In the first article of this series, I looked at some of the most disappointing fantasy performers from this past season and attempted to project what should be expected from those players in 2015. If you missed it, you can check out that post here. This time around, I’m going to break down a few players who unexpectedly produced some of the best overall numbers in fantasy baseball during the 2014 season. None of these guys were thought of as core players for fantasy owners to build around prior to the season, but all of them found their way onto many championship teams due to their elite production.
Are these breakout performances sustainable going forward? Should significant regression be expected? Let’s investigate further…
Michael Brantley: 2013 season – 66/10/73/17/.284, Razzball player value – $9.9; 2014 season – 94/20/97/23/.327, Razzball player value – $29.9
Those who heeded Grey’s advice and selected Brantley in the late rounds of their drafts enjoyed #1 OF production at a #5 OF price (NFBC ADP – 220.82; RCL ADP – 215.5). How did this sleeper morph into Andrew McCutchen seemingly overnight?
The most surprising part of Brantley’s breakthrough campaign was his power surge. This is a player who amassed a total of 26 HRs with a .382 SLG and a .105 ISO across 2,162 MLB plate appearances prior to the ’14 season. His average flyball distance of 276.45 ft in ’13 ranked just 186th among qualified hitters and resulted in a total of 10 HRs that season. Doubling that previous career high by launching 20 HRs this past season must’ve resulted in a significant spike in batted ball distance, right? Not so much. Brantley’s 280.02 ft mark in ’14 ranked 130th in MLB, and was sandwiched in between Dexter Fowler and Rene Rivera. Not exactly elite company.
On the plus side, Brantley’s plate discipline and batted ball profile are in elite company. Consider these numbers: his 25.7% LD% was tied for 10th best in all of baseball among qualified players; his 3.6% SwStr% was the 6th lowest in the league, and is nearly identical to his 3.7% mark from ’13; his 8.3% K% represented the 4th lowest percentage in MLB; his 3.8% infield fly ball percentage was well below the league average of 9.6%. In short, when Brantley swings the bat, he makes contact, and the vast majority of that contact is of the hard variety. A .327 batting average would be difficult for any player to duplicate, but with neutral luck, Brantley should continue to be an asset in that category.
Another factor that is worth considering when evaluating Brantley is his career platoon splits. While he’s enjoyed consistent success against right-handed pitching throughout his career, that hasn’t always been the case against lefties. He managed an impressive .307/.378/.449 triple slash line against LHP this past season, but consider these results over the previous three seasons:
- vs LHP (’11-’13) – 552 PA, .255/.313/.317 triple slash, .630 OPS, .063 ISO, 1 HR
During this span, Brantley was outslugged against left-handed pitching by players such as Alcides Escobar, Emilio Bonifacio, and Ben Revere. While it’s reasonable to expect a talented young player to improve on an obvious weakness in his game as he gains experience and enters his prime years, this sudden level of improvement seems to be a bit extreme.
Finally, any discussion involving Brantley should mention the speed that he brings to the table. His 40 SBs over the last two seasons is tied for 30th most in MLB, and his 88.9% success rate is the 4th highest over that span among players with at least 30 attempts, trailing only Jacoby Ellsbury, Escobar, and Craig Gentry. With results like those, Brantley is likely to approach 20+ stolen bases once again next season.
Verdict: Considering his well-rounded skill set, Brantley seems to be a safe, high floor fantasy option in the Hunter Pence mold, just with less power and more speed. The early Steamer projection has him producing a 75/13/73/14/.291 line in 2015. The power projection might seem a bit low at first glance, but the evidence suggests that there will be significant regression in that area. The runs and stolen base projections do appear to somewhat conservative though, so feel free to bump those up a bit.
In 2015, Brantley is likely to be drafted in the 3rd round area with a similar ADP to players such as Ellsbury, Yasiel Puig, and Ryan Braun, all of whom I’d value more highly due to their respective track records and high-end fantasy potential. Despite his high floor, this makes Brantley a SELL for me in that draft range. Wait a few rounds and target Charlie Blackmon or Christian Yelich instead for similar production at a cheaper price.
Anthony Rendon: 2013 season – 40/7/35/1/.265, Razzball player value – $-5.0; 2014 season – 111/21/83/17/.287, Razzball player value – $27.0
Rendon’s sophomore season couldn’t have gone any better for the Nationals (not to mention fantasy owners). Here are his totals and National League ranks in each of the five rotisserie statistical categories in 2014: runs: 111 (1st), home runs – 21 (t-18th), runs batted in – 83 (t-13th), stolen bases – 17 (17th), and batting average – .287 (t-18th). Elite production across the board, but is it sustainable? What can be expected from Rendon in 2015?
First, let’s take a look at his power potential. His 21 HRs were tied for the 18th best mark in the NL; his .186 ISO exceeded that of proven power threats such as Buster Posey (.179), Matt Holliday (.169), and Adrian Beltre (.168); and his average flyball distance of 287.60 ft ranked 75th overall in MLB, a significant improvement over his 276.96 ft mark as a rookie in ’13. Very impressive for a player who didn’t turn 24 years of age until June of this past season.
Plate discipline typically improves with age, so how did a young player like Rendon fare in that area? His BB% improved from 7.9% in ’13 to 8.5% in ’14 while his K% dropped from 17.5% to 15.2%. His SwStr% of 5.2% was just over half of the league average (9.4%). His Contact% of 87.1% was tied for 24th best in MLB among qualified players. So far, so good.
Splits, in one form or another, are often issues for inexperienced players at the big league level. Here’s how Rendon performed under various sets of circumstances during this past season:
- Home: 64/10/44/9/.289, .845 OPS, .187 ISO, 10.7% BB%, 14.5% K%
- Away: 47/11/39/8/.285, .804 OPS, .185 ISO, 6.4% BB%, 15.9% K%
- vs LHP: .313/.362/.463, .825 OPS, .150 ISO, 7.5% BB%, 13.8% K%
- vs RHP: .278/.347/.477, .824 OPS, .199 ISO, 8.8% BB%, 15.7% K%
- 1st Half: .287/.343/.490, .834 OPS, .203 ISO, 7.8% BB%, 15.9% K%
- 2nd Half: .287/.361/.449, .810 OPS, .161 ISO, 9.4% BB%, 14.3% K%
These statistics pretty much speak for themselves. Home/road, lefty/righty, pre/post all-star break – it didn’t matter. Rendon was extremely consistent from the beginning of the season until the very end. Incredibly rare for any player, but particularly so for such a young one with minimal MLB experience.
Another factor to consider when evaluating Rendon’s fantasy value is positional versatility. As a result of logging 28 games played at 2B and 133 games played at 3B, Rendon should be eligible at both positions in the majority of leagues during the entirety of the ’15 season. When considering the general decline in offensive production in recent years as well as the shallow nature of both positions in fantasy, that dual eligibility would provide valuable flexibility to any fantasy roster.
Verdict: It should be pretty clear how I feel about Rendon’s 2015 fantasy prospects by now. Power/speed threat, solid plate discipline, no split issues to speak of, positional versatility, prime age. No obvious red flags here.
The main concern would be his lack of experience, but I feel that there’s enough of a sample size at this point to make a reasonable stab at his ’15 value. Barring injury or managerial tomfoolery (e.g. Matt Williams’ handling of Bryce Harper last season), I like Rendon as a high-end fantasy option in the early-to-middle part of the 2nd round and consider him to be an easy BUY as a versatile high floor player with upside.
Victor Martinez: 2013 season – 68/14/83/0/.301, Razzball player value – $13.6; 2014 season – 87/32/103/3/.335, Razzball player value – $28.4
Over the past few years, V-Mart has been viewed by many in the fantasy community as a decent role player, but certainly not among the elite performers. Solid batting average, good RBI totals, mediocre power. Nothing more, nothing less. How did a good, but not great, 35 year old player become the 11th most valuable overall fantasy performer in 2014?
The most obvious improvement from V-Mart was made in the power department. His 32 HRs, .565 SLG, and .230 ISO were well above his career averages of 16 HRs, .475 SLG, and .168 ISO respectively. As unlikely as a power spike in a player’s mid-thirties might seem, V-Mart’s average flyball distances of 286.16 ft as a left-handed hitter (91st highest in MLB) and 298.13 ft as a righty (19th best) were well above the league average, and aren’t too out of whack with his ’13 numbers (282.98 and 285.00 ft respectively). However, his home run to fly ball ratio of 16.0% was well above the league average of 9.5% and more than double what he produced during his first two seasons in Detroit, so some regression should be expected in the home run department.
Perhaps the greatest skill that Martinez possesses is his strike zone awareness. Since joining the Tigers in 2011, he leads MLB in BB/K ratio among all qualified hitters (1.10), which means that he walked more often than he struck out during that time period. Only five other players have managed a ratio of greater than one during that span (Carlos Lee, Ryan Hanigan, Jose Bautista, Marco Scutaro, and Alberto Callaspo are the others). This is a player that does not chase many pitches that are outside of the strike zone.
With the possible exception of teammate Miguel Cabrera, V-Mart might be the player who’s most likely to lead the league in batting average. He’s hit over .300 in 8 out of his last 9 full seasons, and his .321 BA since 2011 is the second highest mark in MLB, trailing only Cabrera. His 3.4% SwStr% from this past season was the 4th lowest in all of baseball, and his 3.7% mark since ’11 is tied for the 9th lowest over that span. He boasts a 91.4% Contact% since becoming a Tiger (7th best in MLB), which is more than ten percentage points higher than Cabrera’s over that same time period (81.3%).
Much like Rendon, there are no alarming split issues in V-Mart’s profile. He hits LHP (1.123 OPS in ’14, .868 since ’11) and RHP (.923 OPS in ’14, .868 since ’11) equally well. He’s been successful at home (.928 OPS in ’14, .860 since ’11) as well as on the road (1.015 OPS in ’14, .875 since ’11). Pre (.991 OPS) and post (.954 OPS) all-star break? No problems there either.
Verdict: It’s understandable to be skeptical of a 35 year old player who produces a career year with a surprising power spike, but Martinez has been an extremely consistent and productive player for over a decade now.
Baseball reference lists players like Robinson Cano and Chase Utley as some of Martinez’ best comps from a hitting standpoint, which seems appropriate. However, the comp that springs to mind for me is Danny Trejo. Before you go off and search for his statistics, Trejo never played professional baseball. I’m referring to their respective career arcs. Throughout most of his acting career, Trejo was considered to be a solid character actor who would complement a variety of casts very well. It wasn’t until later in his career that he started getting more prominent roles, including a leading role in the movie Machete. 2014 was V-Mart’s Machete. He finally became a headliner for the first time in his fantasy baseball career.
As entertaining as Machete was (arguably) and as great as Martinez was in his late-career leading role last season, both Trejo and Martinez are better suited for supporting roles rather than starring ones, I believe. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Draft a few elite young studs with your first three picks, then confidently select Martinez and his .310/24/95 production in the 4th round in a supporting role for your team. I consider him to be a BUY as a high floor option and a borderline top 40 player.
What do you think of these evaluations? Want to discuss the cinematic masterpiece that is Machete? Let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading.