Trader’s corner: reviewing the hits, part one

After taking a look at the results of some of my poorer predictions last edition, let’s have a bit more fun and take a look at some of the stronger ones. As hoped, there were far more good predictions—both on my part and Oliver’s—than bad ones. So much so that the good vibes need to be broken up into two separate columns. For today, we’ll look at the most obvious hits from Week Zero and Week Two.

Jason Heyward
Initial Recommendation: Buy Low
Date: March 27, 2012
.278-39-35-11-10

Although Heyward’s injury troubles held him back last year, there was another large flaw in his game that has now been corrected. In his first two seasons, he was a pronounced groundball hitter. But so far this year he’s hit more fly balls than balls on the ground. The result is the best isolated slugging percentage he’s had since he was in Double-A in 2009 and positive production in all five roto categories.

Looking a bit deeper though, even within this year it seems Heyward has changed his approach, as recently discussed by Dave Cameron. In April, he produced much like he did in his rookie season—lots of patience and decent power, although he was hitting more balls in the air and running the basepaths more aggressively. In May, he looked as lost as he did last year, struggling to generate base hits but still showing good patience and decent power.

Then in June, Heyward suddenly went from being one of the most patient young hitters in the game to Mike Silver’s hackstastic dream player. His walk rate fell all the way to 4.2 percent—easily the lowest single-month mark of his career—but his strikeout rate also dropped, his BABIP shot up, and he hit a bunch of homers. I’m not as convinced as Mike that hacking is right for every player, but this change in approach seems to be benefiting Heyward and his fantasy owners alike.

The most important takeaway of all this is that his raw talent is clearly intact, and Heyward is finding more and more ways to tap into it as he matures. Be that by being more aggressive at the dish or putting more balls in the air, he’s looking very much like the stud everyone thought he was destined to become.

Updated recommendation: Hold or buy high. Without luck, don’t expect Heyward’s current paces to improve dramatically from where they are right now, so the buying opportunity is likely weaker than it was to start the year, but the positive changes do look legitimate.

Angel Pagan
Initial Recommendation: Buy Low
Date: March 27, 2012
.299-36-27-5-12

This was very much a mechanical observation by the Oliver projection system that the community was putting to much weight on Pagan’s superficial struggles from 2011 and ignoring the strength of his 2009 and 2010 seasons. Pagan was drafted as a $1 or $2 flier this year when he projected much more like a $10 or $12 player.

Lo and behold, Pagan is playing like a $10 or $12 player. The BABIP pendulum has swung back, and his .336 BABIP almost perfectly mirrors his 2010 mark of .331. As a result, his overall paces almost perfectly mirror his final 2010 line of .290-80-69-11-37. The stolen base rate is a bit short, but at age 30 it was expected this might tail off, and Pagain still has been caught only twice. He should still have a chance at 30 swipes by year’s end.

Updated recommendation: Hold, or even sell if someone is overrating his batting average or tendency for long hitting streaks from the first half. That’s the only part of Pagan’s game one might expect to dip slightly in the second half, but otherwise, he’s doing exactly what should be expected of him moving forward.

Mark Teixeira
Initial Recommendation: Sell High
Date: March 27, 2012
.254-38-42-12-1

When we first checked in on Teixeira, the concern was that without his lofty power numbers, he might have a hard time maintaining the value spent to acquire him. His average home run distance and velocity had fallen in four consecutive seasons, as had his BABIP. Even with decent contact rates, it looked unlikely his batting average would rebound and likely that his power would drop.

So far, that’s exactly what’s happened. Teixeira continues to make plenty of contact, but his BABIP is once again quite low. And while 12 home runs is a respectable total, it’s not on the gaudy pace it would need to be to justify his draft day price. His average home run distance is higher than it was in 2011 but lower than it was in any year previous and well below the league average, and there’s no change from last year in the average speed of home run balls off his bat.

Tex is largely being kept afloat by runs and RBIs, which the potent Yankee lineup continue to support, but a low-average, 30-home run slugger is not the value an owner who selected him in the late second/early third round was hoping for.

Updated recommendation: Hold or sell low. There may be something to sell in Teixeira consider the “slow starter” narrative that’s followed him through his career, but there are fewer signs than ever that he’ll suddenly start hitting like crazy in the second half in 2012.

Howie Kendrick
Initial Recommendation: Sell High
Date: March 27, 2012
.269-26-27-4-4

Kendrick enjoyed a breakout fantasy season in 2011, hitting a career-best 18 home runs and stealing 14 bases while maintaining a more-than-respectable .285 batting average. The concern was that his strikeout rate shot up, but he still hit over 50 percent of batted balls on the ground. His home run-per-fly ball rate was nearly twice that of his career mark. This combination made the power gains seem unsustainable and raised new questions about his ability to maintain a strong batting average.

