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Friday, January 28, 2011

Fantastic Thoughts: Perception v. Deception in the Outfield

The first round of fantasy mags has hit the stands and mainstream sources like ESPN, CBS, etc. have started publishing their preseason rankings.  Obviously, much will change between now and Opening Day, but I'd like to highlight some relative injustices I'm seeing in my early perusal of these resources.  You can also check out my preseason rankings.

Brett Gardner, LF (Yankees) v. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF (Red Sox)

After posting a WAR of 5.4 in his first full season - that's good for 5th among AL outfielders, by the way - I don't think anybody would deny that Brett Gardner is a better all-around player than Jacoby Ellsbury.  I'll acknowledge, however, that in fantasy there are occasions when it doesn't pay to take the better player and those occasions usually do involve guys like Ellsbury who have the potential to pile up stolen bases at a league-leading clip.  This isn't one of those occasions.

Ellsbury is nearly unanimously ranked as a top twenty outfielder (top five in the AL) while Gardner barely breaks the top 50.  The Sporting News has Ellsbury valued at double the price of Gardner ($30 v. $15) in AL-only auctions.  Here's a few reason why that's ludicrous, starting with the stats for each of their best seasons:

Jacoby Ellsbury '09: .301/.355/.415 - 94 R - 8 HR - 60 RBI - 70 SB - 624 AB
Brett Gardner '10: .277/.383/.379 - 97 R - 5 HR - 47 RBI - 47 SB - 477 AB

As you can see, Gardner's OBP skills aid him in piling up runs at a significantly higher rate than Ellbury, while his HR, RBI, and SB rates are comparable (if Gardner had gotten 624 AB he was on pace for 7 HR, 62 RBI, 62 SB).

600+ ABs are not assured for either of these players, but if I had to bet on one of them reaching that mark, I'd actually take Gardner.  Coming off a year in which Ellsbury was riddled with injuries and immersed in clubhouse controversies, there is no guarantee he remains an everyday player.  Mike Cameron is still hanging around.  Darnell McDonald will be looking to steal at-bats.  And Ryan Kalish is a superior offensive talent who proved in the second-half of 2010 that he's on the verge of being major-league ready.  While many assume Gardner will again be submitted to a platoon (presumably with Andruw Jones), he actually fared okay against lefties in 2010 (725 OPS).  In all likelihood, Jones will frequently spell Curtis Granderson, Jorge Posada, or Nick Swisher instead.

What you're looking at is a pair of speedy 27-year-old outfielders, both of whom hit in loaded lineups and have the permanent green light.  I can certainly imagine Ellsbury having a solid season and returning to his '09 production, but I think Gardner is, at the very least, comparable and could be available for as little as half the price.

Hippeaux's Rankings: Gardner #29, Ellsbury #30

Curtis Granderson, CF (Yankees) v. Austin Jackson, CF (Tigers)

Remember last winter's blockbuster.  Here's how that worked out, based on 2010 WAR:

Yankees: Curtis Granderson (3.6)
Tigers: Austin Jackson (3.8), Max Scherzer (3.7), Daniel Schlereth (0.1)
D-Backs: Ian Kennedy (2.4), Daniel Hudson (2.0), Edwin Jackson (1.8)

Yes, the early returns have been much better for Arizona and Detroit, especially when you consider that the combined salaries of Scherzer, Kennedy, Hudson, and Schlereth are less than what Granderson will make in 2011.

That aside, however, it does not make any sense to rank Austin Jackson ahead of Curtis Granderson on your fantasy draft board.  Let's take a look at their second-half splits for 2010, after Grandy got healthy and the league adjusted to the Detroit rookies:

Granderson: .253/.338/.523 - 44 R - 17 HR - 43 RBI - 5 SB - 241 AB
Jackson:  .285/.336/.397 - 51 R - 3 HR - 21 RBI - 13 SB - 305 AB

Jackson posted the highest BABIP in the majors (.396) and the 5th highest strikeout rate in the AL (27.5%), both of which suggest he's a prime candidate for the dreaded sophomore slump.  Meanwhile, Granderson will hit in the midst of a thunderous lineup in a ballpark tailored for left-handed power.  Given a fully healthy 2011 campaign, he's 30 HR and 90 RBI in the bank, with the potential for more.  

Hippeaux's Rankings: Granderson #19, Jackson #52

Garrett Jones, 1B/OF (Pirates) v. Basically Anybody (Anywhere)

He's consistently making the top 60 among outfielders (the Sporting News has him as high as #40) even though he was hardly a replacement level player in 2010 (0.1 WAR).  His power (21 HR) makes him fantasy relevant, but only if he's in the lineup...and Pittsburgh seems to have realized his limitations.  They signed Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz during the offseason and they'll bring younger, more versatile players like John Bowker, Steve Pearce, Jeff Clement, and Alex Presley to camp.  The only way Garrett Jones gets 500 AB this year is if he gets traded to the Mariners.

Meanwhile, guys like Josh Willingham, Pat Burrell, Matt Joyce, Jonny Gomes, Brad Hawpe, and Cody Ross are cheap sources of power with similar skill sets and substantially more upside.

Hippeaux's Rankings: Willingham #45, Gomes #67, Joyce #72, Ross #74, Burrell #76, Jones #90

Chris Young, CF (D-Backs) v. Drew Stubbs, CF (Reds)

Nobody knows what to do with these guys, both of whom are coming off 20/20 seasons and have real 30/30 potential, but are also batting average drains.  I've seen them both ranked as high as 12-15 and as low as 40-45.

Finally in the "post-hype" stage of his career, Young was very quietly a top 15 fantasy outfielder in 2010.  Entering his fifth full season, Young is that magical age: 27.  The age alone is certainly not enough to assure his ascendence among the elite fantasy outfielders.  However, there are other positive indicators.  He posted a career low strikeout rate in 2010, while keeping his walk rate at a decent level (11.1%), which led to a substantial improvement in OBP (.341).  Young will probably always be a free swinger and may never hit .280, but his other talents can shine so long as he maintains this level of patience.

Stubbs started the 2010 season slow and nearly lost his job, but he came on very strong after the break and was on fire for most of the last two months.  Over a 47 game stretch he hit .305 with 9 HR, 11 steals, and a 944 OPS.  I see more streakiness in Stubbs future.  It's a fairly common problem for young power hitters.  Like the young Young, Stubbs has not figured out the strikezone.  Only Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds struck out at a greater rate (32.7%) among NL hitters and they, of course, hit more homers and drew a lot more walks.

Stubbs played college ball and then spent several seasons in the minors, so he's only about a year younger than Young and shouldn't suffer as drastic growing pains (Young's development included a short return to AAA in 2009), but there will be some.

Hippeaux's Rankings: Young #14, Stubbs #28

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