Fantasy baseball lessons: Identifying players with red flags

by Nicholas Minnix on February 1, 2010 @ 17:37:21 PDT


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Have you taken the FSATs? You better hurry; deadlines to apply to the top fantasy baseball leagues are fast approaching, if they haven't already.

Here's a quick practice exam:

deceit : politics ::

(A) shoulder pads : fantasy football

(B) dizziness : fantasy NASCAR

(C) minimizing risk : fantasy baseball

(D) home-court advantage : fantasy basketball

(E) teeth : fantasy hockey

Hint: We're looking for the pair of elements in which the first is considered crucial to success in the second. Also, the answer is always C.

The deeper the league, the more this need to manage risk holds true. Many fantasy baseball champs don't own the most breakout players; they roster the fewest risks. You know, it's the person you asked, How come YOUR team isn't having this problem?

Perennially injured players like Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones and Chicago Cubs starter Rich Harden are naturally overvalued when they come off relatively malady-free seasons. Many were willing to overlook the hazards involved with Tampa Bay Rays outfielder B.J. Upton's lengthy recovery from shoulder surgery. One-year wonders with unsupported output, like Kansas City Royals infielder Mike Aviles, are dangerous targets, too.

Chicago Cubs SP Rich Harden
Did you draft Harden? Really?

Identifying at-risk hurlers and slowly dying players requires more analysis, though. At the very least, it requires a little digging.

Seminar No. 1: Do not ignore trends

Raise your hand if you drafted Colorado Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins this year. One, two, three ... c'mon, class, this was an easy one. Skip his three-year reductions in home runs, RBIs and batting average. Sometimes, other factors can explain such developments.

His line-drive percentage, in fact, remained fairly steady, offering reason for hope. However, Atkins combined a sharp regression in walk rate with an increasing propensity to strike out. His contact rate was falling, and other measures (such as isolated power and home run-to-flyball rate) indicated he was losing muscle.

No one expected Detroit Tigers outfielder Magglio Ordonez to bounce back to his 2007 form (.363-28-117), but optimism has to be met with skepticism for a 35-year-old. That big season is a huge outlier in many ways, most notably regarding his average on balls in play, isolated power and groundball rate. Many things suggested that Maggs was slowly becoming a singles hitter.

Aging players have become greater risks now that Major League Baseball has taken a harder stance on performance-enhancing substances and stimulants. That doesn't mean these players are guilty of anything, but you have to take the potential impact into account. Most hitters show serious signs of decline around the age of 32, 33 or 34. A pitcher can demonstrate similar fall-offs, even if it's not reflected in his record, ERA or save total.

Buyer beware in 2010

  • Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts' walk rate and strikeout rate are headed in opposite directions. Don't be hypnotized by the 32-year-old's 16 homers. His stolen base marks are on a downward swing, although that could be offset by a correction in his power numbers.
  • Houston Astros outfielder Carlos Lee, 33, has generally been more productive in the second half in each of the past three seasons. However, his statistical tendencies make him feel eerily similar to Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Vladimir Guerrero. What happens when Lee doesn't ramp it up after the break?
  • Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Raul Ibanez was fantastically undervalued this year. He and his fantasy owners could be in for a Maggs-like reality check next season. As if that second half wasn't enough to convince you.
  • Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki seems ageless. Just remember that there's no such thing. He doesn't drive the ball enough to sustain his ridiculous BABIPs any longer, and his speed is on the decline.
  • Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan has been about as reliable as you can get for the past six seasons. His second half rings the alarm, though. His homers-per-flyball percentage has been on the rise, and his flyball rate spiked. The rebound in his rate of strikeouts per nine innings masks a steady escalation in his pace of walks issued. If the bottom falls out of his command, look out.

Seminar No. 2: Be wary of heavily used pitchers

Philadelphia Phillies SP Cole Hamels
Owners happy his '09 is over, too

Philadelphia hurler Cole Hamels just wanted this season to end - probably because it felt like 2008 didn't. Including the postseason, last year the southpaw tossed 262 1/3 innings, a leap of 72 1/3 frames from the previous period (plus playoffs).

The 2008 World Series MVP's offseason was virtually nonexistent, with problems compounded by the banquet circuit. The Phils eased Hamels, 25, into Spring Training very slowly, but he still experienced elbow discomfort during exhibition play and was shut down. Philly exercised extreme caution with their prized arm, and that's likely what saved him from complete burnout - or worse. His 2009 statistics were probably close to a best-case scenario.

The New York Mets' Johan Santana was a possible liability because of his five straight seasons with at least 219 innings pitched. Extensive use alone isn't a culprit, however. Johan's K/9 dipped sharply in 2008, his first season in the Big Apple - despite a move to the NL, which ordinarily accounts for a slight boost in said stat.

In addition, Santana's rate of free passes per nine was on a three-year rise; consequently, his command rate was falling. There was increasing evidence that Santana was losing velocity, and his normally low average against on balls in play was slowly returning to league standard.

Some teams poorly manage their young arms. Pitchers under the age of 26 or 27 who experience the innings jump - usually about 50 or more, especially if it's from a very low workload in the previous season - are very much at risk.

Meanwhile, few teams worry about overworking their frontline veterans, particularly their No. 1s and No. 2s. Burnout can eventually set in after repeated seasons of 200-plus innings, though. The indicators are your clues. Relievers who hit the century mark should scare you, too.

Buyer beware in 2010

  • Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Yovani Gallardo missed most of 2008 because of a knee injury; his arm is still intact - for now. The 23-year-old hurled a mere 31 innings (including the playoffs) but hopped to 185 2/3 in 2009. The Brew Crew shut him down near the end, but it was rather abrupt and with little cool-down.
  • The Florida Marlins were pretty conscious of 25-year-old Josh M. Johnson's workload. They began limiting his outings in the second half, but it was still obvious that he was wearing down. In his first full season since he had Tommy John surgery, he pitched 119 2/3 more innings than he did in 2008.
  • Phillies starter Cliff Lee pitched 272 innings, counting the postseason. In 2008, he added 126 frames to his previous season's total, which may account for his slow 2009 start. He's 31, but two straight years of large jumps is nerve-racking, and 272 is a big number, regardless.
  • Doesn't Chris Carpenter kind of go without saying?
Not all players with warning signs will flame out; some even perform above expectations. You increase your chances to succeed if you avoid potential danger, though. Acquire such players at a discount only, and never early or for much money. Risk is exponentially greater in early rounds and at high-dollar bids. This seems to go without saying, but every new season brings a different temptation.

For more news from and observations of offseason action, check out's fantasy baseball blogs and MLB Hot off the Wire!

Fantasy Baseball Hot Stove, in which we give the rotisserie spin on notable MLB transactions, is coming soon!

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About Nicholas Minnix

Minnix is baseball editor and a fantasy football analyst at KFFL. He plays in LABR and Tout Wars and won the FSWA Baseball Industry Insiders League in 2010.

The University of Delaware alum is a regular guest on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio and Baltimore's WNST AM 1570.

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