“Round Robinson”: Man on Fire (What to Make of Some Unexpected Hot Fantasy Baseball Starts)
The calendar has yet to flip to May and we’re only about 1/7 of the way through the marathon that is the regular season. I’ve heard a lot of talking heads say that nothing can really be established as a full-on trend until we’re through the first month of the season, others stretching that timeline all the way to the season’s quarter pole. We get the same clichés each and every season: “small sample size” and “regression to the mean”. Patience is preached over and over again as if it’s some virtuous trait that will open the door to fantasy baseball enlightenment. Most of all, don’t overreact.
But of the 9-19 other owners in your league, odds are that at least one of them is going to overreact. One of them is going to make a move that you were thinking about making, but weren’t quite ready pull the trigger yet. One of them is going to drop a semi-established commodity for that flash-in-the-pan guy. And every so often, it’s this kind of swing-for-the-fences move that you look back on and wonder why you didn’t make yourself.
If you want to be the owner that rests on his laurels and waits for his team to round into shape, I’m not going to knock you. You constructed your team a month ago and I would hope that just about all of you walked out of your draft feeling like you had a championship squad. And I’m sure you’ve done a little roster maintenance since then, picking up a reliever you saw with a path to saves or grabbing a marginal starter who looked good a few turns in a row. You’ve made some minor tweaks here and there, but nothing that shakes the foundation of your team. And you’re content to see what you’ve got for a few more weeks.
I’m the aggressive owner who will usually wins a Roto league by 15 points, or finishes in 7th. I prefer taking a bigger risk earlier in the year with the potential for the biggest reward or the biggest letdown. This is the point in the season that I do a full tune-up on my team and on the league. I assess what’s out there so far and what’s worth both acquiring and ejecting. While other owners are watching and waiting, I do the gettin’ while the gettin’ is still good.
In taking this inventory, it’s imperative to decide is real and what’s just a blip on the radar. As part of a 2-part series, I’m going to take a look at a few of the biggest early season hitting surprises and how to handle them. As you can tell from the title, this week is all about the guys who have come from way back to a point of fantasy relevance. Next week, I’ll delve into those established names who have failed to live up to their primetime price tags and what the play is with them. But for now, let’s keep a positive spin on things. Step right up, boys.
Charlie Blackmon, OF, COL (ADP 449*): Was there really any other guy I could start with? Depending on your league criteria and ratings system, Blackmon was probably ranked first or second overall going into Thursday’s slate. If you had told me a month ago that an outfielder from Colorado was going to have a stat line of .410/.453/.692 with 5 HR, 16 RBI, 19 R, and 6 SB at this point, I would’ve told you it was good to see CarGo off to such a ridiculous start. Just so happens that Gonzalez is off to a good start and still can’t even sniff what Blackmon is doing right now. Plus… that beard.
The question on everyone’s mind is just how legitimate is his start. Obviously, those numbers will start to slide soon, but what are we likely to be left with? Let’s start with the good. Blackmon has a career 13.9% K rate and is coming off of a season where he struck out 19.0% over 258 AB. This year he has dropped that number to just 5.8% and has also seen his walk rate more than double. Blackmon, whose career K/BB rate hovered around 4.0, now has a tidy little ratio of 0.83. One of the biggest concerns heading into the season was that Blackmon was going to surrender some ABs when facing left-handed pitching. He is still receiving the occasional day off against a southpaw, but seems to have played himself into the opportunity to get more everyday at-bats. The idea that Blackmon should be sitting against lefties was comical anyway considering that coming into this season, he had splits of .280/.310/.405 vs. RHP and .325/.353/.447 vs. LHP. Then, of course, we have to remember that Blackmon gets 81 games at the launching pad that is Coors Field. All 5 HR for Blackmon this year have come at home in 46 AB versus none on the road in 32 AB. If he were to maintain that pace over 250 AB, that would project out to 27 HR just in home games.
But that pace shows little hope of being maintained when you consider Blackmon’s inflated 15.6% HR/FB rate this season against a career rate of just 6.3%. Including his minor league numbers, Blackmon’s career high for HR in a season is just 11. Maybe he hits 15 this year, possibly 18, but the power is going to subside. Accept it and move on. The speed, however is another story. As long he keeps getting parked on top of a lineup with Tulo, CarGo, and the resurgent Morneau, as well as maintaining a strong AVG and OBP (career .308/.341), the run production remains viable as does the potential for SB (he did steal 30 in 2009 in AA).
So what’s the play? If you’re looking for a solid OF who can give you 15/20 with a plus AVG and solid run potential, stick with him because there’s definite value in that. If I’m a Blackmon owner who’s looking to maximize my return for his services, here’s what I do: Ride out this incredible hot streak he’s on with an eye towards the schedule. The Rockies finish this month with 6 games on the road before getting 12 of 19 at home to start May. The kicker is that 5 of those road games are at hitter-friendly Texas and Cincinnati. Enjoy that friendly schedule and then look to deal late-May once that value is at its highest.
