4 Underrated Second Basemen to Target on Draft Day
If you remember from the overrated version of this article, I ranked the candidates by things we should all avoid in life. This time we’re talking about fun stuff. We’re going to look at four different players today that I absolutely love in drafts this year and we’re going to sort them out by the things I love most in life that I feel people are underrating. We all know the drill here — these are players I’m targeting in every single draft that I can, and if I come out of any of my drafts with any of them as my second baseman I am feeling really great. I know my first pick here was also listed amongst the Underdrafted Third Basemen by the excellent Max Freeze, but I truly think it’s worth exploring further and making clear just how excellent he is among second basemen as well.
The Pitbull Tier
Travis Shaw, Brewers 2B/3B
NFBC ADP: 100
Staff Concensus Rank: 96
My Rank: 55
Pitbull is just the best. He sings about Fireball Whiskey, wears white suits everywhere and is getting his own bobblehead this year at Marlins Park. How could you not love any human being who both seems to take himself super seriously and not seriously at all, all at the same time? All while appearing to have the Time Of His Life (see what I did there?). And Timber might be the greatest drunk-on-the-dance-floor song ever AND the song I demand to enter to at my wedding (if I ever get married that is).
Then there is the nickname, Mr. World Wide. *Chef’s Kiss* It’s perfect. Speaking of people with perfect nicknames, let’s turn our attention to one Travis Shaw. I swear I didn’t pick The Mayor of Ding Dong City just because he has the greatest sports nickname of all time (though it certainly didn’t hurt his case). There might not be a second baseman I am more stoked about this season than Travis Shaw. First, Shaw’s base stats for 2018:
Now his breakout 2017 season:
Right away the massive drop in AVG jumps out at you. 32 points to be exact. His OBP, OPS and HRs stay pretty darn consistent. You’ll see even greater signs of consistency as we take a look at the underlying advanced stats. I know many savy drafters are being scared off by the precipitous drop in Shaw’s average last year but let me tell you why it shouldn’t: because when you look at the advanced stats, Travis Shaw improved in 2018 in almost every way. Let’s start with what I consider the cornerstones of evaluating a good hitter — BB%, K%, OBP, OPS, wRC+ and wOBA.
You can see year-to-year improvement in several essential categories while holding steady everywhere else. There is remarkable consistency in his OBP and OPS but this consistency really shines through in his wRC+ and wOBA. For three out of the last four years, you could pretty much just pencil him in for a 119 wRC+ and a wOBA between .345 and .360. In 2018 his AVG plummeted over 30 points and his wRC+ and wOBA barely moved at all. I believe this obscured the improvements Shaw made in 2018 and leaves a ton of room for those numbers to explode in 2019.
Don’t think I’ve forgotten about his BB% and K%. Every single year has brought a significant improvement in his BB%, peaking at 13.3% (17th best in MLB in 2018). We similarly see marked improvement almost every year in his K% as well, reaching a career-best rate of 18.4% (56th in MLB in 2018). While these rates aren’t actual categories in the world of roto, they are obvious signs of a slugger who has become a more well-rounded hitter every single year he’s been in the league and are great indicators of just how elite he is in points or OBP leagues.
The question is are these gains sustainable? What do Shaw’s plate discipline stats tell us?
Over the last 3 years, Shaw has dropped his O-Swing% (T-56th best in the league in 2018) while consistently remaining above average in Z-Swing% (88th) and Z-Contact (55th). This shows that Shaw isn’t chasing pitches out of the zone and is being selective as to which strikes he is swinging at. The best part is when he does find a strike he likes he makes contact at an elite rate. His SwStrike% has improved each of the last three years to get down to 8.2% (37th). It’s clear Shaw is seeing the ball at an elite level and that those BB% and K% are likely here to stay. I’d even wager that continued improvement might not be out of the question.
While his LD% sits just below the league average of 21%, he more than makes up for it by having a GB% way below the league average of 44%. The Mayor must have been elected during the Fly-Ball Revolution as his 44.5% FB% is nearly 10 percentage points above the league average. While this large volume of fly balls can absolutely suppress Shaw’s AVG and BABIP, in over half of his career he has put up a league average (LA) BABIP with a FB% of at least 42%, so there is a precedent for a much higher BABIP in 2019. To add to that encouraging data, in 2018 Shaw was well above the league average in Barrel% (LA – 6.1%), Hard Hit% (LA – 34.2%), VH% (Value Hit% LA – 9.1%) all of which speaks to an excellent hitter who hits the ball hard and creates runs regardless of BABIP related luck.
