Commentary

Unlucky players to target

Updated: May 24, 2010, 2:27 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Vitriol, thy name is Akinori Iwamura.

The former Tampa Bay Rays second baseman, ensconced as a $4.85 million player in Pittsburgh since the Pirates traded for him this winter, is mostly hitting leadoff, was an intriguing deep-league fantasy sleeper before the season began, and has poisoned the well. If you've owned Iwamura on your NL-only or deep-mixed-league team these first two months, you need very little provocation to insert curse words between the man's first and last names.

Yet as we close out May, Iwamura is a poster child for the luckless player who will, almost certainly, turn things around. Granted, even in the best of times he's not a great mixed-league option; the last time he played a full season, he posted a .274 batting average with six homers and 48 RBIs. But check this out: Iwamura's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) so far in '10 is an impossible .187. That means when he actually hits the ball into fair territory, he's gotten a hit just 18.7 percent of the time. That's nuts. By way of context (and more on this in a moment), Iwamura's career BABIP, including 2010, is .331. The way his luck is running right now, you could put nine blind guys out in the field and the ball would still find their gloves.

By way of context, last season exactly one player (Ian Kinsler) finished with a BABIP below .250 (his was .241). Two seasons ago, four players (Paul Konerko, Kevin Millar, Mark Ellis and Nick Swisher) were below .250, though the lowest of those BABIPs was .244. This awful luck from Iwamura won't last. Provided the sore hamstring that limited him last week doesn't become a lingering issue, he will start hitting baseballs that actually find turf. He will start scoring runs. And he will, probably, steal double-digit bases.

Of course, for batters, BABIP isn't a be-all and end-all statistic. While the average major leaguer's BABIP resides somewhere around .300, it's important to realize that there are many, many exceptions to this mean. Many players (often speedsters) post career BABIPs of around .320. And many other players (often lumbering thumpers) never see their career BABIPs climb above .280. So don't look at a player's BABIP by itself; always compare his current BABIP to his career number. By that reasoning, it's a lot more sensible to expect a 2010 bounce-back from Derrek Lee ('10 BABIP: .250; career BABIP: .321) than it is Carlos Quentin ('10 BABIP: .225; career BABIP: .252). With that in mind, here are the 10 players whose current BABIPs are below .250 who have the biggest "delta" from their career BABIPs. As a result, these are batters you'd most expect to produce much higher levels from this point forward (and who accordingly make good buy-low candidates). And please note that all statistics are through the games of Sunday, May 23:

While we're on the subject of unlucky hitters, let's see if we can find some other candidates: batters who "should" have more homers than they currently do. What we want here is fly-ball hitters who aren't hitting homers at nearly their career rates, under the assumption that at some point, they'll advance to their more typical homer-per-fly-ball (HR/FB) rates. If you can pick up or deal for players who fit this description, you may be able to make a dent in power-category deficits.

For the purpose of this exercise, I looked at batters who've hit fly balls at least 35 percent of the time they put a ball in play in 2010; historically, this isn't an absolute mandate for a power hitter (Joe Mauer hit 28 dingers last year while hitting fly balls "only" 29.5 percent of the time), but it's a pretty generous rule of thumb and we have to put a stake in the ground somewhere. Then I looked at the "delta" between each player's current HR/FB rate and their career HR/FB:

This isn't a guarantee that each of these guys is going to hit 30 taters the rest of the way. Far from it. There are sometimes very understandable reasons for a player deviating substantially from his career HR/FB rate. In the case of Sizemore, we can assume it's because he's been injured. Maybe with Bay it's the change to a non-homer-friendly home ballpark. (It's worth noting that Bay was tops on this list until Sunday night, when he blasted two dingers against the Yankees.) With Helton and Chipper Jones, maybe they've simply become different players near the ends of their long careers. Nevertheless, I absolutely expect most of the players on this list to make up for two months of relatively poor power with some bopping production, and soon. And considering that each of them appears on both of my "unlucky" hitting lists, the two guys you might most want to acquire are Cubs teammates Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee. Better times are ahead for those guys.

Now, while we're on the "luck analysis" kick, let's turn our attention to starting pitchers. In my experience, the best numbers to sniff out bad luck for underperforming starters are BABIP and strand rate. Because pitchers face a wide variety of hitters whose BABIPs average out to around .300, we can expect the average starting pitcher to post a BABIP of .300; pitchers whose BABIPs are substantially below .300 have been lucky, while pitchers with BABIPs way above .300 have been unlucky. By way of context, in 2009 only five starters (Aaron Harang, Jason Hammel, Ricky Nolasco, Carl Pavano and Derek Lowe) featured BABIPs of .330 or higher, and none of those were above .340. In recent years, we occasionally have seen a pitcher sit as high as .350, but it's rare. Here are the "unluckiest" pitchers so far in '10, at least by way of BABIP:

I'll grant you that Harang's presence on this list both in '09 and '10 gives one pause, and I'm not ready to say the guy isn't just a meatball machine in a bunch of his outings. But there are some good fantasy pitchers here. Beckett is on the DL, of course, but his velocity has mostly been fine, and there's an argument to be made that he's been more unlucky than terrible (though that 7.29 ERA certainly is an eye-opener). Shields, Slowey, Floyd, Matusz … these are good pitchers who have probably deserved better; right now, neither Slowey nor Floyd nor Matusz resides inside the top 75 starting pitchers on ESPN.com's Player Rater, while Shields, remarkably, has been the No. 13 starter in fantasy. Man, how well has that guy pitched, to be able to overcome his poor BABIP luck?

Finally, strand rate is another number that tends to regress to the league average. Strand rate is the percentage of baserunners a pitcher leaves on base. Some folks swear that certain pitchers are unilaterally more effective when the bases are packed with runners, but statistical analysis generally indicates that this isn't true; in general, around 71 percent of runners are stranded. While there definitely are some pitchers who will consistently deviate north or south of that number, they don't typically deviate by massive amounts. Extreme midseason outliers tend toward correction; starters with strand rates well below 71 percent tend to see that number climb (i.e., more runners stranded) as they become "luckier," and starters with strand rates well above 71 percent tend to experience the opposite. (For instance, Livan Hernandez's strand rate is currently 97.5 percent. I'll go out on a limb and say that won't continue for the rest of '10.) Here, then, are the "unlucky outliers" so far this season:

I'll leave you with this thought: if a starting pitcher appears on both these lists, I feel relatively comfortable things are going to even out for him soon. Last year, my poster child for this analysis was Ricky Nolasco; even as the Florida Marlins were sending him to the minors because his top-line numbers looked awful, I was calling him a wise buy-low target (or free-agent pickup), and in the second half of '09, he went 7-2 with a 4.39 ERA, a 1.12 WHIP and 105 strikeouts in 94 1/3 innings. Last Friday, I went on TV and called Floyd my favorite buy-low in baseball right now, then he had to go out Saturday and whiff seven and allow one run in 6 1/3 innings, making my endorsement of him here look like Monday morning quarterbacking. But regardless, Floyd, Beckett and, yes, even Lohse and Feldman look undervalued right now. I expect all of them to grow "luckier" soon.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.

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