What's wrong with Wright?
Breaking down slow starts for David Wright, Prince Fielder and Grady Sizemore
Let's kick things off with a little trivia: Which preseason top-50 pick overall has the worst strikeout rate of any third baseman and second-worst of any qualified hitter?
If your guess is Mark Reynolds, you're incorrect.
The answer is David Wright, the consensus second-round pick with the 15.3 average draft position, making him the 16th player picked on average. Through 19 games, Wright has struck out in 38.1 percent of his at-bats, trailing only Kyle Blanks (38.2). That's not all; Wright's peripheral numbers reveal a few other troubling trends:
|2007||19.0%||21.7%||66.2%||88.8%||48.4%||34% (35%)||18% (20%)|
|2008||18.8%||21.9%||64.8%||89.5%||48.9%||35% (35%)||19% (20%)|
|2009||26.2%||21.5%||61.0%||87.0%||48.8%||45% (35%)||24% (20%)|
|2010||38.1%||25.2%||42.3%||86.6%||41.6%||47% (35%)||34% (21%)|
Granted, Wright's 2010 numbers represent a small sample size of 84 plate appearances, but they also show further regression from his 2009 statistics, which were particularly distressing to his fantasy owners. Even if we're to assume he'll rebound to 2009 levels in the contact-related categories, the bottom line is his 2009 levels weren't exactly anything to get excited about. Certainly they weren't supportive of the idea of his being a top-20 player overall.
However, at the same time, Wright's walk numbers offer a glimmer of hope:
|2007||13.2%||3.99||42.5%||14% (19%)||14% (20%)|
|2008||12.8%||3.98||45.2%||16% (19%)||13% (20%)|
|2009||12.0%||4.14||43.7%||11% (19%)||12% (20%)|
|2010||22.6%||4.45||42.2%||19% (17%)||16% (18%)|
The 4.45 pitches-per-plate appearance number ranks Wright ninth among qualified hitters, and his 22.6 percent walk rate ranks fourth. Sounds a lot like a "three true outcomes" (home run, walk or strikeout) hitter, à la Adam Dunn, doesn't it?
Ah, but the problem: Wright lacks the elite power of an Adam Dunn, and his fantasy owners typically expect batting averages greater than .300, or 51 points higher than Dunn's career mark in the category. If Wright continues on this path, he might struggle to reach .300, and his owners who picked him 16th overall were counting on at least that, not to mention 20-plus home runs and 20-plus stolen bases.
But plate discipline isn't the total package when examining a hitter. Looking closer at Wright's performance to date, something else is disconcerting:
|2007||.370 (.294)||42% (45%)||.259 (.240)||41% (41%)|
|2008||.301 (.294)||40% (45%)||.300 (.240)||40% (41%)|
|2009||.333 (.294)||37% (45%)||.255 (.240)||36% (41%)|
|2010||.314 (.290)||27% (44%)||.111 (.230)||23% (40%)|
Again, it's a small sample size, but Wright's decline in contact rate on fastballs is a worry, and his utter collapse against off-speed stuff is of even greater concern. The causes could be many: the change in his offensive approach due to the New York Mets' new ballpark is throwing off his timing; he might be pressing; he might be hiding an injury; opponents might be exploiting that he has largely been the de facto run producer for nearly a calendar year because of nagging injuries to players like Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and Jose Reyes. It might be a few of these factors.
Sum them up, and Wright, besides being an enigmatic fantasy player since Opening Day 2009, is one who looks more like the one who finished 64th on last year's Player Rater (albeit one who missed 15 games in August because of a concussion) than the one deemed 16th-best by fantasy owners in general this preseason. This is a game of adjustments, and that includes for us; perhaps it's time to readjust our expectations down from top 20 to top 50 for Wright.
With Wright's example in mind, let's take a closer look at two other slumping top-40 fantasy picks from the preseason to see whether value adjustments are warranted:
Prince Fielder (8.0 ADP, sixth overall): It'd be easier to dismiss his sluggish start -- as I did in this space one week ago -- if the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Milwaukee Brewers' official website and nearly every other media outlet surrounding the team hadn't noted his absence from Wednesday's batting practice session because of what was reported as a left-hand injury. According to reports, Fielder had his hand taped, but the team was dismissive of the problem and he hit his first home run of the season Thursday.
Fielder has a history of slow starts -- another thing noted in this space in the past -- as his .847 career OPS in the month of April is his worst in any month by 35 percentage points (next-worst is August, at .882). Still, troubling signs are there: His strikeout rate has risen to 30.3 percent, well above his 22.7 percent career rate; his ground-ball rate is a career-high 45.7 percent; and his fly-ball rate is a career-low 26.1 percent. In addition, Inside Edge reveals that Fielder has struck out on 56 percent of his plate appearances that reach two strikes, his percentage of off-speed swings put into play is 26 and his well-hit average on off-speed strikes is .063. Each of those numbers easily represents his worst in those categories since 2007, the first year the service provided those statistics.
