Archive for February, 2010

RotoGraphs Panel: Valuing Ichiro

Friend of RotoGraphs Jimbo posed this question in the comments of an earlier article:

How do you weigh a pick like Ichiro that early when there’s still power left to draft…and it’s a scarce resource?

I thought that would make an excellent question for the debut of our newest feature, the RotoGraphs Panel. Here’s how our writers responded:

Marc Hulet: I personally have Ichiro ranked as the 10th overall outfielder (based on 5X5) in mixed leagues and 4th overall in AL-only format. At 36, you have to start worrying about his age and the slip in steals in ’09 (from 43 to 26). With that said, he has nine straight 200 hit seasons, hit .352 last year and has scored 100+ runs in eight of the past nine seasons. I have him nestled at No. 10 between Jayson Werth at nine and Adam Lind at 11.

Power is a scarce resource, but so is reliability; the only pieces missing from his game are power and RBIs and I would rather go hunting on the waiver wire for home runs than steals and/or batting average. I will admit that Ichiro is getting credit in 2010 based on his reputation but I’ll personally keep believing in him until A) He slips for two straight seasons or B) He hits 40 years of age, whichever comes first. I expect his average to drop to between .310-.320 but I am hoping for a return to 100 runs scored and 30+ steals. Call me optimistic.

Zach Sanders: Ichiro has been a top-50 fantasy player since his move to the Major Leagues. I remember him going in the second round in years past, due to his awesome steal and hit totals. Now that he is older and the steals aren’t as bountiful, he still has great value. Drafting Ichiro (around his ADP) over a power hitter is perfectly acceptable for two reasons.

First, he does contribute to the steals category, even if it is only 20 a year. Second, his AVG is so high that it can change the way you draft. Since he comes to the plate so often, his average is even more influential, and can make up for other guys on your team. Since he makes up for guys with low averages, you can draft power players that slip through the cracks for this very reason, and still be fine.

Dan Budreika: Ichiro’s been wowing us for years. He put together a nice year offensively last year after a lackluster 2008. But he is not getting younger and he will be 36-years-old this season. He did battle some injuries last season but what disturbs me is his un-Ichiro like 26 steals. He was also caught 9 times. I just don’t see Ichiro approaching the 40 marker in the stolen base department again and those have generally been one of his biggest fantasy strengths. He doesn’t offer much power and you can really only expect 10 homers. Power ages better than speed and Ichiro is no young buck anymore. Take the safer route with a big bopper over the aging Ichiro early in your draft.

Eno Sarris: Ichiro Suzuki is a tough nut to crack. He hit .311 on 0-2 counts last year! Nutty. On the other hand, minus the batting average, he looks like Denard Span (ADP 125.46) – a guy with barely-double-digit power that is likely to steal about 30 bases. That’s a guy that should be picked in the late rounds to boost a team flagging on speed, not in the mid-rounds as a foundational player. Managers shouldn’t normally build their rosters around him… except in certain instances. Let’s say you are hoping to get Adam Dunn (ADP 55.95) after Ichiro (ADP 40.46) – then he fits like a glove. Consider that taking those players in the fourth and fifth rounds would give you two players that, using last year’s numbers, averaged out to a .313 batting average with 25 home runs and 13 stolen bases. That fits. Ichiro gives you domination in one category that allows you to pick people like Russell Branyan (ADP 293.50) and Chris Davis (159.89) later in the draft, too. That’s added value, in flexibility, that shouldn’t be poo-pooed. It’s not easy to answer this question, and that’s why Ichiro gets drafted as high as 29 and as low as 57. But there are plenty of high-power low-batting average sluggers that become much more attractive as soon as you bring Ichiro! into the fold.

David Golebiewski: Ichiro is one of the more difficult players to project in all of fantasy baseball. We know that he’s not going to draw many walks or hit for much power (his .113 ISO last season was his highest mark since 2005). But he has consistently posted well above-average BABIP figures (.357 career) by virtue of his Olympic-level speed and ability to beat out infield hits. Over the last three years, Ichiro has the second-highest infield hit rate in the majors. His career batting average on ground balls is .306. For reference, the AL average hovers around the .240-.245 range.

