Sunday, July 29, 2007

Hottest hitter in baseball: 2B/3B/OF Chone Figgins

During a spring training game late in March against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Angel 3rd baseman Chone Figgins went down to field a grounder off the bat of Diamondback 1st base prospect Conor Jackson. When he came up he booted the ball, and to make things worse the grounder had broken the index and middle fingers on his throwing hand. The injury knocked him out of action for more than a month, and he made his season debut on April 30th by going 1-4 with a double.

Fantasy owners drafting before the injury invested somewhere in the neighborhood of a 4th or 5th round pick on Figgins, and they had to be thrilled to have the little speedster back in their lineups at the end of April. Smart owners should have known anticipated a slow beginning for Figgins, as he was essentially restarting his spring training at the big league level in May. Those that hoped they could count on his 40-50 steals with a decent average and lots of runs scored right away were greatly disappointed.

From his return on the 30th of April until May 28th, he hit .133 with a measly 3 steals, very little power (only 5 extra base hits), 6 RBI, and only 11 runs scored. Some impatient owners cut him outright or traded him for pennies on the dollar, as he was showing no signs of recovering his timing and confidence at the plate. Or so they thought. A deeper look at the numbers would reveal that Figgins was walking at a rate similar to his career numbers, he was not striking much, and he was a prime candidate to be suffering from some rust and hitting into some bad luck.

On May 31st, Figgins went 3-4 with 2 steals against the Orioles, and he began one of the most remarkable runs at the plate in recent memory. In June, he hit an amazing .461 with 53 hits in 26 games, along with 17 RBIs, 23 runs scored, 14 steals, and only 13 strikeouts. He exhibited excellent plate discipline, and as a result, he swung at good pitches and not surprisingly he regained the power stroke with 10 extra-base hits. His 1.070 OPS for the month was a career high and indicative of just how complete his game was that month.

He's been excellent in July as well, hitting .363 with more walks than in June. All of this begs the question...which is the real Chone Figgins? The April-May version or the June-July Figgins?

Not surprisingly, the answer is somewhere in between. All the stats put together give Figgins a season line of .337, 1 HR, 37 RBI, 53 runs, 26 SB. With the exception of batting average, the hot months have put Figgins' counting stats in line with or a little ahead of pre-season expectations. The PECOTA projection system pegged Figgins to go .259, 87 runs, 8 HR, 45 RBIs, and 40 steals.

With regards to him topping his projections, I won't put much stock in the RBIs (which Figgins seems destined to surpass by a decent amount), since that depends on runners on and things mostly outside of Figgins' control. He can control his HR rate, which is way down this year. He is not a home run hitter, but even for him his one home run in 297 at-bats is very poor, considering he hit 9 last season and 8 in 2005. He is not likely to make it to 8 home runs this season, as he is simply hitting the ball on the ground way too much (50.8% groundballs) and not hitting it in the air enough (21.3% flyballs).

His runs scored total is lineup dependent, like RBIs, but he should hit 85 or more if he continues to get on-base at a decent clip.

Now that we've discussed his expected home run totals, and we know he should get to 40 steals, 87 runs, and surpass his RBI projection, that leaves us with the biggest question for fantasy owners... how will his average hold the rest of the season?

He was far better than the .133 he hit early on, as his BABIP in May (proportion of balls in play that result in hits...the average BABIP is usually around .300 at the major league level) was an extremely unlucky.171 for the month. In June, his BABIP for the month shot up to an insane .520, well above what could reasonably be expected no matter how well anyone's hitting. His BABIP for July is still a ridiculously high .414.

Due to these inconsistent numbers, there should skepticism as to whether he will continue hitting at a .337 clip the rest of the season. His high groundball % could work for him or against him. In theory, he can use his speed to beat out infield singles. However, he has been making a lot of hard contact, so while he may see some go through for singles, he could also see a lot of hard groundball outs. That is really up to luck, and he has been extremely lucky since early June so some regression should be expected here. In fact, his BABIP for 2007 stands at .387, well above his 2006 total (.307), and still above his 2005 total (.334).

He has an excellent line-drive percentage (24.8%), which bodes well since line drives are tougher to defend than ground balls or flyballs. His line-drive percentage actually compares favorably to 3B superstars Aramis Ramirez (21.8%), David Wright (22.2%), Alex Rodriguez (17.9%), and Miguel Cabrera (24.3%).

