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Jun 13

Brian McCann among MLB stars looking for luck: Fantasy’s unluckiest hitters and pitchers so far by the numbers

More than any other sport, baseball is a game of averages. You’ll see it on our site, and throughout the industry –  analysts point out that most numbers will work their way toward the mean over time. This is particularly true with some of the advanced metrics (BABIP, HR/FB%, and others) – if a pitcher (or hitter) is considerably higher or lower than the league average in these areas most stat-heads will be calling for a regression (or progression) in his overall numbers.

With that in mind, the premise of this post is pretty straight forward: we’re looking at hitters and pitchers whose peripheral numbers have been worse than you’d expect through the first two months of the season and will assess whether the fantasy community should expect a significant enough turn around to boost their overall value.

The methodology was quite simple. Using the following tables (hitters | pitchers) pulled from FanGraphs on June 9, I looked at the 50 batters with the lowest BABIP in the league and cross referenced that BABIP with their line drive rate. LD% is generally a strong indicator of batting average – if you’re hitting the ball hard, it should be dropping in more often. I ruled out those hitters with a K rate over 25% because…well, if you strike out more than a quarter of the time you probably deserve some of what you get, average wise. With the pitchers, I sorted BABIP high to low and looked at those hurlers who are stranding fewer than average base runners (roughly 72%) and giving up more than the roughly 10% HR/FB that is used to calculate expected fielder independent pitching.

The links to the full tables above, but I’ve highlighted those players that most stood out in the above categories.

These unlucky fantasy baseball assets make for great buy-low trade targets.

2014 MLB Unlucky Hitters

A combination of a slow start and bad luck have led to underwhelming NY numbers for Brian McCann (Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America).

A combination of a slow start and bad luck have led to underwhelming NY numbers for Brian McCann (Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America).

Brian McCann, C, New York Yankees – .232 BABIP, .225 AVG, 22.5% LD

I was incredibly high on McCann coming into the season and while his first season in the lefty friendly confines of Yankee Stadium hasn’t been all that disappointing, it certainly hasn’t measured up to expectations. Five of his seven long balls have come in New York (with each of the seven from left center to the dead pull side of the field). His other home/road splits are fairly even, and with a .225 average McCann just isn’t getting on base. Still, he’s hitting the ball hard enough with 22.5% of his at bats producing line drives.

The good news here is that there isn’t much in the spray chart data to suggest that McCann is changing his swing with the tantalizing short porch in left field on his mind, and he seems to be just getting unlucky in his at bats. He has produced a season-long BABIP in this range before, but during the 2011 campaign McCann was striking out more frequently and was hitting 7% fewer liners. Further, at just 9.3% his HR/FB ratio is three points off his career average, seven off last season’s and the lowest mark of his career. June is yet another rough month to date, but I expect the perennial all star to turn things around and the data supports that assertion – we’re not looking at a player who has suddenly lost his power stroke, simply someone who hasn’t had great luck to date.

Alejandro De Aza, OF, Chicago White Sox – .234 BABIP, .199 AVG, 23.7% LD

De Aza isn’t necessarily a household fantasy name, but he was a relevant fantasy asset in 2013 and has been incredibly unlucky to start the 2014 campaign. His .199 average is 66 points behind his .265 career mark. With a couple of big games to start the season (three home runs in the opening series), he looked like a player who would remain on our radars this year but he finished April hitting just .185 with four home runs and May wasn’t much better.

It is almost unfathomable that a player could hit nearly 24% line drives and bat under .200 but that has been the case for De Aza so far. In eight June contests, though, his luck appears to be shifting with eight hits (four of them for extra bases) and a .471 batting average this month. His big swing and 23.5% K rate (basically, he hits a liner or he whiffs half of the time) help explain the low BA to a degree, but not this far below his career norm. The seven year vet is going to continue to get at bats in LF for Chicago, and the numbers suggest better outcomes ahead.

