First I’d like to thank those who took the time to read and comment on Dynasty ranking: Top 25 players age 25 or younger. The rankings process certainly wasn’t easy; there were a great many variables to take into account when compiling our top-25 lists. Differences in each of our weighting of those variables was rather apparent in our differing rankings.
In putting together my rankings, I found I had a difficult time determining whether a player’s ceiling or his floor was more important, and thus tried to find the best blend of both. I had a clear preference in ranking hitters above pitchers, simply based on the volatility and inherent risk of injury pitchers carry. In ranking pitchers, I put National Leaguers higher than their American League counterparts, with Felix Hernandez serving as the exception based on his elite skills. Another variable that played a key role in a few of my more controversial rankings was age.
With that in mind, let’s look at my three most controversial player rankings and the rationale behind each.
1: Madison Bumgarner | My rank 14 | Jeffrey Gross’ rank 24 | Paul Singman’s rank 25
Bumgarner serves as a perfect example of where age and league carried a lot of weight in my ranking. Bumgarner’s numbers alone wouldn’t have allowed him to slot at 14 on my list, but taking into account that he didn’t turn 21 until Aug. 1 last season, and is cost controlled for some time, and thus staying in the National League with the Giants, he becomes a great deal more valuable. Last year, as a rookie, Bumgarner posted a 4.03 xFIP, 6.97 K/9, 2.11 BB/9 and a 45.1 groundball percentage. To justify his lofty ranking on my list he’ll need to improve his K/9; as you’d expect from my ranking I expect him to do just that.
This time last year there were questions abound about Bumgarner’s drop in velocity. In May, minor league baseball’s website featured an article discussing Bumgarner adjusting his mechanics, and with the adjustment, adding velocity to his fastball. The article also discussed Bumgarner beginning to use a cutter in his pitch mix.
Checking out his FanGraphs page, one can see his fastball velocity averaged 91.3 mph, up from the high 80s as was reported near the end of 2009 and spring training in 2010. His velocity last year was still a little below the mid-90s fastballs he was reportedly blazing by low minor league hitters in 2008, so it leads hope to possibly regaining still a few more ticks. Regardless, Bumgarner was able to feature a four-pitch mix last year that included a mid-80s slider (according to FanGraphs pitch classification), which may actually be the cutter he says he developed (a 6.8 mph velocity difference between his 2009 slider and his 2010 slider would seem to support that thought).
He also featured a curveball he threw in the mid-70s, a change-up he threw at 83.2 mph on average, and his fastball. Of his pitch repertoire, his change-up, a pitch that was described as rudimentary by Baseball America after he was drafted, was his most effective according to pitch run values at FanGraphs. In fact, all three of his non-fastball pitches had positive run values, and his fastball was the only pitch posting a negative run value. It appears that losing some velocity on his fastball may have forced Bumgarner to become more of a pitcher, and could benefit him tremendously going forward (or perhaps I’m wearing rose colored shades as a Giants fan), especially in the event he’s better able to use a heater that he once used to terrorize Single-A hitters.
2: Stephen Strasburg | My rank 25 | Jeffrey’s rank 3 | Paul’s rank 10
Leading up to making the dynasty ranking lists, Stephen Strasburg quickly became the player I was most interested to see ranked on Jeffrey and Paul’s lists. Jeffrey clearly appears to be the least risk averse of us, as he’s aggressively placed him in his top five. I’m clearly the most risk averse, placing him 25 on my list. Entering 2011 at just 22 years of age, time is certainly on Strasburg’s side in terms of a full recovery to pre-injury dominance. Tommy John surgery certainly isn’t the scare it may have once been, but was reason enough for me to place him at the bottom of my rankings.
Considering the varying recovery periods of different pitchers, banking on a full return to health and effectiveness at the end of 2011, or even the beginning of 2012, may prove wishful thinking. A quick Google search relating to Tommy John surgery yielded the website eorthopod.com which estimates complete recovery occurring in 85-90 percent of athletes. Certainly a fantastic rate of success, but not bullet proof.
Couple that with players, such as Francisco Liriano, who are able to return to full health, but not in the estimated 12-month period, and you begin to see a snowball effect of concerns. Further looking at Liriano’s case, you’ll see that his average fastball velocity in 2008 (he missed all of 2007 season for recovery) was 90.9 mph and in 2009 was 91.7, a far cry from his 94.7 mph pre-surgery heater. Even last season, a full three years removed from surgery, his fastball checked in at 93.7.
