Go Bold or Go Home


Go Bold or Go Home: Ben Zobrist Is a Top-30 Fantasy Pick

You may have read about the ongoing campaign to have a Robocop statue built in downtown Detroit, a project I fully support, by the way.  More cities totally need to build tributes to their pop culture icons; there is no good reason why we couldn't have a bronze Heisenberg erected in downtown Albuquerque by the end of the year.  Besides, a Robocop statue would be a nice companion piece to the Zobocop statue that fantasy owners built in 2012 in honor of Ben Zobrist's three-position eligibility.

Ah, Zobrist as a shortstop.  Just remembering that wonderful day last summer when the Rays experimented with moving the Rock Zobster back to short brings a smile to my face.  Zobrist began his career as a shortstop, of course, and took to the position again with little issue, making Joe Maddon a hero to fantasy owners everywhere. 

Now, I may be praising this situation because it specifically helped me out of a fix in a league last year, but I couldn't have been the only one.  I'd drafted Troy Tulowitzki as my starting shortstop and watched in horror as his season was halted at the end of May.  That left me with a big hole at SS and given that Yunel Escobar (my backup) was also struggling and the middle infield waiver wire was as barren as ever, I was in a tight spot...until Zobrist began getting starts at short.  Zobrist owners the world over joyously counted down the days until he officially gained eligibility and then, my shortstop problem was solved; I just slid Sheriff Zobo from outfield to short and boom, I was set. 

There's nothing that fantasy owners appreciate more than options.  We all love to embrace our inner Joe Maddon and mix and match our lineups whenever possible since (let's be honest) it's kind of an ego boost.  This is why, with apologies to Jose Oquendo, Zobrist became the Secret Weapon of the 2012 fantasy baseball season.  His dual eligibility as both an outfielder and a second baseman was already valuable, and adding shortstop to the mix just shot his usefulness through the roof.

It's for this reason that I would jump on Zobrist as quickly as possible in your upcoming draft.  It blows my mind that the Mask of Zobo only has a 72.23 ADP in Mock Draft Central's most recent average draft position report and is, on average, the 68th player taken.  That means in your standard 12-team league, Zobrist is still available by the sixth round, making him an incredible bargain at that stage of the game. 

If you're in a league with no bench spots on your roster, I'd argue that Zobrist could be a second-round pick given that his versatility will allow you some precious flexibility in a roster setup that specifically limits flexibility.  Even in a standard 5x5 league with bench spots, however, I'd say that Zobrist should go no lower than the third round based on sheer production alone.

While everyone was fixated on the "SS" designation next to his name last season, let's not overlook the fact that Zobrist hit .270/.377/.471 with 20 homers, 74 RBI, 88 runs and 14 steals.  That's a good season no matter where you play on the field, but it's particularly valuable at the middle infield spots.  Zobrist's .848 OPS was topped by only two second basemen (Robinson Cano and Aaron Hill) and exactly ZERO shortstops; Ian Desmond came closest at .845.  Even at the deeper outfield position, only thirteen outfielders posted higher OPS marks than Zobrist in 2012.

The warning signs on Zobrist are his age (he turns 32 in May) and the fact that he has been having greater difficulty hitting at Tropicana Field in recent years, as evidenced by his large home/road splits (.916 OPS away/.773 home in 2012, .897 away/.738 home in 2011).  That said, I'll worry about a decline when I start to actually see signs, and to me, Leelee Zobieski seems like a pretty safe bet to at least replicate his 2012 numbers in 2013. 

That alone would make him arguably the top fantasy shortstop given how many question marks surround the other top-rated SS candidates, though I suspect the continually-improving Desmond and a healthy Tulowitzki will be at the top of the heap come season's end.  Amongst the top second basemen, I'd put Zobrist behind only Cano and Hill, as I agree with Alex Steers McCrum's evaluation of Hill and I've already outlined some of the concerns facing other highly-drafted second basemen.

Taking Zobrist early means you can essentially cover two of the traditionally-shallowest positions right off the bat and then focus on middle infield help later if one of your sleepers is still around in the ninth or tenth round.  Like real-life general managers, your draft strategy can become "picking the best player available" without worrying too much about position since you've already got the Swiss Army Zobrist on your roster.  Given the volatility of those middle infield spots, Zobrist can also be shifted partway through the season if that sleeper you liked in your draft never actually wakes up during the season.

It's just simple fantasy logic that a player who can play three positions is more valuable than a player who can play only one, if everything else is equal.  Dustin Pedroia may hit as well as Zobrist in 2013 or even better but I'll still take Zobrist first since Zobo The Greek has more innate value within the actual game of fantasy baseball.  His versatility can help you as much as it helps the Rays in real life, so don't hesitate to jump on Zobrist early in your draft.  If my advice pays off, you can build a statue in my honor.



Go Bold or Go Home: Aaron Hill is the 2B for You

There aren't too many good second sackers around these days--not that there ever were. So why can you get one of the best ones in the sixth round? Well, if you're drafting against me, you probably can't.

Going into last year, Aaron Hill was persona non grata, after a lost 2011 split between Toronto and Arizona. Even his desert resurgence wasn't enough to pique my interest...and then 2012 happened. Here's what his stats looked like:

.302/.360/.522, 26 HR, 44 2B, 14 SB

Not too shabby. Now, I wouldn't take him over Robinson Cano (duh), but here are the numbers of the other three second basemen that I listed above Hill on our Second Base Rankings.

