Elvis impersonatorsby Mark Himmelstein
March 06, 2012
Shortstop is one of those "scarce" positions in fantasy baseball that tends to generate lots of polarization. From the inherently risky high end choices to the low upside bargain buys, even experts have a hard time agreeing on a strategic approach to the position. As much as ever, this year there are three shortstops at the top—Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez, and Jose Reyes—and everybody else. So if you're among the majority of us who will wind up with someone from the "everybody else" category, the question becomes where to find the value among these lesser number-sixes. Here's a look at three different players who, despite drastically different costs, should provide similar value.
Elvis Andrus is a fine player who provides solid rotisserie value thanks to good wheels and a secure position near the top of a powerful Texas Rangers lineup. He generates plenty of runs by making contact and drawing a healthy dose of walks ahead of Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Michael Young, and Nelson Cruz. He even got to hit behind Ian Kinsler last year, too, giving him more RBI opportunities than most speed-first players. Best of all, he doesn't even turn 24 years old until the end of August, so his best is likely yet to come. So why am I a bit bearish on this young semi-stud?
First things first; 60 RBI is about the ceiling for a low-powered top of the order hitter. He reached that total last season thanks to Ian Kinsler staying healthy and in the leadoff spot all year. Unless Andrus finds his way to double digit homers, that number is more likely to move down than up.
You can also say the same thing about the 96 runs. If he were to find himself leading off instead of Kinsler he'd have the potential for a triple-digit run total, but that would reduce his RBI potential. He's also no more than a break-even basestealer. With a 75.5% career success rate and a virtually identical mark in 2011, the possibility of even a slight increase to 40 steals isn't very likely—especially since Ron Washington has shown a willingness to issue red lights to inefficient basestealers in the past.
Beyond that, the most alarming thing about Andrus is that he has an absolutely terrible time getting the ball in the air. His career ground ball rate is 57.5% and he's been one of the eight most frequent worm burners among qualified hitters in all three of his full seasons, hitting balls into the ground at least 55% of the time in each one. This severely limits his power potential. While this is in part a way for him to try and take better advantage of his speed, he's also yet to show a knack for the absurdly high batting average on balls in play you see with the few ground ball machines who have turned themselves into true fantasy assets.
When you look at the stat sheets on Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, Michael Bourn, and Howie Kendrick, while you routinely see high ground ball rates, you also see BABIPs that vary from .325 to as high as .390. In fact, Jeter has only once in his career posted a BABIP below Andrus' career rate of .312, and that was Jeter's miserable 2010 season, when it was .307. So without double digit homers or a BABIP that could dwarf the league average, Andrus' solid contact rate alone won't be enough to provide a superior batting average. His average won't hurt you, but without quite a bit of luck or a big change in his approach it won't suddenly spike and become an asset either.
What we have in Andrus is a two-category player who won't even quite challenge the league leaders in either of his good categories. Is it possible that he starts hitting a few more balls in the air and driving his fly balls further? Might he increase his BABIP or improve his success rate on the basepaths? Is it inconceivable that he might do this all at once? No, not inconceivable, but neither is it worth it to pay a premium for that somewhat remote possibility.
Dee Gordon is fast. He's very fast. He's so fast, his father (former relief ace Tom Gordon) should be ashamed for having already laid claim to nickname "Flash". Dee's 9.0 Spd score would have lead the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 2011 had he qualified for the batting title. Even with only 313 plate appearances he tied for fourth in the league with 30 steals. He loves to run, and while his success rate in the minors fluctuated a bit, last year he managed to avoid getting thrown out an outstanding 88.2% of the time in Triple-A and a still solid 77.4% of the time in the majors.
Even better, he's already been tabbed the Dodgers' leadoff hitter, so he has a chance at 700 plate appearances as long as he holds that spot down for the duration of the season. Don Mattingly may still be a bit green as far as managers go, but he didn't give Matt Kemp any kind of restrictions following a poor showing on the basepaths in 2010, and the organization has been very aggressive with its handling of Gordon thus far. He'll have free reign to run as much as he pleases.