In other words, Fielder's hand issue might be a bigger deal than people think it is, and if unfavorable reports about his health continue to linger, his value will need to be adjusted downward, perhaps significantly. That said, it's just as possible he'll heal with time and return to his past levels. We're talking a much more risk/reward player than his No. 6 ADP overall indicates, and if you're thinking about a buy-low offer for the Prince, it might be worth waiting to see some good signs.
Grady Sizemore (31.9 ADP, 31st overall): Perhaps the one of these three early-rounders whose slow start is most disconcerting, Sizemore has yet to hit a home run and has but one stolen base to his credit after only two years ago joining the 30-30 club. Fantasy owners who grabbed him as a fourth-rounder were tantalized by his recovery from elbow surgery in the preseason, particularly his .364 batting average, three homers and four steals in 17 spring training contests.
But as with Wright and Fielder, Sizemore's strikeout rate has soared to a career-high 27.1 percent, and his walk rate has dropped to 7.6 percent, his lowest number since 2005. Inside Edge also reveals that a key strength of his -- plate discipline -- has eroded this season: He has chased "noncompetitive" pitches (defined as pitches not near the strike zone) 23 percent of the time, noticeably north of the 18 percent major league average, and well above his 14, 14 and 13 numbers of the past three seasons. He also has put only 28 percent of off-speed swings into play, his worst number since 2007, and batted just .136 on off-speed pitches.
Might Sizemore not truly be back to 100 percent? Perhaps, but if so, his fantasy owners still would have had a better chance of his performing at top-50 levels if he were working the count and getting on base as frequently as he did in, say, 2007, when he managed a personal best in on-base percentage (.390). That'd mean enough chances to challenge for 30-plus steals, which would help offset his low batting average. As things stand, Sizemore might not bat much higher than .250 if he can't correct his issues, in which case he might be fighting just to earn top-100 status, let alone top-50, come season's end.
At the prices they cost on draft day, Wright, Fielder and Sizemore are hardly players their respective owners should just give away. But if you can field a competitive offer, you might want to consider it, and if you're a buy-low hunter, you shouldn't pursue them quite as feverishly.
TOP 100 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Jay Bruce, OF, Cincinnati Reds: Although Bruce's .215 batting average and three home runs leave a bit to be desired, Inside Edge has favorable peripheral statistics for him. Our player profile for the Reds' right fielder hinted at improved plate discipline by the youngster in 2009, and he seems to be continuing that progression, lowering his chase percentage early in the count from last year's 21 percent to 16. He also has kept his chase percentage with two strikes, currently 31 percent, within range of last year's 33, which suggests he's still growing as a hitter, not merely spinning his wheels. A player as young as Bruce -- he's 23 -- will have his streaky spells, but his 5-for-20 rate with three home runs and three walks in his past six games is a start. Stay patient.
Chase Headley, 3B/OF, San Diego Padres: Speaking of young players continually growing, we present the case of Headley, who in addition to his .371 batting average to date has an impressive six stolen bases. Six! Fantasy owners should know by now he's a hitter capable of a .300-plus average and double-digit power, but what might have slipped past their eyes were the 10 steals Headley had in 2009. He's capable of swiping a bag from time to time, as evidenced by his 20-for-23 career performance, and that has his value soaring.
Colby Rasmus, OF, St. Louis Cardinals: Call it a young-player-themed "Four up" section in this week's Hit Parade. Rasmus, now free of the threat of Rick Ankiel stealing his center-field at-bats, is off to a scorching start, batting .375 with five homers and three steals in 17 games. Perhaps more important, however, are the 11 walks he has drawn, which have boosted his walk rate from 6.9 percent as a rookie to 17.5, which ranks 18th among all qualified hitters. Rasmus has shown worlds of promise in the plate-discipline department, which had previously been a criticism of his, and dreams of a 20-20 campaign or better aren't outrageous.
Rickie Weeks, 2B, Milwaukee Brewers: "Enjoy the ride while it lasts" is the best advice a Rickie Weeks owner could receive, not because he's bound to cool off but rather because he's as great a threat for a disabled list stint as there is in the game. But let's talk up Weeks' positives, shall we? Combining his 2009-10 numbers and projecting them to 150 games -- a total he'll be hard-pressed to reach -- he'd be a .284 hitter with 33 home runs, 98 RBIs, 8 stolen bases and 120 runs scored. Who wouldn't take that from a second baseman on a per-game basis? It turns out Weeks can play up to the potential that earned him the No. 2 pick overall in the 2003 amateur draft. Now, if only he could dodge the DL.