At the time, my feeling was the best-case scenario saw Kendrick’s power and strikeouts both reverting back towards his career rates, and that he would turn back into a .290 hitter with potential in the low double digits in both homers and steals. Unfortunately for Kendrick and his owners, while his power has regressed, the strikeouts have stayed high, leaving him with little that even resembles a saving grace.

For the second straight year, Kendrick’s strikeout rate is a touch over 20 percent, and with his career-worst rate of making contact on pitches in the zone, it doesn’t smell like a fluke. And yet, his 8.7 percent home run-per-fly ball rate is right in line with his career mark. Even more troubling is that his groundball rate is all the way up near 60 percent—higher than ever before. The total package is a below-replacement level fantasy player for mixed-league purposes with little indication of imminent improvement.

Updated recommendation: Sell low if you can still get anything of value.

Ubaldo Jimenez
Initial Recommendation: Sell Low
Date: March 27, 2012
7-4.59-1.55-58

Jimenez got off to about as brutal a fantasy start as possible, and to make matters worse, he may have even gotten a bit lucky to be as good as he was. His xFIP of 5.24 and SIERA of 5.13 are both over half of a run higher than his ERA. As expected, the decline in his swinging-strike and first-pitch strike rates in 2011 proved a better indicator of his 2012 prospects than his raw strikeout and walk rates.

Despite all that, June has brought Jimenez and his owners a sliver of hope. You might not notice without tracking his recent box scores or looking at his splits, but he actually has seen his strikeouts, walks, and velocity all trend in the right direction as the weather has warmed up. It’s lead to an xFIP of 3.60 for the month, and while that mark still isn’t dominant, and his velocity is still sitting below where it was last year, any improvement is welcome at this point.

Updated recommendation: If your team is in the thick of things already, leave Jimenez alone, but if you’re looking for a super cheap, desperation gamble for the second half of the season, there are worse situations to buy into. He won’t come any cheaper than this, and while he won’t be an ace, given the way he’s pitched over the last month, there’s at least a non-zero chance he can be a decent third-tier starter for the rest of the year.

Jay Bruce
Initial Recommendation: Buy High
Date: April 11, 2012
.252-40-48-16-4

Through 70 games this year, Bruce is almost exactly half way to his 157-game totals from 2011. There was never really a great explanation for why Bruce was going for less than $20 in this year’s auctions. Perhaps owners overestimated the negative impact of a .250-.260 batting average, or underestimated the value of a 30-home run bat. Whatever the cause, Bruce’s line from 2011 was quite a bit more valuable than the price most owners paid for him in 2012, and he’s outpacing those numbers so far this year.

Even better, there’s reason to think Bruce can keep up his improvements moving forward. His BABIP sits at just .267, which is likely in part a result of his career-low 29.8 percent groundball rate. If Bruce keeps hitting balls in the air at this pace, he should be able to eclipse his total of 32 home runs from last year. If not, he’ll trade a couple homers for a handful of singles and doubles, bumping up his batting average a bit. The former option is preferable in a value vacuum, but in either case, he should be slightly better than he was a year ago.

Bruce is looking every bit to be the $25-$30 value Oliver expected going into the year.

Updated recommendation: Buy high if his owner still considers his batting average a major turnoff; otherwise hold, as Bruce’s continued consistent level of production should make extracting value increasingly difficult.

Ian Kennedy
Initial Recommendation: Sell High
Date: April 11, 2012
5-4.42-1.35-83

This one is pretty simple—unlike last year, the win luck has dried up, and the fly balls are flying over the fences at a more reasonable pace. Last year, Kennedy’s success was largely predicated on a 7.7 percent home run-per-fly ball rate. This year that rate is up to 9.8 percent, and paired with a groundball rate that’s lower than ever, the long ball has really damaged Kennedy’s value.

The good news is Kennedy’s command is still elite—even better than last year, although he’s lost a few strikeouts from last year’s pace, as well. His .325 BABIP is also due to regress even more than it would with most pitchers. Although fly balls are damaging in terms of the long ball, they do yield lower BABIP than any of the other batted-ball types. In aggregate this is small consolation, but it does suggest Kennedy’s BABIP should be closer to his career rate of .279.

More than anything, Kennedy should see his WHIP improve dramatically moving forward, but I wouldn’t expect more than a mid-to-high 3.00s ERA and a K/9 between 7.50 and 8.25. While that’s still a solid fantasy pitcher, it could be difficult to convince all but the most fickle owners to sell him cheaper than what that’s worth considering the amount they spent to acquire him.

Updated recommendation: Like Lester, Kennedy is tricky. This is easily evidenced in the disparity between his xFIP of 4.02 and SIERA of 3.59. It’s very unusual to see these two metrics so far apart on a particular pitcher. I typically favor the SIERA number in general, and in this case even more so since it deals better with atypical BABIP regressions.

At the very least, this shows just how volatile an asset Kennedy can be and how overrated his upside was heading into the year. Unless you’re desperate for WHIP potential, I wouldn’t trade more than $15 in value for him, but I also wouldn’t want to sell him unless I could get more than that.

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