Nick Swisher, 1B/OF, Cleveland Indians – .263 BABIP, .211 AVG, 24.3% LD

Swisher, like De Aza, is dangerously close to our strikeout rate cutoff and that has him hitting for a low average, but with a .263 ball in play average despite hitting a line drive in just about a quarter of his trips to the plate the numbers don’t stand up. He has exhibited a good eye this season, and boats an OBP a full 100 points above his average. That coupled with his LD% suggests that Swisher is still seeing the ball well in his age 33 season.

Unlike De Aza, his average has actually been fairly fungible in his career, fluctuating from season to season. It hasn’t been this low since 2008 though, and while he still hit a high percentage of balls hard that season, his HR/FB sat at 14.8% which is consistent with his career average of 14.4%. This year: 5.0% of his balls hit in the air leave the park. As much as anything else, this is impacting his average and overall production numbers. He just returned from the DL last night (June 12) and will hope to get things back on track at the plate now that he is healthy. There is little reason to assume that the leader of Brohio Nation can’t be productive the rest of the way despite his slow start.

Buster Posey, C, San Francisco Giants – .276 BABIP, .270 BA, 22.9% LD

Posey’s .270-8-29-25 line hasn’t been all bad, but if you trust the line drive numbers it should be better. He rarely strikes out (13.1%) and has been squaring up the ball (22.9%LD, 13.3% HR/FB). Both his average and BABIP to this point in the season represent career lows, and the peripheral numbers suggest they are in for a rebound. His overall contact rate, swinging strike percentage and other relevant numbers are in line with career norms.

We may not see the 2011 (.336, 24HR) Posey the rest of the way, but a climb back to last year’s .312 BABIP should be a reasonably easy feat given that he is hitting more fly balls for homers, and more line drives overall.

Jose Reyes, SS, Toronto Blue Jays – .281 BABIP, .259 BA, 21.1% LD

Dealing with injuries and a general sluggish start, Reyes’ got out of the gate slowly – mirroring his team’s performance (or perhaps the team struggled while waiting for Reyes to heat up atop the lineup). Regardless, he hit just .200 in April but has 46 hits and 14 steals in the 39 games he has appeared in since the calendar turned to May. Overall, his .281 BABIP is probably a little low for a player with his speed and a 21.1% line drive rate, and we are already starting to see that impact play out. If his owner in your league focused on his cumulative numbers as opposed to his recent production, you may find value in Reyes the rest of the way.

2014 MLB Unlucky Pitchers

Brandon McCarthy, Arizona Diamondbacks – .336 BABIP, 64.3% LOB, 21.4% HR/FB

That all of the statistics of reference are way out of whack could be interpreted as a sign that McCarthy isn’t throwing the ball well, or that he has been the recipient of some awful luck to date. Starting with his awful 1-9 record though, it is pretty easy to side on the hard luck side of things with the Arizona SP. In nine of his 14 starts, he has been afforded two runs or fewer of support. His record being what it is is just one way in which McCarthy is throwing better than the numbers bear.

He is struggling to strand runners, and is giving up a lot of hits – both of which are signs of poor pitching, sure, but also of bad luck. He has never done a great job of leaving opposing base runners on, but the 64.3% strand rate is easily a career low. The .336 BABIP – easily a career high (though it should be noted that at .320 last season he was well above what we expected also). McCarthy is producing ground balls at the best rate of his career, typically a sign of a pitcher on the rise, but when opponents do get lift on the ball they are hitting it out of the park at more than double last year’s 10.3% HR/FB rate. Again, part of that can be attributed to being hittable but much of it appears to be sheer poor luck. His HR/FB rate leads the Majors by more than 3% and while someone has to lead in even the bad categories, that he is that far clear of his peers doesn’t add up, particularly when you consider that he is throwing the ball harder and striking out more batters (8.05 K/9 is three batters more than last season, and the 76 ks in 85 innings match his 135 IP total from 2013) than he ever has.