Gordon should steal more bases in 2012 than Elvis Andrus, and it may not even be close. He also made contact at a similar rate last year and likewise put most of his balls in play on the ground. Although the projection systems conservatively (and wisely, given the lack of data) regress his expected strikeout rate, Gordon also has the advantage of hitting from the left side of the dish. That means a shorter distance from home to first.
Combined with his superior speed, he should have an easier time leveraging his tendency to hit the ball on the ground into a naturally high BABIP. This is why the projections call for the two players to post similar batting averages, though it must be understood that there's far less certainly with Gordon. He could continue to avoid striking out while putting up a .350 BABIP and yield a monster batting average, or he might start whiffing more frequently and popping up too often and wind up with a poor one, or he could find himself anywhere in between.
That's the good news. The bad news is that he may not hit a single home run in 2012, and hitting atop a more modest National League lineup will mean fewer RBI opportunities than Andrus. Gordon's low walk rate also raises a red flag. At the very least, it implies there's a lower floor to his run scoring potential, though hitting leadoff helps offset that difference.
Overall, while Gordon could steal 10 or even 20 more bases than Andrus, Elvis will give you the benefit of a few extra homers and RBI and a far less volatile projection.
Erick Aybar isn't as sexy as the King of Rock n' Roll. He's also not as Flashy as Flash Jr. He is, however, an established talent who provides similar production. Best of all, he seems to be getting better.
Like Andrus and Gordon, Aybar makes contact at an above average rate, has good speed, and is likely to hit at or near the top of his lineup. He doesn't walk as frequently as Andrus and he doesn't have have Gordon's off-the-charts speed, but he does have a few things going for him that his counterparts don't.
First, Aybar has always had a touch of power. Though his career HR/FB is a modest 4.1%, that number plays stronger since he isn't nearly as allergic to hitting balls in the air. He also managed to jump his HR/FB up to a career best 7% in 2011, bringing with it the expected spike in ISO from his career .104 mark to .142. In fact, in 2011 he set career bests in homers, doubles, strikeout rate, steals, stolen bases success rate, runs and RBI, so as far as fantasy goes, he literally improved across the board.
He's actually attempted more steals and improved his success rate in three consecutive seasons, which bodes very well for his speed projection. His manager, Mike Scioscia, doesn't even seem to understand the meaning of the phrase "red light," so no worries on that front. And now, just to put a cherry on top, he'll have Albert Pujolsr batting just a few spots behind him in the order, giving him even more run scoring potential than he already had.
If there's so much reason to be excited about Aybar in 2012, then why does it seem as if the projection systems are slightly bearish on his prospects? There's certainly concern that his power increase was more statistical noise than actual improvement. After all, he was already 27, which is a bit on the old side for a true breakout (though hardly unheard of). Otherwise, it really comes down to just one issue: playing time.
Playing time is one of the most difficult things to project, and the three systems listed here all think Aybar is due significantly fewer trips to the plate than Elvis Andrus or Dee Gordon. If you prorate his projected numbers closer to 650 plate appearances, you'll see where the excitement is coming from. The problem is, he's never come particularly close to reaching that number. In fact he only cracked 600 plate appearances for the first time in 2011, and even then just barely.
This is the gamble that comes with Aybar, and it's a gamble that I'm willing to make. He seemed to finally earn Mike Sciosia's trust in 2011, taking over the lion's share of leadoff duties in the second half of the year. I'm cautiously optimistic that he can parlay that trust into an increased workload this season. His combination of glovework, spike in offensive production, switch hitting ability in a right hand dominant lineup, and the offense's roster squeeze at other positions create a situation ripe with opportunity, both for Aybar himself and fantasy owners alike.
Not to mention, he's in a contract year. Though I'm not convinced that type of thing has any kind of vast influence on a player's overall production, it may motivate someone like Aybar to attempt a few more steals than he would have otherwise or to more vehemently try to talk his way into the lineup on days he would have otherwise had off. Even if 2011 goes down as the best year of his career, and 2012 is simply an encore, there still could be plenty of value to be had here.
