With the calendar turning to March and Spring Training underway, the official countdown to Opening Day has begun. Most fans are excited about their respective teams’ upcoming season, and even those who don’t quite fancy their team to do well will find something to look forward to. The proximity to Opening Day also signifies the unofficial beginning of fantasy season, with millions of fantasy players around the world eager to look for players both of the breakout and overrated variety, while hardcore fantasy gamers will sink their teeth into Spring Training roster battles, as well.
One of the things that general baseball fanatics and fantasy players have in common is curiosity about player performance. While the former are more concerned with whether or not a player coming off a great year can repeat that performance and help their team win more games, the latter might be more interested in trying to find players who underperformed last season and can be steals during fantasy drafts and auctions. Whether you play fantasy baseball or are just a diehard fan of your team, examining the possibility of a player coming off a fluke season—be it good or bad—is pretty fascinating, especially when you consider the multitude of factors that need to be taken into consideration.
That’s what I want to figure out. There isn’t an exact science to this, and as I said, many factors can contribute to a player having over or underperformed; but, nevertheless, it’s a fun exercise, and one whose progress you can follow throughout the season.
In Part 1 (below), we’ll take a look at the players I expect to decline. Part 2, slated to be published on Friday, will highlight those who I see bouncing back.
Bound to Decline
Ubaldo Jimenez, SP, Baltimore Orioles
Jimenez’s big 2013 season netted him a 4-year, $50 MM deal—and that contract may come back to bite the Orioles as soon as this upcoming season. Though he put up a career-high K/9 rate of 9.56, to go along with a 3.30 ERA (the 2nd lowest of his career), other numbers may suggest it was a bit of a fluke. Jimenez’s 3.94 BB/9, though lower than it was in 2012, was still extremely high, ranking 4th worst in the Majors. He also saw his fastball velocity continue to decline, which likely contributed to only 21 starting pitchers having a less valuable heater (as per FanGraphs).
Though not necessarily a sign of decline, Jimenez threw a slider 25% of the time in 2013, which is 7.8% more often than he did in 2009, his previous career-high. Hitters are always adjusting, and it’s safe to expect most to go into at-bats against Jimenez this season with this information in the back of their minds. It doesn’t mean that his slider will suddenly become ineffective, but I’d like to see him adjust to the adjustments that will be made against him before being confident that the pitch will once again be as valuable.
And, while this may not be a point against Jimenez himself, moving to a more hitter-friendly home park and a better offensive division will not help his production. He will be facing tougher hitters in the AL East; ones that should turn mistakes into hits more often than it occurred last season. He probably won’t completely fall apart, but it’s really hard for to ignore 2011 and 2012, particularly with the knowledge that his stuff simply isn’t as electrifying as it once was. I think a decline in K/9 is definitely coming, as is a fairly significant increase in ERA. The continued deterioration of his fastball coupled with his apparent reluctance to throw a changeup could also lead to some platoon-split issues, which could present yet another new challenge.
Adam Lind, DH/1B, Toronto Blue Jays
To say that Lind’s 2013 season came out of the blue would be a severe understatement. After three consecutive seasons of well below-average production (and a stint in the minor leagues in 2012), he finished last season hitting .288/.357/.497 with 23 HR, good for a 132 wRC+. It’d be nice to assume that Lind finally figured out what was holding him back, given his success in 2009, but it’s also fair to be skeptical of a player coming off back-to-back-to-back subpar (at best) seasons.
So, what made Lind so much better in 2013 than in previous years? He showed a bit more patience at the plate than in the past, or at least the numbers suggest that he did (more on that later). His BB% was a career-best 9.8%, compared to 8.2% in 2012 and 5.9% in 2011. He also swung at a career-low 41.7% of pitches, which correlates nicely with the spike in BB%. And making more hard contact than he did in 2012 surely helped, as 21.3% of his batted balls were line drives, the second best mark of his career.
Digging deeper, however, reveals some potential concerns. Lind once again really struggled versus LHP, batting just .208/.240/.333 with 3 HR and a 53 wRC+ against southpaws—even in the midst of a bounce-back season, he was still a glorified platoon player. This should cement his destiny as nothing more than a part-time player, though, luckily for him, it’s the LHH-side of the platoon.
Since his awfulness against LHP didn’t stop him from producing versus RHP, we should concentrate on what might bring some those numbers back down to earth. His HR/FB% made a huge leap, even though he was hitting fewer fly-balls than usual (only in 2008 did he have a lower FB%). And, though the numbers show that he was more patient, Lind actually made less contact on pitches within the strike-zone than he did in 2012, and only slightly more contact than he made on such pitches in 2011 and 2010. He was basically right around his career-average for contact made on pitches within the zone, yet the results were staggeringly better than in the previous three seasons. Furthermore, he made contact on any type of swings at a rate that’s slightly below his career norms. The overall improvement in plate discipline may be slightly deceiving as well, as Lind saw a career-low percentage of pitches thrown in the zone, suggesting that he may have just been lucky enough to face slightly “wilder” pitchers than in years past, and his OBP and BB% numbers are prime for regression.
All of this makes his 2013 seem “lucky,” “flukey,” or whatever other mean word you want to attach to it. It’s probably unlikely that we see Lind spend some time in the minors again (due to poor performance) as we saw in 2012, but considering the staggering spike in production that came last season, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Lind has a .260/.310/.440-type year, relegating him to average-at-best hitter status.
