It is difficult to believe, but we are almost halfway through the 2017 season. While a lot will change in the second half, enough of the season has been played so that some assessment can be offered of how well (or poorly) some of our preseason predictions have played out. While it is easy to make preseason calls and never bring them up again, it always is worth looking back at what we got right—and what we got wrong, and why.
I’ll start with the players I told fantasy players to target, and then finish with the players I advised fantasy managers to avoid.
First Base, Justin Bour
What I said: People make mistakes. Sometimes, I am one of those people. Last year, Bour was my choice as the “player to avoid” among first basemen. I cited his hot September against inferior opponents and a high strikeout rate as reasons that Bour would fail in 2016. He did fail (I had him as the 370th best player among mixed-league players in my retrospective player valuations) but only due to a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for two months. When he was on the field, Bour had an even better year than he did in 2015. His .307 TAv was eighth best among first basemen (minimum 300 plate appearances), putting Bour ahead of Adrian Gonzalez, Will Myers, Jose Abreu, Hanley Ramirez, Chris Davis, and Eric Hosmer. Unfortunately, this is offset to some degree by an awful home venue. His Batting Park Factor was 12 percent below league average, which was worst among first basemen. Even though Marlins Park is a drag on Bour’s raw stats, he still managed to hit 15 home runs in 321 plate appearances. A full season of Bour would have provided 29 home runs and 100 RBI in 550 plate appearances. Even accounting for an expected dip in batting average if Bour does play against lefties would still make Bour a bargain. He is currently being drafted about 85-95 picks after C.J. Cron, Tommy Joseph, and Chris Carter in NFBC drafts. Bour is legit, and could be a source of big time power without the big-time price.
What happened: Bour has tailed off somewhat after a torrid May but it is difficult to argue with the overall results. If anything has dampened Bour’s value at all it isn’t his home venue (he has better numbers at home than on the road this year), but instead rather how strong first base has been in fantasy. Among first basemen, Bour is ninth in home runs, eighth in RBIs, and eighth in batting average among qualifiers. A weak Marlins lineup has hurt Bour’s run totals, Joe Mauer, Yulieski Gurriel, and Danny Valencia all have more runs than Bour does, but this is still a huge win. Bour was drafted just a shade outside of the Top 300, or as a late round flier in deep mixed leagues. If you grabbed Bour as your third corner infielder, you hit the jackpot. Grade: A
Third Base, Mike Moustakas
What I Said: What if I told you that you could draft a third baseman outside of the NFBC Top 200 who had 27 home runs, 75 runs, 93 RBI, and a .275 AVG? You would probably say something like “stop lying” or “you’re a real jerk! I hate you, Mike Gianella!” But that line is what Mike Moustakas has done over his last 162 games. Moustakas’ value has taken a hit because an ACL injury curtailed his season after 27 games and 113 plate appearances. Moustakas is expected to be 100 percent in spring training with no restrictions, and his injury isn’t something that should have any long-term impact on his power. Even if you believe his batting average is going to slip somewhat (he hit .240 in 2016), the potential for 20-25 home runs remains. This isn’t to suggest that Moose is as good as third basemen like Adrian Beltre or Evan Longoria, but rather that the ADP gap between him and those stalwarts is wider than the performance likely will be. Moose’s early projections align quite nicely with the 162-game average listed above. Third is a difficult position to find a bargain because there are so many high-profile players at the position, so Moose’s injury gives you an opportunity you may not have had otherwise. Take it.
What Happened: Moustakas hasn’t been nearly as good in real life as he was has been in fantasy. His TAv is 12th among third basemen (minimum 200 plate appearances). While this is solid, it makes him more of a middle-of-the-pack third baseman than a top tier option. But this is a fantasy ranking and not a real life one, and even with the power spike across the board, Moose has exceeded even my optimistic expectations. Moose is second among third basemen in home runs behind Joey Gallo and his .268 AVG means that he could slip somewhat in the second half and remain a bargain. If you followed my advice and took Moose over Nick Castellanos or Maikel Franco you are a happy camper right now. Grade: A
Outfield: Kevin Kiermaier
What I Said: It is getting more difficult to find power/speed combinations in fantasy, and this is particularly true if you are looking for players who can steal 20 or more bases. Last year, 18 players hit 10 or more home runs and stole 20 or more bases. Most of these players have been expensive in NFBC drafts, with seven going in the Top 20 and 10 in the Top 60. But there are a handful of power/speed players slipping through the cracks. One of them is Kiermaier. Unlike some of the other players in this speed/power group, Kiermaier isn’t a playing-time risk, nor is he a player who performed at his ceiling in 2016. In fact, of the players in the 10/20 club, Kiermaier had the second fewest plate appearances, ahead of only Trea Turner. Kiermaier quietly has turned his speed into an asset, jumping from five steals in 2014 to 21 last year. If Kiermaier can stay healthy (granted, this is not a trivial concern) he has the capability to put up 15 home runs and 25 steals at a minimum. The batting average won’t be great, but Kiermaier is barely being drafted inside the Top 200. There is plenty of upside at that price, and unlike with a lot of speed-first players, Kiermaier’s defense is going to keep him on the field every day when he is healthy.
