In today’s “Tale of the Tape,” we’ll take a gander at a couple of American League sluggers and see if we can shed some light on what looks to be a very tough decision for fantasy owners. Should you be more willing to invest in a bounce-back season by 2012’s would-be AL Rookie of the Year (non-Mike Trout division), Oakland’s Yoenis Cespedes? Or is it a better bet to bank on a breakout first full season from the current reigning AL Rookie of the Year, Tampa Bay’s Wil Myers?
Cespedes burst onto the scene in his stateside debut two years ago with a scorching .311 TAv as an already-in-his-prime rookie, flashing 30/20 potential and solid on-base skills despite some issues with nagging injuries. Last season was a different story, though, as nearly everything in his offensive profile took several steps in the wrong direction and he again battled the injury bug, declining to a .275 TAv that returned just the 43rd-highest value among outfielders. Meanwhile, Tampa was quick to enjoy the spoils of last off-season’s infamous trade of James Shields that netted them the BP 101’s no. 7 prospect in all of baseball from Kansas City. Following a mid-June promotion Myers raked to the tune of a .296 TAv, and he looks poised to anchor the middle of the Rays lineup alongside Evan Longoria for a very, very long time. Both rate as three star options for 2014 according to Mike Gianella’s impressively exhaustive look at the outfield position, with Myers holding a nominal seven-spot advantage on the list. The two are currently going back-to-back in the middle of the fifth round of standard NFBC drafts (67th and 68th overall), and PECOTA projects nearly identical lines for the two (.260/.326/.454 for Myers vs. .261/.322/.457 for Cespedes). So let’s check these guys out and see if there might be a lil’ bit more upside with one of them for fantasy owners to gamble on.
A recurring theme of this exercise will be the tale of two seasons Cespedes has logged to date, and batting average is a fitting starting point. In his rookie season he hit .292 on the back of a not-outrageous .326 BABIP, manageable 18.9 percent strikeout rate, and underwhelming 19.6 percent line drive rate. Last year lady luck conspired against him to the tune of a .274 BABIP, driven in no small part by a collapse of his line drive rate all the way down to 16.7 percent. Toss in a substantial five percent rise in his whiff rate, and his sophomore campaign saw his batting average tumble all the way down to a .240 mark. Meanwhile, after hitting an even .300 over 1,933 minor-league plate appearances Myers picked up right where he left off after his promotion to the Show, logging a .293 mark over his first 373 plate appearances. That number comes with an arms-a-flailin’ robot in tow, however, as he made it happen despite a whiff rate north of 24 percent in large part thanks to a generous .362 BABIP.
So basically we’re looking at one player whose contact and batted ball profiles regressed pretty significantly in his second season versus another who seems pretty likely to take a similar step back if his approach doesn’t progress and his luck normalizes. In the case of Myers, the strikeouts have been a part of his game since he began tapping into his power at AA, and it’s the price owners will pay for his 25-plus-homer upside. But the good news is, we’re not talking about an Adam Dunn rate here. He’s unlikely to get as lucky on balls in play going forward, but PECOTA’s projection may be slightly conservative and he should be capable of putting up batting averages at least moderately on the high side of its .260 estimate on the regular. Cespedes, on the other hand, seems less of a sure bet. The unsightly BABIP of last year is probably unlikely to make another appearance, but the dramatic rise in strikeout rate is legitimately worrisome. Scouts questioned the length and lack of fluidity in Cespedes’ swing when he came into the league, and it appeared last year that Major League pitchers began to make appropriate adjustments to exploit some of his holes. It’s worth noting that his strikeout rate inched higher as the season progressed while his walk rate collapsed by nearly four percent between the first and second halves. I can see a modest bounce-back from last year’s cliff-dive on account of some normalized batted ball rates, but I don’t feel nearly as comfortable assuming PECOTA’s .261 projection as a starting point.
Slight Advantage: Myers
Along with the strikeout rate increase another alarming trend from Cespedes’ follow-up campaign was a drop in his walk rate from eight percent down to 6.6 percent. As noted above that number shrank pretty significantly as the season wore on, as he chased an increasing number of balls out of the zone. That’s not an uncommon fate for a struggling player, so there’s some reason for optimism that his walk rate rebounds a bit this year. Myers showed a patient approach throughout his minor league career, and his 12 percent career rate suggests that the 8.8 percent rate he mustered in his rookie campaign has some significant room for improvement going forward. Add in the potential advantage in batting average and this category has the potential for a fairly significant advantage to Myers.
One area where Cespedes did not regress last season was his homerun production. His HR/FB rate dipped ever-so-slightly by 0.4 percent, but he hit almost six percent more fly balls. While that jump was one of the primary drivers in the collapse of his BABIP, it allowed him to narrowly boost his HR production from one every 23.48 plate appearances to one every 22.07. That’s a 30-homer pace if he can manage to stay on the field for 155 games. Myers flashed similar potential last season on a per-FB basis, posting a 15.5 percent HR/FB rate that narrowly eclipsed Cespedes’ mark. Still, he put more balls on the ground than you’d typically like to see from an aspiring slugger, and the fact remains that he has not yet demonstrated the ability to match Cespedes’ power production over a full season. That equates to an inherent risk, regardless of the comfort level built into our projections. Both players play in challenging ballparks for right-handed power hitters, with Myers getting the slightly shorter end of the stick. PECOTA likes each guy for 25 home runs this season, and while the long-term outlook for both men is probably a high-20s to low-30s ceiling I’ll give Cespedes the present nod here as the safer immediate bet based on his demonstrated production.
