Like most light-hitting shortstops, the Cubs Ryan Theriot’s fantasy value is predicated on his ability to get on base where he can then use his legs to steal and eventually cross the plate. Batting average is a bonus as runs and steals are what you’re looking for from Theriot, therefore it’s of the utmost importance that he get on base as much as possible.
Take a look at how 2008 was a perfect storm of on base goodness for Theriot: He exhibited (for him) extraordinary patience at the plate, drawing a walk in 11% of his plate appearances, which was a career high walk rate. Then, when he swung, more often than not, he was putting the bat on the ball. His contact rate of 91% was the third best rate in the National League. That’s correct… No one other than Jeff Keppinger (93%) and Brian Giles (93%) made more contact than Theriot in ’08. And Theriot was making good contact. His line drive rate of 22% was the ninth highest in the NL and pushed him to a BABIP of .339.
Mix the ingredients and it’s easy to see how he had a strong season, posting a batting average of .307 and an on base percentage of .387 – both career highs for a full year in the bigs. I referred to it as a “perfect storm” meaning all the elements came together to help Theriot to a solid year. The issue with a “perfect storm” though is just as fast as they spring up, they'll disappear just as quickly. Which leads us to Theriot’s approach last summer… Let’s just say it was interesting.
For some reason, he chose to abandon discipline in 2009 and adopted a much more aggressive tack at the dish. After swinging at the first pitch he saw 23% of the time and seeing an average of 3.75 pitches per plate appearance in '08, he suddenly couldn’t wait to swing the stick. His average plate appearance last year lasted just 3.68 pitches, which wasn’t a huge tumble from the previous year, although it’s never good when a young player who hits near (or at) the top of the order starts seeing fewer pitches. Then, when you learn Theriot was swinging at the first pitch a whopping 31% of the time… Wow.
It’s not always a bad thing to be aggressive and swing at the first pitch. NL hitters owned a .332 batting average in 2009 when putting the first pitch in play and Theriot outpaced the league with a .358 average on the first pitch. Once we crunch the numbers though, we see it may not have been in Theriot’s best interest to go after the initial offering so often. Last year, the Cub shortstop had a total of 677 plate appearances. Of those plate appearances, 106 were resolved on the first swing. That only accounts for 15.6% of those instances where he swung at the first pitch. That means, he fell behind in the count 0-1 over 95 times when he swung and failed to put the ball in play. And that doesn’t account for the strikes he looked at on the first pitch. Overall, he dug himself a 0-1 hole in a whopping 305 – or 45% – of his plate appearances. And when that happened, it was difficult for Theriot to climb out. He hit just .248 with an unacceptable on base percentage of .287 after falling behind 0-1. Certainly, that’s in line with the league average of a .228 BA and a .272 OBP when trailing 0-1, but the point is Theriot's primary skill as a hitter is making contact. Last year he fell behind in the count way too often and paid the price.
Let’s look at 2008 and 2009 side by side, so we can get a handle on the differences.
Lately, once Theriot gets on base, he’s not a good baserunner. Last year, his EQBRR of -1.5 was just ahead of Jason Varitek. More discouraging was his EQSBR of -3.5 which ranked him 856 out of 858 players in our statistical database from last year. In other words, for someone who is so aggressive on the bases, Theriot runs into outs far too often. Last year, he stole second 18 times in 28 attempts, a 64% success rate. He was also picked off four times. Ugh.
PECOTA isn’t hopeful on a Theriot rebound. It has him pegged for a line of .279/.346/.370 with 20 steals and 85 runs, which is almost a carbon copy of his 2009 season. It’s not a horrible line, but we know he can be better. However, if he keeps his aggressive, swing first and ask questions later approach, he’ll be hard pressed to reach that on base percentage which will deflate his stolen base and run totals.
This is what makes Theriot a fantasy conundrum. Clearly, he has the tools (contact and speed) that can make him a solid contributor to your fantasy team. It’s just a bummer that at the age of 30 and with a little over three full seasons in the majors, he has yet to figure out exactly how to consistently use those tools. It’s the possibility that makes him so enticing. Maybe this is the year he pushes his contact rate back above 90% and gets his average around .290 (like in 2008) while he steals bases at an 88% clip (like in 2007 when he stole a career high 28 bases.) That’s exactly the kind of player I’m looking for if I’m bargain hunting in the later rounds of a draft: Low risk with some moderate upside.
The early returns of spring have been encouraging. Elevated to the leadoff role for the Cubs by manager Lou Pinella, Theriot is once again making serious contact and has notched 16 hits in 30 at bats. More importantly, he’s showing better patience, drawing five walks. Nice developments to go along with his five steals in six attempts. Certainly, it’s a small sample size and it is spring training after all. But it’s an indication that it’s possible that Theriot has reverted back to his 2008 style at the plate. And sometimes that’s all the evidence you need to roll the dice in the later rounds and find yourselves a gem.