Dustin Pedroia: .290/.347/.449, 15 HR, 39 2B, 20 SB

Ian Kinsler: .256/.326/.423, 19 HR, 42 2B, 21 SB

Ben Zobrist: .270/.377/.471, 20 HR, 39 2B, 14 SB

It's obvious enough that Hill had the best 2012 by far, but we aren't drafting for last year. What can we expect for next year? Here are their Steamer projections for next year (courtesy of Fangraphs.com):

Hill: .268/.327/.442, 20 HR, 33 2B, 10 SB

Pedroia: .290/.364/.454, 17 HR, 39 2B, 20 SB

Kinsler: .264/.347/.444, 21 HR, 36 2B, 17 SB

Zobrist: .262/.363/.439, 19 HR, 35 2B, 11 SB

Honestly, none of these are the most amazing of projections, but how different does Hill look from the others? Not very, though Pedroia does stand apart a little, and Zobrist's ability to play shortstop and outfield gives him extra value. Hill comes out resembling Kinsler the most, though there reasons to worry about Kinsler going forward. Even if Hill is fifth-best among this group, is he three rounds worse? More like three picks worse, at the most.

So why am I so excited about Hill? Well, it's because I think there's a great chance that he beats that projection, and more reason to be optimistic about him than any of his immediate competitors.

Remember that lost 2011 season? I don't know what happened that season, beyond a plummeting HR/FB rate, but when I look at his recent seasons it's that bad one that stands out. I know what you're thinking: what about that horrible 2010, when he hit just .205? That was pretty bad, wasn't it? Let's see you try to hit for average with a .196 BABIP and a LD% that dropped by nearly half. What he did manage to do was launch 26 homers. For all I know, his 2011 woes came from trying to fix a 2010 that wasn't broken. Even if they didn't, whatever caused that lost season is long over--except in the eyes of a computer-generated projection system.

Discounting that year, Hill has hit 26 homers or more in three of the last four seasons and has hit for a helpful average in two of them. If 2010 was the result of bad luck, and 2011 the result of...something that ended with Hill's trade to Arizona, then the years worth remembering are his excellent 2012 and his even better 2009, when he hit 36 homers and topped 100 in Runs and RBI. The fact that he's shown this kind of excellence before reassures me that last year wasn't a fluke. It might be over his true talent level, but maybe not by as much as mock drafters and projection systems think.

Playing in Arizona, he'll get home park benefits that were sixth in baseball for runs and homers last year, and he should be planted firmly into a solid situation for counting stats, with Paul Goldschmidt, Martin Prado, and whichever outfielders happen to be on the lineup card that day. While the other top second-sackers have good hitting environments and supporting casts (not counting Zobrist, but you wanted him at short anyway), they don't have a big advantage on Hill in that department.

Hill is far above the players in tiers below him--including Jason Kipnis, who's getting drafted 24 picks ahead of him, and Brandon Phillips, who comes just one pick later. After that, you run into Jose Altuve, Danny Espinosa, and Rickie Weeks and you know you're in trouble. With an ADP of 74.75, it seems like a pretty big reach to go for Hill as early as the fourth round, but I can easily see you getting a bargain there. Projection systems have him looking very similar to the hitters getting drafted in that range, and they might just be unduly pessimistic about him.

The more I've thought about it, the more I've come to realize that I'd probably rather take the chance that he reaches his upside over any of the more conventional choices in his tier. There's a very good chance that he finishes 2013 second at his position only to Robinson Cano. Just like last year.



Go Bold or Go Home: Max Scherzer is a Top 10 Starter

Raise your hand if you've said it before: "This is the year Max Scherzer puts it all together." That should cover just about everyone, right? Well don't worry, I'm not going to make that claim in this post. Because Scherzer has already put it all together, the face value numbers just didn't reflect that last season. But they will this year.

Scherzer led baseball in K% (29.4), K/9 (11.08) and SIERA (2.99) last season. He finished 10th in FIP (3.27), 11th in K/BB (3.85), and his average fastball velocity (94.2 mph) trailed only David Price, Jeff Samardzija, Justin Verlander and Matt Moore. Scherzer's 12.2 percent swinging-strike rate tied him for second in the Majors behind only Cole Hamels (12.9 percent). His contact rate on out-of-zone pitches and strikes were both roughly seven percent better than the league average.

Scherzer confounded hitters across the board, but his overall numbers were shrouded by a slow start and a pair of minor maladies that limited him to 187 2/3 innings. Those maladies include hamstring tightness leading up to the All-Star break and shoulder fatigue that caused his velocity to drop into the low 90s in his final three starts. The velocity drop sounds troubling, but Scherzer's velocity has performed similarly in the past without leading to major injury, mitigating the need for major concern. There's also the fact that in those three starts, he allowed four runs in 11 innings with 11 strikeouts. It's not as if when the velocity faded, Scherzer was torched by the opposition.

 Beyond that, there's the matter of Scherzer's defense. Yes, his infield defense will likely be horrid. Again. However, Scherzer is an extreme flyball pitcher. Detroit's primary right fielder last season was Brennan Boesch, who by all measures was a defensive travesty. Boesch was worth -8 runs according to The Fielding Bible and posted an even more unsightly -18.2 UZR/150. Detroit right fielders as a whole posted marks of -17 and -17.5 in those categories, respectively.

