Is there anything more warped right now than the first baseman player rater? It’s nice to see Pujols back on top, but with all the talk of his decline, who knows if it’s for real. (I’ll take a stab at it in a second.) Cuban wunderkind Jose Abreu and his alleged “slider-speed bat” are punishing the league right now. Is Adrian Gonzalez back? Justin Morneau and Adam LaRoche, too? Who are you, Chris Colabello, and what have you done with Chris Davis and Edwin Encarnacion?
Albert Pujols, LAA | #1 1B
I’m honestly puzzled by Pujols’ stats viewed through a sabermetric lens. He is striking out in only 7.9 percent of plate appearances, down from 12.4 percent last year and second-best of his career (good thing). He is walking in only 7.9 percent of plate appearances as well, good for second-worst of his career (bad thing). He’s sporting a .240 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) (good thing, in terms of his future batting average). However, he’s hitting more ground balls than fly balls for the first time in his career, and by a wide margin (bad thing). More than a quarter of his fly balls are leaving the park, too, when his career rate is around 15 percent (bad thing, but not as bad as it sounds).
So what I’m expecting from here on out is some weird combination of: he’s not going to get as lucky on fly balls, but perhaps he will start hitting more fly balls, which will counteract some of the regression he may experience in the power department. His batting average will rise with his BABIP but fall as he hits fewer home runs, two effects that also may counteract each other.
If I’m a Pujols owner, I would watch his strikeout and fly ball rates religiously. As the season wears on, I think they will be the difference between a .265/30/100 Pujols and a .290/40/120 Pujols.
Jose Abreu, CHW | #2 1B
Abreu is about as WYSIWYG as it will get, save maybe his home run total. His batting average isn’t so high that you’ll expect him to ever hit .280, let alone .300. His ratio of home runs to fly balls (HR/FB) is identical to Pujols’ — 25.7 percent, or nine homers in 35 fly balls — but it would be wise to expect something closer to 15 percent to hedge your bets. Still, that makes him a good bet for somewhere in the 32- to 36-homer range, given that he doesn’t get worse or tire out as the season progresses. Will he still be the 2nd-best first baseman come October? It’s hard to say; Paul Goldschmidt is doing his best impersonation of Paul Goldschmidt, and it’s only a matter of time before Miguel Cabrera, Encarnacion and Davis find their respective grooves (although the latter-most name just hit the DL). For rest-of-season production, I would still take Goldschmidt, Cabrera, Encarnacion, Pujols and Votto over Abreu at this point. However, he has a legitimate chance of being a top-3 first baseman for the season.
Adrian Gonzalez, LAD | #3 1B
Here’s your first sell-high candidate. He’s striking out at a career-worst rate, and his HR/FB rate is a career best — almost double his 2013 rate, in fact. Given his recent history, he can’t feasibly maintain any of this. His strikeout rate could lead to his first batting average below .293 since since 2009, and the home runs will eventually slow to a crawl. It would be nice to see him crack 25 home runs again, but delusions of 30 home runs are exactly that: delusions. I’ll give him 24 home runs, 26 if he’s fortunate. Either way, he’s not hitting 40 and batting .300 like his pace indicates, so if you can swindle another owner, do it!
Justin Morneau, COL | #6 1B
In his defense, his strikeouts are way down, but so are his walks. Frankly, he’s not going to hit .349 (although, after Michael Cuddyer‘s showing last year, maybe Colorado has a lucky charm stored in it somewhere), but with his much more contact-oriented approach, he could hit for a higher batting average than he has in recent years. Moreover, his 12.8-percent HR/FB, his best since 2009, could actually be sustained considering he gets to call hitters’ haven Coors Field his home park. Still, I can’t imagine he will end up in the top 10 by season’s end, as when the batting average starts to tank, so will the RBI and everything else.
