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Out of Left Field: Too Good to Be True?

Every year, things seem to happen that I don’t predict. Sometimes I guess wrong and sometimes I don’t even think to guess on the right topic. I guess that’s more or less normal.

But some things also happen that no one (or almost no one) seem to have predicted, things that surprise the entire community of fantasy experts, real and (like me) self-described. And no, having Josh Donaldson on your list as the 25th 3B option does not count as predicting his season. Some things, it seems, just come out of Left Field.

I’m not here to try to predict the unpredictable of 2014. And we’ve already established that I probably won’t anyway. Instead, let’s take a look at some of the biggest surprises from 2013, the guys that leave us wondering if they’ll do it again and whether to take the plunge on draft day. Last year we wondered that about Chris Davis and Edwin Encarnacion, before that…well, there were other people before that. 

I’m using the highly scientific methodology of sorting hitters by wOBA and picking out the names near the top that I wouldn’t have guessed on draft day last year. Then I kicked out the top prospects and the biggest shocks (like Donaldson) who will probably get a million articles written about them by other people. 

This time we’ll talk about the good hitting surprises; next time we’ll hit up the disappointments. If we’re very, very lucky, we’ll look at pitchers, but frankly, you shouldn’t be surprised by anything a pitcher does. I mean, remember that time Esteban Loaiza became the best pitcher in baseball. After that, the How to Win series will make its return. 

Hunter Pence was supposed to be done. I mean done. Nobody in the fantasy community liked him—and why would we? In 2011 he gave owners a very good, very BABIP-fueled campaign; in 2012 the BABIP fell to a reasonable .290 and his average cratered and he was a three-category guy on a definite downswing. In 2013 he was a five-category masher in a run-suppressing park and stole 22 bases to go with 27 homers. He gained 30 points of batting average on a BABIP that only increased 18 points. What?

The projection systems seem to be taking the mean between Pence’s 2012 and 2013 seasons, which makes sense; plus he’s 31, so a true-talent increase is the exception at this point in his career. That said, I’ll take the risk on him this time out: 2012 looks more like his floor than the beginning of a downward slope, and it ought to keep his price at a somewhat reasonable level. The upside of a repeat isn’t that likely, but the trend line has changed: the bad 2012 and the great 2013 look like outliers on a pretty good median. Plus, the steals are more of a strategy change than a skill change and considering he was only caught three times, there’s no reason to give him the red light. And, hey, maybe he did figure something real out….

Jayson Werth was supposed to have his comeback in 2012. When I drafted him. To be fair, his half season was pretty good, but it didn’t help me any and I ignored him in 2013. Big mistake. 

So, I’ll make up for it by drafting him early this year, right? Nope. I’m not going to ignore him, but I’m not going to ignore the fact that his value is heavily BABIP-dependent. When he posts a great BABIP, he gives a very good average and is a four category-plus-a-couple-steals contributor. When he posts a normal BABIP, his average is terrible. Over the course of his career, he’s done both and without much pattern. He’s got the upside of a number one OF, the downside of a number four or five, and the likely price tag of a number two. Those aren’t my kind of odds.

Michael Cuddyer is, to me, the perfect opportunity to zig when your opponents zag. His crazy-good season with crazy-high BABIP probably isn’t repeating, even in Coors, and his injury history is quite real. So if your opponents value him like a number one or two OF, let them have him. If they’re worried about his risk level and think of him as a number four, roll the dice and try to make him your third OF. He doesn’t have to bat .330 to be a very good OF option.

Brandon Belt is someone I never really believed in. Maybe the Mariner fan in me just wanted Justin Smoak to pan out first and I’m bitter he never did. Oh well. Belt’s power still hasn’t materialized, and it took a .351 BABIP to get him to a respectable average…but he’s just 26 and seems to have taken the first step towards being a very useful first baseman. And some of those 39 doubles could turn into homers, especially on road trips. First base isn’t as solid as it once was, and I would totally take a chance on Belt at first or—better yet—to fill my CI slot. 

Brandon Moss certainly would have made this list last year, after swatting 21 homers in 84 games, to the tune of a .596 slugging, pretty much out of nowhere. His follow-up of 30 bombs and a .522 slugging in 505 PA has me sold: Moss’s power plays and I’d rather have him than most first basemen. 

Coco Crisp was my ticket to 40 some-odd cheap steals. Instead he delivered a 20/20 campaign and I can’t say I’m complaining. His 22 homers doubled his best total since 2005 and I can’t honestly say if that power will keep. I can say that his speed is probably reduced for good, given that he’s 35. I’m probably staying away, because I don’t know what kind of player he’ll be next year, and in the back of the draft I like to know which categories I’m filling in.

Adam Lind was all washed up—he hadn’t had a good season by any measure (except maybe raw homers) since his breakout 2009, and I had long since given up drafting him. Then he went and gave us 23 homers and a .288 average. What? I guess three years isn’t that long to be bad—and did hit some homers in the rough years. With offense seeming to get slimmer and slimmer, I’ll take a chance on him as my DH or CI, so long as the price is cheap. Don’t get expectations and overpay though.

Chris Johnson hit .321 and got himself on the fantasy radar. Of course, it took him a Mauer-esque .394 BABIP to do it. He’s a high-BABIP guy, but he doesn’t bring much to the table but average. Unless he magically turns into a shortstop, he’s a mixed league backup.

Daniel Murphy has been around for a while as a good average, nothing else second baseman. Pretty humdrum, actually. But last year, he more than doubled his 2012 totals in homers and steals, finishing with 13 and 23, respectively, to go with a .286 batting average and (somehow) 92 runs scored. I’m surprised to say that I think he’s a decent play for next year: he was caught stealing only three times, so there’s no reason for the Mets not to let him run and his truncated 2011 season showed a flash of his hitting potential. Plus, who else are you gonna play at second? 

Alfonso Soriano just put up his second consecutive 30+ homer season. Maybe it’s time to stop underrating him just because the Cubs paid him way too much money. He’s also slugged .469 or better four years in a row and in 11 of the last 12. His power is real, and he plays in Yankee Stadium. Don’t expect average, don’t expect another 18 steals, but do expect the power numbers. This one wasn’t really out of left field.

Carlos Quentin has never played in more than 131 games, and managed no better than half seasons in the last two years. But he hits the ball with authority when he does play. Draft him late and enjoy the healthy times. Then draft his backup.

Yan Gomes is about to fill the void Mike Napoli left when he lost his catcher eligibility. That’s my boldest prediction for this post, but he slugged well in half a major league season this year, and did the same two years ago in AAA. Expect the Indians to try to keep his bat in the lineup and expect between 15 and 25 homers. 

Jason Castro might have been the most valuable player on the Astros last year. I didn’t check, cause, well, they’re the Astros. With apologies to Jose Altuve, Castro had a great (and unprecedented) season: 18 homers and a .276 average.  Of course, he had a little help from that .351 BABIP, but he can still be a good source of power. If you’re bidding for him, expect exactly one other owner in your league to bid against you: whoever had him last year. 

At this point, it’s my duty to remind you that it’s still only January. A lot can happen, and some of these guys might get their mysteries solved during Spring Training. Not one of them is a sure thing, so keep an eye on the potential bargains you see here. And don’t get caught up in a bidding war with whoever owned them last year—‘cause their owners were well satisfied.


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