Wednesday, March 21, 2012
My 'Bleagh!' guys: Dee Gordon ...
By Tristan H. Cockcroft
Everyone has likes, and everyone has dislikes.
For me, the latter group includes interleague play, the sacrifice bunt, Tropicana Field, five-game playoff series and, oddly enough, peanut butter and jelly. (I say oddly because it's a difficult dislike when you have preschool-age children.)
As with anyone -- with the exception of out-and-out grouches who hate everything -- I have reasons for my dislikes. In the case of "PB&J," it's simple: I don't like the smell of those two ingredients in unison, though I like them separately; it has a rep as a "kid's" sandwich, yet adults eat it, which is all too weird; and it's one of the messiest foods in existence. For example, my 2-year-old daughter has been known to peel the pieces of bread apart, then eat the PB or J beginning from the middle of each piece and working outward.
Bleagh! Let's just say plenty of napkins are required.
The same feeling -- that "bleagh," those extreme dislikes -- also applies to fantasy baseball. The entire point of this game is to have an opinion; if you can't, then you're not going to have any fun playing it.
For me, and probably for most fantasy owners, dislikes initially come from the gut, and they're comparative to a player's perceived value, typically average draft position (ADP) or our consensus rankings. To me, there is no such thing as a "do not draft" list. When I say, "Don't draft him," I assume you know it comes with the usual caveat, "
anywhere near that listed price, though everyone has a purchase price." A fifth-round dislike might, and probably would, register with me as a brilliant pickup in the 15th round. Remember, value in this game is relative.
But dislikes run deeper for me than gut calls: If I don't like a player, I generally want a deeper rationale, something statistical of concern.
That's where some of the advanced statistical tools we have available come in. Many fantasy owners are already familiar with such references as Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs; ESPN also now has access to a pitch-tracking tool, which we use to gain even further insight on players' strengths and weaknesses. It's this tool that often supports many of my cases for "sleeper" and "bust" picks, and now, as I reveal my list of "bleagh" players, I'll demonstrate some of its capabilities.
The challenge for us regarding Ichiro this season is determining which of the following is true: Was his 2011 merely a fluky down year, or was it a product of advancing age? Considering that he's now 38 years old, the latter is a legitimate fear. Ichiro struggled in two specific areas: He was no longer elite at hitting pitches outside of the strike zone, and he was not nearly as effective hitting hard fastballs (those clocked at 93 mph or faster).
The table at the right demonstrates Ichiro's issues with pitches outside the zone; we're talking about an effective 23-hit drop, if you're comparing his 2009-10 seasonal average in that department with his 2011 output. For a player who comes to the plate more than 700 times annually, that represents more than a 30-point swing in terms of batting average. Meanwhile, Ichiro managed a mere .194 batting average against 93-plus mph fastballs last season; that was a drop-off from his .286 number against them in 2010, which was a drop-off from his .333 mark in 2009.
Ichiro has been tinkering with a new, wider batting stance this spring, and he'll be the Mariners' No. 3 hitter instead of their leadoff man. Neither presents any guarantee to correct either problem, and both might tease prospective fantasy owners into thinking they'll result in a rebound to his prime-year performances. I'm not so sure; his current ninth-round evaluation isn't far off his true value, but I am certainly not calling him a slam dunk to be one of the top 100 players in fantasy.
Of the 10 names on this list, Wainwright is the one I like the most. The problem, however, is when I will like him: More so in 2013 -- or perhaps the second half of this season -- than, say, on Opening Day. We all know the relatively high success rate of pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery, but a pitcher who relies on command, specifically of his breaking pitches, rather than velocity, has me taking a more conservative approach.
Wainwright's nine perfect-ERA spring innings are sure to have his fantasy stock soaring, but I think those results do him a disservice. He's currently going in the 10th round and among the top 25 starters in ESPN drafts, and maybe from the All-Star break forward he'll be worth every penny of that price, but I'd rather target him as a top-40 pitcher and 14th-rounder now and avoid the risk. If it means I don't get him, that's fine. I'll just target him in a midseason trade
after I've seen proof that his curve and command are where they were pre-surgery.
Stubbs' propensity for strikeouts has become a massive problem; his 30.1 percent K rate last season was the second highest among qualified hitters, and his miss rate of 28.9 percent was ninth worst. Most disconcerting about his struggles is that pitchers appear to have found a noticeable hole in his swing: He was actually hitless in 31 at-bats that ended on pitches deemed "down" and "outside" -- meaning the bottom third and outside third of the plate -- after the All-Star break last season.
To the right, you can see Stubbs' problems specifically on breaking pitches. He managed mere .176/.236/.209 triple-slash rates against curveballs and sliders last season, and the hot and cold zones demonstrate that he hits such pitches only if they hover over the center of the plate, only getting worse at doing it in 2011. (That is a heck of a lot of blue in his 2011 zone chart.) Yes, Stubbs can steal 40 bases when granted the opportunity. But if his batting average declines further from his .241 mark of a season ago, will he get enough chances? He's too risky an outfielder to take at his current 13th-round draft value.
Talk up Gordon's .304 batting average and 24 stolen bases as a rookie -- the latter projects to 64 in a 150-game season -- all you want, but hiding beneath the surface are scores of troubling peripheral statistics. First, those related to plate discipline:
• His 3.0 percent walk rate was 10th worst in the majors (200-plus PAs).
|Heat map: Drew Stubbs vs. breaking pitches in 2011.|
• His 54.2 percent swing rate was 16th highest.
