BaseballHQ: Spring Training Questions (Batters)

Feb 14, 2013

BaseballHQ Rec2Dan Becker tackles pressing questions including the 2013 outlook for big name players on new teams as well as what to expect from MLB’s emerging stars.


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Are human beings alone in the universe? Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? What happened to the lost colony of Roanoke? Did Tony Soprano die? Does Bigfoot exist and if so, why so anti-social? These are some of the most important questions mankind has ever faced. But one question renders all of these others inconsequential by comparison: Are you ready for baseball season?


Pitchers and catchers have reported and over the next week many of the world’s best hitters will arrive at their respective camps. Spring training is off and running, which means competitive baseball is right around the corner. In preparation, the Batter Buyer’s Guide aims to tackle five burning questions owners face as they prepare for the 2013 slate.


Editor’s note: For definitions and benchmarks of BaseballHQ’s most-used terms, please reference this Glossary Primer.


Which Josh Hamilton shows up in Anaheim?


To put it mildly, Josh Hamilton (OF, LAA) is inconsistent. He’s averaged 122 games and 470 ABs a year since his MLB debut in 2007 so just staying in the lineup has been a challenge. But even when in the lineup, as he was for most of last season, his performance can vary wildly.


At his best, Hamilton will threaten a .300 BA while carrying a steady LD% (Line Drive %) and huge PX (Power Index). While Hamilton can frustrate by adopting an ultra-aggressive approach at times, he’s also not allergic to walks and runs enough to steal a handful of bases each season in spite of poor Spd (Speed Score) as well. Put it together and you have the kind of superstar ability that’s generated BPVs (Best Performance Value) of 80+ in five of his six MLB seasons.


But even with all that talent, there are reasons for concern. Hamilton’s ct% (Contact Rate) and Eye have declined for two straight seasons to the point where his former BA upside is in jeopardy. He looked much more pedestrian in the 2H of 2012 than his MVP pace that began the year.


At age 31, Hamilton is at the tail end of his prime and has significant injury risk along with other well-documented baggage. He’s capable of elite performance, but he could just as easily be entering a decline phase. The Angels bet that Hamilton will continue to excel, but the potential downside is significant enough that owners should let someone else pay the high price it will take to land Hamilton come draft day.


Will a change of scenery benefit Justin Upton?


There was little doubt that Justin Upton (OF, ATL) was headed out of Arizona given the trade rumors that had been swirling in the desert for years. Was it the constant threat of upheaval that contributed to Upton’s downswing in 2012? Or did it have more to do with the thumb injury he played through? Chances are it was both, but now in Atlanta with brother, B.J., Upton has a great opportunity to get his promising career back on track.


From a skills standpoint, Upton struggled at times in the past due to poor ct% (Contact Rate), but that wasn’t the case in 2012 as his ct% stayed consistent with his stellar 2011 performance. Upton’s bb% (Walk Rate) actually improved, which led to an improved Eye for the third straight season. His Spd (Speed Score) and SBO% (Stolen Base Opportunity %) remained strong, which leaves his abrupt PX (Power Index) decline as the critical factor in his disappointing results. However, Upton’s previous excellence and consistency in this area makes it all the more likely that his thumb injury was the real issue rather than an abrupt, legitimate loss of power.


Upton is just 25 years old and still put up useful numbers even while swinging a less potent bat, which is a testament to his abundant overall ability as a hitter. It’s rare that talent like this comes at a discount even after a relatively pedestrian season, but if Upton slides in drafts even a little then owners should be ready to call his number.


Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez in LA: Bargain or buyer’s remorse?


At first glance, 2012 looks like the first hint of decline for Adrian Gonzalez (1B, LA). But a closer look reveals that Gonzalez, while not elite, was a very good player in the 2H and his 1H struggles had more to do with fluky hr/f (Home Run to Fly Ball rate) results than with a loss of skills. The three year decline in bb% (Walk Rate) is curious, but it’s offset to some extent by Gonzalez’ improved ct% (Contact Rate) that keeps his BA and xBA (Expected Batting Average) favorable. Gonzalez was clearly overpriced heading into last season, but he’s very likely to come at a discount this year. Preliminary Verdict: BARGAIN


For the past few seasons, folks have struggled to explain what’s wrong with Hanley Ramirez (SS, LA). Injuries, attitude problems and environment have all been blamed to varying extents for Ramirez’ lackluster results, but regardless of the reasons, it’s become clear that Ramirez no longer possesses the skills that made him a superstar just a few years ago. His bb%  (Walk Rate) and ct% (Contact Rate) did not just decline overall in 2012; they declined steadily as the year progressed as well. His PX (Power Index), while still above average, remains limited by an elevated GB% (Ground Ball Rate). And the once strong Spd (Speed Score) is now below average, salvaged only by his SB% (Stolen Base %). Ramirez may yet put together another transcendent season, but it’s looking less and less likely. Let someone else pay for the past. Preliminary Verdict: BUYER’S REMORSE


What’s next for Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in 2013?


Brace yourself, dear reader, for an important news bulletin: These two kids are really good at baseball. Barring some unfortunate development, each of these fellows will be the topic of many conversations, arguments and articles for years to come. But the question owners should be asking right now is what can be expected of them in 2013?


