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July 16, 2008
Mid-Season Retooling: Center Field
With the All-Star Game now behind us, we're closing in on the first few trading deadlines in most fantasy leagues, so it's time to take a long look at your roster and figure out what needs changing. We've been bringing you position-by-position updates on players who may reverse course, for better or worse, in the second half, and will continue to do so this week as the focus shifts to center field. Center has been a stacked position this season, with 19 players (minimum 150 plate appearances) crossing the 10-point threshold in VORP, and eight with at least 20 VORP. There is still plenty of awful to be found here as well, though, with an overall position total .263 EqA in spite of the greatness you'll find there.
We'll start with one of Tuesday's All-Stars. Nate McLouth is hitting .281/.357/.542 this year, a surprise to some given that he hit just .258/.351/.459 last season. This isn't just a player catching fire during the first two months of the season though, as McLouth had already hit .284/.391/.538 during the last two months of 2007, dropping his strikeout rate during that time to 19.7 percent, while bringing his overall line up from a dismal .231/.305/.375.
So, there was a change in McLouth from August 2007 onward, as he started to hit for power, a trend that's continued into this season, though with even fewer strikeouts this time around that's pushing his batting average higher. McLouth struggled in June this year, leading many to think that he was your typical two-month wonder, but when you see that he's rebounded in July's first two weeks (.286/.340/.673 in 49 at-bats) and has had a full season of this kind of production dating back to last August, that argument holds much less water.
As of today, McLouth is above the upper reaches of his PECOTA forecast, understandable given his woes during the first four months of 2007. There's no reason to think he won't stay there though, as his .282 BABIP is actually a few points below expectations given his 17.2 percent liner rate. The drop in strikeouts-23.4 percent last year, just 13.6 percent this time around-has given McLouth a considerable boost, as his control of the strike zone has allowed him to post a career-high ISO of .262 and HR/FB of 12.1 percent. McLouth is still a threat to run despite the boost in power, with 11 steals (and just three times caught stealing), and 25/25 guys are huge in fantasy. McLouth looks like he's on pace for around 100 runs and RBI to boot, and possibly capable of delivering more than 25 home runs, making him a serious addition to standard fantasy lineups. He's still a lesser-known player though, one who you could snag on the cheap more easily than an established All-Star via trade; that's the kind of move you're going to want to make to improve your team's chances in the second half if you're desperately in need of a shot in the arm.
B.J. Upton has had a season of ups and downs, as his game has improved in certain key areas, while taking a step backward in others. In the love-it corner, Upton's plate discipline has taken a major leap forward, with an uptick in his walk rate to 15.6 percent, and a drop in strikeouts from 32.5 percent to a much more manageable 24.5 percent. You can attribute his decision to lay off of more pitches that are out of the strike zone for this reversal: Upton's swinging at 15 percent of balls outside of the zone, instead of last year's 19 percent, and he's making better decisions about which ones to chase, as his contact rate on those offerings has jumped from 46 percent to 65. His BABIP has also fallen towards the upper limits of repeatable and realistic numbers, at .350, although his 20 percent liner rate still suggests he should be a bit below that. Last year's .399 mark had many owners worried about what we could expect from him this year.
As far as negative things go, though, Upton's power has taken a hit. Last year he had a .209 ISO, solid for a hitter anywhere around the diamond, and very good in center. This year he's posting a much less impressive .127 mark thanks to his hitting just six homers on the season. His HR/FB rate has dropped from an excellent 19.8 percent all the way down to 7.9 percent, and he's hitting fewer fly balls overall as well (down from nearly 38 percent to 30). His ground GB/FB rate has jumped from a league-average 1.1 to 1.7; chances are good that in order to increase contact, Upton dropped some of the uppercut from his swing, and it's killed his power output, especially to his pull side. In 2007, Upton hit the majority of his homers to left and left-center, as we can see via Greg Rybarczyk's wonderful Hit Tracker. While he is still hitting the ball to that side-32.4 percent of his balls in play have been grounders to the left-he's not lofting or driving the ball there at all, with a measly 4.3 percent of balls in play ending up in left field.