In 2009, Ichiro managed a .384 BABIP, and hit an obscene .353 on grounders. Even for a guy who has time and again posted lofty BABIP figures, it’s likely that those numbers will regress in 2010. A simple Marcel projection forecasts a .319/.365/.418 line and a .352 BABIP. If Ichiro’s BABIP trends back toward his career average, then he’s a .320 batter, as opposed to last year’s .350+ machine.

The big question regarding his fantasy value is, will a 36 year-old Ichiro be great base stealer, or merely a good one? He missed the beginning of the 2009 season with a bleeding ulcer, but his 26 steals were a career-low, and his SB percentage (74.3) was his lowest since 2002. Ichiro’s Speed Score (5.2) was a career low, and well below his 6.6 overall mark in the majors. If I had to conjure a guess, I would lean toward the conservative side and project somewhere in the range of 25-35 steals next year.

MockDraftCentral currently has Ichiro at number 39 overall, which strikes me as reasonable. Just how one values Ichiro’s steals compared to another player’s power depends largely on the league format, but I’m a big advocate of going for the best available talent in the early rounds. Owners can get themselves in trouble by feeling that they must take a player who does X in round Y. I still think Ichiro is worthy of a relatively early-round pick.

Brian Joura: I have not owned Ichiro since 2005. I like taking him in mock drafts but not in real leagues. And the reason is that he is very unpredictable. Everyone says you take him and you have a stud in AVG. Some years that is very true and other years he is simply not that dominating. Yes, he has four years where he’s posted marks over .350, including last year. But he also has five years where he was at .322 or lower.

If he reaches that .350 mark, than the early pick on him works out great. But if he finishes at .310 like he did in 2008 then you are sort of left holding the bag. It would be like drafting Adam Dunn and only getting 30 HR. It’s a good total but not what you were expecting. Eno mentioned that he has gone as low as 57 and I would certainly take him there but I will not pull the trigger on him at pick 29.

ADP Values at First Base

Looking at our evaluation of the tiers at the first base position, two things come to mind pretty quickly. If the final mixed-league tier includes players as interesting as Billy Butler (86.14 ADP) and Derrek Lee (85.56), you know the position is deep. The second thing you might notice is that once you factor in average draft position, there aren’t many values in this position. Four first basemen go in the first round (Albert Pujols (1.11), Mark Teixeira (7.31), Prince Fielder (8.13) and Miguel Cabrera (10.20)), and it’s hard to call a first-rounder a ‘value.’

But go down into the meaty portion of the position – the middle tier – and you may uncover a nice sleeper. Lance Berkman (59.89) has to be considered one of the more valuable players available in the fourth and fifth rounds. I know he’s coming off a bad year, but let’s play around with his stats in a less-than-scientific way, why don’t we? Look at Berkman’s batting average and BABIP since 2002. It’s sort of remarkable:

Don’t know about you, but by the theory of Alternating BABIPs in Berkman’s Career, I think it’s a stone-cold-lead-pipe lock that Berkman puts up a BABIP well over .300 and therefore a batting average over .300 (talk about some serious P-value on that ‘research’). Also, Berkman missed time and if you pro-rate out his home run total, you get the Steady Eddie 30 home runs that you can usually expect of the Astros’ first-sacker. I’d rather have Berkman in the late fourth or early fifth than Justin Morneau (38.78) in the late third or early fourth, for example. They are very similar first basemen.

In the all-power no-batting average mini-tier, there’s a surprising result. it looks like Carlos Pena (76.35) is the new Adam Dunn (55.95). It used to be that the bad batting average pulled Dunn down too far, making him under-rated and a value pick. Now that he’s a fifth-rounder, though, that might not be the case any longer. Why not just wait and get the other Dunn two rounds later? (That which we call a Dunn by any other name would swing as big.) Maybe Penas’ peaks and valleys in batting average and ISO power have been more extreme than Dunn, but that can cut both ways. Pena could easily outperform Dunn this coming year, for example.

