Twisting Oliver: September standouts

With minor league call-ups filling major league rosters, and part-time players thrust into full-time roles, the final month of the season is notorious for producing big numbers from relatively unknown players. Some of those September performances are indicators of future success, and some can be written off as hot streaks against watered-down competition. In looking back at the final month of 2009, we see that some dude named Jose Bautista led the league with 10 homers (he only totaled 13 the whole season), and a Cincinnati Reds outfielder arrived from Triple-A to hit five homers and steal seven bases, which he followed up by totaling 22 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 2010. That player? Drew Stubbs, of course. We also met Julio Borbon, whose four homers in 37 games proved to be a result of a fortuitous HR/FB ratio rather than a sign his power was blossoming. (He managed just three in 137 games last year.)

Moving our attention to September 2010, let’s look at four of the top hitting performers during the final month that will have owners debating whether to believe in, or bypass come draft day.

Kila Ka’aihue:

September Line: .261 AVG/15 R/6 HR/18 RBI (110 PAs)
2011 Oliver Line: .260 AVG/76 R/26 HR/80 RBI (582 PAs)

After being stranded at Triple-A for three straight seasons, the Royals finally made room for Ka’aihue in early August. He struggled initially, prompting some to prematurely label him a “Quad A” All-Star. When September hit, though, so did Ka’aihue.

Oliver Thinks … the skill set that made Ka’aihue one of the most patient boppers in all the minors will translate nicely to the big leagues. In over 1,110 Triple-A plate appearances, the Big Pineapple averaged a bomb every 16 at-bats, and his BB/K was an excellent 1.2. Slated to see every day action at first base and DH in 2010, Oliver projects a home run every 18 at-bats, and a still stupendous 0.97 BB/K for Ka’aihue, which, if he does that, will place him firmly in the top 15 of fantasy first basemen.

I Think … if he amasses close to 600 PAs, the Oliver projection may even be on the low-end. Ka’aihue’s penciled into the cleanup role for the Royals, right behind .300 machine Billy Butler, which should lead to plenty of RBI opportunities. And considering his ability to draw a free pass, he’ll be on base enough to put up a sneaky-good run total for a lumbering 1B/DH (think a young Adam Dunn).

His 49.3 FB% was on the extreme end, which isn’t such a bad place to be; of the 11 qualified players (400 plate appearances) to post a FB% of 49 or greater last season, only Jonny Gomes (18) failed to hit at least 23 home runs. If Ka’aihue avoids a massive slump, and if he sees a slight bump in his HR/FB ratio (it sat at 11.4 last year), he has a legitimate shot at 30 homers over a full season.

The .217 batting average he posted last year is worrisome, but it was primarily due to a crummy .231 BABIP. The .260 average Oliver projects appears spot-on—his MLE average came in it at .264 last year. Although, with some extra luck on top of his already anticipated improvement in the BABIP department, his average could easily hit .280. My suggestion: draft him based on the 2011 Oliver line, but feel free to secretly hope for a little more.

Ryan Raburn:

September Line: .358 AVG/18 R/5 HR/18 RBI (116 PAs)
2011 Oliver Line: .275 AVG/53 R/17 HR/60 RBI (415 PAs)

The versatile Raburn, in his age-29 season, finally received extended playing time late in the year. He didn’t disappoint, smacking 13 homers in the final two months, with an average well north of .300. Impressive as his stats were, questions still abound as to whether he’s the next Jayson Werth, or simply a utility player who burst into flames for a two month stretch.

Oliver Thinks … he was unconscionably hot in August/September, but that there’s legitimate pop in his wood, and the average will be usable. If we use the THT Forecast for ABs (499), and extrapolate his Oliver projections out, Raburn comes in with 71 runs, 23 homers, and 80 RBIs—numbers befitting a third outfielder in 12-team leagues.

I Think … if he can handle a full-time role over the length of the season, he’ll hit those projections and then some. I don’t know that he can, though. As a part-timer in ’09, he bopped an impressive 16 balls out of the park, while registering a 17.0 HR/FB ratio and .241 isolated power number. As his playing time increased in 2010, those numbers regressed, though still remained healthy at 12.2 and .194 respectively. Whether those totals simply normalized, or if they’ll continue to fall as pitchers see him on a more consistent basis is where the questions come in.

