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September 30, 2011

Value Picks

First, Third, and DH Review

by Michael Street

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As the Value Picks writers have done all week, I’m showing off my hits and misses from this season. Hits and misses, like value itself, are subjective terms. For example, it was a bad call to add Steven Pearce the same day he hit the disabled list or Nolan Reimold just days before Vladimir Guerrero returned from the DL, but as single-league picks on the list for a week, they didn’t hurt much. And preseason choice David Freese ended up with a .297 batting average, fourth among third basemen, but his value was diluted by two months lost to a broken hand.

Some choices, however, were more clear-cut: VPs demoted to Triple-A were clear misses, while several hits took my recommendation and ran with them to top-flight performances. As you’ll see, I got better as the season progressed, as my preseason advice didn’t always pan out, but many of my mid- and late-season pickups delivered great value to their fantasy owners.
 

Preseason Hits
I discussed Danny Valencia in both the preseason and early season, pointing to his playing time more than any dominant skill: “With a guaranteed starting job, solid skills, and a decent upside, he won’t be this lightly owned later in the season.” I didn’t nail those solid skills, as I expected good average and weak power and Valencia brought better power (his 15 homers nearly doubled PECOTA’s 50th-percentile projection) and a weak batting average (his .246 falls below PECOTA’s 20th percentile). That batting average drop-off comes from an uptick in groundball rate from 43.0 percent to 45.9 percent combined with a BABIP falling from .345 last season to .275 this year. His 15 home runs, 10th among third basemen, seem more a product of park effect than skill. His HR/FB ratio lifted from 7.1 last season to 8.9 percent, but Home Run Tracker rates six of his longballs as “just enough.” So the baseball karma evens out—bad luck on grounders, good luck on homers—with Valencia delivering the predicted modest returns (his 72 RBI were fifth among third sackers) on a low investment.

My preseason writeup pointed out that fantasy owners had been “virtually ignoring” Edwin Encarnacion in drafts, noting

For leagues that use designated hitters, Encarnacion’s TAvranks fourth at that position, and he’ll bring the kind of pop that owners like from their corner infielders, too. His free-swinging ways will sandbag his average, but his solid walk rates should hold his OBPin tolerable territory.

Amid Toronto’s frequent position shuffling, Encarnacion stayed healthy, amassing over 500 plate appearances for the first time since 2008 while finishing with a .272 average and 17 home runs. Among designated hitters, his .280 TAv was fifth and his .334 OBP was ninth, and his fairly weak counting numbers (55 RBI and 70 runs) were still in the top ten. In leagues where he qualified at third base, E5’s average and counting numbers were slightly lower but still in the top 15. He dodged the injury bullet and rebounded from a slow start to bring good value to his owners, particularly if you got him at a discount.
 

Preseason Misses
Along with PECOTA, I advocated Kila Ka’aihue in the preseason and early season, saying, “The future-focused Royals will give Kila a long look, making him a great investment in any league with moderate depth.” Not two weeks after those fateful words, Kansas City gave up on the Kila Monster (hitting .195/.295/.317) and promoted Eric Hosmer. At the time, I wondered about the wisdom of such a hasty move, but there, too, I turned out to be wrong. Hosmer is now a Rookie of the Year contender, while Kila marinated in Triple-A with a weak .272/.379/.433 line and will now be part of Oakland’s first base/designated hitter crowd in Spring Training. Whatever his future, it’s hard to go much wrong-er than this, prediction-wise.

Another player I pushed in the preseason and early season, Daric Barton didn’t pan out, either. I predicted, “He won’t bring you power, but his steady average and modest counting-stat production will help you in standard leagues and provide top-notch value in any league that counts OBP.” Instead, Barton floundered in the early going and found himself in Triple-A, where he hit a similarly underwhelming .197/.347/.230. His career lows in ISO (.055 in the majors, .033 in the minors) suggested injury, which was verified when Barton was diagnosed with a season-ending torn labrum in his shoulder. I can cut myself some slack for the inability to see inside Barton’s shoulder, but he definitely was a bad call—one I made twice.
 

