Traders Corner: Oakland Elixir, V is for Victorby Jonah Birenbaum
June 14, 2013
Assessing performance trends and sustainability isn't the easiest thing to do. I can just picture some poor trader sauntering into the New York Stock Exchange on the morning of September 18, 1929 salivating over his prospects for the coming day. This principal also applies to fantasy baseball. Sometimes we're prescient (Matt Kemp, so far), and sometimes we look foolish (Carlos Gomez, so far). Nevertheless, the show must go on here at Traders Corner, and today we're looking at two players who could fetch significant returns over the trade market, in light of recent performance trends.
Sell High - Josh Donaldson
I’m not sure anyone can even reasonably feign incredulity at what Josh Donaldson has done this year. This is what Oakland does. They take the Josh Donaldsons of the world, feed them a proprietary green elixir, and magically imbue role players with fantasy relevance.
Donaldson must’ve taken a double dose, because his numbers this year are nothing short of a revelation, producing a ridiculous .317/.385/.512 line with 9 home runs and 42 RBI through his first 66 games. Consequently, by 5x5 standards, he’s performed better than all but five other third basemen, boasting a sexier rank than David Wright, Pablo Sandoval, and Ryan Zimmerman. But the tide could soon be turning.
Like many sell-high candidates, Donaldson’s BABIP has played an integral role in his early-season success. At a lofty .359, sixteenth-highest in the bigs, Donaldson’s BABIP represents an 81-point improvement over last year, when he hit a meagre .241. Granted, he’s showing much better discipline at the plate—he’s whittled his O-Swing rate down by roughly nine percentage points from 2012, and he’s walking more than 10 percent of the time—and he’s cut down a little on the strikeouts from last year, but his batted-ball profile hasn’t changed dramatically enough to constitute a BABIP spike of this magnitude.
Donaldson’s line drive rate is nearly identical to that of 2012, as he’s freezing ropes on 22.5 percent of balls in play, compared to his 22.4 percent clip from last season. He is hitting more ground balls —a sound strategy in the O.co Coliseum— which can account for the jump in BABIP, but his current figure smells unsustainable, as Oakland’s home ballpark has a vendetta against offense; the Athletics managed a collective .281 BABIP in 2012, tied for second-last in baseball. Donaldson will start to get a little more unlucky on balls in play, and his batting average and run total will start to shrink accordingly.
His power output is also perplexing, as this is a guy who slugged .470 over 539 career minor league games. He currently boasts a slugging percentage north of .500 (.195 ISO) in the big leagues. In Oakland. It just doesn't compute. That he sports a better isolated power at home than on the road only complicates our system further—in 2012 Oakland produced a 14-point discrepancy between its power output at home and on the road, with the difference favouring the latter. In addition to his unreasonable power at home (.209 ISO)—for the record, two of his three long balls at home have been characterized as "Just Enough" by ESPN Home Run Tracker—Donaldson has been unsustainably prolific in the power department on the road. A ridiculous 18.2 percent of his fly balls on the road are finding the bleachers, a rate that puts him in the same strata as Edwin Encarnacion and Ryan Braun with respect to home run efficiency. This prolific pace will surely regress, especially once pitchers realize to pound the outside part of the plate:
With just one home run in his last 12 games and a .568 OPS over his last five—the latter figure fueled by a .154 BABIP, hint hint—the regression police are quite possibly already on the hunt for Donaldson, whose elixir might just be wearing off. Shop him while he retains some of its effects.
Buy Low - Victor Martinez
Have you ever spent an entire calendar year recovering from knee surgery? Maybe you have. But did you have to hit projectiles traveling 90+ miles per hour on a daily basis aftewards? I bet you haven't, and one can only presume it's not the most enviable task. Victor Martinez struggled mightily out of the gate in 2013—his first action since returning from knee surgery that sidelined him for all of 2012—producing a sub-.600 OPS over the first two months of the season.
With a an inflated strikeout rate and complete absence of power (he didn't hit his first home run until May 4) conspiring with a low BABIP, V-Mart in no way resembled his former self, the catcher—catcher!—who fashioned a .303/.370/.469 line from 2002-2011, The 34-year-old currently ranks 18th among backstops by 5x5 standards, just ahead of fantasy pariahs like Erik Kratz and Yan Gomes.
However, Martinez has displayed some signs of life over the past couple weeks, and with a little bit of luck, could prove a useful fantasy asset over the rest of the season. Despite his .235 batting average, Martinez continues to pound line drives with regularity. His 18.9 percent line-drive rate represents but a 1.6-point departure from his career mark, a figure betrayed by his .246 BABIP.
After eking his way through a brutal April and May, Martinez seems to have found his stroke this month, as both his walk and strikeout rates have shifted in the right direction in June. It's a promising development, as Martinez has been a beast when ahead in the count, producing an .889 OPS when putting the ball in play on favourable counts. Furthermore, he's starting to hit the ball with authority on a regular basis. With three home runs through the first 11 games of June, Martinez has already surpassed his tater tally from the previous two months combined.
While Martinez's struggles have been particularly pronounced this year, his gradual re-acclimation to the bigs isn't exactly a dramatic departure from his regular M.O. For his career, Martinez has produced an OPS 62 points higher during the second half of the season compared to the first. And keep in mind that even with a .219 avg/RISP, Martinez isn't exactly dwelling in the RBI basement among catchers, a welcome consequence of playing on a team with a .349 on-base percentage, the second-highest in baseball. He will continue to get plenty of opportunities to drive in runs hitting behind Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.
He continues to have good at-bats, refusing to routinely offer at pitches outside the zone—his 27.7 O-Swing rate is his lowest since 2009—while his bat-to-ball skills remain sharp, with a 4.7 swinging-strike rate that sits just below hit career mark. He's gotten off to an auspicious start in June, and should be worth pursuing given his current market value and upside, considering his catcher eligibility.
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