Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening– whichever is applicable to you. Twenty years ago a young man stepped into the batter’s box hoping to make a name for himself facing perhaps the best pitcher in the area. After getting ahead 2-1 the young man was eyeing a fastball he could drive. It was only moments before the home crowd would cheer, a legend would be born, and the star pitcher would be left pondering “What in the hell just happened?” The young man dug in, the pitch was delivered, and one 12-6 curve later the count was 2-2, and the young man was being carried off the field by his coach and ………his mother. It’s one thing to have your knees buckled by a good Uncle Charlie, the humility involved in having a knee strain accompanied by a mother’s assistance off the field is a hard pill to swallow. Yes, though I’ve tried to distance myself from that day, I was that young man and Brandon Webb was the star pitcher.
I had the privilege of playing against three former Major League players during my Connie Mack years: Austin Kearns, Brad Wilkerson, and Brandon Webb. Kearns and Wilkerson were exactly what you’d expect from a true MLB prospect. They looked the part, played the part, and were without a doubt the best players on the field. The same couldn’t be said about Brandon Webb. Despite what my epic failure would suggest, Webb was a very good player, but in my opinion lacked any sort of wow factor. At the time I would suspect very few opponents envisioned they were stepping to the plate against a future Cy Young winner.
Fantasy owners are slow to embrace changes to player’s skill sets. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Carlos Gomez. The Cliff’s Notes version is that Gomez isn’t good and his underlying skill set would suggest such. Last week I praised the newfound approach of Colby Rasmus. If a poll was conducted today the overwhelming majority of fantasy owners would still take Carlos Gomez. Despite what the stats tell you, despite what the underlying numbers tell you. Gomez would be the choice because Gomez’s status as a 2nd-tier star has been established, while Rasmus’s career up to this point can be classified as roster filler.
The calendar will soon flip to May, and while we’ve not yet reached the point when seasons have been defined, we can now ease up on the overused “small sample size” label. It’s time we consider these changes as perhaps new baselines for what we can reasonably expect moving forward. For this post I looked at players who, depending on league size, were either largely undrafted, or were players you wouldn’t expect to get solid, consistent (say Top-150) production from.
Odubel Herrera: Herrera was a nice find by the Phillies last season. Despite a nice AVG, Herrera only produced moderate value last season because his counting numbers were rather pedestrian and his SB output is marginal. Herrera walked at a 5.2% clip last season, a total that was in line with what he had shown over his 5 year minor league career. This season Herrera has a 23.1% rate. That total is an elite level and currently is the top mark in baseball. Given the increase in walks, Herrera’s OBP is 100 points higher than he posted last season. The Phillies lineup will have its struggles throughout the season so strong counting numbers will be hard to come by. With that said, a 100-point gain in OBP could easily turn last season’s 18 SB into 20-25. In addition, pitchers could begin to throw more pitches in the zone than last season. Should that prove to be the case, Herrera could increase his on his eight home runs from last season by 50% or more.The potential for double-digit power and speed, combined with a plus average could produce a very solid return for those who invested in Herrera on draft day.
Jake Lamb: My favorite commodity as a fantasy owner is the post-hype prospect. Early returns suggest Lamb could be just that in 2016. Thus far Lamb has shown improved plate discipline having improved his BB/K to 0.63 compared to his career mark of 0.35. Lamb has posted a 12% BB rate thus far to go with his 19.3 K%. For me this type of production more closely resembles the levels he achieved in the minors that built his status as a prospect. Lamb is clearly in a platoon of sorts, having only 20 plate appearances thus far vs. LHP; this obviously hurts his value to some degree. While Lamb has failed to make the most of his opportunities versus lefties (posting a .188 AVG), he has hit 2 of his 3 HR against them. Should Lamb continue to impress, he’ll get even more exposure against lefties. If change can be established, we will have a Top 10 third baseman on our hands. Take note, Dynasty Leaguers– this is the type of player you target.
Eugenio Suarez: I liked Suarez coming into the season. My fondness had less to do with the quality of player and more to do with the sheer volume of playing time in combination with the modest power shown last season. The Reds are going nowhere fast. Suarez can play both 3B and SS, is only 24, and could be very much a part of the Reds’ rebuilding plans should the talent surface, all of this resulting in plenty of chances to be all that he can be. He’s currently cashing in on said opportunity, hitting .284 with a .822 OPS. His BB% has nearly doubled from last season from 4.3% to 8%. While neither number gets you excited, the 8% paired with a 15.9% K rate nets a steady 0.50 BB/K ratio. Suarez has also managed to improve his Contact% by 5 points to find himself at 82.2% as of this writing. Suarez combines a solid AVG with plus pop for a player who’s MI eligible. Most don’t consider Suarez a legit SB threat, however he once stole 21 in the minors and is currently 4 for-4 on the season. At this pace, combined with success rate, it’s not out of the question to suggest Suarez could produce of 20/15 season with a .280 AVG. That stat line could easily produce a Top 5-10 at either SS or 3B.
Rick Porcello: I loved Rick Porcello in the preseason. Aside from Clay Buchholz (What a Call) I don’t know if there was an unheralded hurler I liked more. Take the 3.51 ERA out of the equation and one could argue he’s been one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. Coming into the season the praise for Porcello would be durability (has averaged nearly 30 starts per season since his debut) and control (3 consecutive seasons of sub 2.00 BB/9) Thus far in 4 games started he has 4 wins and features a 10.52 K/9 (nearly double his career mark of 5.91 and nearly 3 K’s better than just last season) accompanied by a 1.75 BB/9, a WHIP of 0.94, and a BAA hovering at .200. In other words he’s only improved his control and nearly doubled his career K/9 rate. It’s only a matter of time before the ERA will begin to resemble what the underlying numbers suggest it will be. Combine the above with the durability of having started nearly 30 games per season and you can reasonably expect to have yourself a Top 25 SP at clearance level pricing.
Rich Hill: Full disclosure, I was rather surprised Hill came with such a lack of fanfare this offseason. Having signed with Oakland during the offseason, his rotation spot was assured. Hill’s K/9 potential alone typically has fantasy owners drooling regardless of BB concerns. For whatever the reason Hill was often ignored, only nabbed in later rounds at the point when the upside was deemed worth it. In five starts thus far three have been brilliant and two could be deemed ugly. Hill has confirmed his K potential, posting a 12.81 K/9, and while his BB/9 doesn’t match the 1.55 BB/9 from the four starts last season, the current 3.12 mark is tolerable when you’re posting strikeout numbers like he has. In addition, his GB% improvements shown last season have only been improved this season with a 51.7% mark. Given the control issues with Hill, inconsistency will be a factor. I believe even the biggest supporters of Hill coming into the season would have the same sentiment. However the 6.25 BB/9 player many perceived just doesn’t seem to be there.
When Brandon Webb left Ashland Paul Blazer High School, he was a pitcher with average velocity and a plus Curveball. When Brandon Webb left the University of Kentucky, he was a pitcher with average velocity who lived on a Sinker. That sinker would become one of the best pitches in all of baseball. Brandon Webb changed his repertoire and it was that very change which likely made him a selection of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Despite what the appearance may have suggested all those years ago, Brandon Webb was easily the best player I ever played against. Like anything else in life, players change. Sometimes it’s for the bad, sometimes it’s for the good. As fantasy owners we must be quick to identify change. Then we must be willing to act upon it even if we’re not given a full helping of data to go by.
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