Thursday, August 28, 2014

Way Too Early 2015 Player Count Up: 1-10

Since it's never too early to look ahead, one feature I am beginning is looking at the top players for the upcoming year based on this year's performance. To get the scores I started with this for a guideline (based on 2014 stats).

(Home Runs * 2) +  (Runs + RBI + SB) * Batting Average

The reasons I gave extra weight to Home Runs is because of power being at a premium and also having an added indirect impact. After that, I reviewed their player page on Fangraphs to see how their BABIP from this year compares to their career BABIP and used this to adjust their batting average, runs & rbi totals. I then did the same comparison on HR/FB rate to adjust for their home run projections. To get towards what their numbers would look like with these totals normalized as best as possible.

Some areas discussed but are not factored into these rankings are OBP (projected average + career BB%), SLG (projected average + ISO) and I looked at the compatible players list on baseball-reference.com to see if there were any red flags indicating production may be falling off drastically sooner rather than later.

1) Mike Trout

While the days of substantial stolen bases total are behind him, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, he is the number one ranked player. His projected line over 650 plate appearances is as follows:

.299/.421/.540 34 HR 103 R 109 RBI 15 SB

His most similar player through age 21, Frank Robinson had a very similar line through age 23:

.311/.391/.583 36 HR 106 R 125 RBI 18 SB and based on the EloRater on baseball-reference.com turned out to be the 15th best hitter of all-time. Bottom line, the sky's the limit for Mike Trout and we should continue to expect further excellence from him in 2015.

Possible Red Flags: None

2) Albert Pujols

While there is little to no controversy over Mike Trout being in the #1 spot, the same probably can't be said about Albert Pujols being in the #2 spot. While his numbers haven't gone in the right direction since signing with the Angels, there are some indicators that he has been better than his surface numbers (or I could be wrong since he's quickly approaching the wrong side of 35. The projected line for him is as follows:

.312/.424/.582 35 HR 93 R 102 RBI  6 SB

A couple things favor him doing better than what he has this year (which at a 126 wRC+ hasn't exactly been terrible). His BABIP has been lurking near the .270 range (compared to .300 for his career) and his HR/FB rate which is currently at 13.5% is well below his career total of 18.4%.

Granted, these are two areas that have trended in the wrong direction over the last few years but I do think he does have at least one more monster season ahead of him.

His most similar player through age 33 also happens to be Frank Robinson. History appears to at least be somewhat on his side as Robinson was still crushing the ball at age 35 to the tune of:

.281/.384/.510 28 HR 82 R 99 RBI 3 SB

Possible Red Flags: Age (going to be 35), BABIP, HR/FB Rates have been consistently below career norms for three consecutive seasons

3) David Ortiz

David Ortiz is not letting the fact that he's 38 years old stop him from being an imposing hitter and there appears to be little sign that he will be slowing down soon. If anything, he might do even better as his HR/FB rate this year is slightly below career totals and his .257 BABIP has dragged down his batting average. His projected line for 2015 is as follows:

.311/.443/.573 40 HR 75 R 136 RBI 0 SB

Currently, Ortiz sits at 461 home runs (as of 8/27/14) and the way he is hitting the ball, we could be seeing him hit his 500th career home run towards the end of 2015.

His most similar player (that played during his age 39 season) was Frank Thomas. In that season (which was his last full season) he had a .277/.377/.480 line with 26 home runs. This does temper expectations a bit but like Pujols, I think there is at least another monster season left in David Ortiz.

Possible Red Flags: Age

4) Giancarlo Stanton

Is having his best season yet on the surprisingly competent Miami Marlins. He has seen his batting average increase due to a spike in BABIP and has even thrown in some stolen bases. His 2015 projection is as follows:

.272/.392/.541 37 HR 85 R 100 RBI 10 SB

While his numbers project to be very strong, if he ends up being traded to a higher market team in the off-season (such as the Red Sox), he could see decent incremental boosts in Runs & RBI. His most similar player, Juan Gonzalez performed very strongly in his age 25 season (27 HR, 130 OPS+) even though said season was shortened to 90 games due to injury. Even though his career was over by age 35, he still had 5 35 HR-plus seasons ahead of him at this point.

Based on how Pujols & Ortiz age, there could be an argument for moving him up to #2. As he is still not quite 25, he is just now barely entering the prime of his career.

Possible Red Flags: None

5) Nelson Cruz

Even though we haven't gotten out of August yet, he has already set a new career high for home runs. His 2015 projection is as follows:

.290/.370/.522 35 HR 96 R 119 RBI 4 SB

While he has over-performed in the power department, the rumors of his over-ratedness in this category have been over-exaggerated. Even though his HR/FB ratio is higher than his career total, the difference in this metric is not very extreme (20.0% to 17.2%). If his HR/FB ratio was close to his career total, he would still be doing very good in the power category. In addition to this, there is the potential of a better batting average next year as his BABIP this year is actually well below his career total.

That being said, there is a very high bust potential for Nelson Cruz. He has struggled to stay healthy, he turns 35 next year and the similar player scores on baseball-reference do not paint a rosy picture. His two most similar players (Henry Rodriguez & Brad Hawpe) were done after their age 34 season and the third player on this list (Jim Lemon) was very ineffective in 178 plate appearances. While he has a very strong rank based on his performance this year, there is a high potential of someone paying lots of money to him and be very disappointed.

