Twisting Oliver: wading into the batting pool

As a product of the fantasy generation, my calendar is divided up into two distinct seasons. March through August is devoted completely, 100 percent to rotisserie baseball. The early part of September can be a little confusing, with the start of the football and the end of the (fantasy) baseball season coinciding, but by the middle of the month, my full attention has been hijacked by the crazed beasts of the gridiron, and is typically held hostage through the end of the year.

That leaves a two-month window between January and February for me to relax, read a book or two, and spend some much-needed quality time with the wife. Yeah, right. And let my competition get a two-month head start on their prep work? I don’t think so. Shunning evenings on the couch watching Boardwalk Empire for evenings in front of the computer studying xFIP is how trophies are hoisted and bragging rights are earned.

There are plenty of ways to get wet, but in this space, I want to specifically use the Oliver projections in the THT Forecasts as our springboard into the fantasy world. If you’re unfamiliar with Oliver, creator Brian Cartwright has a must-read article explaining all the intricacies. Put in ultra-simplistic terms, it’s a full-featured player projection system that uses a weighted mean of the previous three seasons, adjusted for age and park factor, and regressed to the mean.

Oliver’s predictions shouldn’t be viewed as the gospel truth, but rather as a tool by which to judge, compare, and dissect particular players and their fantasy prospects for the upcoming season. Consider this initial offering a dipping of the toe into the batter pool. Next week we’ll get in up to our waist in pitchers, and the week after, we’ll jump headfirst into the deep end. For now, though, here’s a player at each position whose Oliver projection randomly caught my eye upon first glance.

One last note: I’ve used Tom Tango’s formula of HR + SB + (H -.27*AB) + R/3 + RBI/3 to assign a position rank based on Oliver’s projections. It’s a widely-used, effective gauge of 5×5 value, and when applied to Oliver, shows a big-picture view of who the computer likes and who it doesn’t.

CATCHER:

Matt Wieters

2009: .287 AVG/35 R/9 HR/43 RBI (385 PA)
2010: .249 AVG/37 R/11 HR/55 RBI (502 PA)
2011 Oliver: .266 AVG/62 R/16 HR/66 RBI (543 PA)

When Wieters was called up in 2009, he was supposed to be an MLB-ready backstop with good pop and a guaranteed .300 average in his back pocket. Instead, he’s struggled to keep his average above .250, and the power has failed to befit a man once hyped as “God in Cleats.” Perhaps “Kurt Suzuki in an Orioles Uniform” would have been a more appropriate moniker.

Oliver Thinks…the Suzuki comparison is spot on. According to the Tango formula, Oliver values Wieters as the 9th-ranked catcher, right behind the balanced, but unspectacular, Suzuki. Even with an anticipated power increase, Wieters won’t fulfill expectation until the BA migrates north of .280, at the very least.

I Think…a full explosion is still possible, but mainly because I just spent an inordinate amount of time re-familiarizing myself with Wieters’ drool-worthy minor league numbers (32 HR/.343 AVG in 578 AB). He made some positive strides last year, walking a bit more, striking out less, and improving his overall contact rate by 5.2 percent. He even decreased his Swinging Strike percentage (SwStr%) to 7.2, a big drop from the 10.5 number he posted in ’09.

The gains, though, failed to show up in his end numbers, primarily due to a BABIP that plummeted nearly 70 points, from .356 in ’09 to .287 in ’10. Assuming the BABIP normalizes somewhere between the two and he continues to make small strides in his approach, the Oliver line seems like a reasonable floor to pencil in for Wieters.

FIRST BASE:

Kendry Morales

2009: .306 AVG/86 R/34 HR/108 RBI (622 PA)
2010: .290 AVG/29 R/11 HR/38 RBI (211 PA)
2011 Oliver: .292 AVG/59 R/22HR/73 RBI (446 PA)

After a remarkably consistent 2009 season that saw him exceed nearly every expectation, Morales followed it up in 2010 by doing something at the plate no player in recent memory has been able to accomplish – though to be fair, not many have attempted to fracture their fibula while celebrating a game-winning grand slam.

Oliver Thinks…the Baseball Gods have it in for Morales. Taking into account his injury-shortened year and the lone full season of MLB production on his resume, Oliver projects him at only 446 plate appearances (407 AB), predictably stifling his counting numbers, and placing him just outside the top 15 at the position.

