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June 4, 2008

Fantasy Beat

The Underperformers

by Marc Normandin

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With two months of the regular season in the books, it's a good time to look at the tail end of the VORP rankings to see which disappointing performances are for real, and which ones can be improved upon before the end of the season. Knowing when to cut bait on underperforming players-and when to add them as they begin their climb back to relevancy-is a key to moving up in your league's standings, and that's our focus today.

Even with the offensive woes at shortstop this season-the average shortstop EqA is .248, five points below that of catchers-Khalil Greene's line of .214/.259/.323 is especially unimpressive. Known for his power, Greene didn't hit a single home run from Opening Day through May Day, leading to a line of .216/.272/.279 during that span. He's hit much better since May 2, with five homers over the last month, helping him scrape together a somewhat improved .211/.246/.367 showing.

Granted, that's still not good, but there are positives to be taken from his May performance. First, Greene's Isolated Power jumped from .063 in the first timeframe to .156 in the second. His flirtation with the Mendoza line hurts his overall production, but the fact that he's hit for power recently is a step in the right direction. Secondly, you know that Greene plays his home games in Petco Park, the anti-Coors for what it does to offense, yet he's kept his slugging north of .400 despite his May struggles both this year (.250/.295/.429) and last (.216/.258/.412 in 2007). For the offense- and power-suppressing environment in San Diego, those ISO marks aren't half bad. The key point here, though, is that Greene's struggles have come on the road, rather than at home where expected. He hit .273/.328/.500 outside of San Diego from 2005-2007, but this year he finds himself at just .184/.204/.301.

It's safe to assume that this trend won't last, especially once you dig a little into his batted-ball data. Greene has been unlucky, considering his line-drive rate is 22.5 percent and his BABIP is just .268. Liner rate and BABIP correlate the best out of the types of balls in play, and you can calculate an estimated BABIP from line-drive rate simply by adding .12 to that percentage. Given this, Greene's BABIP should be .345, and his line somewhere around .256/.317/.374. Since that adjusted slugging is counting his homerless April, you can bump expectations up to match his May ISO. Based on this, Greene is worth a look, despite appearances to the contrary, and you would be wise to keep an eye on him, waiting for his batting average to climb if you need help at short.

Brendan Harris' 2007 was a surprise for many, but his production was solid for many fantasy owners who used him at second and short. This year with Minnesota, Harris has struggled, posting a VORP of -0.2 and a batting line of .249/.323/.326. His strikeouts have jumped from just over 18 percent to nearly 25 percent, and he's seen his power cut in half, with a drop in ISO from .148 to .077. He's hitting groundballs 51.4 percent of the time, up from last year's 43.5 percent. This has led to an increased G/F ratio of 1.6, up from 1.2. It looks as if he's lost some of the loft he had in his 2007 swing, given his increased ground-ball rates and his lower HR/FB-he went from homers on 8.1 percent of his flyballs to just 4.4 percent.

Harris' BABIP is .321, well above the league-average. His strikeout rate hurts his batting average though, so Harris needs to maintain a well above-average BABIP-or cut down on the punchouts-if he wants to keep the average up. The worry going forward is that his liner rate is only 16 percent, meaning that Harris has been lucky so far. That low figure is something you could normally count on to move closer to the average, but with Harris' swing in trouble, it's not something you can depend upon.

Adjusting his slash stats for this liner rate puts him at .213/.276/.284; you don't want him anywhere close to your roster when his BABIP starts to drop. Until he stops pulling weak grounders to the left side of the infield-34 percent of Harris' balls in play are grounded to the right of keystone, and those are grounders he's hitting .149 on-he is not going to be of any use to your team. Considering PECOTA had him down for .263/.322/.399, it's not worth it to wait it out.

Adam Jones is just 22 years old and is considered one of the top young talents in the game, but he's had a rough start with his new club in Baltimore. Jones has put together a meager .256/.299/.362 line, good for just a tick above replacement level at 0.6 VORP. He hasn't shown much power yet with a .106 ISO, but has instead been showing off his wheels: Jones has nine infield hits already, thanks to hitting grounders on nearly 46 percent of his balls in play.

His problems are typical of an unpolished hitter. He's taking 3.7 P/PA, which is decent, but he's only walking in 5.2 percent of his plate appearances. He has a tendency to try to pull everything-over 48 percent of his balls in play are to the left side, with another 23 percent in center. He's popping up 15.3 percent of his flyballs to the infield-a much larger percentage than that of his HR/FB, which sits at an uninspiring 3.4 percent. Jones is swinging at 28 percent of the pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, and just 71 percent of the pitches thrown within it; essentially, he's seeing almost four pitches per plate appearance, but he's swinging at ones he can't do anything with and perhaps laying off of ones that he should be poking the other way. He's only making contact on 75 percent of the pitches he swings at, though he has cut his strikeout rate from over 32 percent down to 24 percent.

Those playing Jones and hoping for him to turn it around in 2008 have to understand that there is a lot of work left to be done to turn Jones into the star that PECOTA and scouts think he can be. If you're in a keeper league, panicking and ditching a 22-year-old center fielder with All-Star potential isn't the best plan, but those in single-season leagues should start looking for other options. Jones hasn't proven anything during his first 361 major league plate appearances, and until he does, you're only hurting your own team's place in the standings.

Brandon Inge lost his job as a starter when the Tigers traded for Miguel Cabrera, but now he's back in the everyday lineup with Carlos Guillen shifting from third base to left field. Inge has managed just 0.9 VORP in 144 PA thanks to a line of .221/.317/.402; that's not too far from what PECOTA envisioned before the season, as his weighted mean forecast of .245/.317/.408 is very similar. Of course, Inge has been productive as a third baseman in the past, and his 75th percentile forecast of .264/.340/.448 reflects this; if he were able to reach that level of production, he would have value in your league as a third baseman.

The problem is that it's not guaranteed that Inge is going to hit. He currently has a .274 BABIP, below the league average and the product of a 14.4 percent liner rate. If he doesn't straighten out his swing to increase the number of line drives he puts into play, he will not raise his batting average or his power numbers. Historically, Inge strikes out pretty often, and this year is no different, with punchouts in 28 percent of his plate appearances. With a strikeout rate that lofty, Inge needs to hit a ton of liners in order to increase the chances of having a higher BABIP. His power is fine-he has homers on 10.5 percent of his fly balls, and his ISO is .180, much more impressive than the other replacement level performances covered in this space today-but he's not picking up enough hits to move his batting average into a useful area.

There's one thing that makes Inge worth picking up though, and that's his eligibility at catcher. If he's listed as a catcher in your league-many leagues have five starts or ten appearances at a position in a year in order to qualify, and Inge has enough appearances-he's worth a look. A .221/.317/.402 line isn't as bad as it sounds, at least at that position. Average catcher EqA is .253, and Inge's is just that: .253. This is a win-win, as now he will be playing every day as a third baseman (unlike many catchers, who have a day off or two a week) and if he is able to pull his liner rate out of the depths, he'll increase his batting average, tack on a few more extra-base hits and increase his EqA above the average for the position. For those who need replacements for players like J.R. Towles or Kenji Johjima-two catchers who were expected to produce but may be too good to cut outright during their rough stretches-Inge is the perfect solution.

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