Smoke and mirrors: Carlos Delgado

Throughout the off-season, I’ll be running a column entitled “Smoke and mirrors,” which will highlight players whose 2008 season was incongruent with previous years. We’ll take a look at whether that increase (or decrease) in production was supported by underlying skills or whether it was luck-based.

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Carlos Delgado went from possible cut to MVP candidate in a matter of months, but is he right for your fantasy team in 2009? (Icon/SMI)

Today, we’ll examine the first player in the series, Carlos Delgado. Delgado is one of the most fascinating stories of the 2008 season. Back in April and May, many Mets fans and journalists were calling for his head. They wanted him either benched or released in favor of someone like B-level prospect Mike Carp.

I’m not even going to touch on why that was an absurd notion at the time (as a Mets fan, it was very difficult to deal with that level of ignorance), but as you all know, it became a non-issue as Delgado tore it up from June on. His final fantasy line looked like this:

+------+-----+------+-----+-------+----+-----+----+----+
| YEAR | AGE | TEAM | AB  | BA    | HR | RBI | R  | SB |
+------+-----+------+-----+-------+----+-----+----+----+
| 2008 |  35 | Mets | 598 | 0.271 | 38 | 115 | 96 |  1 |
+------+-----+------+-----+-------+----+-----+----+----+

Delgado performed so well over the final few months that many thought he deserved the MVP award (of course, even with those numbers, it wasn’t a very well thought out idea.) Still, as fantasy owners, we can’t ignore a good season simply because it was blown out of proportion by the mainstream media. Delgado had a very good season, made his fantasy owners very happy, and figures to be taken pretty early on Draft Day 2009.

The question we need to ask ourselves, however, is will he able to repeat such a season? Could he even improve on it given his abysmal April? Let’s check out the underlying skills and find out.

Power skills

+------+-----+------+-----+----+-----+-------+--------+--------+-----+--------+
| YEAR | AGE | TEAM | AB  | HR | tHR | HR/FB | tHR/FB | nHR/FB | RAW | OF FB% |
+------+-----+------+-----+----+-----+-------+--------+--------+-----+--------+
| 2006 |  33 | Mets | 524 | 38 |  27 |    24 |     17 |     20 | 6.4 |     38 |
| 2007 |  34 | Mets | 538 | 24 |  29 |    15 |     18 |     19 | 6.7 |     39 |
| 2008 |  35 | Mets | 598 | 38 |  24 |    26 |     17 |     17 | 0.7 |     30 |
+------+-----+------+-----+----+-----+-------+--------+--------+-----+--------+

If you’re new to THT Fantasy Focus, True Home Runs is a stat I developed this past season which uses HitTracker data (which tracks the trajectory of hits and adjusts for ballpark and weather conditions) to calculate how many home runs a player should have been expected to hit. Here’s a quick explanation of the stats:

True Home Runs (tHR or tHR/FB) measures how many home runs a player should have hit assuming a 50/50 split in home/away playing time.

Neutralized Home Runs or Neutralized Power (nHR and nHR/FB) is the number of home runs that would be hit in a league average park with neutral weather.

Raw Power (RAW) is a measure of a hitter’s, well, raw power independent of the number of fly balls hit or direction it is hit. It is simply a count of the number of balls hit past 420 feet (roughly the league average distance for No Doubt home runs) in 70-degree weather with no wind per 100 fly balls.

If we look solely at HR/FB, we could easily get the impression that 2007 was a fluke. After all, it’s been between 23 and 27 percent every year since 2003, excluding that flukey-looking 2007 campaign. I have a feeling this will be the reason given by those — even those with statistical inclinations — who advocate taking Delgado early in 2009.

If we look at True Home Runs, though, we see a different story entirely. In 2006, on the surface, we see a 33-year old hitter, past his prime, but still performing as if there has been no drop-off in talent. True Home Runs, however, thinks that he should have put up just a 17 percent HR/FB. In 2007, his tHR/FB remains relatively unchanged while his actual HR/FB regresses too far. In 2008, tHR/FB again is the same as it has been the past two years, but HR/FB regresses too far the other way.

Essentially, judging by True Home Runs, we have a very good idea what Carlos Delgado’s true power level is. It’s right around 17 percent (plus whatever deductions need to be made for his increasing age), far removed from the 26 percent actual HR/FB that seems to be misleading just about everyone.

Fly ball rate
One other concern is his outfield fly ball rate. It has been steady for years but plummeted nine points in 2008. This isn’t, however, as worrisome as it would be for a hitter who translated those fly balls into grounders. Check out Delgado’s batted ball profile:

+------+--------+-----+-----+--------+-----+
| YEAR | OF FB% | FL% | LD% | IF FB% | GB% |
+------+--------+-----+-----+--------+-----+
| 2006 |     33 |  11 |  12 |      2 |  42 |
| 2007 |     34 |   8 |  14 |      4 |  39 |
| 2008 |     24 |  18 |  13 |      4 |  42 |
+------+--------+-----+-----+--------+-----+

Here, we observe the same drop in outfield fly rate (the numbers are different because of the inclusion of fliners, explained in a second), but we see that his ground ball, infield fly, and line drive rates have all been stable since 2006. In 2008, a good portion of Delgado’s outfield flies turned into fliners (which are balls that are borderline between flyballs and line drives).

