Friday, July 4, 2008
Updated: July 9, 2:32 PM ET
Fantasy All-Stars: It's all about value
By Jason Grey
We all want to look smart.
Isn't that one of the reasons we play this game in the first place? To show off our baseball knowledge and indicate we know more than our peers about who is going to produce and who is not?
That's why you could call this the "All-Made-my-fantasy-owner-look-smart" team. Your fellow owners will dismiss you and say you were just lucky, but you give them a wink and a nod and say you knew it all along.
This is the roster of fantasy value all-stars, the guys who are helping owners win their fantasy leagues. These are the guys who were given short shrift in most drafts, yet have far exceeded most expectations. It's not who has had the best season thus far, but who has brought the most bang for the buck compared to where he was drafted.
To help determine the roster, I'll compare the final average draft position (ADP) for all ESPN leagues, and cross-reference it with a ranking based on a mathematical calculation of earned fantasy value (EVR) through the end of June in 12-team mixed leagues.
When examining the roster, we'll take a look at the key question when analyzing any midseason list of players who have performed well: Can they keep it up? As with almost any above-average performance in the first half of the season, some normal regression is expected over the balance of the season in most cases. The question is whether or not we have any 2007 Jeremy Guthries in the mix. Guthrie, if you remember, had a 2.74 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP before the All-Star break. He gave his owners a 5.03 and 1.62 after.
C - Ryan Doumit, Pirates (ESPN ADP: Undrafted; YTD Earned Value Rank: 59): The Pirates' catching job was thought to be Ronny Paulino's, which is why Doumit was overlooked on draft day, but new manager John Russell didn't share the concerns about Doumit behind the plate that previous manager Jim Tracy did. The tough thing about projecting Doumit's future value is that, in his career, standing in the batter's box is just something he's done between injuries. Last year it was ankle, hamstring and wrist issues. This season it's been a thumb injury and a concussion. When he's played this season, cutting his strikeout rate almost in half has been a key to his offensive surge, shortening his swing a bit without sacrificing pop. The batting average will come down a bit, but the power is for real. Staying on the field and out of the trainer's room is the only question going forward.
1B - Aubrey Huff, Orioles (ADP: Undrafted; EVR: 85): You know you're having a good season when you almost pass your numbers for the entire previous year in the first half. Huff's 17 homers are already more than the 15 he hit in 550 at-bats last year. We've seen this Huff before, but the last time was four seasons ago in Tampa Bay. Huff has long had a reputation as a player who gets off to a slow start and then turns it on in the second half, but he started hitting from day one this season. Perhaps his improved offseason workout regimen had something to do with it. Regardless, there is nothing in his peripheral numbers to indicate that he's simply been lucky or is likely to slow down soon, so his owners should be able to continue to enjoy the ride.
2B - Mark DeRosa, Cubs (ADP: Undrafted; EVR: 72): Perhaps it was all the Brian Roberts trade talk in the preseason, but DeRosa was overlooked, even after coming off two solid 500 at-bat seasons, simply because it was assumed he was going to be out of a job. DeRosa has responded by being on pace to shatter his career high in homers, while still putting up the .290 batting average that he has for the past two years. He's opened up his swing a little bit, leading to a little less contact, but more impact when the bat does meet the ball, and we can continue to reasonably expect the same type of production in the second half. Of course, the bonus for his fantasy owners is his ability to be deployed at three positions.
3B - Mark Reynolds, Diamondbacks (ADP: Undrafted; EVR: 56 ): Here is yet another case where potential playing time issues complicated a player's draft day picture. The slow recovery of Chad Tracy from offseason knee surgery resulted in a big start to the season for Reynolds, and he's run with it. Known for being an extremely streaky hitter, Reynolds has quietly put up good runs-scored and RBI totals to go with his 17 homers. The numbers he's putting up right now are basically who he is: a player who can hit 30 homers in full-time at-bats while putting up a .250 batting average and a ton of strikeouts. For someone who was undrafted, you'll take that all day long. His streakiness can make him frustrating to own in head-to-head leagues, but it is just part of the package.
SS - Cristian Guzman, Nationals (ADP: Undrafted; EVR: 74): His 2005 was one of the worst seasons by any player in recent memory. 2006 was a wash due to shoulder surgery, and 2007 didn't last 50 games before he tore a ligament in his thumb, so where the heck did this come from? One of the lessons here is never to count out a player who can make a lot of consistent contact. Anytime you can put the bat on the ball, you never know what can happen. Already a good contact hitter, Guzman has a career-low strikeout rate that is driving his numbers. Yes, there will be a little bit of a slowdown in the second half, but perhaps surprisingly, maybe not much of one.
