“Round Robinson” I Said Brrr, It’s Cold in Here… (How to handle some sluggish fantasy baseball starts)
You walked away from your draft on top of the world. You looked at your offense and couldn’t stop beating your chest over the studs that littered your team. If you’re a fan of “The League” on FX, they have a particular term to describe what you did after the draft, and you did it a lot. You knew the obliteration of the rest of the league was a formality. This was going to be your year.
And then April happened. We’ve all been there.
That powerhouse 1B that you penciled in for 35 HR doesn’t even have as many round-trippers as Jonathan Villar. That RBI machine that you just knew was coming into his own barely cracked double digits in the category for the entire month. That portly fellow who used to handle the bat so well at your corner infield spot looks like he’ll never recapture his former glory. If you’ve got one of these guys on your team, you still might be alright. Two of them and you’re probably just barely hanging on. More than that and you’re wondering when football season starts.
Take solace, my friend. All is not lost. These players can still be a valuable part of your team’s path to victory. It’s just a matter of deciding whether that will happen with them on your roster, or someone else’s. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some slow starters this year and what to make of their early-season struggles. We’ll leave the DL guys alone (Your welcome, Bryce. Your name was set to be all over this) as well as the ones just returning from injury (Reyes, Victorino, Beltre, etc.) and stick to those whose on-field performance has left us scratching our heads. What better place to start than my own backyard:
Prince Fielder, 1B, TEX (ADP 15*): I thought I was starting with the most cookie-cutter example of not overreacting to a poor April that I could find. Yes, Prince’s first month with his new team was poor (.206/.331/.314, 2 HR, 9 RBI) but you could take your pick on reasons to believe he’ll get it together in the summer months. Where would you like to start? The aforementioned Beltre is now back after his short stint on the DL and has returned to his slot behind Fielder in the order. Not a believer in lineup protection? Not a problem. How about that Prince’s strikeout rate is at 12.4% this season (down from 16.4% last year) while his walk rate has climbed to 14.1% (from 10.5% last year)? Or, just in case you needed a reminder, that when Fielder was dealt from Detroit to Texas, he was also trading in the spacious caverns of Comerica Park for the jet stream that is the Ballpark in Arlington (everyone here still refuses to call it Globe Life Park). The weather has yet to heat up, but when it does the ball will be jumping as it does every year. Everything points to Fielder bouncing back.
Until I came across one very telling and glaring stat. Prince Fielder in his career has a GB/FB rate of 0.72, which makes plenty of sense considering the uppercut nature of his swing. In his 50 HR season of 2007, that number dipped all the way down to 0.56. But so far in 2014, Fielder’s GB/FB rate is an astounding 1.12, exactly double that of 2007. To put this further in perspective, consider that his previous career high in a season was only 0.80. Doesn’t really matter what kind of jet stream there is when you’re bashing the ball straight into the ground over half the time you put it in play, which explains his lowly .224 BABIP (relative to a .301 career mark). Reports are going around after his April struggles that Prince is pressing, but I think it could be more than just mental adjustments that need to be made.
One of the discussions I hear getting batted around is whether you would prefer Prince Fielder the rest of the season or the white-hot Jose Abreu. Initially, I was all over the Prince side and was imploring anyone who could flip Abreu for him to do so. Now, I would understand if you turned that deal down, even though I’d probably still do it myself with a little hesitation. I feel the same way when comparing Prince to the resurgent Albert Pujols (looking more and more like I was wrong on him). He’s definitely slid behind Freeman, Votto and even Adrian Gonzalez (yes, he’s back). At this point, holding on to Prince isn’t the worst thing in the world, but if you have the opportunity to flip him for any of these guys, you have to seriously consider it now. There’s no longer a guarantee you’ll get the chance later.
Allen Craig, 1B,OF, STL (ADP 54*): Admittedly, I was not on the Allen Craig bandwagon coming in to this season. I just didn’t see the profile of a top-50 guy. You will never see me buying in on a player who couldn’t even drive in 100 runs despite having a ridiculous .454 AVG with RISP. And yes, I know he did this after appearing in only 134 games last year. The injury history itself was another red flag for me. But it was that .454 outlier that just stuck in my head. There’s no way that was repeatable and no way he was driving in that many runs (nor would Matt Carpenter be scoring that many runs) without displaying a little more power, another aspect of his game I never quite believed in.
Through the first month, it looks like I have been proven right. Craig currently sports a .220/.277/.367 triple slash to go along with 3 HR and 11 RBI. Not terrible production, but certainly not what you expected when you invested that 5th-round pick in him. His walk rate and strikeout rate are in line with his career numbers, so where’s the issue? From the department of redundancy department, I direct you to Allen Craig’s own inflated GB/FB rate. Last year, Craig sported a 0.85, which also happens to be his career rate. In 109 AB this year, that number has now puffed up to 1.53 and coincides with a drop in line drive percentage from 28% to 22% and a BABIP this season of just .239. Looks like we’ve got another Prince Fielder situation on our hands.
