Traders Corner: Conundrums Kemp and otherwise

Sabermetrics’ most virulent critics have long insisted that baseball nerds remove the human element from the game, reducing players to a set of numbers and binary code with little regard for them as human beings. Incidentally, I suspect that these detractors aren’t huge fans of fantasy baseball.

Here at Trader’s Corner, we’re doing our best to vindicate those very critics, breaking major league players down to their core numeric elements (take that, Hawk Harrelson!); we endeavor to assess performance trends both sustainable and untenable in an effort to identify players who could command considerable profit over the trade market. This week, I examine three players—one overperforming and two underperforming—who represent viable trade/pickup candidates in light of recent performance trends.

Sell high: Carlos Gomez

Do we really want to live in a world where Carlos Gomez is a more valuable fantasy asset than Ryan Braun? It’s almost an offensive notion, and we therefore share a collective obligation to undermine Go-Go’s accomplishments through the first two months of 2013. In all fairness, he’s been extremely impressive, and at 27 has emerged as a top-25 fantasy player in the nascent stages of 2013, but there are a few signs that point to regression, and owners should look to maximize return on Gomez as his market value is peaking.

Gomez’s .330 batting average has been a pleasant surprise for both fantasy owners and a decidedly moribund Brewers team, but a cursory look at his peripheral stats suggests no substantive changes in his approach that could’ve contributed to his early success this season. His 4.5 percent walk rate is actually a smidge below his career mark (5 percent), and he continues to strike out a ton, whiffing in 21.6 percent of his plate appearances.

Cases like this usually point to one culprit; indeed, the one figure that deviates dramatically from Gomez’s career norm is a gaudy .383 BABIP, the seventh-highest among qualified hitters, and a 73-point upgrade over Gomez’s lifetime mark. Dismissing a high average fueled by a lofty BABIP is lazy, but when considered in conjunction with a player’s batted-ball profile, this statistic can shed some light on how randomness has affected a player’s batting average.

As it happens, Gomez is not pounding line drives with unprecedented frequency—his 16.7 percent line drive rate in 2013 represents a negligible improvement over his career mark—but a disproportionate percentage of Gomez’s fly balls are eluding defenders; he’s fashioned a .255 BABIP on fly balls. For comparison’s sake, when Dexter Fowler fashioned an ungodly, league-leading .390 BABIP in 2012, he managed a mere .056 BABIP on fly balls.

As the sample size increases, it seems reasonable that Gomez’s BABIP will shrink to something a little more reasonable, and his batting average will more closely resemble the .247 career mark he had prior to 2013.

Perhaps even more surprising than the improved batting average, however, is the impressive power Gomez has exhibited through the first third of the 2013 season. He’s collected 10 home runs already—an astonishing feat considering he’s reached double digits in home runs just once over a full season, in 2012—and his .270 isolated power is almost double his .145 career pop index. I feel as though my words don’t adequately articulate how ridiculous his power surge has been, so here’s a chart.

Year	ISO
2007	0.072
2008	0.102
2009	0.108
2010	0.110
2011	0.177
2012	0.202
2013	0.270

While he’s made steady improvements in this department each year of his career, his ISO in 2013 represents a complete reconstitution of his offensive profile. Clearly, Gomez is working diligently to silence those who suggested his 19 home runs last season were an anomaly, but despite his powerful start to 2013, he’s simply not going to sustain this level of power over a full season. Only four qualified hitters—Josh Hamilton, Edwin Encarnacion, Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Braun—produced an isolated power greater than .270 in 2012. One of these things is not like the others. (Hint: it’s Gomez.)

He’s reaping the benefits of a hitter-friendly home ballpark—nine of his 10 longballs have come at Miller Park—but this, too, shall pass. Or at least regress. Gomez’s .377 ISO at home is as ludicrous as it is unprecedented. Last year, when Braun and Corey Hart combined for 71 home runs, neither one boasted an ISO at Miller Park north of .327; when Prince Fielder socked 50 dingers for the Brew Crew in 2007, his home ISO was a comparatively meager .366. Carlos Gomez is not Prince Fielder.

He’ll continue to steal bases—with 10 already, he should be a lock for upwards of 25, provided he stays healthy&mdash but there’s a strong likelihood his batting average and power start to dip in the near future, and his prospects for scoring runs aren’t overwhelmingly positive on a Milwaukee club that ranks 22nd in runs per game (3.96). I’d recommend shopping him aggressively before he outgrows his Five Category Stud costume.

Buy low: Edwin Jackson

Nope, that’s not a typo. Despite his unsightly rate stats (6.11 ERA, 1.57 WHIP) and a paucity of wins, Jackson is better than his numbers suggest. The right-hander has been victimized by some rotten luck this year, and with his market value essentially in the basement, now is the ideal time to pounce on him, as he’s likely due for improvement in the near future.

Maybe it comes with the territory—if you voluntarily join the Cubs, you’ve pretty much dug your own grave—but Jackson has essentially personified Murphy’s Law over the past couple of months. His 0.85 HR/9 is a notable improvement over last year’s 1.09 mark (he’s at an even one homer per nine innings for his career), a potential byproduct of a batted-ball profile that features a greater percentage of ground balls than it historically has. However, Jackson isn’t getting rewarded for his worm-burning ways; a .341 BABIP, the fifth-highest in baseball, has resolved to direct those grounders toward vacant swaths of grass instead of a defender’s glove.