Brandon Belt, SF | #7 1B
I wrote about selling high on Belt. Your window of opportunity may have closed — which is not to say that he’s going to be a bad player, but his value will never be as high as it was two weeks ago. He has hit only two home runs with four RBI in the last 14 days which striking out in almost a quarter of plate appearances. Belt’s a line drive hitter, so his above-average BABIP should keep his batting average from ever becoming a liability. But career-worst strikeout, walk and fly-ball rates coupled with an unsustainable 20.6-percent HR/FB rate make Belt’s stock in continual decline. I question now if he can even hit 20 home runs given the peripheral data. He needs to tighten up his zone and hit more balls in the air to realize his true potential, or he will drop to the back-end of the top-15 first basemen or disappear from it completely.
Chris Colabello, MIN | #8 1B
His RBI pace is near impossible. So is his batting average: a non-power hitter who strikes out in more than 25 percent of plate appearances (not to mention a .410 BABIP) is a recipe for a sub-.250 batting average. The home runs, however, could be real, and he could hit 20 home runs with 80 RBI at this point. But the chances of that happening will become more slim as the batting average plummets. Still, he’s worth your extra corner-infield (MI) or utility slot until further notice. Just be aware of the regression when it starts so you can limit the damage he does to your batting average. However, if he’s your main first baseman, I would sell high, and quickly, to get a reliable (if underperforming) first baseman in return. There’s probably no better time to simultaneously sell high and buy low given how wild first base has been this year.
Adam LaRoche, WAS | #9 1B
It’s the batting average, folks. It’s coming down. Again, in his defense, it appears he has made adjustments at the plate for the better this year. But all his value stems from his high batting average relative to his career. Sell high, ride the hot hand, whatever. But I don’t think is a repeat of 2012 by any means.
Chris Davis, BAL | #15 1B
Buy low, buy low, buy low! He’s actually striking out and walking at career-best rates. He’s even hitting a normal number of fly balls relative to recent years. He’s just getting unlucky on said fly balls, to the tune of a 6.1-percent HR/FB (compared to 22.6 percent in 2013 and 16.9 percent in 2012). Even his batting average is right where it should be. It’s only the home runs that are out of sorts. You’re a fool to think he’ll hit 50-plus home runs again, but if you buy low now, you could be the beneficiary of a big burst of them come late-May or June.
Miguel Cabrera, DET | #26 1B
Patience, young Padawan. The Magic 8-Ball says “all signs point to yes.” He’s already starting to get hot, and he’s going to get hot in a big way. One problem: he hasn’t struck out this much since his days with the Florida Marlins, and he’s not walking as much. Boy, was he ever in a slump to begin the season, though. If that has anything to do with the abnormalities in his plate discipline, then you can expect them to be corrected over the next five months. As a Cabrera owner in one of my leagues, I’m still a bit nervous, but I’m also excited for a thrilling five months.
Matt Adams, STL | #27 1B
The opposite of Pujols: lucky batting average, unlucky home runs and RBI. He’s hitting a ton of fly balls and line drives, and he’s striking out a whopping 6-percent less than last year. Me gusta. Again, patience is a virtue.
Edwin Encarnacion, TOR | #28 1B
If Cabrera was mired in a slump, then Encarnacion is in a super slump. Like Adams, given his batted ball profile, the home runs will come in due time. The most alarming statistic is the strikeouts, coming 1-in-4 plate appearances compared to 1-in-10 last year. I drooled over Encarnacion’s plate discipline last year, and how he had, by far, the highest ISO of any player to walk more than he struck out. He was, and still is, a very special hitter because of this. But if he’s devolved into a stereotypical free-swinging power hitter, he may hit close to 30 home runs than 40, and at the expense of his batting average, too. I still hold out hope — it’s hard to believe a player of his caliber can go sour overnight. It would make sense, though, if his wrist problem from the end of last year is still bothering him. That would be especially bad news, news I’d like to hear sooner rather than later.