Let’s wrap up the stats talk by coming full circle and finally confronting the elephant in the room: Shaw’s godawful 2018 batting average. Any way you shake it, a .241 batting average is bad. If you’re gonna put up a batting average that low in roto you have to back it up with some serious Khrush Davis style power output, and I don’t think 48 HR are on the horizon for Shaw. I’m not worried in the least, though, that Shaw’s 2018 AVG will carry over in 2019. I just can’t get away from those underlying stats. Shaw became a better hitter in 2018, it’s that simple. Shaw’s BABIP history backs that up as well. One of the things that I find fascinating about baseball is how sometimes a batter can do everything right and still not get the results they wanted. Why? Because luck and probability can be a fickle fickle creature. Given that Shaw has almost always had a BABIP right around league average, its hard not to wonder if Lady Luck was trying to shoot for an electoral upset in 2018 with that .242 BABIP.
BABIP in a nutshell is a measurement of batted ball luck. League average is always right around 0.300 and the higher the better from there. Often, the key for understanding a sharp deviation in a player’s performance can be found in their BABIP history. Take a look at Shaw’s BABIP history.
As you can see, in 3 out 4 of his professional seasons Shaw has averaged, at worst, a league average BABIP before it suddenly takes a plunge in 2018. That’s 70 points of BABIP! At first I figured it had to be the high fly ball rate but I turned out to be completely wrong. Including minor league seasons, Shaw has recorded a FB% of less than 40% only once (34.6% in 2016). This seems to indicate that hitting a high rate of fly balls while maintaining a league average BABIP is a genuine skill for Shaw. This certainly makes 2018’s BABIP look more like an outlier. Shaw’s xBABIP, which says Shaw should have garnered a .273 BABIP in 2018, further reinforces this idea. That’s over a 30 point bump! So what would his season have looked like if he had gotten luckier? To find out, I ran the numbers through Mike Podhorzer’s projection system altering only the BABIP to match his xBABIP.
Now we’re cooking with some gas. What if his BABIP fully rebounds to his career norm?
Sorry. I got a little faint there. It’s worth stating that this last stat line is not what I expect Shaw to do in 2019, but it definitely illustrates just how good of a season Shaw actually had in 2018 without any of us realizing it. Remember this is a guy whose AVG and BABIP fell over 50 points and his wRC+ merely fell from 120 (47th overall) to 119 (56th overall) in 2018! That tells us that the skill gains he made in his age 28 year were great enough to overcome the incredibly bad luck he suffered in 2018. If those skill gains carry over and his BABIP normalizes to his career pattern? Suddenly we’re talking about a guy who is going on average in the 10th round returning 2nd round value! It doesn’t get more underrated than that.
The Water Park Tier
Robinson Canó (2B, New York Mets)
NFBC ADP: 130
Staff Consensus Rank: 108
My Rank: 91
Water parks are both weird and wonderful. They’ve been around forever and people always forget that they exist, but once you’re there, it’s easy to see that they are actually incredibly fun. Wave pools, water slides… heck they’ve got water roller coasters now! And don’t even get me started on lazy rivers. I could literally spend hours just hanging out in a lazy river ride. Much like water parks though, many unfortunate folks who hate fun are forgetting that Robinson Canó exists, unless it’s to remember how old he is. At 36 years old, Canó is pretty old for a baseball player. There’s no denying that. Despite his age, though, Canó shows no real signs of age-related regression or skill degradation. After serving an 80 game steroid suspension last year, Canó came back guns a-blazing for the final half of the season, putting up this line over 348 plate appearances.
It certainly doesn’t look like Canó missed a step at all and given his 2018 BABIP seems right in line with the last few years, we can mostly rule out luck as well. How about the underlying skills?
That 9.2 BB% is right in line with rates he has put up pretty much across his entire career and since Canó has never been one to strike out much, the 13.5 K% seems legit too. This is worth noting, especially for those of you in points leagues that deduct a point for strikeouts. The 22.6 LD% is a bump up from 2017’s 19.4% but it if you look across his entire career, the 2017 figure is looking more like an outlier. It’s common as players age to see the largest impact in their plate discipline numbers, and it’s clear from his 2018 plate discipline stats that he’s still seeing the ball pretty darn well. He posted elite numbers in those categories, all of which are pretty consistent with his last few years. Finally, let’s talk briefly about that HR/FB% number. Obviously, the fact that it’s trending downward isn’t ideal but I actually have some hope for that number rebounding a little bit. Once you look at Cano’s Statcast data, it’s pretty easy to see why I expect some of that power to come back.
|Year||BBL%||Average Exit Velocity||Average Launch Angle||Hard Hit%|
We only have Statcast data going back to 2015 but both his 8.7 BBL% and 93.1 Average Exit Velocity were the highest values Canó has registered in the Statcast era, while his 8.3-degree Average Launch Angle was the highest he has put up since averaging 11.6 degrees in 2016. If those numbers carry over into 2019 I would expect to see that HR/FB% spike back up to around the 14.0% he put up on 2017.
