January 21, 2015
High-contact guys who don’t strike out or walk much—that’s what you get when you look through the ranks of second basemen. There’s some limited upside for the position as a whole in points league play, where low whiff rates matter, but even there a lot of the added value is knocked right back down on account of slugging limitations. In OBP leagues the landscape is pretty ugly. And regardless of format it’s a sharp, quick drop from the top of the second base list to the middle tiers and beyond, with no more than a handful of strong options and a whole bunch of mediocrity below. Let’s sift through the rubble and see if we can’t identify some much-needed targets for draft day.
In case you missed it, here are the Second-Base Tiers. Previous articles in this series: Catcher, First Base.
Only four players who qualified at second base last season posted a double-digit walk rate. One of them (Ben Zobrist) qualifies at 418 positions and will be written up with the shortstops, and another (Matt Carpenter) loses his eligibility this year. Just three hitters posted an OBP-AVG split greater than .80. To put that in perspective, there were twenty-two qualifying first basemen who bested that mark. Outside of a couple legitimate risers, the “arrow up” section for this position is more like an “arrow sideways while everyone else’s arrow falls” section. This weak position is weaker still in OBP formats, making the handful of elite options that much more valuable.
Brian Dozier, MIN
Dozier built on a solid 2013 campaign with a spectacular step forward in his walk rate last year that, oddly, wasn’t based on a particularly different approach. His patience was matched only by Zobrist, and he was the one and only second baseman to post more than a hundred point differential between his OBP and AVG. That led to him earning almost six bucks more in OBP leagues last year than he did in standard AVG-based formats. He’s already a top-five option in standard leagues, and with his one liability morphing into an additional strength he bumps up to a top two or three option in OBP leagues. Standard: Low-Four Stars, OBP: High-Four Stars
Jason Kipnis, CLE
It’s obviously no secret that Kipnis had himself a terrible season in 2014, as both his approach and results collapsed pretty much across the board. He gave back all of the gains he’d made in 2013 and then some in terms of laying of balls out of the zone, proving particularly vulnerable to balls down low and in off the plate. Still, even with the deterioration in approach he posted the sixth-best walk rate among all keystoners and salvaged a modest amount of OBP league value. He’s likely to be a popular bounce-back candidate in mixed leagues, and an investment can yield even greater return in OBP formats if he does figure it out again.
Standard: Low-Three Stars, OBP: High-Three Stars
Jedd Gyorko, SDP
Similar to Kipnis, Gyorko also had himself a terrible 2014 in the wake of a stellar debut and significant pre-season optimism. Unlike Kipnis, however, there was a critical health issue at the root of his struggles. Plantar fasciitis wreaked havoc on his swing mechanics, sapping much of his power and killing his fantasy value. But lost under the surface, he made strong strides in honing his approach, lowering his chase rate, and cutting down his swing-and-miss. The ingredients are there for a nice rebound season, and if last year’s gains in walk rate carry over Gyorko has the ability to provide one of the larger returns on investment in OBP formats.
Standard: Low-Two Stars, OBP: High-Two Stars
Stephen Drew, NYY
I can’t quite remember seeing a veteran major-league hitter who wasn’t ostensibly past his prime look so lost for so long as Stephen Drew last year. It wasn’t that he was flailing away fruitlessly at pitches either, he just made a ton of terrible, soft fly-ball contact. Still, he didn’t appear to get too desperate as the season wore on, as his approach remained generally intact. He put up a nine percent walk rate on the heels of two straight seasons of double-digit performance and posted the sixth best OBP-AVG differential at the position. While he’s pretty well off the map for mixed league draft consideration he’ll at least be worth a look in deep mixed and AL-Only OBP formats.
Standard: Zero Stars, OBP: One Star
Jose Altuve, HOU
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Last year’s top value producer is currently going an average of 10th-overall in early drafts. He showed a number of significant improvements in his overall approach and execution last year, making him a not-terrible candidate to carry over his gains into next season and beyond. His placement here, however, is a reflection of the extreme nature of his batted ball dependence for reaching base. His OBP-AVG differential of .0358 ranked 39th out of 44 second base qualifiers, driven by the most aggressive swing rate among all second basemen. Altuve’s a unique hitter, and it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that a repeat performance is forthcoming. But the pressure on his hit tool makes the downside risk of even modest regression considerably greater in OBP formats.
