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October 30, 2015

Fantasy Freestyle

Players to Target and Avoid: A Look Back

by Bret Sayre

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Earlier in October, we looked back at some player-specific predictions that I made for endgame sleepers—and as expected, some went well and some went poorly. However, looking at where you went wrong in identifying individual players is both important and relatively small in the grand scheme of fantasy evaluation. The most useful information that can come out of a look back is where the process went right and where it went wrong, so I will channel my inner Jeff Quinton and go through the recommendations I made for players to target/avoid during January and February. But rather than judging based on the players selected, we're going to judge based on what led to those players being selected, and whether there are process improvements that can be made here, or whether we've moved beyond some of the reasons why these decisions were made.

As you may (but probably don't) remember, we alternated the positive and negative in the pre-season, so there's only one of either direction at any given position. So let's start at the very beginning. Seems like a very good place to start, no?

Catcher to Target: Yasmani Grandal, Los Angeles Dodgers

What I Said: "There are three parts to targeting Grandal, and only one of them is the obvious analysis. Yes, Dodger Stadium is a better place for power on both sides of the plate and even with the departures of Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez, this will still be the best lineup he's ever played in. We’re also legally and morally required to note that he has a PED suspension on his record, so take that however you would usually take such information. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at the type of hitter Grandal is.

The former Padre is a switch-hitter, who takes a lot of pitches and isn’t afraid to either walk or strike out. He’s also lacked much of any platoon split across his major and minor league careers, which makes what happened in 2014 all the more eye opening. Grandal hit all 15 of his homers against right-handed pitching last season, and ended up with a .241/.329/.452 line. Unfortunately for his final line, he also took 96 plate appearances hitting right-handed, and ended up with an abysmal .162/.323/.189 line. Sometimes when these platoon splits jump in out of nowhere, they are just statistical noise, but maybe something different is happening here. Grandal had surgery to replace the ACL in his right knee last off-season, and there were whispers that it was affecting him throughout much of the season. That push-off knee when battling southpaws is his right, of course. There’s no way to know how much of that was from discomfort in his surgically repaired knee, it is a strong possibility that there was some effect there.

Now, he also just flat out hit better the further he got from the surgery as well, regardless of platoon split. His OPS over the first three months of the season was a meager .628 that grew into a shiny .800 from July 1st on. He also started 60 of the Padres’ final 70 games—a usage pattern that he could replicate in Los Angeles in 2015. There’s a very real possibility that Grandal, given extra time since his surgery, could hit .260-270 while approaching 25 homers and knocking in 75 runs—which would make him a top-five catcher."

What Happened: Grandal had a roller coaster year, which started out as the kind of campaign that could have garnered him down-ballot MVP votes by some of the more stat-savvy balloters. Unfortunately, battles with a shoulder injury in the second half saw a precipitous fall and registered his 2015 season right alongside his 2014—an above-average offensive campaign, but one without a step forward.

What We Learned: Really, there are two lessons at play here. The first is that it's still nowhere near as easy at it seems to predict which offenses will be high-performing in a given year when you're talking about teams that do not play in very hitter-friendly parks. The Dodgers ended up scoring the 19th-most runs in baseball, and while that was definitely an improvement from the Padres of 2014 (who were dead last), it wasn't enough to allow Grandal to eclipse either 50 runs scored or driven in.

Secondly, it's important to remember when splits have meaning and when they do not. Both of Grandal's splits that were examined in January seemed to make sense as the recovery from major knee surgery is a large piece of any puzzle. Strong second half numbers led to even stronger first half numbers in 2015, and were only slowed down by another injury. The .512 OPS against southpaws from 2014 jumped to .794 in 2015, although he did only manage two extra-base hits off them all year (partially because he only had 52 at bats vs LHP, but maybe there's more of an element of truth here that we might see at first glance).

In the end, the good and injured catcher was good and injured, but was also bad and injured because he wasn't quite injured enough for most of the second half.

