Late bloomers or one-hit wonders?

Last week, I got a request from a reader to take a look at some of the older players who had breakout seasons at unlikely ages and offer some insight as to whether they will be able to repeat. Note to readers, every column idea you think of for me is one fewer I must think of for myself. Seriously, I prefer writing about issues regarding league dynamics and fantasy baseball from more of a strategic, “macro” perspective, but from time to time, I’ll offer my thoughts on individual player evaluation.

The set of players posited by the reader was Aaron Hill, Mark Reynolds and Russell Branyan. All three of these players had breakout seasons. On Opening Day 2010, Hill will be 28, Reynolds 26 and Branyan 34. First off, it’s important to mention that Reynolds is a little different than the other two players. Reynolds broke out at 25, which is not odd, but the extent of his breakout and somewhat unfamiliar make-up/skill set still makes him worth exploring. I expect few upper-tier players will experience a wider range of draft position next year than Reynolds; I could imagine him going as high as mid-teens in some leagues and dropping into the late-50s in others.

Before getting into my evaluations, allow me to offer a few words about projecting performance. I figured it would make the most sense to focus on trying to discern whether the batting average and home run totals from last year are repeatable. Only Reynolds had a significant number of steals last year, and runs and RBIs are fundamentally team stats. So, if the batting average and homers hold next year, the runs and rib-eyes should take care of themselves and be similar as well. For what it’s worth, I expect Reynolds to swipe fewer bases next year, maybe somewhere in the 14-18 range, as opposed to the 24 he had this year.

In addition to offering my thoughts on the likelihoods of these players repeating in the batting average and homer categories, I’m also going to make reference to something called the Strong Seasons Leading Index, which I’ll refer to as SSLI. This is a metric developed by Bill James that debuted in the 2010 Hardball Times Annual. If you want all the specifics, you’re going to have to buy the book, but the overall purpose of the metric is to assess the likelihood of a player outperforming his most recent season. The final numbers for last season spanned a range from 8 to 26, with the lower number being the least likely to outperform 2009 in 2010 (Jorge Posada) and 26 being the most likely (Dioner Navarro). These are not the lowest and highest numbers possible by the metric, just the most extreme among those who had 400-plus ABs last season.

Let me also offer two pieces of information to keep in mind about SSLI in relation to the question posed in this article. First, SSLI was not developed for a fantasy purpose, so having a “better” season is defined in terms of OPS, not any of the five default fantasy categories. Second, this metric attempts to predict next season relative to the past season. While this information is useful in the “is player X for real?” vein—as I’m using it here—the questions are not the same. For any of the three players I’m looking into today, anything approximating last season would cement last year’s breakout as real, and likely provide a great return on draft day. I presume none of these players will actually cost the price of the full value they produced last season, due to understandable skepticism and uncertainty. A 10 percent drop in counting numbers across the board, certainly for Hill or Reynolds, would be fine and prospective owners would likely sign up for that production right now.

OK, enough of the preamble, let’s get into my thoughts and hopefully stimulate some discussion.

Russell Branyan

Power Projection
: It’s common knowledge that, TTO royalty, Branyan has tons of pop. Whether his power is for real has never been the question with Branyan, the issue has always been whether he can make contact with the ball frequently enough to merit playing time at an offensively focused position.

HitTracker classifies all homers as “no doubt (ND),” “plenty (PL)” or “just enough (JE).” Sparing the specific criteria for each group, the designations should be generally self-explanatory. The average distribution of these the types of home runs is 18%/55%/27%, respectively. Only 10 percent of Branyan’s dingers were of the JE variety, and his average home run traveled some 410 or so feet, one of the longer averages in the sport last year. While Branyan’s 31 homers last season were seven more than he had ever hit before, the rate at which he hit them was not out of line with what know to expect from Branyan. Traditionally having been a part-time player, getting regular ABs last year likely helped some, too.

Batting Average Projection: Last year, Branyan hit .251, as compared to his career average of .234. Last year, Branyan hit ground balls a little more frequently than throughout his career, while his line-drive rate was a little lower than his norm. He hit the ball in the air with similar frequency as he’s done throughout his career. Making things a little trickier, Branyan’s BABIP has been all over the place across his career. Again, though he’s been in the league for a dozen years, he’s only been given as many as 300 ABs three times, so sample size is certainly a problem, especially as we break his career into stages by age. I would not look for a batting average repeat.

SSLI Says: Branyan registered an 11 on this index. Only three players who qualified for the study were determined to be less likely than Branyan to repeat. For perspective, some of those who were deemed equally likely as Branyan to repeat were Scott Podsednik, Jason Bartlett and Derrek Lee.

Overall: I do not believe in Branyan. He will hit 24-30 homers if he is given 400-plus ABs again, but his batting average will most likely be in the low .240s. He doesn’t put the ball in play enough to be a threat to eclipse an RBI total in the low 80s, and he’s not on base often enough to score a lot of runs. (The Seattle line-up doesn’t help either.) Further, if he were to leave Seattle, he would likely become either a part-time player or a seventh-place hitter. In deep leagues, and AL-only leagues any source of 25 homers can’t be ignored, but I can’t see him as being relevant in mixed leagues. I would not draft him with the intent of him being part of my starting line-up.

