Can A.J. Pollock Be A Big Fish?

At the core of every strategic approach to constructing a winning fantasy baseball roster is the goal of acquiring the most statistical value possible. Fishing to acquire undervalued assets who are poised for a breakout campaign is an essential off-season exercise for all dynasty owners. One of the top targets this off-season, Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder A.J. Pollock, isn’t the biggest fish in the fantasy ocean, but he may be one of the most valuable this upcoming season.

Pollock is one of the most underrated players in fantasy baseball right now because he was barely on the field last season due to a freak injury and very few fantasy owners realized how well he was playing. The 26-year old was on the verge of a monster breakout, hitting .316/.366/.554 with six home runs and eight stolen bases in 192 plate appearances, before he was drilled by a Johnny Cueto 92-mph fastball that fractured his right hand in late May. The injury required surgery and he ended up missing 79 games before returning in September.

The Notre Dame product hit only .273/.326/.386 with one home run and six stolen bases in September after missing three months of action, but still finished the 2014 season with solid numbers overall: .302/.353/.498 with seven home runs and 14 stolen bases in 287 plate appearances. Pollock’s 134 wRC+ ranked 35th out of 349 hitters who received 200 plate appearances last season. Heading into 2015, the big question remaining for fantasy owners is: what does a full season of Pollock look like? In short, the projection is very enticing.

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To Catch an Undervalued Thief: Stolen Base Efficiency and Upside

We’re still a few weeks away from the dawn of rankings season and the cold winter winds do whip and howl, quelling once more the flames of baseball and leaving us with nothing more than the occasional Gammons #burn from which to draw warmth until spring rekindles our souls once more. Well maybe the off-season’s not that poetic for you, but there’s really nothing else going on right now, so we might as well get into it a little bit, right?

Last year around this time I wrote a couple pieces outlining some of the little quick and dirty stats I like to peak at as I start to move into off-season list-building mode, and one of my first annual checks in recent years has been for potential breakout speed guys. And as my BP colleague Mike Gianella pointed out in an excellent column on valuation the other day, stolen base volume has been trending pretty emphatically down across the league over the last few years, and the ripple effect of that trend in fantasy baseball value terms has been to significantly increase the potential for speed-only guys to return surplus draft value. Sometimes finding a couple bench guys who steal bases at a high percentage relative to their playing time can be a nice way to set yourself up strategically for a long roto season, and obviously the deeper your league the more this will ring true.

To this end one of my starting points involves taking a look at the PA/SB metric I discussed here. Now, standard disclaimer, this is NOT meant to be an exercise of scientific precision. The goal is not to get to the bottom of this article and triumphantly cheers to unlocking the secret speed sleepers for 2015. Rather, the goal here is to discover a couple guys that we might not otherwise have on our collective radar and track their situations through the winter and into spring training. Most of the names I’ll be able to take away from this exercise are part-time players, so a lot of their value heading into 2015 will be dependent on roster moves that will be made over the next couple of months. I’ve always liked PA/SB as a starting point for evaluating speed guys, though, because there’s a kind of built-in accounting for things like playing time opportunity and organizational philosophy that is valuable to recognize up front. Not all 15 stolen base guys are created equal, and figuring out which ones have a shot at increasing their totals with more playing time or a uniform change is a nice advantage to give yourself.

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Players to Watch For in the NPB-MLB All-Star Series

It’s been a week and a half since Salvador Perez popped out to Pablo Sandoval and brought us into the cold, miserable winter of no baseball. It’s time of year where we have to fill the baseball voids in our minds with stove league talk or other sports like football, basketball, and hockey.

But if you want to, you can still watch live baseball action such as the Arizona Fall League, the Caribbean Winter Leagues, or the recently kicked off Australian Baseball League. And yet another competition will soon be underway in the land of the Far East, as the NPB all-star team takes the field to show the MLB all-stars and the rest of the world their talent in the 5-game series. MLB “all-stars” is a bit of a misnomer, though. You can call some guy with an 81 ERA+ in 34.1 IP an “all-star” if you want to, but I’ll refrain.

As opposed to the ones from the USA, the NPB all-stars don’t fail to live up to their title. Aside from some injury resignations though, they’re the best, top tier players in the NPB. Some of them have MLB upsides, and will earn roster spots within the next few years. In this post, I’ll introduce these future big leaguers.

Starting Pitchers

NPB has already announced their starters in each of the 5 games, as follows:

Game 1: Kenta Maeda, RHP

The 26-year old righty could be a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter in the MLB. He goes by “Maeken,” and features a low 90s fastball, slider, change up, curve, and above average command. In 2014, he  posted the 3rd best ERA (2.60), 2nd best FIP (2.91), best K/BB ratio (3.93) and BB/9 (1.97). Many thought he was going to be posted this winter, but after the Carp got defeated in the postseason for a second straight year, the chances are getting slimmer. We may have to wait another year to see Maeda pitch in the big leagues.