The late-round values litter the fantasy landscape like brown crusty snow days after a blizzard (I’m not bitter, I promise). Adam LaRoche (201.68) represents the safest option, but he probably also tastes like un-marinated tofu. If .275 and 25 home runs is all you need out of your first baseman, go ahead and pick him late. But if you want tofu, why not take Paul Konerko (211.73) the next round? Sure, his ISO and walk rates are trending downwards, but his contact rates are steady, and even in a reduced form he mostly features better power than Laroche. If you want a little upside, Chris Davis (159.89) has power (.230 career ISO), that much we know. If he can pull that strikeout rate back down to the high twenties (he had a 24% k-rate in the minors), and push that walk rate up (8% in the minors), maybe he’ll make Bill James proud. (And I bet he tastes like a big old Texas T-Bone.)

Desmond in the Rough

Ian Desmond is one of the last successful draft picks in Montreal Expos history. He was nabbed by the then Expos in the third round of the 2004 June draft and signed for $430,000. That would be the last draft before the Expos moved to Washington D.C.

Desmond appeared in spring training with the big league club as just a 19-year-old in 2005 and instantly started making good impressions. Then manager, Frank Robinson, said he’d be in the big leagues in a few years and Desmond even drew a few flattering Derek Jeter comparisons.

Despite these reviews Desmond struggled with his bat in the minors and battled some injuries along the way. He’s always drawn praise for his good range and plus-arm at shortstop. Desmond missed the first two months of the 2009 season recovering from surgery that removed the hamate bone from his left hand. This injury typically lingers and is known to sap power but it didn’t appear to bother Desmond.

Before 2009 Desmond shortened his swing and changed his approach at the plate. It seemed to work as he exploded onto the scene in Double-A in his return from injury. In 42 games Desmond had a .396 wOBA after a .319 mark in 2008 in 93 games a year prior at the same level.

This earned him his first promotion to Triple-A where he didn’t slow down. In 55 games he hit .354/.428/.461 (.408 wOBA). High BABIPs of .425 in AAA and .371 in AA fueled Desmond’s triple-slash lines but those can’t all be attributed to good luck. He did mash the ball harder at higher levels in the system.

In September the Nationals gave Desmond a September call up and he responded quite well. In his big league debut spanning 21 games and 82 at-bats he hit .280/.318/.561 with four homers. There his BABIP sat at just .292.

It’s worth nothing that Desmond’s strikeout rates have consistently sat in the low to mid 20 range throughout his minor league career. But in 2009 they dropped from 23.5% in Double-A to 17% in his AAA and big league stints. While we are dealing with a small sample size here the progression is still interesting and inspiring.

Baseball America recently ranked Desmond as the Nationals fourth best prospect a few months ago. Here is a portion of the glowing scouting report they have on him:

“If Desmond’s bat continues to develop, he has a chance for average or better tools across the board. His quick hands and strong forearms generate plus bat speed and average power, and he has done a good job shortening his swing and becoming more patient at the plate. At shortstop, he has good range and a 65 arm on the 20-80 scouting scale.”

Desmond is 24-years-old this year and after his success in AAA and Washington many assumed he would begin 2010 as the Nationals starting shortstop after the organization informed Cristian Guzman late last season that he would be shifting to second base in 2010. But then the Nationals signed veteran Adam Kennedy to play second and appear to have a change of heart regarding Guzman after he had shoulder surgery.

As of now Desmond would be squeezed out of a starting position with the big league club at the outset of the season. Manager Jim Riggleman has indicated that Guzman will be the starter at shortstop and Kennedy at second as long as Guzman’s healthy this spring.

The club is considering Desmond to become a utility man in the majors this season but that hasn’t been approved by everyone in the organization. Senior Advisor Davey Johnson voiced his concerns over that plan and wants Desmond to be in the starting line up.

I’d have to agree with Johnson here and would like to see Desmond in the starting line up to start the season. For what it’s worth…EVERY SINGLE projection system here at FanGraphs is projecting Desmond (looking at wRC+) to hit better than Guzman AND Kennedy this season. The Fans have him projected at an even 2.0 WAR for the 2010 season.

Hopefully Desmond is granted the opportunity to display his abilities regularly in D.C. this season but it’s likely that it occurs at some point or another this year even if he starts the season in Triple-A or on the bench due to the inferior regulars. He has the makings of an average to slightly above-average hitter (think .280/.340/.440) at the shortstop position with good defense.