Standard: High-Four Stars, OBP: Low-Four Stars
Dee Gordon, MIA
Gordon is 1-B to Altuve’s 1-A, as the top NL-only producer last year features a similarly daunting reliance on an AVG-based profile. The difference, of course, is that Gordon’s hit tool is not in the same class as Altuve’s, meaning the risk is that much greater here. He registered a putrid 1.6 percent walk rate over his final 250 plate appearances after the break last year, while his whiff and pop-up rates crept up notably. He’s fast enough to still provide value even if he does take the step back he’s likely due to take, as his extreme groundball tendencies should help prop up his BABIP and he’ll provide elite stolen base potential whenever he does reach. But the overall package will be much more limited by an ugly on-base percentage if he hits .260 instead of .290.
Standard: Four Stars, OBP: Three Stars
Ian Kinsler, DET
Kinsler currently feels to me the way that Brandon Phillips did a couple years back, like a guy that doesn’t really have the skills anymore to deliver as much value as he does. And yet there he was again, producing the fourth-best standard league season among second basemen last season. That value took a considerable hit in OBP leagues, however, where a bottom-of-the-barrel four percent walk rate drove down his return value by more than five bucks. He’s still a solid investment at the right price, but OBP leaguers should be wary of overpaying.
Standard: Low-Four Stars, OBP: Three Stars
Brandon Phillips, CIN
Speak of the devil! What little value the ol’ timer still has left in standard leagues is long gone in OBP formats, just the way he likes it. Phillips’ walk rate has hovered under six percent for three straight years now, while his contact rate has eroded and his pop-up rate has grown. The offensive profile on the whole is declining, and for a player with an on-base game as poor as Phillips’ has been for several years now it just doesn’t add up to a worthwhile investment outside of a stopgap measure in 18- or 20-team mixed leagues or 12-team NL-onlies.
Standard: Low-Two Stars, OBP: One Star
Scooter Gennett, MIL
Scooter turned into a nice little NL-only play last year, returning $16 of value and checking in as the seventh-best keystone option. But $3.50 of that value flew out the window if you played in an OBP league, where his 4.6 percent walk rate took a chunk out of what was decent AVG production. His .031 point OBP-AVG differential was the second-worst at the position, and he appeared to get over-exposed as the season wore on, logging just a three percent walk rate and .020 differential over the second half. Add in some significant platoon issues, and he makes for a very dicey proposition even for deeper NL-only leagues.
Standard: High-One Star, OBP: Low-One Star
As noted above, second base can be a helpful position to turn to for whiff rate balance in your points league, but beyond that there just aren’t a lot of guys at the position who are going to provide net positive value adjustments given the modest slugging potential that dominates this crew. On the flipside, strikeout rates that may not look obscene in a vacuum can create sneaky value loss in a hurry. The “down” arrows are magnified all the more in these formats given the relative value gains your opponents may be able to generate from the position with some of the better contact types in their lineup.
Jose Altuve, HOU
Just a brief note here, since he’s already the top-ranked player in standard formats. I went over the risks associated with potential regression in OBP formats, but all of that risk is mitigated and then some in points formats by his ridiculously low whiff rate and doubles-hitting ability.
Standard: High-Four Stars, Points: Five Stars
Martin Prado, MIA
Prado had an interesting year last season, bouncing from Arizona to the Bronx in a move that saw his approach change dramatically. An extreme low strikeout guy over each of the preceding three seasons, he was in the midst of regressing back towards something closer to the 13 percent rate he posted in 2010 before the trade. And after? Small-sample alert noted, the whiff rate ballooned to 17 percent in a while he posted far and away the best home-run rate of his career. I’d tend to bet on a return to standard form again now that he’s not only out of the Bronx but settled into a terrible park for right-handed power, and that’s the version of Prado who hits a bunch of doubles and posts 10 percent-or-better whiff rates.
