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May 29, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Offensive Rookies

by Marc Normandin

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Two months into the season is a good time to check in on the progress, or lack thereof, of 2009's crop of big-name rookies. As you can see in the Rookie VORP Leader Boards, found in the sortable statistics page, there has not been one rookie who is tearing apart the league yet at the plate; in fact, many of those we expect to turn into future stars have struggled to begin the year. While the promotion of Matt Wieters-expected to be the most significant star of this year's crop-should improve the look of this group, the rest have some catching up to do in order to make 2009 a better year for offensive rookies.

Elvis Andrus is off to a solid start as the shortstop for the Rangers on both sides of the ball. He's currently at 4.2 runs above average according to Ultimate Zone Rating, and he's been average at the plate with a .265 EqA and a line of .284/.324/.440. This is impressive for a 20-years-old who was playing in Double-A last year, and who began this season by putting up a lackluster .250/.288/.357 line in April. That doesn't mean that Andrus' season is without its problems though, as a look at his splits makes you wonder if he can keep it up: he's hitting .321/.367/.518 at home and .257/.295/.392 on the road. Granted, the sample is small, and it's expected there will be some kind of split given his home park, but you would prefer to see that second number creep up some to balance things out.

What is intriguing to me is Andrus' plate discipline. He has just eight walks in 146 plate appearances (5.6 percent walk rate), but he did walk more often than that in the minors (7.7, 10.3, 8.3, and 7.3 percent at each stop). He's taking 3.6 pitches per plate appearance, which is part of the reason for the low walk rate, but he's not swinging at many pitches outside of the zone-he's swung at 24.9 percent of the pitches thrown out of the strike zone, which is just a sliver above the league average. Andrus sees a lot of first-pitch strikes (64.4 percent) and it has put him in the hole early and often, so he's fought to get back out of that. He's hit very well on the first pitch, however (.435/.435/.652 in 23 chances), so pitchers haven't benefited from challenging him. If pitchers stop throwing so many offerings in the zone to begin a plate appearance (assuming Andrus continues to pummel balls thrown in the zone) maybe he'll be able to improve his overall patience as he works in counts that favor the hitter rather than the pitcher. He's worth keeping around due to the fact that he's a shortstop, a young player that could keep improving, and useful for steals if nothing else (he's 6-for-7 on the year).

Cameron Maybin was good at Double-A last year, but he wasn't great, though that didn't stop the Marlins from popping him in the big leagues to begin the year, mostly based on his 36 plate appearances during a cup of coffee in 2008. He hit just .202/.280/.310 in 95 PA before the Marlins cut him off and sent him to Triple-A for the first time. Maybin struck out 31 times in those 95 PA, and though his walk rate (8.7 percent) looked good, it's nowhere near good enough to counter the assault on his batting average that comes with those punchouts. That strikeout rate was so destructive to his numbers that despite his .308 batting average on balls in play, which is above the league average, he still managed to tread the Mendoza line. While his .107 Isolated Power might make him the cleanup hitter in San Francisco, it's just not cutting it for Florida... or your fantasy team.

The news from New Orleans is good for Maybin, though. He's put together a line of .306/.346/.429 while playing there, which isn't stellar, but at least he's making contact, whiffing just 11.3 percent of the time. Considering his performance in the majors, it appears that he needed some time to master Triple-A pitchers' tendencies before tackling National League arms, so this is a good sign. Maybin has a lot of potential and he's just 22 years old, and his PECOTA forecasts, from his weighted mean to his 90th-percentile projection, are all promising, so it may be tough to bail on him, unless you're in a one-season league. The Marlins may be best served by leaving him in Triple-A until he's shown he has truly mastered the level and advanced his game; if they don't exhibit enough patience he'll probably continue struggling at the major league level, so you're going to be stuck with a player you can't use either way.

Dexter Fowler was great at Double-A last year, hitting .335/.431/.515, so the Rockies jumped him to the majors to begin 2009. Things started out well enough-.290/.366/.452 in April, with nine steals in 10 chances-but May has been chock-a-block with stumbling blocks, as he's hit .247/.347/.370 with two steals in five chances. Strangely enough, Fowler has hit for more power on the road (.166 ISO versus .108 at Coors) but has a much lower batting average (.244 versus .292). There's a lot to like here going forward: Fowler is taking 4.0 P/PA, is swinging at just 18.2 percent of the pitches outside of the zone, and is walking in nearly 13 percent of his plate appearances. He does have some problems though, striking out too often for a guy with his middling power, and hitting too many fly balls without putting enough distance on them.

The biggest concern for me is his quick drop in stolen bases. It's not surprising that defenses have been more careful with him during May, as he swiped five bases on April 27 alone, but it's disconcerting that he's been caught more times than he's found success. Right now, Fowler is a singles hitter that takes some walks, and he needs those steals to keep his fantasy value up. June will be an important month for Fowler, as it may give us an idea of what his stolen-base numbers will look like for the rest of the year-hopefully he'll settle in somewhere between his April and May results so he can pick up a few per month.

Jordan Schafer's April and May look completely different, as he had a promising .273/.415/.439 line in April and followed it up with .161/.245/.195 in May. While you have to love the walk rate and the 4.0 P/PA, Schafer's not exactly doing much with the discipline outside of walking. His contact rate is at 66.4 percent, and he's striking out about 32 percent of the time-he's been like a Three True Outcomes-Lite player, one who is sadly missing the home-run portion of the equation. Like Maybin, Schafer has been absolutely wrecked by his strikeout rate, and as a result his .319 BABIP looks out of place next to his .209 batting average.

Schafer's biggest problem is definitely his contact. He's not just missing on pitches outside of the zone (53 percent, against a 62.5 percent average) but he's also struggling to hit pitches that make it into the strike zone (72.6 percent, against 87.6). This may be an issue with pitch recognition, though outside of fastballs, he's not seeing any one pitch especially often (he's 36th in percentage of fastballs seen among qualifiers). If he's having trouble recognizing something as basic as a major league fastball, then it's going to be a long road to any improvement. According to Baseball Reference's splits page, Schafer is hitting .178/.240/.244 against "power" pitchers (who strike out or walk more than 28 percent of batters faced, by definition), so perhaps there's something to that idea. Schafer may not be much help to you in the immediate future, which is something to consider in non-keeper leagues.

Related Content:  The Who,  Rookies Of The Year

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