• His 41.3 percent called strike rate was fourth highest.
• His 41.6 percent "chase" rate -- or his percentage of swings at pitches deemed outside the strike zone -- was 10th worst.
• His 32.7 percent chase rate on first pitches was a major league worst.
Gordon appeared as free-swinging as anyone, and that his career minor league walk rate was a mere 6.5 percent hints that it's a chronic issue. Now let's examine Gordon's statistics when he puts the ball into play:
• His 58.6 percent ground ball rate was 11th highest in the majors.
• His well-hit average -- the rate of his at-bats that resulted in hard contact -- was .121, third worst of any hitter with 200-plus plate appearances.
• He had a .210 well-hit average on non-ground balls or bunts (meaning line drives, fly balls and pop-ups), third worst among players with 80 or more.
• He had 2 well-hit fly balls the entire season.
Gordon, therefore, also ranks among the least threatening players in baseball with the bat, his value derived primarily from his speed. At best, his career trajectory looks like that of another Juan Pierre. At worst, he might be back in the minors in May, never to return. He's currently being selected in the 13th round on average, and that's simply too soon for a one-category, boom-or-bust player.
Talk about boom-or-bust players. Exactly two seasons ago, Marmol posted a 15.99 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio, the second best single-season number in baseball history. Meanwhile, he blew 10 saves a year ago, while his 5.88 lifetime walks-per-nine ratio ranks 10th worst all-time among pitchers with 450-plus career innings. The problem for him last season was his fastball; he couldn't locate it effectively, and as a result, opposing hitters sat on his slider, his "out" pitch.
Command is a monstrous problem for Marmol, and his four walks in 4⅔ spring innings offer no further encouragement. Granted, he could save 30 games with a strikeout total in triple digits. But considering his issues last season -- and extending into this spring -- he might be the first big-name closer to lose his job, and even if he doesn't his WHIP could kill a fantasy team. No thanks.
If Dunn's 2011 collapse truly indicates the waning stages of his career, he wouldn't be the first to have fallen flat on his face at such a young age. Recall the example of Richie Sexson, another "three true outcomes" slugger: At the age of 32, Sexson's OPS declined by 194 points, and a year later he was out of baseball. That Dunn is signed for another three seasons might present him a lengthier chance to keep playing than Sexson had, but the mere promise of at-bats doesn't assure a quick turnaround.
Dunn displayed three troubling weaknesses a year ago: He couldn't hit hard stuff (pitches clocked at 93 mph and up), he couldn't catch up to fastballs up in the zone and he couldn't touch left-handed pitching.
|Heat map: Adam Dunn versus "hard stuff" (93 mph or more) in 2009-10.|
The heat maps to the right exemplify Dunn's issues with hard stuff, and suggest that diminished bat speed might have contributed. The other telling statistic about Dunn: His OPS on fastballs deemed "up" in the zone -- meaning the upper third -- dropped from .867 in 2010 to .427 in 2011, and he missed on 10 percent more of his swings against them. Simply put, he could not catch up with high heat, or "elite heat."
Whether the winter's rest will help might not be known until well after draft day, but again, if Dunn is indeed "done," he wouldn't be the first to suffer such a career collapse. He's going in the 21st round so far, but that's an effective starting lineup spot in a standard ESPN league. I wouldn't touch him as anything more than a last-in-your-lineup player, or a speculative reserve pick, if at all.
Arencibia's platoon splits might be the most disconcerting aspect of his game. They paint the picture of a platoon mate, not a full-time starter:
2011 vs. RHP: .206/.273/.409, 27.7 miss percentage
|Heat map: Adam Dunn versus "hard stuff" (93 mph or more) in 2011.|
2011 vs. LHP: .259/.310/.528, 26.1 miss percentage
But the anti-Arencibia case is founded on more than merely his struggles versus right-handers. A closer look reveals a player with poor plate coverage, unable to handle pitches either down in the outside or on the outer third, and one who struggles mightily with breaking stuff (curves and sliders), managing mere .228/.252/.434 triple-slash rates against them last season.
To the right, you can see Arencibia's hot and cold zones; he looks like the kind of hitter that pitchers will surely test with breaking stuff low and outside during his sophomore year. It's for that reason he's a weak No. 1 catcher in any fantasy league, and a shaky No. 2 even in shallow mixed formats.
|Heat map: J.P. Arencibia versus all pitches in 2011.|
Third-base eligibility might be a tantalizing thing with Trumbo, but understand how challenging his battle is to avoid a dreaded sophomore slump. He's a questionable defender at the hot corner, and he's a noted free-swinger, one who only regressed in that regard as his rookie campaign progressed. Consider that Trumbo's 5.0 percent walk rate before the All-Star break was 13th worst among qualified hitters; his 3.5 percent rate after the All-Star break was eighth worst.
The table to the right further demonstrates Trumbo's free-swinging ways, a problem because of the potentially adverse impact upon his batting average. He might well be a one-category player -- he has 20-homer potential -- and it's for that reason he should scarcely be on the mixed-league radar.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com, a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league, and a 2011 FSWA award winner for Best Baseball Article on the Web. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.