Perhaps McCarthy is just taking some time to adjust to his new approach. His ERA is near six so far in June, just as bad as it was in April but eventually things are expected to turn in his direction – if McCarthy remains available on your waiver wire he is worth a speculative add. At some point, things are due to even out.

A.J. Burnett, Pittsburgh Pirates – .309 BABIP, 68.9% LOB, 12.1% HR/FB

Burnett makes the list because the numbers suggest that he should, though it should be noted that he was hit to the tune of a similar BABIP last year. The biggest issue in terms of his hittability and his inflated WHIP/ERA relates to his lessened K rate. You can afford last year’s .305 BABIP if you are striking out nearly 10 batters per nine innings as he was, but at a more remedial 7.89 K/9 makes it a little tougher to pitch around the base hits. The reality is, that at 37-years-old Burnett may be showing the effects of ageing that he had been successfully able to stave off. The confluence of above-average numbers suggests that maybe he’ll be able to lessen his ratios over the second half of the season, but he has lost velocity on his fastball this season and may just be a run of the mill older starter, certainly not what the Phillies or his fantasy owners bargained for.

Ubaldo Jimenez, Baltimore Orioles – .306 BABIP, 71.9% LOB, 12.9% HR/FB

Speaking of free agents from this past offseason who aren’t giving teams what they bargained for, Ubaldo Jimenez hasn’t had a lot to offer the Orioles. In a further similarity, he sported a BABIP over .300 last season as well but the difference in his ERA is stark (3.30 vs. 5.01). In his case, it is again a matter of a declining K/9 rate and more base runners. With Jimenez, the issue revolves all around free passes.

At 5.14 BB/9 with a K/9 under 8.5 his numbers look very comparable to 2012′s as compared to last year’s more impressive mark. Again, at 8.5 he is still getting a lot of swings and misses, and if he can get his walks under control we should see a better second half from Ubaldo. Right now though, he’s giving up more than two more base runners per nine innings on walks alone that the league average starter.

Dan Haren, Los Angeles Dodgers – .297 BABIP, 67.5% LOB, 13.2% HR/FB

His Dodgers’ career started strong but May and June have been unkind to Haren. He sports an ERA well above four over his last eight starts. Through the course of the season he has been hittable (and of course you can glean that from a BABIP of .297), seeing just a 6.8% swinging strike percentage and the proportionate rise in opponent’s overall contact against.

Throwing just 87.3 MPH on average, we’d expect that from Haren and would expect him to be hittable. Neverthless, that he has posted a cumulative 3.49 ERA despite high BABIP and HR/FB coupled with a low 67.5% strand rate I’m inclined to think that the numbers are sustainable through the season. You’ll get your ups and downs with the veteran, but it isn’t like he has been pitching above his ability to date.

Tyson Ross, San Diego Padres – .295 BABIP, 68.9% LOB, 13.5% HR/FB

Ross is perhaps the most intriguing case of the bunch as he has been everything fantasy analysts (myself included) had hoped through the first 2+ months of the season. With a sub 3.00 ERA, a solid WHIP and a K/9 near 9.00 the 27-year-old starter looks great in his first season as a full time starter. Ignoring the question of any potential innings cap facing a pitcher who threw just 125 of them last season, we should be able to expect the ratios to sustain themselves through the rest of the campaign.

His peripheral numbers suggest a pitcher who has been on the bad side of fortune, as opposed to someone who has been overly lucky. Of note, he has been getting ground balls more than 60% of the time which makes his heightened 13.5% HR/FB ratio much easier to endure. The ground balls themselves are a good sign though, and with a slider that has graded as tough to hit by FanGraphs’ standards over the last two seasons he should be able to keep it up.

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  1. Friday June 13, 2014 – Baseball Links | FantasyRundown.com

    […] discusses some of the unluckiest hitters of the season to […]

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