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March 18, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Bobby Abreu vs. Rajai Davis

by Jason Collette

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I have been on staff for just about two months and, by far, my favorite part has been the comments you all have left for the articles I've written. I have enjoyed the complements and enjoy the criticisms even more because both help me continue to improve both as a writer and as a fantasy “expert.” Don’t get me wrong, it is great to get affirmation from your customers when you’ve done a good job but I find more value in the critics that question the way something was written or in the advice I have doled out to others. The beauty of this social media generation we are all in is that we can have these discussions with just more than one friend or someone at a bar and that we can come in and out of the discussion as time permits or facts present themselves.

A great example of this happened earlier this week in reaction to my last article about the slow mock draft hosted by the Fantasy 411 crew over at mlb.com. In that draft, I was picking at the wheel at the top of the 16th round and was debating between two players: Bobby Abreu and Rajai Davis. In order to be up front, I will freely admit that I treat speed specialists how I treat saves: I will pass on the studs in the categories to speculate in later rounds. I have tried to go the other way in the past and in fact spent $31 on Jacoby Ellsbury in Tout Wars last year as my biggest buy of the draft—just in time for his injuries to make it wasted money. Still, at that point in a mixed draft, you are looking to fill holes in your projected stats while at the same time looking for value and minimizing risks. It was those last two factors that played loudly into my decision to take Abreu over Davis when the projected values for each player was clearly in Davis’ favor.

Bobby Abreu has a lot of quality known merits. He has played in at least 152 games for each of the past 13 seasons so he has an impeccable health history—CHIPPER considers him a low risk player for 2011 as well. He has driven in 100 or more runs in seven of the past eight seasons. He has scored 88 or more runs in each of the past twelve seasons and until last season, had not hit below .283 in any year in which he was a full-time player. Not to mention he’s a consistent source of stolen bases as he has swiped at least 22 bases in each of the past twelve seasons and continues to put up decent totals, even at an advanced age under a manager who loves to put runners in motion and trusts his veterans to pick their spots.

Most seasons Abreu is a contributor across all five categories. Last season was his lowest fantasy value in recent memory and he still earned $20-plus dollars in AL-only leagues. Looking back at least season, he showed signs of slowing down at age 36 as his line drive rate fell to 16 percent, which is six percentage points below his career average. Additionally, 2010 saw his fly ball rate go up for a third straight season as some of those crisp line drives became fly ball outs that fell into gloves rather than green grass or seats. Even in that down season, he was on base 35 percent of the time and was a solid four category contributor rather than his customary five categories. Mock drafters at mockdraftcentral.com still respect Abreu’s production as his current ADP is 119 while they continue to overlook Rajai Davis who comes in at a very low 289.

Davis enjoyed a mixed bag of success with the A’s over the past two and a half seasons. He hit .305 in 2009 and stole 41 bases in under 400 at bats and followed that up with a .284 average last season stealing 50 bases. Sadly, the A’s offense hindered him because, despite 50 stolen bases, Davis scored just 66 times in 2010. Davis now moves east into the suddenly offensive-friendly Rogers Centre where extra base hits were struck at an alarming rate, fueled by Jose Bautista’s breakout season and a team embracing the grip-it-and-rip-it approach put forth by Cito Gaston and Dwayne Murphy. Both Abreu and Davis went for $19 in the recent AL LABR draft two weeks ago so while the recent ADP reports do not see these two as close, the first round of experts that drafted certainly do. Those results came out right about the time I was debating which outfielder to choose so I decided to talk myself out of drafting Davis by looking for reasons why mock drafters were overlooking him and why there was a wide range in the projected value for Davis amongst the pundits.

Since Davis was switching divisions, I wanted to see how he had done in his career against the pitchers from Baltimore, Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay—this dive into his splits was not rosy. Since coming over to the American League, Davis has had 226 plate appearances against pitchers from those teams and he has a slash line of .213/.242/306—226 is a small sample size, but that slash line is well below his averages for his career which is .281/.330/383. If you slice it down to some of the better pitchers in the division, the line gets worse. Against the likes of CC Sabathia, Jon Lester, David Price, John Lackey, and Brian Matusz, his line is an anemic .194/.206/226 in 63 plate appearances (even smaller sample size caveats apply). Overall, Davis has a .287/.329/392 slash line as an American League hitter so his slash line against American League East pitchers stands out.