MI - Jose Lopez, Mariners (ADP: Undrafted; EVR: 103): With all due respect to Ian Kinsler, Dan Uggla and Dustin Pedroia, players drafted reasonably high who are having seasons way beyond their draft position (Kinsler is second overall in earned value right now), let's give some recognition to the undrafted Lopez, who has been steadily producing all season long. We sometimes forget that these are actual people, and not numbers, playing the game. Lopez was producing this kind of season last year through mid-June until his brother died in a motorcycle accident, and he went into a deep funk after that. As long as your league doesn't count on-base percentage (.319), Lopez has played solidly and should continue to do so. His high number of at-bats helps give his .300 batting average a bit more punch, and his RBI and runs totals could reach career highs.
CI - Jorge Cantu, Marlins (ADP: Undrafted; EVR: 96): It's not as if he hasn't put up good power numbers before, with 28 homers in 2005. The free swinger still has the juice in his bat, but his batting average will be at risk. To his credit, he's shown some slightly improved plate discipline, but there are still some concerns that his big swing will meet more air in the second half. This is a classic case of a player who has shown some skills once before being able to do it again because he was finally given some playing time, but he might be the position player on this list perhaps most likely to have his numbers headed south in the second half.
OF - Carlos Quentin, White Sox (ADP: Undrafted; EVR: 19): This season didn't exactly come out of nowhere. The skills that made him a former first-round pick, and that allowed him to rake all through the minor leagues, never left him. It was a shoulder injury and trying to find his swing again afterward that caused him to flop last year when given a starting job. At times last season, he would have three different stances and three different approaches at the plate in three different at-bats as he tried to find his swing mechanics after his labrum injury in spring training, and he couldn't stick with anything. He finally had the shoulder surgically repaired in the offseason and found his rhythm again, becoming the player many expected him to be.
OF - Ryan Ludwick, Cardinals (ADP: Undrafted; EVR: 48): Another player whose season didn't exactly come out of nowhere, Ludwick cracked 14 homers in 303 at-bats last season and had always shown a lot of pop in the minor leagues, but was never really given a chance to play every day at the big league level. Earlier in the season, more than 40 percent of his balls in play were line drives, an absolutely absurd number that drove a lot of his early success, but he's started to come back to earth a bit. He should be decent, but not spectacular in the second half, and still plenty useful for mixed-league play.
OF - Milton Bradley, Rangers (ADP: 226.9; EVR: 27): Bradley's always had the skills, but has lacked the health, and perhaps the temperament to fully realize his potential. There are reasons he's on his sixth big league team by the age of 30. There's no doubt the Rangers are deploying him in the right manner, mostly limiting him to a DH role where the chances of an injury are minimized, and as long as they do that we can have a more positive outlook than normal on his ability to stay healthy over the balance of the season. He's taking a bigger cut with the bat this season, which means more whiffs, but more power as well. The batting average is a little artificially high and due to come down a bit. Are his numbers a bit over his head even given the absence of a stint on the disabled list? Absolutely, but even regressing to more of his normal career rates still means he's going to be solid to own if he can continue to get to the plate.
OF - J.D. Drew, Red Sox (ADP: 213.4; EVR: 41): Like Lopez, Drew also had some family concerns to deal with last season that no doubt weighed on his mind a bit while he was at the ballpark, but this year has been a different story as he's really stepped up with David Ortiz out of the lineup. A slight adjustment in his swing has produced a bit more loft, and he hasn't been pulling off the balls on the outer half of the plate. Add in a little more luck on balls in play, and it has produced batting average and home run gains despite a bunch of nagging injuries this season. His sweet lefty stroke has always had this kind of production in it, and this year he's had a reasonable amount of health and good fortune.
OF - Nate McLouth, Pirates (ADP: 193.2; EVR: 25): Thirteen homers and 22 steals last season didn't get him a ton of respect in drafts, partially because he had to battle in spring training to keep his job. He hasn't been running as much as last year, but he's made up for it with legitimate batting average gains driven by an ability to make more contact, taking the outside pitches the other way a little better while keeping his homer rate exactly where it was last season. He has the capability to steal a few more bases in the second half, so there's even a little bit more upside.
UT - Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox (ADP: 177.2; EVR: 47): Uggla, Kinsler, Pedroia, Conor Jackson and David DeJesus are all candidates here, but the power surge of Kevin Youkilis gets the nod. He's consciously tried to take a bit more aggressive approach at the plate, sacrificing a few walks for a few more cuts at drivable pitches early in the count, and he's on pace for career highs across the board. Sometimes the explanation is fairly simple. He was a 15th-round pick on average, but has returned the value of a fourth-rounder while being able to man both corner spots, and with this new plan at the plate, the increased power numbers are sustainable.
SP - Edinson Volquez, Reds (ADP: Undrafted; EVR: 12): The reasons behind Volquez's All-Star first half are quite simple: improved fastball command and an improved changeup that borders on devastating at times, and is a true swing-and-miss pitch. He's burying the ball down in the strike zone, so even when batters are making contact, they're not always able to drive the ball. Volquez has always been seen as having the potential of a top starter, but he was just rushed to the majors too quickly by the Rangers. His ERA will rise a bit, but even around the 3.00 mark, he's still going to be money in the bank.