I Think…based on the data, it’s understandable why Oliver is concerned about durability, but considering the freakish nature of last year’s injury and the lack of past ailments, the worry seems unwarranted in this specific case. Last year, albeit in only two months of action, Morales showed no signs that his 2009 season was a fluke, and if you extrapolate the projections out to 500 AB, you’ll see Oliver agrees, showing 27 HR, 91 RBI, and 73 runs. That kind of production would sandwich him firmly between Justin Morneau and Kevin Youkilis in the rankings, which seems just about perfect.

SECOND BASE:

Dan Uggla

2009: .243 AVG/84 R/31 HR/90 RBI (668 PA)
2010: .287 AVG/100 R/33 HR/105 RBI (674 PA)
2011 Oliver: .266 AVG/81 R/32 HR/97 RBI (619 PA)

Uggla has four straight 30-homer seasons, and, despite hitting in the middle of mostly mediocre Marlins lineups, he’s never driven in fewer than 88 runs in his career. At a second base position light on depth, and even lighter in power production, Uggla’s consistent bopping looks extremely appealing.

Oliver Thinks…even if you factor in a 20-point drop in BA, the only second baseman more appealing than Uggla is Chase Utley. That may have something to with the system’s preference towards players with greasy, slicked-back hair, or maybe it’s a sign Oliver hates all things related to New York (Robinson Cano) and Boston (Dustin Pedroia). Either way, Uggla projects as the only two-bagger to top 30 homers (as he was last year), and the only player north of 90 RBI (only he and Cano hit that total in ’10).

I Think…it’s hard to argue that a 30/100 season won’t happen if Uggla manages to play more than 145 games, which he’s done every year of his career. Personally, I’d still take Cano and Pedroia over him, mostly because a healthy batting average – even a .266 mark – can’t be counted on out of Uggla. In five seasons, he’s been total feast or famine, finishing with an average below .245 twice, and above .280 twice.

Considering all his peripherals held true to form last year, with the only notable difference coming in a BABIP 28 points above his career norm, it’s logical to conclude 2011 won’t feature the type of average that leads to the elite standing Oliver is suggesting.

THIRD BASE:

Pablo Sandoval

2009: .330 AVG/79 R/25 HR/90 RBI (633 PA)
2010: .268 AVG/61 R/13 HR/63 RBI (618 PA)
Oliver 2011: .299 AVG/77 R/21 HR/86 RBI (598 PA)

There wasn’t a bigger disappointment, both literally and figuratively, than Sandoval in 2010. After being drafted as a top-five guy at third base, he was nearly unownable, especially in H2H leagues, where he provided a .336 average and nine homers in the months of April and August, but hit just .231 with four long balls in the other four months combined.

Oliver Thinks…Sandoval will, at long last, embrace the philosophy of “diet and exercise” during the offseason, and hopefully stop swinging at so many crappy pitches. Well, Oliver doesn’t use those words exactly, but they’re certainly implied, because the only way the average bounces back to .300 and the power creeps into the 20-plus range is if he makes both a priority.

I Think…I’m sketched out by the thought of drafting him as a top-five player at 3B again, which Oliver indicates is a good idea. Last year his already inflated O-Swing% (swings at pitches outside the strike zone) jumped from 41.7 to 44.6 – with only Vladimir Guerrero embodying the “nose to toes” approach more than Pablo. Even more disconcerting, the percentage of pitches Sandoval swung at inside the zone dropped from 83.0 to 78.9, while his contact rate stayed static at 82%.

This indicates he was swinging at more bad pitches and fewer good ones, while making the same amount of contact—a recipe for declining batting average if I’ve ever seen one. I’m not quite ready to write him off as a cautionary tale of unchecked excess, but it’ll take a noticeably trimmer Sandoval, accompanied by glowing reports of a more restrained approach at the plate, before I’m willing to jump back on the Panda’s back.

SHORTSTOP:

Jose Reyes

2008: .297 AVG/113 R/16 HR/68 RBI/56 SB (763 PA)
2010: .282 AVG/83 R/11 HR/54 RBI/30 SB (603 PA)
Oliver 2011: .280 AVG/78 R/9 HR/51 RBI/24 SB (511 PA)

After an injury-marred ’09 campaign, Reyes saw his production return exactly to the level it was prior to the calf injuries. Well, almost exactly. His stolen base total dropped to a very pedestrian 30, down from the 56 he pilfered in his last healthy season.

Oliver Thinks…age, injury, and a lack of walks will again prevent him from being an upper-echelon base stealer. Even if you take out the injury concerns and extrapolate Oliver’s projections to 700 PAs, 33 SBs are all you get.

