Think again: 10 players to reconsider
Think you know everything there is to know about fantasy baseball?
Perception has this way of taking hold of us; the advent of average draft positions (ADP) and rankings from myriad sources throughout the Web can often steer our hand. You might not want to admit it, but at some point, somehow, you've assuredly been convinced to go against your gut due to something you read, heard or saw, be it on TV, in a newspaper or on the Web.
It's understandable in this age of information overflow. At the same time, it's important to separate the fact from fiction; it's all too easy sometimes to make an assumption, to take a casually tossed-about but not-researched comment as truth.
This column is designed to inform you that a lot of those "truths" you've come to accept are false, or at least are pretty darned far from being the truth. There are 10 of them, each listed below in bold, things that a significant number of fantasy owners apparently believe, judging from feedback online, in chats, Conversation, Twitter, whatever. If you've been hooked by any, you've been misled.
Clayton Kershaw won't pitch deep enough into games to win.
Judging by some of the winter feedback, this was a commonly held belief exiting the 2010 season, but appears to have been dispelled in early 2011 drafts, at least judging by Kershaw's No. 39 (39.4) ESPN average draft position. People wouldn't draft him that soon -- and remember that I ranked him 34th overall so I'm even higher on him -- if they didn't trust his fantasy-ace ability, but at the same time, there might be some owners who look at that number and think, "Wait, what, a fourth-rounder?! Wasn't this the guy who won only eight games as a full-time starter just two years ago, and who has 26 wins in 83 career starts?"
Well, here's the statistical reality: Kershaw's innings per start have gone from 5.08 to 5.63 to 6.39 in his three big league seasons, and 6.57 after the All-Star break last year. His pitches per plate appearance dropped from 4.31 in 2009 to 3.98 in 2010, and his pitches per inning from 17.66 to 16.54. And his strikeout-to-walk ratio has gone from 1.92 to 2.03 to 2.62, and 2.71 after the All-Star break. If you still doubt Kershaw, giving him a Scott Kazmir-like level of disrespect, you're missing out on one of game's most exciting burgeoning young aces.
Mike Stanton will be a batting-average killer.
People seem to talk about Stanton as if he'll be a whiff machine lucky to bat .250, a one-man air conditioning unit for the state of Florida, while a little up the East Coast, Mark Reynolds single-handedly cools Maryland. While it's true that Stanton is going to strike out a lot -- he has whiffed at least 140 times in each of his three full professional seasons, and in 31.8 percent of his career at-bats as a pro -- he shouldn't be labeled a free-swinging, undisciplined slugger. Some points in his favor, from his rookie season: His 8.6 percent walk rate was 106th-best among the 214 players with 390-plus plate appearances. He swung at 32.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, only 74th-most. Per Inside Edge, he chased non-competitive pitches -- those not near the strike zone -- only 19 percent of the time, near the major league average of 18. And he averaged 4.03 pitches per plate appearances, well north of the major league average of 3.82.
Does that sound like a slugger who is completely helpless at the plate? Not necessarily, and it's why Stanton shouldn't be treated with the same disdain as a Carlos Pena (.196 batting average in 2010) or Mark Reynolds (.198). Batting titles aren't in Stanton's future, but a .250 mark or higher? It's indeed possible.
One of Rickie Weeks' most valuable assets is his speed.
Is it? The numbers say no. While Weeks' average of 23 stolen bases per 162 career big league games is probably feeding this mistaken reputation, his actual steal rates are in steep decline. He averaged one steal per 4.72 games in 2007, one per 6.79 in 2008 and one per 14.55 last season. His steals per times on base (singles plus walks plus hit by pitch) has dropped from .133 in 2007, to .099 in 2008, to .040 in 2010. His runs scored per times on base fell from .466 in 2008 to a career-worst .406 in 2010. And his steals per opportunity -- opportunities judged by Baseball-Reference.com -- has gone from 12.4 percent in 2007 to 9.8 in 2008 to 4.6 in 2010.