While he’s currently the Tigers starting left fielder, he’s not without competition. Last season’s surprise rookie, Brennan Boesch, will be breathing down his neck, and Raburn will undoubtedly feel the pressure to produce right out of the gate, something he’s never been able to do—in 152 career at-bats in April and May, he’s posted a .209 average, failing to go yard a single time. If Raburn doesn’t receive the same kind of luck he experienced over the final two months of last season, which is probable considering his BABIP sat at .380, a slow start could easily morph into a prolonged slump, and removal from the starting lineup.

If you can use him at second base—Raburn played 18 games there last year—bump him up your cheat sheets considerably, but as an outfield-only commodity, it’d be wise not to extend yourself too much on a 30-year old player with such an untested track record.

Peter Bourjos:

September Line: .206 AVG/11 R/4 HR/8 RBI/6 SB (106 PAs)
2011 Oliver Line: .254 AVG/73 R/11 HR/55 RBI/23 SB (589 PAs)

The speedy Bourjos made it the bigs on the strength of his elite defensive skills in center field, and once there, flashed the kind of speed/power combo that makes fantasy owners salivate on draft day. The average, though, was low enough to trigger the gag reflex.

Oliver Thinks … you can pencil in a 10/20 season for the man Torii Hunter referred to as “the fastest white guy I ever saw.” And the average, while still not appealing, should be closer to the .293 number he posted over five minor league seasons than the Mendoza level he performed at last year.

I Think … the upside is unmistakable—in 415 ABs at Triple-A last season, Bourjos hit .314 with 13 homers, 12 triples, and 27 stolen bases—but his inability to draw a walk, combined with a high strikeout rate (he registered just two walks against 25 strikeouts in September), make me leery. His BB/K ratio of 0.36 in the minors doesn’t suggest his big-league performance was terribly flukey, and if it continues, he’ll struggle to reach base enough to avoid a minor league recall, elite defense and base-stealing prowess or not.

Interestingly, and you can make of this stat what you want, but only five players saw a larger majority of pitches inside the strike zone than Bourjos last season. As you would expect, the guys ahead of him were of the slap-hitting variety, suggesting opposing pitchers weren’t afraid to serve up hittable balls to players with such low power outputs. Bourjos looks the part of those players, but as his .177 ISO indicates, he’s not.

My take: without a lengthy scouting report on the books, pitchers saw a speed guy hitting in the nine-hole, and approached him as they would others of that ilk. As a result, Bourjos saw an inordinately high volume of drivable balls. As pitchers become more familiar with the type of hitter he is, they’ll predictably adjust their approach, in turn, forcing Bourjos to adjust his. Whether or not he’s capable of doing so is up for debate, but I’m not willing to invest more than a buck to find out.

Danny Espinosa:

September Line: .214 AVG/16 R/6 HR/15 RBI/0 SB (112 PAs)
2011 Oliver Line: .244 AVG/73 R/19 HR/69 RBI/15 SB (599 PAs)

Espinosa didn’t get called up until rosters expanded in September, but when he arrived, he arrived with a bang, hitting three homers in his first five games, and finishing the month with six bombs. Of his 22 hits, 11 went for extra bases, though 22 hits in 103 at-bats was a tad disconcerting.

Oliver Thinks … the middle infielder is ready to produce elite counting numbers in his first full season. The average won’t be pretty, but compared to his competitors—the second base position produced just 10 qualified players with a batting average above .270 last year—his power/speed production will still be enough to make him a top 15 player at the position.

I Think … one look at his minor league numbers—40 HRs, 145 RBI, 56 SBs in 275 games—is enough to ignore the .214 average, which was held down by a .239 BABIP in his brief stint with the Nats last year. His ISO of .233 was bettered by only Troy Tulowitzki and Jed Lowrie among middle infielders with 100 plate appearances. To be fair, it’s a small sample size, and his best number in that category in the minors was .202, but even if he registers an ISO of .176 this season, as Oliver projects, that’s still a reasonably high number for his position.

Some may question the lofty steals total since he only attempted two stolen bases in a month of action, and was thrown out both times, but that was more likely a result of only finding himself on first base a measly 21 times in 28 games, rather than an indictment on his speed. He’ll need to cut down on his strikeouts (29.1 K% with a 14.3 SwStr% last year) to keep the average from killing his value, but if he continues to drive the ball, he’ll be afforded a fairly long leash during his rookie season, providing him enough opportunities to make a late-round pick in 12-team mixers well worth the investment.

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Comments

  1. Jeffrey Gross said...

    In the THTF mock this past week, I drafted Raburn and Espinosa for the MI/bench. Between the two of them, one should be worth rostering. I think these guys are flying way under the radar still and should be more emphasized. Good job chris.

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