Kyle Blanks, OF, San Diego Padres: As mentioned above, Blanks is tops in the game in terms of strikeout percentage, not that it should come as any surprise considering his number in the category was 22.8 percent during his minor league career and 37.2 percent during his 54-game stint with the Padres this past summer. The greater issue with Blanks is that if he's going to live the life of a streaky performer, he'll be subject to getting benched in an outfield where Tony Gwynn Jr., Scott Hairston and Will Venable apparently also have the Padres' eye. Blanks has batted .154 without a home run during his past nine games, and he's here to drive in runs. He can ill afford to remain that cold for much longer.
Yunel Escobar, SS, Atlanta Braves: Speaking of benchings, Escobar earned himself a seat on the sideline this past Friday thanks to miserable .188 batting average in his first 18 games. According to FanGraphs, Escobar has hit a ton of ground balls -- on 64.3 percent of his balls in play, in fact -- and that's not at all the promising, up-and-coming youngster we saw in the second half of last year, when he batted .306 with seven home runs and a .401 on-base percentage in 68 games. Maybe Escobar is just the kind of hitter who takes a few months to hit his stride -- he has a .740 career OPS in April -- but his upside isn't great enough that owners in standard ESPN.com leagues can afford to be particularly patient.
Nick Johnson, 1B, New York Yankees: Speaking of injury-prone players, Johnson ranks right up there with Rickie Weeks among the DL's most frequent guests. Johnson has battled nagging bumps and bruises since the start of spring training, and back problems that have cost him a few games in the past week bear watching. Johnson remains the Yankees' best suited option in the No. 2 hole, but speedy Brett Gardner might be gaining on him, and if the team drops Johnson to seventh, eighth or ninth, his runs scored total might suffer.
Chipper Jones, 3B, Atlanta Braves: Credit him for a quick return from his hip injury Sunday night, but if you watched Jones play in that game, you saw a player who visibly wasn't 100 percent. Jones' nagging injuries become more troublesome than ever because he's 38 years old, especially with the memory of his .264 batting average of 2009 still fresh in our minds. One can only wonder whether a stint on the DL to rest up might be in Jones' -- and his fantasy owners' -- best interests.
Pickups of the week
Mixed: Seth Smith, OF, Colorado Rockies. Put aside his .231 batting average for a second, because much of that was fueled by an unrealistically low .185 batting average on balls in play, mainly due to an inflated (and unlikely to be sustained) 54.8 percent fly-ball rate. What matters with Smith: He has four home runs and 12 RBIs in his first 15 games and 19/67 numbers in the categories in 374 at-bats since the beginning of last season or 25/90 if you project those to 500 at-bats. He's also a .286 hitter during that span, meaning Smith is more than capable of .290-25-90 numbers given everyday at-bats, right? Sounds a lot like a typical Brad Hawpe season, doesn't it? And Hawpe just landed on the DL this past week, meaning Smith should get everyday at-bats for at least the next couple of weeks.
AL-only: Rhyne Hughes, 1B, Baltimore Orioles. With the Orioles' offense off to such a sluggish start -- it ranks third-worst in the majors in runs (62 in 19 games) -- some creativity with the lineup needs to be expected, as evidenced by the recent promotion of Hughes. An eighth-round pick in 2004 by the Tampa Bay Rays who was acquired in this past summer's Gregg Zaun trade, Hughes has torn up Triple-A to the tune of .309/.367/.534 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) numbers in 91 games between this and last season, statistics any fantasy owner would love if they translate well to the majors. He drove in the winning run on Sunday, which might get him in his manager's good graces, and AL-only owners should at least stash him on their reserve lists in the hopes he can keep it up.
NL-only: Eric Young Jr., 2B, Colorado Rockies. To be clear, this is not an endorsement of Young as an instant fantasy stud, the type that mixed-league owners should race to pluck off the waiver wire. He hasn't promised everyday at-bats initially, or anything close to it, and he might be returned to the minors once Hawpe returns from the DL. Still, starting second baseman Clint Barmes is off to a .204/.291/.367 start, and that might mean the occasional appearance by Young, not to mention scattered at-bats in the outfield. One thing Young can do, however, at least for NL-only owners, is provide a cheap source of steals off the free-agent list. Remember, he has 306 steals in 583 games during his minor league career, including 58 in Triple-A in 2009.
New position qualifiers
One game: Kyle Blanks (1B), Willie Bloomquist (1B), Jamey Carroll (SS), Alexi Casilla (3B and SS), Bobby Crosby (SS), Mark DeRosa (2B), Jim Edmonds (1B), Mike Fontenot (SS), Bill Hall (SS), Omar Infante (SS), Don Kelly (3B), George Kottaras (1B), Andy Marte (3B), John McDonald (3B), Jayson Nix (3B and SS), Randy Ruiz (1B), Oscar Salazar (1B), Luke Scott (1B) and Mark Teahen (1B)
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.