Season review: outfielders

Yup, we’ve done the catchers, first basemen, second basemen, third basemen and shortstops already. Let’s move on to those outfielders.

When I started playing fantasy baseball in a league with a group of nine close friends, our leagues would split the outfield positions into left field, center and right. Now, most leagues simply have three outfield positions, into which you can plug in any outfielder regardless of which side of the field he plays. So in this review I conventionally group all outfielders together even though I support a left field, center field, right field separation.

Now for that chart:

En masse

+------+-------------+-------+--------+
| Year | Outfielders |	OPS  | WPA/LI |
+------+-------------+-------+--------+
| 2004 |	 77  | 0.830 |	1.45  |
| 2005 |	 72  | 0.805 |	1.18  |
| 2006 |	 77  | 0.819 |	1.09  |
| 2007 |	 69  | 0.817 |	1.11  |
| 2008 |	 74  | 0.809 |	1.21  |
+------+-------------+-------+--------+

After first basemen, the outfielders are generally the second best offensive group, although in some years the third basemen have surpassed them in production. Outfielders clearly had a superb year in 2004 and since then have remained consistently 10-20 points of OPS worse.

Another thing to notice is how OPS and WPA/LI do not agree on the outfielders. In the charts for the other positions, I was surprised at how well the two stats correlated. From 2004 to 2005 both WPA/LI and OPS agree outfielders got worse, but then they disagree on every subsequent pair of years. Focus on from 2006 to 2008: OPS thinks outfielders got worse by .10 points, and WPA/LI thinks they got better by .12 of a win, or about one run.

After looking at outfielders individually in both 2006 and 2008, I still cannot decide whether I think they have improved or declined as a group over the two-year period. In 2006, the outfield position was much more top-heavy, meaning there was incredible talent at the top, but then the drop-off in talent was steep as you went down the ranks. In 2008, it is the opposite in that the top players are not as good while the production remains fairly high deep into the ranks. Here is a chart that displays this talent distribution:

+------+------+-----+----+-----+----+-------+
| Rank | Year |	 R  | HR | RBI | SB |   AVG |
+------+------+-----+----+-----+----+-------+
|   1  | 2006 |	119 | 46 |  95 | 41 | 0.277 |
|      | 2008 |	102 | 37 | 121 |  3 | 0.332 |
+------+------+-----+----+-----+----+-------+						
|   5  | 2006 |	137 | 41 | 116 | 18 | 0.275 |
|      | 2008 |	116 | 27 | 112 | 25 | 0.284 |
+------+------+-----+----+-----+----+-------+							
|  15  | 2006 |	103 | 33 | 123 |  2 | 0.289 |
|      | 2008 |	 93 | 18 |  76 | 35 | 0.290 |
+------+------+-----+----+-----+----+-------+							
|  30  | 2006 |	 99 | 40 |  92 |  7 | 0.234 |
|      | 2008 |	 78 | 22 |  77 |  5 | 0.321 |
+------+------+-----+----+-----+----+-------+						
|  50  | 2006 |  87 | 14 |  83 |  9 | 0.263 |
|      | 2008 |	 71 | 21 |  81 |  3 | 0.274 |
+------+------+-----+----+-----+----+-------+ 

As you can see, the No. 1, No. 5 and No. 15 ranked outfielder in 2006 put up a better line than his 2008 counterpart. By the 30th-ranked outfielder it gets unclear who is better, but by the 50th rank the 2008 outfielder is clearly superior. One group puts up incredible numbers at the top while the other posts solid numbers for more players.

Determining which year of outfielders was in fact better is not as important in realizing how this knowledge should affect our drafting strategy. With the outfield position as deep as it is, targeting outfielders in the early rounds might not be the best investment, since an outfielder of comparable skill can be available five rounds later, while the shortstops obtainable five rounds later will be significantly worse than the shortstops available to you now. Makes sense to draft the shortstop now and outfielder later than vice versa, right?

The outfield position is the one I worry least about in drafts. With all three outfield positions clumped together, there are so many outfielders out there that flexibility is easily achieved. Basically, whenever I do not have a pressing need to draft another position and there is an outfielder available who I think is a steal at this time, I’ll take him. When I take my first outfielder in drafts varies, but I can say I rarely select one in the first three rounds. Depending on how things are going, my first outfielder taken is usually somewhere in rounds four-five-six.