First Baseman to Avoid: Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves

What I Said: “Let's start by taking a look at Freeman's 2014 season. He played every game of the season and still finished outside of the top-10 players at his position. In fact, even if you're not keen on paying the price for Victor Martinez that his incredible prior year dictates, two of the elder statesmen of the position both finished just barely behind Freeman as top-15 options last year. Those two players: Adam LaRoche and Justin Morneau. Sure, they both have risk of their own, but they're also going at least 120 picks later. By taking Freeman that early, you're banking on the fact that he can hit more than 23 homers for the first time in his career--and while that's not unreasonable, it's an awful large premium to pay.

And this is before we get to the situation in Atlanta--which is at the heart of why I'll be avoiding Freeman in drafts this year. Last year, the Braves scored the second fewest runs in baseball with 573, leaving Freeman to only rack up 78 RBI, despite hitting third the entire season. He also scored 93 runs, and while that's a very strong number, it's a weak contextual outcome given his on-base percentage, batting order position and plate appearances. Now replace Justin Upton with an unnamed free agent, Jason Heyward with a maybe-healthy Nick Markakis and El Oso Blanco with El O Por Cuatro (h/t to J.J. Jansons). That means even fewer of what were fewer than expected contextual stats. This isn't a Giancarlo Stanton situation here either—Freeman doesn't have that carrying tool for fantasy, which means he's more reliant on the counters than most hitters ranked where he is.

Freddie Freeman is a very strong young hitter. Freddie Freeman is not a high-end option at first base. Freddie Freeman is not a top-50 pick in drafts this year. These sentences can all exist in harmony if you just let them.”

What Happened: Freeman did almost exactly what he did in 2014, with a slight tick up in power. He also was injured and finished outside the top 20 first basemen.

What We Learned: Well, maybe you can predict how some offenses will project when they appear as inept as the Braves' offense did in January. The Braves took the torch from Grandal's Padres as the worst offense in baseball, and while Freeman still fell short of the counting stats he needed to justify his ADP, they were better than I was expecting. If you project his 62 runs and 66 RBI out over 160 games (which seems reasonable since he only missed one game this year when he was available), you get 84 and 89, respectively. That's very good in this era, but not nearly enough to carry you when neither the average nor power is elite. Banking counting stats is important and taking a number of safe players is absolutely a must, but we can't get ahead of ourselves this early in drafts/auctions. Freeman continues to be proof of this, and here's hoping that he'll either take the step forward to warrant being taken this high, or his reachers will finally realize that they've jumped the safety shark.

Second Baseman to Target: Neil Walker, Pittsburgh Pirates

What I Said: "The Pittsburgh second sacker has been a steady fantasy performer for the last five seasons, and has gradually moved up from deep league value play to mixed league stalwart. Of course, if you're looking for upside that could strike fear into the hearts of your opponents, the guy who's being selected in front of Walker in early NFBC drafts is the one you want (Javier Baez), but in our current offensive environment, Walker provides consistency and an extremely high floor. Given the question marks surrounding many of the non-elite names at the position, security should be more highly valued than at other positions—and even more so because shortstop is even weaker and many second basemen will end up being played at middle infield yet again.

In his six-year major league career, Walker has never hit fewer home runs than he has the previous season. Of course, this is going to be put to the biggest test yet, as his 23 homers in 2014 were a career high by quite a distance (seven to be exact). Also, his leveling up in power (at least relatively speaking), has gone hand in hand with a more aggressive approach to strikes—the 71.1 percent of strikes he swung at this year was a career high, and hasn't caused him go to outside the zone with additional regularity. Projecting more than 20 for him again is likely a touch rich, but he's more likely to hit 25 than 10. Stripping away the power, Walker carries great value in the underrated fantasy categories. While homers and steals get many headlines in fantasy circles, the other three standard categories carry just as much weight--and Walker was one of just six second basemen to hit above .270 and collect both 70 runs and RBI. Those other five hitters: Anthony Rendon, Ian Kinsler, Robinson Cano, Chase Utley, and Howie Kendrick. Of course, Walker also played in 16 fewer games than the second lowest total of those six.


