Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening — whichever is applicable to you. Three months ago, how excited were you in selecting Aaron Judge? While some of you may have been a Judge supporter, you’re kidding yourself if you thought he’d even touch the top 50 players, let alone the top spot he currently claims in some formats. How did you value Jonathan Villar? Overall his value was that of a Top-30 pick, but the dialogue varied by personal preferences. The elite production of 2016 had not entirely washed away the abysmal production of years past for a number of you.
For some players, the forecasting tool can be very difficult. In March we viewed Aaron Judge as a 44% K player without the patience to hit often enough to exploit the undeniable power. Naturally we could expect some improvements, but no one would have imagined that rate would be cut down to 28% with a bump in walk rate to over 15%.
Forecasting unproven players like Villar proved equally troubling. Those in support gravitated toward the safety in stolen base potential thanks to a double-digit walk rate. The doubters quickly pointed to the BABIP influenced batting average and favorable HR/FB rate that propped up the home run totals in 2016.
What about a player such as Corey Dickerson? Did anyone rush to obtain the current Top-50 player who was coming off a disappointing 2016? After putting up excellent numbers in Colorado, the lackluster season with the Rays applied the Coors product label to his name. With increased contact and more hard contact he has returned to the more neutral GB/FB hitter he displayed in the past. With his ability to spread the ball around the BABIP has improved by nearly 100 points.
With all the potential uncertainties in forecasting, players with established baselines are a welcomed relief. It is for this very reason that thirty-somethings such a Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Miguel Cabrera, and Edwin Encarnacion maintained a Top-30 ADP despite knowing that their peak is most likely in the rearview mirror.
In a season in which Aaron Judge has emerged as the Top rated player, my biggest takeaway thus far is the number of “proven” players playing above or below their seemingly reliable baselines. Over the last few posts I’ve covered some of these players.
Ervin Santana has performed like a potential Cy Young winner despite his career track record of a streaming option in standard leagues. Jake Arrieta is a former Cy Young winner who’s displayed Top-10 SP upside for the past three season as a Cub. Aside from strong K totals this season he has been detrimental to your bottom line thus far. Edwin Encarnacion and Carlos Gonzalez are a couple of hitters who would fit under this umbrella who I’ve already covered in a past post.
Today I wanted to look at more of these projection outliers and determine if their current owners have been the benefactors of a change in approach or simply been blessed with a little bit of luck along the way.
Miguel Cabrera: Tigers
Through last season Miguel Cabrera’s 162 game average stat-line has been a .321 AVG with 32 HR and 205 Runs + RBI. This season that pace is .280 with 19 HR and 162 Run + RBI. This stat-line would not have shocked anyone at this point last season. Cabrera was coming off an injury shortened 2015, and his preseason forecast was not that of 90 degrees and sunny – a .316 average with 38 home runs later and that dialogue had ended.
The 2017 underlying numbers offer up a mixed bag of forecasting tools. On the downside: Cabrera is making less contact and his strikeout totals have increased because of it. Combine his strikeout increase with an increased ground ball rate and the perennial .300 hitter may not be a guarantee for 2017.
Taking a positive spin: the strikeout rate is only 20%, and it has not been accompanied by a decline in plate discipline. While the ground ball lean isn’t ideal, his hard hit rate of 48% would mark a career high, and he still spreads the ball across the field with the best of them.
Moving forward I’m still left to believe that Cabrera has more of the Top-30 production in him than the singles hitter he has showcased thus far. The 14% HR/FB rate is below his career mark, but it’s looking more and more like the 22% rate from last season is the outlier. With an above average offense around him, the counting stats will come once the upper level production returns.
There’s a big enough cloud of doubt that I wouldn’t look to acquire Cabrera at market value, but sign me up if a discount is involved. If I were the owner of Cabrera I certainly would not be looking to move on at this point. Better days lie ahead, and with it comes a reduction of losses up to this point.
Starlin Castro: Yankees
Since Castro made his debut in 2010 he has always been considered a disappointment. The high contact, .300 source from his first two seasons had eroded into a .275 hitter who seemed to sell himself out for power. Not necessarily a bad thought process in today’s game, but the results need to be better than 15 home runs. His first season with the Yankees brought on a complete sell out as his 19.3% strikeout rate was a career high. So despite his 21 home runs, the .270 average with 133 Runs + RBI offered fantasy owners little to get excited about for 2017.
