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 – Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies
After a solid, but unspectacular rookie season, 23-year-old Nolan Arenado busted out in 2014. He hit .287 with 18 HRs and strong run production numbers also. Despite appearing in just 111 games, Arenado was the 11th most valuable 3B eligible player. This outstanding production has created some buzz surrounding Arenado, but he is still being ranked/drafted in the 5th or 6th round in most early mocks that I have seen. He is ranked behind players like Evan Longoria, Todd Frazier and Kyle Seager on most draft boards, so there appears to be some potential value here. After all, on a per game basis, Arenado was the fourth most valuable 3B in 2014.
Nolan Arenado does not have the best plate discipline, but he did improve in 2014. After chasing 42.8% of pitches outside the zone in 2013, he cut that number to 38.6% last season. That is still pretty high, but moving in the right direction. His BB rate rose from 4.5% to 5.4% and since he never had high walk rates in the minors, we can expect a similar approach in 2015.
Despite being somewhat of a free swinger, Arenado has a pretty low strikeout rate (12.4%). He has good contact skills as demonstrated by his 8% swinging strike rate, but he also likes to be aggressive early in the count. Arenado put the ball in play on the first pitch 70 times over 467 plate appearances in 2014 and he only reached a full count 35 times. Because he does not take a ton of pitches, he is often putting the ball in play before even reaching a two strike count. Unless he changes his approach, owners can expect a similar strikeout rate in 2015.
Arenado’s BABIP has been steady over his first two seasons (.296 in 2013 and .294 in 2014). His batted ball profile changed quite a bit in 2014, however. Arenado traded line drives (20.6%) and ground balls (37.6%) for an 8% increase in his fly ball rate (41.8%). The result was a slight fly ball tilt to bis batted ball profile and a .75 point rise in his ISO.
Arenado’s increasing fly ball rate is likely good for his fantasy profile overall, but it could mean a slightly lower batting average in 2015. He should hit somewhere between .270 and .295. In today’s MLB, that is a pretty solid number from a power hitter.
During his rookie season, Arenado developed a reputation as a hitter who performed well against lefties (.367 wOBA), but struggled against righties (.285 wOBA). Like many hitters who reside in Colorado, he also fared much better at home than on the road.
While he still displayed the same strengths in 2014, he made enough improvements to be a steady producer both against righties and away from Coors Field. Some may be scared off by the fact that Arenado hit 16 of his 18 HRs at home last season. He performed like an MVP candidate at home (.414 wOBA, .286 ISO), but perhaps the best news was that his production on road (.314 wOBA, .134 ISO) was about equal to his overall production as a rookie (.308 wOBA, .138 ISO).
Similarly, Arenado continued to rake against lefties, but he became an above average hitter against right-handed pitchers also. His .339 wOBA and .188 ISO against righties will certainly play just fine.
You already know that Arenado hit more fly balls in 2014. He was also able to increase his average fly ball distance to 289 feet, which makes his 11.4% HR/FB rate actually look a little too low. Considering that he is just 23 years old and likely still likely two or three years away from his power prime, future improvement in the HR category is essentially a given.
Arenado does a pretty good job hitting to all fields, but all of his 28 career HRs have gone out to left or to center. He is unlikely to ever be an elite power bat, but he is fully capable of hitting 25 HRs a year and he has the upside to reach 30 if he can stay healthy.
As a general rule, you want hitters who play half of their games in great hitter’s parks. Coors Field is still the premier hitter’s park in baseball. The Rockies are going to post a ton of runs in 2015, and Nolan Arenado projects to figure prominently. He is most likely to slot either 2nd, 5th, or 6th when everyone is healthy, but any way you slice it there will be plenty of opportunities for run production.
Contrary to popular opinion, defense does matter in fantasy baseball. Players who defend their position well are more likely to remain in the lineup even while slumping. Players who don’t play great defense are at risk to eventually lose playing time if their offensive production slips.
There are no such worries with Arenado. He won his second gold glove award in as many seasons and is one of the best defensive players in the game today.