Perhaps the Milwaukee Brewers are giving Weeks the red light as a result of his health history, or perhaps he has lost a step on the basepaths. Whatever the cause, Weeks isn't a player you buy for his speed; he's a player you buy primarily for his power. And considering his next two best categories after home runs are probably runs scored and RBIs, both of those largely impacted by playing time, Weeks is a lot riskier bet than you think.
Ryan Howard is still an elite fantasy first baseman.
What, precisely, makes Howard such a lock to return to the 40- let alone 45-homer plateau? His isolated power has been in decline, going from .346 in 2006 to .316 in 2007 to .292 in both 2008 and 2009 to a career-worst .229 last season. He's also walking less often -- his 9.5 percent rate was his lowest since his 2005 rookie year -- and swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone (career-high 33.1 percent). His home run/fly ball percentage also dipped last season, to a career-worst 21.1, a sign that he's no longer a monster power source, just a very good one.
Blame his ankle injury if you wish, as he had only .231/.345/.441 rates and eight home runs and 27 RBIs in 39 games after his return last August (33-112 numbers per 162 games), but why give Howard a free pass as if he's destined to be injury-free at the age of 31 in 2011? He's now advancing into the latter stages of his prime, or worse, entering his declining years; his Philadelphia Phillies are painfully left-handed, opening him up to facing countless lefty specialists; and the team could have a somewhat diminished lineup if Chase Utley misses substantial time with his knee problems. Howard is still a capable .270-30-100 performer, but if that's all he is, that's not a top-25 player overall. There's some actual downside here.
The shift to designated hitter will rejuvenate Jorge Posada.
It's a popular strategy in fantasy baseball to nab the catcher-eligible player set to tally the bulk of his at-bats at another position on the diamond, his shedding the "tools of ignorance" greatly diminishing his injury risk, but in the case of Posada, I'm of the mind that it's too little, too late. This is a move more than a season -- and perhaps three -- in coming, perhaps one that would have been smarter back in mid-2008, when he was battling shoulder problems. Posada is now 39 years old, with 1,573 games and 12,871 innings of catching on his legs, so even if he never plays behind the plate in 2011, the damage might already have been done.
DH history isn't on his side: Only nine DHs aged 39 or older in baseball history have hit as many as 20 home runs in a season. Only eight have driven in 80 or more runs. Among catchers, Carlton Fisk -- who was a bit of a fluke of nature -- is Posada's best comparable, and Fisk managed .256-23-71 numbers in his age-39 season; good, but hardly "huge comeback campaign" stats. Another warning flag: Fisk is the only catcher to have ever hit more than seven home runs or driven in more than 57 runs at 39 or older. Maybe the DH move will do just enough to keep Posada in the .265-20-70 range, if he can stay healthy enough. But why is it assumed that he will? After all, he battled a barrage of nagging minor injuries throughout the 2010 season. Maybe it's not the position that put him in the health-risk department; maybe it's simply his advancing age?
Ted Lilly doesn't belong anywhere near the top-25 starters.
This might be the most absurd statement of the bunch; Lilly has consistently been one of the most underrated players in all of fantasy baseball. Just look at where he ranks among pitchers with 648 or more innings -- 162 times four -- the past four seasons combined: second in WHIP (1.13), 13th in wins (54), 16th in strikeouts (675) and 18th in ERA (3.68). That's right, he's top-20 in every single one, and the WHIP in particular will probably shock you.
What's more: Lilly had a 2.89 ERA and 0.86 WHIP in seven starts at pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium last season, and he'll call it home again in 2011. Under-rated!
The Player Rater dispels this one. Consider this: Crawford was tied with Albert Pujols as the No. 2 hitter as judged by Player Rater last season, when accounting for all five offensive Rotisserie categories. Now take stolen bases out of the equation. Would it surprise you to learn that, based upon only batting average, home run, RBIs and runs scored production, Crawford was the No. 16 hitter in baseball in 2010? Now let's consider if Crawford had stolen fewer bases; if he had matched Chone Figgins' steals total of 42, Crawford would have finished the fifth-most valuable fantasy hitter. If he had matched Scott Podsednik's 35, Crawford would have finished seventh, and if he had matched Drew Stubbs' 30, he'd have still finished seventh. In fact, if Crawford had stolen only 20 bases, he'd have been, at worst, a top-10 hitter.