The final aspect to look at it his strikeout rate. On a monthly basis, Figgins' strikeout rate has fluctuated between 10.6% and 13.5%. These numbers are not bad by any means (AL average is 16.36%), but if he is to keep up this lofty batting average he would need to keep that strikeout rate at a minimum (10% or less).

Final verdict: Figgins' will see his wild batting average ride stabilize in the high .290s to the low .300s, all things holding equal. His high line-drive % and hard contact are good signs, but he really hasn't improved enough to suggest these incredible gains in average are for real. His walk rate is not improved over past seasons and remains league average(8.4% in 2007, 9.5% in 2006, 8.9% in 2005), meaning he will continue to hit the ball in play a lot and continue to be subject to a lot of luck.

His unreal BABIP for June and July suggest that some correction is coming, and since he is striking out more than typical high average hitters (Ichiro 9.5%, Pujols 9.7%, Polanco 4.3%), there is even more reason to think his average will come down a good amount. That does not mean I'm predicting a complete collapse for Figgins, but I can't expect him to blow past his career highs without seeing a sizable improvement in his skills.

Since he has not cut down his strikeout rate, improved his walk rate, or started hitting the ball into the gaps and over the fence at a much greater clip than before, I recommend shopping Figgins to other fantasy owners who think his combination of batting average and speed make him a poor man's Ichiro. Make sure you remind that owner about his position flexibility too.

He will continue to have value all season if for no other reason that his high steals totals, but his batting average is due to come down some 30 to 40 points. He could conceivably keep the .330 average up, but it will take a lot of luck that I cannot recommend counting on. If you can afford the steals, try to turn Figgins into an undervalued slugger (Travis Hafner, Jason Bay), or high ceiling arm that has seem some bumps (Jeremy Bonderman comes to mind).

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Waiver Wire Gold: SS/3B/OF Bill Hall

Last year, Milwaukee Brewers' super-utility man Bill Hall enjoyed a breakout season which saw him hit 35 HR and slug a ridiculous .553 while being fantasy eligible at 2B, SS, and 3B. Needless to say, if you were able to plug in 35 HR and 85 RBIs into your 2B or SS slot, you had a big leg up on the competition. This season was not completely unexpected, as Hall enjoyed a productive 2005 campaign, which saw him hit .291 with 17 HR and 62 RBIs to go along with a solid .495 slugging percentage.

The start of 2007 was a different story for Hall, as he had to learn to play center field on the job, and it took a toll on his offensive. In April, Hall's numbers were a bit misleading, as he had a nice line of 4 HR, 11 RBIs, and 6 doubles. Throw in some good plate discipline with 10 walks, and you would figure he had a good month. His .239 batting average put a damper on otherwise solid production, and one can explain that average by looking at his high strikeout rate (21 Ks in about 100 plate appearances) and probably hitting into some bad luck.

The month of May was a little better in terms of average, with the batting average up to .273, but he walked only 5 times to go along with only 2 HR and 9 RBIs. He still hit a high number of doubles, 7, but the strikeout rate was still too high (26 Ks). Hall was becoming more comfortable in center field, and his offensive production started to reflect with a strong month of June.

Hall hit .307 in June, walking 13 times to give him a lofty .388 on-base percentage. He slugged .523, and he started to finally look like the Hall of 2006. He was still striking out too much (23 times in June), but he was making enough hard contact to find gaps (10 doubles) and drive in more runners (17 RBIs). It appeared Hall finally had it all together, until a high ankle sprain derailed his season. He has spent nearly 20 days on the DL, but is due to return this week. The time has come to add Bill Hall to fantasy rosters if you are so lucky to have him available. Here's why:

1. Baseball Prospectus' sophisticated PECOTA projection system tabbed Hall to go .278 with 32 HR, 94 RBI, 100 runs, and 13 SB, with a .346 on-base percentage. He won't approach those totals, but the stage is set for him produce at that rate the rest of the way, assuming there are no linger effects from his ankle sprain.

2. His high doubles totals (24) suggest Hall has driven the ball very well all year, and it is not a stretch for a few more of those doubles to turn into home runs.

3. Motivation will not be a factor, as his Brewers are in a tight pennant race with the Chicago Cubs.

4. With his skills, he is a good bet to have more value the rest of the way over such overvalued SS eligible players like J.J. Hardy, Michael Young, Orlando Cabrera, Brendan Harris, Jhonny Peralta, Aaron Hill, Freddy Sanchez, and Troy Tulowitzky.

5. His position eligibility is priceless. In typical Yahoo Leagues, he qualifies at SS/3B/OF and CI & MI if your league plays those spots. That kind of flexibility allows you to maximize the value of your roster in this crucial time in fantasy leagues.

