Trader’s corner: week sixby Mark Himmelstein
May 09, 2012
Welcome to Trader's Corner, your one-stop shop for bargains and busts. I've partnered with our good friend Oliver to look at the recent performances of a few players and why they could present a major profit opportunity for you. This won't just be your typical buy high/sell low column, though. As much opportunity as those situations may present, we'll also try to identify the hot streaks that figure to last and the cold spells that could spell doom.
Every two weeks, I'll look at a pair of players in each of four categories: Buy High, Buy Low, Sell High, and Sell Low. The first player will be my own selection, and the second is based strictly on the Oliver projections.
I'll keep a tally of all my recommendations, the date I made them, and the players' performances from that point forward. From time to time, I'll share the results in an attempt to evaluate how I'm faring and if there are trends to be found.
Each entry will include the player's numbers so far along with their rest-of-season Oliver projection in the standard rotisserie categories (AVG-R-RBI-HR-SB for hitters, and W/SV-ERA-WHIP-K for pitchers). Also provided will be the accompanying projected dollar values according to THT Forecasts' Custom Price Guide for both the standard Yahoo! and ESPN formats.
Dollar values are based on a $260 draft budget with $2 allocated to each bench spot and a 70/30 hitter/pitcher split.
Buying high is one of the most difficult and frequently overlooked strategies at a fantasy manager's disposal. We all love to discuss player trends that look promising in the offseason, but somehow, once the season begins, every sample size becomes too small and every unexpected performance a matter of mere luck. The consensus bias shifts from heavily weighting recent performance and "upside" to nigh unshakable temperance and prudence. For the savvy, risk-seeking owner, this can present a great deal of profit opportunity.
Today we'll check in on the preseason man-crushes of a couple THT Fantasy authors who paying big time dividends.
My Pick: Matt Wieters
So Far: .299-16-18-7-0
Oliver RoS: .266-49-57-14-0
Oliver Yahoo Value: $4
Oliver ESPN Value: $3
Wieters is a former once-in-a-generation prospect who has thus far failed to live up to the hype, at least offensively. Still just 25, though, I spent much of the offseason ranting about how he still has time yet to do so and the promising signs from the second half of last year.
Wieters' power numbers from 2011 were solid with 22 home runs and a .188 ISO. Even more, much of that damage was done in the season's final two months, when he hit 12 of those bombs. In fact, since last August, Wieters has a whopping .394 wOBA, .283 ISO, and a rotisserie line of .284-46-49-19-0 over just 301 plate appearances.
He's done all of that with strong strikeout and walk rates, neutral groundball and flyball tendencies, and just a .280 BABIP against a career .301 mark. The sample size isn't huge, but these gains are looking nicely sustainable. His home run-per-fly ball rate may dip, but even with that, 15-20 more homers is well within reason.
So now the question is why Oliver isn't sold on Wieters' gains. There are three areas where the projection isn't quite buying where I am.
The first is in the power stroke. Oliver sees Wieters hitting just 14 more homers over 433 plate appearances.
The research on which the Oliver projections are based suggests that a majority of hitters reach their peak in power during their age 23-25 season before very slowly declining through the remainder of their 20s. Since Wieters is 25 now, it looks at what level of power he's hit for thus far in his career and essentially translates that into a projection.
With most players, looking at macroscopic research rather than a 300-plate appearance trend will tend to yield better results, but Wieters is a case where I'm willing to go against the grain.
For one, he's a big-bodied catcher who has been trained into a defense-first approach to the game at the. Because of his size, it was unclear if he'd be able to handle the rigors of catching major league games on a daily basis, let alone do so well.
So far, he's not only exceeded these expectations, he's smashed them. He's gone from a slightly above-average defensive catcher in his rookie year to one of the very best in the game while playing in 130 and 139 games the last two seasons.
Then consider his minor league pedigree. Wieters was famously tabbed on of the best hitters in all of baseball by Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA projection system before ever playing a game in the majors. He had absolutely annihilated minor league baseball to the tune of a .343/.438/.576 batting line over 693 plate appearances. He hit 32 home runs over that span while drawing nearly as many walks (102) as strikeouts (106).
Looking at these factors together, we start to get the picture of a very talented athlete who emphasized the defensive aspect of his game early, mastered it, and is now cashing in on a stellar offensive pedigree as he enters the prime of his career. The power potential may have always been there but was held back by his early emphasis on attaining defensive prowess.