Slight Advantage: Cespedes
Runs Batted In
These two are perhaps most equivalent as fantasy assets in the run production categories. Going off of performance to date their per-game RBI numbers are essentially the same, albeit with the standard caveat that Myers’ sample is significantly smaller than that of Cespedes. Cespedes has averaged .614 RBI/game in his career so far, while Myers checks in at .602 in his half season-plus. Oakland and Tampa are two of the elite offenses in baseball, with little separating their 2013 performances. Oakland had the narrowest of advantages with a .276 TAv to Tampa’s .271 spread. And neither offense appears poised to predictably regress or improve significantly based on off-season moves to date. Based on lineup context both of these hitters should hold more or less equal prospective value for RBI production, which means the narrowest of advantages probably belongs in the category of the player projected to hit slightly better, and that’s Myers.
Slight Advantage: Myers
Everything I just wrote about RBI applies here, with the notable exception that I expect Myers’ advantage in on-base percentage to be that much more significant. PECOTA seems to favor the Oakland offense more heavily this year, but for the crapshoot of individual run scoring projection I’ll side with the guy who I like to get on base at a better clip.
Slight Advantage: Myers
After flashing tantalizing 20-plus SB potential in his rookie season, Cespedes slumped to just seven steals and an ugly 50 percent success rate last season. He did suffer a hamstring issue in June that led to a couple days off and some further convalescence in the DH holding cell, but he’d been successful in just two of his seven attempts prior to that injury. He rebounded to steal five out of seven from July on, but it’s an open question as to how much he’ll actually run this year and how successful he’ll be when he does. A return to double-digits is probably a fair expectation, but earlier hope for 20-plus bags annually looks more like wishful thinking at this point. For his part Myers went 5-for-7 in his time with the Rays after stealing seven of eight in Triple-A to start the season. A significant knee infection in 2011 clouded his minor league numbers to a degree, but the season before that injury he’d stolen 12 bags. PECOTA seems quite bearish in projecting just five steals for Myers this year. Given last year’s showing I could easily see Myers threatening the low-teens as well, and given the uncertainty surrounding Cespedes’ numbers this one’s probably closer than it may appear. I’ll give Cespedes the slightest of nods based on precedent, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Myers out-thieved him.
Slight Advantage: Cespedes
Both players have dealt with injuries in their careers so far, though they’ve been of a different nature. Myers had the aforementioned staph infection in his knee back in 2011, but has been largely healthy aside from that. Cespedes on the other hand has dealt with a vast array of little, nagging injuries in both of his Major League seasons now. Last year he hit the DL in April for a hand injury, then missed time in June (hamstring) and July (wrist) before being relegated to DH duties down the stretch on account of a sore shoulder. He’s missed an average of 20 games a season in his first two years, and the small, nagging injuries are enough of a pattern at this point to label Cespedes a risk going forward.
Health providing, both players should be full-time starters for their respective teams. While the Rays love themselves a good platoon, Myers does not appear to be in any jeopardy of facing one himself, and he acquitted himself just fine against same-handed pitching in his debut season.
It’s frankly a bit difficult to figure out what exactly Cespedes is at this point. His two seasons have been a legitimate Jekyll and Hyde story. He’ll play this coming season at age 28, so chances are his ceiling involves some kind of composite of what we’ve seen in his first two seasons. In other words, he’s at or slightly beyond his physical peak and has logged over 1,100 plate appearances at the major-league level. Sure there’s still a possibility he throws up the .300/30/100/100/20 season we all dreamed about before he debuted last year, but it’s much more likely that his true talent lies somewhere in between his first two seasons. And Myers’ ceiling probably resides somewhere in the same ballpark. At the end of the day a .280/30/90/90/15 peak season is probably about the 99th-percentile projection for both players, and Myers relative youth—and thus greater number of seasons ahead of him in which to make a run at that line—nets him the narrow victory here.
Slight Advantage: Myers
This is a really difficult matchup to predict, mostly because there’s a very limited data sample for both players. On the one hand, Cespedes has zero minor-league track record to draw from and has logged two wildly different seasons at the major-league level. On the other, Myers just made his debut in fine fashion, albeit in a sub-400-plate-appearance sample that, given his BABIP, is probably not particularly helpful as a predictive model for his imminent performance going forward. If Cespedes can recapture his 2012 form—that is, make contact with more strikes and less balls, hit some more line drives, and steal some more bases—he’s got the package to deliver a top-tier return on a middle-tier investment. That’s a big package of “ifs,” though. For my money the slight advantages Myers has posted through this exercise reflect his status as a safer investment. It’s sort of a weird thing to say about a 23-year-old entering his first full major-league season. But he has made fairly linear progress throughout his journey to the bigs, and the offensive talent he possesses has never been much in doubt to scouts and prospect evaluators. In other words, despite some outlying components his debut was not a fluke, and he’s got the potential to put together a legitimate breakout season with another step forward this year. Cespedes does too, but the outlook is a bit foggier for him given what we’ve seen thus far.
And the winner is… Myers