So why is there such a hesitation to treat Crawford as a potential top-five overall pick? All he's doing is migrating from the Tampa Bay Rays, who scored 802 runs thanks to Nos. 1-2 hitters who managed a combined .342 on-base percentage, to the Red Sox, who scored 818 despite Nos. 1-2 hitters whose on-base percentage was .331. Crawford's run-scored potential is now greater, his RBI potential is probably also greater, and he's 29 years old coming off a year in which he set a career-high in home runs (19). Any hit he takes in terms of steals should be more than offset by his contributions in the other categories.
Starlin Castro has arrived as the next great fantasy shortstop.
Castro might be one of the game's most exciting young shortstops, yes, but let's stop for a second and remember that he's still a 21-year-old -- or at least will play the 2011 season at that age -- who had only 57 games at the Double-A level before making his debut for the Chicago Cubs last season. Consider that in modern history (1901 and later), only six shortstops aged 21 or younger have ever hit as many as 10 home runs in a season, and only three have hit 15 or more. Ten have batted .300, Castro being one of them, and only six have stolen 30 or more bases. History is not on his side, nor is the fact that, in spite of his 15th-best-among-shortstops-on-the-Player-Rater rookie campaign, his game still had some flaws.
One was his defense: He had the second-worst fielding percentage (.950) and was 13th among 21 regular shortstops, and it's not unthinkable that either the chore of attempting to improve that area might adversely impact his offense, or the Cubs could tire of his erratic ways in the field and decrease his playing time.
The other is that Castro has to generate much of his fantasy value with his legs, and there are some questions about that, too: He has only a 66.3 percent success rate on steals as a professional, and had a 55.6 percent mark as a Cubs rookie in 2010. Castro hit 51.3 percent of his batted balls on the ground, so he's going to need to leg out hits to maintain close to a .300 batting average. He might indeed do that, but who's to say he can breeze past 20 steals, ineffective as he was last season?
Castro might indeed be the next fantasy stud among shortstops, but if there's such a thing as the sophomore jinx, he'd be a candidate. This is a raw prospect, and one who might yet face an adjustment period after not enduring one as a rookie.
Kimbrel has the stuff to close but his command is lacking, and if you've been paying attention so far this spring, you might have noticed that he has been roughed up repeatedly. The Atlanta Braves have never been afraid to ride the hot hand in the ninth inning, and Venters didn't struggle for any extended period during his remarkable rookie campaign. His mid-90s fastball and filthy slider generate plenty of swings and misses -- his 14.9 swinging strike percentage was tops among pitchers with at least 80 innings -- he lacks any discernable platoon split and he's off to a hotter start to the exhibition season of the two.
That's not to say Kimbrel has no chance at the closer's role, or that the gig won't someday be his. It's merely a caution that he's far from a guarantee.
Homer Bailey is just another example of a bust of a former top prospect.
If you read my Alex Gordon "30 Questions," you're probably well-schooled already in the concept of the "post-hype sleeper," which is the player whose value has been deflated due to a few years' worth of big league disappointments after he entered his rookie season surrounded by considerable hype. Bailey also fits the bill.
This is a pitcher who, on two occasions, was ranked among the top 10 prospects in the minors by Baseball America. Bailey might no longer profile as a future ace, but his 2010 did offer hints of something greater. He set personal bests -- at the big league level at least -- with 8.26 K's per nine and 2.50 K's per walk ratios, and his 3.74 FIP and 3.91 xFIP showed upside from his 4.46 ERA. Bailey is going to fly beneath the radar in all but deep NL-only leagues, partly because he's not guaranteed a spot in the Cincinnati Reds' rotation, but that simply means he won't bust your budget when you pick him (as you should).
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.
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