Nick Kappel's Fantasy Focus: How To Predict a Down Year

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Nick Kappel's Fantasy Focus: How To Predict a Down Year
(Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

As fantasy baseball managers, our job is not to assemble a team based on last year’s statistics, though many make the mistake of doing that.

Instead, it is our duty to predict what’s going to happen next. Not many people realize this, but if you consistently make personnel decisions based on what happened last year, you’re bound to get burned.

This week, we’ll learn how to spot some major red flags, so you can predict when a player is due for a troubling season.

Exhibit A: Jeff Francoeur

2007 saw Francoeur make great strides as a young hitter, setting a career high with a .293 BA, while driving in 100+ runs for the second consecutive year.

While his HR total (19) was down from 29 the year before, his 40 doubles led many to believe a return to the 25-30 HR range was attainable heading into the 2008 season.

As we now know, those who believed…got burned.

Francoeur set career lows with 11 HR and a .239 BA in 2008, despite 599 ABs. Should we have seen this coming?

The key thing to note here is that Francoeur is a notorious free swinger. The former first round pick has recorded 115 walks and 430 strikeouts and sports a .312 OBP in 2149 career ABs.

These are numbers you should really focus on when evaluating a player’s ability to consistently produce. A career OBP that low screams inconsistency to me—at least for a power hitter.

All hitters are bound to fall into a slump at some point. The ones who are willing to work counts and take walks are the ones who can survive their slump without hurting their team, or more importantly, your fantasy team.

Look for consistently high OBP totals (no lower than .350, preferably .375 or higher) from year-to-year when trying to separate a legitimate clean-up hitter from an inconsistent free-swinger.

Of course there are few exceptions to this rule (Alfonso Soriano for example), but for the most part, it holds true.

So who are the most notable power hitters to post sub .350 OBPs in 2008? Ryan Braun, Brandon Phillips, Garrett Atkins, Mark Reynolds, and Rick Ankiel just to name a few…

Carlos Zambrano’s fall from fantasy stardom has been much more gradual than Francoeur’s. 2005 was arguably Big Z’s best fantasy season.

In 223 1/3 innings, he posted a stellar K/9 rate (8.1) to go along with a 3.26 ERA, while holding opponents to a .212 batting average against.

His 14 wins were good, but not great (if you haven’t figured it out yet, win totals is the stat a pitcher has the least control over; therefore, it should not be a significant component in evaluating a pitcher).

On the surface, 2006 appeared to be another great season for the Cubs ace. In 214 innings, Zambrano posted a K/9 rate of 8.8 and an ERA of 3.41.

His .208 BAA was also in line with his 2005 production. However, if you dig deeper, you’ll noticed his BB/9 rate was an alarming 4.8, compared to 3.4 in 2005.

This was the first sign of Big Z’s dwindling fantasy value. The following chart further displays Zambrano’s decline from fantasy ace, to overrated and overpriced.

 

Year IP K/9 BB/9 ERA WHIP BAA
2006 214 8.8 4.8 3.41 1.29 0.208
2007 216.1 7.3 4.2 3.95 1.33 0.233
2008 188.2 6.2 3.4 3.91 1.29 0.241

 

As you can see, his K/9 rate, ERA ,and batting average against are all moving in the wrong direction. His WHIP had hovered around 1.30 for the past three seasons after recording a 1.22 and 1.15 WHIP in 2004 and 2005, respectively. The only good thing we can take from this is that his BB/9 rate has seen a slight decline each season.

So what should we expect from Zambrano in 2009? I have mixed feelings, but we can all learn from Big Z‘s past. If there’s one thing to take away from this, it’s that walks will almost always come back to get you. This leads me to another important tip: don’t underestimate the importance of WHIP!

WHIP, in case you didn’t know, stands for walks + hits per innings pitched. As the amount of walks and hits a pitcher allows increases, so do his chance of allowing runs to score. This, of course, increases his ERA total, which decreases his chances of winning. This is a very telling stat, and one that I have vowed to focus on this season.

So what’s a good range for WHIP? For starting pitchers, 1.25 and below would be ideal. If you start to creep up into the 1.30 range, you’re eventually going to have some problems.

Speaking of problem pitchers, here’s a short list of starting pitchers who posted an un-inspiring WHIP in 2008: Chad Billingsley, Felix Hernandez, A.J. Burnett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Edinson Volquez, and Matt Cain, just to name a few. Buyer beware!

That’s all for this week. If you are struggling over a keeper/trade/draft decision, shoot me an e-mail (nkappel@yahoo.com). I’ll pick out a few of the most intriguing questions, and offer some insight in my next post.
Hang in there! The start of the fantasy season is less than two weeks away!
Original Story: Baseball Reflections
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