Early Season Hits
Amazed at his low ownership rates, I thought naming Todd Helton as one of my first VPs was a no-brainer, a prediction that came true. The Toddfather’s career-worst 2010—hitting .256/.362/.367 and missing games and productivity due to back problems—turned into a .302/.385/.466 line for 2011 with 14 home runs and 69 RBI. His BABIP rebounded from .302 to .328, but he showed some skill erosion with a 14.5 percent strikeout rate and 12.0 percent walk rate that were both below career norms. But he definitely made solid contact: his 27.1 percent line drive rate was his highest since 2003. Back problems put him on the shelf for most of September, but Helton still brought his owners some nice return after being overlooked early on.

It seems hard to remember now, but Kendrys Morales always seemed on the cusp of returning in Spring Training, making me hesitant to endorse Mark Trumbo. I finally did, however, in my first column of the regular season, noting that:

[H]is 50th percentile PECOTAprojection gives him 13 HRs in 350 PA, and his 19 percent whiff rate and 7.4 percent walk rate in the minors led to PECOTA’s .261 batting-average projection. A performance in his 90th percentile would deliver a triple-slash of .291/.333/.494, when he would barely crest 20 HRs with 500 plate appearances.

As it turned out, Trumbo got those 500 plate appearances and nearly crested 30 home runs. His .254 batting average came from his 20.9 percent strikeout rate, weak 4.4 percent walk rate, and .274 BABIP, all indications that he’s still adjusting to major-league pitching. What he lost in batting average, he made up for in power; his .477 SLG and 29 homers brought 87 RBI. I suggested seeking “short-term improvement with long-term upside” with Trumbo, and he delivered just that—and more—to his fantasy owners.

One of the greater mysteries of 2011 remains the resurgence of Casey Kotchman, a party I arrived late to when I added Kotch on June 20. At the time, he was hitting .341/.402/.464, and he continued to hit at a .326/.383/.478 clip as a VP. I dropped him on August 15, after which he hit just .232/.339/.289 down the stretch. Whether you kept him the whole time or just while he was a VP, Kotchman was a pleasant surprise to Tampa Bay fans and fantasy owners. He never delivered much power, but his .299 TAv was 12th among first basemen, a stat influenced by his .306 batting average (6th among first basemen) and .378 OBP (9th). Whatever mystery brought his resurgence, his owners were glad to take part.
 

Early Season Misses
Like Daric Barton, Dan Johnson seemed like a solid pick because of his playing time and his “walk rate and power potential.” None of those came to pass, however, as Johnson’s awful .119/.187/.202 April and early May opened the door to Kotchman, who never gave Johnson a chance to resume starting duties. Johnson found himself in the minors again, where his .273/.382/.459 earned him a late-season promotion and a dramatic role in the Rays’ AL Wild Card victory. While that home run may endear him to Tampa fans, his fantasy owners weren’t too thrilled with his 2011 season—and with good reason.

I take a big helping of blame for pushing Matt LaPorta much of the season, as his up-and-down performance always seemed to suggest improvement was right around the corner. While his final .247/.299/.412 line isn’t putrid, it’s still weak for a guy I kept on the list for over two months. He lost his patience this year, walking in 6.0 percent of his plate appearances after last season’s 10.8 percent while also fanning a tad more, up from 19.3 percent last year to 22.6 percent in 2011. That aggressiveness came more outside the zone than within it, leading to a drop in overall contact rate and contact rate on strikes. Things got so bad for LaPorta that he spent a short time in the minors and will have to work in 2012 to prove that he’s not just a Quad-A hitter. Even if he brought some owners some value with a .270 TAv that reflects above-average production, that number is still 35th among first baseman, and he remains a pretty bad miss for me.

