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February 5, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Hitting Sleepers

by Marc Normandin

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Next week, the fantasy rankings will start rolling in, but for now, here are a few players who caught my attention as I cruised through the PECOTA spreadsheet. These are players who PECOTA thinks will improve upon last season, and I feel they deserve to have a larger chunk of space devoted to them than I'll be able to provide in the already large ranking articles. Let's see why the forecasting system thinks the way it does, and how accurate those projections may be.

Hunter Pence's 2007 season caught a lot of fantasy player's attention as he came up from the minors and hit .322/.360/.539. There were a few problems with that performance, though: the patience he had in the minors did not translate to the majors, and he had an abnormally high .378 batting average on balls in play. With a line-drive rate of just 19.4 percent, it was obvious that Pence's line would fall the next year, and fall it did, to .269/.318/.466. His 25th-percentile forecast was .267/.325/.451; PECOTA takes BABIP regression into account and saw this as a very likely possibility.

With that in mind, it may surprise you that PECOTA sees Pence improving in 2009, with a weighted mean forecast of .286/.346/.491. After all, his most significant issue had been his lack of patience at the plate, but Pence made incremental improvements in that area, swinging at a slightly lower percentage of pitches overall and making a higher percentage of contact, though he did this while swinging at fewer pitches inside the zone and chasing more balls that were out of it. That's not a recipe for success in the long-term; Pence may be able to crush certain pitches on the border of the strike zone, but he's notorious for chasing a high percentage of pitches outside every corner of the zone.

He's a fantastic fastball hitter, especially on pitches up and away or just away, but pitchers recognized this and threw him the second-lowest percentage of fastballs among hitters with 350 minimum plate appearances; just 49.8 percent of the pitches he saw were heaters. Instead, they fed him a steady diet of sliders (28.3 percent of the time), which he saw at a higher rate than any other hitter. Pence isn't really bad at hitting sliders, he just has a tendency to swing at those thrown outside of the zone. Luckily, he may have improved his pitch recognition as the season went on-he hit .263/.304/.429 in the first half and .277/.338/.521 in the second, without a radical change in his BABIP (.300/.301).

You have to take his entire season into account when evaluating him, but for a young player who needs to make adjustments to pitchers who are exploiting his weaknesses, that legitimate-looking second half is a positive sign, and part of the reason that PECOTA discards a weighted mean that was similar to last year's, despite last year's struggles. This is a projection I'm comfortable with, though I would like to see him display more patience before I buy into that on-base rate.

Kansas City fans have had very little to be excited about these past few years-every time the slightest positive thing happens, they react like Ted Buckland-but when Alex Gordon was coming up through the minors, they had legitimate reason to feel good. Those high expectations did not translate into major league success though, and Gordon has struggled in his first tastes of major league baseball.

He hit just .247/.314/.411 overall in '07, giving him average power at third base (.164 ISO) that was undercut by the low batting average. The low average was a product of his strikeouts; Gordon whiffed 25.2 percent of the time, far too often for someone with his limited power output. Struggles against left-handers were also an issue, with Gordon cobbling together a meager .216/.266/.420 line against them. He also struggled on the road (.231/.301/.369), a problem that did not resolve itself in 2008 (.254/.336/.412), nor does it help that Gordon has trouble handling pitches thrown in every corner of the zone, and a tendency to chase inside pitches that he can't turn on.

Gordon did show some minor improvements in 2008 that should give you hope going forward, as he increased his walk rate (from 7 to 11.8 percent) while dropping his strikeout rate a percentage point. He didn't increase his power much-his ISO only climbed from .164 to .172, a negligible difference-but he did lower the rate of his ground balls hit while also approaching the liner and fly-ball output you want to see from a potential slugger. Just like Pence, Gordon was also much more productive later in the year, hitting .253/.334/.407 in the first half (.305 BABIP) and .277/.392/.496 in the latter half (.320 BABIP).

This is good news for a player who is going to be in his age-25 season in 2009, as Gordon is primed to have the breakout campaign PECOTA is forecasting. His weighted mean projection is .258/.342/.457, which may even be a little low if his second-half improvements are for real; when the full PECOTA projections are released, Gordon is a player who may have a believable 75th percentile that you'll want to keep in mind, and that's before you consider that he's spent the offseason with new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, working on his ability to hit the ball to all fields, rather than sitting back and trying to pull and kill everything thrown at him. With his poor numbers on pitches inside and out, this can only be a good sign for the young third baseman.

Jody Gerut was a successful rookie back in 2003 for the Cleveland Indians, hitting .279/.336/.494, but it was all downhill from there. After playing for three clubs in 2005, Gerut disappeared from the majors until 2008, when he re-emerged with the last-place Padres. He was one of the few bright spots on that disappointing club, putting together a .296/.351/.494 line reminiscent of his debut. PECOTA just has that one season to work with in the past three years, but the system has faith that Gerut's production was realistic, as his weighted mean forecast sits at .302/.365/.500.

Given his track record, this love for Gerut is surprising. Part of the reason for it may lie in where he hit though, as Gerut succeeded in the anti-Coors of Petco Park. He's a left-handed hitter, and Petco is usually death to left-handers (though it's nearly as terrible to hit in if you're right-handed). Despite this, Gerut hit .295/.340/.449 at home. His home/road power numbers were intriguing, as he managed just four home runs at Petco, with 11 doubles and two triples, while on the road he had just four doubles and two triples but 10 balls that went yard. Overall, Gerut was a masher in away games, hitting .296/.363/.546, a line that looks even better when you consider he was playing center field a significant portion of the time.

He sprays the ball to all fields and doesn't chase very many pitches outside, which helps his chances of maintaining a solid batting average. His walk rate isn't great, but it is good, and it looks better when you consider that he struck out just 16 percent of the time.

There's nothing fishy going on with his numbers either, though you could raise your eyebrows slightly at a few things. First, Gerut had just 356 plate appearances after playing part of the year in the minors and having missed most of September with a sprained finger. Secondly-and this is difficult to assess because of the injury-most of Gerut's power production came during August (including seven of his 14 homers). With more playing time we'd be able to draw a better picture of what his power output should look like, but without those missed plate appearances we're short on data, though his HR/FB rate (14.1 percent) was very similar to his 2003 output.

There's one last possible knock on Gerut: the Padres will be spending this year checking out what they have on their roster in terms of upside and talent, so while Gerut will see a lot of playing time in center and left, there are other players (like Will Venable) who may steal plate appearances and starts from him, reducing his fantasy value. Gerut will most likely be a late-round draft pick because people either don't think he's capable of replicating last year's production, or because of the potential loss in playing time, but it isn't as if Venable will be going in the early rounds either, so you could pick up both of them and platoon as necessary if your league allows daily changes.

While my first instinct is to scale back PECOTA's weighted mean forecast for Gerut just a tad, there's little there of consequence to rail against based on his 2008 numbers. It's even harder to avoid the temptation to pick him when you just know he's going to be available later on in your draft, so I'll be trusting PECOTA's projection that Gerut will succeed.

Related Content:  The Who,  Hunter Pence

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