Lord Zola's Fantasy Baseball Mailbag: 2011's Top 50: 25 to 1

by Todd Zola, MastersBall.com on October 17, 2011 @ 09:43:18 PDT

 


Today we continue our review of the top 50 fantasy performers from the 2011 season, with a quip looking towards 2012. Here is the top 25.

25. Jered Weaver (SP) - In 2010, Weaver markedly improved both his strikeout and walk rates. The question coming into this season was whether he could maintain either or both. The answer turned out to be Weaver's strikeout rate fell back to previous levels, but his walk rate remained quite low. This bodes well going forward as he should be able to better manage pitch counts and continue to go deep into games and amass high innings totals. Beware, however, that his 2011 ERA was buoyed by a fortunate hit rate which is likely to regress, causing a rise in ERA.

24. Troy Tulowitzki (SS) - Once again, Tulowitzki spent significant time on the disabled list, curtailing his production. Assuming the hip injury that ended Tulowitzki's season a couple of weeks early is not an issue, he will enter 2012 healthy, and though the injury prone label is deserved, none of his ailments are of the chronic variety. Part of me wants to penalize him for this, but then I think about Ian Kinsler who stayed healthy this season and was rewarded with a place still to come on this list.

Texas Rangers 2B Ian Kinsler
My favorite 2nd-rounder: Kinsler

23. Carlos Gonzalez (OF) - Gonzalez is another first round talent that has trouble playing a full season. In fact, Gonzalez was borderline top-15 before sitting out much of the final two weeks of the campaign. If Gonzalez can be paired early with a more reliable selection, his skills can lead to top-5 production if he plays a few more games. As is, missing time, he is still a back-end second rounder.

22. Jose Reyes (SS) - I sense a trend here as only the disabled list kept Reyes from a loftier ranking. That said, a major component of his value was the much ballyhooed batting average that Reyes took some heat in order to protect. Perhaps Reyes realized this may have been his only chance to win the title as he is not likely to repeat the inflated BABIP that yielded such a high mark.

21. Roy Halladay (SP) - In a mild upset, Halladay is not the highest ranked starting pitcher, in fact he is not even the highest ranked Phillie at the position. Doc had his typically stellar campaign, though it should be pointed out his home run rate was a bit lucky, which helped keep his ERA extremely low. Even though a couple of more hurlers finished the season with more value earned than Halladay, his consistency and reliability will keep him atop my pitchers ranking for next season.

20. Cliff Lee (SP) - Edging his teammate by a couple of decimal points, Lee lands in the top 20. Perhaps as a result of a full season in the Senior Circuit, Lee enjoyed a career high strikeout rate, which is what propelled him past his teammate. I am going to expect a slight regression with respect to whiffs, but Lee is still going to be a top tier option next spring.

19. Alex Gordon (OF) - Finally! This was supposed to be the norm for Gordon, not the exception. Here is the problem. Careful inspection of his skills shows no marked improvement in any area. His contact rate and power were within range of career norms. His walk rate even dropped a tad. The primary boon was a bloated BABIP, which is not likely to sustain. The elevated average kept Gordon in the lineup, which in turn allowed him to accumulate across the board production, but as great as a story he was, there is nothing that tells me this was his breakout season and we have a perennial top-20 performer. I think we have a solid 20 HR/15 SB guy, but he is going to be overpriced based on his unrepeatable .303 average.

18. Melky Cabrera (OF) - Okay, who saw this one coming? Unlike teammate Gordon, Cabrera's power and speed came as a bit of a surprise, though he teased the potential for both earlier in his career, but neither was able to consistently manifest. Like Gordon, Cabrera's worth was pumped up by a batting average that can only be described as lucky as a result of a fortunate BABIP.

17. Michael Bourn (OF) - Bourn sneaks into the top 20 on account of a higher than usual batting average as well as a handful more RBI than usual. Always a generous source of steals, Bourn earned value that is tempered because his contact rate is pretty poor for a slap hitter and his walk rate is subpar. His average was higher this season as a result of a high BABIP, but unlike Cabrera and Gordon, it is not luck-driven but more due to his speed and ability to bunt for hits. Still, it was higher than usual so a drop next season should be expected. However, assuming he remains with the Atlanta Braves, this drop in fantasy value could be offset with a higher total of runs scored.

16. Ian Kinsler (2B) - Ah yes, the recipient of Lord Zola's latest bro-mance, Kinsler finally played a full season and the results followed as he was joined only by Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp and Jacoby Ellsbury in the 30-30 club. By means of a little tease, those three names just happen to be the final three on this list. The chief element separating Kinsler from that troika is a low batting average. Kinsler's contact rate is extremely high, which should lead to a high average, but his BABIP is always lower than league average, primarily because he is a fly ball hitter. He does, however, take a goodly number of walks which helps his OBP in real baseball, but not so much in fantasy. If you can pair him with a high average type in the first, Kinsler makes for a great second rounder since he has upside in the average department and is going to produce plentiful counting stats, assuming he remains healthy.

