Travis Hafner: the First Baseman

Travis Hafner has now started 4 games at first base for the Cleveland Indians. In many Fantasy Baseball leagues, a player must start 5 games at a position before becoming eligible to play that position for a fantasy team. Travis Hafner is just 1 game away with Interleague play right around the corner. Hafner’s bat is just too valuable to relegate to pinch-hitting duties when the Indians play in National League parks. As such, the Indians have been giving him some work at first base to prepare him to play several games there in the coming weeks. If Hafner’s owner is asleep at the wheel, now is the time to buy on him. The Indians play at the Reds on Friday (against Homer Bailey), and Hafner should pick up his fifth start then, if not earlier. Either way, come Saturday morning, whoever owns Hafner will be able to slot him into their lineup in the spot marked ’1B.’ This gives Hafner’s value a huge boost.

Had Hafner been first base eligible to start the year, there is a very good chance I would have taken him in nearly every league I had the opportunity. To start, Hafner takes a lot of walks. To clarify “a lot,” I mean that he had an 18% Walk rate in 2006 and has a 21% Walk in rate in 2007. It’s so good that it has allowed Hafner to keep a .300 BA despite a not-so-inspiring 75% Contact rate. His career BABIP is .334.

His 2005 Line Drive rate was 20.2% and in 2006 it was 21.2%. Despite his increased Walk rate this year, though, his Line Drive rate has slipped to 18.5% and his BABIP to .316. No need to sound the alarms yet, but Hafner is also hitting just .272. I don’t see any clear reasons to panic, and Hafner’s Line Drive rate should raise in time, as should his BA. I don’t see a good reason to bet against Hafner hitting close to, if not over, .300.

Hafner is also a beast in the power department. Last year, according to HitTracker, Hafner hit 24 Home Runs with True Distances of over 400 feet. His furthest went 450 true feet. This year, 5 of his 9 that HitTracker has data on went past 400 true feet, and he hasn’t hit any under 367 true feet. Because of this, I expect his HR/FB rate to pick up a little bit as some of his shallower fly balls are converted to homers.

The most concerning thing about Hafner’s power is his fluctuating Fly ball rate. It has been alternating each year of his career between the mid-to-high 30s and low 40s. 2004 it was 43%, 2005 it was 37%, and 2006 it was 40%. This year, it has fallen all the way to 33%. Accordingly, his AB/HR has fallen from 11 in 2006 to 19 in 2007. If this rate keeps up, Hafner will end up with just 27 HRs if he gets 525 ABs. I expect it to improve, however, for a number of reasons.

The first is that his 48.6% Ground ball rate is the worst of his career and is 7 percentage points above his career average. I doubt Hafner is suffering a deterioration of skills given his improved Walk rate, constant Contact rate, and relatively small drop in Line Drive rate. Therefore, his Ground ball rate should decline and his Fly ball and/or Line Drive rate should improve at some point this year. If his Fly ball rate could even get back up to 37% he would be in decent shape. Then, if some of his shallower fly balls begin to turn into HRs, he should even better off. I would be surprised if Hafner doesn’t hit at least 40 Home Runs this year.

When you add Hafner’s lineup situation into the equation, you get an excellent player. Hafner has batted third every game this year, with the likes of Grady Sizemore, Jason Michaels, and Casey Blake ahead of him and Victor Martinez, Ryan Garko, Trot Nixon, and Jhonny Peralta behind him. With 40 HRs and those hitters ahead of him, Hafner should easily reach 100 RBIs with 115 a good possibility. With his ability to take a walk and the power behind him, he should also get to 100 Runs without a problem.

That leaves Hafner’s final line looking like this: .300/40/110/100. I had him projected a little higher preseason, but since there is some risk involved with Hafner (his Ground ball rate the main culprit), I think this is more likely. The only first basemen I’d probably take over Hafner at this point are Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, and Prince Fielder. If Hafner doesn’t improve his HR rate and BA, guys like Ryan Howard, Adrian Gonzalez, and Gary Sheffield would pass him. If you can take on a little risk, though, play up the low Fly ball, Line Drives, and AB/HR rates to Hafner’s owner and reap the rewards.

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