Fantasy Baseball: Six Hitters With Hidden Value

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Advertising has abused the word value for so long that it has become something we ignore when we see it. Value used to mean you were getting something more for your hard-earned buck, but ever since the Madison Avenue crowd made it their siren call to draw your attention to whatever it was they were pitching that day, we’ve become numbed to the word. We see it on every store window, read it in every Sunday newspaper flier and get pounded with it on television and radio thousands of times every year. Real value has become lost in an ocean of buzzwords designed to make us dig deep into our pockets and spend our money. In reality, value is hard to find.

In Fantasy Baseball, value…..real value, is there for all to see. However, if you only look at the statistics that matter in Fantasy Baseball – home runs, runs batted in, runs scored, stolen bases and batting average – you will not find the values you seek. You have to look deeper into the numbers, to the metrics that define a player’s skills. Improvements in skill metrics are the true predictors of value when it comes to baseball players and the Fantasy game. There are no secrets here; it’s right there in plain sight if you know where to look, and that’s where we’re heading right now – in search of the hitting values to be had on draft day in your Fantasy league.

There’s no secret sauce to this; in some cases it’s improved walk (increasing BB%) and strikeout percentages (decreasing K%) or a boost in isolated power (ISO), in others, a second half statistical surge or improvements in various strike zone recognition and swing metrics. Improvement in any combination of these skill metrics observed within the context of a player’s statistical history can predict a potential future value. Let’s be clear on this – hitter value in the context of Fantasy Baseball means that a player will outperform their draft position. In this case, we’re looking for hitters who could potentially outperform their draft position by a significant amount; in some cases, we’re talking about potential first round value. Now that you know what we’re looking for and where we’re looking for it, let’s see which hitters you should consider value picks for the 2013 Fantasy Baseball season.

Shin-Soo Choo (OF, CIN) – The 2009 and 2010 seasons put Choo on the map as a Fantasy force, as he posted a pair of 20/20 seasons with a .300 batting average, On Base Percentages of .394 and .401 respectively along with excellent counting stats. In short, he was one of the most valuable, yet underrated outfielders in the Fantasy game. Then an injury-plagued 2011 disappointed everyone expecting another 20/20 season or perhaps better, especially given Choo’s double-digit walk rates. The good news is that his skills remained intact during his partial comeback season in 2012, with exception of a slight dip in his fly ball rate (27.1-percent FB%) below his 32.3-percent career mark and a corresponding increase in groundball rate (49.7-percent GB%) up from a 45.7-percent career mark. The decrease in fly balls limited his home run output to just 16 round-trippers, but his speed was as good as ever, with 21 stolen bases at roughly the same success rate as 2010. Now that he’ll be plying his craft in the HR-friendly confines of the Great American Ballpark, we should see an increase in homers this season. Since the Reds have indicated that Choo is penciled in to be their leadoff hitter, we should also see a nice bump in steals and he should have a decent shot at 100-plus runs scored. That kind of production will enable him to outperform his current ADP of #78 overall (according to NFBC ADP data) with a good shot at vaulting him into the Top-15 outfielders this season.

Alex Gordon (OF, KC) – Gordon was a very heavily hyped prospect and rookie who disappointed many with his slow development after a relatively strong debut in 2007. In fact, it wasn’t until 2011 that Gordon finally silenced his critics and put up the kind of numbers that were expected of him: .303/.376/.502 with 23 HRs, 87 RBIs, 101 Runs and 17 stolen bases. Unfortunately, he took a step back in 2012, with less power (14 HRs) and fewer steals (10 SBs), but largely the same skill metrics. He hit significantly fewer fly balls, as his FB% dropped nearly six percentage points. Fortunately, the loss in fly balls resulted in more line drives (LD% rose to 25%, a career high) and just a few extra ground balls (GB% rose just 3.2 percentage points over 2011 to 42.3%). He had a rather unlucky fly ball to home run rate (HR/FB%) of 8.5-percent, which was well below the 12.5-percent he posted in 2011. Gordon had a terrific second half last season compared to his first half numbers. Nine of his 14 HRs came during the second half, his Isolated Power (ISO) rose 45 points to .184, and his HR/FB rate skied from 5.7-percent to a much more normal 11.7-percent. Once a player displays a skill, they own it for their career and can display it again at any time. So it is reasonable to think that Gordon can at least approach, if not exceed his 2011 production again, especially if he’s moved down into one of the more traditional power slots in the lineup from last season’s top of the order slot. Gordon’s ADP is currently at #88 overall, but his skill set indicates he is capable of putting up at least a 20/20 season with a batting average north of .300. Gordon is 29 years old and still in his prime years as a major leaguer, so it’s not unreasonable to think he has another gear, especially given how late he bloomed as a hitter. I think the potential is there for him to become a Top-10 outfielder and potentially return second round value this season.

