Avoiding the Flash in the Pan at 3B

Fantasy managers know that April surges from non-star players happen every year. Sometimes these players fizzle out after a month or two, but some manage to put together an entire season of good results. We think that because they maintained production over a full year, it’s likely they have found a new level and we have to move them up our future draft rankings. But what happens when those breakout players fall flat in the next season? Was it pure luck that they did well for a full year? Did they suffer bad luck or injury in the next year? How can we avoid drafting the one-season duds? What about players who have two great seasons in their career, but not back-to-back?

I decided to look at some of the best examples from the past several seasons. I searched primarily based on FanGraph’s offensive runs above replacement (Off), but I also looked at some of the top-10 third basemen from my own leagues. For each player, I looked at the few years before the breakout to see if the metrics forecast it, the breakout itself, and the season after. I didn’t limit my search solely to players who have only one single season of positive production; some of these hitters had numerous years as a starting player, whether before or after their peak season — they simply failed to maintain the top-10 performance that fantasy managers paid for after their breakout.

Learning from History

Brandon Inge, 2009 and 2006 – Inge didn’t ever put up great values according to FanGraph’s offensive RAR, due to high strikeouts and low BA. However, his 27 home runs in two years certainly helped boost his fantasy value, whether you were playing in points or roto format. After two respectable years, he surged to add more than 10 HR to his personal best. The BA was in decline, however, even at this point. In 2006 he set career highs in FB% and HR/FB at that point. Overall, most of his metrics didn’t change drastically from season to season. His success primarily depended on home runs, which were dependent on his HR/FB, and that was only above league average three times in his career.

Casey McGehee, 2010 – His half-season in 2009 showed decent pop and a high batting average. In order to reach that average, he posted his best LD% and his second best BABIP of his career. The mini breakout bought him a full season in 2010, and he did rather well: .285, 23 HR, 104 RBI. With one and a half years of good production, it was hard not to buy into him as a legit option in the rankings. However, three of the next four years have resulted in a BABIP around .250, along with a GB% at or above 50%. In 2014 he managed to produce a good BA again, due to a career high BABIP, but the power completely disappeared and the grounders stayed high. In forecasting his future from 2009, I would have decently high hopes. He had a good enough HR/FB  and FB% to sustain 20 home runs. I wouldn’t have bought into the BA just yet, but he had a good enough contact rate and BB% to warrant consideration. Even when looking at 2009 and 2010 together, there were no major warning signs of a crash — the only tiny red flag was a drop in FB%, but it wasn’t extreme (yet) and we couldn’t have known then that it would continue for five straight years.

Chase Headley, 2012 – That was a nice season, wasn’t it? I did draft him as an endgame flier in one league, but I certainly never expected that type of sleeper value. For a hitter who’d managed a BABIP above league average, prior to his breakout he had three years of .260 BA, with a high spike in 2011 of .289 due to an even higher (unsustainable) BABIP. He was hitting 45% grounders, and his HR/FB% was well below what I want from a third baseman (and even outfielder). It goes to show that when a player has a history of HR/FB below 10%, and then he jumps to crazy levels (above 20%), you really can’t buy into it. In the two years that followed, his home runs returned to his previous levels, and his BA and BABIP fell despite a higher LD%. His 2011 BA was definitely BABIP driven, and his 2012 BA matched the previous year because of the extra homers he hit; remove the 20 extra hits that were HR from his hit total, and the BA drops to his previous levels.

Chris Johnson, 2013 – He had a history of a good BA, partly due to a high LD%. However, the two years he hit over .300, he needed BABIPs over .380 to do so. Even if some hitters can maintain a .340 BABIP, a .380 is not sustainable. That .321 average helped him break into the top-10 for 2013, despite fewer HR than the previous year. When looking at his metrics before that point (2010-12), I would’ve said 2011 was an unlucky year, and a high BA was not guaranteed. His pedestrian contact rate and K/BB along with his relatively low FB% didn’t indicate a budding star. After the breakout, two years of league average BABIP against righties (which was low compared to his career level) resulted in the lower batting average. And oddly enough, despite a strong LD%, he’s never really had a hard hit rate above the league average, so those liners aren’t overly strong and indicating future power.

