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2013 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Top 10 Second Basemen

Jeffrey BrownAnalyst IDecember 19, 2016

2013 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Top 10 Second Basemen

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    Ten years ago, second base was a position where fantasy owners could find a handful of impact players, most notably Alfonso Soriano, Jeff Kent and Bret Boone. As hobbyists prepared for their 2003 fantasy drafts, they were able to choose from three fantasy studs who each hit 24-plus home runs and drove in 100-plus runs.

    But that was back in the day when there were a lot more players putting up monster offensive stats. Nowadays, in the era of drug testing, not so much.

    In fact, as Dave Gonos points out, there wasn’t a second baseman who drove in 100 or more runs last year, and there have only been five 100-plus RBI seasons produced by second basemen over the last five years combined. The best second baseman in 2012? It was New York Yankees star Robinson Cano, who hit 33 homers but drove in only 94 runs.

    A number of fantasy pundits have complained about the lack of current depth at second base. I guess they are reminiscing about “the good old days,” and look upon today’s players as chaff. As for me, I don’t agree with such pessimism. Sure, there is just one player (Cano) who can produce the kind of stats that Soriano, et al, were capable of producing; but the game of baseball is different today.

    In 2002, there were only 16 second basemen who had at least 400-plus at-bats—and combined, they hit 200 homers, drove in 1,027 runs, and stole 242 bases.

    In 2012, there were 21 second basemen who qualified at 400-plus at-bats—and combined, they hit 290 homers, drove in 1,300 runs, and stole 297 bases.

    So from my perspective, the position may not be as top-heavy as it was, but it may be deeper than it was. And while there aren’t as many players who can provide impact stats, there are more players capable of having an important impact on your team's cumulative stats.

    Related articles: 2013 catcher rankings; 2013 first base rankings

    (Note: if not otherwise attributed, statistics referred to herein as metrics or peripherals were pulled from Ron Shandler's 2013 Baseball Forecaster)

No. 1: Robinson Cano, New York Yankees

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    It is an indisputable fact that Robby Cano is the class of the second basemen. If you don’t agree with that statement, you should seriously reconsider playing fantasy baseball, or at the very least you have to re-examine the way you analyze fantasy players and their statistics.

    Since 2009, Cano has been a consistent fantasy performer. During the last four years, his batting average has ranged from .302 to .320, and his home run total has ranged from 25-33. His contact rate has dipped from a high of 90 percent, but it has hit a plateau at 85 percent for the last two years. His hit rate has been 33, 33, 32 and 33 percent. And since moving into the New Yankee (Softball) Stadium, (which caters to left-handed pull hitters), his home run rate has increased every year, topping out at 24 percent last season.

    If his teammates had gotten on base with ANY measure of consistency last season, he would have driven in 130-plus runs (In 2011, he drove in 118 when he hit .302 with a batting average on balls in play of .316, so imagine what he could have done last year hitting .313 with a BABIP of .326).

    His runs above replacement for the last four seasons have been 41.6, 55.3, 42.5 and 57.7. If those numbers don’t scream consistency, I surely don’t know what does.

    Some people express concern over the fact his fly-ball rate dropped from 36 percent to 26 percent over the last two seasons. While that metric bears some watching, it does not concern me, as his line-drive rate has increased from 19 percent to 26 percent over the same period. His plate discipline remains solid, as he posted better than average strikeout and walk rates.

    I expect his contact and hit rates to remain stable in 2013, though I expect his home run rate will regress towards his career norm (say, to 17 percent). The lower home run rate should result in the loss of a few points in batting average, but I expect his RBI to increase as the teammates around him should get on base more often, producing more RBI-opportunities and providing greater incentive for opposing pitchers to stop pitching around him.

    Projection: .310 BA, 28 HR, 110 RBI, 105 R and 5 SB

No. 2: Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox

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    I began this article expecting I would have Kinsler-Zobrist-Pedroia as my 2-3-4-ranked second basemen, but my analysis caused me to abandon my preconceived notions and place Pedroia at No. 2.

    The clubhouse culture in Boston underwent a dramatic shift over the last several months. Clubhouse cancer Josh Beckett was exiled to Los Angeles last summer, along with Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, removing both the player (Beckett) and the influence he exerted on other players from the clubhouse. This offseason, manager Bobby Valentine was sent packing. Gone is the Red Sox Circus. The focus of the remaining players should return to the game of baseball in 2013.

    The three-ring circus that has engulfed Fenway Park over the last 17 months had a harmful effect on Pedroia. He was close friends with former manager Terry Francona, and took it hard when Francona was let go. He was close to Kevin Youkilis, and was infuriated by Valentine’s criticism of Youk last spring. Former pitching coach John Farrell, who was very popular in the clubhouse prior to leaving for Toronto, will return to Boston as the club’s new manager.

