Waiver Wire Offseason: AL

Before launching into the players for this week, here is a 16-page preview of Graphical Player ’10, available in December. Using “team experts” as Heater does, the writers are quite knowledgeable about their specific teams, and – lest you worry about hometown bias – they had better success (measured by RMSE) predicting win-loss totals for 2009 than any expert or “system” (or Vegas betting lines). When you consider that the popular “graphical” format conveys such a high volume of information in a glance, there’s really no excuse to enter the 2010 season without arming yourself with this resource!

Robinson Cano | New York | 2B
2009 Final Stats: .320/.352/.520

Robinson Cano reminded us why “body of work” is so important when evaluating ballplayers, despite the strong emotional drive to judge ballplayers based on “what have you done for me lately?” Entering 2009, he had a career batting line (through age 25) of .303/.335/.468, yet few would have given him much chance to hit .320/.352/.520, a somewhat normal expectation for a young ballplayer with such a great career line to that point. The reason, of course, was his disappointing 2008 stat line (.271/.305/.410), and the much higher weight placed on recent seasons by most forecasting systems. THT’s projections suggested he’d hit .299/.339/.457, which was wildly optimistic by other standards (for comparison, his 75th-percentile PECOTA was .298/.339/.449, and his 90th-percentile PECOTA wasn’t even close to his actual stats).

But here’s the thing with Cano’s season… it wasn’t “lucky” in any easily-definable sense, unless you consider playing his home games in MLB’s best home-run park in 2009 as “lucky” (somehow, the stadium managed to suppress run scoring in spite of the taters, which is borderline unbelievable). His BABIP was .326, right in line with his .324 career line. His FB% was 33%, just like in 2008, and up from earlier in his career. His LD% was 19.9%, compared to 19.3% for his career. His FB/HR% was a career-best 12.6%, but that’s hardly surprising given the homerific tendencies of the new park, his physical maturation, and the fact that the rate was nearly that high in 2006 as well (12.3%). In fact, his awful 7.6% HR/FB% in 2008 appears to be the outlier on his career ledger. All-in-all, the biggest chance in Cano’s stat line was a slight improvement in his already-great contact percentage (up to 90% now!)

We do need to note something Yankees fans are well aware of, and that’s the anti-Clutch tendencies of Mr. Cano. Due to his excellent overall stats, compared with his terrible clutch performance in 2009, he managed to earn a clutch score of -23.5 in 2009. While there have been numerous studies showing that “clutch ability” for a population is essentially no more significant than statistical “noise”, there are obviously a few players for whom it’s a factor. And Cano had averaged worse than -6 “Clutch” runs per season before 2009, so while the magnitude of the 2009 choke was a surprise, the poor performance certainly was not.

Anyway, onward to 2010, and Cano’s age-27 season… If he wasn’t expected to decline in the clutch, Cano could be in line for 120+ RBI batting behind the Yankees’ core, who all get on base a lot. He doesn’t walk much, while averaging over 650 PA the past three seasons. He hits lefties about as well as righties, and his batting average and power gains in 2009 seem completely legit. It’s always risky to predict a .320 batting average, since it requires so many things to go right, including suppport for his .324 career BABIP. But Cano is a great bet to bat .300+ with a .500 slugging and 20+ HR. With his low walk totals and great contact percentage, Cano is one of the safest sources of batting average in the league.

Alex Rodriguez | New York | 3B
2009 Final Stats: .286/.402/.532

Game #162 for the Yankees encapsulated the season in a nutshell. The Yankees won easily, A-Rod was spectacular, but didn’t play the entire game. Virtually willing himself to the 30/100 threshhold with 2 homers and 7 RBI to end with exactly 30/100, A-Rod has now topped those marks in all but one of his 14 full seasons, and he was just 33 in 2009. Now that he has a ring, and got some timely postseason hits as a Yankee, it has to be assumed that he’s now a “lifer”, as the Bronx Bombers have always been loyal to “their own”, one they prove themselves in NY. And that’s great news for fantasy owners.

There may not be anything original to write about A-Rod anymore, and – assuming a reasonably moderate view is taken on his defensive skills – he seems clearly poised to go down in history as one of the 5 best players of all time. And – largely due to his agent’s ability to negotiate contracts – he’ll almost certainly be among the least-appreciated. The days of being a rangy shortstop with a .600 slugging are gone, and the playing time and batting average can be expected to deteriorate with the years, but as infield-mate Derek Jeter showed this year, it should never be surprising for an all-time great player to have an MVP-type season, even into his late 30′s.

It’s hard to predict how much of A-Rod’s fielding ability will return as his hip heals further, but his batting didn’t take long to rebound. He struggled through his first week back, hitting .136, with a sub-.300 slugging, before hammering 6 HR and a double in his next 8 games to remind people that he’d led the league in slugging each of the previous 2 years. Expect him to get about 10 days of rest in 2010, more if there are any lingering effects from the hip, and expect him to be in the MVP discussion at the end of the year (unless Mauer runs away and hides again). That should mean 40/120 with 100+ runs for fantasy purposes.

Johnny Damon | New York | OF
2009 Final Stats: .282/.365/.489

Who is Johnny Damon? No, we aren’t still wondering where the “Idiot” who helped break Boston’s “Curse” has gone, that’s almost ancient history now. And his “Royal upbringing” or “rental” season leading the A’s to the playoffs may as well have been in a different era. But Damon authored the second-most-surprising season by a 35-year-old Yankee in 2009, posting easily his best career ISO, and topping his career mark, .207 to .150. At age 33 (2007), he was down to a .270/.351/.396 batting line, making his value suspect, as a should-be-corner outfielder with a popgun arm. But he showed he could be a “for-real” corner outfielder in 2008, crushing all his career rate stats at .303/.375/.461. And he added even more power in 2009.

