It’s not unusual to find several unexpected names among the top fantasy producers at a position nearly a quarter of the way into a particular season. Because they’re unforeseen, they aren’t necessarily among your league’s most owned players.
At some point, though, some antsy owner will have begun to question his loyalty to a player he drafted when the season-to-date performance of a player he didn’t is still rated higher in his league’s free-agent list. Even though at some point in the near future, regression to the means of both players would seem likelier than not to benefit him, ignoring signs of changes in their baseline performance and reliability.
This type of question is less likely to come up for players who are hitting for a good average or reaching base more often than widely predicted. Such are the 2014 cases of Carlos Ruiz, Kurt Suzuki, Ryan Hanigan and John Jaso, who are, depending on your mixed league’s settings, among the top 12 to 24 catchers in it.
Ruiz: .279/.390/.423, 1 HR, 8 RBI, 19 R, 2 SB in 123 PA
Suzuki: .300/.381/400, 1 HR, 24 RBI, 7 R, 0 SB in 119 PA
Hanigan: .267/.347/.422, 3 HR, 22 RBI, 7 R, 0 SB in 102 PA
Jaso: .288/.383/.463, 3 HR, 8 RBI, 11 R, 1 SB in 94 PA
As is wont to occur, bevies of counting figures have accompanied the high averages and/or OBPs of the four players. Good rates alone are unlikely to coax a fantasy owner to question her sanity, but surprising counting stats along with them can induce one to talk to himself, even in the presence of others.
For the record, I’m ignoring the logic-defying rates of Tyler Flowers, at least for now. I assume that most of you have done similarly.
The question becomes: Can you continue to get by with a little help from friends like these? You probably know not to ask this question in one-backstop mixed leagues. But in two-C leagues, the question is legitimate, because players like these aren’t the most exciting channels to victory, but they could continue to do enough for those who punted the position on draft day or have lost one of their catchers (fingers crossed, Matt Wieters owners).
There’s a seemingly simple explanation for the marks of Philadelphia Phillies’ catcher. Ruiz was suspended for the first 25 games of 2013 because he’d tested positive for Adderall, a banned stimulant, and didn’t have an exemption for it. He also dealt with a strained hammy, but mild injuries are nothing new for him. The resultant .268/.320/.368 line left him off the target lists of many.
This season, Ruiz has his exemption for the attention-deficit drug. He’s walked in 14.6% of his plate appearances, a rate that would be a personal best. He told local media last month that his primary focus (my pun intended) has been to work the count (an approach which has been lacking in Philly in recent years). Although power like that from his 16-homer (.215 ISO) 2012 may not be in store again, he’s certainly capable of maintaining a .400-plus SLG and finishing with an ISO of around .150. He’s also spent time in the top half of the lineup, and given the state of the Phils’ affairs, he should continue to appear there occasionally. That should help his case to contribute adequate cume stats. Ruiz looks like a fantasy win for much of 2014.
The performance of the Minnesota Twins’ deuce has been revelatory. Suzuki replaced Joe Mauer behind the dish, and he appears to have stolen some of the new first baseman’s stick mojo, too. Considering that Suzuki was expected to be nothing more than a veteran placeholder and tutor for Josmil Pinto and he hasn’t batted better than .242 since 2009, skepticism is warranted. But he’s walked at a career-high rate of 10.9% and has fanned at a career-low rate of 6.7%, each of which is more than 50% better than his lifetime rate in the respective category.
Suzuki has long worked on his ability to drive the ball to all fields. He’s had to do so. His 22.3% line-drive rate seems to support the kind of results he’s generated in 2014. That rate was near 30% in the season’s first month, however. His owners have derived much of his fantasy value from his RBI total, as have many surprising Twins so far, but their offense has already slowed, predictably. They may pick it back up, but Ron Gardenhire has already discussed a need to reduce his backstop’s workload as the season progresses. There’s a reason that Suzuki’s BABIP hasn’t finished above his career .270 mark in the last four years. A future shift out of the two-hole seems likely to accompany his regression. As suspected, he looks like an unreliable choice.
Like Ruiz has, the Tampa Bay Rays’ primary catcher rebounded from a poor 2013. Hanigan lived through a bit of a nightmare, actually, as he dealt with a strained oblique and a sprained wrist on his way to a .198/.306/.261 slash line in 260 plate appearances. Changes in Cincinnati all around made it easier for the Reds to part ways with him. Hanigan seems to be a perfect fit in Tampa Bay, however. He’s a plus defender who brings the pitch-framing ability of Jose Molina while wearing the tools of ignorance but who also has the capacity to be a positive with the stick, in large part because of his propensity to draw walks.
The relative shock has been his power production thus far. Hanigan homered twice in one game this season, it should be noted; on April 19, his dinger total from 2013 was already dust. His RBI and ISO paces are sure to diminish some, the former at least because he hits near the bottom of the lineup. That would seem especially likely if his average dips, which might follow from his 19.6 K% (career rate: 10.6%). His swinging-strike rate has jumped just as dramatically. But, as he’s discussed with local media members, he’d become accustomed to hitting in front of the pitcher, where he was less likely to see pitches to hit. There was little incentive for the long-time contact hitter to swing unnecessarily. He was content to take his base, or at least so it seemed.
Hanigan sounds as if he’s happier to have chances to swing the bat a little more often, as one might expect. His average on balls in play isn’t out of line with his lifetime rate, and he continues to drive the ball, as he has throughout his career. There’s also been a bump in fly-ball rate, suggesting that the 33-year-old is pushing toward the kind of power spike that many backstops do in their 30s. Perhaps there’s a slight tradeoff in average for a few more jacks. There seems to be no reason to think that he won’t continue to be of value to fantasy owners in deep mixed leagues.
The Oakland Athletics’ catcher was expected to see a lot of time at designated hitter in 2014. The A’s had alluded to such a plan in order to try to maintain the health of Jaso, who instead has donned the gear in roughly 75% of his appearances. So far, so good, though, and that includes with the stick. It’s a little disconcerting that his contact rate has dipped a tad while his strikeout and swinging-strike rates have both risen, though. Still, Jaso has exhibited power on occasion in the past, like he has this season, so it’s a fair tradeoff for fantasy owners if the BA declines some. His 27.5% line-drive rate, along the lines of those of his previous two years, suggests that it won’t do so drastically, anyway.
The former Ray’s health history is of chief concern. That’s particularly true because of the seeming emergence of Derek Norris, who’s hitting for power, hitting for average with a reduced K% and hitting right-handed pitching. Perhaps Oakland will eventually deploy Jaso as DH more often, say if they no longer view Daric Barton’s plus glove as enough reason to trot him out there semi-regularly and instead stick Brandon Moss at first at the same frequency. Playing time in the club’s outfield could be tenuous for health reasons, too. Norris’ hot hitting has allowed the A’s to rest Jaso a little more often, but that’s not necessarily a positive for fantasy owners.
Jaso’s ability makes him a better long-term bet to perform than Suzuki. The dubious nature of his playing time and, possibly, health make him a tough choice, both now and for the future, because of his reduced opportunities. If the situation in Oakland changes to one that benefits him with at-bats, particularly at DH, then he’ll be more attractive.
Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.