For Mike Trout (OF, LAA), the short answer is regression. Please understand that for Trout, fresh off a historically productive season, some regression will still leave quite a bit of room to produce another strong season. His h% (Hit Rate) is likely to remain elevated throughout his career so he’ll be a solid bet to consistently outperform his xBA (Expected Batting Average). But 2012’s outperformance was an outlier, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him fall short of .300 given his ct% (Contact Rate). The PX (Power Index) looks great, but expect another correction there also as his hr/f (Home Run to Fly Ball rate) will look a lot more like it did in his 1H, as opposed to his unsustainable 2H.


Should owners avoid Trout in 2013? Of course not. He’s a talented hitter with plus power and remarkable Spd (Speed Score) that is likely to buoy his performance even when he does struggle. But should owners spend a top three pick on him? Doing so leaves very little room for profit.


A much better value play can be found in the person of Bryce Harper (OF, WAS). Harper was not nearly as prolific as Trout, but he is every bit as dynamic in terms of skills. Harper showed incredible consistency first half ot second half as a 19-year-old facing MLB competition for the first time, as his bb% (Walk Rate) and ct% (Contact Rate) held even as his already plus PX/Spd (Power Index/Speed Score) combination ticked up slightly in the 2H. Harper has work to do against southpaws (.715 OPS vs LHP), but even at such a young age it’s not as if he’s helpless against them either.


Both of these players have risk at an age when their peers are either in college or toiling in the low minors, but between them Harper offers a much more palatable price tag and has considerable room to grow in terms of production. Many owners will be eager to overpay for either of these players so adjust expectations accordingly, but for now Harper offers better value on draft day.


Is this the end for Derek Jeter?


Like some strange pessimistic ritual, it’s become an annual tradition to speculate as to whether this will be the year that time catches up with Derek Jeter (SS, NYY). Year after year, Jeter proves the doubters wrong and puts together useful fantasy numbers, but his circumstances heading into this season are such that he could finally be facing an insurmountable challenge. Jeter will turn 39 and is still rehabbing the broken leg he suffered during the playoffs that required off-season surgery. He has suggested that he’ll be ready for Opening Day, but whether he’ll be at full strength by then remains to be seen.


A more pressing concern for owners should be the decline in Jeter’s skills last season. Sure, the surface numbers look great, but the three year negative trend in BPV (Best Performance Value) tells a different story. While his ct% (Contact Rate) remains strong, Jeter’s Eye is eroding due to his deteriorating bb% (Walk Rate). This trend coupled with even a subtle sag in his h% (Hit Rate) would completely undermine his BA. Absent a solid BA, Jeter’s value takes a major hit as his Spd (Speed Score) and SBO% (Stolen Base Opportunity %) are down significantly and his meager PX (Power Index) makes his HR production wholly dependent on good hr/f (Home Run to Fly Ball rate) fortune.


Add it all up and the 2013 forecast for Jeter looks mighty gloomy. He’s beaten the odds (and his naysayers) before, but coming off a major injury at his age can be daunting all on its own before factoring in the significant signs of decline he showed when healthy. Jeter is a consummate pro and has enjoyed an amazing career, but he’s no longer a risk worth taking.


Bourn is no longer free, but what is he worth?


For much of the winter, it seemed Scott Boras was the only person with any real insight on where Michael Bourn (OF, CLE) would be playing this season. Now having agreed to a four year, $48M dollar deal with the Indians, the question is no longer what uniform Bourn will wear, but what sort of value he offers fantasy owners.


Much like with his free agency, the answer depends on the price. Bourn is a demon on the basepaths and his Spd (Speed Score) remains excellent, which is important because stolen bases are critical to his value. He ran less in Atlanta last season so owners must hope that the Indians intend to set him loose on the bases keying a SBO% (Stolen Base Opportunity %) rebound. Terry Francona’s Boston teams had a reputation as being averse to the stolen base, but Francona actually managed some teams that ranked near the top of MLB in SBs in 2008 and 2009. His last few Red Sox teams did not run near as much, but that had more to do with personnel/injuries than any philosophical position. Francona is unlikely to give Bourn the stop sign if it will improve his team’s chances of winning, just as he didn’t inhibit a young Jacoby Ellsbury on the bases in Boston.


Bourn must run often to return value because outside of his excellent Spd, he just doesn’t have noteworthy skills. He’s flashed solid bb% (Walk Rate) at times, but his patience fluctuates (see his 2012 1H/2H split for example) and his weak ct% (Contact Rate) means his BA is more likely to hurt his owners than help them. His HR uptick last season was a product of a fluky 1H hr/f  (Home Run to Fly Ball rate) so his value is almost entirely dependent on his ability to reach base, steal, and score.


Speedsters entering their early thirties are a questionable investment. Without his terrific wheels, Bourn is an ordinary hitter at best that lacks power, employs an inconsistent approach at the plate and is transitioning to a superior league. It isn’t likely that his SB upside falls apart this season or even next, but the threat is always there with one-dimensional players like Bourn. If he slides on draft day, Bourn’s SB track record warrants some notice. But just because the Indians eventually paid sticker price doesn’t mean fantasy owners should do the same.


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