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July 30, 2008

Fantasy Beat

Mid-Season Retooling: Left Field

by Marc Normandin

Left field is up this week in our mid-season reports, and the position has had no shortage of quality bats available to help out your team this season. Left fielders have a collective EqA of .272 this year, a mark second only to first basemen, and they are also the position with the third-most stolen bases. Chances are good that you ended up with a left fielder who is one of the better players on your team, given that there are 11 with at least 20 VORP (and a few, like Alfonso Soriano and Josh Willingham, who are short of that only because of injuries). Not everyone is that lucky, though, so today we'll look at some of the players that owners may have questions about.

Part of the reason for the Mets' recent surge has been the return of Fernando Tatis, who has taken over the position after Moises Alou managed just 49 at-bats thanks to injuries. Tatis is in his second year with the organization, having spent 2007 in Double-A posting an unimpressive .276/.356/.485 line; for a 32-year-old with plenty of previous experience facing major league pitchers, you expect more than that. During his 120 at-bat stint at Triple-A this year, Tatis hit .242/.336/.592, with the low batting average the result of an abnormal .200 BABIP due to sample size. The power impressed the Mets enough that they called him up and put him in their outfield, and he's responded by slugging .321/.371/.526 and accumulating 14.6 VORP in 166 PA.

In an obviously small sample, Tatis has achieved equally unsustainable marks of a .381 BABIP and a liner rate of nearly 26 percent; you can expect the latter to fall closer to 20 percent as the season wears on. Tatis has also seen a boost in his average because of his success with infield hits this year-15.8 percent of his hits have been of the infield variety, a big number for anyone, but especially for Tatis, who was closer to four percent in his younger, faster days. Adjusting for these two factors should knock his BABIP down around 50-60 points, meaning he's more of a .270/.320/.475 hitter instead of a well above-average stick. That's also not too far off from his PECOTA forecast for the year (.265/.340/.437), which should help reinforce how unrealistic this quick start is.

This doesn't mean he can't help your team. Because the Mets are loaded with bats, and Tatis has already driven in 28 runs during his short time up from the minors. He also has three stolen bases, so it's possible he can help you out in a few categories, even if his rates predictably dip some. The question is whether or not you're enough in need of a left fielder to go out and pick him up; with so many other options around for the position, he may be more valuable as a sell-high candidate to the optimist in your league, rather than as a permanent solution for yourself.

The most upsetting thing about Eric Byrnes' performance this year might be that he's hitting .209/.272/.369; PECOTA had him down for a 10th-percentile forecast of .225/.285/.361. What changed for Byrnes that made his production drop further than expected? Looking through his statistics, there's nothing that sticks out. His ball-in-play data is roughly the same, with an insignificant change in his liner, fly-ball, and ground-ball numbers. He's hitting homers on fly balls 8.3 percent of the time, which isn't far from last year's 8.6 percent figure. His infield hit percentage is down from 10.1 percent to 6.1 percent, but that doesn't account for the drop by itself.

We don't know what caused the dip, but it's there, as seen in his .226 BABIP, a far cry from last year's more normal .312 output. Given his 18.8 percent liner rate, Byrnes should have a BABIP closer to .308, which would boost his line significantly were he to play at that level from here on out. Of course, it's tough to fix your numbers when you aren't taking the field, and Byrnes was recently moved from the 15-day DL to the 60-day DL due to his hamstring issues. He'll either be back during the end of August, or maybe not at all, which is a problem for owners who expected him to boost their stolen-base totals and give them solid left-field production.

The best thing for your team going forward is to drop him this year and call his season dead, but keep in mind that his poor performance so far, besides being partially due to his injury issues, was significantly altered by poor luck. With a career .287 BABIP that is a bit lower than the average due to years in Oakland, a park that reduces BABIP, this year's .226 is far too low to expect a repeat going forward, especially given his liner tendencies. While fantasy owners were far too eager to scoop up Byrnes in this season's drafts because of his career year in 2007, the fickle crew will just as likely let him sit there in next season's draft due to his current issues. Keep an eye on him, and draft accordingly.

Delmon Young was the third-best prospect in the game heading into the 2007 season, but then the 21-year-old failed to make a splash during his first full season in the majors, hitting .288 but with just a .408 SLG and an unacceptably low .316 OBP. This year, we've seen little difference from him as a 22-year-old, as he's hit .291/.333/.391 on the season, and pushed up his G/F ratio considerably from 1.4 to 2.4. This is a bit less than PECOTA expected for his weighted mean (.294/.329/.458), at least in the power department. The good news for Young owners is that he's heated up the past two months, coming in at .324/.346/.457. The power still isn't where you would like it-that's still an ISO of .133-but it's a step up from last season, and from the awful .264/.323/.337 line he put up during the first two months of 2008.

He's shown better work against lefty pitchers during this time frame (.283/.302/.450 against .222/.286/.289), which isn't so much an improvement as it is just getting back on track, considering that he hit .299/.326/.427 against southpaws in 2007 and is a right-handed batter. Because of the lack of power and OBP, Young is a player who may be more valuable today in fantasy baseball than in the real game. This can change going forward of course, as he has plenty of growth and potential left to fill out, but for this year, he's a guy who should hit for a lofty batting average, steal a few bases for you, drive in some base runners and score some runs. Outside of the average, none of those figures is going to be outstanding, but he's capable of swiping 20 bags if he can just get on base, and with the Twins as a team hitting better the past two months (.291/.348/.438) he's a candidate to reap the benefits of those extra runs. With his line as poor as it is despite his recent upswing, he's most likely still available via free agency or in a buy-low situation.

The Giants haven't had many bright spots this season, but Fred Lewis has been one of them. He's no Barry Bonds, but a quick check through our stat databases will tell you that's also the case for essentially every player in history. At .276/.348/.446, Lewis is near the top of his PECOTA forecasts, somewhere between his 75th and 90th percentiles. This doesn't tell the whole story of his season though, as Lewis has put up a few odd lines. Month to month, the Giants' left fielder is a completely different player. He had an OPS of 961 in April, then a below-average 658 in May, back up to 846 in June, and this past month Lewis is down again (along with the rest of the Giants), this time to 709. He's actually been a much better hitter at home (.333/.396/.530) than on the road (.216/.299/.358) despite playing his home games in one of the friendlier pitcher parks in the majors. The expansive stadium has helped Lewis out, as he has 17 doubles and five triples at home against just five and four on the road.

Lewis has a few issues that make him inconsistent and may cause problems during his future, striking out far too often for a hitter with the little pop he shows. If you strike out 27 percent of the time, you need to keep your BABIP up and hit for power in order to maintain some form of utility during your worse days. Lewis does walk, with free passes in 10 percent of his plate appearances, but his ISO of .170 doesn't show up on the road, and isn't high enough to make up for the punchouts, especially when you consider that much of his success this year is due to his .361 BABIP. With liners 17.7 percent of the time, his BABIP should be closer to .297, meaning that Lewis' line is highly inflated by those two good months.

His redeeming quality is that he does steal bases, and as we've seen, his doubles totals rocket at home. Due to the drop in production we can expect because of his BABIP, and the inconsistencies of his H/R numbers, Lewis is the perfect sell-high candidate, especially because he can steal bases, and will therefore be overrated by at least one steal-hoarding owner in your league. Deal him before he has another of the bad months that will drop his value and hurt your own team's standings.

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