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April 23, 2008

Fantasy Beat

To Drop or Not to Drop?

by Marc Normandin

Even though it is only April, there are plenty of players who have already made headway towards seasons worse than replacement level. Not all of these players are the ones you think would be there either; yes, Tony Pena Jr. and Brian Bocock are here, but you can also find David Ortiz, Ryan Braun, and other star hitters who haven't seen their bats heat up with the weather yet. Today we will take a look at some struggling hitters who are a bit more expendable to your team than Big Papi, to see whether it is worth holding on to them for May and beyond.

Travis Buck's -7.4 VORP is the worst of 2008 so far, thanks to a .154/.197/.277 start over 71 plate appearances. Buck has looked awful at the plate; after walking in 39 times against 66 strikeouts in 2007, he has walked just twice against 20 punchouts this year. That's a drop in BB/PA of nine percent, but with a bump up in K/PA from 23.2 to 30.8 percent. Buck has taken fewer pitches per plate appearance so far-just 2.4 versus last year's very good 3.7 mark-which has negatively affected his performance.

It's too early to know for sure if pitchers have adjusted to Buck after an offseason of scouting reports and video, or if Buck is just in a serious funk. Given his lack of patience at the plate early on, I'd say a lot of the problems are on his end, but there's also some natural regression to anticipate. Buck hit .288/.377/.474 last season, with a BABIP of .354. Given his 18.7 percent liner rate, you can put his expected BABIP at .307, 47 points lower than his actual BABIP. With an adjustment to his line, we get something closer to .241/.330/.427, assuming all of the hits were singles.

Buck only has a 12.8 percent liner rate this year, which accounts for his low .222 BABIP. He's currently 26 points under his expected BABIP, and that's with a liner rate well below the league average. Chances are good we will see his liner rate jump, though if he doesn't start waiting for better pitches to hit his struggles will continue. Even with the adjustment for where he is at, Buck's line would only be roughly .180/.223/.303, and you can do better than that and the numbers he'll put up once he rights himself; something like this 25th percentile forecast of .254/.326/.397 isn't out of the question.

For the second straight season, Adam LaRoche has tanked coming out of the gate for the Pirates. His -4.8 VORP is the 13th worst in the majors, and it isn't all just the result of a low batting average. His .123/.206/.193 line is terrible-that's a 399 OPS-but the worst part is his Isolated Power, which is just .070. That's unacceptable production from a first baseman in actual and fantasy leagues, and with those kinds of numbers you almost wish the Bucs would just start throwing iffy prospects at first to see if they can do better.

LaRoche is seeing over four pitches per plate appearance, and is walking in 9.5 percent of all plate appearances, so his problems aren't the same as Buck's. However, LaRoche is striking out in over 33 percent of his plate appearances while at the same time carrying around a .162 batting average on balls in play. Not only is he just making contact 57 percent of the time, he is hitting just .162 in that situation. His liner rate is 18.4 percent, a normal figure, so he's the victim of some bad luck; his BABIP should be .304, but even adjusting his line for that discrepancy leaves him looking pretty lame, only putting him up at .265/.348/.335. Granted, not all of those lost hits are singles, but slugging .420 wont help you out much either. LaRoche needs to rein in his tendency to strike out without losing too many walks, and he needs his HR/FB to pop back up to his career rates of 15 percent; until then, he's a waste of a spot on your tiny fantasy roster. Give him the boot and go with someone more consistent if you can.

Despite the move to a more neutral park than pitcher-friendly RFK, Austin Kearns is having a tough time transitioning. He's following up a disappointing .266/.355/.411 season in 2007 with a .229/.365/.343 season for the Nationals so far. It's strange to see Kearns having issues, considering he's walking in a few more plate appearances while cutting down on his strikeouts significantly. His .246 BABIP is the result of some screwy batted-ball data: his liner rate is just shy of 12 percent, while his ground-ball rate is close to 60 percent. His G/F figure is 2.1, odd for someone known for their power.

It's hard to imagine someone like Kearns losing their ability to hit for power before the age of 30, so chances are good that this is a blip on an otherwise good record, and that you will want to stick with Kearns through a rough start. When his liner rate straightens out-and he may need to straighten out his swing before this happens-his Triple Crown rate stats should as well. For now, bench him, and find a right fielder to take his place; as a whole, right fielders have a .274 EqA, so the position isn't exactly hurting for offense, even with players like Kearns struggling to get by.

After two solid years of production from the back end of fantasy drafts, Casey Blake has been troublesome to owners so far in 2008. His -3.6 VORP is the fourth lowest among all third basemen, the product of his hitting .179/.270/.286 overall. It should be obvious from the way his rate stats are distributed that his problem has more to do with the low batting average than it does a serious drop in power or batting eye, and you would be right in assuming that his liner rate is well below where it should be, which in turn has negatively affected his BABIP. Blake's .214 BABIP is the product of an 11.6 percent liner rate. His .107 ISO, while not good, isn't terrible considering his batting average. If he starts making better contact, you'll see his power improve. He's not hitting the ball all that well in the early goings though, as evidenced by the weak liner percentage and a lot of ground-ball outs. It's not out of line to think that a boost in batting average would bring up his real life and fantasy value, but since it is Casey Blake and third base is a well-stocked position, your chances are good that you can drop him for now and wait until his bat picks up before you might decide to pick him back up again.

Hunter Pence is off to a slow start for a few reasons: first off, his liner rate is just 15.7 percent, well below the average and also under last year's 19.4 percent mark. Second, though Pence has a loftier fly-ball rate this year than last, he has yet to go long, leaving him with a HR/FB of zero percent. He's seeing more pitches than last year, 3.8 to 3.6, but has seen his already iffy walk rate dip (from 5.4 to 4.1) at the same time his strikeouts jumped up (from 20.8 to 28.6 percent).

One other issue with Pence this year is that his BABIP last year was an unsustainable .378. Even if he were to bring his liner rate to last year's figure, we would only expect his BABIP to be .314, meaning last year's .322/.360/.539 line should have looked more like .258/.296/.475, with a lower slugging to account for lost extra-base hits. I felt that, given Pence's minor league numbers, his walk rates would increase when he wasn't pasting every pitch he saw and hitting .322, but this year's slow start seems to be utilizing the reverse logic.

Pence is going to have issues with major league pitching if he can't fix his plate approach, because pitchers won't give him pitches to hit. He hit .407 on fastballs last year, and hit .750 on pitches up and away, along with .406 on the outside-middle part of the plate. Pitchers will just challenge him inside more and give him more pitches just out of reach if he continues to swing away as often. Pence has too much talent to be an outright drop in most leagues, but you might want to reconsider starting him until he is able to make an adjustment to the league.

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