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July 23, 2008

Fantasy Beat

Mid-Season Retooling: Right Field

by Marc Normandin

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This week we'll continue with our look at each position by delving into the seasons of a few right fielders who have surprised people, some positively, and some negatively. With the trade deadline approaching in real baseball, the fantasy baseball deadlines also loom for many leagues, so knowing who to deal, keep, pick up, or drop is key for that final two-month push.

,p> It's a good thing Alex Rios has stolen a career-high 25 bases this season, because all of the power he'd added in the last two years has disappeared. Before 2006, Rios was more of a ground-ball hitter than a fly-ball guy, which held him back in the power department. Starting with 2006 though, he adjusted his swing and put more loft into it, generating far more fly balls and boosting his power production. His fly-ball rate is down to 34 percent this year after a career-high 44.1 percent last season, and more importantly his HR/FB rate has been cut in half, dropping from 10.0 to 4.9 percent. After G/F ratios of 0.9 and 0.8 the past two seasons, Rios is at 1.3 this year, above the average (1.1). This has put a serious dent in Rios' power, as his ISO has dropped to an unimpressive .126.

Rios has not hit a homer the other way all season, and is hitting only .326 on liners and fly balls to right. The lack of power there is not a significant change from last season or 2006, when he had one homer the other way between the two years. Normally, Rios gets his homers from hitting liners and fly balls to left—his pull side—but this year it's been a different story: 36.2 percent of his balls in play are grounders to the left side of the infield. Things have been even worse on the road for Rios, where he's hitting .269/.317/.378 with a .109 ISO. He's been lucky at home, as his .302/.354/.447 mark is boosted somewhat by a .380 BABIP. That doesn't bode well for the second half, as regression would adversely affect his line even more, rendering him somewhat useless to you outside of the steals. Rios has some "sell" potential thanks to the 25 steals and his past performance, so if you can move him to bring back a position of need, do so. Right field is a deep position this year, with plenty of players capable of outplaying this year's version of Rios.

Fantasy owners were worried about Corey Hart in the early part of the season, as the young slugger had hit just .300/.354/.419 through May 19th. Part of the problem was a higher ground-ball rate and fewer home runs; midway through May his HR/FB was a paltry five percent, a far cry from last year's 13 percent. Hart has rebounded since that time, hitting .278/.304/.574. His HR/FB rate has jumped up to 14 percent—given how few homers he hit early on, he's been hitting them far more often as of late—and his fly-ball rate is also climbing back towards what we expect of him. The issue with Hart is that he isn't walking; already low the past two years at 6.7 percent, he's dropped to 4.6 percent.

If you're in a league with OPS or OBP, that meager walk rate is a problem, especially if he keeps his OBP at the rate it's been since he started hitting for power again. If not though, then you have yourself a player who is capable of a 25/25 season now that he's back on track at the plate. This isn't to say that Corey Hart has figured out all of the adjustments pitchers have made when pitching to him since last season. He's still grounding out far too often to his pull side; 33.7 percent of his balls in play have been grounders to the left side of the infield, a situation he's hitting just .190 in. He also doesn't put the ball in the air there often enough for someone with his power. Part of this stems from his poor plate discipline: in addition to the low walk rate, Hart takes just 3.6 pitches per plate appearance, a figure he's been around since he came into the league in 2005. Hart does not need to walk a lot to be a more effective hitter, but he does need to learn what pitches he can and cannot do anything with. The data suggests that his lack of patience at the plate has forced Hart into more outs, between the grounders and a strikeout rate around 20 percent. That's something that can be worked on to make him a better hitter, but even without that he's a fantasy force because of the power and steals he gives you. Hart's second-half production bodes better than his first now that his rough April is out of the way, so hold onto him and hope he improves further.

Kosuke Fukudome burst onto the major league scene with an enchanting April (.305/.416/.421), but things have slowed for him since then. Though his overall line is impressive thanks to some consistent work month to month, his home and road performance is a different story altogether. Fukudome has hit .348/.450/.522 at Wrigley, which is part of the reason they are one of the best home teams in the league. Less happily, Fukudome has hit .212/.309/.302 on the road, which is part of the reason the Cubs are a much worse team when travelling. He's also hit .231/.327/.357 since June began, a far cry from the production that many fantasy owners expected from Fukudome coming into the year.

Part of his issue is that he lacks power the other way. Fukudome has not hit a home run the opposite way this year, which isn't a huge surprise given his .129 ISO and ground-ball tendencies (1.6 G/F). The problem with his lack of opposite-field power is that he also lacks pull power, with just two homers to right field on the season. He's hit some blasts to center, and puts the ball in play there over 20 percent of the time, but his reliance on ground-ball hits for success have made consistency difficult to achieve. Fukudome has a .425 BABIP at Wrigley, which although an indication of the park's hitter-friendly tendencies, is more fundamentally a sign that we can expect regression to set in for his hitting at home. That began in June, as he's hitting a much less impressive .255/.345/.412 at Wrigley in his last 51 at-bats there. Though Fukudome has plenty of talent, he's been reliant on Wrigley and ground balls this year for his production. Unless your league counts OBP, he doesn't have a ton to offer you outside of runs scored given his recent struggles; sell high while his overall stats still look impressive, and hope that he adds some pop to his game in time for next season.

One of the players I receive the most emails about is Hunter Pence, starting with questions last year asking about whether or not he could keep up his blistering pace ("No" was my answer), and continuing this year with queries regarding his down season and whether or not he can put things back together. Last season's success for Pence was due to his ridiculous .378 BABIP. While we can expect someone like peak-era Manny Ramirez to put up .380 BABIPs somewhat consistently, that kind of production is past the upper boundary of expectations for most, a range where only the best of the best tread. Pence's 19.4 percent liner rate led us to believe that he should have been somewhere closer to .314. As his line was somewhat batting average-driven—he hit .322/.360/.539—the results with a BABIP 64 points lower would have been ugly, something akin to this year's production.

Pence's inflated BABIP was due to one interesting item: he made contact on a high number of pitches up and away in the strike zone, and reached base on around 45 percent of those. That kind of success rate will hop up your batting average, as it did for Pence. This year, though, he's not having the same kind of success to the opposite field: he's seeing 13 percent of his balls in play wind up as grounders to the right side of the infield (.263 batting average) and 12 percent of his batted balls in the air are going to right (.286, three homers), and that drop-off has cut significantly into his slash stats. As it is, Pence's current BABIP of .307 is still too high given his 15 percent liner rate. Even if he brings up his line-drive mark closer to the average of 20 percent in the remaining two plus months of the season, chances are good the .339 batting average he has on 37.3 percent of his balls in play (grounders pulled to the left side of the infield) will regress in the opposite direction, leaving him where he is now, BABIP-wise. Pence is just 25 years old, so there's time for growth—his seven-year PECOTA forecast thinks that he'll turn out just fine—but he's a long way away from being a consistently productive major league hitter as of this writing. Cut your losses while you can, and avoid "buying low" until you see signs of legitimate progress, not BABIP-fueled production.

Related Content:  Corey Hart,  Hunter Pence

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