All right. It’s April. It’s horrifying, unless you’re doing well, and then it’s not. But, full disclosure, I’m not. Chicago White Sox staff ace Chris Sale just hit the 15-day disabled list yesterday, joining the Philadelphia Phillies’ Cole Hamels, Seattle Mariners’ James Paxton, Tampa Bay Rays’ Alex Cobb, Cincinnati Reds’ Mat Latos, New York Yankees’ David Robertson and the Detroit Tigers’ Doug Fister on my teams’ DLs. It’s killing me, really. It’s incredibly painful.
What I’m saying is I’ve spent more time than I’d care to admit frolicking in free agency, trying to figure out which early-season studs are legit or not. I’ve been pondering various buy-low situations as well. So I jumped into a pool of peripherals and PITCHf/x data to look for answers.
The list below is not remotely exhaustive. It’s mostly players I am watching or already using as replacements for my teams. Here they are, in no particular order.
Jake Peavy, BOS | 0-0, 3.33 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 9.25 K/9
Peavy’s prime came and went about five years ago, so, full disclosure, I don’t know as much about him off the top of my head as I should. But I do know one thing: he doesn’t strike out a batter per inning anymore. In his defense, batters’ contact rate against him is the best it has been since 2009, his last truly good year. So maybe he will strike out a few more batters than last year, but I think it’ll be closer to 2012’s 7.97 K/9, not 2009’s 9.74 K/9. The WHIP is atrocious; the walk rate is through the roof. If there’s a guy in your league who will pay for what will end up being the illusion of ERA and strikeouts, by all means, trade him. He’s owned in 100 percent of leagues but doesn’t deserve to be.
Verdict: Sell high
John Lackey, BOS | 2-2, 5.25 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 8.63 K/9
Another Boston pitcher, another bad start to the season. I like Lackey a lot more, though, for a variety of reasons. One, last year’s renaissance was legitimate. Two, he’s not walking many batters right now, so his unspectacular ratios are more a result of an unlucky batting average on balls in play (.333 BABIP) than incompetence. Three, his swinging strike and contact rates are currently career bests. Again, we’re working with small sample sizes here, and this could easily regress. But considering his velocity is also at a career high, I don’t find it improbable that Lackey actually does better than he did last season. If an owner in your league has already dropped him, put in your waiver claim now.
Verdict: Buy low
Jesse Chavez, OAK | 1-0, 1.38 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.69 K/9
Talk about unexpected. Chavez, who has been relevant about zero times, is making for an intriguing play in all leagues. It’s a given he will regress, especially considering the .242 BABIP, but his improved walk rate could be here to stay, as he is pounding the zone more than he ever has in his career. The strikeouts are somewhat of a mirage, but it looks like he can be a low-WHIP, moderate-strikeout guy, and that’s still valuable.
Verdict: Sell really high, or just ride the hot hand
Nathan Eovaldi, MIA | 1-1, 3.55 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 8.17 K/9
I wouldn’t call Eovaldi a trendy sleeper, but he certainly was a sleeper coming into 2014. It was all about whether he could command his pitchers better — and, like magic, it appears he has, walking only 1.07 batters per nine innings as opposed to 3.39-per-nine last year. The swinging strike and contact rates are concerning, as they are the lowest of his career, so it’s hard to see his strikeout rate going anywhere but down. However, he’s throwing 65 percent of his pitches in the strike zone, highest of all qualified pitchers. So there are two ways to look at this. His control has probably legitimate improved. Unfortunately, even the masterful Cliff Lee only threw 53.3 percent of pitches in the zone last year, and I am hesitant to claim Eovaldi has better control than Lee. This could be a “breakout” year of sorts for Eovaldi, but I’m using that term liberally here. He’s only owned in 20.5 percent of leagues, so this makes him more of a ride-the-hot-hand type, like Mr. Chavez above.