The second aspect of Wieters' production that Oliver isn't buying is the batting average. The reason for the projection and my objection to it is similar, albeit a bit more simplified. The projection looks at his 22.3 percent strikeout rate from his rookie season and seems to be over-emphasizing it against a trend of improvement. It expects him to strike out 76 more times in 433 plate appearances, for a rate of 19.4 percent.
Since putting up that mark in 2009, Wieters' strikeout rate dropped to a nominal 18.7 percent in 2010 and a very strong 15.2 percent in 2011. This positive trend is masked by a reverse trend in BABIP, which hit a career-worst .276 in 2011.
I'm more inclined to look at Wieters' career 18.3 percent strikeout rate and .301 BABIP and call the projection a bit bearish. His BABIP has normalized to .310 so far this year, and he's striking out 17.4 percent of the time. Those are both within the range of where I expect him to finish the year, and so, depending on how much his power continues to blossom, an average in the .275-to-.295 range is well within reason.
Finally, Oliver and I disagree on the classic projection issue—playing time. The Oliver projection only accounts for 433 more plate appearances, which would be well short of his current pace.
Wieters' .413 wOBA thus far is tops among the surprising Orioles offense. He's started 23 of the team's 29 games behind the plate, and if the team wants any chance to continue their hot start, they'll need his bat in the lineup as much as possible.
Sooner or later, that will mean some games at DH. Although Wilson Betemit is off to a hot start, this is a team without a true DH. Wieters should occupy that spot 15-20 times during the year, and more frequently as the year wears on and they want to give him breaks from squatting behind the dish without losing his offense.
Wieters easily could top 500 more plate appearances this year, and the longer the team is competitive, the larger that projection likely becomes.
Wieters looks like the perfect storm of rate production and volume at the catcher position. There may not be a better "set-it-and-forget-it" option behind the dish this year. Don't let his increasing price tag drive you away from acquiring him while you still can.
Oliver's Pick: Bryan LaHair
So far: .388-14-17-8-0
Oliver RoS: .284-74-95-31-1
Oliver Yahoo Value: $37
Oliver ESPN Value: $33
A popular seller's item to many, it was tempting to follow suit and tab LaHair a sell high, as well. Instead, I decided to go along with Oliver's projection and take a look at the reasons it might be wise to buy on Jeffrey Gross's heartthrob.
The reasons one might be inclined to view LaHair as a sell candidate are obvious.
His career thus far has been that of a Quad-A slugger,and he was expected to be simply keeping a seat warm for the gem of the Cubs' offseason, prospect Anthony Rizzo. And even though he's crushing the ball early in 2012, there are still some troubling signs for LaHair, specifically the 31.3 percent strikeout rate and .535 BABIP.
Make no mistake, LaHair is due a batting average correction. It's not likely he keeps hitting even within .100 points of what he's done so far in 2012. But its also important not to fall into the trap of the gambler's fallacy and assume that just because he's been lucky so far, that he's going to be the opposite moving forward.
The first thing that jumps out is that Oliver expects LaHair's strikeout rate to come down and BABIP to stay fairly high. According to the projection, we can expect roughly a 25 percent strikeout rate, which,though still high, is much more reasonable than the current mark. Oliver also projects a .325 BABIP that, combined with his power pace, still yields a positive batting average.
And that brings us to the big question—the power pace. Oliver isn't the least bit surprised by LaHair's seven early homers. In fact, that's almost exactly the pace Oliver expects him to hit homers for the duration of the year. It's completely buying into the 68 home runs he hit over the last two years in Triple-A.
Much of LaHair's minor league production has been written off due to a combination of age and belief that it was inflated by the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. However, the team he played for, the Iowa Cubs, play in one of the PCL's American divisions, which features primarily neutral or slightly pitcher-friendly parks.
The stigma surrounding the hitter friendliness of the PCL is derived from the Northern Divisions, where you'll find extreme hitter's parks such as Security Service Field (Colorado Springs Sky Sox), Chukchansi Park (Fresno Grizzles), Aces Ballpark (Reno Aces), and Spring Mobile Ballpark (Salt Lake City Bees).
In fact, according to Statcorner, Principal Park—the home of the Iowa Cubs—actually depressed left-handed home runs by 15 percent in both 2010 and 2011. So rather than diminishing his accomplishments in the minors the last couple of years, LaHair's hitting environments actually enhance them.