    Everyone gets a fresh start in 2013.

    Over the last five years, Pedroia's contact rate has averaged just south of 90 percent—an elite number by any standard—and his hit rate has averaged just north of 31 percent. While his walk rate fell to just below league average last year, his strikeout rate was just a little more than half of the league average. His home run total suffers because he hits far too many ground balls (47 percent over the last two years) and too few fly balls (34 percent over the same two-year period), and his home run rate regularly lags at 11 percent (it fell to just 9 percent last year).

    He is somewhat prone to injury, and the injury bug bit him once again (thumb) in 2012. Yet, he still hit 15 homers and drove in 65 runs in an historically bad season for his club.

    What does this mean for 2013? Well, assuming his contact and hit metrics remain constant and his home run rate returns to 11 percent, it is likely his batting average stays above .290 and his home run total again eclipses the 20-plus threshold. He will almost certainly steal 18-22 bases again. The additions to the Red Sox's lineup should present more RBI opportunities, but he likely won't threaten 90 RBI in 2013.

    Projection: .295, 21 HR, 80 RBI, 95 R and 23 SB

No. 3: Ian Kinsler, Texas Rangers

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    Back in 2009, it seemed baseball was on the verge of undergoing a renaissance at the position of second base. The future looked exceedingly bright, with Cano, Pedroia, Ian Kinsler and Aaron Hill on the cusp of having outstanding, and maybe even extraordinary, careers.

    But something happened on the way to Cooperstown. Life happened. Age happened. Injuries happened. Big-money contracts were earned, and, to a certain degree, complacency may have set in. And now there is talk in Texas that Kinsler may need to be moved off second base to make room for super-prospect Jurickson Profar.

    Doesn’t it seem that it was just a couple of years ago that Michael Young was being moved around to make room for the likes of Kinsler?

    While Cano has continued on his superlative trajectory, Pedroia, Kinsler and Hill have all struggled, and their place in the upper-echelon is being threatened by Ben Zobrist, Brandon Phillips and Jason Kipnis.

    Kinsler is an interesting statistical study. He posts consistently outstanding contact rates (between 85 and 89 percent), but it seems that his approach at the plate varies from year-to-year. In even-numbered years, he seems to focus more on making hard contact—putting the ball in play with line drives. In those years, his line-drive rate rises and his fly-ball rate falls. His home run rate dips and his batting average increases. And all of this happens at the expense of his home run total.

    In odd-numbered years, he appears to respond to suggestions that his power may be waning. It appears that he consciously attempts to get more loft on the ball—as his fly-ball rate spikes and his line-drive rate declines. Consequently, his home run total rises and his batting average falls.

    From year-to-year, his statistics go back and forth, like a ping-pong ball (with the notable exception of last year, when his hit rate suffered and, therefore, his batting average failed to rebound as would have been expected).

    So, which path will he choose in 2013? It is logical to assume he will opt to swing for the fences. With Profar biding time at Triple-A and a switch to first base on the horizon, Kinsler will want to provide the Rangers with the statistical skill set normally associated with corner infielders. And there is the matter of Josh Hamilton’s departure for the left coast—with the loss of his power and production, Kinsler will feel pressure to fill the void.

    Projection: .252 BA, 29 HR, 80 RBI, 90 R and 20 SB

No. 4: Aaron Hill, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Wither Ben Zobrist? As I wrote earlier, when I began this exercise I anticipated Zobrist would be among my Top 4 at the position, but the more the analysis, the more it became evident this position belongs to Hill.

    I imagine that when a fantasy owner looks at Hill’s statistics, they must scratch their head. When combined, his metrics make his performance appear to be strapped onto a roller coaster—up and down, up and down, in a continuous cycle.

    But a deeper analysis suggests that his better seasons should be considered the norm, with asterisks affixed beside his 2010 and 2011 seasons.

    Hill’s batting average in 2010 was an embarrassingly-low .205, but that number was the result of an inexplicably low .196 BABIP. So, how can pundits explain a number that is so extreme?  Did he just have a season-long run of bad luck? Hardly. It seems likely he was pressing at the dish, hoping to put up huge numbers to inspire the Blue Jays' front office to pick up a series of contract options the club was due to decide on at the end of the season.

    He swung for the fences, as evidenced by the fact his fly-ball rate spiked 13 points that season (to 54 percent) while his line-drive rate fell to just 11 percent. The fly balls fell short of the grandstands and resulted in outs. His hit rate plummeted to 20 percent. Toronto declined its options for 2012-2014.

    The following year Hill suffered a hamstring injury in spring training and began the season on the disabled list. Injuries sapped his strength.  He struggled throughout the campaign. The Blue Jays' front office shipped him to Arizona, along with John McDonald, in exchange for D-backs second baseman Kelly Johnson.

