Draft Round Battles

Draft Round Battles: Roy Halladay Vs. Kris Medlen

A legendary workhorse who finally broke down against a pitcher who returned from injury and produced spectacular results.  We know what Roy Halladay and Kris Medlen did in 2012, but now let's examine how these NL East rivals project for 2013 and who is the better fantasy bet.

The early returns don't favor the veteran.  Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position chart indicates that Medlen has a 68.41 ADP, which ranks him 16th amongst starting pitchers and 66th amongst all players.  Halladay, meanwhile, has an 81.17 ADP, ranking him 21st amongst SP and 81st overall.

Halladay's drop is quite precipitous considering his Cooperstown-worthy track record and the fact that he was the top pitcher taken* in many 2012 fantasy drafts.  It's not a surprise, however, given the optics of a 35-year-old pitcher posting the highest full-season ERA (4.49) of his career and spending six weeks on the DL with a shoulder injury.  After averaging 236 IP over the last six seasons, it's fair to wonder if this workload has caught up with Halladay and he can no longer be counted upon to produce ace-level numbers.

* = And, in one of my leagues last year, the FIRST OVERALL PICK.  I kid you not.  Now, our league tracks complete games as a stat and having Halladay on your roster usually clinches you first- or second-place in that category all by himself but still, my buddy Dave's bold choice of Halladay was a real bombshell.  Five points to Dave for creating a lot of draft day chaos, and minus 50 points to Dave for...well, Halladay's loss in form basically torpedoing his team.  

As Halladay fell, however, Medlen rose.  After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010 and missing virtually all of the 2011 season, Medlen was eased back into regular pitching duties in the Braves' bullpen in 2012 and then inserted into the starting rotation in July.  The results were astounding: Medlen posted an 0.97 ERA in 12 regular season starts, with 84 strikeouts (against 10 walks) in 83 2/3 IP and a perfect 12-0 record.  Had Medlen contributed a bit more at the plate, he basically would've been a real-life Steve Nebraska, which I think we can all agree is a decent upgrade over Jair Jurrjens.

A great half-season, however, is still just a half-season.  What Medlen did over the last two-plus months of 2012 is essentially what Halladay did for seven full seasons from 2005-11.  Mock Draft Central's numbers notwithstanding, is Medlen really a better fantasy option than Halladay?  Removing ERA from the equation, let's look at some of the two pitchers' secondary numbers from 2012...

Halladay: 156 1/3 IP, 7.6 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 3.67 K/BB, 3.62 SIERA, 3.69 FIP, 3.60 xFIP, .301 BABIP

Medlen: 138 IP, 7.8 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 5.22 K/BB, 2.85 SIERA, 2.42 FIP, 3.29 xFIP, .261 BABIP

While Halladay didn't pitch as badly as you might think last year, there were still some warning signs.  Looking at Fangraphs' numbers from last season, Halladay only had a 44.7% groundball rate (well below his career average of 54.4%) and he lost 1.8 mph on his cutter.  Halladay's ability to keep the ball on the ground and his cutter (which he threw 41.7% of the time in 2012) are his bread and butter, so if he's losing his edge in either category, that's a big red flag.

Of course, this is kind of the crux of the argument between these two pitchers.  With Halladay we have loads of data to see how 2012 compares to his past results; with Medlen, we have basically none, as he didn't even become a full-time starting pitcher until July 31 of last year.  Medlen only made 26 minor league starts out of 105 career appearances in the minors, so we extrapolate much from his farm numbers (2.55 ERA, 10.3 K/9, 2.1 BB/9 over 240 1/3 minor league IP) other than generally agreeing that he looks like a pretty good pitcher.  How that translates over a full season in the Braves' rotation or how it translates to Medlen's fantasy ranking, however, is anyone's guess.

It's a tough call on either pitcher and frankly, I'm not sure I'd go with either if you have other good options available in the sixth or seventh round.  Looking at the ADP list, the four pitchers in between Medlen and Halladay (Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, CC Sabathia and Chris Sale) all seem like stronger choices to me for 2013, Sabathia's injuries notwithstanding. 

Between just Halladay and Medlen, however, I can't help but think that Halladay is the safer choice.  Call it a bit of a homer pick from the guy who lives in Toronto, but provided that Halladay's shoulder problem was just a blip in a long history of durability, I think we'll see Halladay put up another very strong campaign.  Medlen may still be good in 2013 but unless he's turned a gigantic corner and is on the way to a Hall of Fame career, he's going to come back to earth.  Granted, "regressing" from a sub-1.00 ERA leaves a lot of comfortable wiggle room but I'd rather not draft a guy guaranteed for regression ahead of a guy who I feel will bounce back and pitch like his old self.

After all, nobody ever erred in believing in Halladay, right Dave?