Right now, Walker is being selected as the 10th second baseman off the board in NFBC formats (which are 15-team mixed)—and despite the fact that I think even that's not high enough for him, this is more targeted at your home league. The two names directly in front of him on the board are Kolten Wong and Javier Baez—and while each is a better bet to finish in the top-five at the position than Walker, neither is as strong of a bet to finish in the top-10. I'd be shocked to see either come off the board behind Walker in any league this year. Not spending on the position will leave you in the weeds, trying to rely on a young risk with less upside like Jonathan Schoop, Nick Franklin or Marcus Semien."

What Happened: Well, he finished just one run and one hit shy of another .270-70-70 season, yet Walker still finished outside the top 10 at the keystone. The power took a step back, but this was an expected event.

What We Learned: This is a slightly different corollary of the Freddie Freeman situation. Whereas he was being taken too high to warrant the limited upside, Walker was being taken at a point (and a position) where the safety was worth the investment. If you waited on the position and hit on Matt Duffy, Delino DeShields, or Logan Forsythe, feel free to take that victory lap now. If you didn't, you're in the majority, and having a middle infielder you could plug in all year without thinking about would likely have been a much better option than what actually transpired. That said, the position was stronger around Walker than I anticipated at the beginning of the season, which was really what kept this from being a strong recommendation. Players like Walker, Howie Kendrick, and Brian Dozier (though he'll likely go a little earlier) are still going to be recommended options at second base in 2016, as the risk at the position just gets amplified as you blow past the bankable fantasy players.

Third Baseman to Avoid: Lonnie Chisenhall, Cleveland Indians

What I Said: "I know we're not really supposed to pick on the low-hanging fruit here, but Chisenhall was a very strong hitter last year, hitting .280 with 13 homers in his age-25 season. Well, let's correct that. He was a really strong hitter during the first three months of the season, and then the Lonnie Chisenhall we all expected in the last three months. Predicting which version we'll see in 2015 is not quite as easy as saying "he stunk down the stretch" and leave it at that, but it's an important fact to remember in the overall picture.

On July 1st, the Indians third baseman was sitting on a .345/.399/.555 line with eight homers in 67 games—and while no one thought that pace would continue, he cratered beyond expectation the rest of the way. He settled with a .225/.295/.318 line from that day on. The batting average fluctuation is overblown, since despite striking out a little more in the second half, there wasn't a huge difference between his underlying stats. The bigger issue is the step back in power, as Chisenhall settled for just 14 extra-base hits over the last three months of the season, compared to 28 in the first three months, despite about 30 more at-bats.

The other problem Chisenhall is going to have in 2015 is contextual stats, while likely hitting down lineup in a below-average Indians offense. He spent the most amount of time hitting fifth last season, but with Brandon Moss coming over from Oakland and Yan Gomes slotting in ahead of him, Chisenhall looks like he'll be hitting seventh or eight this year--decreasing his run potential severely (Jose Ramirez won't do a great job of driving him in). With that already as a problem, he will likely have to repeat the batting average, while taking a step forward in power just to be playable in mixed leagues—and that's not something I'm going to be counting on."

What Happened: It was not a good year, as Chisenhall struggled, was demoted, and eventually resurfaced as a surprisingly effective outfielder after the Indians traded most of the players in his path to playing time.

What We Learned: Nothing particularly interesting, which is why I'm taking a step back and looking at the more macro process of player selection in these articles. I even put it right in the first sentence. There was not a rush of fantasy owners jumping all over Chisenhall in February/March, and my contribution to this original article would have been much more useful if I had taken a player who this blurb could have helped. This is something that I'm working to remove from our overall fantasy content, and it has to start with me. I'm better than this and we're better than this as a whole. So yeah, Chisenhall was bad, but so was this analysis.

