Every year there are big-name players who struggle mightily, and fantasy owners have to decide whether to hang in there in the hopes of a well-known (and often high-cost) guy turning it around, or whether to cut bait and perhaps accept a loss in value. The unknown factor is the varied value that a player’s name brings. Note that I’m not saying “a player’s track record” here, because sometimes it’s hype that drives value as much as actual on-the-field performance. Sometimes it’s a partial season of performance that a player can hang his hat on, and it keeps people buying into him for years based on those early impressive stats. In this case I’m talking about Yasiel Puig and his breakout 2013 campaign of 382 AB. He sure looked amazing, didn’t he? With 19 HR and 11 SB, plus a .300 BA, some people thought they had the next Mike Trout or Bryce Harper.
Fast forward to 2015. After an okay season for most batters in 2014 (but mostly a disappointment for those owners expecting a superstar), Puig has declined even further as we make our way past the All-Star break. My colleague Michael did a nice job of covering numerous buy-low candidates, and he suggested buying on Puig. However, I’m in the opposite camp. That’s the beauty of fantasy baseball: different opinions and arguments. Here are my thoughts on Puig.
I play in an auction league with up to 8 keepers, and prices go up $5 every year you keep a player. I’m out of the running this year, and I had Max Scherzer on my team. Scherzer has been amazing, but he was too expensive for me to consider keeping another year, and so I opted to trade him, receiving in the package Puig at $16. That means in 2016 he’ll be $21 to keep. He would have been in my top-8 keeper options, though in the lower half based on his high salary relative to my other options. I acquired Puig because I do believe he has raw talent, and he’s a potential power/speed guy in a fantasy era where that’s become rare. There are other things to like, such as his respectable walk rate (10%) in a league that uses OBP, a not-horrible contact rate and K/BB, and his general youth if I’m looking for long-term building blocks.
However, within two weeks I turned around and sold Puig in a 1-for-1 deal, acquiring a $6 Danny Salazar. Yes, Salazar is doing better in 2015. Yes, Salazar is cheaper. However, the reason the trade “balances out” is because the other owner still gives Puig a lot of name value, and he is banking on a large second half where Puig gets back to his 2013 ways. It’s possible that the hamstring injury directly contributed to Puig’s less than stellar numbers. In my case I was only too happy to move Puig, because there are enough red flags to worry me.
Let’s start with his obvious decline since his rookie appearance. Especially when you factor in the increased AB from his first season to his second, he’s suffered in nearly every metric. His BA has been on a steady drop, and that’s at least partly due to his very high (lucky) BABIP in his rookie year, .383. Granted that many people thought his good speed would help him keep a BABIP above the league average, but three years of decline (to .326 BABIP as of 7/20 this year) have resulted in a 2015 BA of only .266. That won’t hurt your team in roto formats, but it certainly doesn’t help like his first two years.
Then there’s the stolen bases. After 11 SB in 382 AB, he put up 11 SB again, but in 558 AB. Double digits are still nice, but owners assumed he’d increase his total with a full season, and that wasn’t the case. Puig ran less in 2014 (11% stolen base opportunity) compared to his rookie season (16%). This year his running has dropped even further to 6%, and even if you write part of it off due to the hamstring injury, it’s clear he’s not going to be a safe bet for lofty SB numbers in the future.
Perhaps most important in my red flag analysis is the power outage. After 19 HR with a 22% HR/FB in his rookie year, he dropped to 16 HR and 11% HR/FB in 2014. Now this year he sits at 4 HR and 8% HR/FB. Do I think he can improve on this season’s numbers? Sure. But it’s pretty clear that Puig’s rookie season HR/FB has to be considered an outlier at this point. He’s making a bit less hard contact this season compared to past, and maybe that’s excusable from the injury, but his ISO and wOBA are also career lows. Add in the fact that he hits too many balls on the ground (50%, 52%, 44%), and even an improved HR/FB will be mitigated by the lack of fly ball opportunities.
This season, pitchers are throwing more balls in the strike zone to Puig (38% in 2013, 43% in 2015), and he’s seeing more first-pitch strikes (59% in 2013, 65% in 2015). He made general strides in his plate discipline from 2013 to 2014, but in 2015 he’s given back a good part of those gains, such as swinging outside the zone (39%, 30%, 34%) and swinging strike rate (17%, 12%, 15%).
Looking strictly at the rest of 2015, do I think he can bounce back? I’m pessimistic. The injury could very well have affected his performance, but only to a degree. You can’t explain away all the struggles he’s had. If you’re looking for a win-now piece, he’s too high of a risk for my blood to make him the centerpiece of your acquisition. I do agree with Michael that if you can trade away one of your own struggling players, it may be worth it — but be sure you do a good analysis on your own guy and see who is more likely suffering from bad luck compared to skill decline. I certainly wouldn’t trade away a player with strong season stats, even if that player has been a bit lucky. Some players can have full seasons of luck hold up, but a struggling player with no obvious bad luck and injury issues is a bad option.
What about keeper league value? Here’s where things get tricky, and very subjective. In my league, I don’t generally like to have more than 2 keepers over $20, and so Puig at $21 is risky. When I have Rizzo at $20 for next year, along with $20 Kyle Seager and $16 Odorizzi and $20 Iwakuma, those are better and safer values to have in the higher salary range. After those four, I’d rather have the rest of my keepers under $12 to save on salary. As for his general skill and ability, maybe I’m passing up on a future 30/20 player who will take the sport by storm. However, there’s no guarantee he’ll ever develop into such a complete package, and I don’t see it happening in 2016. He has a lot of rebounding to do in 2016, to turn around those metric declines and prove his keeper value. That means I’d be looking at a $31 player to keep for pre-2017, and I simply don’t see him returning any positive value at that point. I may as well trade him now before he gets too expensive for any other owner. Finding a buyer now is easier than keeping him and then trying to trade him if he doesn’t do well in April 2016.
If your own league doesn’t deal with salary and lets you simply keep 8 players, I would give him a chance due to his age and the fact that he could develop 25 HR power with 10 SB. However, I don’t see that as a certainty — it’s only a chance. He also has to prove he can be healthy moving forward. If I have only 5 keepers, I wouldn’t keep him unless there are 18+ teams. But the beauty of the situation is that Puig has a lot of name value, and someone will certainly bite if you put him on the block. Cash in on his hype status before it’s too late, and sell for good “win now” or long-term value.
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