Top fantasy baseball surprises
I like to think I know a bit about the game, but by this time each and every year, many of my predictions are proven inaccurate, to say the least. I try my best to provide my readers the insight they deserve, but baseball is a game that humbles 100 percent of writers and analysts that pontificate upon it. That said, I'm a pretty stubborn guy overall, and I'm still having a hard time grasping some of the performances that we've seen so far. I'm also having a difficult time grasping why some players are still in the roles that they are, and others are not. Let's look at a handful of both types of situations, shall we?
James Loney, above average offensive first baseman
Yes, that is the sound of Dodgers fans everywhere wondering "Where was THIS all those years?" Loney ranks fourth in the league among first baseman with a 2.1 WAR, and though some of that derives from his above average defense, he's also batting .327/.387/.519. Loney has already eclipsed last year's HR total (six) by two in half the at-bats, and he's on pace to blow past his career-high 15. Loney continues to boast well above average contact ability with an 11.3-percent K rate, and his walk rate is up a bit this year as well. Since Loney's first full season in 2008, he hasn't posted a HR/FB rate above 7.3 percent, but this year it sits at 13.3 percent, as some of those line drives are finding the seats this time around. He's also hitting .370 versus southpaws after last year's .217 mark. Is there any explanation that makes sense other than Loney simply being the Rays' annual "pull this guy off the trash heap and watch him be an All-Star" pickup? The parallels to Casey Kotchman's 2011 season for the Rays are obvious.
I think Loney's success boils down to a couple things:
The realization that his career is at a crossroads - I lean toward analytics in breaking down players, but can we completely discount the human element here? Loney may have felt crushed by the weight of high expectations as a first-round pick and top prospect in LA, but now that those expectations were quite a bit lower, he's thriving. He's also on a one-year deal, and many think he was lucky to even get guaranteed money coming off a season in which he batted a paltry .249/.293/.336. Another season resembling that in 2013, and Loney is probably off to Japan.
Swinging at fewer bad pitches - Loney is chasing fewer pitches outside the zone, and when he does swing, he's swinging and missing a full percentage point less than prior years. He looks like a different player at the plate, and for the Rays and Loney's fantasy owners, that's a very good thing. I'll be conservative here and predict that he winds up .300/.360/.480 with 20 home runs.
Brandon League, closer
League was finally replaced as Dodgers closer with superior pitcher Kenley Jansen taking over the ninth-inning job . It's not League's fault really. He's simply not suited to pitching in the late innings, something manager Don Mattingly probably should have picked up on by now. League has yet to go more than three appearances without allowing a run this season, he's blown four saves and has seen his K/9 rate tank from 6.8 to 4.8. That said, his GB% is solid at 56.1 percent, and he minimizes free passes to the tune of a 2.6 BB/9, so shifting him to the middle innings probably yields much better results for the Dodgers. His 4.29 xFIP compares favorably to last year's 3.99, so taking that late-inning pressure out of the equation is probably best for both parties.
What reason there was to even began the year with League as closer is a mystery. Yeah, I can also think of 22.5 million reasons (League's ill-advised three-year deal), but Jansen is a top-10 level closer. He has elite strikeout potential, and he's done a great job driving down his walk rate the last couple years:
2011: 4.4 BB/9
Look for Jansen to keep the job the rest of the season. Now to see whether the Dodgers can actually provide him with save opportunities.
Wil Myers, still in Triple-A
Conflicting reports have Myers being promoted this week, next week, later this year, etc., but it's pretty clear that his time is coming. We don't have a definitive date for when the Rays don't have to concern themselves with a Super-Two arbitration situation, so look for them to be conservative and wait another week or more. Myers is batting .283/.359/.506 for Triple-A Durham, but he's really picked things up recently, batting .357 with three home runs in his last 10 games. He's not likely to come in and be the East Coast version of Yasiel Puig, but Myers can be the team's second-best hitter the rest of the way. He's now had more than 600 at-bats at the Triple-A level, and though he's fanned in 26.6 percent of them, Myers draw walks and has homered once every 17.3 at-bats. The fallout of a Myers promotion to Tampa Bay would likely look like this:
Ben Zobrist (nine hits in his last three games) gets most of the 2B starts
Myers slots into right field
Kelly Johnson is the DH most days
Luke Scott and his .188/.270/.288 slash line hits the waiver wire
If you're looking for reasonable expectations for Myers the rest of the year, I'd venture this: .265/.335/.440 with 12-15 home runs and 50-60 RBI.
Miguel Montero, formerly good catcher
This one is a bit of a mystery. Montero has posted OPS totals of .820 and .829 the last two seasons, but this year through Monday's action, he's hitting an anemic .208/.292/.287 with just three home runs. His walk and strikeout rates aren't alarming by any means:
Nothing too alarming, right? We can say that a portion of the batting average issue relates to Montero's .253 BABIP, but what about the .079 ISO? Where's the power? Part of it is a 48.4-percent GB rate, a mark that is nearly seven points above Montero's career average, and when he does get the ball in the air, only 5.9 percent of those balls have gone over the wall; that number should start to creep up. Montero is hitting .286 over his last nine games, and he logged six XBH in May versus three in April, so perhaps we can interpret those as positive signs. It hasn't been a good year for catchers with the last name Montero, but I'd put my money on Miguel over Jesus the rest of the way.
Clay Buchholz, ace starter?
RotoWire projected Buchholz for a 3.91 ERA and 6.2 K/9, but through 12 starts, he's at 1.71 and 8.6 K/9. So has there been a change in approach or a noticeable improvement in his underlying skillset?