Verdict: Eventually drop, ideally before he does damage to your team
Mark Buehrle, TOR | 4-0, 0.64 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 6.11 K/9
Look, I have had a long-standing man crush on Buehrle, but this is ridiculous. You know better than I that these happy dreams will soon become nightmares, not because Buehrle is awful or anything, but because regression rears its head in occasionally very brutal ways.
Verdict: Sell high
Alfredo Simon, CIN | 0.86 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 5.57 K/9
Something isn’t right here. A 0.81 WHIP and… fewer than six strikeouts per nine innings? As you become more familiar with sabermetrics, you quickly realize certain things don’t mesh. A low WHIP combined with the low strikeout rate is one of those things. I can tell you without looking that his BABIP is impossibly low — and, now looking, I see I’m right: it’s .197. Tristan H. Cockcroft of ESPN is all about Simon, and in his defense, Simon’s PITCHf/x data foreshadows some positive regression coming his way in the strikeout department. But it can only get worse from here for Simon. However, I think he has a bit of a Dan Straily look to him, and that’s certainly serviceable.
Verdict: Sell high, or just ride the hot hand
Yovani Gallardo, MIL | 1.46 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 6.93 K/9
This is a disaster waiting to happen. Like Simon, his strikeout rate is low, but for Gallardo, it is deservedly so: his swinging strike and contact rates are, by far, career worsts. Meanwhile, his ratios are buoyed by a .264 BABIP and 89.8% LOB% (left-on-base percentage), despite his 74.7% career LOB%. The Brewers will fall with him. Sell high, and sell fast.
Verdict: Sell high
Shelby Miller, STL | 3.57 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 8.34 K/9
Miller is the first pitcher on this list in whom owners actually invested a lot. Be patient. The 98.3-percent of owners who didn’t cut bait before his last start were surely rewarded. I imagine he’s leaving his pitches up in the zone, given his increased percentage of pitches thrown in the zone coupled with his home run rate. Speaking of which, he shouldn’t be walking five batters per nine innings when he’s throwing more than 50 percent of his pitches in the zone. He’ll be fine.
Verdict: Buy low
Homer Bailey, CIN | 5.75 ERA, 1.87 WHIP, 11.07 K/9
Two words: .421 BABIP. Yowza. Again, owners invested way too much in this guy. Perfect buy-low opportunity here if you know your fellow owner is impatient.
Verdict: Buy low
Drew Hutchison, TOR | 3.60 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 10.80 K/9
I’ll be honest, I was surprised to see Hutchison’s xFIP stand at 3.43. It seems like he has been much worse — but has he really? The walks are problematic but not unmanageable (see: Matt Moore), and they’ve actually shored up a bit in his last couple of starts. Moreover, he is still striking out batters at an elite rate, and the PITCHf/x data supports his success, albeit probably not with quite as much success as he’s having now. As for the WHIP? A .365 BABIP sure doesn’t help. Hutchison was once a highly-touted prospect. Your window of opportunity to gamble on this live arm may be closing if he can keep his ERA down.
Verdict: Add via free agency, sooner rather than later
San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt will never be more valuable than he is now. Many expected his breakout, and it seems those who invested in the late bloomer will be rewarded handsomely, depending on how much they paid for him or in which round they drafted him. He leads MLB tied for most home runs (5) with Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Mark Trumbo, a free-swinging, powerful fella. Those are important words, because that is exactly what Belt has been so far.
The sample size is very small — 35 plate appearances — but the statistics are telling: He has 10 strikeouts and zero walks. Meanwhile, Belt is batting .343, which is buoyed by a .350 batting average on balls in play (BAbip). Savvy readers will be quick to point out that his 2012 and 2013 BAbips were both .351, so perhaps that’s his baseline. And it’s possible. But that would be his saving grace. If his BAbip fell to a league-average level around .300, we’re looking at Trumbo numbers, or maybe even (Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman) Pedro Alvarez numbers.