If they instead turned into ground balls, it would more likely indicate a change in approach, a problem with his swing, or something else along those lines. Fliner rate is a less stable stat, though, which means it’s more likely to be random fluctuation (plus, fliners are a bit subjective in that it’s a judgment call by the scorer, so part of it could just be because of that).

Even if the shift actually is a function of a different swing, it should be a lot easier to correct since the physical difference between a fly and a fliner (both are hit in the air and are neighbors in the batted ball spectrum) is much smaller than a fly and a grounder (at the polar opposite ends of the batted ball spectrum).

We obviously would rather see a stable outfield fly rate, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it bounces back in 2009.

Contact skills

+------+-----+------+-----+-------+-------+-----+-------+--------+-----+---------+----------+
| YEAR | AGE | TEAM | AB  | BA    | tBA   | CT% | BABIP | mBABIP | LD% | BIP/HR* | BIP/tHR* |
+------+-----+------+-----+-------+-------+-----+-------+--------+-----+---------+----------+
| 2006 |  33 | Mets | 524 | 0.265 | 0.259 |  77 | 0.276 |  0.297 |  18 |      11 |       15 |
| 2007 |  34 | Mets | 538 | 0.258 | 0.273 |  78 | 0.290 |  0.297 |  18 |      17 |       14 |
| 2008 |  35 | Mets | 598 | 0.271 | 0.239 |  79 | 0.284 |  0.273 |  25 |      12 |       20 |
+------+-----+------+-----+-------+-------+-----+-------+--------+-----+---------+----------+

Note: BIP/HR functions similarly to AB/HR (lower is better), but is more accurate for the purposes of constructing a batting average as it ignores changes in contact rate.

I first introduced True Batting Average in this article, and here’s a quick explanation:

mBABIP stands for Marcels BABIP, and tBA stands for True Batting Average. mBABIP is the BABIP Marcels projects from this point until the end of the season (for previous seasons, it was what Marcels predicted after the season was complete).

tBA uses the player’s actual contact rate, mBABIP, and tHR to calculate what we should expect his batting average to be. I talked about how these three stats interact in this article.

Delgado has never been heralded for his contact skills, but they have always been serviceable enough (if not a little better) given his power. It looks as though 2009 could be the end of all that, though. While his contact rate has remained very stable over the past few years, his increasing age (he’ll be 37 in June) means we have to account for a decline in raw hitting ability (i.e. BABIP).

Marcels sees his year-end, true BABIP ability to be just .273, 11 points below his actual 2008 BABIP. Combine this with the looming power drop-off that True Home Runs predicts and the below-average contact rate (even if it has been stable) and you have the recipe for a disastrous batting average. Delgado’s True Batting Average was just .239 in 2008, and I wouldn’t expect his actual batting average to be much better in 2009 unless he manages to outperform his Marcels BABIP or the power doesn’t drop off.

RBIs and runs

Delgado will hit in the heart of the Mets’ order in 2009 and should get regular at-bats (though if he hits just .240 without much power, you can be sure there will be those who call for his job again). Assuming he does play all year, he will get a decent number of RBIs and runs, but the drop-offs in home run rate and batting average (and subsequently, OBP) means that the RBI and run numbers will be limited somewhat.

Market value

Remember that we don’t have a lot of rankings to refer to yet, so we’re definitely looking at a small sample and some year end data that may not actually be measuring what we’re looking for. These caveats aside, let’s try to decipher the market value of Delgado.

Yahoo! Big Board: 8th 1B (49th Overall)
CBS Sportsline: 12th 1B (74th Overall)
Mock Draft #1: 12th 1B (80th Overall/R7 — I picked him)
CBS Sportsline Mock Draft #1: 12th 1B (102nd Overall/R9)
RotoHog Value: 12th 1B
ProTrade Value: 19th 1B

There are definitely some differing opinions of Delgado, and while it’s early, he isn’t going as high as I expected. He’s most often seen as the 12th first baseman off the board, and whoever the 13th is has to slot into the Corner Infield spot in a 12-team mixed league. Still, he is being taken quite early in the mock drafts (rounds seven and nine), so if you want him, he won’t come too cheap.

Concluding thoughts

I actually selected Delgado in the seventh round of my first mock draft of the year, and when I analyzed the draft, I said that “I’m not sure if I’ll ultimately condone taking Carlos Delgado in the seventh round.” I think it’s pretty safe to say that, at this point, I do not condone taking him so early. Since we should have expected him to hit just .239 with 24 home runs in 2008, I can’t support Delgado as more than a middle-tier corner infielder in 12-team mixed leagues. There is some room for him to improve those numbers in 2009 (namely with his outfield fly rate and his BABIP), but I still will likely be passing on Delgado given his price this year.

Final verdict

Carlos Delgado’s 2008 season: Smoke and mirrors? For the most part, yes.

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