Boesch will be replaced by Torii Hunter. At 37 years of age, Hunter is clearly no longer the standout center fielder he was in his early years with Minnesota. However, advanced defensive metrics still love Hunter's glove in right field. The Fielding Bible rated Hunter at +15 runs, and UZR/150 agreed by doling out a generous +13.0 runs to Hunter's right field defense. If those numbers hold true, that's at least a 30-run swing for the Tigers in right field alone. Scherzer threw roughly 13 percent of Detroit's innings last season. Assuming a 30-run uptick in right field defense, Scherzer could expect to shave four runs off his ERA. That alone would have dropped his total to 3.54 instead of 3.74.

In left field, Tigers hurlers were unfairly subjected to 226 innings of Delmon Young "playing defense" -- which can be more accurately described as "breathing and occupying space while adding the occasional 360 for dramatic effect." Andy Dirks graded out well according to The Fielding Bible (+3 runs in 464 innings) but not so much according to UZR/150 (-13 runs). Either way, he's a marked upgrade over Young. If he's considered to be even a league-average glove in left field, Dirks will combine with a strong center fielder (Austin Jackson) and an elite defender in right (Hunter) to provide plenty of cushion for Scherzer's 41.5 percent flyball rate -- which ranked tenth among qualified starting pitchers.

Scherzer is currently going as the 21st starting pitcher off the board -- good for an average draft position of 102, per Mock Draft Central. A look at the pitchers separating him from the Top 10, however, reveals a host of red flags. Names like Jered Weaver (declining velocity/whiffs), Yu Darvish (awful command), Madison Bumgarner (brutal second half), Kris Medlen (no track record), R.A. Dickey (short track record, move to AL East), Roy Halladay (injuries) and Chris Sale (velocity drop, lack of track record) are all going ahead of Scherzer, but is that the right call?

Scherzer is a guaranteed strikeout monster. He's whiffed 9.3 hitters per nine innings in his career and is coming off of a ridiculous 11.1 K/9 in 2012. He plays in a fairly weak division (despite improvements to the Indians) with a potent offense behind him that should lead to plenty of wins. He's walked just 2.7 hitters per nine innings over the past two seasons, which should result in a solid WHIP if his BABIP regresses from last year's .333 toward his career .312.

Scherzer flashed the type of dominance of which he's capable from May 20 through season's end in 2013 by posting a 3.02 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 14 wins and 183 strikeouts in 146 innings. If he can shake the early-season doldrums that have plagued him throughout his career, he has all of the tools to be one of the game's best starters. That may be easier in 2013 than most seasons, as the Tigers have seven games against Houston, three against Seattle and ten against Minnesota in the season's first two months. As a whole, Scherzer's early schedule doesn't look terribly intimidating.

Perhaps the biggest mark against Scherzer is that he's never topped 200 innings in a Major League season, but he'd have pushed to do so had he remained healthy in the final weeks of 2012. He's averaged 193 frames over the past three seasons, and there's little reason to expect a drop-off in 2013. Rather, a step forward is more likely if he can get a strong start out of the gates.

Peripheral stats love Scherzer, and given the questions surrounding the second tier of starting pitchers, it's fair to say that the 28-year-old has a legitimate chance to soar through fantasy baseball's pitcher rankings this season. His 4.6 fWAR already ranked 14th among qualified starters, and given expected regression due to age or lack of stuff from some players ahead of him, everyone's favorite case of heterochromia iridum will finish the season among the ten best arms in fantasy baseball.



Go Bold or Go Home: Draft Adam Dunn Over Paul Konerko

By every significant metric, Paul Konerko had a better 2012 season than Adam Dunn.  Though Dunn enjoyed a big comeback from his legendarily disastrous 2011 campaign, Konerko was clearly the superior overall hitter.  As such, I expected that Konerko would probably be a higher choice on most 2013 draft boards but all things considered, both players fall within my general grouping of "second-tier first basemen."  If you adopt the strategy of drafting the harder-to-fill infield positions first, then Dunn and Konerko are the type of guys you turn to by the 9th or 10th round to fill your 1B or utility spot.

I was surprised, then, to learn that early drafters didn't only have Konerko going earlier than Dunn, but going WAY earlier.  According to Mock Draft Central's latest average position ranking, Konerko is the 12th-ranked 1B-eligible player, with an average draft position of 80.48 (77th overall).  Dunn, if you can believe it, was the 21st-ranked 1B-eligible player, with an ADP of only 193.55 (188th overall).  Sixteen percent of drafters didn't take Dunn at all, if you can believe it.

Granted, ADP isn't foolproof this early in the fantasy drafting season.  For example, Corey Hart is three spots ahead of Dunn, but that will obviously change given that he'll be on the DL until May.  That said, I'm stunned that Dunn was given so little credit by Mock Draft Central's early birds.  The two players immediately following Dunn are the tantalizing-but-unproven Eric Hosmer and the human decline phase known as Ryan Howard.  At the risk of sounding like an old-school sportswriter that lives and dies by counting stats....you're taking these guys over a player who hit 41 home runs last year?

Not only do I think this gap between Konerko and Dunn should be much smaller, I think it shouldn't exist at all.  If you have to draft just one White Sox first base-eligible player this spring, make it the Big Donkey.  Here are a few reasons why...