Once Desmond receives the opportunity to have regular at-bats in the Nations Capital you should jump on the opportunity to grab him from the waiver wire. He has the makings to become a cheap source of solid production and could be a big help if you’re in a pinch at the shortstop position.

Felipe Lopez Latches On with St. Louis

Fresh off of a 2009 season in which he posted 4.6 Wins Above Replacement, Felipe Lopez entered the off-season anticipating free agent riches. However, with general managers likely anticipating a healthy dose of regression, the 29 year-old found the market for his services to be downright chilly.

Aggravated that he remained without gainful employment for 2010, Lopez canned uber-agent Scott Boras earlier this month. Now, word is that Lopez has limped back to St. Louis (where he spent part of the 2008 season), inking a one-year, $1.75 million contract with performance-based incentives.

Splitting the ’09 season between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Milwaukee Brewers, Lopez turned in his best offensive campaign since he was a Cincinnati Red back in 2005. In 680 plate appearances, the switch-hitter put up a .310/.383/.427 triple-slash. Adjusting for park factors and league difficulty, Lopez’s lumber was 16 percent above average (116 wRC+).

However, odds are that those numbers decline next season. Lopez has a decent eye at the dish and he’s not totally bereft of power, but his secondary skills are pretty ordinary. When he bats .310, he’s a valuable offensive player. But what about when he bats .270-.280?

Lopez had a .358 Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) last season, compared to a career .320 BABIP. His expected BABIP (XBABIP), based on homers, K’s, stolen bases, line drive percentage and rate of fly balls, pop ups and grounders hit, was about .330.

If Lopez benefits from fewer duck snorts and seeing-eye singles next season, then he’s likely to hit something closer to his career .269/.338/.400 line and 97 wRC+. Here are his projections for 2010:

CHONE: .273/.344/.381, 97 wRC+
Marcel: .279/.349/.396, 99 wRC+
Bill James: .281/.352/.400, 103 wRC+

New Busch won’t do any favors in Lopez’s attempt to stave off regression to the mean: according to the 2010 Bill James Handbook, the stadium has depressed run-scoring by seven percent compared to a neutral park over the past three seasons, with a doubles factor of 93, a triples factor of 90 and a home run factor of 80.

Lopez has also lost some fantasy appeal by being a non-entity on the base paths over the past two seasons. Never a huge stolen base threat in the minors or in his first five years in the majors, Lopez swiped 44 bags in 56 tries in 2006, and 24 SB in 33 attempts in 2007. Since then, he stole eight bases in 16 attempts in 2008 and just six in 12 tries this past year. His Speed Score has gone from 6.2 in ’06 to 3.6 in ’09 (the MLB average is about five).

Just how much playing time Lopez receives with the Red Birds remains to be seen. Shortstop Brendan Ryan underwent right wrist surgery earlier this month, and he still has a ways to go in his recovery. Though Lopez has a career -11.2 UZR/150 at short, he could fill in there if Ryan’s rehab drags on. Also, Lopez provides insurance in case third base prospect David Freese (projected 108 wRC+ by CHONE) falters. He could spell second baseman Skip Schumaker against some lefties, too. Though he doesn’t figure to see a ton of time in the outfield, considering St. Louis’ Holliday/Rasmus/Ludwick alignment and his minimal experience running down balls, Lopez could get an occasional start as a fly-catcher.

Considering the investment size and Lopez’s versatility, the Cardinals should be praised for snagging a guy who could be a league-average starter at a bargain-basement price. Fantasy owners, however, would be wise not to expect Lopez to replicate his 2009 level of offensive production. As Carson Cistulli said about him in The 2010 Second Opinion, “Lopez is probably a better real-live baseball player than fantasy one.”

Mock Draft: An Interesting Failure

In the next part in my series on punting, I am trying to ditch ERA. This has proven to be more of a challenge than the two previous ones in the series. After a few unsuccessful tries that my friend and colleague Paul Greco would term “drafting naked” (no outside sources) I decided to consult the Razzball Point Shares System.

