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 – George Springer
George Springer is not without flaws, but he could end up being a tremendous value for owners in 2015 and beyond. I typically do not like to invest in early low power speed guys like Jacoby Ellsbury, so in order to get what I need in the HR and SB categories, I love taking a little batting average risk on a power/speed combo guy like Springer. There is a lot to like here, so lets dig in.
George Springer lost the second half of 2014 with a quad injury that is reportedly fully healed. He will be a full go for the start of training camp and should not be limited in any way. Since Springer was able to play full seasons in both 2012 and 2013, we will chalk this up to misfortune. Until a player has injury issues for a couple of seasons in a row, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. I do not consider Springer to be an injury risk at this time.
Plate Discipline and Batting Average
Springer struck out a whopping 33% of the time during his rookie campaign. This ridiculous K rate was not at all unexpected since his minor league K rates fell between 23.5% and 30.9%. The unique thing about Springer, though, is that he actually has pretty good plate discipline. Springer walked 11.3% of the time and only chased 26.7% of pitches outside the strike zone. When I visualize high strikeout batters, I usually picture Alfonso Soriano routinely flailing away at pitches outside the zone. That is not George Springer.
Springer does have a swinging strike rate of 18.2%, which comes from an alarmingly low zone contact rate of 68.4%. The bad news is that Springer swings and misses way too much, but the good news is that he rarely swings at bad pitches.
Springer is always going to strike out a lot because he is taking aggressive cuts regardless of the situation. Since he has a pretty good batting eye, however, he will also continue to get on base at a decent clip.
While he will never contend for a batting title with his current approach, he is also very capable of getting his average up to a more palatable .260 or so. After his first couple weeks in the majors where he basically did nothing but strike out, Springer’s batting average was .241 the rest of the way. He has always had extremely high BABIP in the minors, but was at just .294 last season due to a 15.3% line drive rate. As he continues to mature, I would expect slightly lower K rates, more line drives and a batting average that will not kill his owners.
Admittedly, I always get a little nervous when a player who is expected to contribute in the speed categories is making a comeback from leg muscle injuries. That being said, Springer was 5 of 7 on his stolen base attempts at the big league level in 2014. He was 4 for 4 in 13 AAA games and 2 for 2 during a 3 game A rehab stint. Springer also swiped 37 bases across 3 levels in 2012 and was 45 for 53 on SB attempts in 2013.
While I would not count on Springer stealing 30+ bases next season, it is a possibility. A cautious projection between 15 and 20 SBs seems more appropriate given the Astros’ reluctance to give Springer the green light last season, and the fact that he is coming back from a quad injury that cost him 60+ games.
George Springer is an elite power hitter. In 2012, he hit 28 HRs in 149 games across 3 levels. In 2013, he smashed 37 bombs in 135 games across two levels. Last season Springer’s 20 HRs in 78 major league games had him on a 40+ HR pace over 162 games.
As you want to see from a good power hitter, Springer hit 39.3% of his balls in play in the air. 27.8% of those fly balls ended up as souvenirs. I do not think it is wise to project the same HR/FB ratio over the course of a full season, but Springer’s 309 foot average fly ball distance ranked third in the majors, so it was no fluke. The power is legit.
If Springer is able to stay healthy for a full season, 30 HRs is a given, 35 is probable and 40+ is a distinct possibility.
Most early projections have Springer ranked somewhere between the 15th and 20th best fantasy OF. That would place him somewhere between rounds 4 and 5. I think the value here gives fantasy owners an excellent opportunity to return a rather hefty profit.
Expect the batting average to be a little better than it was last year, and the power/speed numbers will be elite. Springer is capable of posting a reverse Carlos Gomez type line that looks something like this:
.250, 90 Runs, 35 HR, 100 RBI and 20 SBs
That is first round value. There is always some risk in drafting young players (especially ones who strike out so much), but this time, I feel like the price is low enough provided you can grab Springer in round 4 or later.
Hate – Bryce Harper
To be clear, I do not hate Bryce Harper. In fact, I grew up in the Washington DC metro area as an avid supporter of all DC sports teams. Although I have always been an Orioles fan, I have since adopted the Nats as my favorite NL team. I love the way that Harper plays the game. His relentless intensity and fearless play have made him one of my favorite players to watch.
That being said, I still feel like fantasy owners are paying exorbitant prices to acquire his services, and those prices are unlikely to allow owners to yield a profit. Strictly from a fantasy value perspective, I believe Harper to be one of the most overrated assets in the game. Despite being just the 81st ranked OF in fantasy baseball, Harper is likely to fetch a 3rd round price tag on draft day.
Harper just turned 22 in October, so his best seasons are still clearly ahead of him. It is easy to look at Harper’s career .355 wOBA, 55 HRs and 9.5 WAR at a time when most of his peers are struggling through AA ball and immediately assume that Bryce Harper is the second coming of Ken Griffey Jr.. He may end up being every bit as good, but for now owners need to be aware of a few alarming trends before they decide how much to invest for 2015.
It is far too early to call Bryce Harper injury prone. However, given his aggressive approach to the game I do believe that Harper will be more likely to get hurt than the average major leaguer. Steamer has him projected to play 130 games next season and if you draft him expecting many more, you may be in for disappointment.