Draft Round Battles: Ian Kinsler vs. Dustin Pedroia

Two veteran second basemen in hitter-friendly ballparks, long acknowledged as two of the best at their position, and you can only choose one!  Who will emerge triumphant?! FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT!...or, rather than have Ian Kinsler swing his arms like windmills while Dustin Pedroia kicks at the air, we can just break down this matchup stats-wise.

If you'd taken either Kinsler or Pedroia in a keeper league before the 2006 season, you'd have no complaints.  Here are both players' average seasons, Kinsler over 4177 career plate appearances and Pedroia over 3824 PAs...

Kinsler: 25 homers, 81 RBI, 115 runs, 27-for-32 steals rate, 72 walks, .272/.350/.460 batting line, 111 OPS+

Pedroia: 17 homers, 77 RBI, 106 runs, 19-for-24 steals rate, 66 walks, .303/.369/.461 batting line, 117 OPS+

Kinsler has the edge in steals and homers and Pedroia has the edge in average, but overall, both players are pretty similar at the plate.  In fact, they're exactly similar by one calculation --- according to Baseball Reference, both men have a value of 24.6 offensive WAR.

So can we say it's Kinsler by a nose and call it a day?  Not exactly.  While the Rangers second baseman has been the borderline better option from 2006-12, we're only concerned about the 2013 season, with the twist being that both players are coming off their worst full seasons in the bigs.

Pedroia hit .290/.347/.449 in 623 PAs despite being bothered by right thumb injuries all season that led to some DL time.  So still, while a "career-worst" for Pedroia, he wasn't too far off his career norms and he can reasonably expected to bounce back in 2013 now that he's at full health.

Kinsler, however, hit .256/.326/.423 in a career-high 731 PAs.  While his 5x5 counting stats were still good (19 HR, 72 RBI, 105 runs, 21 steals), he actually delivered a below-average (95 OPS+) offensive performance thanks in large part to that dropoff in OBP.  While Pedroia's slight dip could be blamed on his thumb, Kinsler's apparent good health makes his sharper decline all the more troubling.  His .270 BABIP points to a bit of bad luck, but Kinsler wasn't getting much pop on those balls put into play, as evidenced by a 14.2% infield fly percentage.

It already seems as if the Rangers are looking beyond the Kinsler Era at second base, though it will seemingly be another year before the club moves him to first, DH or a corner outfield spot to make room for Jurickson Profar.  Kinsler turns 31 this season and, as with any player getting into his 30's, you wonder if he is already into his decline phase, particularly if his only-okay ability to get on base throughout his career is waning.  Pedroia himself turns 30 in August but even the modest 14-month age gap between the two looms large when you consider how both men played in 2012.

Pedroia has thus far been the choice of fantasy managers at Mock Draft Central, with an average draft position of 37.85 (37th overall), well ahead of Kinsler's 48.78 (49th overall) ranking.  The two also happen to be the second- and third-highest drafted second basemen overall, well behind Robinson Cano (5th overall) but ahead of Jason Kipnis in the 58th overall slot.  While Pedroia should still hit well enough to justify going in the third or fourth round of your fantasy draft, I'd definitely exercise caution before picking Kinsler.  Not only would I pick Pedroia over Kinsler, I'd take the likes of Ben Zobrist or Aaron Hill as my second baseman before I took the guy who may replace Michael Young as the Ranger Infielder Who Texas Feels Obligated To Put In The Lineup Due To Salary And Tenure Despite Clear Signs Of Decline.

Draft Round Battles: Yadier Molina Vs. Joe Mauer

As they say in boxing, the game plan goes out the window as soon as you're punched in the face.  The same is true, albeit in a less physically painful way, when it comes to fantasy drafting.  You can make up spreadsheets, plan for every scenario and have Nate Silver and Bill James on speed-dial, and yet even the most prepared fantasy managers tend to panic once the dreaded 'run' on a position gets underway.

You all know the feeling.  After someone takes one of the top players at a thin position, the next manager up may select the next-best option at said position and suddenly uh oh, the pickings are even slimmer.  That can begin a frenzied rush and before you know it, you've spent on a sixth-round pick on a catcher who was probably better-suited to the 16th round.  Nothing will ever top the fiasco in one of the my earliest fantasy drafts, around the year 2000 or so, when the run on catchers started in the FIRST ROUND, leading to the spectacle of Todd Hundley and Darrin Fletcher being selected with the 11th and 12th overall picks.  (Needless to say, the guys who took Hundley and Fletcher didn't win the league.)

I use catcher as my example since it's by far the position most susceptible to "runs" (honorable mention goes to closers and the non-first base infield positions) due to the relatively consistent lack of depth and the fact that some leagues require two starting catchers, which even further thins the pool of candidates.  And so, in this first edition of Draft Round Battles, I'll hesitate to put an actual round number on when this particular choice might take place since the run on catchers could very well begin soon after that first manager snaps up Buster Posey.  In general, however, I'd say that Posey will go very early and then you can probably wait until the fifth or even the sixth round to dive into the catcher pool.

