Last month I took a look back at the players I recommended to avoid as draft day approached last off-season, and overall I think I did some solid work there. Three out of four of those recommendations bore out, and while the one that didn’t was a spectacularly failure by result, I still feel good about the process that went into identifying the player. Can’t win ‘em all, right? So now today we’ll flip the script and talk about the players I recommended for targeting on draft day.
My Argument: In the full piece I mercifully started by slapping an asterisk on this recommendation, noting that it was geared towards deep leaguers and CI slots more than it was meant as a straight “target” proposal for your starting first baseman in a 12-team league. I noted that his nasty platoon split against lefties hadn’t shown any signs of improvement and that his average fly ball distance (and correspondingly his HR/FB rate) had taken a startling nose dive the year prior. Still, there was enough stuff going on to warrant attention, especially since the negatives had apparently conspired to drive his draft price down into the bargain bin. Specifically, for as stagnant as his terrible performance against southpaws remained, he had taken solid steps forward evolving into a righty-masher, hitting more liners and more fly balls that went farther in 2014. The HR/FB rate left significant room for expected growth, and given the plum spot he projected to fill in the middle of what should’ve been an excellent Cardinal lineup against right-handers, he possessed the ability to return solid value on a draft slot that barely cracked the top-20 among first-sackers.
What Happened: After a solid April in which he hit .304/.338/.493 he slumped through most of May before suffering a torn quad towards the end of the month and landing on the shelf for the next three and a half months, collecting just 31 at-bats after the injury. He registered just 27 plate appearances against lefties (striking out in 10 of them), so there’s not much to examine in terms of changes in his approach against them. It’s similarly dodgy to try and extrapolate much from his batted ball output either, given the sample size issues at play. He lost some of the fly ball gains I had highlighted, and the HR/FB rate didn’t move much despite his average distance taking a significant step forward. But again, we’re talking about much too limited a data sample with which to draw any remotely useful conclusions.
The Verdict: Well, just by virtue of the injury and sheer failure to accumulate meaningful production, this one’s a big ol’ fail. He returned just four bucks of NL-only value and finished off the board relative to his draft position in what basically ended up as a wasted pick for everyone who drafted him. I will say that looking out for guys like Adams – that is, guys who do certain things well but also have glaring deficiencies that can drive down their draft value – has been and continues to be one of my favorite strategies for the middle rounds. Checking for guys who made strides in improving from their stronger platoon side can uncover potential targets who might not receive as much helium because ongoing terrible performance against same-handed pitching cuts into their overall numbers.
My Argument: I was as bullish on Alvarez as any mid-round target heading into the spring, noting in this piece the progress he had made in evolving as a hitter in the first half of 2014 before a nasty foot injury derailed his second half. He’s got as much power as anyone* (non-Stanton division) in the majors, but the contact issues that have plagued him throughout his career keep a modest cap on his earnings potential in standard formats where his AVG can really hurt you.
What Happened: As I suspected for a full healthy season, Alvarez’s average batted ball distance bounced back up to the top of the leaderboard, ultimately checking in third overall. His exit velocity checked in 21st, and was third-best when he got some air under the ball. Unfortunately he got some air under the ball a lot less frequently, unless we’re counting the brief gasps of daylight that sporadically escape when a grounder bounces. Pitchers fed him a steadier diet of bendy pitches than they ever had before, and he responded by putting more than one out of every two balls he hit on the ground, a monumental leap in the wrong direction for a player with Alvarez’s big boy strength.
His .236/.303/.430 first half underwhelmed severely, likely leading to the vast majority of owners who’d followed my advice dumping him by the end of June. But oh ye of little faith! The big man aired it out and rewarded all the stubborn folks out there with a solid second-half bounceback in which he hit .251/.338/.525 with 15 bombs amid a return to 30% strikeout form.
The Verdict: A decidedly mixed result here. Alvarez finished 22nd in standard mixed value, returning $17 of NL-only value to check in sixth among players with hot corner eligibility. That made him a perfectly useful CI play or second-division third baseman depending on the size and structure of your league, and that was basically in line with his draft price last year. So this wasn’t a win, insofar as he failed to deliver any surplus value, and it was likely a big loss for the folks who got tired of him delivering anything in the first half.
