The Big Rotowski: When perceptions don't match reality
"What a chimera then is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!" -- Blaise Pascal
It's clear, nay unmistakable, that 17th-century French mathematician, physicist and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal was a baseball fan. Who else but Alex Rodriguez could he have been talking about when he wrote: "The last act is bloody, however fine the rest of the play. They throw earth over your head and it is finished forever." Exactly three players in baseball history have had the first name 'Blaise,' and exactly three have had the last name 'Pascal' (or 'Pascale'). And don't even get me started on that Triangle of his. What screams "binomial coefficients!" more loudly than baseball?But today, we convene to speak of the chimera: that dual creature, that contradiction, that misleading beast of which Pascal also wrote. Kevin Youkilis.John Cordes/Icon SMIKevin Youkilis has proven that he's not just a walks machine, but that he also has legitimate power.
Burdened by his "Moneyball" nom de guerre "The Greek God of Walks," Youkilis isn't Greek and doesn't actually walk all that much anymore. In 2004 and 2005, he rode the Pawtucket-to-Boston shuttle regularly, gaining fame in Northeast media centers as a gamer, a creature whose hairy hide was practically made of on-base percentage. Yes, he was once the apple of Billy Beane's eye, an '01 eighth-rounder who embodied baseball's New Wave, but where did he fit in a town like Boston? A corner man who'd never hit for power? Such things are appropriate for the Kansas Citys and Pittsburghs of the world, but the very notion of a 15-homer corner player in a Red Sox uniform was a soft heresy.
But neither solely lion nor snake nor goat, Youkilis might have turned out to be all these things: a batter with a terrific eye who can hit cleanup on a big-market club; a .900-plus-OPS Gold Glover who can go the other way when he needs to; a 30-homer, 120-RBI, .390-OBP machine who doesn't have to trade average for power. He is Pascal's chimera come to life, and yet in fantasy baseball, we still wait for the other shoe to drop. No, his insane 1.272 OPS these first few weeks of 2009 isn't going to last, and he's not going to hit .429 for the season. But once again, he's got four homers in 15 games, a pace that'll put him well over 29, his total from '08. He's got 12 RBIs without David Ortiz on base much in front of him. He's showing no signs of giving up one of the majors' sweetest gigs: cleanup in Fenway. He is, as Al Gore on "South Park" might have it, manbearpig. (Half man, half bear, half pig.)
Where does Youkilis belong in the pantheon of fantasy first basemen? Behind Albert Pujols, surely (Pujols might himself in fact be some kind of mythological creature come to life; I'm only up to "Aztec" in my Field Guide To Spotting Demigods). Yeah, Miguel Cabrera, too. I'm a little fuzzier on Ryan Howard and Mark Teixeira, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt. But are you so sure Youkilis is a fantasy-inferior player to Lance Berkman, Justin Morneau, Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder? I'm not. I think the reason we don't put Yook above those guys is because of the suppositions with which we enter the debate. "Youkilis can't be in the same class as Morneau! Morneau has hit over 30 homers in two of the past three years!" Or: "Gonzalez is a former No. 1 overall pick who knocked out 36 last year! No way li'l ol' Yook can compete with that!" Hey, I'm not saying I'm positive Youkilis has broken out of his box. I'm just saying if he goes on to drill another 29-plus homers in '09, most of those arguments will go the way of the dodo.
Here are four other fantasy assets who are mythically misjudged by the heathens that surround you:
B.J. Upton, CF, TB: More Cheetah Than Rhino. Last year's playoffs -- in which he hit seven homers in 66 at-bats -- did a number on the elder Upton's public perception. Several times this winter, when Upton's name came up in conversation, it was in the context of likely 30-30 players. Now, he does have a 24-homer season as recently as 2007, and there's little doubt his mere eight regular-season dingers in '08 were influenced by a bad shoulder that required surgery this offseason. Still, even the Rays seem to believe Upton isn't ready to be an elite power hitter. They've made him their leadoff man, and it's a perfect fit. He's lightning-fast (44 steals in '08) and finished eighth in all of baseball last year with 97 walks, despite the fact that he batted either second or third in 135 games. He's ready to be a top-10 OBP guy as soon as this season. So don't freak that he hasn't hit a round-tripper yet in '09; in Upton, you've got one of the most valuable runs/steals players in fantasy, and anything you get on the power side is gravy.
Year GB/FB 2006 1.33 2008 0.72 2009 0.66
Francisco Liriano, SP, MIN: Fastball Pharaoh. The writers and editors here at ESPN Fantasy recently started an e-mail chain about the young lefty, and it wasn't a happy one. It started with the observation from Nate Ravitz that Liriano's ground ball-to-flyball rate has been in the tank since his return from Tommy John surgery:
Among other interesting observations, Kevin Rounce subsequently noted that, according to stats from Fangraphs, Liriano is throwing his fastball way more so far this year than he has in previous seasons:
Percentage distribution of Liriano's pitches
Year Fastball Slider Change 2006 43.6 37.6 18.7 2008 53.6 26.4 20.0 2009 61.0 27.5 11.5
Anyone who watched Liriano on Wednesday night against Boston knows that pretty much every time he threw a fastball near the plate, the Red Sox tattooed it. In fact, in his awesome '06 season, Liriano allowed contact on 76 percent of all pitches that were in the strike zone; in '08 that number was 87.6 percent, and so far in '09, it's 82.8 percent. This just doesn't look like the same guy. For sure, you understand why the Twins would be focusing more on his fastball, especially if it hurts to throw his famed slider or his decent change. Maybe they're just trying to keep non-fastballs down as a precautionary measure. But it does seem that our estimation of Liriano as being ready to reassume his mantle of dominance might have been misplaced. Scouting reports are clearly telling opposing hitters to sit on the fastball. If he keeps throwing 'em straight, they might keep coming right back at him.
Kyle Lohse, SP, STL: WHIP Scorpion? Lohse pitched well again Thursday against the Mets, winning his third decision while allowing one earned run, one walk and eight hits in five innings. Unfortunately, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he "heard a pop" in his knee while covering first base in the fifth inning, and needed an MRI, so this analysis might be moot, which is to say more Loki's giggle than Thor's thunder. But man, the dude is pitching well. Lohse went thoroughly undrafted in ESPN.com leagues, despite the fact that Dave Duncan had already helped remake his approach in 2008, as Lohse went back to relying much more on his fastball and much less on his change. The result was that he became more of a groundball pitcher, which led to his fewest homers allowed in a season and a sub-4.00 ERA. Most importantly, his WHIP was "only" 1.30, the second-best mark of his career. No, he's not an elite strikeout pitcher, which means he'll never be an elite fantasy pitcher, but he's come a long way since those disastrous late days with the Twins by which most of us know him best.
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Christopher Harris is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.
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