It should be noted that PECOTA expected some regression from Upton-his weighted mean put him at .270/.358/.445. However, the drop in strikeouts has messed that up a bit as well. He's hitting for the batting average of his weighted mean rate thanks to the improved plate discipline, but has power more in line with his 10th percentile forecast. My main concern going forward with Upton is that his strikeout rate is still in iffy territory, and his BABIP could dip further to the .320 range, hurting his batting average and OBP, which would also give him fewer opportunities for base thievery. He's just 23 years old, so there's little worry that he won't fix his problems with hitting for power; he showed us last year that he's capable of it, now he just needs to readjust to the league and become a well-rounded force at the plate again. For now, he's a useful piece thanks to the steals and run-scoring, but he's not the complete package thanks to his missing pull power.
Unlike Upton, Chris B. Young has not been able to corral his strikeouts, and it has hurt him this year even more than it did last season. Overall, it looks like nothing much has changed, with his strikeout rate jiggling from 24.8 percent to 25.2, a negligible difference, but that's still too high for someone who doesn't hit many line drives. A high strikeout total means fewer opportunities to sustain your BABIP, which can lead to some fluky numbers on both sides of the ledger. Young is firmly entrenched in the well below-average camp as far as BABIP is concerned, thanks to the combination of few liners and lots of strikeouts. As of now though, his BABIP is 23 points below expectations; adjusting for that puts him at .243/.314/.421, underwhelming to say the least, and close to his 10th percentile PECOTA forecast.
So what is the fantasy owner who has Young to do with him? Not only is he failing to produce in the Triple Crown rate stats, but the Diamondbacks offense has fallen off of the planet since April ended; chances are good he won't reach triple digits in runs or RBI, and he's stolen a meager five bases after nabbing 27 in 2007. If you're in a keeper league, it's hard to dismiss him, as he's in his age-24 season and shows occasional flashes of growth and brilliance. In single-season leagues though, it's time to cut him loose if you haven't done so already. Pawning him off on someone more optimistic than you are may be your best option, as he's killing teams in leagues that don't count OBP or OPS, never mind the ones who do.
Lastings Milledge is another center fielder who has created widespread misery by matching his 10th percentile forecast. Milledge's problems this year are fairly simple to pinpoint: he's been hitting the ball on the ground too often to places where it's easy to defend: 30 percent of his balls in play are to the left side of the infield, and he's hit .233 in that situation. Another 17.2 percent are grounders to the right side, where he's hitting .214. He's also popping up in the infield nearly 10 percent of the time, and is hitting an unsurprisingly low .043 when that happens. Many players hit for low average on grounders but make up for it on blasts to the outfield, but this year's edition of Milledge is not one of those players: he's hitting .600 on balls pulled to left field, but that only happens 12.3 percent of the time. He has yet to hit an opposite-field homer this season, and is hitting all of .349 on liners and fly balls to center, a number that should be higher given his skills.
Granted, Milledge has been the victim of some poor luck this year, with a .276 BABIP despite an 18.1 percent liner rate that should have him closer to .301 on balls in play, but even adjusting for that doesn't make up for his weak .123 ISO. That's only acceptable when you're a slick-fielding middle infielder or catcher. What's even more surprising is that Milledge has managed to make more contact this year-up to 80.2 percent from last year's 76.1-but the liners he hit during his first two stints in the majors just haven't come off of his bat despite this improvement.
About the only area in which Milledge is helping out is steals, as he has 13 on the season. When you perform as poorly in the other fantasy categories as Milledge has though, those 13 thefts are an invisible number to the majority of fantasy owners. In single-season leagues, it may be time to cut bait or dump him on someone else before your trade deadline, as he just isn't showing the improvements he needs to in order to merit the praise. He's only 23, so this isn't giving up on him forever by any means, but as far as the 2008 season goes, the negatives far outweigh the positives until he figures out how to get his power stroke back.