What Happened: On June 9, Kiermaier fractured his hip. His recovery time is estimated at six to eight weeks but this might not account for the possibility of a rehab assignment. Even assuming a best-case scenario, Kiermaier will not return until early August. Before his injury, Kiermaier was performing capably. He was on pace for 18 home runs, 78 runs, 52 RBI, 28 steals, and a .258 batting average. The problem with this kind of analysis is that you cannot simply say “if only this perennially injured player didn’t get hurt he would have been a bargain.” Kiermaier will not be a complete bust unless he is out for the season, but the bargain potential that I trumpeted in February is not going to materialize. Grade: C
Starting Pitcher Long Term: Daniel Norris
What I Said: With so many fantasy experts analyzing metrics, spin rate, pitch movement, etc. it is difficult for a “sleeper” pitcher to slip under the radar. But this is exactly what is happening with Norris, who is still young (he turns 24 in April) but lost time at the beginning of 2016 due to a lower back injury. There are significant small-sample alerts at work for Norris, but his numbers a year ago check off most of the boxes. His 23.8 percent strikeout rate as a starting pitcher was 30th overall among starters with 60 innings or more. His walk rate wasn’t elite, but Norris did show improvement in that area, keeping it below three walks per nine innings. Norris’ back injury and his recovery from thyroid cancer in the 2015/2016 offseason has pushed him off of the radar and into the bargain bin. This isn’t some prospect who emerged out of nowhere, but rather a former second-round, high bonus pick who always had a chance to be elite. Chances are good that this is the last year you will have an opportunity for a discount.
What Happened: Norris’ cFIP and DRA tell us that he has taken a small step forward this season. However, apart from fewer home runs allowed per nine this has not manifested itself into better fantasy numbers. If you are looking for silver linings Norris was having a nice run before a disastrous start Wednesday night, but it is difficult to paint this as a victory for Norris in 2017. This was a long-term pick so I cannot give myself a failing grade, but I can’t give myself a good grade either. Grade: D+
Catcher: Yadier Molina
What I Said: Molina was panned in this space a year ago, and the market was down on him. We were out to lunch. In 15-team mixed leagues, Molina finished 108th overall per the PFM, beating his NFBC ADP of 258 by a fair amount. But last year isn’t this year, and many of the concerns that dogged Molina in 2016 carry over into this season. Much of Molina’s value is predicated on his batting average. While Molina certainly does have a history of .300+ seasons, 2016 was his first campaign over .300 since 2013. He hasn’t stolen more than three bases since 2012 and, more importantly, hasn’t had more than eight home runs since 2013. Batting average tends to fluctuate, and betting on another .300+ season from an older, slow-footed catcher is suboptimal.
My greater concern is that Molina turns 35 years old this July. Only 10 catchers have more than the 6,157 plate appearances Molina has amassed through his Age 33 season. The results for those guys look as brutal as you might imagine they would look. The best-case scenario for these 10 catchers was Yogi Berra, who was a freak of nature. A few others hung on for another season or two at the same level before declining, but most of them simply fell off a cliff and saw their careers end abruptly. Perhaps Molina will fit the model of a steady decline. Given that he is coming off two subpar seasons from 2014-2015, and has battled multiple injuries, I have no interest in rostering an aging hitter with almost nothing but downside at a high skill position.
What Happened: The batting average did drop off. Molina’s .266 AVG is his poorest showing in the category since 2010. The rest of this prediction was bad. Not only has Molina not “fell off a cliff” but he is coming close to duplicating his career best 2012 minus the batting average. Offensive context does matter to a degree and there are more than a few backstops outperforming Yadi. But my prediction was too negative to hide behind this excuse. The five steals feel like piling on. Yadi could slip or break down in the second half, but at the moment he looks like a top 12 catcher, which makes this another poor prediction. Grade: D.
Second Base: Daniel Murphy
What I Said: I am not going to waste your time or mine suggesting that the changes to Murphy’s swing aren’t sustainable. They are, and the Nationals pulled off a coup last winter when they signed Murph to a multiyear deal. My concern is with Murphy’s fantasy value. Murphy finished 36th overall in mixed leagues per the PFM, which is exactly where he is being drafted now. I’m all for paying the top players what they are worth. What I don’t like doing is paying for batting average for a hitter who isn’t perennially elite in the category. I trust Murphy to hit between .310 and .320, but even that level of slippage impacts his value yet isn’t being accounted for in NFBC drafts. I’m not worried much about his BABIP in general, but rather with the success Murph had against the shift. Because he is a straight pull hitter, a traditional shift should have been more effective against Murphy than it was. I anticipate more shifts against Murphy this year and more success by teams shifting against him.