I Think…if Reyes stays healthy all year, he’s still capable of a 50-stolen base season. Big “IF,” though. Last year he missed nearly all of training camp and the first week of the season with a thyroid issue, and dealt with an oblique strain that caused him to miss half of July and hindered his running ability when he did return. When Reyes was ailment-free he was very effective, swiping 29 of 36 bags outside of July, but the lack of attempts is of notable concern.

After averaging 80 attempts between 2005-08, he only registered 40 last season. You can chalk some of that up to injuries, but the plummeting walk rate, which fell to 5.5%, by far the lowest number he’d produced since ’05, had as much to do with it as anything. Obviously, fewer walks equal fewer opportunities to steal bases. Oliver thinks that number will bounce-back to 7.2% in 2011, and if it does, and he stays healthy, the speed is still blazing enough to return Reyes to elite status. As it stands, he ranks a distant third at the disturbingly weak SS position.

OUTFIELDER:

Jason Bay

2009: .267 AVG/103 R/36 HR/119 RBI/10 SB (638 PA)
2010: .259 AVG/48 R/6 HR/47 RBI/10 SB (401 PA)
2011 Oliver: .263 AVG/72 R/22 HR/75 RBI/8 SB (544 PA)

Bay, fresh off a 36 HR/119 RBI season, was one of the worst hitters in baseball last season. In 95 games – his season was mercifully ended by a concussion in July – the 32-year-old managed to hit a home run in just four contests, finishing with a whopping six on the year, and his ISO fell from .269 to .144.

Oliver Thinks…similar to David Wright, Bay’s power will return in his second season in Citi Field. Not to his Red Sox levels, but enough so that he’s draftable as a third outfielder in 12-team leagues.

I Think…it’s been proven that Citi Field wasn’t the sole culprit for Bay’s steep decline, though what was, I still have no idea. His K:BB ratio was pretty close to his career norm, and nothing was askew with his batted-ball numbers, either (other than his career-low 5.1% HR/FB, of course).

The only thing worth noting was an elevated swing percentage, particularly on balls outside the zone, but it’s hard to tell if that was the result of a change in approach, or simply the byproduct of frustrated hacking that often accompanies prolonged slumps. Unless his skill set completely deteriorated on the flight from Boston to New York, Bay is an excellent bounce-back candidate you’ll be able to purchase at a bargain-basement price.

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Comments

  1. Dave Studeman said...

    It should be noted that Oliver’s playing time forecasts, which Chris used here, aren’t the playing times used in THT Forecasts.  In THT Forecasts, we take Oliver’s underlying performance metrics and apply them to a playing time estimated by specific team observers.

  2. Dave Studeman said...

    A question for you, Chris.  When you see things such as Sandoval’s O-swing % increasing, you seem to feel that that’s a indicator of a significant change in “true performance,” if you will. Has that been studied anywhere?  Just because a stat is relatively new doesn’t mean it’s better at pointing out underlying changes in player performance.

  3. Chris Ryan said...

    Chris – we’ll get that fixed. In the meantime, here’s the link.

    http://www.amazinavenue.com/2011/1/1/1907898/jason-bay-and-hitting-at-citi-field

    Dave – Yeah I probably (definitely) overstated my case in saying that his rising O-Swing% was a direct result of the BA swoon, but it’s interesting, if you go back to 2006, 17 different players have finished the season with an O-Swing above 40%, and other than Vladimir Guerrero, Sandoval’s ‘09 season was the only time one of those hitters produced a .300 batting average.

    I guess my real point had more to do with the rarified air he was at in terms of plate discipline, and how hard it’ll be for him to maintain a high average swinging at so many bad pitches. He’s no Vlad, in other words.

    Also of note: The percentage of strikes Sandoval saw decreased from 40.5% in ‘09 to 38.3% 2010, which was the lowest mark in the league last year. Not exactly surprising considering his hacking ways, but another example that his opportunity to hit “good” pitches will continue to dwindle if he doesn’t start showing some restraint.

  4. Dave Law said...

    Never underestimate the power of the contract year, which Reyes will be playing in. He will lay it all out there for a Hundred Million Dollar contract. I think he steals more than 50 and he will be a relative bargain on draft day. That’s just gut but a guy who is 28 and supposed to be in his prime should be able to replicate his past success. His legs are fine and he’s off the fish diet that lead to his thyroid condition, which I think can be part of the cause for his down 2010. Also, he will be playing for the Giants next year.

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