Archive for February, 2012

A Few Cases Where Spring Training Stats Might Matter

When it comes to spring training statistics, there are so many problems with the data – small samples, inferior competition, hilariously small ballparks – that the numbers generally are just not worth even looking at. In most cases, March numbers can simply be thrown away without a second thought.

However, there are a few instances where spring training performances might actually tell us something. Most famously, Jose Bautista finished the 2009 season with a surprising burst of power, and he carried over that surge into spring training in 2010. The continuation of his revamped approach and swing in spring training could have helped clue us in to the fact that Bautista had undergone a dramatic transformation.

That doesn’t mean you should start reading too much into every player’s results over the next few weeks, but there are a few players worth keeping an eye on as the exhibition games get underway.

Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Tampa Bay

It’s a little weird to say that the 2011 Rookie of the Year had a performance that raised a lot of red flags, but after carving up minor league hitters left and right on his way to the big leagues, Hellickson’s strikeout rate took a nosedive in the Majors. It wasn’t even just a struggle adjusting to MLB hitters – his strikeout rate actually got worse as the season went along, ending the year with just a 2.94 K/9 in September.

However, Hellickson’s swinging strike rate of 9.7% – a measure that has shown to have some predictive power when it comes to forecasting future strikeout rate – was actually quite good, placing him among the likes of Max Scherzer, Ricky Romero, and Gio Gonzalez. Given that his minor league strikeout rates and his swinging strike rate both suggest that he should get more whiffs than he did in 2011, be on the lookout for an uptick in strikeout rate by Hellickson in spring training. As David Appelman showed back in 2008, there is some correlation between a spring training change in a pitcher’s K/9 and his regular season strikeout rate.

Matt Wieters, C, Baltimore

The prospect who inspired a list of Chuck Norris-style facts hasn’t exactly lived up to the billing to date, and the most disappointing part of his Major League performance so far has been his overall lack of power – a career .415 slugging percentage is not what the Orioles envisioned. However, there’s still reason to believe that Wieters has more thump than he’s shown, and he may have begun to tap into some of the natural loft in his swing as the 2011 season came to a close. After hitting just seven home runs in the first three months of the season, Wieters launched seven in September alone, and 24 of his 47 hits in the final two months of the season went for extra bases.

The fact that he was able to sustain a well above average contact rate while also driving the ball more frequently suggests that Wieters still has the skills to be a dominant offensive force, and the final two months of 2011 could be a harbinger of good things to come in 2012.

Brian Matusz, SP, Baltimore

While Wieters ended the year on a high note, his battery mate did the exact opposite, giving up 17 runs in just eight innings in September, closing a miserable season in the worst way possible. Matusz’z problems have been tied to a loss of velocity – his fastball averaged 91.5 MPH during his rookie season of 2009, but was just 88.5 MPH last year – but he was getting pounded even as he got his fastball back over 90 at the end of the year.

Keeping an eye on his velocity in spring training will be important, but Matusz will also need to show that he can command the ball in the strike zone with regularity. He doesn’t have the power repertoire that will allow him to get away with poor location, so if he’s going to work his way back into Baltimore’s rotation, he’ll have to show he can hit his spots and throw strikes consistently. Keep an eye not only on the radar gun when Matusz takes the mound, but the percentage of pitches he throws for strikes – if he’s going to get back to what he was a few years ago, it’s going to come because he remembers how to get ahead of hitters once again.

Mike Moustakas, 3B, Kansas City

When the Royals promoted Moustakas in June of last year, they did it to help show Royals fans that they had a bright offensive future, with Moustakas and fellow rookie Eric Hosmer forming a corner infield duo of impact power bats. However, Moustakas had just one extra base hit in his first month in the Major Leagues, and then didn’t hit a home run in either July or August. His isolated slugging marks during his first three months in the Majors were .053, .064, and .061 – marks that only look normal if you’re Juan Pierre or Luis Castillo.

However, Moustakas was a different beast in September, collecting a total of 11 extra base hits that included four home runs. His first three months in the Majors suggested he might need more time in Triple-A before being handed a full time big league job, but with the way he closed the season, Moustakas showed that the Royals hope wasn’t all misplaced. The Royals will likely want to see Moustakas driving the ball in March like he did to finish 2011, but more than just raw home run totals (which can be easily inflated in the Arizona air), keep an eye on the percentage of his March hits that go for extra bases. If he’s consistently getting the ball into the gaps, then there’s a decent chance that his late season power surge could carry over into 2012.

Brent Morel, 3B, Chicago

Morel’s story is a bit like Moustakas’, only far more extreme. His quality glovework has always been ahead of his offensive game, and he’s never profiled as much of a power threat in the minors, but his total lack of punch – he entered September with just two home runs on the season – was a real problem for the White Sox last year. Morel spent the first five months of the year just repeatedly beating the ball into the ground, but during the last month of the season, his results took a complete turn – he launched eight home runs in 103 plate appearances and posted a .329 ISO, the eighth best mark in baseball during September. For comparison, that put him right between Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Pena.

