June 25, 2008
Midseason Retooling: Third Base
Last week we started to look at some first basemen who are over- or underachieving, and the utility they held for your fantasy team for the second half of the year. This week we will continue that trend, moving on to the hot corner, which has been one of the deepest positions this season.
"Surprising" doesn't do justice to Ramon Vazquez's rank as the fourth most productive third baseman according to VORP; not only has he made his career as a backup infielder the past few seasons, but PECOTA predicted a .243/.323/.358 year at the plate. One may also initially think Vazquez's success is a product of playing his home games in Arlington, but his home (.333/.395/.514) and road (.330/.407/.543) lines are similar. The lefty has destroyed right-handers in 138 at-bats this year, with a .362/.430/.594 showing against them. While it's just a 28 at-bat sample, he has not had the same success against southpaws, hitting just .179/.258/.214 this season; that's nothing new for Vazquez, though, as he hit a meager .202/.266/.242 against lefties from 2005-2007.
There are two items that make Vazquez a sketchier proposition for the second half. First, as we've seen, he needs to be kept away from facing left-handed pitchers, which means he's either going to struggle against them or be removed from the lineup entirely. That affects his fantasy value, as both his rate and counting stats take a hit. Second, Vazquez's BABIP is .385. His line-drive rate is 24.8 percent, which is sure to fall back towards a more average 20 percent as the year goes on. Historically, Vazquez is a high-percentage line-drive hitter, but nearly 25 percent is too high to maintain, so expect his BABIP to drop between 20-30 points at minimum. His power outburst isn't completely out of the blue, as he posted a career-high .143 ISO last year. No one noticed because he hit .230/.300/.373 overall, but his .277 BABIP was also 55 points below his expected BABIP; adjusting for that puts Vazquez around .264/.329/.418, which also gives him a slightly higher .154 ISO. Given that his line-drive rate last year was below his career norms, he probably could have performed better.
This isn't to say that the 2008 version of Vazquez is entirely for real; the struggles against lefties are a problem, and as I've noted, his BABIP and liner rate should both drop before year's end. The good news is that Vazquez seems to have turned a corner at the plate since coming to Texas by adding some power to his game. With the number of productive players at third, Vazquez may have more utility for your team as a shortstop, another position he is available for use at, and one where there is little help to be found outside of the usual big names.
Among third basemen with at least 150 plate appearances, Mike Lamb has the lowest VORP, -11.9. The normally solid third baseman has hit .223/.262/.301 in his first season for the Twins, which slots in between his 25th and 10th percentile forecasts. Having a surprisingly bad season match up with a level of PECOTA's pre-season expectations is disconcerting, and when you look at what has caused Lamb's poor production, the chances of a second-half improvement do not increase much. Lamb has a low line-drive rate of 16.7 percent, well below a career rate of 20.5 that's around the league average. His BABIP reflects this low rate, although at .253 it's still below his eBABIP by 34 points. Adding those figures into his line still makes him a replacement-level player and essentially invisible at a position where the average EqA is .270, nearly 70 points above what Lamb has produced.
What's worrisome about Lamb's issues is that even if you fix his batting average with the increased BABIP and line-drive rate, he's lost a huge chunk of his power. His HR/FB, which last year was 10.6 percent and is 10 percent for his career, is a meager 1.2 percent-that's the same exact figure that Juan Pierre has for his career. A significant dip in HR/FB is a sign that a player's bat speed has dropped, as they can't generate the same kind of drive behind their swing as they previously could. Lamb is hitting more balls in the air the opposite way than he is pulling, another sign that his bat may have slowed down. He's also hitting grounders to the left side of the infield 14 percent of the time, and hitting just .208 on those balls, while pulling grounders 25.6 percent of the time for a problematic .114. Toss in the 11.6 percent of balls in play that have been shallow popups and infield fly balls, and it's easy to see why Lamb's numbers have cratered.
The only redeeming point for Lamb's numbers is that they cannot possibly get worse, and that if he is able to straighten his swing out some and make more solid contact, his average and power numbers may increase a bit. He's only taking 3.5 pitches per plate appearances this year, a significant drop from the 3.9-4.1 range we are used to seeing from him, and this poor discipline may account for some of his loss of line drives; Lamb is swinging at more pitches outside the zone while making less contact overall. Between his poor discipline and signs of a slowing bat, it may be best to leave Lamb on the shelf given the other options for third base.
Jorge Cantu is another player performing at an unexpected level, but it's a happier situation than Lamb's--his 16.6 VORP is good for sixth among third basemen thanks to a .284/.336/.490 line. Cantu is 26 years old, so the ups and downs he's had in his career are no surprise; looking at PECOTA's take on him shows that he's capable of the production he's put up, as this campaign falls somewhere between his 75th and 90th percentiles. In 2007, Cantu split time between the then Devil Rays, Reds, and Triple-A, hitting .252/.331/.357, disappointing for a player known for his power more than his patience. He's lost a bit in the walks department, dropping from 9.4 percent to 7.2, but he's posting the second highest ISO mark of his career, something that should make fantasy owners happy if they're craving HR and RBI.
Cantu's BABIP is .311, which is a bit low given his 16.9 percent line drive rate, but you can expect that rate to climb (unlike Lamb's) as Cantu is a little young to have a slowing bat. Given this, his BABIP may not increase, but it should be maintainable and allow Cantu's production to remain static. One thing that bears mentioning is that without the homer output, Cantu loses a lot of value, as he ranks just 11th in OBI and 17th in OBI% among third basemen. Luckily, Cantu has found his power stroke, with the second highest HR/FB rate of his career and the highest fly-ball rate to boot. Not only that, he's just 40 PA ahead of the homer pace set by his 90th percentile forecast. Cantu is also available at first base, but you'll want to stick with him at third. It would be glorious if he still had second base eligibility with those HR, RBI, and R totals, but we'll have to settle for "Jorge Cantu, Third Baseman."
Just over a month ago, Casey Blake received some love in this space as a player who could help out your RBI totals despite otherwise weak performance. At the time he was hitting .226/.314/.379 due to a low BABIP and lofty 25 percent strikeout rate. Since then, he's increased his BABIP from .281 to .315, dropped his strikeout rate to 21 percent, and brought up his overall line to .269/.342/.437. His line and secondary statistics essentially mirror last year, but thanks to a 21.2 percent line-drive rate we won't see that last much longer. Blake has hit .315/.374/.505 in the 111 at-bats since he last appeared here, and he leads third basemen in OBI% while ranking third in OBI.
With that kind of production, Blake could also slot in for you at first base or the outfield, the other positions that he's eligible in. It's not a guarantee that his improved slugging will hold, but if he can keep his batting average up-the drop in strikeout rate is encouraging, though not a guarantee to last all year given his career rate is 22.1 percent-then his ISO may allow for it to remain above .500. If you didn't pick him up last time around, do so now if he's still available.