Here is my 2015 projection for Nolan Arenado:
.280, 80 Runs, 25 HR, 90 RBI, 2 SBs
His 2014 production seems to match up well with his skills, yet many owners are reluctant to pay full price at the 2015 draft table. This is a potentially elite hitter, playing half his games in the ideal hitters park, and his best years are still ahead of him. I think he has the upside to outproduce 2nd round picks like Beltre and Donaldson while still carrying a relatively high floor. With a 5th round price tag, Nolan Arenado is somebody you should want on your fantasy team.
Hate – Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Last season, I begged fantasy owners not to draft Evan Longoria in the second round. While he did play in all 162 games and finish as the 7th best fantasy 3B in 2014, those who ignored my advice last season were likely disappointed. Longoria is a prime example of a “superstar” player whose cost exceeds his production because of the value that his name brand commands. While Longoria’s price tag in 2015 drafts will be significantly lower than it has been, he is still going to high for my tastes.
After seeing his K rate rise dramatically over the previous two seasons, Longoria finally saw his K% go back in the other direction. He struck out just 19.0% of the time in 2014, after a 23.4% K rate the season before. Sounds like good news, right? Not so fast.
Evan Longoria has always had pretty good plate discipline, but he is starting to chase more and more outside the zone (career high 30.7% O-swing in 2014), and his swinging strike rate has increased along with it (10.6%). His K rate has gone down because he is swinging at more pitches and putting more in play, but his BB rate was also down to a career low 8.1% in 2014. This was the first time Longoria posted a walk rate below 10% since his rookie season. Even more frightening is the fact that these trends got worse as the season progressed. Over the first half, Longoria had a BB/K rate of .49. In the second half, it was just .33.
Longoria’s batted ball distribution was more or less in line with his career averages. He hit a few less fly balls in 2014 and a few more LDs and GBs. On the surface, one might expect a higher BABIP with that profile, but Longoria actually had a .285 BABIP this past season (career .301).
Interestingly though, the monthly data tells a far different story. His full season batted ball distribution appears to be skewed by the first two months where he simply was not hitting the ball in the air. Longoria had fly ball rates of 28.2% and 35.3% during April and May. From July on, his fly ball rate surged over 46% and his BABIP fell precipitously over that span as well (.268 second half BABIP).
Given everything going on here, I don’t think Longoria was at all unlucky in the batting average category. Moving forward, he projects to hit somewhere in the .250s, but his floor could be significantly lower if recent trends continue to get worse.
Longoria’s high fly ball rate during the second half had a positive impact on his ISO and his HR total. 10 of Longo’s 22 HRs came in the season’s final two months. While that may seem encouraging, his 10.8% HR/FB rate and .151 ISO represent career lows and do not appear to be results of bad luck. Longoria’s average fly ball distance of 279 feet is quite pedestrian. He simply does not seem to have the elite power stroke that once made him a top-tier fantasy option.
If he sustains the high fly ball rate from 2014’s second half, he could still reach 30 HRs, but the batting average is likely to suffer even more (possibly near .240). If he goes the other direction and hits fewer fly balls, expect the batting average to recover, but his HR total could be closer to 20 again.
Longoria is sure to be locked into a prime lineup spot for Tampa Bay. Whether he hits third or fourth, he will remain their primary RBI man. With key offensive cogs like Zobrist and Wil Myers moving on, however, the Devil Ray lineup does not look terribly intimidating. Desmond Jennings, Asdrubal Cabrera and Stephen Souza appear to be the best hitters on the team outside of Longo.
Normally, I think Steamer projections err on the conservative side, but given the lack of lineup protection in Tampa they look pretty close to me. Steamer has Longoria for 77 runs and 85 RBI.
I don’t expect Longoria to be a complete bust in 2015, but I think there are plenty of guys like Arenado, Todd Frazier and Kyle Seager who are as good or better than Longo, but can be had for a cheaper price. Here is my Longoria projection:
.255, 75 Runs, 25 HR, 90 RBI, 3 SBs