In this series, I will be taking a tour around the diamond for in-depth looks at players who I value differently than the market consensus. Expert ranking lists are not worth the paper they are printed on without analysis as to why players are ranked where they are. Since the featured players in this column will be guys who I value much differently than the mainstream, you may not agree with where I rank them, but it is still important to understand why I have them where they are. Sometimes alternative viewpoints can be more illuminating than group think, even if you do not agree with the opinion.
Love – Victor Martinez, Detroit Tigers
Victor Martinez was arguably the best hitter in baseball last year. In 5×5 scoring, he was more valuable than White Sox slugger Jose Abreu and teammate Miguel Cabrera. The only hitters who were more valuable in 2014 according to Y!’s player rater were Mike Trout, Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley, and those players all did a large portion of their damage on the base paths. The old fantasy adage is to never pay for a career year, which obviously VMart had, but you may not have to pay full price to acquire him.
Now, let’s take a look and see how much owners should be willing to pay to land the Tigers’ best hitter from 2014.
Victor Martinez has always had excellent plate discipline with a career walk rate (9.5%) within a percentage point of his career K rate (10.4%). In 2014, however, VMart took things to a new level. In today’s MLB it is extremely rare for a hitter to have more BBs than Ks. Not only did Vmart walk 28 more times than he struck out (10.9% BB, 6.6% K), but he actually had more HRs than Ks halfway through the season.
VMart is not afraid to swing at pitches outside the zone. He had a 35% O-swing rate in 2014, but his swinging strike rate was only 3.4%. VMart was very aggressive with two strikes, only striking out looking 8 times all season.
In other words, VMart does not take called third strikes and when he swings, he almost always makes contact. That sounds like a pretty good base for a strong batting average.
Batted Ball Profile
Martinez has a very healthy batted ball distribution given his skill set and his 2014 batted ball data was not too far out of line from his career averages. He hit line drives 21.3% of the time, ground balls 40.6% and fly balls 38.1%. He rarely popped out (10%) and his HR/FB rate was 16%. Almost all of his HRs went to the pull side, but he showed the ability to hit to all fields from both sides of the dish, so we should not have to worry about a shift crushing his BABIP.
When you add it all up, his .316 BABIP from 2014 looks like a very fair representation of VMart’s skills. In fact, his career BABIP is exactly .316. As long as his contact rates remain elite, VMart is a lock to hit above .300 and a favorite for the AL batting title.
The determining factor for whether or not Victor Martinez will be a good value in 2015 is how many HRs he hits. From 2004 to 2010, VMart was able to top 20 HRs five times. He missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL and managed just 12 and 14 HRs in 2011 and 2013. Most owners will look at VMart’s career high 32 HRs with a 16% HR/FB rate as a Joe Maueresque fluke. As a result, his 2015 draft price will still be relatively affordable considering the damage he did in 2014.
Before you write off Martinez’s power outburst, however, consider that his 38.1% fly ball rate was significantly higher the prior two seasons but still not out of character. His average fly ball distance was 286.16 feet from the right side and 298.13 from the left.
That 286 foot fly ball distance from the right side (VMart’s “weak side”) is right on par with sluggers such as Jose Bautista, Bryce Harper, Adrian Gonzalez and C.J. Cron. All of these players had HR/FB rates between 14.3% and 18.5% further contextualizing VMart’s 16% rate.
In other words, even from VMart’s less powerful side, there is nothing flukey about his HR/FB rate. Although I would not expect 30+ HRs in 2015, 20 should be a given and 25 is not out of the question.
Losing Torii Hunter will hurt, but with talented hitters like Ian Kinsler and Miguel Cabrera getting on base in front of VMart, RBI chances will be plentiful. Now that J.D. Martinez has broken out and Yoenis Cespedes has been added to the mix, there are two more impressive bats likely to slot behind VMart. Both men are capable of driving Martinez home from first base.
There is always some injury risk for 36-year-old players, but given that VMart will be DHing more often than not, he seems like a good bet to play 145+ games. He had the lost season with the ACL tear, but has played 145+ in seven of ten seasons, most of these as a catcher.
Additionally, owners need to consider that VMart’s final line from 2013 was heavily impacted by his lost season. VMart found himself on quite a few fantasy waiver wires after a slow start in 2013. He had wOBAs of .253 and .257 in the season’s first two months before finishing strong with a .391 2nd half wOBA. In other words, VMart was basically the same elite hitter over the second half of 2013, just with a few less HRs.