It’s realistic to think he will walk a little more and strike out a little less. His fly ball rate is conducive for home runs given his power, but it’s unrealistic to think he will hit a third of all fly balls out of the park. That’s territory reserved for, well, no one. Only a dozen batters hit 15 percent of fly balls as home runs (15% HR/FB), all of them fabled power hitters. Even Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Edwin Encarnacion and Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz notched HR/FB rates of 14.0 percent and 12.6 percent, respectively.
I think projecting a HR/FB rate of 13 percent is fair, and it would afford him 30 to 35 home runs for the season — a tremendous performance, indeed. But the batting average is bound to plummet (not that it took a rocket scientist to know he can’t sustain a .343 batting average), and it’s entirely dependent on his plate discipline and whether or not his BAbip is actually real. Today’s power hitters have pretty polarized BAbips, and it mostly comes down to their plate discipline: Ortiz, Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim outfielder Mike Trout and Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt all struck out in, at most, 20 percent of plate appearances last year, and all of them posted BAbips above .320. Meanwhile, Alvarez, Oakland Athletics third baseman Brandon Moss, New York Yankees outfielder Alfonso Soriano, and Chicago White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn all strike out in at least 25 percent of plate appearances, and only Moss posted a BAbip above .300 (fun fact: it was .301).
It’s possible that Belt is a unique breed of hitter that can strike out a lot and hit for a high batting average on balls in play, and it’s certainly possible he sustains it for the rest of the season. But strikeout-prone power hitters tend to be batting average liabilities — one of the reasons why Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis is, I think, due for some heavy batting average regression.
This has all been a long-winded way of me saying: Belt’s batting average will regress to the mean, but it’s impossible to know whether he’ll end up hitting .295 or .245. Even somewhere in the middle means it’s a long way to fall for Belt.
I would absolutely sell high on Belt, depending on the format. If I’m in a dynasty league, or I can keep him next year at a discount, then I would be inclined to keep him. But if I owned him and had the opportunity to swipe Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce from a panicked owner, I would pull the trigger. Bruce will probably hit more home runs the rest of the way, and his batting average will only trend upward while Belt’s trends downward.
When it comes down to it, I think Belt will hit about .275 and end up with 32 home runs. But I also think the possibility of him pulling a Justin Upton or Domonic Brown circa 2013, during which both players hit 12 home runs in one month and slept the rest of the year, is very real.
Meanwhile, Trumbo has also hit five home runs. This isn’t anything new from him, although the frequency and earliness of the bombs is surely delightful for owners. It’s worth keeping in mind that Trumbo hit no fewer than five home runs and no more than seven in any given month last year. It’s possible he surpasses his monthly high from last year by next week, but it’s also worth noting he hit seven, nine and eight home runs in May through July of 2012, only to go cold in the other three months. Every player has ups and downs, and I would be wary that such a high in April will lead to, say, an equally low August, as he regresses to the mean.
It probably sounds like I’m super down on these guys, but I’m not. I swear! It’s just that smart fantasy owner knows when to sell high and buy low, and even Trumbo can be a sell-high candidate. He will probably also hit 32 home runs, just like Belt, but if you can somehow trade him for a slow-to-start Encarnacion, who has the potential to hit 40 bombs, I would again pull the trigger. That’s at least 10 more home runs you would have otherwise gotten had you kept Trumbo all year, and Encarnacion will hit for a better average in the long run.
Other home run leaders, per ESPN’s MLB home page: Blue Jays outfielders Melky Cabrera and Jose Bautista (both at 4), Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter (3), White Sox outfielder Alejandro De Aza (3), Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun (3), and Colorado Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez (3). Bautista, Braun and Gonzalez are legit. Cabrera is not legit, but that’s not to say he doesn’t have power. I projected him for 14 home runs and 11 stolen bases, but at this point I think he’s well on his way to a 15/15 season supplemented by a .280 batting average at the top of Toronto’s batting order. De Aza and Hunter also have pop, but they are not noteworthy hitters — go ahead and sell high, but they are still valuable commodities otherwise.