Though we grew up, and still reside, in the Northeast, we’re not winter sports guys. How much are we not? Well, there’s this Olympic event called the biathlon that combines Nordic skiing and rifle shooting. One of us—we’re not saying which one—was in his twenties before he realized that cross-country skiing, which he’d seen though not tried, and “Nordic skiing,” which he’d never seen, were the same thing. And that very brother was thirty before he learned, aggrievedly, that the two activities of the biathlon don’t occur simultaneously.
So each winter, all our sentient lives, we’ve yearned for the first sign of spring. And for us, even when up to our navels in snow, the traditional first sign has been the commencement of baseball spring training in February. Except, for the past three years, since the start of our mutual immersion in Fantasy baseball, that welcome harbinger has come even earlier—in January, in the form of our first Fantasy draft of the season.
But allow us to introduce ourselves or refresh your memory, as the case may be. We are the Birchwood Brothers, genuine siblings and Fantasy devotees beginning our third season as Fangraphs bloggers. We play Fantasy baseball as an excuse for writing this blog, write this blog as an excuse for playing Fantasy baseball, and regard both as an enhancement of, and frequently a substitute for, life. We presume to no special baseball or stat knowledge that you don’t have. Indeed, though we were early riders on the Bill James bandwagon back in the 80s, some of the latest developments in granular stats leave us as bewildered as Don Zimmer contemplating On-Base Percentage.
Instead, our specialty, or anyway the thing we do, is the identification, both before and during the season, by means both anecdotal and statistical, of cheap and/or undervalued players who might do you and us some good. Sometimes (Travis Jankowski, 2016) we are delightfully correct. Sometimes (the entire Minnesota Twins starting rotation, 2016) we are season-torpedoingly wrong. But, as long as you’re willing to read a few paragraphs or just skip down to the end of the installment, you’ll find that we always have something to suggest. And we don’t suggest anything we’re not doing or trying to do ourselves.
As in years past, we have started our Fantasy season with a National Fantasy Baseball Championship Draft Champions draft: 15 teams choose 50 players each, with as much as 8 hours between picks. It’s commonly known as the NFBC “Slow Draft,” and yes, theoretically it could last until the end of the season. Except it doesn’t, because if you’re the kind of guy, as we (and probably you) are, who feels like doing a 50-player draft in January, you’re not only ready with your picks but getting impatient when anyone else takes more than about 15 minutes. We’ll describe that draft in excruciating detail in our next two posts, but we’ll tell you one thing about it right now: We took Billy Hamilton with the 44th overall pick, and think we might have gotten a (LOL) steal.
Hamilton is, as you know, very fast. True, he has trouble staying healthy. But he managed to do it in his rookie season of 2014, and there’s no reason to think he won’t do it again this year. He’s plainly learned how to deploy his speed to best advantage: after getting caught stealing 23 times in 2014, he’s 115 for 131 in the last two years, a rate that will put him in the all-time top 3 if he can sustain it. The over-under on his projected stolen base total for 2017 seems to be about 65 or 70, but we think even that may be low. Here’s why:
–He is learning to hit. His BA last season was .260 and his OBP .321, both the best he’s managed so far. His second half was even better: .293/.369. Moreover, speed like his works best when you keep the ball on the ground, which he’s doing more and more—almost half the time in the second half of last season (the league average last year was 44.3%; Hamilton in the first half was 47.5%).
–He is batting at the top of the order, and thus will get more chances to steal. For reasons unknown to us, the Reds’ leadoff hitter for the first half of the season was Zack Cozart, career OBP .289. Hamilton took over that job on July 22, and from then until September 4, when he went down for the season with an oblique injury, Hamilton started and led off in 37 of the Reds’ 40 games. He got on base 54 times in those games, and made 33 stolen base attempts, 30 of which were successful. By contrast, when he batted in a different lineup slot during the rest of the season, his 70 times on base resulted in 31 stolen base attempts.
So let’s make some conservative assumptions and see where we wind up. Hamilton stays reasonably healthy, leads off all season, and gets 600 PAs. Even though he’s only 26 and had an excellent second half in 2016, he shows no overall improvement at bat and produces the same BA and OBP. So, figuring that 3 of his hits are home runs, he gets on base 190 times. Those times on base produce 95 stolen base attempts, at which he succeeds at the same rate as the past two years. That’s 83 stolen bases, and that is a healthy Hamilton’s downside. If he gets on base and steals at the same rates all season as he did during that 40-game stretch last summer, that’s about 100 SBs—precisely the number stolen by (we assume this is God amusing Herself) Hall of Famer Sliding Billy Hamilton for the 1894 Philadephia Phillies.
It doesn’t stop with stolen bases, of course. The second-half Reds, who played .500 baseball, hit a lot better than the first-half Reds, who played .360 baseball. The guys who are responsible for the improvement are still around, and will be joined, it appears, by a healthy-for-the moment Devin Mesoraco, who hit .273/.359/.534 in 2014 before losing most of the next two seasons to injuries. If you think the Reds can sustain the improvement, then figure Hamilton scores 100 runs; he scored 26 during that 40-game stretch last year.
100+ runs, 80+ stolen bases, a batting average that won’t hurt you—that’s roughly comparable to Dee Gordon’s 2014, with less batting average but a lot more steals, and yet more valuable because steals are getting scarcer. A $40 season, we think, and well worth a third- (and even second-) round pick.
The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.