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Analyzing young shortstops

Fantasy sports are not about making the obvious pick (although some players do fail at that), but are decided by who makes the most with the value picks. Sure, selecting Mike Trout number one was fantastic in 2015; everyone at that spot holds value, but if you picked him up in later rounds in 2012 the return on investment is exponentially greater.

So today let’s look at the shortstop position with four very different, but still similar enough, young guns. Marcus Semien, Addison Russell, Didi Gregorius and Wilmer Flores all entered the league with a decent to elite prospect pedigree for different reasons. And while the early numbers separate them all, viewing career arcs and their futures paints a much different picture than just the early seasons.

Chicago Cubs LogoAddison Russell

Why not start with the best? Russell’s accolades throughout the minor leagues have drawn him enough praise and fanfare to start a political campaign. He topped out around the top five on some prospect lists before graduating to the Show, and played a part in helping the Cubs come four wins away from reaching the World Series.

His command of the strike zone in the minors bodes well for his major league future, but his 28.5% strikeout rate over his near full season in 2015 raises red flags all over. The entire team is strikeout prone, but Russell made his headlines by the opposite. Because of this, his slugging percentage fell below .400 (just .389) which is in the “overpowered” category. His 13.7% swinging strike rate is in dangerous company, in a bad way, not showing any of the discipline or precision we saw earlier. On the bright side, some power has clearly developed, with 13 bombs and a league average ISO at a young age, implying there’s much more to be seen.

His early struggles are worrisome, but his age helps hinder the extend. He will turn 22 just weeks before Spring Training, leaving tons of room for him to grow into more power and tune his swing. However, early strikeout issues can have a tendency to stick with a hitter through his career, as they hint more at swing flaws than anything else. His hit tool has often been ranked high, but more recently has trended towards average with some room still to grow. Russell’s talent oozes from all over, but contact is going to remain a concern; tread with some caution.

Oakland A's LogoMarcus Semien

An interesting case study here; Semien never quite wowed prospectors the way some do, but he just continue to hit and hit and hit and… I think you get it. At every full season stop since he was 20, he posted a wRC+ over 120 at each minor league level. Compounding on that, his power grew from good, to better, to elite in Triple A, with a ridiculous .234 ISO – a mark you just don’t see from shortstops not playing in Colorado. His first couple seasons have seen him post fairly average numbers, keeping his wRC+ at almost 100.

What’s promising about Semien is his trends, as he raised his average over 20 points and slugging over 30 points in his first two seasons. Young players tend to improve, and his playing situation helps even more; Athletics’ hitting coach Chili Davis is nationally recognized as maybe the best in the league. Helping create success stories such as Brandon Moss and Josh Donaldson, there’s environmental reason to believe in Semien’s continued improvement. Cutting his strikeout percentage from 27.5% to just 22.0% while also popping 15 dingers, projection systems all over have him developing finely into a strong average, good power shortstop.

New York Mets LogoWilmer Flores

Playing for the National League champs is going to draw attention your way, and for fantasy owners that isn’t a bad thing with Flores. His elite strikeout numbers (hovering around 11-12%) as well as power that has developed into the league average range give him plenty of value going forward. He just turned 24, meaning there is still some power development left to be expected, and after hitting 16 homers last year 20 definitely seems possible for 2016. He improved very similarly to Semien in his average and slugging categories; in fact they appear as almost carbon copies of each other.

To continue with the comparisons to Semien, the triple slash lines are almost identical, as well as the batted ball tendencies (both ground/fly ball numbers and hard contact percentages). The strikeout rates are clearly a big difference, and about the only one between the two. Both are great pickups, but with a slight edge to Flores for his better strike zone control.

New York Yankees LogoDidi Gregorius

This is one for the deeper leagues, and perhaps to deep for some owners even in those. Gregorius is best known for being called “the next Derek Jeter” by then Arizona GM Kevin Towers, and then most definitely not turning into Derek Jeter – although ironically a trade to the Yankees has sorta turned him into Jeter, as their new Shortstop.

At 25, Gregorius has yet to put together a major league average season by wRC+, but is showing good trends. Despite a 76 wRC+ last season, he put up an 89 mark this season. Even more impressive is that wRC+ is ballpark adjusted, so he didn’t get the normal Yankee Stadium boost. And then awkwardly, his fly ball percentage crashed from 43% to 34%. In a park where the ball carries seemingly forever, a lack of fly balls is going to kill the slugging percentage.

You can attribute the increase in grounders to his better average, but a great hitter should still be able to pick his pitch and send it deep as a fly ball. As Gregorius continues to refine what is clearly a new approach, we should start to see more fly balls, and in turn, an increase in slugging percentage and extra base hits. His continued ability to cut down on strikeouts (down to just 14% last season) teases at great bat control. He is by no means someone to take early on, but to not have him on your radar as a sleeper pick is almost criminal. There are legitimate hints he could be a decent to better breakout in 2016.

 

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.

One comment on “Analyzing young shortstops

  1. In regards to Russell, I believe I read that he ranked 7th OVERALL in most pitches seen per plate appearance! As a 21 year old, that is incredible! It only bodes well for his future and points to the fact he has a very good idea of what is or is not a strike. From watching almost all of his at bats I can say he got squeezed quite a bit early on.

    I think he takes a nice step forward in 2016 and in two years I think we see him hitting .275/.350/.450 with gold glove caliber defense.

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