Out of Left Field

Out of Left Field: Didn't See That Coming

Not long ago, we looked at some of the pleasant surprises from 2014’s hitters. Now we get to do the opposite. Sure, you know Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton and Starlin Castro ruined plenty of fantasy teams last year, but so does everybody else. You and I may not know what to do with them right now, but let’s face it, there’s gonna be a million article about those guys between now and draft day. So we’re checking out the guys you might not have noticed if it wasn’t your team they torpedoed.

We’ll continue to use the same methodology as before: I scientifically scan the wOBA list and look for surprises. The catch is…I did it backwards this time.

Alcides Escobar was supposed to make me look like a genius, since I boldly ranked him equal to Elvis Andrus. Instead, Escobar was pretty much the worst player in baseball. With a slash line of .234/.259/.300 and just 22 stolen bases he killed any team he was on. His .264 BABIP was a partial cause, but I can’t really chalk this one up to bad luck so much as credit his 2012 to good luck. There is one bright spot that his him on my radar (my bench radar) for next year: he wasn’t caught once in those 22 steal attempts. If he hits at all, he should be stealing plenty. 

J.P. Arencibia was supposed to be all power and no batting average. And he was. Just…a little too much emphasis on the no batting average, as a .231 BABIP led him to a value-sucking .194 average, not to mention his ticket out of Canada. I suspect Arencibia won’t turn out to be the sort of guy who posts .300 BABIPs, but he managed a .288 mark in 2012 and Texas could be a good place for him to get a little better luck. I’d imagine he’ll be nearly free next year and is probably a better option than most number two catchers, just for the power upside.

Josh Rutledge tore things up as a coffee cup rookie in 2012, and with 2B/SS eligibility in a lot of leagues, and Coors Field to call home, he was a hot sleeper pick last year. The results were underwhelming. It isn’t clear if Rutledge will get a shot to start next year, but he remains someone to watch, as his minor league numbers suggest a power/speed profile waiting for luck and opportunity.

Michael Morse gets a lot of bad press for his defense. And his horrible 2013. But you don’t care about defense, and his struggles last year appear to have been injury-related. Before last year, he’d been doing some serious slugging whenever he was on the field, and if he’s healthy, he ought to be able to continue that slugging, and probably for a very low price.

Paul Konerko is a guy I once gave up on. It was 2003 and a .226 BABIP made him look washed up at a young age. Wrong. So is bad luck all that happened this time? I hate to say it, but at 38, I doubt Konerko is bouncing back again. The White Sox do too, and his playing time is likely going to be reduced with Jose Abreu in the fold and Adam Dunn still accepting paychecks.

Will Middlebrooks was a huge disappointment, shuttling to and from the minors and basically not doing much good at all. He finished 2012 with promise and power and probably got drafted like a starter. Ouch. I suppose the promise and the power are still there, but if the Red Sox trusted him going forward, they wouldn’t be thinking about re-signing Stephen Drew. Never trust a fantasy player more than his own team does.

Rickie Weeks seemed like a good bounce-back candidate after a down-but-not-horrible 2012. At least, things couldn’t get worse, right? Obviously they did, as Weeks hit a putrid .209/.306/.357. His BABIP didn’t really crater so much as dip, going from .285 in 2012 to .268 in 2013, so it isn't easy to say this was just two bad-luck years in a row. The Brewers ran out of patience and Scooter Gennett is projected to be their starter at second base. It looks like Weeks’s days of fantasy relevance are behind him. 

Ike Davis can’t even get traded. He was a trendy pick going into last season, and fell somewhat below expectations. (Side note, be careful when searching for Davis’s stats…don’t get him confused with the Ike Davis who played shortstop from 1919-1925.) His overall season was terrible, but things got less bad when he returned from the minors: he put up a .286 average in July and August. Bid carefully, but he isn’t an ignore, which gives him some of the best prospects of anyone featured here today.

Josh Reddick smacked 32 longballs in 2012…and he did it with just a .305 OBP, so the red flag was there, in retrospect. He was a waste of roster space in 2013, losing ground in his flyball rate, and seeing his HR/FB rate crater from 14% to 8.9%. I don’t know if it will go back up, because I have no idea why it got that high in the first place. Reddick seems like someone to watch but not draft. Plus, he had wrist surgery in October, so that isn’t good. 

Brett Lawrie underwhelmed in his first full season…two years ago. Then he did pretty much the same thing last year, but in 25 fewer games. He’s still the guy with a killer cup of coffee from 2011, and the excellent prospect pedigree…but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. I’d draft him as a backup, but chances are someone will want to take the risk on him more than I do. Don’t let it be you.

Josh Willingham has long been one of my favorite guys for when-he’s-on-the-field power.  So he was on plenty of my teams for the train wreck that was 2013. It looks like either injury or skill decline was the culprit for his struggles, as his .269 BABIP was bad but hardly the sort of thing that makes you hit .208. Whatever the underlying problem was, it showed up in his strikeout percentage too; it spiked to over 27%. He’s 35, so I wouldn’t be shocked if age-related skill decline were responsible for his lousy season, but I’d take a late-round risk that it was his injury. The reward is still a lot of power.

Just like with the surprisingly good players, the bad surprises are still people to watch leading up to draft day. New information could come out about their health status, or their playing time—or they could be killing the ball in Spring Training. Use these recommendations as a starting point as you scout these guys for potential value next year.

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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