“When there is no one else to draft, take an outfielder” is a good summation of my strategy.

Individuals

The Risers

I’m sure everyone knows the story of Josh Hamilton by now, but in the preseason people did not. He was the 30th drafted outfielder in ESPN leagues and the 45th in Yahoo leagues. After finishing as the fifth best outfielder in 2008, he is going to be drafted much higher in 2009.

Ryan Ludwick was drafted 41st among outfielders and finished with the seventh best stats. Derek Carty recently published an article about Ludwick here, which you should check out if you want an in-depth analysis of his future. For those link-lazy: Ludwick is solid but do not expect 37 home runs or a .299 batting average next year. Think more like 25 home runs and a .260-.270 batting average.

image
This image of Hamilton at the Home Run Derby will be in people’s minds in ’09 (Icon/SMI)

Nate McLouth was the 48th outfielder taken and finished with the 11th best stats. McLouth did nothing spectacular, but his 26 home runs and 23 stolen bases are exceptional, and coupled with a solid batting average and run production made for a nice breakout season. There were no outrageous spikes in McLouth’s luck or indicating stats, so a similar 2009 season would not surprise me.

Carlos Quentin was among the top 50 outfielders taken in 2008 and finished with the 15th best stats, despite missing the final month of the season due to a fractured wrist. Quentin came out of nowhere to blast 36 home runs for the White Sox, drive in 100 runs, and bat .288. Before 2008, Quentin was a touted minor league prospect who was bothered by injuries and could never seem to translate his minor league game to the majors. In 2008, Quentin was obviously able to translate his game, but I still view him as an overrated player heading into 2009. As with Ludwick, expect the home runs and batting average to regress to the 25 and .260-.270 range.

People were scared about drafting Jason Bay following his abysmal 2007 season in which he batted .247 with 21 home runs. Bay rebounded nicely in 2008, posting a .286 average with 31 home runs, and he even threw in 10 steals. Bay has produced four good years out his five in the majors—if you are worried about the 2007 version of Bay creeping back in 2009, consider it unlikely.

Milton Bradley went undrafted in most leagues and ended up having a surprisingly good season, batting .321 with 22 home runs and 77 RBI—good for 31st among outfielders. That number would be higher were it not for the nagging injuries Bradley always seems to have. His .396 BABIP stands out horribly and considering his injury history and mental fragility, Bradley is someone I’d be very cautious about in 2009.

Andre Ethier was another undrafted outfielder who performed well in 2008. Interestingly, he was traded for Bradley in 2005. Unlike Bradley and similar to McLouth, nothing strikes out at you with Ethier, but everything is just solid overall. With a .305 average and 20 home runs, he finished as the 32nd best outfielder. At 26, Ethier will be entering his prime in 2009, and I’d look for his power to develop slightly, which will complement his already impressive patience at the plate, making Ethier a tough out for any pitcher.

The Fallers

Carl Crawford is the epitome of all fallers. For about three years, Crawford has been drafted in the second to third rounds of drafts by people who think that this year will finally be the one when Crawford hits 25 home runs. It hasn’t happened yet. I’m not saying that Crawford is a bad player, but, simply put, Crawford will never be worth a second-round pick as long as he hits under 20 home runs.

Now, when in 2006 Crawford hit 18 homers and stole 58 bases, I will say that Crawford was a top 20 player. But since then Crawford has only stolen fewer bases and has had wrist and hand troubles that have hampered his power ability. With a healthy wrist and people shying away from Crawford in 2009, it will be interesting to see if he actually becomes undervalued.

Jeff Francoeur was selected 24th in ESPN and 34th in Yahoo leagues among outfielders. He finished 2008 with the 106th best stats. Francoeur always has been one of those free-swingers who has survived on his power ability. Well in 2008 his home run rate fell sharply to 9.7 percent and he was no longer buoyed by his .342 BABIP of 2007. I’m not expecting much from Francoeur in 2009, but neither is anyone else so I can see him as a player to take a late-round flier on in drafts.

Not many other outfielders experienced similar drop-offs in production, but I will mention Hideki Matsui and Eric Byrnes, two outfielders whose seasons were ruined by injuries and look to rebound in 2009.

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