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April 26, 2010

Fantasy Beat

Weeks At A Time

by Craig Brown

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At one time, Rickie Weeks held fantasy upside that came with what we believed to be 20/20 potential.  In his first few seasons he came close, but always hurt his fantasy value by hitting for a low average.  That potential was further undermined by a series of wrist injuries that seemed to sap his power.  He played in a career-high 129 games in 2008, but saw his lone post-season appearance cut short after tearing cartilage in his knee which required surgery.  After rehabbing his knee, he reported for 2009 healthy and found himself off to a hot start where he hit .281 with five home runs with 15 RBI and 16 runs. It finally looked as though Weeks would fulfill that potential with a breakout season.  Sadly, another wrist Injury short-circuited yet another summer.  In bits and pieces through six seasons, Weeks owned a career line of .247/.351/.415 while the 80 steals and 60 home runs teased fantasy players with what ultimately amounted to unfulfilled potential.

Fortunately for Weeks’ owners, he's jumped headfirst into 2010 with another hot start.  Through Saturday’s games, Weeks was hitting .324 with 3 HR, 12 RBI and 16 Runs.  He has a .356 TAv and 6.1 WARP, placing him among the leaders in those categories and making him one of the more valuable fantasy players in the early going.

As you would expect, Weeks has been the beneficiary of an elevated batting averag>e on balls in play, currently owning a .388 BABIP.  While that mark will certainly drop as the season progresses, there is a glimmer that may provide some hope he can maintain a BA above his career .249.  For the first time in his career, Weeks is putting the ball on the ground more than in the air.  With 84 plate appearances in this young season, Weeks has hit a ground ball 54% of the time and possesses a 1.17 GB/FB ratio.  With the higher ground ball rate, his BABIP - while still elevated - isn’t entirely a fluke.

Despite the increase in ground balls, Weeks has not sacrificed power.  A full 11% of all his plate appearances have resulted in an extra base hit (he has 5 doubles, a triple and three home runs), again the best rate of his career.  He’s owns a 16% HR/FB rate.  Like his BABIP, his home run rate will drop as the season unfolds.  Although with a career 10% HR/FB rate, it may not fall by much.  Last year in 162 plate appearances, Weeks owned a 16% HR/FB rate - similar to his production this season.  PECOTA had Weeks pegged for 17 HR prior to the season, so he's outpacing that projection.  He seems a good bet to finally break that 20 HR barrier.

Weeks is further helping his fantasy cause by reaching base at a .452 clip, currently the fourth best mark in the NL.  A good portion of that is a healthy increase in his walk rate.  With 11 free passes to his credit, he has drawn a base on balls in 13% of his plate appearances, slightly ahead of his career rate of 11%, but much better than last year’s abbreviated 7%.  Aside from 2007, Weeks has never drawn enough walks to be an effective leadoff hitter in the majors.  It looks as though he's on the right path this year.

Although it should be noted, Weeks' increase in walks does not seem to be the result of some newfound patience.  He’s seeing 3.74 pitches per plate appearance.  That’s roughly the same rate as last year where he saw 3.79 P/PA and both rates are a way off of his career mark of seeing 4.05 P/PA.  The difference is Weeks has worked to slice his strikeout rate.  He’s whiffed 19 times this season for a 19% K rate - still high, but it’s currently the lowest rate of his career.  Combine the walks and the strikeouts and Weeks owns a 1.45 SO/BB ratio.  Remember how we thought he was on the verge of a breakout before his injury ended his 2009 season?  At the time of his injury, I wasn’t convinced as he owned a frightful 3.25 SO/BB ratio.  He is showing more discipline this year, which makes me think his current performance is more likely to be sustained over the coming five months.

The only downside to Weeks’ hot start is he hasn’t taken advantage of his base stealing opportunities.  He’s been on first or second 35 times this year with the base ahead of him open and has attempted two steals - only one of which was successful.  He’s attempting to steal in 6% of his opportunities.  This follows his numbers fairly closely from 2009 where he was on 71 times with the next base open and attempted only 4 steals.  Again, a 6% attempt rate.  

Compare those percentages against his previous four seasons where Weeks was on base a total of 822 times and attempted 92 steals - an attempt rate of 11%.  A couple of things happened after the 2008 season that has perhaps conspired to limit his attempted steal rate.  First, there was his aformentioned knee surgery at the end of the '08 season.  He was given a clean bill of health, but it's difficult to not see some cause and effect at play here.

Second, he was now playing under manager Ken Macha after toiling under Ned Yost for the previous four seasons.  Macha has never utilized the stolen base as a weapon.  Last year, his Brewers attempted 105 steals, which was the most ever by a Macha team and their 68 stolen bases were last in the NL.  By comparison, the 2008 Brewers with Yost at the helm (and essentially the same starting nine) attempted 146 steals.  Their 108 stolen bases was sixth most in the league.

I'm beginning to wonder if Weeks may never steal the bases necessary for him to reach his one time potential as a 20/20 man.  Still, Weeks has historically been a strong baserunner. His 1.4 EQBRR in the early going among the best in the NL, even if he doesn’t steal.

However, if Weeks is to ever realize his full fantasy potential, we need the steals.  His power looks to be in good shape and hitting at the top of the Brewer lineup he'll score 90 or more runs.  It looks as though he's finally developed an approach to boost his average, which certainly helps the cause.  We just need him to run to be the complete fantasy package.

He's knocking on the door to join the elite fantasy second basemen.  He just can't seem to get the door open.

Craig Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

Related Content:  Rickie Weeks,  Steals,  Year Of The Injury

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