It's obviously foolish to pay $30 in value to acquire LaHair, even though Oliver sees him exceeding that value. The thing is, it's very unlikely you'll have to. If you were so inclined, you can probably acquire him for no more than half of that. He won't be the elite four-category force he's been so far, but he should continue to provide elite power totals without turning into a Carlos Pena-like pumpkin in batting average either.
Everyone loves a buy low candidate. The problem is, the owner who owns the buy low candidate usually loves him, too, so you may not be able to buy as low as you wish you could. Still, it's always helpful to identify guys who could see their performance improve in the not-too-distant future.
This week's buy low features a pitcher returning from injury who has been much better than he's seemed and a rookie first baseman struggling to find his groove.
My Pick: Adam Wainwright
So Far: 2-5.61-1.28-34
Oliver RoS: 11-3.15-1.14-145
Oliver Yahoo! Value: $21
Oliver ESPN Value: $21
After falling victim to Tommy John surgery during 2011's spring training, many of us were eager to see if Wainwright could regain his ace form of years prior. While the early returns in the roto categories have been a mixed bag at best, it's mostly a superficially inflated ERA that's holding him back, and all the signs of a pitcher getting ready to go on a dominant run are there.
This buy low is all about the narrative. For pitchers, ERA is by far the easiest statistic to anchor on, even for the savviest of owners. And anyone who drafted Wainwright must have been at least slightly concerned that he wouldn't be the same pitcher he'd been in years past.
It's very easy to look at the ugly ERA and feel those concerns have been validated, at least to an extent. But beneath the hood, Wainwright's actually been as good as ever, if not better.
Thus far, Wainwright has struck out 24.3 percent of the batter's he's faced, walked only five percent, and is generating grounders on 55.8 percent of the balls being put in play against him. Strikeouts, walks, and ground balls are the sabermetric trifecta of pitching acumen, and for Wainwright, all three of these marks would represent career bests.
Of course, it's not all roses. Wainwright's swinging strike and first-pitch strike rates are more in line with his career marks than you'd guess by the plate appearance outcomes. That's far from a bad thing, but it does mean the peripherals may be a bit higher than we should expect going forward.
Wainwright's velocity is also down a touch, though as Mike Podhozer recently pointed out at FanGraphs, no more than you should expect from a pitcher under normal circumstances through the end of April.
The main culprit behind Wainwright's early struggles is the fact that 28 percent of the fly balls he's allowed have left the ballpark. The chances of a major league pitcher throwing a full season with a mark even half that high are small. Sooner than later it will drop, and when it does his ERA will follow suit.
Even with the poor ERA, Wainwright's strikeouts and WHIP have been relatively strong. And on the offensive support side, the Cardinals have sported a .360 wOBA as a team thus far, by far the best mark in baseball.
It's easy to be discouraged by Wainwright's early ERA struggles, but past that he looks like the ace he was before the surgery. Now is the time to buy, and if you do, there's every chance you'll find yourself with a pitcher who gives you excellent production in all four categories.
Oliver's Pick: Paul Goldschmidt
So far: .232-1-9-13-2
Oliver RoS: .273-82-70-25-4
Oliver Yahoo! Value: $25
Oliver ESPN Value: $23
While Oliver sees Goldschmidt as something of a LaHair-light, his start to the year has been nearly as bad as LaHair's has been good. Still, the projection system remains steadfast that the slow start is nothing more than sample size noise though.
While Goldschmidt has limited major league experience, Oliver absolutely loves his strong minor league numbers, specifically the ISO that hovered around .300 and the strikeout rate that improved as he moved up the chain.
His MLE's are what tell the story. Goldschmidt's combined major league and Double-A production from 2011 translates to an impressive .277/.376/.569 batting line. Oliver also sees his home run power as more than legitimate, translating his homer total since 2010 into a whopping 68 bombs over 1083 plate appearances.
As with LaHair, the system also sees Goldschmidt striking out around a quarter of the time but posting a .325 BABIP and hitting enough home runs to sustain a respectable batting average. And while he doesn't quite have LaHair's elite power potential, he does have a dash of speed, which can have sneaky value from a first baseman.
Godschmidt's ownership rate has plummeted to 60 percent in Yahoo and under 50 percent in ESPN. Owners are getting frustrated, but the season is young yet, and there's still a great chance Goldschmidt can turn it around and finish the year as a top-10 first baseman. Don't hesitate to try to acquire him on the cheap.