6. He is in his age 27 season, which is thought to be the statistical peak for hitters.

7. Given health, based on the pre-season projections and the in-season production, you can reasonably expect a line looking like this the rest of the way: .275 with 8-10 HR, 30-40 RBIs, 35-45 runs, and a handful of steals (depending on his willingness to run after the ankle injury).

Monday, July 23, 2007

Unsung Hero: 2B/OF Kelly Johnson

At the beginning of the fantasy season, a typical draft cheat sheet would look something like this at the 2B position:
  1. Chase Utley, PHI
  2. Robinson Cano, NYY
  3. Chone Figgins, LAA
  4. Brian Roberts, BAL
  5. Rickie Weeks, MIL
  6. Dan Uggla, FLA
  7. Julio Lugo, BOS
  8. Felipe Lopez, WAS
  9. Jeff Kent, LAD
  10. Howie Kendrick, LAA
Down the line were sleeper picks like Ian Kinsler, Brandon Phillips, Josh Barfield, etc. Chase Utley was the concensus 1st pick, but after him there was no clear #2 pick. In most leagues it was Robinson Cano, no doubt because of his .342 batting average in 2006 and his surrounding lineup of sluggers in the Bronx.

This position was perceived to be extremely thin coming in, creating an opportunity for a fantasy owner to find incredible value in the later rounds. Besides Utley, Cano, and Roberts, most of the rest of the second baseman were viewed as one giant lower tier, with some more unproven higher ceiling players (Weeks, Uggla, Phillips) balanced out by proven performers (Kent, Lugo). Lost in the mix was an outfield prospect turned second baseman in Atlanta, one Kelly Johnson.

At 19, Johnson showed promise as an outfielder in the low minor leagues by hitting 23 HR in 124 games. He did not repeat his success in the next couple of seasons, but still earned a call-up to the majors. In 2005, he played 87 games for the big club in Atlanta, showing some power (9 HR), but with little in the way of average and slugging. He struggled with elbow problems, and as a result he missed the most of the 2006 minor league season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Even though he had enjoyed only 1 outstanding season to date, there were plenty of signs to suggest Johnson could be a quality major league hitter. Throughout his minor league career, Johnson showed very good plate discipline, posting a solid .366 on-base percentage fueled by a solid walk rate of 11.5%, (277 BB in 2401 plate appearances). That kind of control of the strike zone usually translates very well for a player once they reach the majors, so it should have been no surprise that when he picked up an infielder's glove, Johnson won the starting second base job in Atlanta during spring training, even without a big season since 2001.

During the 2007 season, Johnson has put together a very solid fantasy campaign. He has hit .291, with 10 HR, 45 RBI, 60 runs, and 7 steals. His plate discipline has been impressive yet again, as he sports a .391 ob-base percentage with the help of 53 walks, second only to Brian Roberts amongst all second baseman. His only downfall has been his streakiness, which has seen his monthly averages fluctuate: .326, .259, .256, .370. This may be due to his abnormally high strikeout rate during those months, (16 and 11 in April and July, compared to 23 and 21 in May and June). During those months, he managed to maintain some value due to his walk rate, but he was unjustly punished during a Braves' team slump and relegated to starting only against right-handers.

Even though he has been sitting against left-handed starters because of those two mediocre batting months, his contributions cannot be ignored, as he is hitting .346 in the second half and figures to continue contributing. His skills are legitimate, and as long as he controls his strikeouts, he will hit and walk with the best of them. He should provide value comparable to the top fantasy second baseman when he plays, save for superstar Utley. If you need a boost for your 2nd base, middle infield, or outfield spot on your fantasy team, do not hesitate to pick Johnson up.

Even with the two mediocre months, he has given fantasy owners production only bested by 6 other second baseman (Utley, Phillips, Roberts, Uggla, BJ Upton, and Placido Polanco). His skills set, coupled with his high walk rate and a normalized strikeout rate (somewhere between his high May and June totals and his low April and July totals) mean he should hit .300 with 5-7 HR, 30 RBI, 40 runs, and a handful of steals the rest of the way.

Let's not forget that Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection system has Johnson tabbed for a sick full season line that looks like this: .291 23 HR 89 RBI 104 runs with 12 SB. The Braves made a mistake by taking away at-bats from Johnson, so don't make the mistake of keeping him out of your lineup. That is just too much value for a player that may be available on your waiver wire.