Bu Tommy Rancel //
Stephen Strasburg debuted, Jason Heyward shatter windshields, and Buster Posey won the rookie of the year award. Meanwhile, Mike Stanton quietly mashed in South Florida. Perhaps the fourth or fifth prospect in terms hype, Stanton’s powerful rookie campaign took a backseat to his more well-known peers. While the world was consumed with Stras-mas, the Marlins’ outfielder hit 22 home runs, drove in nearly 60 runs, and scored 45 of his own in 100 games. Oh, did I mention he didn’t turn 21 until AFTER the season?
Obviously the most impressive part of Stanton’s rookie season was his home run power. Only 12 men – including Stanton – have hit at least 22 home runs in their age-20 season. Names like Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Alex Rodriguez give Stanton pretty good company. Perhaps even more impression is the pace which he took the ball out of the yard.
Stanton needed just 100 games and 359 at-bats to launch his 22 home runs. Of the 12 man group from above, only former Atlanta Braves’ All-Star third baseman Bob Horner hit as many home runs in fewer games and at-bats. The former top prospect’s ratio of a home run every 16 at-bats ranked fifth best in the National League last season. Add in the 21 home runs hit before his call to the show, and Stanton showed off his home run trot a combined 43 times in 2010 in just 153 total games.
Of course, Stanton’s rookie season did not come without some bumps along the way. ). In his first 70 games, he hit just .235 and finished the season at with a .259 average despite a higher-than-normal batting average on balls in play (BABIP). In addition to the low average, his plate discipline – 123 strikeouts and 34 unintentional walks – is a work in progress. If you’re looking for some progress, he hit .312 with an OBP of .370 in the season’s final 30 games; however, that is a rather small sample size.
With a solid two-thirds of a season under his belt, expectations of 30-plus home run power over a full season now follow Stanton. But home runs aren’t Stanton’s only source of value. In addition to the balls that went over the wall, he laced 21 doubles in ball parks across the country. Also remember, Stanton racked up all these extra-base hits while playing his home games in a neutral park environment.
On top of the gaudy power potential, Stanton’s stock is on the rise because of his placement in the lineup. The Marlins decided to ease their younger in the lineup by placing him in the lower half of the order. Of his 359 at-bats last year, 87% of them came from the sixth slot or lower. In 2011, Stanton is slated to bat clean-up behind a talented trio of Omar Infante, Chris Coghlan, and MVP-candidate Hanley Ramirez.
Because he will not hit for a high average or swipe many steals keeps Stanton from the top-tier of fantasy outfielders. Add in the negative connotation of the strikeouts and his draft position varies from OF2 and OF3. Once again, tucked behind higher-profiled stars, this could leave Stanton as a mid-round steal.
With 30-plus home run power (35 projected by Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tool), the likelihood of an equal amount of doubles, and an increase in RBI opportunities, Stanton could be a fantastic power and RBI source in 2011. Set your target around the eighth round in a standard 12-team mixed-league, but if there is a sudden run on outfielders don’t be afraid to pull the trigger a round earlier.
Update: Stanton was diagnosed with right-quad injury after coming up lame in Sunday’s contest. He is expected to miss two weeks, but continue to monitor his progress throughout the spring.
By R.J. Anderson //
Russell Branyan has hit nearly 70 home runs over the last three seasons despite inconsistent and occasionally sparse playing time (just over 1,000 plate appearances). That’s a home run every 16 or so plate appearances, an average on par with Barry Bonds’ career rate (one every 16.5 plate appearances). There’s a chance Branyan can live up to (or exceed) that pace should he stay healthy this season, as he signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The D-Backs play in Chase Field, formerly known as Bank One Ballpark, which is unfathomably kind to left-handed hitters. StatCorner provides a park factor for either handed batter at each ballpark in the majors and has the home run factor for lefties at The BOB at 114 -which is to say lefties see their homer tallies increase by 14 percent within this park relative to league average. Branyan has never been one to lead the league in cheapies, but the friendly confines should assist by turning some outs or doubles into round trippers.
Since Branyan figures to get the lion’s share of plate appearances, he also figures to play quite a bit at first base. This could be the snake in the bushes because Branyan does not have a strong health record. He’s missed at least 45 days due to various injuries over the last three seasons, including roughly the final month of the 2010 season. He turned 35 during December and there’s no reason to believe he suffers from the Benjamin Button abnormality of reverse aging. Put simply, Branyan is all but guaranteed to miss time with a back or trunk injury, the only question is how much that will affect his production.
