I am participating in the ongoing mock draft, and Eno Sarris and Daniel Schwartz have already written about a pair of compelling draft choices they made. The pick I made that sparked the most interest was of George Springer, who I took in the fifth round with the 55th overall pick. Chris Cwik selected Matt Kemp with the next pick, which provides a compelling player for comparison.
But first, some background. I already had four players at the time of my Springer selection. They were Robinson Cano (1.7), Freddie Freeman (2.18), Max Scherzer (3.31), and Corey Dickerson (4.42). Four picks in is probably too soon to let your current roster dictate the choices you make with your subsequent picks, but I did enter the draft with a plan to draft high floor players early. Neither Cano nor Freeman maximized my potential counting stats with those selections, but neither player would hurt me if they replicated their down seasons from 2014. Meanwhile, toolsy, low average players like Springer are much easier to draft in the middle rounds when you’ve already rostered some plus-average players.
Also of interest, Springer and Kemp were the 19th and 20th outfielders selected in those first 56 total selections.
On to the player comparison. The easiest place to start is with their Steamer projections, and those paint a pretty clear picture of why I prefer Springer to Kemp:
Steamer gives Springer the edge in home runs, runs, RBI, stolen bases, and games played. The only roto category where Kemp has the higher projection is average. That 31-point advantage for Kemp is substantial, but with a foundation of Cano, Freeman, and Dickerson that I expect to be solid in terms of average, it is less of a priority for my roster. In absolute terms, Jeff Zimmerman estimates that three home runs or steals are worth about 10 points of average. Springer is projected to outproduce Kemp by 15 home runs plus steals, so Kemp would need a 50-point advantage in batting average to pull even.
For those less inclined to take Steamer at its word, the comparison becomes much closer. After all, Kemp played in 150 games in 2014 and hit 25 home runs, both substantially higher than his projection. In contrast, Springer stole just five bases in 78 games last season, which put him on pace for only two thirds of his projected total.
I believe Steamer’s skepticism of Kemp and optimism for Springer are well-founded. For Kemp, the 2014 season was a return to form, but it came on the heels of two injury-shortened seasons that featured a variety of shoulder, hamstring, knee, and ankle injuries. Those injuries precipitated a decline in several aspects of Kemp’s game. After stealing at least 30 bases in three of four seasons from 2008 to 2011, he stole just eight bags despite a full season in 2014. Even if Kemp had not suffered so many leg injuries in recent seasons, he is now 30 years old, the age when many players see a decline in their stolen base totals.
The power decline is less obvious for Kemp if you treat his 39 home runs in 2011 as an anomaly. He hit 26 home runs in 2009, 28 in 2010, 23 in 2012, and 25 last season. That cursory glance suggests that Kemp returned to his previously established power level, but the underlying numbers suggest otherwise. In 2011, Kemp averaged 412.2 feet per home run according to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, which was right in line with his 411.6-foot average from 2009. Meanwhile, in 2012 and 2014, Kemp averaged just 403.0 and 402.2 feet per home run. Shoulder injuries have robbed Kemp of some of his natural power, which almost assuredly erases his 40-homer upside and could lead to further decline.
Beyond the loss of his natural power, Kemp will now have to play half of his games in San Diego. Last season, PETCO Park allowed nine percent fewer home runs for right-handed hitters than a neutral park, tied for the third lowest index in baseball. Dodger Stadium was exactly league average.
Springer’s projected counting statistics show a slight edge over Kemp in many respects, but his upside in each category is substantially greater. In 2014, Springer hit 20 home runs in just 78 games, which had him on pace for 40 home runs. He was on a similar pace in both Double-A and Triple-A in 2013, and his home park in Houston allowed four percent more home runs to right-handed hitters than an average ballpark. Strangely, Springer stole just five bases in the majors last season, but in 2013, he stole 45 bases across his two stops in the minors. It’s unclear what led to the drop, but at 25 years old, his stolen base totals are far more likely to rebound than Kemp’s are.
If anything can derail Springer’s road to fantasy stardom, it is his strikeout tendency. He struck out an alarming 33 percent of his plate appearances in 2014. Kemp may not share that specific downside concern, but his injury history creates a different sort of risk with an equal downside. And even if he did not, my conservative approach to my early picks makes a riskier investment like Springer more palatable.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt