August 27, 2008
Based on submissions to last week's chat session and my inbox lately, one thing that you, the readers, would like to know is what we can expect from some of this year's rookie crop for the rest of 2008 and beyond. This week's article is a mail bag of sorts, as the players I've covered are the ones that were most often requested. With the season winding down, we can present you with more of this going forward, in order to sate your fantasy appetite until we ramp up the analysis for next year during the offseason.
Denard Span has been a boon to the Twins lineup, hitting .307/.392/.450 primarily as a right fielder since coming up from Triple-A Rochester. This isn't that much of a shock, given that Span hit .340/.434/.481 for the Red Wings prior to his call-up, but is the numbers gap between the 24-year-old Span and the average right fielder realistic? His current EqA is .306-well above the average right fielder's .275 mark-but he has some odd things going on with his batted-ball data. His BABIP is .348, well above the league average, but it's also under the average you'd expect from a player with his 24.4 percent line-drive rate. Span is a slap hitter with a little power down the lines; his high liner rate reflects this, as does his 57.2 percent ground-ball rate, and it's not a coincidence that he therefore rarely puts the ball in the air-just 18.3 percent of the time, with a 9.1 percent HR/FB ratio-all of which adds up to one reason why his BABIP is as high as it is. That's because fly balls are the least-likely ball in play to turn into a hit, and with Span's speed, he's able to convert some grounders into infield hits; nearly eight percent of his hits are of the infield variety.
Still, 24.4 percent is a high number of liners, one that very few hitters can maintain over time. Putting Span back about two or three percent seems more realistic, as far as tempered enthusiasm goes, but the good news is that even with that kind of correction, we can still expect his BABIP to remain in the .340-.350 range because Span has actually underperformed expectations on that front. It doesn't mean he's going to improve further this year, but it does mean that there's no reason for you not to keep him around in 2008, and if you're in a keeper league, next year you may have yourself a .300/.400/.450 hitter who steals upwards of 30 bases. Limited power is his only drawback, but unlike a Juan Pierre type, Span is a player who can get on base, score runs, and still hit for a high average due to his fresh legs.
Chase Headley has had his ups and downs in his first year in the majors: despite a hot start in spring training, Headley was sent packing to the Triple-A Portland Beavers, where he struggled to produce at the same level he had just weeks before. Headley was eventually able to iron out his production issues, and he was called up from the minors after bringing his once poor numbers up to an impressive .305/.383/.556 line. In the majors so far, he's at .267/.332/.434, a line that needs some work but still has its merits, given his age (24) and home park of Petco-the most severe pitcher's park in the majors. His .276 EqA is right around the average left fielder's .278, and if he were to switch back to third base in the near future that's better than that position's .272 mean.
There are worries with Headley's performance, however; his line isn't good enough to cover up some underlying problems with his BABIP. Like Span, Headley has an above-average liner rate of 24.2 percent with a .342 BABIP. Unlike Span, who doesn't strike out much, though, Headley does, whiffing nearly one-third of the time. That's problematic for his BABIP, as we can't normally expect both that and his liner rate to be maintained as easily as we could for the Twins' contact-oriented corner outfielder. If we drop Headley's liner rate back the same three percent or so, he's still at a .340 BABIP, but if he suddenly stops having any luck and he's still striking out 29 percent of the time, things could get ugly. Despite his EqA marks that tell us that Headley's been fine, your fantasy league doesn't use that stat, instead using unadjusted raw figures that are damaged by Petco's influence. As of right now, Headley is one of those players who has more utility in the real game than in fantasy. Given his age and ability-he's just 24, and Kevin Goldstein rated him the 23rd best prospect in the game coming into this year-that could (and should) change, but he's a sketchier proposition than some other second-year players you'll be considering next spring.
While Red Sox fans would have been happy with anyone taking over at shortstop for the injured Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie took over full time after he went down. Lowrie was hitting .268/.359/.434 for the Triple-A PawSox this year, and wasn't known for his glove at short, but with Lugo unable to do much in either of those categories himself, Lowrie was worth the shot, injury or no. He has surprised some with a quality performances down the stretch, hitting .296/.359/.465 while displaying excellent plate patience (walking in 9.7 percent of his PA) and good power for a middle infielder (.170 ISO). Hitting in the powerful Sox lineup has also been good for the 24-year-old infielder, as he has 32 RBI and 17 Runs in just 183 plate appearances on the season.
Lowrie fits into the theme of the day with his batted-ball data as well, as he's hitting a remarkable, ridiculous 27 percent of his balls in play as liners. On some level, this is a symptom of the small sample size we're working with, and something that will go away with more playing time for Lowrie. Like Headley and Span, Lowrie's BABIP is nevertheless below expectations, but dropping his liner rate by 6-7 percent leaves you with a .310-.320 BABIP. In his case, that means that you should expect a 50-60 point drop in his production, giving him a line that resembles his weighted mean PECOTA forecast of .261/.336/.413, decent for a shortstop, but not nearly as impressive as his current showing. That would also still be better than what Lugo was doing, so Sox fans and the front office should be pleased with Lowrie even if/when he does decline. But as a fantasy owner facing off against far fewer opponents and with more freedom of choice for your players, someone like Lowrie just doesn't do enough to justify being an important part of your roster going forward. Lowrie's still young, and as his numbers at Double-A have shown, he may turn into a solid hitter, but as far as you're concerned for now he's riding on luck, and you'll get burned if you rely on him for more than that.
Though he's not in the same class as the troika of 24-year-olds, Kosuke Fukudome is a rookie just the same. Like many first-year major leaguers, Fukudome has had to deal with plenty of learning on the job, and it shows in his production: the Cubs right fielder has hit .266/.365/.393 on the season, with a .265 EqA that puts him just above the league average for all hitters, but below the collective mark for right fielders (.275). The first half was fine for the Japanese import, as he hit .279/.383/.408. Though there's little to no power there, Fukudome was a leadoff hitter at the top of one of the most productive lineups in baseball, and he was on base often as evidenced by his 59 runs. Since then, though, he's scuffled, hitting an ugly .217/.298/.311 and managing to score just 10 runs during this time, thanks to that sub-.300 OBP.
There are a few things that make prognosticating for next year an issue with Fukudome. First of all, he's only around his 10th-percentile PECOTA forecast, and until the 2009 PECOTAs come out, we're going to have to guess as to what that does to his once-optimistic weighted mean. Second, as a 31-year-old, he doesn't have the same room for growth as other rookies, though we can always give him a mulligan on his first year in the majors, as we did with Hideki Matsui a few years ago. Both of those factors should give you a "wait-and-see" vibe, and that's probably the best strategy to take as far as 2009 goes. That becomes even more sensible when you see that there is nothing wrong with Fukudome's batted-ball data; his performance reflects the way he has played this year, as he has a .321 BABIP on a 19.7 percent liner rate generating a relatively meaningless four-point difference from expectations.
The one area that it looks like he could improve on is his pitch selection. His patience makes him valuable, but he rarely swings; he has swung on just 62 percent of balls in the strike zone this year, and 20 percent of the pitches outside of the zone, for 41 percent overall. He's a solid contact hitter, so if he were to swing at a few more pitches that he could drive, he might increase his production overall. That's something that the Cubs and Fukudome will both have to work on though, and not something to bank on heading into your playoffs or next year.