If you do select Branyan in a deeper league, perhaps look to handcuff him with the player most likely to replace him during his downtime (at this moment, Brandon Allen, although his name could surface in trade talk). Otherwise, make sure Branyan is your fallback option rather than the primary. He’s going to mash when he’s healthy, but that could be less often than everyone involved would hope.
by Eno Sarris //
The Rays, as seems to a yearly tradition, have a bright young pitching prospect hitting their rotation this year. Jeremy Hellickson comes off a stellar, if short, debut, already has a scintillating nickname in “Hellboy.” But we’ve seen this story before, and with varying results. How does Hellickson stack up against fellow young Rays David Price, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann?
Take a look at the table below for a quick overview of the relevant statistics these young Rays accrued in the minor leagues and in their respective debuts. The percentage of games started is included because players always perform better in short stints out of the bullpen.
Some differences immediately step to the fore. Not all debuts were created equal. We can probably eliminate the chance that Hellickson ends up like Niemann based on a few factors, including his debut. Not only did Niemann show the worst control of the group in the minor leagues, but his strikeout rate dropped as he advanced through the minor leagues, eventually bottoming out in his debut.
But eliminating Niemann still leaves the possibility that Hellickson ends up more Wade Davis than David Price. Now, these pitchers are all different, and have varying arsenals, ages, and histories, but they all have the common misfortune of having to face the AL East from the get-go. David Price obviously did well, and Hellickson’s numbers compare favorably to Price’s. If only Hellickson used his left hand, we’d have a nice comparable player to point to.
Why won’t Hellckson end up like fellow right-hander Wade Davis? Control is the easiest answer. Hellickson’s is elite, Davis’ average or below. Another answer lies in their comparative arsenals. Davis relied mostly on a fastball, while Hellickson has a plus-plus changeup and a solid curveball to go with his 91 MPH fastball. Bloomberg Sports has him putting up a 3.89 ERA and 1.24 WHIP, and he obviously has the upside to better that.
Given his elite control, strong off-speed arsenal, and historical record so far, Jeremy Hellickson is on track to be more David Price than Wade Davis. Expect a strong year from Hellboy, even if he hits a few bumps along the way.
For the best fantasy baseball analysis and insight please visit BloombergSports.com
By Tommy Rancel //
On the surface, James Shields had a poor season in 2010. The Rays’ opening day starter got off to a hot start with a 5-2 record, 2.99 ERA, and 71 strikeouts in his first 10 starts. Unfortunately, he would go 8-13 the rest of the way with an ERA of 6.31 in his final 24 appearances. Many in the Tampa Bay area soured on Shields; however, the organization, manager Joe Maddon, and progressive analysts think Shields’ traditional stats will rebound in 2011.
Shields earned a dubious triple crown in 2010 by leading the league in hits, earned runs, and home runs allowed. He watched 34 bombs leave the yard on the strength of a home run-to-flyball rate of 13.8%. This number is two percent higher than his career average and the highest among major league starters with at least 200 innings pitched. Shields has always given up his fair share of longballs, but is unlikely to get shelled like this going forward.
In addition to the home run issues, Shields was labeled as hittable with 246 hits allowed. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .341 was nearly 40 points above the league average, more than 20 points higher than the next closest starter with at least 200 innings, and around 70 points higher than any of the other Rays’ starters. In fact, the next highest BABIP in the Rays’ rotation came from Wade Davis and Matt Garza at .272 apiece. This means Shields was extremely unlucky or was somewhat unlucky with other factors involved since he pitched with the same defense and in the same environment.
While luck was definitely involved, Shields also didn’t do himself any favors with pitch selection and location. He went to his fastball and cut-fastball far too often and in some cases left them in the nitro zone. Since it is the same fastball he has had success with in the past, a change in selection could go a long way; especially considering his change-up remains one of the premier pitches in the league.
The struggles with home runs and hits allowed have been documented. Meanwhile, Shields did quite well last season in other areas. He posted a career high in strikeouts (187 in 203.1 innings) and gave up just 2.3 walks per nine innings. According to his 3.72 xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) – a metric that measures walks, strikeouts, and uses the leave average home run rate to further strip luck out of the equation- Shields actually had a very good season.
Shields is similar to Ricky Nolasco in a few ways. Both starters posted good strikeout rates, solid walk totals, but were bitten by the long ball. Not surprisingly, both had better showings in defensive independent metrics than their ERA. This may scare away prospective owners on draft day, leaving them as quality choices on the scrap heap.
In the case of Shields, regression to the mean will help, but he’ll also have to do a better job of mixing up his pitches and spotting the ball around the zone. He did this from 2007-2009 when he averaged 12 wins, a 3.85 ERA, and over 200 innings per season. His durability alone (four straight seasons of at least 31 starts and 200 innings) makes him a back-end of the rotation target, but the chance for regression could make him a real steal in the later rounds of a mixed-league draft.
by Eno Sarris //
The closer carousel in Baltimore continues. Since 2008, George Sherrill, Alfredo Simon, Jim Johnson, David Hernandez, Mark Hendrickson, Mike Gonzalez, Lance Cormier, Jim Miller, Cla Meredith and Rocky Cherry have all notched a save for the Orioles, and that’s not mentioning the two main candidates for the closer’s role this year.