David Murphy (OF, TEX) – I’ve been on the David Murphy bandwagon since way back in his days as a prospect in the Red Sox system. All he’s done over the last five seasons is improve almost every year and post double-digit HRs and steals despite being platooned or having to rely on other player’s injuries to get into the lineup. Fortunately for Murphy, he plays on a team that featured Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Craig Gentry – three of the most injury-prone players in the game. Still, it wasn’t until 2012 that Murphy finally received more than 500 plate appearances, and even then it was only 512. He responded with a career-best offensive season, and he did it with an increased walk rate (10.6-percent), improved ISO to .175 and his best OBP (.380) ever with the Rangers. Now that Hamilton is gone, the Rangers will likely make Murphy their everyday left fielder, giving him his first legitimate shot at 600-plus PA. He’ll have to do better at hitting left-handed pitching, especially since he’s had so little experience against them over the last five seasons (585 PA, .266 BA). However, even if he does struggle against lefties, he’ll more than make up for any shortcomings with his work against righties, against whom he has always hit well. At the very least, a 20/20 season is possible along with a batting average right around his career .285 mark. That certainly makes it likely that he outperforms his ridiculous ADP of #253.

Nolan Reimold (OF/DH, BAL) – Reimold has appeared on my sleeper list for the past three seasons after a promising 2009 in which he socked 15 HRs while putting up a .279/.365/.466 line in 411 PA. Unfortunately, he hasn’t come close to that kind of production in any season since due to a lack of playing time or injury. Last season, he managed just 16 games before succumbing to neck pain, which resulted in the need for spinal fusion surgery (similar to what Peyton Manning had). Reimold boasts a pretty strong skill set featuring elite walk rates (9.7 BB%), solid power (.194 ISO) and very good strike zone skills. He enters 2013 as a platoon candidate in left field with Nate McLouth, nobody’s idea of competition for Reimold. If he can pick up anywhere near where he left off last season, Reimold will force the Orioles to find extra at bats for him, perhaps in the DH slot currently filled by Wilson Betemit, nobody’s idea of competition for anyone. If he can get hot, stay hot and stay healthy, Reimold is capable of double-digit HRs and solid counting stats along with a batting average of .275 or better given his skill set. His #345 ADP slot means he’s largely going undrafted in mixed leagues of less than 14-16 teams, so he is someone you can grab at the end of your draft and stash away. What can possibly go wrong with taking a risk on a player who could end up being your Fantasy team’s best option as a fourth or fifth outfielder or better?

Kendrys Morales (1B/DH, SEA) – I have to admit that including Morales on this list is more a function of hunch than anything else. In truth, his skill metrics regressed terribly across the board in 2012. He struck out more often, walked less often, chased pitches out of the zone at the highest rate of his career, and he swung and missed more often than ever before. Add to that his move to Safeco Field, one of the worst parks for hitters in all of baseball and you must be thinking that I am out of my mind. Perhaps I am, but Morales had a great second half last season. In fact, he looked a bit like the Morales who once raked his way to a .263 ISO in his best season – 2009. After a decent first half, in which he batted .289 with eight HRs and a mere .142 ISO, Morales turned it on in the second half, bashing 14 homers and notching a .248 ISO. He walked a bit more while keeping his strikeout rate flat, and the primary reason his batting average dropped to .256 was due to an unlucky BABIP of .281, well below his career .305 mark. Remember, Morales missed most of 2010 and all of 2011, so it would have been miraculous to see him return with all of his skills intact after such a long layoff. Now that he has another full year of strength building and skill practice behind him, Morales should be ready to take off and soar again in 2013. It’s also worth noting that the fences have been moved in and lowered at Safeco, which should only help Morales in the HR department. I’m betting he easily outproduces his #132 ADP, with the potential to return to Top-40 player production.

Michael Cuddyer (OF, COL) – By most accounts, Cuddyer’s injury-riddled first season in Colorado was a dud. Indeed, an oblique injury all but wiped out his second half, and he looked terrible in the 19 second half games he did play. However, Cuddyer had a pretty solid first half, batting .264 (still above league average) with 12 HRs, 50 RBI, 44 Runs and 8 SBs in 81 games. Project that over a full season and Cuddyer would have had one of his best ever. His .216 ISO over the first half would have been among his best seasons, and he did end up with a .229 ISO for the season despite his poor second half. He is entering the 2013 season at age 34, so we could be seeing the beginning of his decline phase. But if there is one ballpark where the aging curve can be offset by park factors, it’s Colorado’s Coors Field; so don’t count Cuddyer out just yet. A fully healthy season could easily see him post 25 HRs, 100 RBI’s 80 Runs scored and double-digit steals (though they are the least likely of the bunch), which will absolutely beat Cuddyer’s #166 ADP by a very profitable margin.

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