This week we’ll take a look at center field, one of the more difficult positions to gage. There are many different types of hitters that can be useful to you who play center-some power players, some speed guys, and some well-balanced hitters-and plenty that can mess up your team if you overdraft them, or pick them at all.
Some people might not have noticed that Marlon Byrd had himself a pretty solid season at the plate for the Rangers in 2007. The right-hander hit .307/.355/.459 in 454 PA after a bland Triple-A appearance and poor stint in the majors for the Nationals in 2006. Byrd didn’t shine in any fantasy category besides batting average, as he had only five steals, just 10 homers, 70 RBI, and 60 runs. Put that all together, though, and it was a solid campaign from a center fielder who does a little bit of everything.
The major problem with Byrd’s 2007 is that we can’t really bank on it happening again in 2008. The last time Byrd had a .300 batting average in the majors was in 2003 for the Phillies, when he hit .303/.366/.418. Though he’s added some power to his game since then, the reason his average-which carried his line-was that lofty back then was due to his uncharacteristically high line-drive rate of 24 percent, and a .372 BABIP. When his liner rate dropped down in 2004, he performed poorly, and his BABIP dropped below the league average. In 2007, Byrd’s liner rate was normal, but his BABIP shot up to .381. Based on his 22.1 percent line-drive rate, we can see that his BABIP should have been .341; still well above average, but far below his actual numbers. Adjusting his line for this would put his season at .278/.326/.430, and his weighted mean PECOTA is a very similar .275/.333/.429. You can do better than that for yourself at auction and on draft day.
Nate McLouth was another fantasy surprise last year, and many people (hopefully in your league) still haven’t noticed how he performed. Despite a low batting average, his .351 on-base percentage was tasty, and his .459 slugging was solid for a center fielder. He also managed to swipe 22 bases while only being caught once, and smacked 37 extra-base hits in only 382 plate appearances. His liner rate and BABIP match up well, meaning that there should not be any regression in 2008 in that department.
With McLouth, you know what the risks are. He’s going to have a low batting average: in his three seasons in the majors, McLouth has posted averages of .257, .233 and .258. Nevertheless, he has managed to improve on his plate discipline and pitch recognition, boosting his power and on-base numbers. Whereas McLouth walked in 2.7 percent of his plate appearances in 2005 and 6.3 percent in 2006, he jumped all the way to 10.6 percent in 2007. He strikes out often, but with the power potential combined with the steals, he may be one of the best bargains at his position in the league. If you miss out on one of the big names in center, reserve a later pick for McLouth.
Curtis Granderson was a fantasy godsend last year, with a .302/.361/.552 line overall despite an awful .160/.225/.269 showing against lefties. He was a big help to all kinds of categories, as he hit over .300 and had over 20 doubles, triples, homers, and steals. All in all, Granderson had 84 extra-base hits and 26 steals with only one time caught, and he led the majors in VORP at his position with 67.3. He was a highly-touted prospect just a few years ago, and this season went considerably better than his first in the majors, where a low batting average sapped the value of his OBP and SLG.
There are problems in Granderson’s future though, if you look at both his batted-ball data and his PECOTA projection. Granderson had a .391 BABIP and a 22.1 percent liner rate last season, two numbers that would be really hard to maintain. His batting average on line drives was .846, and he also managed to hit .277 on grounders and .306 on fly balls. Those numbers are all higher than what is normal, and all of them figure to come down a bit this season. Adjusting his season line for the expected BABIP puts him at .252/.311/.502, assuming all of the missing hits are singles.
This may seem extreme, but his most updated PECOTA for 2008 forecasts a .267/.339/.467 line, which is not too far off. His value depends on how high he can bring his batting average up, and if he can’t hit more than .250-.270, he’s not going to hold anywhere near as much value as he did last year. Remember this on draft day, and let someone else make the mistake of picking him up too early or for too much of their budget.
Nick Swisher isn’t a true center fielder, but depending on the rules of your league, he may be listed at the position for 2008; he played 57 games there last season, and your league rules might have him eligible even if the White Sox never play him there. Though last season was a down year for Swisher’s power-his ISO was down to .193 after a .239 season in ’06, and he hit just 22 homers after 35 the year before-the move to Chicago should help him out some in the power department.
There’s nothing amiss in his batted-ball data, as his overall BABIP of .308 is around the league average. He hits both lefties and right-handers about the same as a switch hitter as well, so there aren’t any real platoon issues to worry about. The lack of home runs relative to 2006 was the only significant issue in his game, as he ended up with 12 more doubles and 13 fewer homers this year. Considering Oakland is one of the top pitcher’s parks in the league, while Chicago has a reputation as a wonderful hitter’s park for power guys, Swisher should be able to recover those lost homers.
This makes sense, given that the average distance of his homers actually increased in 2007 over 2006, according to Hit Tracker. In 2007, Swisher’s homers traveled an average distance of 395.1 feet, whereas in 2006 they went 385.2. PECOTA sees no problem with the drop off between years in homer totals, projecting 31 homers and a .265/.373/.501 line for Swisher. That’s pretty good for a corner spot, but excellent for a center fielder, especially if Swisher manages to improve on his batting average somewhat. The bump from Oakland to Chicago increases Swisher’s value enough to put him on your radar for an earlier pick-don’t forget he may also be first-base eligible in many leagues-and his down year in 2007 may have a few people questioning his value. Use this to your advantage and snag one of the best faux utility guys available.