Damon could have been the poster boy for New Yankee Stadium, hammering 17 of his 24 homers at home, and not getting any of his 3 triples there (the park cut down triples a lot, showing a “triples factor” of .500, per ESPN.com’s park factor report). And part of his changing stats were due to his new role as a #2 hitter behind Jeter. With Jeter being held on first base so frequently, one would have anticipated more doubles from the lefty-swinging Damon, but the reduced SB total (12, after topping 25 3 straight seasons), and improved power both are consistent with no longer leading off. That Damon was able to draw 71 walks batting in front of Teixeira and A-Rod is testament to his great batting eye and ability to foul off pitches, but getting on base in front of MVP-candidate hitters is hardly new for Damon.

For the most part, projection systems take the following steps:
1.“Neutralize” stats for a player from each season, removing “luck” factors and park effect and opponent strength.
2.Take a weighted average of the previous few seasons, usually something like 3-2-1.
3.Apply an “aging algorithm” of some sort, often dependent upon the type of player. This is combined with #2 in a variety of ways, depending on the system. My MLP system, for example, applies the “aging algorithm” to each season before weighting and combining, but the goal of MLP is to project prospects into their “prime seasons”, though someday I’ll have to adapt it to MLB players as well.
4.Un-neutralize the projection for the environment the player will play in, including things such as park factor and opponent strength.

In any system that follows this basic projection methodology, Damon’s age is going to be struggling with his recent tendency for improvement, and the unknown park and league and team factors will provide further randomizing factors. We think that either the Yankees or an NL team would provide fantasy value around 90% of Damon’s 2009 total, with the boost in offense from the NL being mitigated by losing his teammates in New York, who are a great supply of runs and RBI. So, if he stays in NY, expect him to approach .280/.360 for average/OBP, and exceed .450 slugging. Don’t expect any rebound in speed if he’s not leading off.

Mariano Rivera | New York | RP
2009 Final Stats: 9.8 K/9, 6.0 K/BB, 1.76 ERA

FIVE MORE YEARS?! Does he figure he’ll just be bored with collecting rings at that point, or is he actually human? Anyway, that should be good for another 10-15 blown saves… maybe. And, what with his WHIP going up 36% (.905 from .665 in 2008) and his blown saves doubling (2 from 1 in 2008), and his K:BB ratio dropping to less than HALF (6.00 from 12.83), perhaps the old guy is losing it?

NOT!

Aging curves for pitchers are little more than a suggestion these days, with guys pitching at age 40 like they did when they were 25. But Rivera’s lost a little zip off his cutter, as it averaged 91.3 in 2009, down from over 93 in recent years. He’s still generating a lot of swings outside the zone (over 36%), and that’s the key for him. So, maybe the “suggestion” of an aging curve should be considered, but he has a long way to go down before he’d fall out of the elite closers in baseball, so he really may be able to keep closing for New York until he bores of it. We’re not going all the way out on that limb, but expect 2010 to look a lot like 2009, with a slight degradation. We’d call it “regression”, but we’re not fully sure that human norms apply in this case.

CC Sabathia | New York | SP
2009 Final Stats: 7.7 K/9, 2.9 K/BB, 3.37 ERA

Just like Roy Oswalt after he pitched 525 innings over two seasons we can see the possible impact of fatigue on CC Sabathia. CC has now racked up an amazing 779.1 IP over the past three seasons (almost 260 IP/yr). Of course, unlike Oswalt, CC moved to a park which inflated his home run totals, and into the league’s toughest division (though missing the Yankees as opponents helps a lot). And his “decline” certainly didn’t show up in the postseason, where he pitched scintillating ball against his AL opponents before holding his own against the powerful Phillies lineup. So, was there really any fatigue factor at all?

One thing is certain – even if 2009 was “fatigue impacted”, it was still plenty good. He led the league in wins, as one would expect from an effective high-inning pitcher on a team with a great offense. And he was 3rd in win%, so it wasn’t just about staying in the game. He was 4th in ERA and WHIP and IP. He was 3rd in hits/9 allowed, and 9th in K/9 (7th in K’s).

But there really is reason to be concerned here, despite his seeming invincibility. With the K:BB dropping from 5.7 in 2007 to 4.3 in 2008 to 2.9 in 2009, his xFIP has gone up from 3.63 (in 2007) to 3.94. His BABIP and HR/FB% were both in the “lucky” range in 2009 (.284 BABIP, 7.8% HR/FB). To his credit, though, most of his metrics picked up in the 2nd half, as he went 11-2, 2.74, with 9 K/9, so perhaps it was just acclimation to a new team. Sabathia’s usage patter will be interesting to monitor. He’s no longer a “young arm”, but pitchers in this era aren’t acclimated to going as many innings as he has been the past few years. Perhaps now that he is, there won’t be any ill effects, and Girardi is known for pushing his starters, so don’t expect much coddling to keep him “fresh” for the playoffs.

Just a reminder about GP10:

In December, Acta Sports will publish the 2010 GRAPHICAL PLAYER. Besides covering a pair of teams apiece, Rob and I are Associate Editors of this edition. If you enjoy Waiver Wire—if you want the edge that you get here at THT Fantasy—then the 2010 GRAPHICAL PLAYER is your book. It’ll be like going into your draft with Rob and me looking over your shoulder. (THTF’s minor-league maven Matt Hagen is also a contributor.)

Next week, we’ll begin incorporating GP profiles into our Waiver Wire columns. Until then, here is a 16-page preview of the book. You can order the book from Acta Sports here.

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