There have really only been two significant injuries for Harper during his Washington Nationals’ career, but both have cost him large chunks of the season. In 2013, Harper missed just over a month with a knee injury that required surgery after the season. In 2014, a torn ligament in his left thumb suffered on an ill-fated head first slide caused Harper to miss two more months.
Harper advocates will tell you that those injuries were the main reasons that his production has not come close to what he was able to accomplish over 139 games as a 19-year-old rookie. They may be right, but given his playing style, are you willing to project an injury free 2015? I am not, so I will adjust my expectations accordingly.
As young players move into their primes, the hope is that their plate discipline improves. Harper, however, had his worst season in terms of plate discipline in 2014. As a rookie, Harper walked in 9.4% and struck out on 20.1% of his plate appearances with an OBP of .340 and a wOBA of .352. Not too shabby for a 19-year-old. During his sophomore campaign, he raised the walk rate up to 12.4% and lowered his K rate down to 18.9%. This lead to an OBP of .368 and a wOBA of .371.
In 2014, however, his walk rate regressed all the way back down to 9.6% and his K% rose to an alarming 26.3%. Considering that Harper had never struck out more than 21% of the time at any level in which he played more than 10 games, this number is very concerning. Harper’s OBP and BA remained right in line with his career averages (.344), but his wOBA was just .338.
As one might expect from a struggling hitter, Harper’s swinging strike rate rose all the way from 10.9% in 2013 to 13.7% in 2014. He chased more pitches outside the zone (35.7% swing rate on balls outside the zone) and saw his contact percentage on balls in the zone drop from 86.1% to 82.9%. His contact rates were definitely worse after he came back from the thumb issue, but he was still rocking a 23.1% K rate in March before the injury bug bit.
Harper’s .352 BABIP certainly helped prop up the OBP last season, but the increased strike out percentage could prevent Harper from being the .300 hitter many of us think he can be if he is unable to make better contact. I do think his plate discipline will be better in 2015, but it is still somewhat off-putting to see a young hitter regress so massively in their third MLB season.
Maybe Harper did not run as much in 2014 because of the off-season knee procedure from the year before, but his fantasy appeal has always been so great because of his power/speed combination along with a profile that suggests the ability to hit for a high average. In 2014, Harper attempted only 4 steals and was successful on just 2. After going 11 for 15 in 2013, one has to question just how many steals we should expect out of Harper moving forward.
Personally, I think the Nationals are being wise by taking the cautious approach and limiting Harper’s activity on the basepaths. Whether or not the Nats are limiting him intentionally, Harper was not as good on the basepaths as he was his first two seasons. He has only hit 5 triples the past two seasons combined. In 2014, his overall base running graded out with a negative value for the first time in his career.
Looking toward the future, owners can hope for 10 steals out of Harper, but realistically you should not be counting on any more than 5.
Harper clearly has elite bat speed and he is capable of finding the cheap seats at any moment. He is still a couple of years away from his power prime, so we have not yet seen the best of Bryce Harper in this category. That being said, there are a couple minor issues that make me question what his ultimate ceiling is in the HR category.
First, Harper’s average flyball distance actually regressed in 2014 from over 300 feet down to 287 feet. These distances tend to fluctuate a little, so the fact that he regressed is not a huge issue by itself. You would like to see an elite power hitter come in closer to that 300 foot number, and I do expect Harper to get some distance back in 2015.
The second issue, however, is Harper’s batted ball profile. His fly ball percentage has been gradually creeping up over the last two seasons, but it is still at just 34.6% which is below league average. At this point, Harper is more of a line drive hitter (this is a good thing in real life baseball, not so great for fantasy) with a career line drive rate of 21.5%.
To put this in perspective though, most elite HR hitters have above average fly ball rates, up near 40%. For Harper to approach 30 HRs with his current fly ball rate, he would need a HR/FB ratio of over 20%. Harper’s power ceiling will never be as high as a Giancarlo Stanton or even a George Springer unless Harper starts to hit more balls in the air.
While I certainly believe that Harper will be a 30 HR hitter in time, he may not ever be a guy who contends for the HR crown. That just is not who Bryce Harper is, at least not right now.
When our top 200 list for keeper/dynasty leagues comes out in a couple of weeks, many will say that my Harper ranking is way too low. When you add up all the pieces, however, consider what you are left with. Following his rookie season, fantasy pundits were absolutely drooling over this kid’s tools. He had the look of a guy who was going to hit over .300 with 30-35 HRs and 15-20 steals. That is an elite fantasy player.
Now, however, we see a guy who is no lock to play 162 games, his K rate is on the rise, he is not running anymore and he does not hit the ball in the air enough to maximize his HR potential. What if Bryce Harper’s best seasons look like this:
.280, 80 R, 30 HR, 95 RBI and 5 SB
What would you pay for that kind of production? It is a nice line for sure, but it is hardly first round fantasy OF material.
I do expect Bryce Harper to produce like a third or fourth round fantasy asset this season, but given the risk, that should place him in the Jason Heyward, Jayson Werth range for re-draft leagues. I don’t think there is any chance that he falls that far. Therefor, Harper owners are not going to be able to turn a high enough profit to compensate them for the risk they take in drafting him.
Given the current trends, I do not think Bryce Harper is a lock to be a future first round producer. As a result, I am not willing to pay as much to acquire his services. Understand that if you decide to draft Harper in the third round this year, you are selecting an unproven commodity with more downside risk than upside possibility. That is a losing proposition in the fantasy world. Let somebody else pay for the hype.