My other concern is with the recurring hamstring issues Murphy had last year and the related glute injury that sidelined him late in the season. Murphy did commit to a strength and conditioning program this winter and is slated to play in the World Baseball Classic, but while conditioning can help, it isn’t bulletproof. Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post reported in December that Nationals trainers believe that hamstring and leg issues will always be a concern for Murphy. Given the wealth of options at second base, I’m not eager to pay a par price for a 32-year-old hitter coming off a career year who is battling a health issue that team’s medical staff suggests will linger (as always, the usual “not-a-doctor” disclaimers apply).
What Happened: Nothing happened. Murphy is having another great season. He has not slipped in batting average, has stayed healthy, and thus far has eclipsed last year’s 36th overall ranking, slotting in at 22nd overall. This prediction was supposed to be a gimmie: a mild take that would allow me to “win” even if Murphy only dropped off slightly. Instead, Murphy is on his way to an even better fantasy season than he had in 2016 (even as his real-life numbers have dropped slightly). Grade: D.
Shortstop: Aledmys Diaz
What I Said: There are two common reactions to making a mistake. The first is to dig in, refuse to admit wrongdoing, and to “double down” on the error. The second common reaction is to overcompensate the other way. There is a lot of this going on with Diaz, a prospect who was viewed as a failure by many entering 2016 and someone who would be a utility infielder long term. Diaz defied those expectations and is likely to be a decent starter for the Cardinals, but he is being drafted like he should be owned in all fantasy formats. This is a mistake, and the type of gross overcompensation I mentioned above. After a ridiculous April where he hit .423, Diaz cooled off, finishing with a .277 AVG from May 1st onward. Even worse, his batted-ball profile reveals a hitter who pitchers caught up with quickly. In April, Diaz had a .413 BABIP, a 22.4 percent line-drive rate, a 9.5 percent infield fly-ball rate, a 16.5 percent opposite-field rate, and a 41.8 percent hard-hit ball rate. From May 1 forward, he had a .289 BABIP, 13.9 percent line-drive rate, 14 percent infield-fly rate, 24.6 percent opposite-field rate, and a 29.1 percent hard-hit ball rate. Pitchers started challenging Diaz, and while he didn’t completely collapse, the results were rather underwhelming, and in line with hitters with much softer contact profiles. If Diaz is a 15-20 home run shortstop with a .270 AVG and no steals, that isn’t a top-10 shortstop.
What Happened: Apart from the stolen bases, Diaz is slightly underperforming even my modest expectation above. A few of the batted-ball metrics are slightly better than what I cited above but for the most part my assumption has held. Diaz is an OK deeper-league option, but he should not have been taken ninth among shortstops and within the Top 150 overall. You could have taken Asdrubal Cabrera 125 picks later and received nearly the same production despite Cabrera’s injuries. Now that Diaz has been demoted to Triple A, this call looks even better. Grade A.
Outfielder Long Term: Aaron Judge
What I Said: It is easy to forget how much buzz Judge generated in his first two major league games. The 24-year-old slugger homered in his first big-league at-bat against Matt Andriese and then homered the next day against Jake Odorizzi.
The problem for Judge is that the rest of his brief time in the majors was a disaster. Over his next 87 plate appearances, Judge posted a .156/.241/.260 line before being sidelined with an oblique strain that ended his season. Even worse, Judge struck out in nearly half of his plate appearances, whiffing at a prodigious 47 percent rate. Nearly all rookies struggle, but Judge’s struggles went beyond the typical rookie issues.
Judge will get another opportunity for the rebuilding Yankees, but even if he breaks camp with New York there are still reasons for concern. Granted, Judge has hit at every level to date, but hitters of his immense size (insert your “My Large Adult Sons” Joke here) often have difficulty making the final adjustment to the majors. Again, there isn’t enough of a sample to draw definitive conclusions, but Judge’s contact profile, combined with his size, are worrisome. A few hitters of this ilk have had productive careers, but most cannot compensate for MLB pitchers who are more capable of exploiting a larger zone than their minor-league counterparts.
Yankee Stadium will help, but no park can help a hitter make favorable contact. Keep in mind, also, that this is an article about the long-term. Judge will be 25 in April, and the window for him to establish himself as a viable starter is small. Judge could crack the code and cut down on those whiffs in his first full season, but the early results are not encouraging.
What Happened: I made one of the worst predictions I have ever made Grade: F.