There may be nothing more satisfying in fantasy baseball than selling a player at his peak value only to watch him crash and burn for another owner while you reap the benefits of said owner's former studs. It happens every year, whether it was Michael Pineda's second-half swoon in 2011 or that time that closer saved 20 games in the first half only to blow four in a row and lose his job. You remember that guy, right?
Today's sell high features a five-category outfielder who may not be as good in any category as he's seemed so far and a preseason sleeper who looks to be living up to the hype more than he really is.
My Pick: Adam Jones
So far: .297-23-17-8-5
Oliver RoS: .284-61-67-18-9
Oliver Yahoo! Value: $14
Oliver ESPN Value: $13
Jones is one of those guys who gets tabbed as a potential value pick every year but never quite lives up to the hype. He's a tremendous athlete with all the tools to succeed, but his approach at the plate has held him back from becoming one of the elite players in the game, and despite a hot start this year, it will likely continue to do so.
At first glance, Jones appears to be a hitter in his prime who's cut down on the strikeouts, added power, and is running as much as ever. That sounds like a recipe for a breakout, but unfortunately, the statistics that tend to stabilize quickly indicate there's little change beneath the surface.
The first problem is that Jones swings and misses way too much. He's been among the league leaders in swinging strike rate since entering the league, and at 12.6 percent so far in 2012, the mark hasn't budged at all.
It's tempting to look at Jones' 13.5 percent strikeout rate and call it an improvement, but he's much more likely to be closer to his career 19.4 percent rate moving forward.
The second is speed. Although he's already stolen five bases, he's also been caught three times, and his career 68 percent success rate suggests this is not fluke. He's never stolen more than 12 bases in a single season, and if he keeps getting caught, he's going to start seeing red lights when he reaches first base.
The third issue, and perhaps the most difficult to interpret, is power. This is one area where it does appear Jones has made some gains. He hit 25 home runs last year, and his home run-per-fly ball rate jumped to 16 percent. There's still a limiting factor here, though, and that is Jones' tendency to hit the ball on the ground.
For his career, Jones has a 48.6 percent groundball rate. It's very difficult to consistently post high home run totals when you hit so many balls on the ground.
In the first few weeks of the year, it was tempting to wonder if Jones was on his way to correcting this issue, as he had his groundball rate below 40 percent. But batted ball outcomes are very volatile in small samples, and Jones' groundball tendencies are quickly returning. His rate is up to 44.6 percent and climbing steadily the last few weeks.
Unless he can hit the ball in the air more, 25 homers is much closer to a ceiling than a reasonable expectation.
Jones is a nice player and should continue to be a fantasy asset. However, now is the perfect time to shop him around and see what kind of value you can extract. His numbers are great, and he has tantalizing potential, but the improvement is more superficial than actual. It's very possible some of your leaguemates will be tempted to pay upwards of $20 to acquire him, well more than he figures to be worth.
Oliver's Pick: Mike Moustakas
So far: .313-13-15-4-1
Oliver RoS: .267-58-67-15-2
Oliver Yahoo! Value: $7
Oliver ESPN Value: $6
The narrative of Moustakas is that he's always been a strong hitter who has initially struggled at each new level before quickly figuring it out and earning a promotion. The first part of the story fit in with Moustakas's struggles upon his initial call-up last year, and the second part appears to be coming true now, as well. Oliver, though, is not convinced.
There's really only one number that Moustakas has so far in 2012 that Oliver isn't buying: his .351 BABIP. While BABIP is notoriously volatile, a deeper look suggests Oliver's skepticism is not only warranted, but probably right on the mark.
Moustakas has never shown a tendency towards high BABIPs in the minor leagues. Thanks to inferior defense and field conditions, you'll often see high BABIPs in the minors, but not in Moustakas's case. His career minor league BABIP is just .295, which is about where Oliver expects him to be going forward.
That leaves Moustakas a third baseman with little speed, decent power, and a neutral batting average. A player like that has value in mixed leagues, but not nearly as much as is warranted by his hot start and top-prospect hype.
If selling high is one of the most enjoyable acts of a fantasy baseball season, selling low is one of the most painful. Admitting sunk cost is difficult, but there is opportunity in these situations when the admission is managed. Many times, other owners will pay above a player's projected value out of a misguided instinct to buy low or on name value alone. Even if the return price is below the price you paid, it may still be well more than the price you'd earn in keeping a broken player on your roster.
Wrapping up this week, we'll take a look at one of the year's most hyped young players who is yet to break through and a breakout performer from 2011 who is yet to repeat his success.
