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Building a Balanced Team: Third Base & Shortstop

Over the last several weeks, we have identified catchers, first basemen, and second basemen who have the potential to contribute to three or more hitting categories. Today we continue our quest to build a balanced team and turn to the third basemen and shortstops. As a reminder on the methodology behind this series, I began this exercise by gathering data for each position over the past decade (plus a bonus year because why not?) to determine the average production for each hitting category. In order to eliminate outliers resulting from limited sample sizes, I used a 400-plate appearance qualifier for all positions with the exception of catcher, for which I set the threshold at 300 plate appearances. I also wanted to control for lost playing time resulting from unforeseeable injuries, so rather than calculate the average counting stat totals for each category, I calculated the ratio of plate appearances to each counting stat (e.g. 30 plate appearances per home run as opposed to an average of 20 home runs).

After calculating the baseline for each category and year, I tallied the number of players who met three or more category thresholds as a measure of positional scarcity. Finally, I calculated the average for each category and position over the 11-year period to reduce the noise and determine the baselines we will use to identify multi-category contributors in our draft. For those who have the time, I highly recommend creating your own player projections and comparing them against the following baseline calculations, but for this article, I am going to use the Steamer 600 projections provided by Fangraphs. For reference, current NFBC ADP figures for each player are listed in parenthesis.

First up, the third basemen:

Thirdbase 10 year

With the exception of a two year lull from 2013-2014, third base has been the picture of consistency over the 11-year period. Stolen base production is the only category that did not rebound in 2015, as it is still 36% off from the 11-year average. Surprisingly, in an era in which batting average has been on a steady decline, third base has bucked the trend and remained relatively stable. Half of the players in our 11-year pool met the yearly benchmark for batting average, so it should be easier to find contributors to the category at this position. Therefore, emphasis should be placed on acquiring players who can beat the positional average for stolen bases. Overall, third base offers a number of multi-category contributors, and of the positions we have reviewed so far, it is second only to first base in our measure of five-category players.

If we convert the 11-year average ratios back to counting stats based on 600 plate appearances, we can compare the values to the Steamer 600 projections to identify players that meet each of our target thresholds.

Thirdbase

Five-Category Contributors

There is an awful lot to like about Manny Machado’s (8.21) 2015 campaign. After suffering season-ending knee injuries each of the previous two years, his speed numbers recovered nicely. He also showed growth in almost every underlying skill, posting the best isolated power, hard contact, and fly ball percentages of his career, all while cutting his swinging strike rate in half. At 23, there’s plenty of room for additional growth, but even if he maintains this level of production or regresses slightly, he is the only third baseman in the pool who can consistently contribute to all five hitting categories. At a minimum, he’s a top ten dynasty asset, with the potential to challenge Trout (or Harper, depending on your preference) for the top spot. In real estate, you want to buy the worst house in the best neighborhood. Machado is clearly in the neighborhood, but this may be the last year that you can argue he isn’t as valuable as some of the other players on the short list of top dynasty assets. While he may only cost you slightly less than a Trout or Harper, there’s still profit potential, and he represents one of the safest investments in the game.

Four-Category Contributors

The four-category contributor tier is a who’s who of the position, with each player carrying a current ADP within the first 100 picks of the draft, and three of them going in the first round. Josh Donaldson (5.40) exceeded all expectations in 2015 and earned MVP honors in the American League. With the exception of a slight uptick in his hard contact rate (which in turn contributed to the best isolated power of his career), his underlying skills remained steady. The move to the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre seems to have suited him, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to hit in the middle of a formidable lineup. He’s entering his age-30 season, so while 2015 may have been a career year, dynasty league owners can expect him to continue to contribute to at least four hitting categories for the foreseeable future. Those who have followed Nolan Arenado’s (7.81) career were not surprised by his huge power spike last year. His hard contact, pulled ball, and fly ball rates were all well above league average coming into the season. He is not simply a product of Coors Field either, as he actually hit more home runs on the road than he did at home. His line drive rate should continue to bolster his batting average, cementing his status as a four-category contributor. At 24, he is well worth the investment in dynasty leagues.

Kris Bryant (10.73) is another promising young third baseman. In his debut season, he demonstrated all of the skills of a burgeoning slugger, with above average hard contact and fly ball rates. Unfortunately, he also struck out 30% of the time, so there is some significant downside in the batting average category. Even still, he should contribute to at least four hitting categories as long as he continues running. His current ADP indicates that he will likely be valued very similarly to Arenado and Machado in dynasty leagues, but those two carry less risk of regression.

Over the past two seasons, Todd Frazier (43.73) has matched or exceeded the category benchmarks for each of the counting stats. However, he has done most of his damage in the first half, as his homerun, run, RBI, and stolen base outputs have collapsed by roughly 50% after the All-Star break in each of the previous two seasons.  So while all of the disclaimers about arbitrary end points apply, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that the grind of a major league season has taken a toll on his numbers. Those who play in head-to-head leagues will want to account for the huge swings in production. Entering his age-37 season, Adrian Beltre (98.40) will likely be discounted in dynasty leagues relative to his cohorts, but he has the potential to match or slightly exceed the benchmarks for four hitting categories. His batted ball profile no longer supports the huge homerun totals to which we’ve become accustomed, but he can still be counted upon to post positive batting averages while contributing runs and RBI hitting in the middle of the Rangers lineup. He’s an excellent target for contending dynasty league teams.

