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August 13, 2015

Five to Watch

Veteran Rebounds

by Greg Wellemeyer

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One of the hardest things to do in fantasy baseball is to fight recency bias when evaluating veteran players. In an environment where more ink is spilled on shiny new toys than reliable standbys, it’s easy to feel compelled to bail out when you spot legitimate signs of deterioration. Nobody wants to be the one holding the bag when Father Time claims his latest victim.

Here are five veterans who got off to slow starts but who can offer value the rest of the way to those who were more patient than I was in the season’s first half.

Robinson Cano, 2B, Seattle Mariners

Undeterred by a 2014 season that saw Cano register his lowest run, home run, and RBI totals since 2008, fantasy owners called his name inside the top 20, according to NFBC ADP data. A second-round price tag was too rich for me given the improving depth at 2B; I preferred Jose Altuve or Anthony Rendon in that range, and steady options like Neil Walker and Howie Kendrick were available 100 or more picks later. Despite my lukewarm position on Cano relative to my peers, I couldn’t have imagined Cano’s terrifying first three months, during which he slashed .238/.277/.344 with four long balls and 54 R+RBI. The most common explanations for his first half struggles were a continuation of the high ground-ball rates he posted in 2014 and declining contact ability. If you chose the glass-half-full approach and bought low on the strength of Cano’s rebounding batted-ball distance, his position on the aging curve, and his general greatness, good on you. Since July 1st, Cano has been a .319/.378/.570 hitter with eight home runs and walk and strikeout rates trending back toward his career norms.

I don’t have a blanket recommendation here because I can picture Cano owners valuing him all over the place, with some misreading a big July as a return to top-of-the-position form and others incorrectly weighting his lackluster first half too heavily. Cano remains a case where you can see what you want to see depending on which metrics you cite. No matter which side of the argument you fall on, don’t let confirmation bias push Cano too far toward one extreme or the other. He’s not the elite option he once was, but he’s still plenty productive.

Ian Kinsler, 2B, Detroit Tigers

Kinsler’s line through June wasn’t quite as ugly as Cano’s but it was bad enough to be damaging for anyone who invested the early pick required to get him. Kinsler’s .262 batting average was passable, he was still running a bit, and a spot in the top two of the Tigers order allowed him to rack up 45 runs, but his power went missing. Kinsler owned a .349 slugging percentage and an Elvis Andrus-ian .087 isolated power through June, and while his HR:FB rate was always going to rise from its 2.0 percent mark, wondering whether he could reach double-digit home runs was fair. An early July trip to the disabled list for Miguel Cabrera and lingering questions about whether Victor Martinez could be his old self seemingly thrust Kinsler’s contextual stats into doubt as well, and I, for one, thought this was the end for Kinsler as a no-doubt top ten option at second base. I was wrong. Since July 1st, he’s hit .373/.405/.571, becoming significantly more aggressive and making much more hard contact. I don’t think Kinsler will be a reliable source of steals moving forward because his baserunning ability is worsening and he’s been called on to be more of a run producer than run scorer hitting out of the third spot, but his average, runs, and RBI (for as long as he hits third) provide a solid foundation for his overall value.

Alexei Ramirez, SS, Chicago White Sox

Ramirez was one of the worst, if not the very worst regular at the plate through June, as evidenced by a .212/.235/.281 triple-slash that added up to a 37 wRC+. His eight steals to that point were useable but everything else had to be considered a massive disappointment given that he was a positive contributor in all five categories last year and was the fourth shortstop off the board in 2015 drafts. Perhaps that draft result said more about the state of the position than it did about Ramirez but there was some perceived safety here despite the fact that his 2014 home run total looked like a late-career outlier and his age, free-swinging ways, and reliance on speed to prop his value were all signs that the end would be swift when it came. You can be forgiven, then, if you dropped Ramirez anywhere along the way and played the hot hand with guys like Jace Peterson or Cesar Hernandez. If you let Ramirez go this spring, here’s hoping you scooped him back up in the dog days, as he’s offered enough production in the past month to make him a top five shortstop over that span. His runs and RBI have continued to underwhelm but he’s hit five home runs and stolen six bases since July 1st, in addition to getting his average back in an acceptable range. The White Sox offense as a whole has been better since the All-Star break and Ramirez can once again be trusted as an everyday starter in leagues of all sizes.

Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP, Seattle Mariners

Iwakuma was poor during the final month of 2014 and hit the disabled list with strained lat after three bad starts to open 2015. Given the subpar performance, advanced age, and SP2 draft-day cost, owners likely had no choice but to hold or sell at a significant discount. Those who chose the former have been rewarded with a 3.64 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and 40 strikeouts in 47 innings since his early July return. Those numbers include a four home run shelling in his first outing since April, something we can’t entirely discount because of his track record of above-average home run allowed rates. Iwakuma’s trademark pinpoint control has shown up in another sub-five percent walk rate but the key to his success since his return has been increased reliance on and better results with the curveball. Further, Iwakuma’s string of success has come against some of the best offenses in the league, including the Yankees, Tigers, and Rangers. The 34-year-old is pitching for his next contract and could be a big contributor to a competitive team down the stretch.

[Note: Iwakuma pitched a no-hitter after I wrote this but before I filed it. He threw four curveballs, so there goes that theory. How about this analysis instead: Iwakuma appears to be fully healthy and he is a really good pitcher when he is fully healthy.]

R.A. Dickey, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays

Dickey has turned in a six-pack of quality starts in a row, giving up a mere six earned runs in 43.1 innings during that stretch. In fact, 11 of Dickey’s 13 starts since June 1st meet the textbook definition of “quality,” and he’s posted a 2.59 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 87 innings. Those numbers represent a vast improvement over the 5.77 ERA and 1.33 WHIP he offered in ten April and May starts. Dickey’s knuckleball velocity is more than two miles per hour faster in July than it was in April or May and is also generating more movement in both horizontal and vertical dimensions than earlier in the season. As a result, the knuckler has been more effective than at any time since his 2012 Cy Young campaign. Dickey was back-end rotation filler in mixed leagues of standard depth at the beginning of the year, so he was almost certainly freely available come June. His ownership rate currently stands at 55 percent in ESPN leagues and 72 percent in CBSSports leagues, so there is still some opportunity for a cheap acquisition. You can expect decent ratios but his strikeout rate, even during the current strong stretch, is the lowest it’s been since 2011 and anything more than six per nine innings should be considered a bonus. He ought to make up for that shortcoming in the wins category. Until they prove otherwise, I’ll assume Toronto is going to win out, putting Dickey in line to add 9-10 more wins to his total.

Greg Wellemeyer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Greg's other articles. You can contact Greg by clicking here

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