Shortstop to Target: Jhonny Peralta, St Louis Cardinals

What I Said: "This recommendation is less a knock on Peralta’s position in our tiered rankings—which I can’t take to task too much—it’s a statement on where he’s currently being taken in drafts, per early ADP data. Right now, Peralta is the 14th shortstop coming off the board (15th if you include Javier Baez), and while that number in itself isn’t crazy, he should not be going at his current overall ADP of 189.

All of the right things happened last year with Peralta, from an underlying statistical standpoint. He lowered his strikeout rate, raised his walk rate and raised his isolated power—all in his first year in the senior circuit. Being only 32 years old on Opening Day, there shouldn’t be much of a step back projected from Peralta, yet what looks to be a .270-hitting shortstop with 15-plus homers (conservatively) is being undersold because there just may not be enough attention given to just how bad the bottom tier of shortstops are in mixed leagues. There are a whole slew of shortstops with upside lower than Peralta’s projection, and plenty of risk that they never even get close.

Additionally, the Cardinals’ lineup looks like a strong one for RBI opportunities down lineup. They had the fourth best team OBP last year in the National League (ninth in the majors), and adding Jason Heyward will likely only help move that number upwards (along with less playing time for Peter Bourjos). Peralta is just one of a whole slew of veterans who will be passed over on draft day because they are not superstars—an epidemic that affects owners every year. Of course, this is more useful in deeper mixed leagues, as Peralta’s steadiness is less of a factor in shallow formats. However, strong reliability is a good game plan anywhere."

What Happened: The gains did indeed hold for Peralta, with the exception of losing a couple of homers. Unfortunately, the season didn't quite look as impressive in October as it felt like it was going to look in July, as he hit .298 with 13 homers prior to the All-Star break, and that dropped to .243 and four homers afterward.

What We Learned: Really, it’s pretty similar to what is in the section for Neil Walker. You’re always playing with a little bit of fire when you’re banking on a middle infielder who is nearing his mid-30s, and Peralta certainly wore down as the season went on. That said, even with the drop in performance, he still was nearly a top-10 option at the position. The logic that went into the Peralta pick is the same logic that I will continue to take into auction after auction. It’s like a loophole that never closes, and this extends from your most generic home league to a pool or sharks.

This goes double for players who were never really considered to be fantasy stars at any point in their career. For example, Shin-Soo Choo was another player who was devalued coming into the season because of age and recent performance, but was strong on track record—and while he was likely a bargain in many leagues, that name still carries some excess value. Players like Peralta know no such problems, and savvy fantasy owners wish for no such solutions.

Outfielder to Avoid: Kole Calhoun, Los Angeles Angels

What I Said: "Generally, when you're looking at the first 30 outfielders off the board in mixed leagues, there's a common thread between them. Some are contributors across all five categories, some have impact potential in a handful of them, some are young players who look poised to take the next step, and then there's Kole Calhoun. I still don't know why fantasy owners are so excited about Calhoun that he's pushed into the top-100 in early-season ADP—as his skill set doesn't look all that different from many names being taken far later.

Let's debunk these one by one. Calhoun is not a five-category contributor. Despite stealing bases at a decent clip in the minor leagues, he's shown little ability to transfer that to the major league level, as he's accumulated eight steals in 13 attempts over 206 career games. On top of that, hitting leadoff for a top-heavy Angels' offense is going to severely inhibit his RBI potential—and it's tough to see him putting up much more than the 58 that he totaled in 2014. That leaves him as a three-category contributor, so he's gotta be pretty excellent in those three categories, right? Well, not quite. He doesn't project to hit more than 20 homers.