From 2010-2016 Castro’s 162 game average was .280 with 12 HR and 127 Runs + RBI. This season that stat-line has the potential to be .328 with 30 HR and 232 Run + RBI. That level of production has Castro among the Top-20 players overall, a level no one could have envisioned Castro ever reaching, especially with only one stolen base to speak of.
Aside from the production, not much has changed with Castro this season. His plate discipline is much the same. His GB/FB rate is slightly improved, but not to the point where 30 home runs should be the expected norm. Castro has improved his Hard Hit rate from last season, but once again, 34% isn’t what you’d expect from a Top-20 player.
Unlike Cabrera, I’m not as sold on Castro’s 2017 moving forward. The .363 BABIP is 42 points above his career mark and nearly 60 points north of what we’ve come to expect with his new home run focused approached. The decline in BABIP will eat away at the robust .328 mark, and in turn eat away at the plus Run and RBI totals he’s posted thus far.
Don’t get me wrong; the floor will not fall out from under Castro. His approach alone will deliver 25 home runs, the improved roster around him will in itself boost the pedestrian Run and RBI totals of years past. It’s just not going to come with an elite batting average. Prior to the season Castro was viewed as a middle tier second base option or a serviceable middle infielder. At season’s end I believe the perception will be that of Castro being a low-end top-tier second base option when building teams next season.
Justin Smoak: Blue Jays
From 2010 to 2016, Justin Smoak had established himself as a good glove option with offensive limitations – A .223 hitter with 162 game average of 21 HR and 88 Run + RBI. This season Justin Smoak has managed to hit .293 with a potential 162 game average of 46 HR and 233 Run + RBI. Those fantasy owners who regrettably picked him off Waivers have been rewarded for their desperation.
The power itself isn’t surprising. Smoak features a fly ball lean and has established a trend of increased hard hit rate that is going on six straight seasons. So while his 25% HR/FB rate looks favorable compared to his career mark of 14.7%, he managed to obtain that exact total just two seasons ago over a 132 game season.
So what has changed to make this perennial 15-20 home run hitter a 40 HR threat? Volume. Justin Smoak’s career K% is 24. That rate has been north of 25% the last two seasons. This season Smoak has cut that number to 17%. In turn, Smoak’s contact rate is north of 80% and nearly 10 percentage points better than his mark last season. His swinging strike rate of 8.3% is a career low, and well below the 12 and 11 % over his time with the Blue Jays. His Zone contact rate is 93%; that mark is the 11th best mark in baseball, and he’s the lone true power hitter among the Top-15.
The improved contact could help explain the batting average improvement as well. His .285 BABIP is 21 points above his career mark, but below his .295 mark last season. Last year Smoak managed to hit .217, but this year that mark is .293. So despite a very similar batted ball profile, Smoak has managed to put a higher volume of balls in play, and in turn the batting average has benefited from it.
Projecting Smoak going forward isn’t an easy task, but his improved play looks to be the result of an improved approach rather than the beneficiary of improved luck. These are the types of players I like to seek out in trade as most feel the cliff dive in production is only a moment away.
These players are only a small fraction of seemingly “safe” players who should project easily that simply haven’t. Justin Verlander and Johnny Cueto have brought back all those questions that had been silenced after an amazing 2016. Ryan Zimmerman has produced to an even greater rate than his previous All-Star seasons. This after coming off a season in which he hit .218 over 115 games and no one longer cared about him being healthy. Let us not forget about Yonder Alonso finally tapping into that prospect profile. With clear evidence of a new approach, could this be a case of someone reinventing himself?
The process of projecting players can be difficult. No matter the time you dedicate to the process, the reality is sometimes it comes down to just being lucky. If this trend of established players reestablishing their baselines continues the process will only become more painstaking. Still, at the heart is the belief that the underlying numbers tell the story. For some of these players the skills have remained unchanged. For these players, continue to trust the process. For those with differing skill sets, proceed with caution and believe in what you perceive the truth to be.
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