Smoke and mirrors: Ryan Ludwick

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Ryan Ludwick rounds the bases after one of his 37 home runs, but will that kind of production continue into 2009? (Icon/SMI)

The “smoke and mirrors” series continues this week with Ryan Ludwick. Ludwick was one of the breakout stars of 2008, providing monster value to whatever lucky owner scooped him up off the waiver wire in April or May. His final fantasy line looked like this:

+------+-----+-----------+-----+-------+----+-----+-----+----+
| YEAR | AGE | TEAM      | AB  | BA    | HR | RBI | R   | SB |
+------+-----+-----------+-----+-------+----+-----+-----+----+
| 2008 |  29 | Cardinals | 538 | 0.299 | 37 | 113 | 104 |  4 |
+------+-----+-----------+-----+-------+----+-----+-----+----+

What’s not to like? A .300 average, almost 40 home runs, triple digit RBIs and runs. That’s a line similar to what we might see from secound-round talents like Carlos Lee or Manny Ramirez. As fantasy owners, though, we can’t look at one year’s worth of data and call it a day, especially if it is surface data. Let’s look at Ludwick’s expected numbers and his history and see if his 2008 season was for real, or just smoke and mirrors.

Power skills

+------+-----+-----------+-----+----+-----+-------+--------+--------+-----+--------+
| YEAR | AGE | TEAM      | AB  | HR | tHR | HR/FB | tHR/FB | nHR/FB | RAW | OF FB% |
+------+-----+-----------+-----+----+-----+-------+--------+--------+-----+--------+
| 2007 |  28 | Cardinals | 303 | 14 |  14 |    16 |     16 |     18 | 4.4 |     39 |
| 2008 |  29 | Cardinals | 538 | 37 |  25 |    22 |     15 |     14 | 1.2 |     42 |
+------+-----+-----------+-----+----+-----+-------+--------+--------+-----+--------+

If you’re new to THT Fantasy Focus and are unfamiliar with True Home Runs (tHR) or any of the other stats I’m using, check out our quick reference guide. These stats provide a much clearer picture of a player’s talent, so it’s well worth a couple of minutes to learn them.

People look at Ludwick’s 37 home runs this year and consider it this huge breakout. The thing is, though, Ludwick has always had great power. In 253 at-bats from 2003 to 2005, he posted a 16 percent HR/FB. In 508 at-bats at Triple-A in 2006, he posted a 17 percent HR/FB (this figure includes infield flies, so excluding them would put it a point or two higher).

The reason he hasn’t been highly regarded up until this year is because he’s never received much playing time. Before 2008, he had accrued just 637 career at-bats over six years—fewer than some players rack up in a single year.

So while Ludwick has always had good power and is just now getting recognized for it, his 2008 power numbers do actually look a bit inflated. Up until 2008, he had displayed a pretty stable HR/FB in the 16 percent range. This year, though, he saw a jump to 22 percent in 2008. This isn’t a completely unreasonable jump for a 29 year-old who’s always had good power and finally has fallen into regular playing time, but True Home Runs doesn’t buy it.

His tHR/FB was 16 percent last year and 15 percent this year, meaning that his actual HR/FB is mostly a mirage. While Ludwick has good power, his home run total was too high this past season.

I’d expect him to regress back to the 15-16 percent range in 2009, especially entering his age 30 season when the time for further power growth has all but passed. I’d probably expect between 25 and 30 homers next year if given 550 or 600 at-bats. Expecting over 30 would probably be a mistake.

Contact skills

+------+-----+-----------+-----+-------+-------+-----+-------+--------+-----+--------+---------+
| YEAR | AGE | TEAM      | AB  | BA    | tBA   | CT% | BABIP | mBABIP | LD% | BIP/HR | BIP/tHR |
+------+-----+-----------+-----+-------+-------+-----+-------+--------+-----+--------+---------+
| 2007 |  28 | Cardinals | 303 | 0.267 | 0.265 |  76 | 0.309 |  0.306 |  16 |     16 |      16 |
| 2008 |  29 | Cardinals | 538 | 0.299 | 0.250 |  73 | 0.349 |  0.308 |  26 |     11 |      16 |
+------+-----+-----------+-----+-------+-------+-----+-------+--------+-----+--------+---------+

Another reason for Ludwick’s perceived “breakout” is his near-.300 batting average. However, unlike his power, this has never been the norm for Ludwick—at least not at the major league level. His .267 mark in 2007 was a career best entering the year. The reason for his apparent 2008 “breakout” was a very high .349 BABIP and the aforementioned HR/FB. This leads to a huge disparity between his actual .299 batting average and his .250 True Batting Average.

Before we go writing the BABIP off as a complete fluke, though, we should note that it was .342 at Triple-A in 2006 and .359 in 2007 (albeit in just 106 at-bats that year). So while his Marcels BABIP (mBABIP) is just .308, one could definitely make a case that his expected BABIP should be higher (or at least is volatile and could remain pretty high) since Marcels doesn’t take minor league numbers into account and since the relatively low at-bat total means there’s some pretty heavy regression to the mean in there.

Bare in mind, however, that even if Ludwick experiences no drop-off in BABIP next year, his batting average would still fall to .277 because of the expected power decline. If the BABIP falls to even .325, his batting average would fall to .261 in response.

Overall, Ludwick doesn’t figure to even come close to his 2008 batting average, and he could wind up significantly lower. He should offer break-even value at best in most traditional leagues, and he will have to walk a tight rope to be even that good.

Market value

The usual disclaimer still applies here: we’re looking at a small-ish sample and some year-end data that may not actually be measuring exactly what we’re looking for. Once more rankings start coming out we’ll have more to look at. For now, here’s what Ludwick’s value is shaping up as:

ProTrade Value: 9th OF (18th Overall)
Yahoo! Big Board: 12th OF (35th Overall)
CBS Sportsline: 18th OF (70th Overall)
CBS Sportsline Mock Draft #1: 19th OF (72nd Overall/R6)
Mock Draft #1: 21st OF (51st Overall/R5)
CBS Sportsline Expert Draft #1: 23rd OF (72nd Overall/R6)

Some people, like the ProTrade players and Brandon Funston at Yahoo!, are really high on Ludwick. Others, like the guys who participated in the CBS expert mock, are less enthused but still quite high on him. Even as the 23rd outfielder off the board, that still costs someone a fifth or sixth round investment.

I noted in the beginning of the article that Ludwick’s 2008 line looked like what we might see out of a second or third round pick. While you likely won’t have to pay that for him in 2009, a fifth or sixth round pick is still a hefty price.

Concluding thoughts

Overall, Ludwick looks overvalued going into 2009, even with some natural expected regression factored in. His 2008 season looks like the perfect mix between finally getting playing time, some good luck with BABIP, and some good luck with HR/FB. Ludwick is a solid hitter, no doubt, and probably deserved more at-bats before his age 29 season, but he did get lucky.

He has very little batting average upside but lots of downside. He has a little more upside with his power (this upside being maintaining his 2008 surface numbers, not exceeding them), but regression is still the most likely route.

Quite simply, an outfielder with a .260 average, 25 home runs, and not much speed really isn’t anything special. He should get a good number of RBIs and runs batting in the heart of the Cardinals order, but you should be able to find comparable—if not better—guys after round 12 or maybe even round 15.

There is, however, one small caveat to all of this. There has been some talk recently of the Cards trading Ludwick. If he is traded to a true hitter’s ballpark, his value could receive a little bump up. Definitely not into sixth-round territory, but it would be worth doing a quick reevaluation.

Smoke and mirrors?: Partially.

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