4 Surprisingly Productive Left Fielders: Will They Continue Their Pace?
After nine weeks into the regular season, each sit atop the stat sheet coming out of left field, literally and figuratively speaking.
When an unexpected event occurs, we often use the baseball idiom that the occurrence happened "out of left field," meaning out of nowhere. None of the guys I mentioned above came into the 2014 season as a top 50 fantasy outfielder, or was regarded by anyone as a top-tier Major League left fielder.
In fact, according to Yahoo and ESPN fantasy baseball draft results, all four had average draft positions outside of the top 200. However, they all have been effective offensive forces so far this season, and have gone beyond simply exceeding their preseason expectations. But of course, each has the caveat of being injury prone, generally unproven, or potentially lacking everyday lineup security.
Of left fielders who have seen at least 100 plate appearances this season, all four guys rank in the top eight of their class in weighted on-base average (wOBA) and weighted runs created plus (wRC+). They're also all top 30 players - not just left fielders - in nERD. wOBA measures a hitter's overall offensive value based on the idea that not all hits are created equal. wRC+ quantifies a player's total offensive value, measured by runs, in comparison to the league average. These two metrics are the most important, all-encompassing statistics in determining a hitter's true value. Additionally, all four players mentioned rank inside the top 30 league leaders of both categories for all qualified positional players.
|Melky Cabrera||Blue Jays||227||.375||138|
So which of these left fielders are going to run into a wall at some point this season? (No pun intended.)
Seth Smith - LF, San Diego Padres
I've always been told there is no such thing as a stupid question. Yet, it wasn’t too long ago when I refreshed the league leaders page and asked myself, "who the heck is Seth Smith?" For lack of a better word, I felt stupid having absolutely no freaking idea who this guy was or where he came from.
So who is Seth Smith? For starters, he's one of the only guys in a Padres uniform worth discussing. At the moment, Smith is ranked 15th in the bigs in batting average at .317 and fifth in Major League Baseball in on-base plus slugging (OPS) at .987, sitting behind only Troy Tulowitski, Yasiel Puig, Victor Martinez, and Giancarlo Stanton.
That's pretty good company for a no-namer, eh? He's also hitting a solid .260 isolated power and a 14.6% home run to fly ball rate, while maintaining a .85 walk-to-strikeout ratio.
However, after a hot start to the month of May, Smith has struggled during the past week, putting up an average just north of .200. It's only one week, but with Carlos Quentin now healthy and the depth of that outfield, it's hard not to wonder what would happen if this slide continues.
The Padres are collectively batting a horrific .221, the worst in the league. And actually, they are the leagues basement dwellers in just about every offensive category (OBP, SLG, OPS, wOBA, wRC+, BABIP, LD%). The list goes on and on. To boot, the Padres have a deep group of what they believe to be, talented outfielders, which makes everyday at-bats a bit of a concern.
So in truth, I have no idea what to make of his ridiculous start. He wasn't even on the fantasy radar coming into the season, and there's no evidence that points to any major decline in his statistics other then the fact that he hits in the middle of the weakest lineup in the league and does so at Petco Park, the second most pitcher-friendly ballpark according to last year's statistics.
With no history of sustained success, a nonexistent supporting cast, and a crowded Padres outfield, I can't help but kick the Seth Smith bandwagon off its tracks. By season's end, there is no doubt that his numbers will take a dip, so I'd be selling him as he most likely cost you next to nothing to acquire. I'll take it one step further by saying I wouldn't be at all shocked if he lost his starting gig during the second half of the season and fell back into an outfield platoon role for the Padres.
Michael Brantley - LF, Cleveland Indians
After a strong showing last September and a solid spring training, the Indians' left fielder is having a career year this season across the board. Brantley's wOBA, as seen above, ranks 16th in all of baseball, and combined with his .216 isolated power, they both sit well above his Major League career highs. Similarly, his home run to fly ball rate of 18.8% is a ridiculous 12% higher than his previous career mark.
Brantley already has nine home runs on the year, putting him on a 28 home run pace for the season, which would almost triple his career best (10 home runs in 2013). Let's look at that again. Through 211 plate appearances this year, he's only one long-ball shy of tying his career high mark! Talk about coming "out of left field." Where in the world did this power come from?
