30 Questions: Was Ludwick's 2008 season a fluke?
Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.
Ryan Ludwick makes me yawn.
He shouldn't. He was one of fantasy baseball's breakout stars of 2008, hitting .299 with a whopping 37 homers, 113 RBIs and 104 runs, to go with a .966 OPS. According to ESPN.com's Player Rater, Ludwick was the 24th-most-valuable player in fantasy last season. Considering the dude had 28 career big-league homers and 96 big-league RBIs in 637 at-bats across six seasons headed into last April, that's an especially astounding campaign.
As a result, during a fantasy chat earlier this week, I got a bunch of questions about Ludwick, including whether an owner should take him with the first pick in the fourth round. The buzz is, shall we say, extreme.
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So why am I not excited? I put this question to the floor at Fantasy Headquarters down in Bristol: "Name an equivalent player to Ryan Ludwick." The criteria: breakout guys who came from nowhere near the midpoint of their baseball career (Ludwick turns 31 in July); who previously kicked around the majors without a full-time job; and who, until their massive season, were probably best known as being "Quadruple-A" players. Here's the list we came up with from recent baseball history: Carlos Pena, Morgan Ensberg, Gary Matthews Jr., Jay Payton and Ty Wigginton.
Now, this comparison isn't exactly fair. Ludwick hit more homers in his breakout season than any of the guys listed above except Pena. But the larger point is that there just aren't a lot of guys who've exploded onto the scene as late in their careers as Ludwick did in '08, and then kept up a super-high performance level. Pena is probably a best-case scenario for Ludwick, and maybe the most accurate personal comparison. They each were top prospects who bounced around before putting it all together. But even Pena followed up his amazing '07 campaign by hitting 15 fewer homers, driving in 19 fewer runs and posting a batting average 35 points lower in '08.
All this is to say: I'm just not super-high on Ryan Ludwick. I won't go so far as to say his 2008 season was a total fluke. After all, he's got a full-time job as the Cardinals' right fielder, and he'll have a lot of RBI and run-scoring opportunities. I just don't see a repeat, especially not in batting average. The guy had never hit better than .267 in a big-league season before '08, and wasn't known as a guy likely to approach .300 even during his minor-league career. And perhaps most revealingly, his batting average on balls in play last year was a whopping .349, insinuating that he was more than a little bit lucky. Let's face it: Even if Ludwick's power numbers stay roughly the same but his average drops to, for example, .265, he suddenly becomes a significantly less valuable fantasy commodity. Will he be worthless? Of course not. Simply because of the skills he finally put together last season and the opportunities he'll get this year, he's a top-40 outfielder by any measure.
But should you take him with the first pick of the fourth round? Please, no. Don't pay for last year's stats. And understand that despite his tremendous '08 season, Ludwick comes with higher-than-average risk. Let someone else overpay, and meanwhile focus on finding 2009's Ryan Ludwick.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.
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