That wasn’t the only drastic change for Morel in the season’s final month – he also drew 15 walks after taking just seven free passes in April through August. One of the league’s least patient and least powerful hitters ended the season by performing like a middle-of-the-order slugger, taking pitches with regularity and driving the ball over the wall when he got ahead in the count. It was the most dramatic change of the season, and was completely out of character with what Morel had done previously in his career. Keep an eye not just on Morel’s spring training power, but also his willingness to take the free pass – the rise of both were connected in September, and if he’s still willing to let pitches go, he has a much better chance of sustaining his late season power boost.

The Possibly Useful Vernon Wells

What with the terribly conspicuous signings of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson this offseason, it’s easy to forget one important thing about the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim): they’re saddled with what may be the most burdensome contract in all of baseball. That contract belongs to, of course, Vernon Wells.

To grimly remind Angels fans, Wells was acquired from the Blue Jays in January of last year in exchange for Mike Napoli (he of the .444 wOBA in 2011) and Juan Rivera. Oh, and the Angels received a mere $5 million to defray the cost of Wells’s contract. And speaking of cost, the Halos will pay Wells $63 million over the next three years.

Last season, Wells authored the worst numbers of his career, which raises the possibility that his contract will worsen from “thoroughly ill-advised” to “boondoggle of unimaginable dimensions.” To be sure, Wells is an intelligent, self-aware, funny, and occasionally excellent ballplayer, but he’s not worth what he’s being paid. That’s not his fault, but it’s reality. To put a finer point on it Wells, according to WAR, provided $1.4 million in on-field value in 2011 while being paid more than $26 million. Suffice it to say, that’s not a sound investment.

So the question for the Angels, who have legitimate designs on a championship this season, is not whether Wells will somehow be worth the money — he won’t be. Rather, the question is whether he can help them toward their greater goals. The answer, with a caveat or three, is yes.

First, the depths that Wells reached last season must be acknowledged: there’s simply no glossing over a batting line of .218/.248/.412. In large part, the problem was that Wells’s line-drive rate cratered to a career-worst 12.3%, which was also the lowest figure of any qualifying hitter last season. While there’s usually some year-to-year fluctuation with line-drive rate, this level of decline is troubling. But regard these splits …

vs. RHP in 2011 .187/.213/.356 11.3 LD%
vs. LHP in 2011 .284/.320/.531 14.5 LD%

Wells’ overall numbers hide the fact that he was utterly feckless against same-side pitching but highly effective against lefties. For his entire career, Wells has been substantially better in platoon-advantaged situations, and, while everything else at the plate seemed to fall apart last season, his ability to hit for power against left-handers remained intact. And therein lies his value going forward. But he has to be deployed in just such a conservative manner.

Far too often, organizations are reluctant to treat bad contracts as “sunk costs.” That is, a player with a large and expensive pact, even if demonstrably ineffective, continues to play regularly because … well, because of the imagined mandates of that large and expensive pact. That makes no sense, obviously. Players should play because they help the team win, not because they’ve been promised a sheik’s ransom.

Taking the wise tack with a bad contract normally means releasing the player, but with Wells it’s obvious he can still help a team, provided his role is carefully limited. In his current straits, that means endeavoring never giving him a high-leverage plate appearance against a right-handed pitcher. Wells, as mentioned, can hit lefties, so he’d make for a useful platoon partner with DH Bobby Abreu, who, tidily enough is about as bad against lefties as Wells is against righties. Wells can also man center in an emergency and perhaps be a defensive asset at the corners when needed.

The Angels will be a better team if top prospect Mike Trout is an every-day outfielder alongside Torii Hunter and Peter Bourjos, but Wells, even with three other righty-hitting outfielders on the roster, still has a place on this team. Pair him with Abreu (at least until Kendrys Morales proves to be healthy and effective) and let him play the corners on occasion when a lefty’s on the bump for opposition. Realize, though, that Wells is no longer a major-league regular. He’ll never again provide value on the dollar, but he can help.

Can the Nats Contend?

The Washington Nationals, despite being linked in the media to almost every high-dollar free agent, have had a somewhat quiet winter. As such, it’s tempting to dismiss them. After all, an 80-win team whose primary offseason addition is a Type-B free agent (Edwin Jackson) isn’t redolent of “contender.” In the Nats’ case, however, that’s precisely what they are: a contender.

To be sure, the Nats can’t be considered the favorites for a playoff berth, in part because they have the misfortune of playing in a division in which only one team — the Mets — can be brushed aside as a non-factor. But they’re in the fray, which is more than can be said for the remainder of recent franchise history.

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2nd Annual Cistulli-Sarris Prospect Face-Off Challenge Competition

For last year’s edition of the Second Opinion, we — i.e. Carson Cistulli and Eno Sarris — offered dueling prospect lists to the reader. One (Eno’s) was a full fantasy roster composed exclusively of players from Keith Law’s 2011 top-100 prospect list; the other (Carson’s), a roster of rookie-eligible players who hadn’t appeared on said list.

The idea — in theory, at least — was to review each list at the end of the season, assess the fantasy value of each player on those lists, apply some kind of handicap to Eno’s list (to compensate for the advantage of picking from more highly rated players), and then announce a winner.