Aaron Hill

Power Projection: 2008 was a lost season for an injured Aaron Hill, but Hill showed that he was a useful fantasy option in 2007. Last year he came roaring back to put up a season nobody could have expected. What really stuck out about Hill’s 2009 were his 36 homers. Is the power real? One third of Hill’s home runs were JEs, that’s roughly double the average distribution. But in 2007 Hill did hit 17 homers at the age of 26. Somewhat surprisingly, Hill did not hit fly balls at a significantly greater rate in 2009 than in 2007. I’d guess that a good chunk of Hill’s 2009 power output was real. With a similar approach in 2007, Hill hit 47 doubles and 17 homers. In 2009 he hit 37 doubles and 36 homers. It seems like Hill did get a bit lucky last year and that we’ll see some homers turn back to doubles, but I don’t see any reason why Hill couldn’t hit 24-28 homers next year. Generally speaking, I think Hill is for real. Not 36-homer real, but real nonetheless.

Batting Average Projection: Hill’s 2009 batting average was right in line with his career norm and there were no red flags in his BABIP as compared to his career.

SSLI Says: Hill clocks in with a 15 on the SSLI. This means he’s less likely than the average player to repeat, but the odds aren’t nearly as prohibitive as Branyan. For reference, there were many players who registered a 15, including young stars who took the big leaps forward that were expected of them, like Prince Fielder, Ryan Zimmerman and Robinson Cano. On the other hand, there were a number of veterans whose careers are winding down who clocked in at the same number, including Mark DeRosa and Orlando Cabrera.

Overall: Aaron Hill will be a very useful option next season. One thing to keep in mind about Hill is that he led the AL in both PAs and ABs in 2009, which inflated his counting numbers a bit. However, Hill is in the Jimmy Rollins model of players whose real flaws actually enhance his fantasy value. He hardly ever walks, which gives him more chances to knock in runs. And, he’s at least batting average neutral, so piling up the AB does not hurt you there. I think his runs scored decline next year because his mediocre on-base skills make it difficult to score more than 100 runs without hitting 30-plus homers, which I’m unconvinced he’ll do again. Still, I see a season of .280/90/25/90 as totally reasonable and would say a season better than that is not be out of the realm of possibility either. Where would I rank him? I don’t know exactly. Somewhere behind Robinson Cano, but ahead of Dan Uggla is a start.

Mark Reynolds

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Power Projection: I’ve already written a bit about Reynolds here. When it comes to power, Reynolds is the real deal. He was an elite power hitter in every level of the minors, and showed his power in 2007 and 2008 at the major league level before breaking out huge last season. According to Hit Tracker, Reynolds boasts the longest average home run of any player throughout the 2009 season. Incredibly, he hit 23 blasts 430 feet or farther last season. In light of that, I was a little surprised to find that he also hit JE homers at 1.5 times the average rate as well. I think it’s fair to expect that Reynolds will hit somewhere in the range of 35–38 homers next year. This may seem like a big drop from last year’s total, but I think that only Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols should be expected to hit more than 40 homers. Such expectations are arguable for Alex Rodriguez and Fielder, I suppose.

It might seem like Reynolds’ 2009 RBI total of 102 is lower than expected, especially given that he knocked in 97 in 2008 while hitting 16 fewer homers. Without doing extensive research, I don’t think that is the case though, at least not to an extreme. Prodigious sluggers with outrageous K-rates and/or notoriously low batting averages, drive in most of their runs with the long ball. Reynolds drove in 68 of his 102 runs in 2009 on his 44 longballs. Adam Dunn drove in 65 of his 105 on his 38 homers. Reynolds hit .260 with 223 Ks, Dunn .267 with 177. Despite cracking 40 homers five times in his career, Dunn has never driven in more than 106. Though Dunn walks considerably more often that Reynolds (decreasing Dunn’s RBI opportunities by comparison), I still think the comparison is of some value. Even if Reynolds hits 40 home runs again, he’s not going to be a good bet to drive in 110 runs unless he can lift his batting average into the .270 range, and I’m not sure that’s in the future for Reynolds.

Batting Average Projection: Reynolds has posted relatively steady GB/FB/LD distribution over his career. His 2009 BABIP looked a bit high, but his 2008 figure seemed a little high too. I think it’s fair to assert that when Reynolds makes contact, he hits the ball very hard. I’d peg Reynolds as a .250-ish hitter barring any evidence that a substantially reduced K-rate is likely in his future.

SSLI Says: Reynolds registered as the most likely of the three to repeat. His score of 17 is smack dab in the middle of the distribution. His score is identical to that of many elite players who are not seen as undependable, including Chase Utley and Brandon Phillips, as well as younger studs who seem to be perceived as more reliable than Reynolds, like Adam Jones and Evan Longoria.

Overall: Reynolds is, after all, only 26 years of age. He was an elite power prospect and is in his physical prime. I wouldn’t be too scared of drafting Reynolds, but I would not expect a full repeat. As a matter of perspective, I’d think of Reynolds as Adam Dunn plus 12 steals with different positional eligibility. Whether Dunn being outfield eligible is more valuable than Reynolds being third base eligible is probably dependent on the structure of your league.

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randall schau
12 years ago

I may be in a minority here, but I’d rather you focused on real world baseball analysis rather than that relating to fantasy leagues.

The A Team
12 years ago

Well…we are in the fantasy section of THT.

12 years ago

For a guy who doesn’t write about player evaluations very often, you’re pretty darn good at it. Nice work.

12 years ago

Thanks for doing this article, Derek. It’s appreciated.

I’d love to see Garrett Jones. I should’ve mentioned him, too.

12 years ago

Garrett Jones is probably a better example…I mean, he was a 27 year old AAA player until mid-year.  Will he sustain?

Derek Ambrosino
12 years ago

Thanks, Andrew.

And, you’re welcome, Scott.