15. Joey Votto (1B) - I speak at a series of seminars each spring, and am invariably asked what consensus first rounder do I feel may fail to live up to expectations? Perhaps surprisingly to some, my 2011 response was Votto as I saw the possibility for a drop in any of homers, steals or average. As it turns out, I was right in all three, but the decreases were not enough to knock him out of the first in 15-team leagues. Though, the fact Votto missed only one game no doubt contributed to this as he was able to accumulate that many more counting stats. Votto is on the verge of being given bonus points for consistency, I just want to see him do it one more time because his contact rate is just a little low for my liking and he is quite reliant on a high, but consistent BABIP.

14. Justin Upton (OF) - The younger Upton finally demonstrated the potential many have drooled over the past few years. Most notable about his 2011 season, other than good health the whole way through, was a significant improvement in contact rate, which helped Upton maintain a high average despite a drop in BABIP. Assuming he stays healthy and the improved contact rate is real, this means Upton has the batting average upside to propel himself into the top 10. That said, when it comes to my first round pick, I need to see the contact rate be sustained before I take the plunge, despite the further upside potential.

13. Prince Fielder (1B) - Say what you want about his physique and conditioning, but you can count on one thumb the number of games Fielder has missed the past three seasons. Of course, this high number of plate appearances results in a plethora of RBIs, though the home runs do help, he says tongue in cheek. His ultimate ranking will depend a little on where he ends up, but Fielder has established himself as a strong wheel pick, the perfect complement to a speedier guy or perhaps someone like Kinsler, a slight health risk. In fact, if you gave me the option of taking the last pick in the first round and getting Fielder and Kinsler or the top pick, I would think long and hard about it.

12. Robinson Cano (2B) - You would be hard-pressed to find a more reliable player than Cano. Honestly, there is really not much to say. His skill set is extremely stable, he never gets hurt and he is surrounded by a bunch of solid players, keeping his production high. And this season he even chipped in with eight steals. Some may suggest his ceiling is limited, what you see is what you get. I would counter that with his floor being so high and give him bonus points for being as safe as they get this early.

Los Angeles Dodgers OF Matt Kemp
How likely is Kemp to repeat?

11. Dustin Pedroia (2B) - Case in point, Pedroia may have a little higher ceiling than Cano, mostly because he steals more bases, but he is a little more inconsistent so I will have Cano ranked higher for 2012, but not my much. In reality, it will likely come down to who plays more games as the only mark against Pedroia is the season he hurt his foot. That said, looking at their respective styles and not so much blindly at the numbers, Pedroia's margin of error is smaller with his "from the heels" swing, while Cano is so compact and smooth.

10. Albert Pujols (1B) - When you have what many label a disappointing campaign and still finish as the 10th best player, you have set the bar really high. Actually, it is unfair to call Pujols' season disappointing. We all know about the DL stint, costing him some time, curtailing some production. But aside from that Pujols' skill set was stellar as always, save for a career low BABIP which dropped his average all the way to .299, oh the horror. That said, his BABIP is trending downward which is a little concerning, but not yet alarming. Other than the depressed average, the chief reason Pujols' production declined was a drop in his usual average with runners in scoring position. If anyone out there wants to argue that Pujols forgot how to hit in the proverbial clutch, well, as the saying goes, I hope I am in a league with you next year.

9. Clayton Kershaw (SP) - Coming into the season, Kershaw was what I like to call one skill away, that skill being reducing his walk rate. Well, Kershaw obliged and the numbers followed. But as wonderful as 2011 was for the southpaw, when it comes to this sort of thing, I am like those from Missouri and he needs to show me for another year. Don't get me wrong, he is an upper echelon starter, I am just not going to jump him up to the top 3 just yet, I need to see the lower walk rate one more time. Too many before him have lowered the walks only to give some back the next season.

8. Adrian Gonzalez (1B) - What a strange year this was for the slugger as Gonzalez hit for an extremely high average, but did not drive nearly as many out of the park as expected. It is unclear how much of this was a result of offseason shoulder surgery, but because his 2011 value was so driven by a high BABIP, I expect that Gonzalez is rated higher than I am willing to invest next season. I do not want to take my first rounder on the potential he can hit 45 homers. I prefer to take someone I am confident will hit a little fewer, trading the higher reward for less risk.

7. Miguel Cabrera (1B) - As has been discussed in this space, I am a big fan of reliability and Cabrera is one of the most reliable in the game. At the end of the day, his speed deficiency will keep him out of the top 5 in any given year, but he will always be in that next grouping which scores bonus points in my book. Drafting Cabrera lets you take a risk on a high upside player later.