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Maikel Franco: Let’s Try This Again

So last week I talked about finding the next Maikel Franco, a player whose hype has outstripped his value.  Sometimes guys bust, other times they do exactly what a prospect is supposed to do, they make adjustments and improve.  That is what is happening with Maikel Franco right in front us.  There is still a lot of growth to go, which gives us a buying opportunity because his value is still depressed.

2014 Recap:

Lets start with that AAA line:

133 Games 556 PAs 16 HRs 3 SB .257/.299/.428 5.4% BB% 14.6% K % .276 BABIP

However after the AAA All-Star Game he hit .309/.326/551 over 46 Games with 10 HRs.  It wan’t just the triple slash line that improved, here is how his batted ball data changed:

GB% FB% LD% IFFB% BB% K%
April-June 48.6 22.9 15.8 12.7 7.0 15.5
July-August 44.6 25.0 22.3 8.2 3.1 13.3

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Yordano Ventura: Buy or Sell?

Fireballing Royals rookie Yordano Ventura was one of the main reasons Kansas City finished 2nd in their division, earned a Wild Card, won the Wild Card game (although he nearly blew that one), and won two playoff series versus the Angels and Orioles before eventually falling to the Giants in the World Series. Ventura finished the regular season with 14 wins, a 3.20 ERA, a 1.30 WHIP, 159 strikeouts and 69 walks in 183 innings. He added another 25.1 innings of that same 3.20 ERA in the post-season to cap off an excellent rookie year. His owners in dynasty leagues are thrilled not only with his 2014 production but also with his high trade value and the limitless possibilities for the youngster to become even better as he learns his craft and matures into a savvy veteran.

“Ace” Ventura is neither big nor tall, but he can really bring the heat with a fastball that averaged 98.3 mph on the season, which was the fastest of all starting pitchers in baseball this season and maybe ever. He reached 100 mph dozens of times. This is a bit worrisome because pitchers who throw that hard often carry a high risk of injury, especially slightly built pitchers like Ventura. Just how long can a 6’0″ 180 lb pitcher throw the ball that hard? Unfortunately not very long if history has anything to say about it. That makes Ventura a risky bet to own for the long term in dynasty leagues. Continue reading

Riding the Prospect Rankings: Three to Sell

Prospect Ranking season kicked off last week when Baseball America released their Top 10 Red Sox prospects and today when Baseball Prospectus released their Phillies Top 10.  With ranking season dynasty players everywhere now have an objective numbering system to use in their trades.  The key as always is to anticipate and navigate the rankings process to achieve that holy grail of fantasy, the perfect buy low and sell high.  To this point only a handful of team rankings have been released so it is the opportunity to sell stock of a player whose value is falling, but it is also time to stock up on some players who may see their stock soar in the next few months.

A year ago the top player to ride the rankings on was Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco.  He was coming off a year where he hit .320/.356/.569 across hi-A and AA, including 31 home runs.  He seemed like the perfect fantasy player with a high average, big time power, at a relatively weak position, and on a team with a gaping hole in the lineup.  Over the offseason his stock rose as fantasy players shook off the negatives because they related to his on base percentage and defense.  The hype reached an all-time high when Baseball America ranked him the #17 prospect in baseball.  With conventional wisdom saying that he was a better fantasy player than real life player some people believed he was one of the top fantasy prospects in the game and that he would arrive with impact in 2015.  It was the perfect time to move against the grain.  It turns out Franco wasn’t ready and he struggled in AAA as he worked through some of his approach and pitch recognition issues, before having an unspectacular major league debut in September.  The end result is that Franco is not a bad prospect set to fail, but rather the hype came too early and too strong based on ignoring the development still required.

The goal then is to find the next Franco, players whose hype is going to outpace reality.  Some keys we are looking for include red flags for adjustment periods both in the majors or at a new minor league level.  Here are three prospects who are very good prospects, but you may want to sell high this offseason if their hype reaches critical levels.

Michael Taylor – CF – Washington Nationals

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Dallas Keuchel: Can We Trust Him in 2015?

In a year full of surprising breakout pitchers, Dallas Keuchel was perhaps the biggest surprise of all. After all, Keuchel had thrown 239 major league innings prior to 2014 and his results were dismal — 5.20 ERA, 1.55 WHIP and a 9-18 career record. Nobody and I mean nobody predicted the 26 year old’s rapid climb up the charts. In hindsight, perhaps we should have noticed that he wasn’t as bad as he seemed. There were some subtle signs that being an average major league pitcher was within the realm of possibility. He had been quite unlucky in terms of BABIP (.340) and strand rate (68%). His 3.58 xFIP and 3.68 SIERA showed that he was actually pretty decent in 2013 and should have been on the radar of deep league team owners. He nearly doubled his strikeout rate from 2012 to 2013. His groundball rate was climbing. His walk rate was dropping. But even if we had noticed all that we still would not have predicted stardom for the former 7th round pick. His fastball velocity of 89 mph is only average and there was nothing in his southpaw repertoire that screamed future star. Continue reading