My pick: Brett Lawrie
So far: .277-14-15-3-3
Oliver RoS: .266-71-65-16-13
Oliver Yahoo! Value: $19
Oliver ESPN Value: $17
After a breakout year in Triple-A and a strong quarter-season in the majors in 2011, the fantasy community was eager to anoint Lawrie the second coming of [insert Hall of Fame third baseman]. Although he hasn't been awful this year, he hasn't yet lived up to these lofty expectations.
The key with Lawrie is that before 2011, he was considered a very good prospect but not an elite one. He hit just 21 home runs over his first 1,029 plate appearances. Likewise, his batting averages were more respectable than dominant, and while he stole bases, his success rate was poor.
Then he hit the Pacific Coast League—the American division of the Pacific Coast League. Unlike the situation with LaHair, this is the part of the PCL notorious for making David Ecksteins look like Babe Ruths. And make Lawrie look like Ruth, it did.
Lawrie hit .353/.415/.661 over a half-season in the PCL. After following that up with a .293/.373/.580 line over 171 major league plate appearances, most of us were convinced he was ready to become an elite major league third baseman, sample size be damned.
Now he's started 2012 looking much more like the player he was before 2011 than the one he was in 2011. And that's likely closer to the player he'll be for the balance of this year.
After slanting as an extreme flyball hitter in the majors in 2011, Lawrie has reversed track so far this year and hit 58.2 percent of his batted balls on the ground. Overall, that leaves him at a heavy 46.9 groundball rate through his young career. His power will likely be above average, but the evidence that he figured to sit in the 25-30 homer range was never really there.
He's also pretty consistently both walked and struck out at slightly below average rates. The evidence that batting average was going to be a consistent strength was never really there, either, and while he won't be an average drain, he won't be a significant boon, either.
Finally, the biggest concern may be Lawrie's speed. He's always been an aggressive baserunner despite speed that scouts considered merely good, not great. Like the rest of his game, Lawrie's basestealing prowess spiked in the PCL, as he stole 13 bases in 15 tries.
Prior to 2011, though, Lawrie had only been successful in 67 percent of his steal attempts, and so far this year he's only succeeded three out of six times. No matter where he hits in the potent Blue Jays lineup, you can bet he won't be allowed to run wild if he's getting thrown out so frequently.
And speaking of his position in the lineup, thus far he's regularly hitting sixth or seventh. You can shave at least 10 runs off his Oliver projection unless he can hit himself into a more favorable position.
Lawrie is a nice player, but the valued attached to his name got way ahead of his projection before he even played in his 50th major league game. He still possesses tremendous upside, but his projection doesn't justify the hype, at least not yet.
It's possible Lawrie will be a nice value in next year's drafts, but for this year, if someone is still willing to buy that name value, this may be one of your last chances to sell.
Oliver's Pick: Logan Morrison
So far: .274-6-9-2-0
Oliver RoS: .267-56-55-13-2
Oliver Yahoo! Value: N/A
Oliver ESPN Value: $2
Morrison made a name for himself last year with his bat and his twitter account, hitting 23 homers and drawing and army of internet followers. But like Lawrie, the production was a bit out-of-the blue. Oliver isn't buying the production spike, and he's yet to do anything this year to temper the projection's skepticism.
After hitting 24 homers in A-ball back in 2007, Morrison only showed mid-teens power between 2008 and 2010. His development became more about strong walk rates and solid contact rates. With little speed, he looked like he was become the type of player much more valuable in real life than fantasy.
Then Morrison suddenly started hitting for power again in his first full year in the majors in 2011. His batting average took a bit of a dive, and though the strikeouts spiked a touch, it was mostly due to a low BABIP.
So far this year, Morrison looks to have reverted to his old form. He's not showing great power, but he's walking more than he's striking out. This is more the kind of player Oliver sees based on the minor league track record, and probably more the kind of player Morrison is destined to be.
Even after last year's output, 20 home runs is about Morrison's ceiling. If anyone thinks they're buying low on a power hitter, feel free to sell away. Without the power, he won't carry much value in standard rotisserie formats.
If you're curious about the projections and dollar values provided, make sure to check out the THT Forecasts section. For $14.95, you get full access to the Oliver projections for thousands of major and minor leaguers, including six-year Major League Equivalency forecasts on every player card. And best of all for us fantasy junkies, you get full access to THT's Custom Fantasy Price Guides, which allows you to create your own price guide based on your league settings and play-style preferences using the Oliver projections, with projections and dollar values updated throughout the season.
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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