August 17, 2015
The Buyer's Guide
First impressions rule the day, in life and in baseball. I wrote about this fact in a June article about Adam Eaton, explaining how fantasy owners had been slow to recognize his quality due to his horrendous start to the season. A couple of months later, Eaton is a top-40 fantasy outfielder and still has an ownership below 70 percent in ESPN leagues.
Since getting called back up in June, Rougned Odor is hitting .335/.375/.551 with seven home runs and four stolen bases as a 21-year-old second baseman, and few people are buzzing about him being one of the brightest young players in the league. His ownership also sits below 70 percent in fantasy leagues. Why? He hit .144/.252/.233 in the first month-plus of the 2015 season and got demoted to Triple-A.
Jimmy Nelson owns a 2.31 ERA over his last 10 starts, holding opposing teams to a .207/.272/.322 slash line. He has been a top-15 fantasy pitcher in the last 30 days and has lowered his overall ERA to 3.61. His fantasy ownership rate is also stuck around 60 percent. Fantasy owners seemingly haven’t been able to forgive or forget his sluggish beginning to the year, which saw him post a 4.64 ERA in his first 14 starts.
The tendency to define a player by their early-season performance is dangerous and something fantasy owners must work to avoid; however, it’s also important to recognize what is causing the slow starts. For Eaton, it was likely random variance or bad luck, depending on one’s linguistic preference. For Odor and Nelson, they dealt with the natural growing pains through which young players generally struggle in their first full seasons as major-league players.
Players returning from injuries can also suffer through early-season dry spells. Ryan Braun spent the month of April trying to break bad habits after dealing with nerve damage in his thumb/hand last year and is hitting .280/.353/.525 in his last 93 games. Sometimes it’s about regaining confidence at the plate or kicking off the rust. Victor Martinez hit .258/.314/.380 in the first half of 2013 after missing all of 2012 with a torn ACL and proceeded to hit .361/.413/.500 in the second half.
It’s difficult to condition the brain to suspend judgment on players early in the season, but perhaps it’s simply about remembering the bigger picture. I’ve found this easier as I’ve gotten older. I’ve been able to mentally catalog more examples of players who struggled for extended stretches only to regain their former glory, as well as players who vastly outperform expectations in year one or two and fall back to obscurity in subsequent seasons. The more frames of reference one has, the more one is willing to embrace the macro and question the micro when it comes to player performance.
Carlos Gonzalez battled through myriad injuries in 2014. He disgusted the baseball world when he had a fatty mass with tentacles removed from his finger, but the more significant injury came to his left knee. Chronic tendinitis morphed to something more severe, and Gonzalez underwent surgery that ended his season. Stuart Wallace explained the mechanical changes that the 29-year-old employed to compensate for his injury. It all resulted in a brutal .238/.292/.431 slash line and caused him to plummet from first-round consideration in fantasy drafts.
Things somehow got worse. Gonzalez fell and metaphorically smacked his face on the ground early in the season, posting terrible offensive numbers. His nadir came on May 13 against the Los Angeles Angels. He went 1-for-5 with two strikeouts and saw his slash line plummet to .188/.245/.297. Through 29 games, concerns that CarGo was somehow done began percolating in the baseball community.
In the end, it appears that the native of Venezuela was only re-discovering his timing and mechanics after dealing with long-term knee troubles. He has kicked it into high gear as of late. Since his season bottomed out on May 13, Gonzalez is hitting .299/.357/.605 with 24 home runs and two stolen bases. The mere pair of steals could reflect a lingering tentativeness with the knee, but the superstar offensive player has returned. He’s a top-20 fantasy outfielder this year—even with the brutal month and a half—and is the third-best fantasy outfielder over the past calendar month.
Some have indicated that he’s “on fire” or “enjoying a torrid stretch at the plate.” Perhaps true, but the suggestion is that he’s somehow playing over his head. I’d posit, however, that the numbers indicate that he has simply returned to form.
The power numbers are heightened, but the slash lines are eerily similar. His swinging-strike rate has dropped from his 15.4 percent mark a year ago, which was a career high by two percentage points. He’s also driving the baseball much more often as the months have passed.
The last three months are much closer to his career ground-ball rate of 45.2 percent, which again speaks to the notion that Gonzalez needed time to shake off the rust and break the bad habits he established last season. Perhaps it’s building a narrative around the available statistics—as I haven’t had the ability to discuss this with CarGo himself—but it makes a lot of sense.
I’m uncertain whether Gonzalez is re-establishing himself as a first-round talent, though, for fantasy purposes. He has always been injury prone; however, the five-category production always outweighed the inherent injury risk. Since he’s no longer running on the bases, the upside is a bit more limited. He remains one of the most talented hitters in Major League Baseball, but for fantasy purposes, he’s not the player he once was. The injury-prone label will keep him toward the back-end of the first round or the beginning of the second round. That is, unless people still cling to the memories of 2014 and the beginning of 2015, even though the total body of work favors the opinion that he has overcome his knee troubles to be the Carlos Gonzalez at the plate that we all remember.
BUYER’S ADVICE: BUY
This advice, of course, is contingent upon the price. I still think there’s a chance that fantasy owners view his recent performance as a hot streak and not a return to the norm. If that’s the case, the asking price may not be astronomical. Owners may look to capitalize and “sell high,” when they’re really selling a potential top-10 fantasy outfielder. If the price is lower than what it would take to acquire someone like Adam Jones or Carlos Gomez, it’s time to buy CarGo. If you’re dealing with a savvy owner, though, I advise people to pump the brakes a bit. The injury questions remain. Do not pay a superstar price for a guy who is no longer running, is about to turn 30 years old, and has a history of injuries. In that case, it’s best to hold steady. And if your league has already seen its trade deadline come and go, it may be worth it to inquire what CarGo’s price tag may be this offseason, as he should be poised for another productive season in 2016—whether he’s playing in Colorado or not.