Dee Gordon, 2B/SS, LAD (ADP 294*): Mark it down: Dee Gordon will lead MLB in stolen bases this year if the Dodgers let him. I don’t think that statement is quite as profound now as it would have been this time last month when people were wondering if Billy Hamilton was indeed the second coming of Vince Coleman. But since we are comparing the two young speedsters, let it be known that there is one thing Dee Gordon has shown the ability to do that Billy Hamilton hasn’t and that’s get on base.
Gordon is coming off two seasons with the Dodgers where he hit .228 and .234, respectively, and his OBP never eclipsed .305. Yet in 330 PA in 2012, he still stole 32 bases. One of my favorite stats when it comes to base stealers is SB/PA. It’s similar to HR rate, but I use PA rather than AB because if we’re looking for steals, we really don’t care if the player got to first via a hit or a walk, just that he got there. You can’t steal second (then third) if you never get to first. In 2012, Gordon had a SB for every 10.3 PA, and when that’s extrapolated to a 600 PA season (my default), you end up with 58 SB. Not too shabby. But let’s look at this season.
Gordon as of Thursday already has 12 SB in just 71 PA this year. Going back to our SB rate formula, this breaks down to a SB every 5.9 PA and when extrapolated to 600 PA, we get a final tally of 102 SB. As of right now, Gordon is only on pace for 516 PA appearances this season but that is still a massive figure to be considering. How has he done it? Speedsters like Gordon are best off when they can use their wheels, and that means putting the ball in play on the ground. Consider that last year Gordon’s GB/FB rate was barely over 1 and his BABIP was a paltry .292. This year, his GB/FB rate is up to 1.78 and his BABIP is sitting at a robust .418. Tack on a career-high line drive rate of 23% and you’ve got all the makings of a player who’s figured out how to use his God-given tools.
The major concern for Dee Gordon owners has to be the play of Alex Guerrero in the minors. He’s currently hitting .467 for AAA-Albuquerque and the Dodgers don’t intend on keeping him down there forever. This is one situation where you’re going to have to keep your ear to the ground in terms of what the Dodgers might do, but as long as Dee Gordon finds himself penciled into the Dodgers starting lineup, he’ll be penciled into mine as well.
Chris Colabello, 1B, MIN (ADP N/A*): The fact that Colabello is being discussed here after not being among the top 500 players drafted is a testament to the unpredictability and fun of this game. Even more impressive was the well-timed birthday present he delivered to his mom on Wednesday. That was his 3rd long ball of the season to go along with a .346/.386/.577 triple slash and an AL-leading 26 RBI. Sounds like nothing but love for the former member of the Worcester Tornadoes.
With apologies to Mama Colabello, turns out it’s not all roses for her baby boy. In 160 AB for Minnesota last year, Colabello only managed to hit .194 and struck out 58 times. What’s constituted this huge jump to start 2014? Let’s start with a BABIP jump from .253 last season all the way up to .453 to start this year’s campaign. Expect a precipitous drop there and soon because Colabello is still hanging on to his free-swinging ways. Through 78 ABs this season, he has whiffed 22 times already while drawing just four free passes. An outlier BABIP combined with a K/BB rate of 5.5 just doesn’t incur much confidence in future returns.
Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, Colabello is hitting .429 with runners on base and .450 with RISP as opposed to just .250 with no one on. Maintaining such a split, a la Allen Craig a year ago, could allow him to drive in runs at a stronger clip than expected, though nothing like what we’ve seen so far. Also of note is Colabello’s nine doubles, a surprise considering he only managed to hit three last year. His home run rate has been down so far this year but I still see Colabello as a 20-HR guy if and when he turns some of these two-baggers into homers. He’ll make for a decent CI option in deeper leagues, but expecting more is foolish.
Bonus Round: We all saw the pine tar debacle of Michael Pineda on Wednesday and the 10-game suspension he netted as a result. I’m not here to argue about the punishment; when you are that blatantly obvious about using a foreign substance, you’ve pretty much forced MLB to take a stand no matter how rampant the use of similar tactics are throughout baseball. The Yankees themselves deserve just as much of the blame for not being more proactive with Pineda after the first time he was seen using pine tar and making him understand that discretion is the better part of valor.
But from a fantasy perspective, this provides an interesting opportunity. The fantasy community as a whole tends to sour just a bit on players who get busted in these kinds of scandals. A-Rod had some decent value during the small stint of games he played in 2013, but owners seemed hesitant to make the add. Similarly, I think Pineda’s perceived value is going to take a hit here. His numbers so far this year have been stellar (19.2 IP, 1.83 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 15 K, 3 BB) and I’m on record as being all in on him in 2014, so why not see if you can fish him away from another owner at a slight discount while he’s serving his suspension? Could be a subtle move that pushes you closer to the top of the mountain in your league.
Have a differing opinion on any of these guys? Want my take on another fast starter? Meet me in the comments and we’ll hash it out.
*Average Draft Positions taken from FantasyPros.com