While it’s hard to argue with his results last year, owners who kept him following his outstanding 2006 rookie season had to endure a completely lost 2007 season, a marginally useful 2008 in which he spent most of the year in the minors, and a terrible 2009. Even with last season in the books, continued good health remains a question for Liriano, and will be a question for Strasburg when he’s able to return to the mound for a full season.
Really, it’s anyone’s guess as to why Strasburg suffered a torn UCL. Perhaps it was simply having fired too many bullets and the surgery will allow him to continue making hitters look foolish for years to come. Maybe the tear is the result of bad mechanics, or worse yet, the result of having the absurd ability to chuck a baseball in excess of 100 mph. Look no further than fellow 100 mph-plus man Joel Zumaya for an example of a body that hasn’t been able to sustain good health while blowing away opposing batters.
As a baseball fan and human being, I hope to see Stephen Strasburg return to the mound and delight fans with his otherworldy stuff. As a fantasy owner, I’m just not willing to pay the premium Jeffrey and Paul are for a player who, to me, epitomizes boom or bust with little middle ground.
3: Jason Heyward | My rank 1 | Jeffrey’s rank 7 | Paul’s rank 3
When compiling my top 25 my first thought was that Evan Longoria would be my unquestioned top ranked player, as he is on both Jeffrey and Paul’s lists. However, instead of simply looking at positional scarcity concerns (which are downplayed for outfielders in five-outfielder formats), I dug into Longoria’s underlying stats. The first notable trend for Longoria is a downward slide in power since he burst onto the scene in 2008. His ISO marks have steadily declined from .259 in 2008 to .245 in 2009 and a substantially lower .213 in 2010. As one would probably guess, his sliding ISO is largely due to a lower home run rate, which is the product of a downward trending HR/FB rate (2008: 19.4 percent; 2009: 17.6 percent; 2010: 11.1 percent).
For a player who should be entering his power peak years, this is reason for pause. One logical explanation is that he’s traded power for a reduction in his strikeout rate, which has improved each season (2008: 27.2 percent; 2009: 24.0 percent; 2010: 21.6 percent), and with a reduction in strikeouts he’s seen an increase in batting average from .272 to .281 and ultimately .294 last season. Concerns about whether Longoria is going to be able to improve his power numbers while keeping his lower strikeout rate and higher average gave me reason enough to look into Jason Heyward as the top player on my list.
The first thing that appeals to me about Heyward compared to Longoria is that he’s four years younger, and thus has the potential for four more years of upper echelon production. Heyward played most of the 2010 season at age 20, and was able to post a jaw-dropping 14.7 percent walk rate (3.7 percentage points better than Longoria’s best mark, which came last year) and a number I’d expect to increase as he continues to gain major league experience. Heyward also posted an acceptable strikeout rate at 24.6 percent (3 percent worse than Longoria’s mark last year, but better than his rookie mark), also a rate I expect to improve with experience.
Just looking at Heyward’s home run total last year, 18, might cause some to wonder about his power and home run potential, but one shouldn’t worry—scouts have always rated his power as a plus tool Further helping quell concerns, Heyward’s average home run true distance of 403.3 feet was 6.1 feet greater than the average National League true distance of 397.2 feet.
Looking at his batted ball data leads to optimism for a potential spike in homers as soon as this year, as only 27.2 percent of the balls he put in play were fly balls. If Heyward is able to add some loft to his swing and hit more balls in the air, he has a shot at truly using his 16.8 percent HR/FB rate and popping 30 plus homers.
I expect him to hit for an average north of .280 with 25 plus home runs, 10-15 stolen bases, and a combined total of runs and RBI greater than 190. In his peak years, I expect Heyward to eclipse 30 home runs regularly and hit for an average north of .300 while piling up monster run and RBI totals. The biggest knock on Heyward seems to be his ability to stay healthy, as he has missed playing time in the minors in past seasons and landed on the DL last year due to a deep bone bruise to his thumb. Considering the injury that cause him to miss time last year, and his age when he suffered his previous injuries, I’ll assume he’ll be able to stay healthy as he physically matures. Ultimately, it was a four year age gap and my projected peak seasons that put Heyward on top of my list.