* More 5x5 Value.  I noted earlier that Konerko beat Dunn in "every significant metric" in 2012, yet that wasn't exactly true.  While Konerko provided more offensive value in real life, Dunn outpaced Konerko in the stats you actually use in your fantasy league.  Konerko's .298 average swamped Dunn's .204 mark, but Dunn hit more homers (41 to 25), drove in more runs (96 to 75), scored more runs (87 to 66) and even stole more bases, albeit by a negligible 2-0 margin.  Since many leagues use walks as a sixth category, that's another big win for Dunn, as he received 105 free passes to Konerko's 56.

It's easy to be critical of Dunn's traditionally low batting averages but beating Konerko is four out of five categories (or five out of six) is hard to ignore.  Dunn had a .246 BABIP in 2012 and a .240 BABIP in 2011, so perhaps he's also due for a bit of a turn-around in actual average.  If he can hit close to the .250 career average that he owned between 2001-2010, then Dunn's value will rise even more.

This is twice now that I've cited counting stats in my pro-Dunn argument.  Geez, I feel like the Fire Joe Morgan guys should tear this column apart.

* Consistency.  You might think this sounds odd given that Dunn is just a year removed from one of the most famous sudden declines in baseball history, while Konerko has been the model of consistency even in his mid-30's, averaging a .304/.384/.530 line over his last three seasons, a.k.a. his age 34-36 seasons.  Let's not forget, however, that Dunn's collapse in 2011 was so shocking simply because Dunn had been so money-in-the-bank for the previous 10 years.  The fact that Dunn rebounded in 2012 makes his 2011 performance all the more bizarre since now it might have been just a blip on the screen, rather than the first sign of a decline.  It's like Wile E. Coyote fell off the cliff, hit the canyon floor and then just bounced up back to the road and chased the Roadrunner again like nothing had happened.  While it's fair to say that Dunn isn't quite all the way back (his .800 OPS in 2012 is the second-lowest of his MLB career), I'm willing to write off his 2011 as just an aberration. 

So if Dunn is consistent again, does that necessarily make him more consistent than the reliable Konerko?  Maybe.  It's interesting to note that both players' 2012 seasons were largely built from their performances in April and May.  Konerko held a 1.097 OPS through his first 51 games and a .258/.329/.409 line in his remaining 96 games, while Dunn had a .950 OPS throgh his first 52 games and then hit .190/.307/.416 over his last 99 games.  That's a big drop for both guys, but Dunn's decline be partially explained by his low BABIP, while Konerko's BABIP was a healthy .312.

* Age.  Using BABIP numbers to excuse one second half slide and raise eyebrows at another might not be much, but when you're dealing with a first baseman who's going into his age-37 season, any sign of decline is a red flag.  Konerko himself recently admitted that his 2012 season "was kind of one of those years where it was smoke and mirrors for most of it," which could be modesty or competitiveness talking, but it could also be an athlete being frank about coming close to the end of his career.  Dunn is no spring chicken himself, but ironically, his bounce-back in his age-32 season somewhat mirrors how Konerko rebounded at age 33, hitting well in 2009 after a disappointing 2008 campaign.  You're rolling the dice on any first baseman (and really, any player) once they pass 32, so you might as well go with the younger option.

Konerko might've had the better season, but his slight dip in form was a warning while Dunn's return to form was a relief.  I think we can count on at least a couple more three-true-outcomes seasons from Dunn while Konerko's 2012 was just troubling enough that a sudden decline wouldn't be a surprise.  If you do find yourself looking for a safe 1B pick in the 9th or 10th round of your draft, I would pick Dunn, since I think you'll know what you're getting.  With Konerko, I'm just not sure. 



Go Bold or Go Home: Go Old in the Outfield

"Be afraid of the old, they'll inherit your souls." --Regina Spektor, Apres Moi

Fear drives so many human decisions, fantasy baseball and otherwise, and drafting outfielders is no exception. Every player carries a certain amount of risk, few moreso than the youngest and oldest players. A rookie might not pan out; a veteran might finally slip past the even horizon of age and see his production crumble into dust. Not every player can be in his prime, and those players get distributed pretty close to evenly. Leagues are won and lost on risky choices.

Fantasy managers aren't exactly out to simply mitigate risk, though--the timid win few championships, after all. That's probably why we see players like Bryce Harper and Justin Upton going in the second round: age is on their side and the real risks they represent can be glossed over in the sensible hope that they'll follow predictable growth curves and improve or rebound, as the case may be. There's another phenomenon at work though, and that's the desire in all of us to show off what we know, to be the first one to call out that prospect's name, to stake our league-wide reputation on the Brett Lawries and the Eric Hosmers of the world and say forevermore, "I had him when...."

Personally, I still remember calling out Tim Lincecum's name in 2007, to a chorus of "Who? How do you spell that?" It's a good memory, but it's not one I'm looking to repeat. I got pretty lucky, and I spent a couple months playing a man down.

If fantasy managers were totally rational actors, maybe this sort of thing wouldn't happen. Maybe the risks of exciting new prospects and (proverbially) fair-haired twenty-somethings would be weighted properly against the hoary, graying veterans we've known for years. In short--there's value missing, and several older (not even that old!) outfielders have ADP's well below where they probably should.