Matt Moore, SP, Tampa Bay Rays
Moore’s inclusion on this list may be somewhat controversial, considering that the lefty is only entering his age-25 season in 2014. However, his peripherals suggest that his raw numbers may not be as good as they seem, and that a decline is coming. A 3.29 ERA and 143 K in 150.1 IP certainly look impressive, especially coming from a 24-year-old—but 2014 may look much uglier for Moore.
The main concern after Moore’s rookie season was his walk rate, as he walked 4.11 batters per 9 innings. Last season, that mark actually worsened, ending up at 4.55 BB/9. In fact, only one pitcher who tossed at least 150 innings had a worse BB/9 than Moore last season, and that was Houston’s Lucas Harrell (he of the 5.86 ERA). Another sign of concern is the decline in fastball velocity, which slipped from 94.2 MPH in 2012 to 92.4 MPH last year. You don’t need a mid-90s fastball to be a good pitcher (though it certainly helps), but a two MPH decline in velocity at such a young age is disconcerting.
Perhaps the strongest evidence to suggest a decline in 2014 is Moore’s BABIP, which was .259 last season, .034 points lower than it was in his rookie year. There probably isn’t a large enough sample size yet to determine whether Moore’s BABIP in 2013 was a fluke, or if it’s actually close to what it’ll be for the majority of his career; we do, however, have evidence of declined velocity, walk, and strikeout rates, so the major drop in BABIP is at least somewhat, surely, lucky.
Moore was quite good versus LHH in 2013, putting up an 8.10 K/9 and a 2.89 BB/9. However, he struggled against RHH, striking out a solid 8.77 per 9, but walking a rather staggering 5.30 per 9. And, considering he faces RHH more than twice as many times as he does LHH, he has to improve that walk rate before it significantly hurts his overall numbers.
He’s very talented (it’s pretty hard to strike out almost nine batters per start if you aren’t), but until Moore improves his command, it’s hard to envision his ERA continuing to be so much better than his peripherals suggest it should be. After all, he wouldn’t be the first very talented starter whose results never truly matched that talent.
Marlon Byrd, OF, Philadelphia Phillies
Byrd may seem like an unfair pick, because I doubt that most believe his 2013 season was “for real.” That being said, the Phillies decided to give him $16M over the next two seasons to be their starting right fielder, so I think the 36-year-old is fair game for our purposes.
Going from fourth outfielder to All-Star is one thing; doing it this late in your career is another. The numbers Byrd put up last season were fantastic at face value, but when comparing them to his last few seasons—or, to his career as a whole, actually—you can’t help but to immediately think “fluke.”
He’s always produced high BABIPs, so while last season’s .353 stands out, it’s not totally shocking. What was, for example, were Byrd’s power numbers. Sure, he hit 20 HRs before (once, in 2009, playing for the Rangers), but the closest he’s come in the past to the .511 SLG he had last season was .479 (and, as you may have imagined, it was in that same 2009 season). And, after 2009, Byrd’s slugging figures looked like this: .429 in 2010; .395 in 2011; .245 in 2012. Then, suddenly, .511 last season, as a 35-year-old. Let that sink in.
To be fair, I don’t think that even the Phillies expect him to repeat his 2013 success in 2014 or 2015. They would probably be happy if Byrd gave them a .280/.320/.480 line for the next two seasons, with about 15-20 HRs per. But, when you really examine his career as a whole, and particularly his last few seasons, it becomes extremely hard to envision him doing even that. A player who—compared to his career averages—had a declined walk rate while striking out a career-high 24.9% of the time, and posted a career-low contact percentage, somehow managed to have a 136 wRC+, 24 points higher than his previous career-best. That, in all honesty, is insane, and there’s no way I see Byrd coming anywhere close to that production ever again.
Travis Wood, SP, Chicago Cubs
His 9-12 record aside, Wood managed to put up quality baseball card numbers. He gave the Cubs 200 IP (and no, durability isn’t something that stat-heads ignore, but the magic number of “200” is one you often hear from ‘old school’ fans), had a very impressive 3.11 ERA, and didn’t allow many HRs (18 in total). And, to be fair, those numbers are in fact pretty impressive, assuming that’s all the data that was shown to you. Luckily for us, we can dig deeper.
When doing that, you quickly realize that Wood was essentially the same pitcher in 2013 as he was in 2012, only with much better (read: luckier) results. Below is a quick comparison:
2012 K/9 = 6.87; 2013 K/9 = 6.48
2012 BB/9 = 3.12; 2013 BB/9 = 2.97
2012 BABIP = .244; 2013 BABIP: .248
2012 GB% = 34.3; 2013 GB% = 33.2
2012 FB MPH = 89.4; 2013 FB MPH = 88.9
Again, as these basic numbers clearly show, Wood was more or less the same pitcher, with the main difference being the amount of HR allowed. In 2012, Wood gave up 1.44 HR/9, which was the 8th worst in the Majors amongst pitchers with at least 150 IP. In 2013, however, Wood allowed 0.81 HR/9, well below the league-average of 0.96. So, in one season, he transitioned from one of the most HR-prone starters in the bigs to being stingy against the long ball. Considering the fact that his K and BB rates remained rather similar, and his FB velocity slightly declined, it’s hard to imagine this happening for any reason other than pure luck, as this surely doesn’t look like the profile of a different pitcher.
It would be beyond shocking if Wood once again pitches to a low-threes ERA if he continues producing the same peripherals. A low-to-mid-fours ERA seems much more realistic, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the stat-savvy Cubs’ front-office attempts to capitalize on Wood’s pseudo success in 2013 by trading him.