That's certainly good, but not a carrying fantasy tool. He's a career .271 hitter—and while league-wide batting average is in sharp decline, the odds of him having a huge impact here is pretty small. This leaves runs scored, which is Calhoun's biggest strength. He scored 90 runs in just 127 games last season, which projects out to over 100 if you're into that sort of thing. Though, with a career .329 on-base percentage, even having Mike Trout and Albert Pujols behind him won't guarantee him triple-digits this year. In fact, if you're looking to grab a three-category contributor who could score 100 runs, why not wait about 75 picks and take Denard Span?

There's a misconception out there that Calhoun is a well-rounded fantasy player who can contribute everywhere. And while technically it's true (he'd be hard-pressed to end the season with zero RBI or steals), it overstates his value and gives him an implied valuation that is just not there. After all, we're still talking about a 27-year-old who has had a whopping 711 career at bats in the majors. If you're making the argument for a player with Calhoun's skill set being taken where he is, you either need to make it on great upside or great safety—and pretending that the Angels' outfielder has either is a mistake you don't want to make on draft day."

What Happened: Calhoun stayed healthy for the entire season and ended up ranked as the 125th player overall in mixed leagues. However, his performance took a rather different shape than expected.

What We Learned: There's nothing wrong with being wrong. Everyone is wrong sometimes. I've been wrong plenty. It's an unavoidable side effect of making predictions. However, it's easier to swallow being wrong when you're wrong for the right reasons. Mike Gianella and I talked about this quite a bit with Adam Wainwright this year. Wainwright was being avoided in drafts because there were overrated concerns of an arm injury, and we gladly pounced. Of course, he ruptured his Achilles and it ended up being a bad pick, but not for the right reason. The fact that the process was sound made the result more infuriating.

The Angels outfielder is a much more compressed version of the same situation. Calhoun's batting average took a step backwards along with his contact rate, and his low on-base percentage for a leadoff hitter led to a disappointing 78 runs scored. Yet, the power stats pushed him to back to square one--as a pick who nearly held serve with what I thought was an extremely inflated ADP. There was little to suggest that Calhoun would clear 25 homers, yet he hit 16 homers in the second half. He homered off Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in back-to-back games before Daniel Murphy made it cool. He homered off David Price and Corey Kluber. He even added one off Wade Davis for good measure (he's just one of three to do so since Davis has been a shutdown reliever for the Royals—one was Jose Bautista and the other makes for a good trivia question). He maxed out the power to bail out his believers. But were there signs that we missed?

The answer might be yes. There was little in his average flyball distance to predict this, and there was nothing in his Isolated Power that jumped out either. However, when looking at his home run classifications on the ESPN Home Run Tracker, there may be something useful. In 2014, only two of his 17 homers were classified as "just enough,” which is well below average across the league (on average, 30 percent of a hitter's home runs are classified this way). If you try to project how many "just enough" home runs he should have had based on the ones which went beyond that classification, you'd get 22. And if you prorate that 22 out to 150 games (from his 127 in 2014), you get 26. All of a sudden, that number doesn't look so out of place. Everything is a data point, and this was one that I should have paid more attention to.

Starting Pitcher to Target: Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs

What I Said: "If you're not comfortable with the concept, it's a tough sell. There are litters of pitchers who supposedly took a step forward, only to shrink back to most or all of their former selves. If you want to make some veteran fantasy owners angry/cry, just point them in the direction of Oliver Perez' 2004 season (figurative dynamite), his 2005 ADP (he was being drafted in the fourth/fifth round, if I remember correctly) and his 2005 season (literal dynamite). Of course, retelling the story about Oliver Perez isn't going to make people more excited to draft Jake Arrieta in 2015, but fortunately that's not all that either Arrieta or I have in our arsenal.

