The fantasy team has some new blood and is poised to kick off our outrageously deep pre-season coverage next week, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’re rounding third on our categorical breakdown series, and I’m here to follow up George Bissell’s on-base percentage overview.
The great home run surge of 2016 passed right by Belt, who hit one less bomb than he did in 2015 despite the fact that he racked up nearly 100 more plate appearances. I’ve been expecting his traditional 5×5 breakout since 2011. After a fifth consecutive sub-20 home run campaign, perhaps it’s time to admit the breakout’s not coming. In OBP leagues though? Dude was a categorical stud in 2016. Belt’s .394 on-base percentage was ninth-best among all qualifiers, and fourth-best at the position. His year-over-year OBP increased 38 points thanks to an almost-six-percentage-point jump in his walk rate. Continuing a trend from 2015, Belt’s 2016 approach was more cautious still on pitches outside the zone; he left his bat on his shoulder three quarters of the time in such cases. While there’s no reason to expect the approach to regress, there is risk that his batting average drags the OBP down going forward. Belt has always hit a mess of liners, but he also lifted the ball far too often in 2016. I don’t see a third straight top-20 BABIP season coming in the face of underwhelming exit velocity.
LeMahieu batted .348 in 2016. Had he not taken a single walk, he would have finished with the 65th-best on-base percentage among 146 qualifiers. You’re never gonna believe this, but LeMahieu did take a walk. Sixty-six of them to be exact, plus a pair of the intentional variety. The result was an eye-popping .416 OBP, bettered by only Mike Trout and Joey Votto. If that kind of company doesn’t draw your suspicion, how about this: according to pitchf/x, pitchers came right after LeMahieu, challenging him with fastballs and pitches in the zone at rates among the most frequent in baseball. It’s awfully difficult to have a 68-point spread between your batting average and on-base percentage when pitchers aren’t afraid to throw strikes or heaters, even for one of the more reluctant swingers in baseball.
Ben Zobrist, 2B/OF, Chicago Cubs
These two resumes already boasted long histories of impressive plate discipline, but each took their ability to spit on pitches off the plate to elite and career-best levels in 2016. Fowler swung at a paltry 19.4 percent of would-be balls—lowest in the bigs—and Zobrist wasn’t far behind. For that matter, Zobrist barely swung at pitches in the zone; his overall 35.5 percent swing percentage was the lowest in baseball. His ability to make contact, as well as the quality of that contact, remains fully intact even in his mid-30s. Nevertheless, taking the free base is never a bad idea with a lineup rich in run producers. With Fowler departed, Zobrist could get a chance to hit first for the defending champs, and the volume would only amplify his on-base value. Speaking of Fowler’s departure, he should be installed as the Cardinals’ everyday catalyst and continue to enjoy the boost that comes with the leadoff role.
“Shortstop with occasional pop” to “slugging cold-corner occupant” isn’t a well-worn path, but it’s the one Miller trod in 2016. If you owned him, you took the 30 dingers and probably didn’t give a damn about the fact that his OBP came up 25 points short of his 2015 number and 19 points shy of PECOTA’s projection. To be fair, that isn’t the kind of delta that was likely to damage you in any significant way, but he did walk at a higher clip than any other shortstop in 2015 and it’s worth wondering whether Miller can get back to that place. I mean, he probably won’t get back to that place because he’s unlikely to have shortstop eligibility beyond 2017 and the position is loaded at the moment. But can he get to the brink of a double-digit walk rate again? Sure he can. Despite the power surge, Miller was only mildly more aggressive last season. Pitchers also stayed further away from the plate after Miller proved he could do consistent damage. If Miller remains content to take balls at a rate not much lower than the league average and pitchers are willing to throw them, there’s a bump. If his BABIP ticks up—and the quality of his contact tells me it should—there’s a bump. Add it up and I think Miller’s OBP comes in right around PECOTA’s 2016 projection.
Upton the Younger’s 2016 splits will be one of the more frequently cited as we head into draft season. As you will likely hear if you haven’t already, Upton rescued his 2016 campaign after a horrid April and May by slashing .259/.331/.531 with 28 homers from then on. That batting average and OBP fall short of PECOTA’s projection, but it doesn’t look altogether different than what he offered up in 2015. Look a little harder though and what appears to be a multi-month rebound is really the product of a monster September, particularly with regard to his OBP. Entering the season’s final month, Upton owned a .295 on-base, which he lifted 15 points with a .382 effort in the season’s final month, to go with an astonishing 13 jacks in 27 games. There’s nothing obvious in the profile that suggests we should expect much less than a vintage Upton season in 2017, with some of 2016’s valleys and peaks smoothed out.
Pick any twig-toting shortstop with zero patience. Zimmerman got on base less frequently than him. Alcides Escobar? Yep. Ketel Marte? Uh-huh. Alexie Ramirez? Yessir. Adeiny Hechavarria? Come on that’s impossible, right? No? Yikes.
Zimmerman’s days as a relevant player in standard-depth leagues are in the past, especially in OBP formats. He was poor against breakers, worse against offspeed, and downright atrocious against fastballs. Those are all the pitch types. Further, Zimmerman chased at a career-high rate and made contact less often than ever. If there is one thing that points to a rebound it’s his exit velocity, which still betters plenty of sluggers of various vintages. That leads to some optimism that there will be serviceable power on contact, but if the 2016 approach is something close to a new normal, Zimmerman’s OBP will be unacceptable at a position where fantasy players typically seek to pad the category, not submarine it.
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