Specifically, I was looking for pitchers who were worse in ERA than they were in WHIP. I was hoping to finish last in ERA yet still gain a couple of points in WHIP. So, I wrote down the names of about two dozen pitchers who fit this criterion and went off to draft. This was a 12-team mixed Yahoo Style Draft over at Mock Draft Central. I had the first pick and drafted this team:

Albert Pujols
Ryan Zimmerman
Ichiro Suzuki
Curtis Granderson
Adam Dunn
Nelson Cruz
Josh Beckett
Matt Wieters
Jason Bartlett
James Shields
John Lackey
Huston Street
Scott Baker
Gavin Floyd
Jorge de la Rosa
Chad Qualls
Brian Anderson
Leo Nunez
Julio Borbon
Nick Johnson
Mark DeRosa
Luis Castillo
Nick Swisher

This team finished first with a total of 87 points. The breakdowns were as follows:

AVG 12
HR 10
RBI 5.5
SB 9
R 11
W 10.5
S 6
K 8
ERA 11

I’ve never tried to punt a category and almost ended up winning it before! Let’s see how that happened.

The best ERA among my starters last year belonged to John Lackey, who had a 3.83, which was 33rd best among SP. Of my seven SP, two had ERAs in the 3s and the remaining five had ERAs in the 4s. Two of my relievers had ERAs in the 3s and one was in the 4s. Nothing in this shouts out a team that should finish second in ERA. Andy Behrens estimated that you need a 3.27 ERA to win the category.

Obviously, we don’t know what these pitchers will do in 2010 yet and ERA has a lot of volatility. But we can check the Fans projections and get a glimpse of why this team was projected to finish 2nd in ERA. Eight of these pitchers the fans projected to have lower ERAs in 2010 than 2009. The only exceptions were Street, projected to go from 3.06 to 3.21 and Qualls, who did not have a fan projection. Using the Fans projections, I have five SP with ERAs in the 3s (lowest belonging to Anderson at 3.69) and two in the 4s. Furthermore, the highest ERA belonged to de la Rosa, who had a 4.26 projection.

So, you don’t need a star in ERA to be successful in the category.

Now I am back to the drawing board to field a money-finishing team that successfully punts ERA. I’ll be looking to trade in my pitcher picks in rounds 7 and 10 for better RBI and SB production.

Mailbag: Keeping Johan or Verlander?

Reader Beau B. asks:

“I get to keep three players. Two of those slots are going to Braun and Wright. The last slot will go to either Johan Santana or Justin Verlander. I’d love your input.

12 team league, 5×5 (basically the standard 5×5, but with OBP replacing BA, pitching categories are typical).”

The answer to this question is easy. I’m keeping Verlander, and not thinking twice about it. I suppose I should explain myself, so let’s go a little more in-depth.

First, Verlander is four years younger than Johan, making him a more valuable keeper. Johan also has a recent injury history, with Verlander pitching 200+ innings in three straight seasons.

Second, I think Verlander is a better fantasy pitcher than Johan this year, regardless of keeper status. Verlander won’t strike out 269 batters again, but he will get close to the 200 mark. Verlander’s 2009 was likely a career year that he will never repeat again, but there are some signs he could improve aspects of his fantasy game. His BABIP against was .328 last year, which should drop back down and settle closer to his .306 career line. The only worry I have with Verlander is his declining GB%, as it has dropped from 41.1% in 2007, to 39.9% in 2008, all the way to 36% in 2009. Comerica will help him in this regard, but any further drop in his GB% would be just plain scary.

A little over a month ago, I said this about Johan:

“From 2002-2007, he never struck out less than a batter an inning, and now he is doing so consistently. CHONE projects his strikeout rate to be at 8.11, with fan and Marcel projects hovering around the same mark. But what proof do we have that his strikeout rate should rise back towards his career average (even if it is only a slight bump)?”

On this week’s FanGraphs Audio featuring Jack Moore and Matt Klaassen, they had a discussion about Johan, and essentially came to the same conclusion. For Johan to get back to his old self (and be better than Roy Halladay) he needs to get his strikeouts in order.

Hopefully I have convinced you that you should be keeping Verlander over Johan. Quite frankly, it’s a fairly obvious decision for me.

