August 13, 2014
Setting Expectations on Superstars
“He’s just a name-brand at this point. He’s not as good as people think. At this point, people are blinded by previous performance, rather than current or future performance.”
My buddy, Drew, leaned forward and smiled as he crossed off Tom Brady’s name from our pre-draft ranking sheet. Drew and I have co-owned a fantasy football team for years. He’s the brains of the operation. I’m along for the ride because it makes me more interested in the NFL than I otherwise would be, but Drew spent the better part of two months preaching to me that Tom Brady was no longer the quarterback everyone had grown accustomed to over the past decade. We had him as the no. 8 QB in our pre-draft rankings and it’s not difficult to imagine the smug look on our faces as we watched Brady go as the third-overall QB in the second round.
Sure enough, Brady finished the season as the 13th-best fantasy quarterback in ESPN leagues. Drew shot text messages my way every weekend, gloating about the accuracy of his prediction. Ultimately, his take was nails. People were paying for the name brand. Expectations weren’t in line with reality; thus, many fantasy football owners paid the price throughout the season.
Properly leveling expectations once something changes in the fantasy profile is important across the board, but when it comes to superstar players and guys who will be drafted in the first two or three rounds of the draft, it becomes paramount. You can’t miss atop the draft. It’s a chore to recover that lost production. Either the remainder of the draft must be spectacular or you have to be a waiver-wire magician.
It’s something that resonated with me heading into the 2014 fantasy baseball season. In re-draft leagues, I shied away from players who had significant changes in overall profile, whether it be difficult ballparks, injuries, uncharacteristic breakout seasons, etc. I prioritized “sure things” in the first few rounds.
Such a hands-off approach helped me avoid guys like Joey Votto, Chris Davis, Dustin Pedroia, Alex Rios, and Carlos Gonzalez. However, it also meant that I carelessly discarded players such as Ian Kinsler and Robinson Cano. Over four months into the season, though, we can perhaps start to recalibrate and properly level expectations for some of the players we may have been nervous to draft prior to the season. I want to focus on two in this space.
OF Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers
"The analogy is if you touch a hot stove, no matter how badly you want to keep your hand there, the natural reaction will be to take your hand off it. That's kind of what happens every time I make contact, when it gets bad. No matter what I want to do or try to do, I can't keep two hands on the bat.”
"My whole thumb was numb. But we're always dealing with little things with our hands, whether you get jammed or you hit it off the end of the bat. Your hand hurts but you just assume it will go away after a couple of days. That's what I was hoping would occur, but it didn't and still hasn't."
"The challenge with this is that I hit with my hands. When I'm going my best, I hit completely with my hands. I try not to use my body. But when (the thumb) hurts I basically have to use my body and can't use my hands. We all deal with challenges but this has been the most frustrating one I've dealt with, ever."
Those quotations are alarming, so much so that many fantasy analysts (including myself) advocated shopping Ryan Braun earlier in the season. It’s an injury that seemingly doesn’t have a cure, and it’s simply about maintenance and hoping it heals on its own. When talking about evaluating superstar talent, that’s not an attractive profile whatsoever.
Well, we’re almost midway through August, and Ryan Braun has a .307 TAv. That ranks 31st in all of baseball (min. 300 PA) and is identical to what Adrian Beltre has compiled on the year. It ranks ahead of Nelson Cruz, Hunter Pence, Buster Posey, Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon, and Miguel Cabrera.
In short, he’s producing despite the thumb injury. He’s still comfortably a top-20 fantasy outfielder.
Things have changed, though. Braun only has 14 homers this year and his current .209 ISO is almost 50-points below what it was in 2011 and 2012. He’s almost exclusively hitting to center and right fields, too, which is likely a product of his thumb injury. His walk rate has dropped to 6.5 percent, and my personal observation is that he’s being forced to start the bat earlier because he’s not able to be as quick with his hands. This can be seen in his career-high 40.9 percent swing rate at pitches out of the strike zone and his overall 10.7 percent swinging-strike rate, which is markedly higher than his career norms.
Thus, I’m extremely comfortable saying that Ryan Braun has changed as a hitter, and considering the nature of his thumb injury, it’s unclear how long the altered approach will last.
With that said, it’s premature to label Braun as washed up or on the decline. He currently ranks 18th in Major League Baseball in average fly-ball distance (299.17 ft). In addition, his .209 ISO ranks 20th among qualified hitters. The power hasn’t disappeared. Instead, it seems to be a matter of getting to that power. He’s being forced to swing earlier, which is impacting his ability to swing at quality pitches, and his fly-ball rate is down because he’s had such a line-drive approach to center and right field. His 30.8 percent fly-ball rate is a career low, which means he’s not lifting the baseball as often. When he does, it seems everything is business as usual. It’s just not happening as often.
For fantasy owners, if the thumb injuries continue, it seem as if we’re looking at a guy who can hit 20-to-25 homers, hit for high average, and still steal 20 bases. That’s plenty valuable. Only nine players hit 20 homers and stole 20 bags in 2013. However, it’s not the Ryan Braun we remember from 2011 and 2012. More importantly, though, there seems to be this increasing narrative of failure surrounding the 30-year-old outfielder. That’s certainly off the mark, and fantasy owners may be able to get nice value with him next year, if that narrative continues to gain a foothold in the broader baseball consciousness. And if the thumb injury can heal, all bets are off.
2B Robinson Cano, Seattle Mariners
That’s what you want from a high draft pick. Consistency. Robinson Cano has been the epitome of consistent excellence at the dish, yet some owners were literally taking him off their draft boards.
Could the power really decline that much? He had clobbered at least 25 long balls in five-straight years. Surely that power plays anywhere, right?
It seems the preseason fears were somewhat justified. His current .143 ISO is his worst mark since 2008, and he only has 10 home runs. In fact, PECOTA only projects him to hit 16 homers on the season. That’s absolutely a significant decline in power. It’s no fluke, either. Check out his batted-ball distance:
The 2014 season negatively stands out like a Class-A player getting a spot start in a big-league spring training game. Something has changed. Part of it is certainly the environment. Safeco Park regularly plays below average in power for lefties. Thus, one would expect his power numbers to drop, especially considering the weather in Seattle. I’m particularly interested, though, as to whether Cano has altered his approach to cope with the altered hitting environment. His 51.7 percent ground-ball rate this season is the only time his ground-ball rate has eclipsed 50.0 percent since the 2007 season. So, really, he’s moved to a different park and started hitting the baseball on the ground more often. That’s a prime recipe for decreased power production.
Funny story, though. Robinson Cano is still the third-ranked fantasy second baseman in ESPN leagues and the 18th-ranked overall hitter. The feared power dropoff happened worse than most people predicted, and he’s still an elite hitter. His .323 TAv is 13th-best in all of baseball (min. 300 PA) and is essentially identical to his .324 TAv from a year ago. And, to top it off, he’s running a bit more than he’s done in previous seasons. He’s on pace to break the double-digit steal mark for the first time in his big-league career.
PECOTA projects Cano to finish the season with a .326/.392/.483 slash line, 80 runs, 90 RBI, 16 homers, and 10 stolen bases. Maybe fantasy owners need to adjust to the altered power production, but if anyone thinks that’s not an elite package from an offensive player, they’re delusional. His RBI totals could even benefit from a more consistent one-two punch top the batting order in Austin Jackson and Dustin Ackley, rather than James Jones and Endy Chavez/Brad Miller. Cano is moving back up my fantasy rankings, exactly where he belongs.