5 High Risk/High Reward Outfielders (Fantasy Baseball)

by Tom Whalen | @tomcwhalen | Featured Writer
Mar 19, 2017
How seriously can Andrew Benintendi's small MLB sample size be taken?

How seriously can Andrew Benintendi’s small MLB sample size be taken?

Tolerance for risk is one of the defining factors of each fantasy owner’s approach to the game. Some owners thrive on risk; others avoid it religiously; some sprinkle in a few high-variance plays with their bankable standbys.

With their sky-high upsides and their bottomless floors, the five outfield-eligible players below will be hinge points for many a risk/reward strategy come Draft Day. Some more wary owners already have them crossed off of their cheat sheets, while the owners who don’t mind living on the edge will be ready to pounce with fingers crossed.

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A.J. Pollock (OF – ARI)
There are two reasons to consider the Arizona outfielder a risky target. First and foremost, he’s only “done it” once. And by “done it,” I mean put together a full season of strong production, which in this case is a 157-game campaign in 2015 where he socked 20 homers, stole 39 bases, and compiled just short of 180 total runs and RBIs.

In his three other seasons since 2013, Pollack has played a total of 224 games, across which he’s hit 17 total home runs, stolen 30 total bases, and amassed exactly 180 runs and RBIs. Granted, Pollock’s breakout in 2015 certainly appeared legit, with spikes in line drive rate, hard hit rate, and opposite field percentage indicating a more mature and effective plate approach.

But what complicates Pollock’s outlook is that second risk factor, namely his injury history. Pollock missed nearly all of 2016 with a fractured elbow, and he seemed to a struggle through his brief return, limping to a .716 OPS across 12 games.

A setback in Spring Training, however minor, doesn’t exactly quell fears that Pollock is a DL stint waiting to happen. Yet those fears have not translated into any substantial discount, as he’s been a late second or early third round pick in most early drafts. Fantasy owners who want a piece of Pollock’s uniquely prolific power/speed/average upside will need to pay close to the ticket price; injury red flags be damned.

Giancarlo Stanton (OF – MIA)
The story here is all too familiar. For the fourth time in five seasons, Stanton logged fewer than 124 games played, yet while active still managed to tantalize his fantasy owners with his peerless power.

Indeed, by hard hitting metrics, Stanton was his usual baseball-scorching self in 2016, with a top-two average exit velocity mark and a top-five barrels rate among qualified hitters per MLB Statcast. So why exactly is Stanton falling as far as the fourth round in some standard fantasy drafts? There could very well be some market fatigue here, with too many owners burned by Stanton too many times over.

On top of that, the Miami slugger’s more traditional 2016 stats were not entirely impressive (at least not by his standards), with his .249 isolated slugging (ISO) at a three-year low and his .240 average significantly below his career mark of .266. To be fair, there’s a chance that Stanton’s limited games played made it so that his utterly arctic month of May (with its surreal triple slash of .173/.287/.373) weighed heavily on his final line. Stanton did club four homers over that 22-game span, but almost nothing else fell for him, as he managed just a .225 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) across that dreadful May compared to his career mark of .322.

As in previous years, the decision to draft Stanton largely hinges on a fantasy owner’s stomach for injury risk. The reward is clear enough — a full barn-burning season from Stanton would be a catalyst for a fantasy title. But what about the risk? Well, a fourth-round pick isn’t exactly a king’s ransom, but it’s still a pretty important pick.

Billy Hamilton (OF – CIN)
At his best, Hamilton is an agent of chaos on the base paths and a category-swinging asset in fantasy. But there’s also no sugarcoating that the Reds’ speed demon is about as light-hitting as a full-time MLB starter can be.

His barrels rate in 2016 was a microscopic 0.4 percent, a bottom-nine mark among qualified hitters. His career high hard-contact rate is 20.5 percent, and he’s never slugged higher than .355 across an extended sample in the majors.

That said, Hamilton proved during his solid (though injury-shortened) season last year that he doesn’t need to pound the ball to be productive. In 2016, Hamilton’s awful (and awfully unlucky) .269 BABIP from the previous year rebounded to .329, thanks in no small part to his trading fly balls for liners and grounders.

The ultimate problem for Hamilton, though, is that his hitting approach relies so much on the vagaries of batted ball luck. Is .329 a normalized BABIP for the Reds’ speedster? It’s probably too early to tell. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility to imagine Hamilton getting fewer and fewer dribblers to squirt his way, and in turn losing the trust of his manager.

Hamilton has the potential to be the most impactful asset in any single category across fantasy. He also has the potential to hit so poorly that he could find himself out of the everyday lineup. Talk about a wide range of outcomes!

Andrew Benintendi (OF – BOS)
Market bullishness on this young outfielder is climbing rapidly. Once a chic late-round sleeper, Benintendi now finds himself as the 37th outfielder off the board per average draft data, ahead of more established assets like Ben Zobrist, Dexter Fowler, and Kole Calhoun.

And sure, those hunting for upside in the mid rounds have reason to be magnetized to the 22-year-old’s massive multi-category upside, especially given his opportunity to bat in the heart of what could be the most productive offense in the majors. But it isn’t by any means guaranteed that Benintendi will immediately be the fantasy force that we might expect given his pedigree, and, by extension, it’s hardly set in stone that he will maintain that plum lineup spot (or even an everyday job) for the full course of the season.

After all, the young would-be stud’s 118 plate appearances at the MLB level are the lowest by far of any player in his price range. Sure, his line drive and hard hit rates from last year are all promising.

But do these numbers mean anything over such a small sample? The fact remains that we know a lot about what Benintendi could be as a Major League player, but next to nothing about what he is.

On the one hand, such speculation is the bread and butter of the fantasy game, and a guy like Benintendi could win people a lot of leagues this year. But a wasted mid-round pick could also put a lot of teams behind the eight ball. Why not speculate instead on multi-cat-upside outfielders like Eric Thames and Carlos Gomez, available more than 70 picks later?

Michael Brantley (OF – CLE)
The past two seasons have been such an injury-plagued nightmare for Brantley that it’s easy to forget how not long ago he was considered one of the safest early round picks in fantasy. Indeed, from 2012 through 2014, the Indians outfielder was a contact-heavy at-bats workhorse, tallying no fewer than 609 plate appearances per season, hitting no worse than .284, boasting a strikeout rate that never exceeded 11 percent in a given year. He put it all together in 2014, racking up 43 total homers and steals along with a studly .327 batting average across 676 plate appearances.

And that’s when the injuries hit. Especially damning is a shoulder injury that robbed Brantley of most of his 2016 and now throws his viability as a high-floor hitting asset into question. Still, there’s a decent chance that even if his power doesn’t quite recover, his plate skills will be enough to make him a strong fantasy asset.

That isn’t to say there’s not quite a bit of risk associated with Brantley, who stands a better-than-average chance of being an outright zero for owners who take the plunge. But then again, that plunge isn’t exactly a costly one. The FantasyPros consensus ADP has Brantley just inside the top 175 overall, not exactly bank-breaking for a player who would have cost you a second-round pick two years ago and who still might have a little bit of prime production left in the tank.


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Tom Whalen is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Tom, check out his archive or follow him @tomcwhalen.


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