Matt Holliday ADP: 56.96 (4th round), 19th OF

Holliday started out cold, but turned around quickly with a blistering May-July. He faded again down the stretch, and had what amounts to half a great season, and half a fairly disappointing one. The results still gave us 27 HRs, a .295 average, 95 Runs, and 102 RBI's--good for 5.1 WAR, if that's how you roll. He's only 33, so he's not exactly Jamie Moyer, and the wheels don't exactly seem to be falling off. He was a second or third rounder last year, and I don't see why he should be relegated to the end of the 4th round. He had a better season than plenty of outfielders ahead of him on the draft boards--grab him over Yoenis Cespedes, Melky Cabrera, Jay Bruce, B.J. Upton, Harper, Upton (yeah, him too), Jason Heyward, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Josh Hamilton. Or, at least think about it, because his performance puts him right with the best of those guys.

Carlos Beltran ADP 110.17 (9th round), 31st OF

There's a big jump between Holliday and Beltran, and it's one I understand to a certain extent. Beltran's never been the healthiest of guys, even at his best. He isn't the speed demon he once was, either, but he can still hit. Last year was his healthiest in a long time and anyone who drafted him loved his 32 HRs. His overall numbers are buoyed by his torrid May, and he faded pretty hard in July and August, batting near the Mendoza Line, so I'm not recommending you draft the 36-year-old as your first OF. But he's going after most teams have their third OF, and his upside is still worth more than that. Consider drafting him over PED-implicated Nelson Cruz, BABIP superstar Torii Hunter, mercurial Alex Rios, and probably Austin Jackson and Mark Trumbo too. That puts him somewhere more like the 6th or 7th round, which seems a little more fair.

 Nick Swisher ADP 130.27 (10th round), 40th OF

Swisher is getting almost-old, though he won't turn 33 until after the season, and it seems like he's been around forever. Except for a terrible batting average in 2008, he's been a seriously consistent producer of around 25 HRs with a decent-ish average and the runs and RBI's that go with that sort of player. He's the opposite of a risky pick, though the move to Cleveland won't do wonders to those team-dependent stats. For me, Swisher represents the ideal third OF on my team--he doesn't hurt me anywhere and he hits a few homers. Consider drafting him a little higher, ahead of Ben Revere, Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Martin Prado, Alejandro De Aza, Norichika Aoki, and Mike Morse. So, basically where Beltran is getting drafted now--a round early but ahead of several outfielders.

 Alfonso Soriano ADP 186.46 (15th round), 48th OF

Poor Soriano has had the misfortune of signing a huge contract that has weighed his Cubbies down like a nine-figure anchor for as long as anyone can remember. Not only that, his days of challenging the 40/40 club are long past and basically, everyone hates him now. At least money buys happiness. By the way, your draft pick can buy a player who hasn't exactly been consistent for the past few years, but he has had his uses. His 32 HRs of 2012 probably won't return (but we didn't think they'd show up in the first place), but something near 25 seems likely. He won't be helping your average, and his teammates probably won't be scoring constantly, but he's a respect-worthy power hitter being drafted really low. In fact, as the 48th OF, he's the last 4th OF to go--a bench player in some leagues. If your OF goes to five, though, than you can appreciate Sori's value. Grab him if you need some extra power over Aoki, Morse, De Aza, and Revere.

Ichiro Suzuki  ADP 201.26 (16th round), 57th OF

Ichiro isn't one of the game's top outfielders, that much is certain. In fact, he looked all but dead in the water until an apparently-revitalizing trade to the Yankees last summer. I'm not going to bore you with splits you can look up on your own, but he was a lot better. Enough to give us good reason to think he's got something left in that tank. With a low pick, he's a lot more reward than risk, since outfielders who steal bases and don't hurt your average don't grow on trees. You can't count on him to carry you in those categories anymore, but then, you don't have to make him your top OF anymore either. Take him over fellow speedsters Brett Gardner, Juan Pierre, Carlos Gomez,  Revere, and the unproven Starling Marte.

Cody Ross ADP 261.60 (21st round), 77th OF

The D-backs traded away an early second-r0under to make room for Cody Ross, and while that might make them sound crazy, it also makes Ross sound pretty good. He missed some time with injury, but ultimately put together a pretty useful season for Boston. Now, he'll be moving to the weaker league, to another hitters' park, and to a team that went way out of their way to acquire him. To me, this sounds like a great situation. I'd draft him where Ichiro and Soriano are getting drafted, and I'd expect to get the value side of the deal. Take him over Lucas Duda, Delmon Young, Chris Young, Denard Span, Logan Morrison, Tyler Colvin, Michael Brantley, Michael Saunders and plenty of other guys.

With the exception of Ichiro, these aging outfielders are all power hitters, most from the mistily remembered days of the early 2000's. Power was the game then, so it's no wonder that these guys still bring the homers, even though their best seasons are behind them. Go grab some young players if you want, but these six make a pretty good and very affordable outfield all by themselves.



Go Bold or Go Home: Draft Marco Estrada--Or Else

A part of me didn't want to write this article. Not because I don't believe in Marco Estrada, just the opposite. It's because I play against my own father in two leagues, and I know he reads this site. So go ahead dad, steal him from me, for the good of the readers.