Secondly, Davis has been on a bit of a hot streak concerning his batting average on balls in play in recent seasons. The table below shows Davis’ batting average, BABIP, as well as xBABIP over the past three seasons in the American League.

YEAR

BA

BABIP

XBABIP

2008

.243

.285

.316

2009

.305

.361

.316

2010

.284

.322

.304

2008’s underperformance was a nice pre-cursor of what he could do in 2009, and 2010 made it two straight seasons where his BABIP was better than it should have been. In all, he’s been anywhere from 41 points below expectations to 44 points above expectations. The other issue is he is moving to a club that is rather aggressive at the plate from an organization that emphasizes working counts. Toronto was below league average last season in both pitches per plate appearance and team walk rate—maybe John Farrell, who comes from Boston, will change that, but we haven't seen whether this is true yet.

If you are a believer in Saberhagenmetrics then Davis could be in for a good year in getting on base. In 2007, he reached base at a .361 clip and in 2009 he got on base at a .360 clip. However, in even years, he has been at .272 and .320. His walk rate has bounced around from as high at 10 percent in 2007 down to four percent the following year while he was just under six percent as a member of a team that values the walk. If Davis does suffer a BABIP correction in 2011, he will have to improve his walk rate to make up for the loss of stolen base opportunities.

For all of his speed, Davis gets his steals from the frequency in which he steals bases and not the frequency he is on first. Davis’ stolen base opportunities last season were right at the 25 percent league average but he took off for second 43 percent of the time he was standing on first base. Oakland manager Bob Geren was aggressive with both Davis and Cliff Pennington last season and in fact; Oakland was slightly above league average as they had 2293 stolen base opportunities as a team last season. An opportunity is defined as a runner being on first or second base with the base in front of them unoccupied. Toronto had the fewest opportunities as well as the fewest stolen bases in the American League which is one of the reasons they targeted Davis’ services.

New manager Farrell brings an unknown quantity into the equation, as we don't know his habits on the basepaths. His old bos Terry Francona showed a willingness to utilize the speed when he had it. When Ellsbury was healthy in 2009, Francona put runners in motion 10 percent of the time when they had stolen base opportunities. Compare that to last season when Ellsbury was out of commission for most of the season when Francona sent Red Sox stealing just five percent of the time when the league average last season was nine percent.  

The Blue Jays struggle enough to put runners on base on a consistent basis and as one subscriber deftly pointed out, our PFM has a good portion of the Jays’ regular lineup projected for OBP’s below .320. In fact, Davis’ own career on base percentage is .320 and that’s a danger spot for him if he repeats that. The PlayIndex tool at Baseball-Reference shows us just three players age 30 or older that have stolen 40 or more bases in a single season with an OBP below .325: Steve Sax, Tony Womack, and Vince Coleman. In order for Davis to achieve the lofty projections some have out there for him, he has to continue his hitting ways from Oakland to get on base at a high enough to fully utilize his speed. That speed is starting to leave him these days as his Speed Score has gone from 9.3 to 8.0 to 6.9 over the past three seasons. That Womack season is the vision that I cannot get out of my head as I look at Davis and think about what could go wrong in 2011. Womack had 617 at-bats in 2000 and hit seven home runs, scored 95 runs, and stole 45 bases while earning $22–in NL-Only leagues—none of the campaigns that followed for him went nearly as well.

Again, in those mid to late rounds in a draft, you are looking to fill holes in your projected stats while at the same time looking for value and minimizing risks. The need for speed was there for me, but the value of a sliding Abreu and his excellent track record made his selection a more comfortable choice for me at pick 181 than Davis whose upside in 2011 is nearly as high as his floor would be low.

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

Related Content:  A's,  Stolen Base

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