Unfortunately, owing to a lack both of effort and ingenuity, we did precisely none of those things.

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Prospects with Pedigree: Eno’s Rookie Lineup

We’ve refined this annual tradition — now there’s beer on the line, for instance — but there is actually a point to this (other than proving once and for all that I’ve got the better hair). By putting up the heralded prospects against those that come with less pedigree, we are trying to accomplish a veritable checklist of strategical things:

1) Collect all the most fantasy-relevant prospects for you in one place.
2) Discuss the chances that each of these prospects actually help in 2012.
3) Point out how hard it is to depend on a rookie-eligible player for steady production.
4) Link prospects to their cost in order to find the real values, heralded or not.
5) Beat Carson Cistulli handily (again) despite all efforts to make this matchup more fair.

Last year, my team featured Freddie Freeman, Danny Espinosa, Dustin Ackley, Desmond Jennings, Jeremy Hellickson, Michael Pineda, Chris Sale, and Jordan Walden. Call it a blowout, especially since I made a Christina Ricci / Buffalo 66 / David Mamet reference in the writeup.

Presented: your 18-man lineup of 2012’s top prospects — with some extra mentions for good measure. Here’s to another blowout, because Carson’s britches are getting a little big. As in, he’s losing weight and really should get those pants taken in.

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Keeper League Prospect/Rookie Strategies

You probably aren’t surprised to find that the guy who’s charged with writing the Mining the Minors and Prospect Chatter columns at RotoGraphs has been tabbed to write about strategies for keeper leagues, where every owner is trying to land the next big thing before he becomes The Next Big Thing. What might be surprising, though, is that I’m recommending you alter that approach.

Let’s be clear here: I’m not against selecting nearly-ready prospects during your keeper league draft or auction. It’s just that I’d like to call attention to a slightly different — and lesser-utilized — strategy to obtaining youthful talent with loads of potential. A strategy that can be just as effective.

Sure, gambling on the few players who are gobbling up all the preseason Rookie of the Year hype in 2012, like Jesus Montero or Matt Moore, can pay off handsomely. But that also requires using up a mid-round draft pick or valuable auction dollars on players that remain, to a large extent, unknown or unproven quantities. The opportunity cost, then, is rather steep. And if you swing and miss? Well, then you’re just doubling up on your displeasure.

But rather than going all-in on that hot ROY candidate that everybody has to have, there’s another way to go about acquiring young baseball talent. One that is not only less risky, but also less costly. And better yet, I can prove it.

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Keeper Conundrum: Bryce Harper or Mike Trout?

It’s the great debate taking place in keeper leagues across the country: Who’s better, Bryce Harper or Mike Trout?

The two high schoolers took drastically different paths to top prospect status. Harper appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16, got his GED and went first overall to the Nationals in 2010. Trout, by contrast, was a New Jersey prep product who lasted until the Angels popped him 25th overall in 2009 — no SI cover for him. Their games are also a study in contrasts, with Harper possessing mammoth power befitting of a future home run king and Trout profiling as a Tim Raines-like leadoff hitter.

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Valuing Upside Graphically

Picture this: you see two players left on the board, and you decide that one of them will be your next acquisition. You think long and hard, and your brain says that both players will likely be worth $15, and you can get either of them for around that price. When it comes time to bid on a player, you decide to target the player with more upside, because there’s a better chance he beats your projection than the other.

But why? If you valued both players at $15, then they should be worth the same amount come draft day. The players’ upside should be factored into the value you place upon them. Simply put, a $15 player should be equal to another $15 player. Simple as that.

So how do we go about factoring upside into a players’ value? Well, there are two ways, and one is much simpler than the other.

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Ottoneu Strategies for Every Setting

Around this time last year, FanGraphs announced a partnership with ottoneu, bringing a new fantasy baseball format to the masses: year-round auction dynasty without need for spreadsheets.

I am a member of the original ottoneu league, which launched in 2006 in response to frustration with the mainstream platforms. In year one of that league, most of us went through the auction and season as if it were a typical fantasy league, just one with really big rosters.

More than likely, most first-time ottoneu players did the same in 2011. Sure, there are some clear differences -– almost all leagues probably saw a few trades that would never happen in a typical keeper league, as cellar-dwelling owners tried to build for the future. And some prospects that wouldn’t deserve a second look in most leagues were probably owned.

But as I enter year seven of the original league, I’ve come to realize that, in terms of signing players at auction, setting lineups, etc., there are actually some strategies that are hard (or impossible) to pull off in most leagues that play quite well in ottoneu.

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How to Use PITCHf/x in Your Fantasy League

Be a Scout with PITCHf/x Data

We all wish we were scouts — after all, they can, after watching baseball for a few hours, evaluate a player’s ability and future. But scouting is almost shrouded in mystery; with their special reports and terms, it is only something we learn about through online prospect mavens.

While this article won’t teach you to be a scout, it will teach you to be a PITCHf/x scout. Anyone can go to FanGraphs and stare at a player’s page, but not everyone can weave through the intricacies of PITCHf/x data. Having the tools to do so will give you an edge among your fantasy competitors.

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