Possible Red Flags: Age, Injuries, Similar Player History is NOT on his side

6) Miguel Cabrera

For most players, having a 139 wRC+ and 3.8 WAR with a month to go would qualify as an excellent season. However, Miguel Cabrera is not most players. His 2015 projection is:

.314/.425/.547 32 HR 98 R 108 RBI 1 SB

Despite his (relative struggles) his batting average is still north of .300 and his slugging average is still north of .500. His BABIP is slightly below career ranges, and may creep north of .310 next year. He has seen a substantial dip in HR/FB rate this year (11.8% versus 18.9% career total). Factoring this in, his home run total would be 27 if this section was evened out. My take is that the rumors of his career demise are over-exaggerated.

History does tend to side with this assessment as his most similar batter is Hank Aaron who went on to become the 8th best hitter of all time (according to the baseball-reference.com Fan EloRater, though even at that rate he is under-rated.

At age 32 he hit .279/.356/.539 and led the National League with 44 home runs and had six additional 34+ home run seasons ahead of him. Bottom line, Miguel Cabrera appears to be having a fluky season in the power department and should be back to hitting 35+ home runs a year for at least awhile.

Possible Red Flags: Possibility that power downturn is start of decline and not a fluke

7) Josh Donaldson

He has been more heralded for his defense but his offensive production is also very elite. His 2015 projection:

.276/.375/.468 26 HR 102 R 111 RBI 9 SB

While the first six players represent the top tier of projected offensive production, Donaldson represents the beginning of the second tier of elite players. Still, he is the second best player with 3B eligibility (behind Miguel Cabrera). His batting average has been floating in the low .250s but after adjusting for BABIP he should provide a solid but not spectacular .276.

If he was on a lesser team, his overall ranking may be a bit lower but he does get a boost for playing on a strong Oakland team which should keep his Runs Scored & RBI totals very strong.

History does not seem to be on his side though. His most similar player Aaron Boone hit 26 home runs in his age 29 season, but also hit .241 and had an OPS+ of 93.

Possible Red Flags: History does not appear to be on his side

8) Chris Carter

I was a little bit surprised that he made it this high on the rankings, but thinking about it closer it does make some sense as I did put additional emphasis on home runs. His projection:

.246/.355/.490 43 HR 90 R 116 RBI 3 SB

I gotta admit, it is somewhat impressive that someone who hits .229 can still come away with a 127 wRC+. If he can keep at least a decent average, he'll always be a player with more value in fantasy than in real life (his defense has always been sub-par and he's only 1.5 wins above replacement even with all his power).

With that being said his batting average should be slightly better and his home run power is very legitimate. This is another player where the similar batters section on baseball-reference serves as a red flag as this is populated with players who had pop in their bats but not very long careers such as Kevin Maas, Brian Hunter, Karim Garcia, etc. Another area of concern is that his walk rate has decreased the last couple seasons.

Possible Red Flags: Decreasing Walk Rates, History not on his side

9) Adam Jones

Currently playing a major contributing factor to Baltimore's surge and lead in the AL East. His 2015 projection:

.288/.332/.467 27 HR 86 R 91 RBI 7 SB

He is performing extremely close to what I would expect. His BABIP from this year exactly matches his career total and has been very consistent the last three seasons and his home run totals appear consistently on pace.

His most consistent player, Reggie Smith had a solid age 30 season, .302/.382/.488 but had slightly less power  (19 home runs). Jones may never be in the Mike Trout/Giancarlo Stanton stratosphere but he is a very solid/consistent player who will give you a decent batting average and 25+ homers. If the basis is on OBP versus average his ranking would be much lower due to a 4.4% walk rate.

Possible Red Flags: He Turns 30, Poor Walk Rate impacts Run Potential

10) Jose Bautista

While his 50+ home run power appears to have been a one-shot deal, he has continued to be an excellent source of power as he's hit at least 25 out every year in this decade (despite missing a lot of time in 2012 & 2013. His 2015 projection:

.261/.398/.484 30 HR 81 R 85 RBI 6 SB

Assuming he stays healthy all season, he should provide 30 home run power. While his OBP is going to be top shelf, he's likely to settle in as a .260 hitter. Since the Blue Jays are pretty deep offensively, this should give him additional Run/RBI opportunities. His most similar player, Jeromy Burnitz put in solid power production at age 34 (31 home runs) but only hit .239 and had a 105 OPS+

Possible Red Flags: Age (about to turn 34), Injury, Modest (at best) batting average.

Out of the top 10, I would categorize them as follows:

Best Chance at Success:

Mike Trout
Giancarlo Stanton
Miguel Cabrera

Getting Old but at least one more Monster Season:

David Ortiz
Albert Pujols

Solid but not Spectacular:

Adam Jones

I think they'll be okay but there is some bust potential:

Jose Bautista
Josh Donaldson

Highest Bust Risk:

Chris Carter
Nelson Cruz

All data, information referenced researched on fangraphs.com & baseball-reference.com