Why am I so excited about Estrada? Is it because I have an unnatural appreciation for Brewers pitchers who pitch less than a full season? To be fair, I do like his rotation-mates Mike Fiers and Mark Rogers--and I'm willing to think about Wily Peralta and Chris Narveson. But Estrada is better than those guys, and he's better than literally most of the pitchers getting drafted ahead of him. Check out his stats from last year (forgetting his meaningless W-L record): 

23 GS, 138.1 IP, 143 SO, 3.64 ERA, 3.35 FIP, 1.14 WHIP

All of that is nice stuff in low innings, especially those whiffs; they translate to a nifty 9.30 K/9. For all those strikeouts, the righty doesn't cook with as much gas as you might think; his fastball averages just over 90mph. It's hard to care so much, though, when you see his control: he posted a sterling 1.89 BB/9, or just 29 walks all season.

That brings us to his best attribute: that ratio of strikeouts to walks. Lots of strikeouts is a great recipe for success. Very few walks is too. Combining them makes you very hard to beat. Estrada does it with an eye-opening 4.93 K/BB rate. Take a second look: 4.93. For pitches with 100 IP or more, only Cliff Lee, Colby Lewis, and Kris Medlen were better--and Estrada gets the most strikeouts of the bunch. Actually, of all nine pitchers with at least 100 IP and a K/BB of 4.00 or better, only Stephen Strasburg had a higher K/9.

This is a very impressive stat, and all the more so since past K/BB is such a good predictor of future overall performance (except in the case of Joe Blanton, but they can't all be winners). A bit of anecdotal evidence: I remember in 2004 when this pitcher came out of a tortured injury history to post a 4.00 K/9 and a 1.88 BB/9. Those numbers popped out then as much as they do now, so I drafted him. He turned out to be Chris Carpenter, and the next year he made his place among baseball's top pitchers. I'm not saying I'm sure Estrada will do the same, but I am saying I wouldn't be surprised if he did.

Maybe he'll make the jump to ace next year and maybe he won't. He isn't terribly young (age 30 season coming up), but all he has to do is stay the same for 180 IP or so and he'll be extremely valuable. Especially at his current Average Draft Position.

Mock drafters are nabbing him in only 36.1% of drafts, at 226.4--that places him near the end of the 18th round. The highest he's been drafted at all is at 192--leading off the 16th. I'd happily grab him several rounds higher. Consider some of the pitchers being drafted ahead of him: A.J. Griffin, Ricky Romero, Phil Hughes, Trever Bauer, James McDonald, Jeremy Hellickson, Trevor Cahill, lesser-but-still-good-teammate Mike Fiers, maybe-relieving Alexi Ogando, probably-starting-in-the-minors Dylan Bundy, half a season of Brandon Beachy, and the duct-taped together Scott Baker. There are more, but you get the idea. A lot of those pitchers are higher risk or lower reward than Estrada. Actually, most are both and I'd happily take Estrada over any of them.

Estrada's ADP makes him the 71st pitcher taken and I have to scroll way up the list before I get to a place where I'd rather have most--still not all--of the pitchers being taken over him. It's probably somewhere around the 40th pitcher taken. There are still some before that point that I wouldn't draft, and a few behind it that I'd take over Estrada, but that's about where the quality starts going up. Pitcher number 40 happens to be Tim Lincecum at the moment, an enigma of his own. Overall, that gives him an ADP of 148.32--good for a spot in the 12th round. Adding a round to account for the fact that I think I can get a good deal, that means I'm targeting Marco Estrada in the 13th. And if his ADP goes up, I might be jumping on him even earlier.

There are reasons to doubt, I suppose. Most importantly, Estrada's low innings total was the highest of his career, so one worries how things will go when stretched over a full season. But if it weren't for those worries, you wouldn't be able to get Estrada in the 13th round, let alone the 18th. You'd be drafting him in the fourth of fifth.

There aren't many lists in fantasy baseball more different than the pitchers that show up around Estrada when you search him by K/BB--Lee, Medlen, CC Sabathia, R.A. Dickey, Cole Hamels--and those that you can find when searching him by ADP--Romero, Griffin, Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson, Josh Beckett, and even Carpenter, in a cruel irony. His performance puts him with elite pitchers, his price tag with innings-eaters and retreads. That's what I call a bargain.

 I wanted to make a list of other targets similar to Estrada, but there really aren't any. His K/BB is far ahead of others who have good ones. His K/9 is far better than most other pitchers with his kind of control. So get him on your team. Whatever he costs, I'll bet you he's a bargain.



Go Bold Or Go Home: Don't Draft Josh Hamilton

Since outfield is traditionally the deepest fantasy position, there are a number of different strategies you can take in your draft in regards to filling your outfield.  Some managers choose to fill their thinner positions early and not draft any outfielders whatsoever until after the 10th round; others take advantage of managers who use the first tactic and load up on the elite outfielders early; yet others take one elite guy in the first round or two as their 'cornerstone' outfielder and then wait until later, confident that they have at least one top outfielder already in the fold.

If you're employing either of these last two strategies, then my message is especially important --- stay away from Josh Hamilton.  If you're counting on him as a cornerstone that allows you to take risks and experiments with your other OF spots, it will backfire since Hamilton himself is a big risk.  If you're going to take Hamilton as one of several elite OFs early, it's a waste of an early draft pick. 

Why am I so down on Hamilton?  After all, on paper he's the third-best outfielder available in fantasy, after Ryan Braun and Mike Trout and at least tied with Matt Kemp and Andrew McCutchen.  Hamilton is moving into a loaded Angels lineup that includes Trout, Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo and Howie Kendrick, so he'll have every opportunity to see good pitches and drive in runs.