Name	                   GB%	     LOB%	             ERA
Alex Cobb	         56.00%	            86.30%	    2.66
Mike Leake	           52.60%	     81.20%	     3.02
Jordan Zimmermann         50.40%	     80.20%	     2.37
Jason Marquis              53.60%	     79.60%	     3.70
Justin Masterson          54.80%	     77.90%	     3.07
A.J. Burnett               55.70%	     77.40%	     2.72
Felix Hernandez           52.00%	     77.30%	     2.51
Trevor Cahill             57.60%	     76.50%	     2.88
Scott Feldman              50.60%	     74.40%	     2.82
Lucas Harrell             53.10%	     73.60%	     5.43
Jaime Garcia              63.00%	     72.30%	     3.58
Jon Lester	          50.00%	     71.80%	     3.34
Stephen Strasburg          51.60%	     70.70%	     2.49
Doug Fister	          57.10%	     68.50%	     3.65
Jon Niese	          54.90%	     67.40%	     4.40
Roberto Hernandez         52.80%	      67.20%	     4.87
Tim Hudson                 53.00%	     64.10%	     5.37
Edwin Jackson              50.30%	     56.40%	     6.11
Wily Peralta               55.60%	     56.30%	     6.35

Only two of the 19 starters with a groundball rate above 50 percent possess a strand rate below 60 percent. Jackson is one of them. Notice the strong negative correlation between a robust left on base percentage and an enviable ERA. So far this season, Jackson’s increased groundball output hasn’t helped him work out of jams; he’s converted just 7.3 percent of his double-play opportunities, the 12th-lowest rate among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched.

That’s an astonishing figure considering the Cubs possess the second-most efficient defense (.735) in baseball. As counter-intuitive as it seems to have faith in anything Cubs-related, be confident that Jackson’s fortune will turn, and these ground balls will cease to elude defenders with such regularity. When that happens, his ERA won’t look nearly as garish, and it’ll probably start to approximate the sub-4.00 average he’s fashioned over the past four seasons.

While his walk rate (3.74 per nine innings) represents a step in the wrong direction from where he’s been the past few seasons, Jackson’s ugly WHIP, much like his ERA, is fueled by that hefty .341 BABIP. Through his first 10 starts, Jackson has allowed 10.4 hits per nine innings, his highest figure since 2007. As his BABIP regresses to the mean (particularly against lefties, who have compiled an unsustainable .422 BABIP against him) the WHIP will begin to deflate.

Jackson likely won’t accumulate a ton of wins on the North Side—the Cubs aren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut, averaging a modest 4.04 runs per game—but his strikeout numbers are up, averaging 8.83 per nine, and once his luck starts to turn, he could provide some value in deeper leagues. Look to capitalize now, while the market for his services is virtually non-existent and he’s saddled with a disparity of nearly two and a half runs between his ERA and .

Sell low: Matt Kemp

This may constitute heresy. And under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t encourage jettisoning a player with the talent and skill set of Matt Kemp. But something ain’t right.

Bullish fantasy owners expected Kemp, surgically repaired and entering his age-28 season, to play an integral role in the revamped Dodgers’ inevitable domination of the NL West this year after he missed 56 games in 2012 to hamstring and shoulder injuries. Things haven’t gone as planned—that may be the understatement of the century—and Kemp’s struggles this season have epitomized what’s been a disappointing two months in Los Angeles.

Kemp’s numbers across the board represent massive departures from his career marks, and have precipitated rampant speculation that he may not have fully recovered from his shoulder injury and subsequent surgery, a notion articulated best by the venerable Peter Gammons. The Dodgers insist he’s healthy, but the performance suggests otherwise.

A career .292 hitter, Kemp is hitting a mere .251 so far this year despite a robust .348 BABIP that registers just four points below his career mark. A lofty 28.6 percent strikeout rate, his highest since breaking into the league in 2006, has factored heavily into his problems at the plate this year; not surprisingly, his swinging-strike rate is up, registering at 15.6 percent—Kemp hasn’t whiffed this frequently since his rookie year. His sub-standard 6.7 percent walk rate has further compounded his on-base issues and continues to adversely affect his ability to score runs.

More disconcerting, however, is the complete absence of power that, in my profoundly unqualified medical opinion, bespeaks some kind of lingering injury. Considering the body of work, such a precipitous decline simply doesn’t compute at this juncture of Kemp’s career in the absence of some physical problem.

As Fangraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman notes, amazing baseball players don’t stop being amazing baseball players at 28 years old. Outside of an injury, the only other remotely plausible explanation for Kemp’s paltry .084 isolated power is that he is, in fact, possessed by the spirit of Mickey Lolich. Entering Friday, Kemp has just two home runs on the season—one of which was characterized as “just enough/lucky” by ESPN Hit Tracker—and his prospects aren’t entirely encouraging with half his games coming in a ballpark that hasn’t been so hospitable to the home run this year.

His problems at the plate notwithstanding, Kemp has done a fine job on the basepaths, picking up seven stolen bases&mdash he had nine over 106 games in 2012—consequently assuaging any lingering concern over his hamstring problems. But while the steals are nice, it looks increasingly unlikely Kemp will ever replicate his sensational 2011 campaign, when he posted a 115/39/126/40/.324 line, finishing second in NL MVP voting behind only Ryan Braun.

It’s tough to characterize Kemp as a true “sell low” candidate because, well, his name is Matt Kemp, and players with his kind of pedigree will retain substantial market value even as they struggle. But it has become overwhelmingly apparent that something is amiss, and owners should explore trade options with those willing to pay a premium for marquee names.

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Comments

  1. chris said...

    You don’t have to buy low with E-Jax.  He’s available for free at your local waiver wire.

  2. Feslen said...

    If you’re buying EJax, your pitching staff is in pretty desperate straights.  Just say no to him.

  3. Brad Johnson said...

    Concur on EJax, he’ll see regular recommendations in the Grind until he’s widely owned, but at the same time I’m fairly convinced that he’s cursed (not really).

  4. Jay Bones said...

    What’s the feeling on dropping Lohse for Edwin Jackson? I’m about at the end of my rope with him.

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