    Hill rediscovered his health—and his game—in Arizona. He continued to make outstanding contact (posting mid-80s contact rates for the sixth consecutive season) while lifting his hit rate into the low-30s.

    Players are what they are, and over time their performances should trend towards their career norms. I don’t expect Hill’s contact rate to remain at last season’s career-high of 32 percent, but it is reasonable to expect that it will settle at 29-30 percent. It is also reasonable to project his fly-ball rate to remain in the low- to mid-40s and his home run rate to plateau at 11-13 percent in the hitter-friendly confines of Chase Field. For these reasons, I foresee a regression in batting average and a slight increase in his home run total.

    Projection: .278 BA, 29 HR, 85 RBI, 85 R and 12 SB

No. 5: Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay Rays

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    At long last, here is Zobrist. Finally! I traded for Zorilla in my home fantasy league this winter, and I’ll confess that I (significantly) overpaid for him—but I don’t care. I had more players than keeper slots and was going to have to cut players anyway, so I identified him as the player I most wanted and got him. Second baseman. Outfielder. And now, shortstop. That is a windfall of position eligibility.

    Zobrist got off to a rough start last season, hitting just .200 through June 7 (though he did hit six homers and drive home 20 runs in that period). Regardless, he rebounded to finish the season hitting .270, with 20 homers, 74 RBI and 14 steals. Nearly all of his metrics were identical in the first and second halves, with the exception of his hit rate (27 percent in the first half, 32 percent thereafter).

    With the exception of 2010, his peripherals have been pretty consistent: his contact rate averages 80 percent (within a range of 78-82 percent), his hit rate averages 31 percent (range of 30-33 percent), and his home run rate has settled in the vicinity of 12-13 percent. His walk rate has been consistently well-above league average and, with the exception of 2011, his strikeout rate has remained a few points less than league average.

    The one aspect of his game that appears to be on the decline is his stolen bases, as his stolen-base percentage has dropped considerably in each of the last three years (from 89 to 76 to 61 percent). It is likely the manager and coaching staff will approve fewer stolen-base attempts should his success rate remain on the decline. This issue bears watching through spring training.

    Projection: .269 BA, 20 HR, 81 RBI, 90 R and 15 SB

No. 6: Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati Reds

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    Phillips is a solid, if unspectacular, fantasy performer who provides consistent production across the board. His performance dipped after the 2009 campaign and has held steady throughout the last three seasons. He hit 18 homers in each of the last three years and racked up mid-teen stolen-base numbers in each season. His peripherals are equally stable: contact rates of 87, 86 and 86 percent; hit rates of 29, 33 and 30 percent; home run rates of 10, 10 and 11 percent; etc.

    He puts the ball in play (his strikeout and walk rates are well below league average), meaning he will have ample opportunity to accrue RBI and score runs.

    He may not be flashy, but he is predictable and steady. In fantasy baseball, that can be a solid anchor around which you can construct your lineup.

    Projection: .275 BA, 18 HR, 75 RBI, 85 R and 15 SB

No. 7: Jason Kipnis, Cleveland Indians

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    Jason Kipnis was putting together a solid rookie campaign when the wheels fell off his wagon in the second half of the season (when he hit just .238, with three homers and 30 RBI).

    It is difficult to understand what happened or to define the implications for the future because his underlying metrics changed by only the smallest of margins, except for his home run rate (which dropped precipitously) and walk rate (which increased dramatically). Let’s break down the underlying metrics:

    On-base percentage: .332 (first half)/.333 (second half)

    Contact rate: 82 percent/81 percent

    Hit rate: 30 percent/29 percent

    HR rate: 13 percent/5 percent

    SB rate: 95 percent/67 percent

    And then there is the breakdown of his batted balls: in the first half, 44 percent of his batted balls were ground balls, 23 percent were line drives and 33 percent were fly balls; in the second half, 51 percent were grounders, 23 percent were liners and 27 percent were fly balls.

    The regression in his home run and fly-ball rates resulted in far-fewer home runs (11 in the first half, just three in the second half), but there is little that can be deduced from the metrics to explain why his batting average fell nearly 40 points in the second half. Some pundits have suggested it was simply a matter of him tiring at the end of his first full season in the major leagues.

    Maybe.

    Tiring might explain why he hit more ground balls and fewer fly balls; but, if that were the explanation, wouldn’t tiring have led to a corresponding decrease in his line-drive rate as well? While tired legs could explain the lower home run and stolen-base rates, does it explain a 40-point drop in his batting average in light of the fact he hit line drives at the same rate throughout the season?

    Don’t we equate line drives with base hits?

    Looking ahead to 2013, it is difficult to extrapolate last year’s performance and create a projection. His minor-league numbers suggest a slight regression in his contact rate and modest growth in his hit rate. They also suggest his home run rate should be in line with the 13-percent rate he generated during the first half of last season, possibly higher, and that his stolen-base success rate should remain constant for the next few years. That said, with Francona now at the helm in Cleveland, it seems likely he may not get as many stolen-base opportunities in the upcoming season as he had last season.