All that said, if Hamilton comes in your draft queue early, I suggest you take a pass.  And, if you have Hamilton in a keeper league I'd suggest selling high on him right now.  I'm not saying Hamilton will completely nosedive a la Adam Dunn in 2011, but there is evidence to suggest that Hamilton's downhill slide could come sooner rather than later...

* Age.  Hamilton turns 32 in May and you don't need me to tell you how common it is for players (even elite talents) to fall off a cliff as they get deeper into their 30's.  The argument has been made that Hamilton is a "young 31" given how his career started late due to his substance abuse issues, and Hamilton is coming off a season in which he had 636 PAs and appeared in 148 games.  During the previous three seasons, however, Hamilton spent significant time on the DL.  Every passing year leads to a bit less confidence that a player can keep up his performance, and I simply think that an early fantasy pick would be better used on a player already in his prime or just entering it, rather than a player whose prime is, theoretically, already over.

* Off-the-field concerns.  It's the elephant in the room when it comes to Hamilton and it can't be ignored entirely, though I hesitate to bring it up since a man's life shouldn't be fodder for a fantasy column.  Hamilton unquestionably has baggage but it isn't damning baggage --- it's not like Miguel Cabrera is seen as any less valuable due to his battles with alcohol or (to cite a different kind of drug) it's not like Braun is any less of a frontline fantasy pick due to his connection to PEDs.  We saw last season how Hamilton's difficulties with a comparatively low-level addiction can impact his play, as his slump through June and July (a .202/.288/.399 line over 47 games) was largely attributed to Hamilton trying to quit chewing tobacco during that same period.

* Swings and misses.  Hamilton struck out in 25.5% of his at-bats last season, a heavy increase over his previous career high of a 21.6% K-rate in 2009.  This spike was due to Hamilton becoming increasingly susceptible to pitches thrown outside the strike zone, particularly sliders and curveballs.  As noted by Pedro Moura in that first linked article, what makes Hamilton's strikeout rate so problematic is that he doesn't take enough walks to compensate.  If he can't walk and is prone to striking out, Hamilton becomes over-reliant on his power, which brings us to....

* Park effects.  Like most batters, Hamilton loves Rangers Ballpark, boasting a massive .965 OPS over 1439 career PAs in Arlington.  He'll lose that homefield advantage in 2013, however, as he moves from one of baseball's most homer-friendly parks to one of its least-accommodating for sluggers.  (Hamilton has a .765 career OPS over 166 PAs at Angel Stadium, but that's far too small a sample size to use as a predictor of what Hamilton will hit next year.)  We just need to look at Pujols last year to see how it can take even the best of hitters time to adjust to The Big A, though in fairness, Pujols recovered pretty nicely over the last four months of the season and Hamilton has much more experience hitting in Anaheim than Pujols did.  I'd be stunned, however, to see Hamilton post another 43-homer season in that stadium; he may be hard-pressed to even crack the 30-homer plateau as many of Hamilton's big fly balls will turn into long outs in the Pacific air.

The Halos looked at Hamilton and saw red flags --- literally, as in pennants flying in the outfield at Angel Stadium.  I look at Hamilton and see red flags in the colloquial sense, and I wouldn't spent $12.50 on him in a fantasy auction, let alone $125MM in real-world money.  There are just simply safer, more predictable and very likely better choices out there for your fantasy outfield.  While Hamilton may post a month or two that makes you regret passing on him, his final 2013 numbers will make you happy you didn't spend a first- or second-round draft choice on what I think will be an increasingly flawed player.



Go Bold or Go Home: Stephen Strasburg is the New Pedro Martinez

Stephen Strasburg is the new Pedro? What do I mean by that? Simply this: back in the day, Pedro was worth a first round pick, sometimes the first pick, and no other pitcher was all that close. I'm talking about Pedro before he threw Don Zimmer to the ground by the head, before he headhunted unsuspecting Devil Rays. I'm talking 1999-2001 Pedro, that's who Strasburg can be. Don't let him slip through your fingers in the first round, and whatever you do, don't waste a pick on some other pitcher instead.

As far as I can guess, there are three possible responses to this idea, and I'll deal with each one in turn.

1. Duh.
Fair enough, you're already on the Strasburg bandwagon. Go win your league. Better yet, finish reading this article just to be more sure.

2. But pitchers NEVER belong in the first round!
Never is such a scary word to throw around, but usually I agree with this idea. Whenever someone in my league nabs a starter in the first round, I always get excited, thinking they've wasted their pick. There are a couple reasons for this to usually be true, but they don't hold water this year.

The biggest reason is that pitchers are risky, moreso than position players and thus should not be given a first round pick. The problem with that this year is that there are an unusually rare amount of risky players on the first-rounder suspect list. Players like Matt Kemp (ADP 4.43) and Joey Votto (8.60) who missed significant portions of last season are there, not to mention garden variety injury risks like Carlos Gonzalez (9.75). On top of that, players like Justin Upton (15.07) and Adrian Gonzalez (32.16) who we counted on last year to provide big impacts failed to do so. Other first rounders that we've grown accustomed to seeing have dropped out of the top slots after injury marred (or ruined) seasons include Jose Bautista (14.11) , Troy Tulowitzki (16.15), and Evan Longoria (32.59). Someone has to take those spots over, but there's a lot more risk in the first round than there is in most years. So maybe taking a pitcher isn't so bad.