His 38 RBI thus far have him on pace for 120 on the year, only surpassing his previous mark of 70 by a mere 50 ribbies. And his astonishingly low strikeout percentage of 8.5% is another career best. Like I said before, he's on pace for a career year in almost every statistical category. With a .300 average, even 20 home runs and 100 RBI would be All-Star caliber numbers.
Regression much? As quickly as I talked him up, I'll kick his early season explosion back down. I can buy a slight increase in the numbers, and maybe he maintains for a little while longer, but his current value on the dollar is unsustainable. Unfortunately for Brantley, the Indians supporting cast doesn't bode well for his future production either - his value will only go down from here. It's time to cash in. I expect Brantley's final numbers to fall back towards his previous career marks, still easily maintaining fantasy relevance, just not what owners have grown accustomed to seeing so far this year. Brantley ends 2014 falling short on all accounts of the .300/20/100 All-Star caliber line.
Mike Morse - LF, San Francisco Giants
Giants' slugger Mike Morse is known for taking an aggressive approach to the plate, a contributing factor in both his home run numbers and strikeout percentage. He currently finds himself in the top 10 percent of the league in first pitch swing rate. Morse already has twice as many home runs (10) as all Giants' left fielders combined for last year (5), three of these being first pitch bombshells. He does hold a lofty strikeout percentage of 24.2% though.
Morse is currently batting .265 for the Giants this year, with an .832 OPS. Additionally, he is among the National League leaders in home runs (10), RBI (33), and slugging percentage (.506). Battling a wrist injury last year, and a late season move from Seattle to Baltimore, Morse only hit .215 with a .651 OPS. When relatively healthy though, he batted .294 with an .857 OPS in his four previous seasons with the Nationals. To put it all into perspective, he is a career .280 hitter with an .810 OPS, but has dealt with his fair share of injury concerns throughout his career.
Back to his raw power. Morse sits just inside the league's top 20 in isolated power at .255. He ranks third in batted ball distance, averaging a monstrous 318.57 ft. per poke this season. During an injury plagued 2013 season, he finished 99th on the list, with an average distance of 286.66 ft. But he is only three years removed from a 31 home run campaign, landing himself seventh on the list at 303.84 ft. His home run to fly ball rate is up 9.0% this year (25.0% from 16.0%), despite playing home games at AT&T Park, the 29th ranked ballpark in home runs per game.
For another month or so, Morse will continue serving as the Giants' everyday first basemen in place of Brandon Belt, who is recovering from a broken thumb. To compliment Morse's newly acquired first base eligibility, the temporary move should draw more late game at-bats as he has been pulled numerous times in the latter innings due to being a defensive liability in left field. His power is indeed for real though, and given that his wrist appears fully healed from last year, I'm thinking a .260 average, 25 home runs, and 90 RBI seems quite attainable.
Melky Cabrera - LF, Toronto Blue Jays
Cabrera's 2012 All-Star campaign was clouded by his late season steroid scandal, and he followed up his troubling year with an atrocious 2013 performance. Dually noted, he spent most of 2013 fighting injuries in his hamstring and quadriceps, finally calling it quits for the season after a knee injury. Making an appearance in only 88 games, he ended his shortened season with a .279/.322/.360 slash. In the off-season, it was determined that he had a benign tumor on his lower spine. After having the tumor surgically removed, the 29 year-old claims to be back to full health, and who is to doubt him.
Cabrera's now batting .313 out of the two-hole in a powerful Blue Jays lineup. He's striking the ball with much more power this season. His slugging percentage has jumped .162 points from last year, his isolated power has nearly doubled, and his home run to fly ball rate is up 12.2%. And if the early season numbers aren't enough, Cabrera had a .405/.423/.595 slash this spring.
Cabrera's numbers this year look awfully similar to those he put up during his juiced 2012 season. I'm certainly not indicating anything more than the fact that, if he can reproduce anything even close to what he did two years ago, owners could be in for a real treat this year. No one is predicting superstar status for the rest of the season, but he's healthy and playing very well in a potent lineup, so another All-Star campaign doesn't appear too farfetched.
The main concern coming into this season was Cabrera's aging health. It's hard to determine what effects the steroid season had on both his health and performance in 2012 and 2013. He looks like he's 100% right now, and his numbers surely back that up. With the speed in front of him in Jose Reyes, and the power behind him in Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, I'll take my chances with Cabrera for the remainder of the season. Betting on no extended disabled list stints, I think he shapes back into 2012 form but with a cleaner demeanor, posting a .300 average and scoring 80 runs.