For those of you in a non-keeper league, I’d draft Verlander over Johan, but that is a closer argument. Both are being selected around pick 45, so you aren’t going to get a value pick by choosing one over the other.

Draft Order: The Catchers

As you can probably gather from our first book offering, the 582-page FanGraphs Second Opinion fantasy companion (now available for less than $8), we’re pretty serious about fantasy baseball around here. As such, this post launches our official RotoGraphs fantasy draft order rankings as you prepare for your upcoming drafts. We’ll be rolling out Top 15 lists for each position over the next little while and we’ll be updating them throughout March to give you the most accurate information as you shape your 2010 (winning) rosters. At least four RotoGraphs writers weighed in on each positional ranking.

The Top Targets:
1. Joe Mauer, Minnesota (.438 wOBA)
2. Victor Martinez, Boston (.375 wOBA)
3. Brian McCann, Atlanta (.359 wOBA)

It should come as no shock that the reigning American League MVP is the top target amongst catchers. Mauer’s value should be helped by a full season from Justin Morneau, as well as the additions of second baseman Orlando Hudson and shortstop J.J. Hardy, both of whom will reduce the playing time for the offensive vacuum known as Nick Punto. A better-balanced lineup can only help Mauer’s RBI and run totals.

Martinez is a great player to have in your fantasy lineup because he is eligible at both catcher and first base, which gives you added flexibility. A full season in Boston (He was traded from Cleveland midway through 2009) should have a positive effect on his numbers – especially in terms of RBI opportunities, and he should see better pitches now that he has more protection in the lineup.

McCann got off to a slow start in ’09 and April was pretty much a write-off thanks to vision problems, which are no longer a concern. On the downside, the Braves lineup is not significantly better than it was in ’09 so he will have limited protection in the lineup if Chipper Jones and/or Troy Glaus start to show their age.

The Next Best Thing:
4. Jorge Posada, New York AL (.378 wOBA)
5. Matt Wieters, Baltimore (.330 wOBA)
6. Miguel Montero, Arizona (.357 wOBA)
7. Russell Martin, Los Angeles NL (.307 wOBA)
8. Mike Napoli, Los Angeles AL (.362 wOBA)

Clearly, Posada had an outstanding year in ’09 but he appeared in just 111 games and the 38-year-old can’t swim in the fountain of youth forever (although New York should obviously try bottling whatever Posada, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are drinking). On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Wieters is just coming into his own. You even might be able to draft the catcher in a favorable spot if your fantasy baseball owners are still feeling let down by his ’09 season. Wieters had an encouraging debut for a 23-year-old catcher, but expectations were incredibly (and unfairly) high for him.

Montero seized the starting gig away from Chris Snyder in ’09 thanks to an injury but fantasy managers would probably feel a little bit better if Snyder was off-loaded to another club in spring training (after proving his health). Martin appeared to be on the cusp of fantasy greatness a couple years ago, but his power has dried up. Still, there aren’t many backstops that can steal you 10-20 bases in a season and he’s reportedly bulked up a bit in an effort to hit more taters. Napoli would perhaps be more deserving of a higher ranking if A) Jeff Mathis projected to have fewer at-bats, or B) The club would give more at-bats to Napoli at DH. Unfortunately, the addition of former Yankee Hideki Matsui will eat up most of the DH opportunities.

The Leftovers:
9. Geovany Soto, Chicago NL (.310 wOBA)
10. Chris Iannetta, Colorado (.346 wOBA)
11. Kurt Suzuki, Oakland (.321 wOBA)
12. Bengie Molina, San Francisco (.308 wOBA)
13. Yadier Molina, St. Louis (.337 wOBA)
14. Ryan Doumit, Pittsburgh (.306 wOBA)
15. A.J. Pierzynski, Chicago AL (.326 wOBA)

Of the “leftovers,” the highest potentials come from Soto, Iannetta, and Doumit. Soto was not in great playing shape last season and he’s reportedly motivated to recapture his past Rookie of the Year glory. Iannetta has the offensive bonus of playing in Colorado, but the free agent signing of Miguel Olivo could mean fewer at-bats, unless the youngster breaks out in a big way. Doumit’s ’09 season was ruined by injuries and he appeared in 75 games. He has good power for a catcher but he’s also hurt by a below-average offense in Pittsburgh.