This is where the comparisons stop and I tell you that I am indeed on board with Allen Craig going forward. How can that be? Because this is what Allen Craig does. Take a look at his splits in April and you’ll find an AVG of .241 and an OPS of .650 for his career. Of all the other months (not including October), Craig’s lowest AVG by month is .283 and his lowest OPS is .803. Even his most recent series against the Brewers (7-13, 2 HR, 5 RBI) indicates that the breakthrough is coming. I’m still not a believer in him as a top-50 guy, but I’ve got no reason to think top-75 isn’t possible. If you find the Craig owner in your league has lost faith, you have to pounce now. If you are the Craig owner in your league, you’ve made it through the worst of times, and the best are on the way.
Billy Butler, DH,1B, KC (ADP 117*): Ol’ Country Breakfast himself. Has to be a top-5 nickname in the game today. Too bad his performance has come nowhere close to that benchmark so far in 2014. Through 109 ABs this year, Butler is hitting .224/.284/.255 with 8 RBI and a big fat donut in the home run department to go with that breakfast. Is it just me, or does his production in 2012 (.882 OPS, 29 HR, 107 RBI) feel like it happened so much longer ago than that? We waited years for the power, for Butler to turn some of those doubles into HRs, and for those like myself who stuck by him, the destination he reached that season made the journey all the more worth it. He even gave us 2 SB as reward for our dedication. Biscuits and gravy for all.
But now Country Breakfast has turned into a big bowl of tasteless grits. And for those of us who had been at the table with him for so long, we have to ask ourselves just who the real Billy Butler is. In 2013, Butler posted just 15 HR and 82 RBI to go along with a .787 OPS. What’s worse is that those HRs didn’t regress back into doubles, they turned into outs. Butler’s extra base hit percentage (XBH%) was a career low 6.3%, which doesn’t look too bad compared to the measly 2.8% he’s posting through one month this year.
It’s time to close the book on Billy Butler being a .300/30/100 player. That’s just not who he is. A better comparison now might be Bengie Molina in his prime (2005-2009) and man, does it pain me to admit that. That being said, how do we get Butler and Molina in a footrace during the All-Star break, Charles Barkley vs. Dick Bavetta-style? Who wouldn’t pay to watch these two, um, athletes, in an all-out sprint from third to home plate in between rounds of the home run derby? Better yet, let’s see if Billy Hamilton can make it all the way around the bases before these two can get 90 feet. The potential here is limitless. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Butler in the batter’s box. It’s time to whet your appetite somewhere else.
First Pitch Swinging – Some quick thoughts on a few other hitters yet to turn it on:
Pablo Sandoval, 3B, SF (ADP 131*): Butler’s not the only plus-sized player with a great nickname off to a sour start. The Panda is hitting just .177/.262/.302 and has only driven in 6 so far. He’s striking out at an alarming rate (20.6%) but not for the reason you might think. Sandoval has a reputation as a bad ball hitter, but this year it’s the good pitches he’s having trouble with. Per Fangraphs, KFP is only swinging at 63.1% of pitches in the zone (vs. a career 76.0%), and when he is swinging, he’s only making contact with 75.3% of pitches in the zone (vs. a career 85.4%). None of this, however, is why I bring up Sandoval’s performance. Can we please do away once-and-for-all with this whole contract year fallacy? Those of you who thought we’d see something resembling Pablo Sandoval circa 2009 because he looked to be in line for a big payday this winter might end up being wrong on both counts. There is nothing to this contract year thing and stop using Adrian Beltre’s 2004 as a crutch for that argument. Instead, you might want to think about why the Giants haven’t locked him up long term. Go ahead and do that while I hop off of my soapbox.
Jason Heyward, OF, ATL (ADP 70*): The four steals are nice and give us a little hope that he could be back in the low to mid-20s again, but everything else (.206/.296/.314) looks like it should be cause for concern. Truth is, I’m not worried. That triple slash might look rough, but it shines in comparison to where he was on April 17 (.136/.271/.254). He’s still striking out a ton, but he’s always struck out a ton and he’s still taking his walks. His BABIP (.257) is on the low side of his career number (.300) right now, but Heyward is consistently hitting the ball hard so look for that to change soon. If you invested in him hoping he would return to his 20/20 form of 2012, I see no reason to sell now.
Carlos Santana, C,1B,3B, CLE (ADP 71*): Just so we’re clear, I don’t think for a minute that there’s anything to worry about with Santana. While looking at his AVG of .151 does cause a little indigestion, Santana still has managed a OBP of .313 thanks to his typically strong eye at the plate. What’s more, his BABIP sits at an absurd .164 and just screams regression. But I wanted to mention Santana because I’ve heard some rumblings of his slow start at the plate being related to his position change. Like the contract year belief, only to a lesser degree, I just can’t put that much stock in a defensive change affecting someone’s offense this much, especially when that change means getting out from behind the plate regularly. Often we see catchers move to different positions and there are times when their offensive numbers lag following the move. I don’t see this as a causational relationship simply because I believe that when catchers are moved it’s often late in their careers when their skills, and their bodies, have already eroded. If you want a solid comparison for Santana, look at what Mike Napoli has done since donning a first baseman’s glove for the Red Sox. This is the kind of career preservation Cleveland is interested in and Santana will be better for it in the very near future.
Agree with my thoughts? Great. Think I’m full of Oscar Mayer? Even better… Bring it to the comments and tell me why I’m wrong. And if you’ve got another hitter you’re worried about, let me know and I’ll do my best to quell your concerns, or put you in full-on panic mode.
*Average Draft Position taken from FantasyPros.com