SP - Cliff Lee, Indians (ADP: Undrafted; EVR: 11): Tinkering with his mechanics has resulted in the best velocity of Lee's career, and a smoother delivery has provided vastly improved control. Lee is putting his fastball wherever he wants in the strike zone, and spotting four other pitches to keep batters off balance. This is a completely different pitcher, even from the one who won 18 games in 2005. Improved health has also played a role and allowed him to be more consistent. Is it for real? There's nothing in his numbers that suggests he's way over his head. He's gotten a bit lucky in stranding a few runners on base and keeping the ball in the park, but the bottom isn't going to fall out here.
SP- Ervin Santana, Angels (ADP: Undrafted; EVR: 39): It was a lost season for Santana last year as, in trying to get better, he actually made some things worse. He tried to alter his mechanics a bit to improve his fastball movement and got himself so out of sync he couldn't recover. He also tried to fix the spin in his slider to improve it when it wasn't necessary, and wound up losing consistency. He wiped the slate clean this year, found his old mechanics again, picked up a touch of velocity on all of his pitches, and everything started to click into place. As long as his health holds out, he's going to continue doing what he has been doing.
SP - Justin Duchscherer, Athletics (ADP: Undrafted; EVR: 40 ): I covered Duchscherer extensively in a recent clipboard . He's going to come back down to earth a bit, as his peripheral numbers suggest his ERA should be more in the low-3.00 range, but even sliding to that level means he's still going to be useful in the second half. Overlooked in drafts this year because he was coming off major hip surgery and converting to starting work for the first time in five seasons, Duchscherer has found success via his cutter and his command. After the injuries of recent years, can he hold up over 180-190 innings? We'll have to see. He may be a risky play down the stretch.
SP - Joe Saunders, Angels (ADP: Undrafted; EVR: 79): I have a feeling this is not going to end well. Yes, he has 12 wins and a 3.04 ERA, but from a scouting perspective, there's not a ton fundamentally different about him from the pitcher who posted an ERA in the mid-4.00s last season. He's been lucky on balls in play (.249), lucky in having some runners left on base to keep his ERA low, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.87) is poor and even worse than last season. If you're looking for the No. 1 candidate on this list for a sharp downturn in the second half, Saunders is it. His numbers say he's still that same mid-4.00s hurler.
SP- John Danks, White Sox (ADP: Undrafted; EVR: 104): The signs of the breakout were there in spring training. Always seen as having potential to work near the top of the rotation, Danks showed he was starting to put it together back in March. His turnaround is due to a combination of things. Improved control, repeating his delivery better so he wasn't flying open and leaving the ball up in the zone, showing feel for a new cut fastball and improved action in his changeup have all contributed to his first-half success. He has only five wins because of a criminal lack of run support, and should have double that number. If his stamina holds up, he can continue to be a pitcher who keeps his ERA under 3.50 in the second half.
MR - Hong-Chih Kuo, Dodgers (ADP: Undrafted; EVR: 170): After four elbow surgeries, including two Tommy Johns, Kuo can still hit 95 mph from the left side. Amazing. Now we see the power of this fully armed and operational pitcher. His numbers in the 'pen are sick: 1.01 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 46 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings. He's obviously going to decline a bit, and at this rate perhaps we don't want the Dodgers to give him any more spot starts given the way he's adapted to the long relief role, but thus far, he's earned more value than starters such as Daisuke Matsuzaka, Javier Vazquez, Aaron Harang, Jered Weaver, A.J. Burnett, Matt Cain, Roy Oswalt and Erik Bedard.
CL - Jon Rauch, Nationals (ADP: Undrafted; EVR: 123): Here is this year's prime example of not having to worry about paying for saves in the draft, because some always come through the free-agent pool. There's been nothing different here but opportunity and a slightly improved strikeout-to-walk ratio. He's always had the capability to do ninth-inning work, and now he has the chance. He should continue to do the job in the second half. He's not going to be a great closer, but for someone who was picked up off the waiver wire, he will do just fine. Honorable mentions to Ryan Franklin and Salomon Torres.
CL - Kerry Wood, Cubs (ADP: 185.9; EVR: 74): The presence of Carlos Marmol, not to mention Wood's checkered health history, made some shaky about investing in Wood as a closer, but he has taken to a relief role with great aplomb, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost six that is by far the best in his career, and his numbers accurately reflect how well he has pitched this season. Being able to go maximum effort over the course of one inning has given him a jump in velocity that's obviously helpful. It's clear that Wood can be a top closer provided he stays off the disabled list. Of course, with him that's always the rub, so there is certainly still an element of risk involved in owning him, but things are looking good thus far.
Jason Grey is a graduate of the MLB Scouting Bureau's Scout Development Program and has won two Tout Wars titles, one LABR title and numerous other national "experts" competitions.