Up Next: The First Basemen

Check the Position: SP3

Over the offseason we’ll take a look at each position on the diamond and see how the past season affected the positional rankings and where there might be some potential bounceback value picks going into next year’s drafts. (See shortstops, catchers, second basemen, first basemen, third basemen, right fielders, left fielders and center fielders.)

The series perseveres! Here are the first two pitching tiers, otherwise known as SP1 and SP2. Remember that the arrow represents how they got here (last year’s movement) and not necessarily their long-term trend.

SP3 is where the wheat separates from the chaff, and everybody has to take a risk. The first sub-tier has some pitchers that look like first or second tier starting pitchers (if you squint just right). There’s really a lot to like about Matt Garza since his strikeout rate and contact percentages got dramatically better last year. His improvement has pushed him ahead of James Shields, who is still relying on that nice changeup and pinpoint control, and just needs that blip in the home run rate to correct. Scott Baker comes ready-made with a great WHIP and could finally put a nice ERA with it if the home run rate comes back down. Rich Harden moved up in the ranks by showing a (relatively) healthy year, as did Tim Hudson with his nice (though slightly punch-less) return. John Danks is still only 24 years old, and though there are warts, he’s shown the ability to improve before. He could do it again.

Unfortunately, that’s just about where the top-shelfers end. What remains are pitchers that have been so over-rated that they’ve once again become under-rated, and some interesting young pitchers that have all the risk inherent with young starters. Ted Lilly used to be under-rated, then he had a great year and was over-rated, and then he had some surgery and became under-rated again (got that?). If he falls to this level, he’s got to be a value again. Kevin Slowey is like Lilly-redux, really, with his okay strikeout rates, nice WHIPs, and now his own comeback from surgery. Gavin Floyd did some things right and some things wrong, and has some nice upside but plays in a tough park to sustain that home run rate from last year. Jered Weaver just keeps on outperforming his xFIPs by giving up tons of flyballs without the corresponding home runs (around an 8% HR/FB career), but good luck predicting if he’s going to have a sub-4 ERA or not. Max Scherzer is young, wild, interesting and moving to the tougher league. I personally have an (unhealthy) man-crush on Wade Davis, but as always I remind myself that there’s inevitably a period of correction with every young pitcher, and I pledge to (try to) wait as long as I can before I pick him.

The last sub-tier (the “Hold Your Nose” tier) features a couple of veterans that once were considered top-shelfers but have shown their warts. A.J. Burnett and Carlos Zambrano have both been big-strikeout pitchers in the past, and both have shown that their wildness and arm issues will keep them from being elite for the forseeable future. Call Zambrano Little Z (and then run like heck), or perhaps even the “NL version of AJ.” Ryan Dempster rode the Ted Lilly roller coaster but seems like a steady investment for last year’s return. J.A. Happ got lucky last year (and finds himself in a tough park for the upcoming season). He deserves to drop, no doubt about it. But this tier also serves as a reminder – you can’t have a blindspot because you hate (or love) a player. At some point, any player can become a value once again.

Jason Hammel vs Jeff Niemann

Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann will always be connected. Both came up through the Rays system, are big dudes (6’6” and 6’9”), and were in the running for the fifth starter spot in Tampa last spring. The Rays decided they’d rather have Niemann, and dealt Hammel to the Rockies during the first week of April.

Both Hammel and Niemann had solid ’09 campaigns, but who is the better pick in 2010?

Niemann went 13-6 with a 3.94 ERA, striking out 6.23 batters per nine and walking 2.94 per nine. He posted a 4.53 xFIP, .304 BABIP, and 73.7% LOB%, showing that his numbers weren’t to far off from what we’d expect. Niemann is currently the 56th pitcher being taken, and the 213th player off the board overall. He is being drafted in 96.7% of leagues.