Outfielder to Target: Jason Heyward, St. Louis Cardinals
My Argument: In this piece I noted the volatility in Heyward’s profile given some significant changes in approach, both by Heyward himself and in the way pitchers attacked him. Heading into 2015 he’d made significant strides in bolstering his contact rates in-zone, and while some of his power outage was the result of hitting more grounders and making weaker contact on outer-half pitches, I posited that even a modest regression of his H/FB rate would be enough to have him knocking on the door of 20 homers again if everything else in his profile more or less held. Coupled with a jump from a poor offense to one that projected to be very good, the sum of the parts gave Heyward a solid OF3 floor in standard leagues with OF2 upside.
What Happened: Well, a lot. Some of it was good, some of it was bad, and some of it was really, really ugly. But at the end of the day, the result was the eighth-best outfielder in the National League with $26 of NL-only earnings, and the 31st-ranked hitter overall in standard mixed formats. Now, while I continue patting myself on the back for a job well done, it’s probably at least worth mentioning that he got to this lofty perch by doing pretty much nothing I thought he would do.
He continued improving his contact rates, and the approach took yet another step forward, as he extended a four-year run of chase rate decline. However, pitchers really doubled-down on attacking the low-and-away quadrant, and Heyward responded with positively astronomical growth in his groundball rate. He hit almost 50 more grounders than he’d hit in 2014 in almost 50 fewer plate appearances, so while his HR/FB rate did indeed hop back up closer to career norms it really didn’t matter all that much given how many few fly balls he hit. On the plus side, while his power output remained below-average, a strong BABIP propped up his batting average in a not-entirely-unsustainable way.
The Verdict: An ugly win for me. The jump in his counting stats was smaller than I anticipated on account of St. Louis’ surprisingly poor offense, but he continued to refine his base-stealing skills with a second consecutive season of elite efficiency. The strong average and above-average stolen bases gave him a nice base for his earnings, and when you threw in just enough in the homerun and counting stat department he evolved into a blissfully valuable asset in spite of himself. He wasn’t who I thought he’d be, but who he was ended up being a pretty damn good player.
My Argument: I tabbed Fields as my guy for two reasons: the first is that I don’t believe in investing heavily in elite relievers on draft day, but I do believe in using very good middle men to offset the ratio damage often inflicted by back-end starters in deep leagues. And the second? Josh Fields should have had an excellent 2014, and would have if not for some obnoxiously poor luck. A fly ball pitcher who generated an excellent amount of weak, short contact, Fields had been nonetheless tagged for an unsightly BABIP. Worse yet, a bunch of that BABIP misfortune occurred with runners on, driving his strand rate to the third-worst mark of any pitcher in baseball. The gap between his FIP and ERA was far and away the widest of any pitcher in the top-20 in strikeout rate.
What Happened: Fields essentially had a slightly-less-annoying version of the same year he had in 2014. He posted a FIP right in line with his previous season (2.19), but the topline ratios (3.55 ERA, 1.14 WHIP) crept up just north of the levels you look for in a middle reliever. His BABIP crept down to less-extreme heights, but he still puzzlingly allowed an above-average rate in spite of heavy fly ball tendencies and a strong pop-up rate. He continued to rack up whiffs at an elite pace, however, checking in 10th among relievers in strikeout rate and 23rd in K-BB%, ensuring that he did offer owners some return on their investment.
The Verdict: Another mixed bag here. On the one hand I do stand by the strategy I used this piece to highlight, at least in deeper leagues where rotation stability is harder to come by. Using the occasional week where your back-end guys face tough matchups to play ratio catch-up by running a few strong middle relievers can help keep your pitching performance a couple steps above where it otherwise would be. On the other, Fields didn’t quite light up the marquee as the argument’s poster boy like I’d hoped he would. While solid, and certainly helpful as a one-category purveyor of strikeouts, his six bucks of AL-only value equaled the likes of Bryan Shaw, Casey Fien, Fernando Salas, Matt Albers, and several dozen other nondescript middle men with varying degrees of success in sculpting interesting facial hair.
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