6. Jose Bautista (3B) - As I have suggested previously, the residual doubters are going to use Bautista's somewhat tepid second half as evidence he is a fluke. Let them, his skills say otherwise, and have been present long enough to be considered fact. Look for a more consistent 2012 with similar numbers to 2011, though I do expect an average closer to .280 than .300.

5. Justin Verlander (SP) - The top ranked pitcher this season, Verlander will share first pitcher off the board honors with Kershaw and Halladay in the spring, though as I have stated, Halladay still deserves the top perch. From a value sense, Verlander's 24 wins thrust him ahead of the pack and into the top 5. By this time, I hope I do not have to enlighten you on the fickleness of the stat. That said, from a skills perspective, like Kershaw, Verlander reduced the free passes, though he started at a lower base than Kershaw so it is more reasonable to anticipate he repeats the feat. I have not run the numbers yet, but I am guessing Verlander will follow Halladay on my ranking sheet and will definitely be the top American Leaguer, displacing Felix Hernandez, though for the money, King Felix may return a better bang for the buck as Verlander will be a bit overpriced by most.

4. Curtis Granderson (OF) - This was a magical campaign for Granderson, but one I fear will go down as his career best. I honestly think he is the same player as he always has been, despite the well publicized change in approach and swing after working with Yankees hitting instructor Kevin Long. I know there is value in watching players, as I suggested with my Pedroia versus Cano analysis earlier but there is just not ample evidence in Granderson's skills to suggest he is a new player. His contact was actually worse that previous seasons. The big jump was in HR/FB and I just do not see him sustaining that. I also think his elevated steals total was a result of everything going right for Granderson, with the added confidence giving him the edge he needed to attempt more stolen bases. Granderson is a fine fantasy player, but not a first round talent, sorry.

3. Ryan Braun (OF) - I am already on record as proclaiming Braun my top fantasy pick next season. He passes both the production and reliability tests. Even in a season where he lost 50 at bats due to injury, Braun still finished third. He may finish third again next year, and the year after, but the point is the players finishing ahead of him are not likely to repeat whereas if healthy, Braun is a lock (or as much of a lock as there is in this game) for the top 5 and that is what matters to me. I must admit, however, that expecting 30-something steals is aggressive and it was the 33 pilfers that landed Braun in the top 3 despite missing a few games. But 20 ain't bad and will do the trick for me.

2. Jacoby Ellsbury (OF) - Perhaps this is unfair to Granderson and a result of the fact I saw most of Ellsbury's at bats this season while watching many fewer of Granderson's, but I am of the mind that Ellsbury's power spike was real, though exaggerated. That is, Ellsbury hitting low 20s would not surprise me going forward. Many of you know my saying "homers are hits too" and if Ellsbury hits 10 fewer homers, his average is likely to drop 15-20 points, further tempering his fantasy value. That said, the wild card will be the steals, which can range anywhere from 40 to 60. At the end of the day, I believe Ellsbury to be a first round talent, but his profile does not match how I prefer to build my team. Perhaps if he in fact hits 20 homers while stealing 50 bases in 2012, I may be willing to take Ellsbury and build my team accordingly, but he is still too much of a risk to design an entire strategy around, which is what you need to do if you start your squad with him.

1. Matt Kemp (OF) - Not surprisingly, Kemp lapped the field as he dominated in all five categories. From a skills basis, the only real improvement was in HR/FB which can be partly luck, though that remains to be seen. In other words, the HR/FB spike fit Kemp's age and skill profile, yet it is not a sure thing it will not regress next season. My money is on the likelihood it will. What is almost a sure thing is a drop in batting average as there is no way Kemp can repeat the inflated BABIP that fueled his 2011 season. His contact rate was the same as ever (not very good) and his line drive rate was nothing special, but his BABIP was quite high. His steals were no doubt a result of more opportunities, but like Granderson, I suspect they also were helped by the confidence Kemp enjoyed, feeling "I can do no wrong."

There you have it, a sneak peek at 50 players for 2012. Next week we will continue our series with a look at the top-ranked infielder from this past season.

When Todd is not debating starting his team with Ryan Braun or Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler at the turn, you can find him hanging out at the forum at Mastersball.

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About Todd Zola, MastersBall.com

Focusing primarily on the science of player valuation and game theory starting in 1997, Todd Zola and Mastersball carved out an important niche in the fantasy industry. In 2006, Todd became the Research Director for fantasybaseball.com, and in 2009, he relaunched Mastersball and is now a managing partner.

Todd competes in Tout Wars and the XFL, and has been a multiple-time league champion in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship. He has been a contributor to the fantasy content at MLB.com and SI.com, is a frequent guest on Sirius/XM and Blog Talk Radio and is an annual speaker at the spring and fall First Pitch Forum symposiums.

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