Average Draft Results
|Mock Draft Central||Yahoo! Snake||Yahoo! Auction||ESPN Snake||ESPN Auction||CBS|
There's quite a bit of dissent between the different markets on how to treat these three shortstops. Particularly in the case of Andrus, you'll see him going as early as the mid fourth round at Mock Draft Central and as late as the ninth round at CBS. There's a bit more consensus on the values of Gordon and Aybar—both are most frequently going between between the 12th and 15th rounds—but there's tons of disagreement on how these three should be valued in relation to each other.
Of course, while one should never expect a draft to follow the market patterns too closely, these variations present three distinct scenarios that might be found in any given draft. To wrap things up, lets consider how to handle each situation.
Mock Draft Central/Yahoo!
Mock Draft Central and Yahoo! yield similar results, so we can view them in tandem. In both cases, the average draft position for Andrus is more than 100 picks earlier than that of Gordon or Aybar, and in Yahoo! Auctions the difference in price is around $14 to $17. This is far too aggressive on Andrus—he's not a $20 player without substantial improvement over his established norms—and not nearly aggressive enough on Gordon and Aybar. Let someone else invest that kind of cost in Andrus while you get one of the others on the cheap.
Even if you're not totally comfortable taking the plunge on Gordon or Aybar, you can also pick up someone like Zack Cozart for $1 or with your last pick in the draft. You would have little chance of losing more value than you'd lose by paying $20 for Andrus, and much more potential for profit.
Of the three scenarios, ESPN comes the closest to getting this one right. Drafters at ESPN not only place a considerably lower value on Andrus than those at Yahoo!, they also place slightly higher value on Gordon and Aybar. A $15 bid or a sixth round draft selection is about right given Andrus' expected return value. If he happens to fall any lower than that, he actually starts becoming a bargain.
The prices for Gordon and Aybar are similar to what you can expect to pay in Yahoo!, and still represent better values than this price for Andrus, but its not nearly as cut-and-dry. There are worse things you can do in a draft than take Andrus in the sixth round, but if you can avoid pulling the trigger and he doesn't fall any lower than that, waiting on one of the other two is still perfectly acceptable.
In the CBS market, the scarcity at shortstop is unilateraly undervalued. Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes can often be found on draft boards into the third round while Starlin Castro is frequently lasting into the sixth and Andrus as late as the ninth. The stability Andrus offers at a difficult position to fill is worth considerably more than a ninth round pick, and while Gordon and Aybar are almost equally undervalued, the relative similarity doesn't necessarily mean equal value. This is especially true in a snake draft, where the deeper you get strategy naturally degenerates and instead tactics are emphasized.
Knowing where you've already invested your cost forces you to be more particular in how you proceed, whereas in auction, you simply take good values where and when you can at various cost levels throughout. If you select Elvis Andrus in the eighth round of a snake draft, that means you turn your attention to other areas in subsequent rounds.
On the other hand, if you get to the 14th round and you haven't filled the shortstop position, any pick you make that isn't a shortstop carries added risk that the remaining positive values at the position will be gone by the time it's your turn to select again. You're forced to concede precision in lieu of security during the later rounds, where during the earlier rounds there are still lots of avenues to success and you can be more flexible in adapting to the nebulous market of your own particular draft.
You can't go wrong with any of these guys at these prices, but if you project to make a similar amount of profit by selecting Andrus in the 8th or 9th round as compared to Aybar or Gordon in the 14th or 15th, there's added value in locking down the scarcer position earlier on with a low-risk asset, so Andrus becomes the slightly wiser choice.
Mark Himmelstein is a philosophy student studying at SUNY Empire State who chooses to employ his analytical mind towards the wonderful world of Fantasy Baseball, rather than wasting it on something superfluous. He welcomes questions and comments via E-mail.
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