Three-Category Contributors

The three-category tier is occupied by the two players at the position with arguably the least and greatest risk, respectively. Kyle Seager (71.70) is just about the most consistent player in baseball. Over the past three seasons, his outputs haven’t significantly deviated from his categorical averages for the same period, all of which meet or exceed our benchmarks with the exception of batting average. He’s not going to single-handedly win you any categories, but he’s one of the safest bets to return your investment. Joey Gallo (341.16), on the other hand, offers a wider range of outcomes. If he reduces his strike out rate and makes more consistent contact, he could double the positional average for homeruns while contributing plenty of runs and RBI. If he doesn’t solve his contact problem, he could be a career minor leaguer. At 22, he should get plenty of opportunities to figure it out.

And now, for shortstop:

Shortstop 10 year

As a whole, the shortstop position is a mixed bag. With the exception of a few outliers, home run and RBI production have been remarkably stable over the 11-year period. The remaining categories, on the other hand, have seen declines compared to the 11-year benchmarks, the most significant of which were experienced by runs (10%) and stolen bases (40%). While batting average was eight points lower in 2015 relative to the positional average, it did rebound slightly from its lowest mark over the 11-year period. That, along with some of the recent trends in five-category contributors, offer some hope for the future. While our measures of scarcity indicate that shortstop offers the fewest multi-category contributors on average, the recent emergence of the next wave of talent may be turning the tide.

If we convert the 11-year average ratios back to counting stats based on 600 plate appearances, we can compare the values to the Steamer 600 projections to identify players that meet each of our target thresholds.

Shortstop

Five-Category Contributors

In 2015, Carlos Correa (7.28) transitioned from the top prospect in the minors to the top shortstop in baseball. In only 432 plate appearances, he met or exceeded each of our benchmarks with the exception of runs. It’s unwise to extrapolate what his final line would have looked like based on his performance over 99 games, but assuming health, I think it’s safe to project that he will not detract from any of our hitting categories given a full season of plate appearances. In dynasty leagues, his cost may be prohibitive, but if you’re determined to acquire him, he provides excellent production at a historically scarce position.

Four-Category Contributors

Those of you who read my analysis of Xander Bogaerts’ (59.60) breakout season know that I am skeptical of his power potential. I haven’t seen any evidence pointing to forthcoming growth in his homerun totals. Steamer disagrees, and has projected him to hit 15 this season, which along with his runs, RBI, and batting average, would qualify him for the four-category contributor tier. His batted ball profile should allow him to easily exceed the batting average benchmark for the position, but I see a lot of downside with the counting stats. Based on his current ADP, the market is buying continued growth in 2016, which combined with his youth will likely further inflate his price in dynasty leagues. Buyer beware.

Three-Category Contributors

Troy Tulowitzki (48.96) is on the wrong side of 30 and hasn’t accumulated 600 plate appearances since 2011 due to a variety of injuries. To compound the problem, he wasn’t particularly good last year when he was on the field, posting his worst batting average and isolated power since 2008. Adding to the uncertainty of his performance moving forward, he also revamped his swing this offseason. Short of a complete collapse, he should still easily surpass the home run benchmark, and playing in a loaded Blue Jays lineup should boost his runs and RBI totals. However, we may have already seen the best Tulo has to offer, so you’ll want to discount him in dynasty leagues relative to his current ADP. With a criminal trial and potential suspension looming, uncertainty surrounds Jose Reyes’ (142.12) return to the big league club. At this point, we know for certain that he will miss some time, and a player of his age with an extensive injury history and declining production has limited appeal in dynasty leagues anyway. He’s only worth a roll of the dice if you can get him at a deeply discounted price.

With the offseason departure of Ian Desmond, Trea Turner (279.51) had become a popular sleeper candidate among fantasy pundits. Of course, the Nationals promptly went out and signed Stephen Drew, threatening his playing time this season. If he does get an opportunity to play this year, Steamer projects him to fall just two home runs shy of qualifying for the four-category contributor tier, so he provides a solid building block at a scarce position. He is an excellent target for teams who have a stopgap option in place for this year. Trevor Story (354.20) will likely be called upon to fill in at shortstop in Jose Reyes’ absence. He had a terrific season in 2015, going 20/20 between Double- and Triple-A. His batting average is a question mark, but at this price, the upside far outweighs that risk.

JaCoby Jones (NR) has demonstrated some impressive power and speed skills over his minor league career, and last season he hit 18 homeruns and stole 26 bases across three levels. After he was traded to the Tigers at the deadline last season, he was suspended by Major League Baseball for 50 games for his second positive test of a drug of abuse, so the loss of development time means he is unlikely to make his big league debut until at least 2017. There are questions about whether or not he will be able to stick at shortstop for the long term, but the Tigers have not been afraid to sacrifice defense for a bat in the past. He offers a cheap alternative to the aforementioned players for those dynasty-leaguers who are building for the future.