Many owners are expecting VMart to return back down to earth in 2015. Realistically, he can’t keep the same pace that he established last season, but everything that he accomplished was a direct result of his skill level. There was nothing lucky about the batting average or the power output. I am projecting the following for VMart in 2015:
.315, 80 Runs, 25 HRs, 100 RBI in 145 games
Since most expert early ranks have VMart projected as a 4th round selection, I will happily look to pounce on Vmart late in the 3rd. Some regression is inevitable, but if he is just the 10th best hitter in baseball instead of the best, his drafters will still turn a hefty profit. The best part about owning Vmart in 2015 is that I think his floor is still higher than just about anybody you can draft in rounds 3-5.
Hate – Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
I know, I am going out on a limb here. To be perfectly honest, there over 30 first basemen who I would be willing to use in my daily lineup. There an impressive amount of hitting talent available at this position. Joe Mauer is a player who will likely be drafted in most mixed leagues because of his history and his name value. Unless you are playing in a head to head league and punting the power categories however, you may want to leave Mauer for somebody else.
Ks and BBs
When Joe Mauer was in his prime, he walked more than he struck out. For his career, his BB rate is 12.1% and his K rate is 11.8%. 2012 was the last time Mauer earned more walks than strikeouts, but since then his BB rate has fallen each season, and his K rate has been on the rise for 5 consecutive seasons. In 2014 he walked 11.6% of the time and struck out 18.5%.
Mauer still has excellent plate discipline and strong contact skills, but all of his rates are moving in the wrong direction. His swinging strike rate was only 5.8% in 2014. Against the rest of the major league universe this number looks awesome. Comparing those numbers to Mauer’s past paints a different picture though. From 2006 to 2012, Mauer’s K rate was never higher than 4.3% and was under 4% on four separate occasions. In other words, Mauer is whiffing at almost 50% more pitches than he did in his prime.
Mauer’s swings at pitches outside the zone tell a similar story. Mauer’s 25.4% O-swing rate represents the highest of his career. Again, when compared to the rest of the MLB universe this number looks pretty good, but Mauer’s career O-swing is just 21.2%.
Since most of Mauer’s fantasy value is derived from his ability to hit for average, the fact that his plate discipline and contact skills have declined from godlike to merely excellent is certainly cause for concern.
Aside from perhaps 2010, owners have never drafted Joe Mauer for his power. He does still have some decent pop in his bat, as illustrated by his 283.39 average fly ball distance. His 2014 HR/FB rate of 5.1% appears to be somewhat unlucky in light of those numbers, but Mauer has only reached double digits in the HR category four times in ten seasons. Aside from his 2009 power outburst, Mauer’s next best season was 13 HRs. If you are only getting 8-10 long balls from a corner infielder, you are placing your team at a huge disadvantage relative to the others in your league. It is not like Mauer was trading HRs for doubles either. His .095 ISO from 2014 just does not play without a bunch of steals or elite run/RBI contribution to make up for the lack of power.
Batted Ball Profile
Mauer has always been an elite line drive specialist, but his 27.2% LD rate from 2014 was the second highest of his career. His ground ball rate has also remained high (50.8% in 2014). Mauer’s miniscule 21.9% fly ball rate goes a long way toward explaining his outstanding BABIP and his power outage. Impressively though, Mauer had zero pop flies in 2014. His 2014 .342 BABIP is right in line with his career rates, so owners should still expect a batting average near or above .300 despite the increasing K rates.
The Twins projected 2015 lineup will surely include Mauer batting either second or third. They are a little better than most people think, but Mauer’s endless stream of singles just are not going to drive in a ton of runs. With all or nothing young power guys like Arcia and Vargas likely to man the prime run producing spots, Mauer’s run scoring ceiling is likely capped near 80 also.
Heading into 2014, the thought was that a move to first base would help keep Mauer’s bat in the lineup every day. He took a lot of pounding during his time as a backstop and the toll on his body has surely had a cumulative effect. In 2014, Mauer missed a little over a month with a strained oblique, but was otherwise relatively healthy. Playing first base certainly increases his odds of suiting up for 150 plus games, but that is not something his owners should be counting on. Mauer has only played 140 games three times in his career.
Also, keep in mind that given Mauer’s concussion history, the next significant blow to the head could be a career ending event for Mauer.
I think Mauer will bounce back somewhat, but his upside is capped by the lineup around him and his limited power. I am projecting the following line:
.305, 70 runs, 8 HR, 65 RBI, 2 SB in 135 games
I just don’t think his upside is high enough given the injury risk and the large disadvantage Mauer owners will face in the power cats. I will pass on Mauer in 2015.