliday has shown at all and that’s going to hurt him in dynasty leagues. In most leagues, Holliday is of the age where he’s already being penalized, but the argument for him was always his consistency. With his slugging percentage well under .400 and his ISO some 70 points below his 2013 figure, Holliday is going to be a concern in the same manner David Ortiz was after his slow starts a few years back.

Ortiz is a great example of why this might be foolish, but as with many things, Papi is more the exception than the rule. Holliday is likely to be useful for several more years, but this would make for two straight years of ISO decline, and once his power goes, he’s mostly an empty average hitter since he stopped running years ago.

Ben: Will Middlebrooks, 3B, BOS
I entered the season cautiously optimistic that Middlebrooks could still serve as a regular on a first-division team. That dream has been firmly squashed by the harsh realities of the hit tool, as Middlebrooks simply doesn’t have the pitch recognition needed to fully utilize his plus-plus raw power. “WMB” hit just .197/.305/.324 in 71 PA this season, and has now hit .222/.277/.408 over his past 456 PA. He strikes out in over a quarter of his PA, and he’s proven incapable of staying on the field, too.

There are games where Middlebrooks makes everything look so easy that it’s hard to understand why he’s not a star. When he gets a pitch he can hit and his hips are working, he looks like a 30-homer, middle-of-the-order presence. But such glimmers of dominance are few and far between, and the cold reality is that Middlebrooks is likely headed for a career as a short-side platoon corner infielder. Perhaps he can start for a second-division team with more seasoning, and if he’s starting anywhere his power makes him intriguing. But the long list of scouts who were skeptical about his hit tool in the minors look like they’ll get the last laugh right now.

Craig: Domonic Brown, OF, PHI
Speaking of power outages, Dom Brown’s ISO is down 110 points from last season. Remember last season, when all of us prospect hounds were seeing at least some of the guy we thought was there when Brown was a prospect? It might have been a pyrrhic victory, but it was enough for us. Dayenu.

Well, someone shook our Etch-A-Sketch and now we’re left with the guy we had before. He’s hitting the ball on the ground more than ever before, not exactly what you want from someone who derived their value from putting it in the stands. His HR:FB has dropped back towards his career norm of nine percent, well below his 19 percent rate established last season. He’s hitting fewer fly balls and even on a rate basis, dramatically fewer of them are going out of the park.

There is some luck here, as with more ground balls you’d expect a higher BABIP, but Brown’s has dropped some 45 points from last year to this year, but his generally awful isolated power would indicate that some of that is less bad luck and more weak contact. After a full season (though only four homers in the second half) in which it looked like Brown had turned into a usable OF3 thanks to his power boost, he’s back to being waiver fodder.

Ben Carsley is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
Craig Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

Related Content:  Fantasy,  Dynasty Leagues

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