Drafting Arrieta isn't as much a belief that his talent is pure and repeatable, but an exercise in risk/reward. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't think that the Cub is a better pitcher than he was a year ago, and by a large margin. The question is how much of a discount as we, as a fantasy community, willing to accept as payment for the risk that he turns into 2005 Oliver Perez. If he's the same guy as last year, Arrieta is a top-10 starting pitcher. Easy. As the 26th pitcher off the board right now (according to NFBC data), the difference between him and the 10th starting pitcher being taken (Yu Darvish) is more than 60 picks—or at least four rounds. It's easier to make this sort of proposition with a pitcher, as you're more likely to see a late-round/undrafted pitcher break out (a la 2014 Jake Arrieta) than one who wields a bat. So targeting Arrieta as your SP2 (that works) or SP3 (even better) is a smart strategy, given the sheer odds that you'll run into an outperformer or two in the endgame or on the waiver wire. SP2s and SP3s disappoint consistently, whether it's injury or performance-related, so why are we still so afraid of a pitcher not repeating an SP1 performance level that he's already shown for a strong part of a season? Oh, right…"

What Happened: Arrieta was great in the first half and then turned into an unstoppable force in the second half, en route to being the top fantasy pitcher in baseball. He had a 1.77 ERA, 22 wins, and an upper body with so much definition that it could be a dictionary.

What We Learned: Nothing. We learned nothing. If I could take this write-up above and apply it to Noah Syndergaard in 2016, I would (and maybe I will). The key point here, again, is that we fantasy owners hit on pitchers late in the draft/auction and off the waiver wire. It happens every season. It happens both on purpose and by accident—which is why I like to buy back-end starting pitching in bulk.

Relief Pitcher to Avoid: Ken Giles, Philadelphia Phillies

What I Said: "The common belief among human life forms is that Jonathan Papelbon will be traded to team outside the great state of Pennsylvania. However, that still has not happened and is unlikely to happen until the trade deadline at the earliest for a few reasons. One, the market of teams interested in his services continues to dry up. Two, the vesting option he has is a large impediment since he’ll be owed $16 million unless he finishes fewer than 48 games in 2015 (something he’s never done in a full season). Giles is a high-end reliever and valuable in any format, but there are high-end relievers available 30, 50, or even 100-plus picks later, and they don’t have the Papelbon trade scenario baked into their values.

So let's get to that value, because I don't want to think that this avoid is diminishing the quality of Giles as a reliever. In fact, I think he's destined to be one of the 10 best relievers in the league this year, period. However, this isn't a Kenley Jansen/Brandon League situation where the clock is just ticking on the incumbent blowing a few saves in a row and losing his job. Papelbon was actually quite good last year, and relying on Giles to get saves because of a trade is much different than asking him to get saves based on poor performance ahead of him. Even though Giles' ADP is falling slightly since the Brewers resigned Francisco Rodriguez—closing one door for his ascent—it's still too high based on the realistic percentage that he ends up with more than 3-5 saves."

What Happened: Giles was excellent, and in fact, he was a top-10 reliever depending upon what metric you are looking at. He also didn’t get his first save until July 28th and only racked up 15 on the season.

What We Learned: Well, that it’s possible to be both right and wrong, but we knew that already. There was little doubt across the board that Giles was going to be very good, and he was, but the fact is that 15 saves is only 15 saves. When you take a reliever, even an excellent one, who needs help to get into the closer’s role, it’s an unnecessary risk. The difference between non-closer Giles and 20 other high-end relievers with no chance of saves is not particularly noticeable and the risk that you take on by holding him while he’s not creating differentiating value is, well, unnecessary. Why try to find another word when the correct one is right there in front of you?

Aside from the risk, it’s also about the roster-management issues that arise from holding someone who’s not in the role you need them to be in. In deep mixed and mono leagues (along with daily transaction leagues), the value of a high-end middle reliever is absolutely important, but that’s highly league-specific. There’s a time and a place to stash, but it’s not where Giles was being taken.

All of that said, from a valuation standpoint, he was worth where he went. And it’s going to point owners in the direction of that next hot set up man with an implosive closer ahead of him in 2016. It won’t be me taking that player, but I’m less confident that it’s the right decision than I was eight months ago.

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

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