Inside Jimmy Rollins’ Unlikely Resurgence by Blake Murphy May 13, 2014 Once a hitter displays a skill, he owns it. That can be one of the hardest axioms to remember in fantasy baseball, as down seasons or exceptionally cold stretches make us turn our backs on a player for good. Never is that harder than when the matter of skill ownership gets clouded even further by the process of aging – a skill is owned, sure, but it can also erode over time. Given those factors, I understand the trepidation in buying into 35-year-old Jimmy Rollins coming off of perhaps the worst season of his career, one in which his home run total dropped to just six in 666 plate appearances, his strikeout rate continued inching higher and his isolated slugging all but fell off the face of the earth. But Rollins’ early-2014 resurgence is worth examining for several reasons. Now, Rollins had posted down seasons before last year, and his wRC+ of 84 was in the ballpark of his marks in 2009 and 2010 and, before that, 2002 and 2003. What was new, however, was his inability to provide fantasy value outside of his generally league-average total batting line. For more than a decade, Rollins has been one of fantasy baseball’s top shortstops, and even in his down wRC+ seasons he provided appreciable value by hitting home runs – only once from 2001 to 2012 falling short of double-digits in a full season – and stealing at least 20 bases a year. Despite this track record, Rollins tanked in 2013, as mentioned, and ranked outside of the top-10 at the position for the first time since 2003, save for his injury-shortened 2010. He was the model of fantasy consistency, a relatively safe selection for a dozen years despite the fluidity and burnout inherent at the position, and then it was all gone. Seriously, look who else ranked in the top-10 with Rollins back in 2001 when he started this run: Alex Rodriguez, Rich Aurilia, Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada, Mark McLemore, Cristian Guzman, Orlando Cabrera, David Eckstein and Jose Valentin. He outlasted them all. Of course, a player’s accrued career stats don’t count in your roto categories, so recognizing that Rollins was once valuable doesn’t do you a whole lot of good. So here’s what we know: hitters age such that a 35-year-old would expect his wRC+ to be about 30 points lower than his peak, though walk rate and strikeout rate peak later and drop off more slowly, while power peaks early. When Rollins’ ISO cratered and his strikeout rate reached a 10-year peak with a speed decline attached, everyone backed away. He was 18th in the consensus rankings and nobody rated him higher than 17th, while I had him in a tier with single-category plays like Dee Gordon and Jonathan Villar. But here he is, the fourth-best player at the position so far, having nearly matched his home run total from 2014 and putting up production that seems in line with his 2010-2012 seasons, save for the speed, which still seems useful but no longer top-shelf. Year K% BB% HR/PA ISO SB/PA 2010-2012 10.8% 9.3% 0.027 0.150 0.044 2013 14.0% 8.9% 0.009 0.097 0.033 2014 16.3% 12.9% 0.027 0.165 0.034 Two things stick out immediately: a surge in walk rate along with the continued increase in strikeout rate, and a return of his isolated slugging. Is the latter an early-season blip? Well, Rollins’ line drive rate is down a shade and his fly ball rate is up a shade, but the most important factor is the spike in HR/FB, from 3.1 percent to 9.8 percent. His true talent probably lies somewhere between, but the batted ball distances back up that Rollins is hitting the ball better this year. Year FB/LD Distance ISO 2011 260.99 0.131 2012 262.14 0.177 2013 248.69 0.097 2014 266.85 0.165 This is encouraging, especially since we haven’t yet entered summer, when warmer temperatures help offense play up. We can only be descriptive here – even though Rollins is close to the stabilization point for ISO – but there are plenty of positive signs. In terms of the discipline profile, things aren’t as tidy. Rollins’ O-Swing rate is down significantly, but so is his Z-Swing rate, and his swing rate on the first pitch is down all the way to 13.5 percent (from 19.8 percent last year and 21.6 percent for his career). While that’s helped him get ahead sometimes, he’s also started 42 percent of his plate appearances down 0-1, right around his career mark. His swinging strike rate is also up slightly and his contact rate is no longer elite. Overall, it seems as if Rollins has gotten smarter in working the strike zone, hence the uptick in walks, but he’s also seen some skill erosion, such that he’s been unable to increase the walks without a resultant increase in strikeouts from going deeper in counts. Altogether, this approach is for the better compared to continuing to swing more. (Note: Crashburn Alley has a detailed breakdown of Rollins’ discipline changes here.) The net result of some power coming back and some walks accompanying the new strikeouts is that Rollins appears a better player than we gave him credit for before the season. As with any player closer to 40 than 28, he’s at risk of losing the requisite bat speed and pop, but it seems we came to that conclusion a bit prematurely. Rollins is no longer a safe, elite option like he was as recently as 2012, nor do I think he’s a top-five shortstop going forward, but he’s firmly re-established himself as startable in all formats. I’d place him in the third tier of shortstops with a risky name like Jose Reyes right now but still behind a Starlin Castro or an Alexei Ramirez.