Hammel went 10-8 with a 4.33 ERA, striking out 6.78 batters per nine, and walking 2.14 per nine. He posted a 3.81 xFIP, .337 BABIP, and 69.5% LOB%, which could translate into a better line in 2010. In 384 big league innings Hammel has a career BABIP of .331, but that should drop closer to the .300 mark as his career progresses. Hammel is the 99th pitcher off the board, and the 362nd player overall. He is being drafted in a mere 2.9% of leagues.

Why is Niemann being drafted so much higher than Hammel? For one, I would venture a guess that the old stigma behind Coors Field is catching up to Hammel. His numbers are very similar to Niemann’s, although his stuff graded out lower according to our Pitch Value data.

Hammel at 362 is an infinitely better value than Niemann at 213, and I think Hammel may move up some boards as the season draws nearer. Hammel isn’t an ace, but neither is Niemann, and one is being taken in almost every league while one is hardly being picked at all. Take advantage of the value Hammel presents in deeper and NL-only leagues, and keep an eye on him as a possible waiver wire pickup in standard leagues.

Want more fantasy analysis? Purchase the Second Opinion, FanGraphs’ 2010 Fantasy Companion for only $7.95.

Joey Votto or Adrian Gonzalez?

According to MockDraftCentral’s latest 5X5 Average Draft Position rankings, two National League first baseman sit back-to-back at spots 30 and 31. Both lefty batters are fresh off monstrous 2009 seasons, with one posting the third-best wOBA in the majors at first base, and the other ranking sixth at the position.

Cincinnati’s Joey Votto and San Diego’s Adrian Gonzalez seem to be valued about equally by fantasy players. Which one is the better bet headed into 2010?

Votto, 26, followed up a quality rookie season in 2008 (.373 wOBA) with a scorching sophomore campaign, trailing only a pair of Princes (Albert and Fielder) in wOBA with a .418 mark. Cincy’s second-round pick in the 2002 draft boosted his walk rate (from 10 percent to 12.9 percent) and his Isolated Power (.209 to .245), bashing all pitch types in the process.

While Votto is well-established as a premium offensive player, he will likely regress somewhat next year: his BABIP was .372. That number figures to fall back to the .340-.350 range, according to projection systems:

Votto’s projected 2010 BABIP

CHONE: .342
Bill James: .344
Marcel: .347
The Fans: .350

That would make Votto more of a .300-type hitter, as opposed to the .320+ guy we saw last season. A less extreme BABIP would result in a still-excellent wOBA in the .390’s (with the Bill James system forecasting a higher mark):

Votto’s projected 2010 wOBA

Marcel: .390
CHONE: .392
The Fans: .400
Bill James: .407

Gonzalez, meanwhile, mashed to the tune of a .402 wOBA in 2009. His walk rate and ISO improved each season from 2006-2008, but they skyrocketed this past year:

The 27 year-old drew ball four in 17.5 percent of his plate appearances last season (career 11 BB%), with a .274 ISO (career .225 ISO).

Of course, the pink elephant in the room when comparing Votto and Gonzalez is environment. Votto takes his cuts at Great American Ballpark (three-year park factor of 105 according to the 2010 Bill James Handbook, with a HR park factor of 125). Gonzalez must confront Petco Park, which ravages offensive performance (three-year park factor of 76, with a HR park factor of 73).

Enter wRC+. The stat takes a hitter’s wOBA and adjusts it based on park and league factors, setting it on a scale where 100 is average and above 100 is above-average. On a context-neutral basis, Gonzalez edged out Votto in 2008. This past year, they were essentially equals:

Votto: 126 wRC+
Gonzalez:135 wRC+

Votto: 157 wRC+
Gonzalez: 158 wRC+

While wRC+ is a very useful metric in evaluating players in a context-neutral manner, we do have to give Votto some additional fantasy points and dock Gonzalez because of the drastic difference in home venues. Here are Gonzalez’s 2010 projected wOBAs:

Marcel: .376
CHONE: .383
Bill James: .383
The Fans: .395

Though Votto’s lofty BABIP and Gonzalez’s massive spikes in walk rate and ISO portend to some regression to the mean, both figure to be excellent first base options again next season. You can’t go wrong either way. But if I had a choice between the two, I would select Votto on the basis of his friendlier confines.

What do you think? Who’s the better option, Votto or Gonzalez?