Posey, needless to say, is the clear No. 1 catcher in 2013 fantasy drafts, but things get fun once the NL MVP is off the board.  Yadier Molina and Joe Mauer were the next best catchers in 2012 and I'd expect them to retain those positions in 2013 (with a tip of the cap to Carlos Santana, Miguel Montero and Matt Wieters).  You'll be breathing easy at catcher no matter which of Molina or Mauer you take, but forget that "six of one, half-dozen of the other" equivocating, you want to know which is better.

This would've been a hard debate to believe two years ago, when Mauer was putting up MVP numbers and Molina was known for a superb arm and game-calling abilities but an average bat.  Over the last two seasons, however, Molina has posted a .310/.362/.484 line with 36 homers in 1081 PAs, while Mauer has produced a slightly lesser .308/.397/.419 line and only 13 long balls in 974 PAs.  Mauer did miss about half the 2011 season due to injury but even still, it's stunning that Molina is now producing as much value with his bat as he is with his league-best glove.

While most point to Target Field as the reason for Mauer's power "outage," his home/away power numbers are quite similar since the Twins moved to Target before the 2010 campaign.  It's far more likely that Mauer's 28-homer outburst in 2009 was the real outlier, given that he hasn't hit more than 13 bombs in any other season, and has only reached double digits in home runs three times in nine seasons.  What Mauer is now is likely what he'll be for the remainder of his prime, a consistent threat to post .400+ OBPs and batting averages in the .300-.325 range.  If you have a catcher who can do that, then a lack of power is not a big deal.

So Mauer brings consistency to the table and he's also predictable in the sense that he was supposed to do this; he's a former #1 overall pick, of course.  As long as Mauer stays healthy, you know what you'll be getting from Kevin Butler's nemesis.  When it comes to making a high pick at catcher, that predictability is welcome, since when you have a high-drafted catcher struggle, then you have to dive into the muck that is the catcher waiver wire.

With Molina, then, the question is why did he suddenly learn how to hit over the last two years and can he keep it up? If he can, then he's an overall better fantasy choice than Mr. Well Played.  Molina's 2011-12 peripheral numbers are very similar to his numbers earlier in his career with one simple exception --- he is just hitting more balls in the air and hitting them harder, as evidenced by his career-best 24.8% line drive percentage in 2012 and fly-ball percentages of over 35% in each of the last two seasons.  By that token, if Molina's power suddenly vanishes or just gets muted, his value drops significantly, though there's no evidence to suggest this will happen.  Molina may not hit 22 homers again but I highly doubt he'll suddenly swing back into the single-digits.

I mentioned Mauer's health earlier but it probably deserves more focus.  Mauer, of course, was hampered by "bilateral leg weakness" in 2011 and it seems just a matter of time before the Twins move Mauer out from behind the plate for good, though that's still at least a few more seasons away from happening.  Molina, by contrast, hasn't been on the disabled list since 2007 and has been solidly durable despite not having the luxury of a DH rest day in the National League.

All things being equal, however, and if both men stay on the field for all of 2013, I'd slightly favor Molina as the pick in a standard 5x5 league and Mauer if your league has a 6x6 or 7x7 format that includes OBP.  Going by the standard 5x5 statistics, Molina has a clear edge in homers, Mauer the clear edge in runs scored and both are even in steals.  Mauer has traditionally held the edge in batting average in his career, though over the last two seasons Molina has drawn to within a few percentage points, so that category is basically a wash too.  So it comes down to RBIs, and while Mauer has traditionally driven in more runs than Molina, you wonder if this will change in 2013 given that the Cardinals' lineup is as strong as ever and the Twins are already without Denard Span and perhaps could be without Justin Morneau and/or Josh Willingham before the trade deadline.  This lackluster Minnesota lineup, however, could also add to Mauer's value if your league counts walks or OBP.  Mauer collected a career-best 90 free passes last season and now opposing pitchers may have even less reason to pitch to him if Willingham or Morneau leave town. 

Mauer's edge in walks is so large over Molina (though a .373 OBP is still terrific) that the Twins backstop becomes the pick if you're in a 6x6 or 7x7 league.  It's just a good general rule of fantasy that you draft according to your league setup --- you're trying to win YOUR league, not just draft in a vacuum and win a theoretical game of "who is the better player."  To wit, I'm in a league that tracks pitcher complete games, which is why Roy Halladay has been the easy choice as the first pitcher taken for the last several years, including one season when Halladay actually went first overall in the entire draft.  So, our first draft battle really has two results depending on the parameters of the battlefield, but if you play by old-school fantasy rules, Molina's newfound power gives him the edge.

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