… if this nonsense with his agent(s?) ever clears up.
I feel like Debbie Downer from the classic Saturday Night Live sketch. I found reasons to dislike Yasmany Tomas, and now I’m here trying to find reasons to dislike Hector Olivera. It’s largely because I’m stubborn and would rather die by own fantasy baseball sword than someone else’s. But I haven’t seen any assessment of Olivera’s Cuban National Series (CNS) statistics beyond he hit an impressive .323/.407/.505 in his 10 years in Cuba, so I’ll attempt to expand on this.
Let’s get the formalities out of the way. There’s the matter of his health. Yahoo reported last week that the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in Olivera’s throwing arm could be damaged. Resident Prospect Chief Kiley McDaniel discusses the issue at length here, but the short of it is teams will probably still take a risk on Olivera but use his questionable health history (he missed the entire 2012-13 CNS season due to a blood clot in his biceps) as leverage to depress the value of his inevitable contract.
Then there’s the matter of where he’ll sign. On Sunday, Hardball Talk linked Olivera to the Braves, Padres and Dodgers. Of the three, Atlanta and San Diego would be ideal landing spots, as the former is rebuilding and the latter could choose to squeeze some value out of Jedd Gyorko by shipping him to a team still enamored by that fading top-prospect glow. In either situation, Olivera ought to see plenty of playing time. The Dodgers would be interesting only because I secretly enjoy watching them let talent go to waste while pissing away tens of millions of dollars (albeit at the expense of Alex Guerrero, Olivera’s fellow countryman). Adding Olivera to the mix would further complicate the situation, but that’s a non-issue to the Dodgers.
Lastly, there’s the matter of projecting his performance. Joel Reuter of Bleacher Report compared Olivera to Jonathan Schoop except “more polished offensively [but] far less upside.” Ben Badler of Baseball America likes Olivera more than Tomas (as we all should — the entire FanGraphs staff is almost unanimously out on Tomas after witnessing him flounder in Scottsdale), which is only of marginal comfort to the author. That same piece lauds Olivera for being “one of the league’s premier offensive threats” from 2008 through 2012.
His career CNS batting line, mentioned verbatim in the first paragraph, is certainly impressive on paper but pales in comparison to some of his Cuban contemporaries (Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes). In his defense, Olivera appeared to peak in his 2011-12 (age-26) season, posting a Cespedes-esque .341/.468/.626 triple-slash and setting a career-high in home runs despite recording ~120 fewer plate appearances.
But Olivera’s final CNS campaign departed a bit from his formerly dominant ways. Badler briefly reflects on the season, noting that Olivera “was still one of the league’s top performers.” What he didn’t discuss was Olivera’s power — it tanked — and his strikeout rate — it peaked. His isolated power and K’s, by year:
Year: Age, ISO, K%
2007-08: 22, .244, 7.4%
2008-09: 23, .243, 6.2%
2009-10: 24, .231, 7.2%
2010-11: 25, .217, 5.5%
2011-12: 26, .285, 8.5%
2012-13: 27, did not play
2013-14: 28, .158, 9.2%
It’s important to note that despite Olivera’s strikeout rate trending in the wrong direction, it’s still among the best of the marquee Cuban hitters to recently defect, and his walk rates have been above average relative to that group as well. As far as his power is concerned, I invite optimists to blame it on the rust. I would also be open to humoring an excuse related to bad luck on fly balls — it wouldn’t be the first time a player saw his home run total plummet because of a poor home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB). But in a vacuum, I see indications of eroding skills — an unsurprising turn of events for a man approaching 30 with health issues.
To contextualize Olivera’s power dip, I looked for all three-year spans during which a hitter lost at least 100 points of ISO (with at least 250 PAs each season, as Olivera has) dating back to 2005. Of 1,867 possible results, only 43 turned up positive. In other words, losing 100 points of ISO in two years while maintaining semi-regular playing time doesn’t happen very often. The query unearthed players in the twilights of their careers (Luis Gonzalez, Frank Thomas, Lance Berkman, Paul Konerko, Hideki Matsui) or amid significant decline phases (Joe Mauer, Chipper Jones, Andre Ethier), aka guys who never got their groove back. But other hits in the search rebounded with aplomb: Michael Cuddyer, Aaron Hill, Josh Hamilton and Adam Dunn, for example, recovered more ISO in the season that immediately followed their drop-offs than they had lost.
Ultimately, the 24 hitters who recorded 250-plus PAs in the season after their ISOs tanked averaged a 32-percent rebound in their ISOs immediately following their declines — a positive result, but not an entirely promising one. Thus, Olivera’s 127-point drop in ISO doesn’t render impossible a return to form. Heck, if you consider his peak ISO of .285 an anomaly, the reduced 60- to 80-point drop-off is a lot less alarming. Unfortunately, time is not on Olivera’s side, and when you add more context to his situation — misses a season, returns, displays diminished power, arrives stateside with injury baggage — it raises a red flag or two.
Still, it would be a mistake to declare Olivera invaluable in the realm of fantasy. It feels lazy to make this comparison, but his numbers look a lot like Alexei Ramirez’s before he defected. Problem is, Ramirez’s redeeming quality is his ability to steal bases, and Olivera abandoned his desire to run half a decade ago. That doesn’t mean he can’t establish value as a contact hitter; toss in 15 home runs and you have yourself a relevant fantasy middle infielder in the mold of Martin Prado, even if only in deeper leagues.
I could overlook Olivera’s down year were it not for his age and laundry list of past (and present) injuries. It’s easy to get excited about international signings, especially in light of MLB teams’ recent and overwhelming successes with Abreu, Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Hisashi Iwakuma, Masahiro Tanaka (to be determined) and so on. But not every gamble will pay off, and not every Cuban defector will become a star. Still, Olivera should be able to hold his own given what appears to be a relatively advanced approach at the plate. I envision a Lite version of prime Hill or J.J. Hardy — both of whom were once perfectly serviceable middle infielders. One would hope, in Olivera’s case, that the key word here isn’t “were.”