My man-crush on Brett Wallace also didn’t turn out so well. Despite bouts of productivity and relevance, The Walrus merits only a “Tusk, tusk” for his .259/.334/.369, five home run season that also saw him spend a few weeks in Triple-A. Wallace failed to produce this season despite improvements in walk and strikeout rates and a BABIP of .339. Although his .110 ISO was also an improvement over his weak (and brief) 2010, Wallace’s 52.2 percent ground ball rate suggests a different swing plane that diminished his power, although his robust 21.1 percent line drive rate speaks to strong contact in that plane. Like LaPorta, Wallace still has time to prove himself in the majors, something he didn’t do in 2011, much to the dismay of fantasy owners who followed my advice.
 

Late Season Hits
One of several players to graduate from single-league to mixed-league relevance, Mike Carp responded to his August 1 VP addition by hitting for the next seventeen games, part of a twenty-game hit streak that caught the eyes of fantasy owners everywhere. This attention pushed his ownership levels above VP thresholds, but those who stuck with Carp for the rest of the season would enjoy a .274/.314/.476 line with 10 home runs in 226 plate appearances from August 1 onward. Surprisingly, Carp hit better against same-side pitching (.306/.342/.542) than against righties (.266/.321/.440), a reverse-platoon split that runs against his career tendencies and suggests small samples (76 plate appearances against southpaws) rather than improvement. While Carp’s ability to sustain his .343 BABIP and 17.6 percent HR/FB ratio in 2012 is doubtful, he definitely brought his fantasy owners value in 2011.

Lucas Duda appeared on the list twice, first as an NL-only addition in early July, when he was a part-time first baseman, and then later, when he’d seized a full-time role after David Murphy’s season-ending injury. I noted “he can deliver some RBI for your fantasy squad, even if the power continues to be underwhelming,” which Duda apparently took umbrage at. After his second addition, Duda hit .315/.401/.528 through the rest of the season, including six home runs and nine doubles in 147 plate appearances. Those numbers were supported by a .358 BABIP, but his 9.3 percent HR/FB ratio and .187 minor-league ISO suggests that his 2011 .189 ISO is for real. His poor outfield defense and the presence of Ike Davis at first base clouds Duda’s future with the Mets, but he definitely had a place on successful fantasy rosters in 2011.

Probably my favorite VP, Paul Goldschmidt jumped from Double-A to the majors after the trade of Brandon Allen, and I added Goldie soon afterwards, noting “Even if his strikeouts depress his batting average, his power is hard to find late in the season.” From then until the end of the season, Goldschmidt hit .259/.340/.496, with seven home runs in 153 plate appearances, quickly becoming a middle-of-the-order mainstay for the division-winning Diamondbacks. His 29.9 percent strikeout rate was certainly a concern, but his 11.0 percent walk rate showed excellent patience, and his .237 ISO made up for those batting average losses. His maturity and professional approach are evident in each at-bat, making it easy to forget that Goldschmidt is just 23 years old. An even better value in keeper leagues, Goldie was an excellent VP addition, and his power likely made the difference in many league championship runs.
 

Late Season Miss
Brent Morel was on and off the VP list three times, none of which seemed to coincide with his hot streaks. I noted this in his initial writeup:

This swing-first, ask-questions-later methodology makes him even more subject to the vagaries of BABIP, and his sits at a depressed .282 (.289 during the above-mentioned streak). That also suggests that what you see is what you get from Morel, who should be valuable in deeper mixed leagues for batting average without much pop.

I get a bit of credit for noting his streaky nature but not for failing to stick with him. I cut Morel for the final time on September 2, and Morel went on to hit .220/.333/.549 for the rest of the month, picking up 14 walks in 99 plate appearances (amazing, since he’d walked eight times in 345 prior plate appearances in 2011) and hitting eight home runs, both the opposite of what I’d predicted. While I might have avoided a volatile compound like Morel, I should have at least stuck with him during the cold streaks, knowing that a hot one was likely to be around the corner. His patience indicates good things for Morel’s future, and perhaps a new manager will help him develop even more. Whatever his future, I missed out on Morel’s present, and fantasy owners missed out on a possible game-changing talent down the stretch.

Thanks for another great season at Value Picks, where I hope we brought new insight and talent to your fantasy lineup!

2 comments have been left for this article.

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