Third base offers a number of multi-category contributors, and has remained relatively insulated to some of the offensive declines we have seen in other positions over the years. However, the majority of the players that we identified are concentrated in the upper tiers of the position, so there are very few values to be had. Manny Machado’s diverse skill set makes him the only player at the position who could significantly exceed each of the positional benchmarks. If he maintains the gains he made in 2015, he could join the conversation for best player in the game. Third base only produced six stolen bases on average over the 11-year period, so while Nolan Arenado may not contribute to the category, the extent to which he exceeds the positional averages in the remaining categories more than makes up for it. If you believe that Kris Bryant will continue to run as he enters his prime, he can give your team a decided advantage in the stolen base category while providing well above average home run, run, and RBI totals. Kyle Seager isn’t an exciting player relative to his cohorts, but he is a safe investment and should come at a lower cost in dynasty leagues. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Joey Gallo has the potential to set your team apart in the home run category, but he comes with considerable risk. He is a worthwhile investment as long as he is priced accordingly. If we dig a little deeper into the Steamer 600 projections, Maikel Franco missed our four-category contributor tier by five runs and two batting points. He demonstrated an intriguing skill set last season, hitting for power while avoiding the contact issues that typically plague sluggers. He’ll be batting in the middle of the lineup at the age of 23 for the rebuilding Phillies, so his combination of youth and potential to contribute in homeruns, runs, RBI, and batting average give him a great deal of appeal in dynasty leagues.

Shortstop is the scarcest position we have reviewed so far, and some of the players that we identified have serious questions. The good news is that we have an influx of new talent that should begin to reverse the trend at the position. Carlos Correa is the only player in the group that I’m confident will meet the projection. He may cost you an arm and a leg in a dynasty league, but he also provides elite production at an incredibly difficult position to fill. It’s only a matter of time before Trea Turner gets his opportunity, and when he does, he should provide contributions to at least three hitting categories. The uncertainty surrounding his playing time might give dynasty league owners an opportunity to acquire him at a discounted price. For those looking for potential value plays, Trevor Story and JaCoby Jones offer an appealing combination of power and speed without the elite pedigree, which should depress their value in dynasty leagues.

One of the drawbacks of using a projection system to identify multi-category contributors is that players without an extensive track record at the major league level are typically penalized. I think most of us would agree that the skills that Corey Seager and Francisco Lindor demonstrated last season make them excellent candidates to contribute to four or more categories as soon as this season. Seager hit for power and average in a small sample size last season, but his numbers were consistent with his performance over his minor league career. He is slated to be the Dodgers opening day shortstop, and as the team’s top prospect, he’ll get every opportunity to contribute in 2016. Coming up as a prospect, Francisco Lindor’s calling card was his exceptional defense, but he surprised everyone with his offensive performance after he joined the big league club in June. He has provided a useful batting average and stolen base numbers throughout his minor league career, so even if he doesn’t repeat the power output, he should still contribute to at least three of the hitting categories batting at the top of the Indians’ lineup. Neither will come cheap in dynasty leagues, but the cost to acquire them will likely only go up from here.

Next up, we’ll evaluate the positional averages and measures of scarcity for the outfield, and identify some players to target in our quest to build a balanced roster.

The Author

Eric Erhardt

Eric Erhardt

9 Comments

  1. jason williams
    March 1, 2016 at 8:56 pm — Reply

    your an idiot. 2b is much shallower then ss is.

    • March 1, 2016 at 10:38 pm — Reply

      Thank you for sharing your feelings, and be sure to stop back next week when we take a look at outfielders.

    • Jason C
      March 5, 2016 at 7:49 am — Reply

      You’re an idiot for not knowing basic grammar….

  2. Davin
    March 7, 2016 at 9:04 pm — Reply

    clearly the author of the first comment plays in an NL West only fantasy league. Cory Spangenburg at 2b vs Corey Seager at SS? no contest. The ghost of Chase Utley vs mighty Brandon Crawford?

  3. March 21, 2016 at 3:59 am — Reply

    @Eric Erhardt
    Are you still going to continue this series. I have enjoyed it and was looking forward to your perspective on outfielders.

    • March 21, 2016 at 8:54 am — Reply

      Thanks Mark! Absolutely, we’re going to review the outfielder pool and conclude the series on Wednesday afternoon.

      • March 21, 2016 at 9:08 am — Reply

        Glad to hear it. Looking forward to it.

  4. March 25, 2016 at 2:00 pm — Reply

    […] the last several weeks, we have identified catchers, first basemen, second basemen, third basemen, and shortstops who have the potential to contribute to three or more hitting categories. Today we conclude our […]

  5. March 30, 2016 at 2:00 pm — Reply

    […] the last several weeks, we have identified catchers, first basemen, second basemen, third basemen, shortstops, and outfielders who have the potential to contribute to three or more hitting categories. Today, […]

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