    Kipnis’ numbers may end up better than Phillips', but the latter is more established and there is more downside here than with the Reds second baseman, so I prefer Phillips over Kipnis—by a nose.

    Projection: .260 BA, 18 HR, 75 RBI, 85 R and 18 SB

No. 8: Jose Altuve, Houston Astros

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    In conducting research for this list I read several pieces about Jose Altuve, and one word appeared over and over again: diminutive.

    As in, 5'5'', 170 pounds.

    Though he may be slight in stature, Altuve’s size has not stopped him from becoming one of the most talked about players in fantasy circles this winter—and for good cause. He posted a nice stat line last year in his first full season in the major leagues: .290 BA, 7 HR, 37 RBI, 80 R and 33 SB. It wasn’t bad considering he played on a team that scuffled to score runs.

    The underlying metrics suggest he should be able to repeat last season’s performance in the upcoming campaign. His contact rate was a robust 87 percent and hit rate was 32 percent. More than half of the balls he put into play were hit on the ground (53 percent). The combination of his speed and his approach to hitting (keeping the ball on the ground) suggests to me his 32-percent hit rate could serve as a statistical floor for the foreseeable future.

    Additionally, he has good plate discipline and an improving command of the strike zone, as demonstrated by a solid strikeout rate (12 percent, compared to the MLB average of 19 percent) and improved walk rate (2 percent in 2011, 5 percent during the first half of last year, and 8 percent in the second half of 2012).

    While he won’t hit many home runs and likely won’t accrue many RBI, he should be very solid in the other categories—and with the Astros' move to the American League (exiling the pitcher to the bench in favor of a designated hitter) it is possible his RBI total could increase as well.

    Projection: .285 BA, 5 HR, 43 RBI, 80 R and 40 SB

No. 9: Neil Walker, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    As with Phillips before him and Chase Utley behind him, Walker should be viewed as a solid-if-unspectacular option at second base—at least at this point. In spite of beginning the 2012 campaign slowly, he was on his way to having the best season of his career when a dislocated finger sidelined him in mid-August.

    I say “at least at this point” because he could be on the verge of a breakout campaign. Many pundits believe that a player’s performance in the second half of one season can serve as a harbinger of what could follow in the following season. If that is the case, 2013 could be an extraordinary year for Walker.

    While his contact rate lagged in the first half, he posted contact (80 percent) and hit (33 percent) rates  during the second half that were consistent with his career averages. But it was his home run rate in the second half that caught everyone’s attention, as the guy with a career home run rate (hr/fb) of 8 percent suddenly hit home runs at a slugger’s pace, posting an 18 percent home run rate after midseason. It was an extraordinary and unexpected development.

    With apologies to Bucs fans, I don’t expect he will suddenly become an impact power source. It is unlikely that he suddenly found the power switch and that he will morph into a hitter who will consistently hit 20-25 home runs (or more). Such extreme departures from a career track record are rare—the experience of Jose Bautista notwithstanding. If a gain has been unearthed, it seems more likely that he will return to a home run rate in the vicinity of 10-12 percent, thereby achieving a new home run plateau at 16-18 homers annually.

    But you never know—he turned 27 on Sept. 10. Stranger things have happened. Be wary of raised expectations and drafting him too early as you may be disappointed; but, if you buy right, you end up with a guy who almost certainly will give you what you pay for—and potentially so much more.

    Projection: .280 BA, 15 HR, 80 RBI, 65 R and 7 SB

No. 10: Chase Utley, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Utley was one of the cornerstones at the position as recently as four years ago; but injuries have ravaged his health and eroded his performance. Over the last few years he has been a shell of his former self, as recurring injuries have limited his playing time and diminished his skill set. Yet, there is hope.

    Utley returned to the field last year at midseason and showed he still has the ability to be a productive fantasy performer if blessed with decent health. In 300 at-bats, he hit .256, with 11 homers, 45 RBI, 48 runs and (surprisingly) 11 steals.

    In spite of a paucity of playing time over the previous two seasons (he averaged just over 400 at-bats each year) and despite missing the first half of the last season while recovering from a knee injury, he demonstrated solid command of the strike zone (he had as many walks as strikeouts) and an improved contact rate (86 percent). While his hit rate was just 27 percent and his home run rate was just 12 percent, there is the potential that one or both could improve.

    Assuming improved health, Utley could get 450-plus at-bats and post numbers similar to Phillips or Walker. Those numbers will be darn good considering the round you should be able to draft him in.

    His health bears watching during spring training.

    Projection: .265 BA, 15 HR, 70 RBI, 70 R and 15 SB

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