The first thing that jumps out is his well-below normal 3.2-percent HR/FB rate. Buchholz's batted ball data hasn't changed noticeably, so is he just getting lucky on flyballs now or is he perhaps inducing weaker-hit flyballs? A 3.24 xFIP says there's been a bit of luck involved, but Buchholz is also shown great improvement with his cut baseball. It's a pitch he's using more frequently this year versus last (22.6% vs. 20.5%), and he's taken 1.6 mph off the pitch on average, putting more distance in velocity between that pitch and his standard fastball.
So can he keep this up? If healthy, I think so, but Buchholz has yet to make 30 starts in a season, and he's already dealing with a neck injury that while doesn't appear serious, highlights the fact that he has had more than his share of injuries. I don't see him having a long career as an ace-level pitcher along the lines of a Roy Halladay, but the stuff is certainly there for him to be a solid No. 2.
Brendan Ryan, STARTING shortstop?
Ryan is one of the best defenders in the game at his position, though it's tough to get noticed when you have to compete against the greatness that is Derek Jeter's glove. It's clear, though, that Ryan is in the lineup simply for that glove, as he's a career .242 hitter with no power. One of the more interesting metrics on Ryan is his HR/FB rate. Typically this averages about 11 percent league-wide each year, but Ryan's marks the last six seasons have been remarkably low: 0, 3, 1.5, 2.4 and 2.4 percent, and this year a whopping 4.1 percent. Ryan strikes out a reasonable 20.2 percent of the time, but with no pop whatsoever, he needs to be making contact at a rate approaching 90 percent.
So what do the Mariners do here? Perhaps sink or swim with a middle infield of Dustin Ackley at second and Nick Franklin at shortstop. Since hitting .205 and being sent to Triple-A, Ackley is batting .423/.531/.615 in 52 at-bats. His K:BB is a stellar 7:12, and he's shown some pop with a pair of home runs. Time to give him another shot. If the Mariners are going to promote a Triple-A catcher hitting .235, they would at least consider bringing back a prospect batting .423. It's the Mariners, though, so all bets should be off.
Matt Dominguez, power hitter
Dominguez entered Sunday's action batting a paltry .233/.256/.399, but he also finished May with eight home runs and a .221 ISO. Dominguez has walked in just 2.6 percent of his PA, and though he's fanned in a reasonable 15 percent of his PA, Dominguez has yet to exhibit any sort of plate discipline. He's also not fared well with advanced fielding metric, including UZR/150, so it's really the home runs that keeps Dominguez in the lineup. There's that and the fact the Astros don't have a third baseman in the organization ready to replace Dominguez as an everyday player. Amazingly, Dominguez has drawn just once walk since April 29, but again, the lack of competition should keep Dominguez relevant in NL-only formats despite the lack of contact ability.
Nate McLouth, relevant again?
At the big league level the last three years, McLouth has posted batting averages of .190, .228 and .241 - so hey, he's trending up. This year, McLouth has returned to fantasy relevance, batting .286/.365/.413 with four home runs and a whopping 22 stolen bases. McLouth has always had a solid batting eye, and this year his BB% sits at 10.7 percent, but he's made remarkable progress in his contact ability, posting a 10.7-percent K rate as well, compared to a 16.9-percent career mark and a 20.5-percent rate in 2012. McLouth must have had Ted Williams type corneas implanted this offseason, as the eye at the plate has improved markedly over last year:
Swinging strike %: A miniscule 2.8 percent versus last year's 6.3 percent.
O-swing%: He's swinging at just 19.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone versus last year's 25.3 percent.
He's also taking more pitches and when the opposing pitcher does throw strikes, he's making solid contact. Remember, McLouth should still be in his prime at age 31, and this is a guy with an .856 OPS season on his resume that included 26 homers and 23 steals. Perhaps his demise has been greatly exaggerated.
Jean Segura, 2014 second-round pick?
Segura has to be my choice for breakout fantasy star this season. Someone asked me recently what I expect from Segura, and outside of Troy Tulowitzki, I could not name a shortstop I would rather have. He's young, has a solid prospect pedigree and is batting .340/.373/.538. It's the nine home runs and 19 steals combined with the average that make Segura a fantasy stud, especially given his draft position this spring. Another thing that jumps out related to Segura is his 4.2-percent walk rate, so he's a hacker. He's also striking out in just 11.7 percent of his PA, and when a player who runs like Segura can makes that sort of contact, good things generally happen. Segura's nine homers are pretty remarkable considering he hits the ball into the ground more often than not - 57.7-percent GB rate. However, when he does get it in the air, Segura has shown an ability to hit it a long way. He's likely positioning himself to be a top-20 fantasy pick in 2014.
The Padres - full of offensive talent
We know Petco Park has generally been death to hitters, especially power guys, but the Friars have put forth a handful of intriguing hitters this season.
Kyle Blanks - Blanks still isn't guaranteed regular playing time, but with six home runs and a team-leading .895 OPS in 117 at-bats, it's going to be tough to sit him0. If Blanks can overcome the injury-prone label, his upside is rather high.
Jedd Gyorko - Gyorko has had his ups and downs, but at .284/.341/.461, he's been solid offensively. It's hard to find players with 25-homer potential at second base, but Gyorko has that.
Everth Cabrera - Cabrera has been fantasy relevant a couple years thanks to his wheels, but in addition to the 29 steals this year, Cabrera has hit a surprising .293 with four home runs. That's top-five shortstop material.
Mix in potential above-average offense at first base (Yonder Alonso) and catcher (Yasmani Grandal), and you have a pretty nice young core.
Regan is a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner.
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