Lonnie Chisenhall, 2014 – The first thing I notice about Chisenhall is the lack of full-time at bats. Even as a (formerly) touted prospect, it’s hard to break into the league when you only get a few hundred AB for most of your seasons. His breakout batting average was fueled by BABIP and a strong LD%. He had double-digit homers, but his HR/FB and FB% were down from the previous year; he simply got more playing time in order to put up a better HR total. Aside from that bit of BABIP luck (particularly against lefties), there was nothing in his previous metrics to indicate the improvement in 2014. In fact, it seems that he was likely capable of playing near that level (minus some batting average) for the next few years, but he never got the chance. Some of his misfortune seems to be in platoon splits, but when you consider how few AB he got against lefties in some of those seasons, plus two years of unlucky BABIP in the tiny samples, it’s more a knock on the managerial decisions than his ability. With that said, I don’t see any future return to his 2014 levels, because he’s average at best across the board, and his power metrics actually slipped a bit more in 2015.

Josh Harrison, 2014 – First off, we have to give him a bit of a mulligan for 2015 due to his thumb injury. He’s a bit of an in-between for this list, because he doesn’t have much of an “after” picture, and I feel he did well and isn’t a one-hit wonder. The thumb likely affected his power swing, resulting in fewer HR. His contact rate, walk rate, and BABIP didn’t change much, so the drop in SB is likely due to running just a bit less and the fewer at bats. When looking at his past, two years of suppressed BABIP likely affected his chances. A spike in hard hit rate and HR/FB% in 2013 may have helped get him a chance to play in 2014, despite the unlucky average. There were hints that he could reach his 2014 level, but I’m not sure I would’ve bought into his new average due such a large jump in BABIP. He managed to maintain it in 2015, though, so with health and some good luck, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him reach .290, 15 HR, 20 SB. At least he should cost less in 2016.

2015 Breakouts: Safe or Risky?

Mike Moustakas – Like Chisenhall, Moustakas was looking like a failed prospect. They were the same age and debuted in the same year. Moose had four years of a declining batting average (and BABIP), and though one might think it was partly bad luck, it’s hard to ignore that long of a trend. He hit a ton of fly balls, but his league average HR/FB% meant he wasn’t anything special. Then in 2015 the BABIP and BA trend jumped to the other end of the spectrum. He managed a league average BABIP, and that resulted in an average that had fantasy value. His HR/FB% rose only a little, but with his second highest AB total, it was good enough for 20 HR. He has improved his contact rate for four seasons. If I look at any single season from his past, it screams “bad luck BABIP,” but again, I can’t ignore the trend. Now that he’s rebounded fully, can you buy into it? I see that his hard hit rate has been above average the last two seasons, compared to below average in the past. His second half HR/FB was 13% — good, but still not great — and his season rate of 11% isn’t amazing. I’m more wary than optimistic here. Perhaps he was in his own head, or corrected a major flaw in his approach that he’d been struggling with for years. But I’m labeling him more risky than safe.

Matt Carpenter – He traded in a high BA and BABIP for more FB% and HR/FB%. Gotta say, I’ll take the power over a mostly empty BA any day. That being said, his HR/FB% in 2015 was more than double his previous best. Yes, I did say he changed his approach, but is it really sustainable? He’s always had a hard hit rate above average due to his line drive approach, and now his big power swing. In terms of half seasons, he was still just league average in the first half with a 10% HR/FB, but he jumped to 20% in the second half. If we’re hearing about a new approach all season, but it really only resulted in good results for half the season, I have to attribute part of his second half to luck. As it turns out, according to ESPN’s home run tracker, 11 of his HR were “just enough.” Carpenter has more overall skill and value than Headley, but the HR spike reminds me of the former Padres 3B. I want to see it again before I pay the high price he’ll demand in 2016. I’m wary, but I could see him splitting the difference between his previous style and 2015 results. Still valuable, just don’t pay for .290 and 30 HR.

Matt Duffy – He produced well for fantasy purposes, especially given that he was likely picked up in the FA pool. He showed good speed despite not having a high stolen base opportunity percentage. His HR/FB% was high in the first half at 17% but fell to just 5% in the second half, and he hit over 50% grounders all year. That means the power is limited moving forward, unless he coverts grounders to fly balls. His BABIP and LD% were consistent in both halves, so I am optimistic he can stay above league average in BABIP, keeping his average above .280. Moving forward, I’d bank on more stolen base gains than home runs — heed the warning of GB% from previous cases I covered (Headley, McGehee). However, he’s likely going to cost less than Moustakas or Carpenter in 2016, and for that reason I’m more optimistic in calling him a safe bet — as long as you aren’t expecting more than 10 HR.

 

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Kevin Jebens
Fantasy baseball player since 2000; winning leagues ranging from 12-team H2H to 18-team experts 5x5. Has written for various baseball blogs, including the 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.
Kevin Jebens

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