2011 Overachievers: Hitters

The 2011 season is in the books, and what the final results were mean little in terms of projecting for the 2012 season. What’s more important is determining how a player reached their final stat line, and whether or not their production lines up with the components. A few players, both hitters and pitchers, stand out as being aided by some good fortune in one way or another. These players should count their blessings, and be especially thankful this Thanksgiving for their 2011 success.

*Position eligibility determined by Yahoo! Default settings: 10 games played, or 5 starts

Michael Young- 1B/2B/3B- Texas Rangers: 88 Runs, 11 HRs, 106 RBIs, 6 SBs, .338/.380/.474

Young had an excellent season, so much so Texas Rangers beat writer Evan Grant thought it appropriate to place him atop his American League MVP ballot (to much criticism). Fantasy owners were delighted by his positional versatility, something he’ll retain next year, and his strong contributions in RBIs and batting average.

What shouldn’t be lost on gamers was a total collapse in power production. After consecutive years of exceeding the 20 home run plateau, Young barely cracked double digits. In addition to his home run power drying up, his isolated power (ISO) dropped for the second year in a row. At 35 years old, expecting a rebound may be optimistic. Young traded flyballs for line drives this season, which is a good trade off for average, but bad for home run totals. After two years of besting a 10 percent home run-per-flyball rate (HR/FB) in 2009 and 2010 (14.9 percent in 2009, 11.2 percent in 2010), his rate fell to 7.4 percent, which is right in line with his 2006-2008 rates. In fact, Young sure looked a heck of a lot like the player he was during that 2006-2008 time frame, minus some stolen bases, but plus some average thanks to making more contact.

Buying into a player for average and RBI totals is a risky proposition, and that’s what those drafting Young in 2012 will be doing. His .367 BABIP isn’t terribly alarming since he ripped line drives at a 26.2 percent clip, and has a track record of high BABIPs. The problem lies in maintaining such a high line drive rate. Beyond that, run and RBI totals are lineup slot and team dependent, and Young’s season-to-season volatility in both categories speaks volumes to that. In all likelihood, Young’s average draft position and auction value will be too rich for my blood.

Melky Cabrera- OF- San Francisco Giants: 102 Runs, 18 HRs, 87 RBIs, 20 SBs, .305/.339/.470

The Melkman delivered for the Royals in 2011, and was the gift that kept on giving in the offseason as they used him to acquire southpaw Jonathan Sanchez from the Giants. This season was Cabrera’s best in fantasy baseball across the board. At first blush, it looks like a player that played most of the season at the age of 26 broke out. Upon further review, it looks an awful lot like a perfect storm of good luck and opportunity.

His 706 plate appearances were 94 more than his previous high that came in 2007 as a Yankee. All of his counting stats benefited from added playing time. Most are likely to regress even if he receives the same amount of playing time with the Giants in 2012. Cabrera is a .275 career hitter, but he hit .305 in 2011. His .333 BABIP surely helped him reach his new high water mark, but the high BABIP isn’t supported by his batted ball data, which mirrors his previous years. In spite of his improved batting average, his .339 OBP wasn’t much better than his .331 career rate. It seems as if Cabrera forgot how to walk, something he’ll need to remember how to do if he wants to offset any batting average regression.

The category I expect Cabrera to take the greatest step back in is stolen bases. His 20 stolen bases were seven more than he’d ever had in any previous year, and it took him 30 attempts to reach his new high. Further hurting Cabrera’s cause in stealing bases is his change in managers. This year, Royals manager Ned Yost ranked near the top of the manager heap in terms of sending base runners (211 stolen base attempts), and Giants manager Bruce Bochy ranked near the bottom (136 stolen base attempts). Part of that may have been due to the players on each squad, but that’s much too large a gap to ignore.

The 5×5 stat Cabrera has the highest probability of matching is home runs. For all intents and purposes, he’s making a lateral ballpark move in changing home venues from Kauffman Stadium to AT&T Park. Both ballparks significantly suppress home run production, but at 27 years old, he’s physically mature enough that his 9.8 percent HR/FB rate in 2011 doesn’t stand out as lucky. However, he hits too many worm burners to project more than mid-to-upper teen home run production in 2012. Overall, Cabrera’s 2011 value came in the form of being a jack of all trades, master of none. Even a slight slip in any category threatens to relegate him to fifth outfield duties in large mixed leagues, or AL-only league roster consideration.

Hunter Pence- OF- Philadelphia Phillies: 84 Runs, 22 HRs, 97 RBIs, 8 SBs, .314/.370/.502

Pence split his season between Houston and Philadelphia, leaving the only organization he’d ever known via trade. His play got a shot in the arm after joining a playoff race with the Phillies. He matched his home run output as an Astro, 11 home runs, in 196 fewer plate appearances with the Phillies. An argument could be that Pence’s stock should be up going into the 2012 season given how well he played after becoming a Philly, but I’m inclined to believe 236 plate appearances is too small a sample to over react to.

This season was not much different than any of his others, the biggest difference was a BABIP inflated batting average. His home run totals are like clock work. He hit 25 home runs in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and hit 22 this season. His HR/FB rate has never deviated from his career rate by even so much as one percent. If ever there were a safe projection, it would be to say Pence will hit around 25 home runs give or take a few in 2012.

What’s less obvious is how reliable projecting a .285 batting average, give or take 10 points, should be.  His contact rates, and batted ball data are rather static year-to-year. In other words, Pence is what he is. He is a guy who makes contact between 76-80 percent of the time, pounds the ball into the ground a hair over half the time, and doesn’t sell out for home runs by taking to the air (flyball rates range within roughly two percent of his 32.3 percent career rate). He did hit more line drives this year, but not so many more that his BABIP should have been over 50 points higher than each of his last three season totals.

The most troubling stat to pluck from this season is his eight stolen bases. Pence had never failed to reach double digits in steals, but was never efficient in getting there. Thus, the breaks were finally put on him. Even more troubling than his season total is that he only attempted to steal two bases, succeeding once, with the Phillies. Reset stolen base expectations, 10 of them a year look more like a ceiling than a certainty going forward.

Reliability has a lot of value in fantasy baseball. Outside of his rookie season where he was called up in late April, he has never played in fewer than the 154 games he played in this year. A mid-20 home run season with a .285 average, 175-185 runs plus RBIs, and 6-10 stolen bases would make Pence a solid third outfielder. Because he’s a name brand, and he’s coming off a good season, I expect him to be drafted as a second outfielder. That cost would make him a poor draft day value, so if someone is willing to pay it in your league, let them, and move on.