Standard: High-Two Stars, Points: Three Stars
Chase Utley, PHI
Caution is still very much warranted here on account of Utley being 36 (and having the knees of a 53-year-old), but the collapse risk is offset some by a skillset conducive to solid points-league production. Utley posted a HR:FB rate well below his career mark last season, but in points formats that was offset somewhat by an explosion of doubles. He still finished with the sixth-most total bases at the position, so the downturn wasn’t nearly as significant in points leagues. Add in a solid-if-unspectacular whiff rate and even building in modest age/injury-related regression he makes for a decent bet to out-produce his standard league draft position of 14th at the position.
Standard: High-Two Stars, Points: Three Stars
Omar Infante, KCR
Infante had a tough year in 2014, battling a shoulder injury that sapped his power and really his production across the board. Like everything else his whiff rate slipped a bit last year, but his 11.8 percent total was still quite strong. He had previously developed into a very strong points league option in his veteran days, however. In both 2012 and 2013 he produced seasons where he finished in the top four in whiff rate and top eight in slugging percentage. He’s got a long track record of producing an excellent strikeout rate to go along with sneaky extra base hit production, and while he’s 34 and coming off injury he’s not a bad MI flier in points formats given his likely cost on draft day.
Standard: Zero Stars, Points: High-One Star
Dee Gordon, MIA
Gordon did a nice job trimming his whiff rate in the first half of the season, but after the All-Star Break he was right back to hacking at his standard rate. His whiff rate for the season checked in at a middle-of-the-pack 23rd among second basemen, while his total base production was an equally mediocre 19th. Especially if he picks up where he left off an posts a strikeout rate more in the high-teens going forward he becomes that much more of a liability in points formats, and that’s without even discussing the potential for his batted-ball results to take a step back next season.
Standard: Four Stars, Points: Three Stars
Brian Dozier, MIN
Dozier is already a low-BABIP player who doesn’t hit a ton of line drives, so there’s a greater built-in risk in his profile if and when he runs into a season of poor BABIP luck—something he’s managed to avoid doing thus far. His counting stat totals last season were built on amassing the sixth more plate appearances in all of baseball (tied for second among second basemen). On a rate basis his total-base production checked in ninth, however, to go along with a relatively poor whiff rate that was 33rd. So even if he tweaks an ankle and misses the minimum on a 15-day DL stint at some point it poses a significant challenge to his ability to accumulate enough bases to offset the strikeouts. He remains a strong option given the power, but there’s decidedly more risk in points formats.
Standard: Low-Four Stars, Points: Three Star
Brett Lawrie, OAK
Judging by the early returns, managers are still rather bullish on the potential of a long-awaited breakout from Brett Lawrie this year, as he’s currently going off board in the top 15 ahead of guys like Gyorko, Hill, and Phillips. The potential for significant value creation in the power categories remains in play for Lawrie, but those in points formats will need to balance that upside even more carefully given his likely strikeout drag. He’s a tougher guy to peg than most given the start-and-stop nature of his injury-riddled young career, but he’s consistently put up whiff rates in the 16-17 percent range, and that’s a liability at an up-the-middle position. It won’t matter nearly as much if he finally logs 550 plate appearances and knocks 20 homers. But that obviously shouldn’t be the expectation in drafting Lawrie, and points leaguers will need to factor more downside risk than most into their bid equations.
Standard: Two Stars, Points: High-One Star
Arismendy Alcantara, CHC
Promising young players who are about to enter their first full seasons in the big leagues are generally an exciting lot to invest in, particularly when they possess the kind of power/speed combo that Alcantara does. But there’s a ton of downside risk here for points league investment that shouldn’t be overlooked. He wasn’t an extreme strikeout guy in the minors, but his career rate was over 20 percent in 2,200-some-odd plate appearances. In his first taste of big league pitching that number ballooned to 33 percent, the second-worst rate produced by a player with second base eligibility last season. And beyond the 10 home runs his total base production wasn’t particularly strong on the whole. The potential for additional growing pains take a whole bunch of shine off Alcantara as a late-draft flier in points formats, as until he shows progress in his approach there are just too many negative indicators around the profile to warrant an overbid.
Standard: High-One Star, Points: Low-One Star
Wilson Karaman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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