Along with the higher risk of some of the best potential first rounders this year, I think it's fair to say that, outside of the top four or five, the actual quality of this year's potential first rounders is lower than usual. A lot of those first round picks are providing the same (or nearly the same) value as players that can be found in the second round. Like Albert Pujols (7.18)? Try Prince Fielder (14.48). Like Carlos Gonzalez (9.75)? Try Adam Jones (25.41). Let's face it--a lot of first round picks are looking a lot like second round picks this year.

 The rule against taking a starter in the first round is a good one. This year just happens to be a great year to break it.

3. Strasburg isn't even the best pitcher in baseball, let alone as much better as Pedro Martinez was ten years ago! Give me Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander instead.

In all fairness, yes Strasburg is, for all it matters for your fantasy draft. In all but one respect, Strasburg is significantly better than Kershaw or Verlander than they are better than the others. That is to say, Kershaw and Verlander are great, but not very much greater than these pitchers: Cliff Lee, David Price, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Zack Greinke, Jared Weaver, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia and others, in no particular order.

For the time being, I'm prepared to ignore any argument made that Kershaw will win more games in the shiny new Dodgers, or that Verlander will on the Tigers. Washington is a good team, and their offense will be good enough to keep Strasburg in plenty of games. With normal luck, he should be among the league's leaders in wins. Too bad you never know when someone will get normal luck with wins and when he won't. So call that one even, or insufficiently predictable.

The difference is in the strikeouts. Those of you who followed me in last year's Silver League Updates, will know that I love my strikeouts. So I'm admitting that bias. But they're a category, and they're decent at giving us information about two more categories (ERA and WHIP, obviously). We can learn even more when we add walks to the equation. Let's see how Strasburg (ADP 23.77) stacks up with the three pitchers being drafted before him: Kershaw (12.64), Verlander (15.56), and Price (23.59). Just for fun, let's check out the next three pitchers after him too: Lee (30.67), Hernandez (35.10), and Yu Darvish (36.95).

Here they are in K/9:

Strasburg    11.13
Darvish        10.40
Kershaw       9.05
Verlander    9.03
Lee                 8.83
Price              8.74
Hernandez  8.65

 All seven put up great numbers, but only Darvish came within two strikeouts per nine innings of Strasburg's total. And Darvish put up an ugly 4.19 BB/9 rate that didn't exactly help his ERA or WHIP.

Maybe you prefer K%, fair enough. How about this list:

Strasburg       30.2%
Darvish           27.1%
Kershaw         25.4%
Verlander      25.0%
Price                24.5%
Lee                   24.4%
Hernandez    23.8%

If anything, Strasburg looks even better here, blasting the competition out of the water. (In all fairness, Max Scherzer looks pretty good here too, at 29.4%.)

What about K/BB, then? That's the one that gives a really good indication of next year's ERA and (especially) WHIP. (Spoiler alert: Cliff Lee reigns supreme.)

Lee                   7.39
Strasburg      4.10
Verlander     3.98
Hernandez    3.98
Kershaw        3.63
Price               3.47
Darvish          2.48

Two names stand out here as outliers. In fact, Lee's rate is more than 2.5 BB/9 better than the second best pitcher by this measure, none other than Joe Blanton. Yeah, him. (Sleeper? Maybe...) The other outlier, of course, is Darvish. So here's more confirmation not to take him over Strasburg, or anywhere near the other six pitchers on this list, if you were thinking about it. 

That leaves us with five names, and, once again, Strasburg is on top. But maybe he's striking out so many batters that he can walk a few too many and still look good. Maybe a lousy walk rate could take his ERA and WHIP down like Darvish's did.

Or maybe not: his walk rate sat at 2.71 last year. Five of the other six pitchers we compared him too had better rates, but not by a huge amount. Discounting Lee's ridiculous number (1.10!), King Felix was the best, with a 2.17 BB/9 rate. Price, Verlander, and Kershaw all fell in between.

This has been a lot of stats, but it boils down to a pretty simple point: Strasburg's strikeouts are significantly better than his competition for the top pitcher in (fantasy) baseball. It isn't even close. His walk numbers are similar to the competition, and not different enough to give them significant value over him. Other factors, like his team, just aren't as big of a deal.

The only reason I can see to take Verlander or Kershaw or anyone else over Strasburg is their experience, which is really just cover for the fact that we're comfortable taking those guys off the board first. I don't think you'll find very many people willing to say inexperience is going to cause Stephen Strasburg any trouble in the near future. As a rookie, Strasburg wasn't a normal phenom. As fantasy's best pitcher, he isn't any more normal. The difference between him and the next best pitchers is noticeably bigger than the difference between them and all the other ace pitchers.

By the way, looking at last year's data is kind of like assuming that Strasburg has peaked in his age-24 season, and that he doesn't have room to improve for next year. How often do great 24-year-olds not become better 25-year-olds?

Between the higher risk and lower quality in this year's top position players and Strasburg's own dominance over his competition there is a lot of reason to reach for him. Like Pedro Martinez before him, Strasburg is worth a pick in the middle of the first round in a way that no pitcher has been in a long time. Next year, this idea won't make it into an article like Go Bold or Go Home because everyone will agree. Get ahead of the game.





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