This past offseason, the Orioles signed Kevin Gregg to a two-year, $10 deal. Gregg has functioned as his teams’ closer for four straight years, providing solid-but-not-spectacular numbers for the Marlins, Cubs and Blue Jays along the way. Now that he’s the second-highest paid player in the pen, and owns the most career saves of the crew, is the the favorite for the role?
Probably, but that doesn’t mean he’s not without his flaws. Last year, Gregg struck out 8.85 batters per nine, walked 4.58 batters per nine, and had a 42.3% groundball rate. All of those numbers are too close to average for relievers to get very excited about. Relievers averaged 7.58 strikeouts per nine, 4.56 walks per nine, and a 42.7% groundball rate last year. That means that Gregg was a mere strikeout per nine away from being an average pitcher, which doesn’t scream “Closer” with a capital ‘c.’
Last year’s closer, Koji Uehara, is still with the team, as he was resigned to a one-year, $3 million deal that can jump to $5 with incentives. He might be paid a little less, but he’s a better pitcher. After moving to the pen last year, Uehara had an insane 11.25 strikeouts per nine against 1.02 walks per nine. He’s an extreme flyball pitcher – his 23.6% groundball rate has to count against him – but that kind of strikeout punch and control is ideal for a closer. Some may point to his relative inexperience in the role as a negative, but Uehara pitched over 1300 innings in Japan, saved 32 games in 2007, and has a generally excellent resume once you include his Japanese history.
Take a look at the Bloomberg Sports projection for Kevin Gregg on the left, and the argument comes into focus. Gregg may be in line for the saves right now, but his projected ERA (4.11) and WHIP (1.37) should make fantasy managers nervous. Remember, saves are just one category, and Uehara should easily trump Gregg in the other categories – and could easily steal the job completely. Consider handcuffing these two together late in drafts this year.
For the best fantasy baseball analysis and insight please visit BloombergSports.com
By Tommy Rancel //
Despite having just over two seasons under his rather large belt, Pablo Sandoval has seen the ups and downs of the major leagues. The Kung-Fu Panda made his debut for San Francisco in 2008, hitting .345/.357/.490 in an abbreviated 41-game rookie season. In his first full season at the big league level, he hit .330/.387/.559 with 25 home runs, 44 doubles, and somehow legged out five triples. For his efforts, he was rewarded with a top-10 finish in the 2009 National League MVP vote – placing seventh. Sandoval entered the 2010 season as a 23-year-old with a career batting average of .333 in over 700 at-bats. Then the season started…
Not only was Sandoval unable to replicate his 2009 success, but he did not even come close. In 152 games, he posted a slash line of .268/.323/.409. His home run total was pretty much cut in half (13), and he drove in just 63 runners compared to the 90 from the previous year. By season’s end, he was replaced by Juan Uribe in the lineup and totaled just 19 plate appearances in the playoffs as the Giants’ marched to a World Series title Such a steep drop-off for a player with Sandoval’s experience immediately brings up the word fluke. However, when looking past his fantasy stats, there are not many signs of fluke.
In terms of plate discipline, he was still a free swinger last season, but did not rack up a ton of strikeouts. He walk rate declined a bit, however, nothing substantial. Overall, he displayed the same patience as he did in 2009. In terms of batted ball data, he hit about the same number of line drives as well as ground and flyballs.
The areas where he experienced steep regression were batting average on balls in play and home run-to-flyball ratio. He was unlikely to be a career .330 hitter anyway so some correction was expected. In terms of the HR/FB issue, he might have regressed a bit too much leaving the potential for positive regression in the future.
With similar peripherals yet differerent results over the past two seasons, what can we expect in 2011? Another near-MVP caliber season or another mostly disappointing and average campaign?
According to Bloomberg Sports’ projections, Sandoval should fall right in between. Our projections peg the Panda with a .293 average and an OPS of .825. In terms of power, the system projects him to once again top the 20 home run plateau with a steady dose of doubles mixed in.
After the season, Sandoval was told to lose weight by Giants’ management or face a demotion to the minors. We don’t know if he is the best shape of his life, but reports say he is in much better condition than he was a few months ago. In addition to working with trainers, he has also picked the mind of Giants’ great Barry Bonds about improving his swing and plate approach.
With the fresh stench of his 2010 lingering on some draft boards, Sandoval may linger around a bit longer than his true value. That said, he becomes a prime target in the mid-rounds as a bounce back sleeper with multi-position flexibility.
By Eriq Gardner //