Lastly one of the major reasons I’m pro-Canó (I’m sure no one has ever used that rhyme before—nope no way) is due to the hitters around him. Currently, RosterResource has him slotted to hit in the 3 hole for the Mets, and that could be a wonderful thing for Canó’s counting stats. He’ll have OBP wonder-kid Brandon Nimmo (.404 OBP last year) and the real life metaphysical manifestation of a human oak tree, Pete Alonso, hitting in front of him which should add up to a ton of opportunities to drive in runs. Let’s not forget that he’ll also have Michael Conforto and Wilson Ramos (and at some point Jed Lowrie) hitting right behind him, so I really like his potential to put up some pretty good run totals as well. All in all I expect another great season from Canó and for him to bust a few fantasy myths about producing big numbers in your 30’s.
The Montage at the End of Dirty Dancing Tier
Brian Dozier (2B, Washington Nationals)
NFBC ADP: 135
Staff Consensus Ranking: 122
My Ranking: 110
We all know the song. We all know the scene. We all think the movie hasn’t aged well or that it might be dated. We’d all be wrong. That final dance is simply perfection. Nearly every human being on the planet knows the words to the song. I mean, just watch it.
Jennifer Grey? The Swayze? By the end of it the entire room is practically dancing in unison. Honestly, if you aren’t dancing too by now then you might be an actual robot. Brian Dozier is much like the Dirty Dance finale. He’s been underrated and underappreciated for a long time and while he certainly has aged, just like this piece of cinematic dance genius, Dozier is holding up much better than people realize. Dozier’s 2018 season is perhaps a perfect example of how we can have a perception of what caused a player’s poor season (age-related decline) that ended up having a more measurable explanation — a good ole fashioned injury. Turns out that Dozier was hounded all season by a deep bone bruise in his knee. I know it doesn’t sound that bad, but believe me when I tell you it’s a debilitatingly painful thing to experience and they can absolutely linger for an entire season. I played rugby for several years and a bone bruise in my shoulder (technically called a shoulder contusion I believe) laid me out completely for like a month. I pretty much couldn’t function, so the idea that Dozier played PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL with a severe bone bruise in his knee tells me everything I need to know about Dozier’s toughness and work ethic. Unfortunately, toughness isn’t a roto category, so what does all this mean for Dozier’s 2019 fantasy season with the Washington Nationals? It indicates that a rebound might be in store for Dozier this year in a big way.
Dozier has always been a slow starter, usually producing some of the most prolific 2nd half production we’ve ever seen year after year, which made it difficult to recognize Dozier’s injured state last year. By the time we realized something was up, we were already halfway through the season. So how do we know Dozier’s decline was likely fueled by injury and not age-related decline? I try to look at several factors. The first thing I ask is whether or not Dozier’s season was a sudden and abrupt drop-off after years of consistency or if it was the result of a slow gradual decline that suddenly turned into a free-fall? The latter almost always indicates age-related decline while the former makes me lean more towards injury. Let’s take a look at an example.
|Edwin Encarnacion 2016||33||.263||42||12.4%||19.7%||9.4%||.266||136|
|Edwin Encarnacion 2017||34||.258||38||15.5%||19.9%||10.1%||.245||130|
|Edwin Encarnacion 2018||35||.246||32||10.9%||22.3%||10.8%||.228||115|
We can see a clear yet gradual year to year decline in most of the stats that I see as the cornerstone statistics for a hitter. Oftentimes the telltale warning signs of age catching up to a hitter is a rising K% (along with a rising SwStr%) paired with diminishing power and AVG output, all of which we see in the above profile. If we were to hypothetically see Edwin Encarnacion‘s numbers fall off a cliff this season and there isn’t a known injury to blame, I would assume that this is an age-related decline since we’ve seen these numbers starting to slip already over the last three years. I’m not saying he will fall apart in 2019, but the signs are certainly there that if he does, it’s likely age-related. What about Dozier’s numbers?
|Brian Dozier 2016||33||.268||42||8.8%||20.0%||9.1%||.278||132|
|Brian Dozier 2017||34||.271||34||11.1%||20.0%||9.2%||.227||125|
|Brian Dozier 2018||35||.215||21||11.1%||20.4%||8.2%||.175||90|
There was very little difference in many of Dozier’s numbers from 2016 to 2017. In fact, as you can see several stats even improved, with many of those gains actually carrying over into his injury-riddled 2018 season. His BB% and K% held steady while he actually improved his SwStr%, which indicates that the eye is still there and that he hasn’t suddenly lost the ability to keep up with pitches. There was also no huge spike in GB% that normally accompanies a player’s eventual dive into the pool during Senior Swim time. Since there doesn’t seem to be any underlying evidence of gradual age-related decline, I don’t see a reason to assume that Dozier’s terrible 2018 was due to his age nor is anywhere close to his new normal. Need more proof? Come on down, you’re the next contestant on the Baseball Savant show!
One of the most fascinating things I think Statcast data does for us as analysts is help indicate that a change has occurred for the player in question. This could be injury related, age related, or could even be indicative of a change in approach. The data doesn’t necessarily tell us what is going on per se — that’s up to us to try and suss out — but it does shout at us loud and clear that something has changed. For example, here’s Dozier’s StatCast data for the last three years.
|Year||BBL%||Average Launch Angle||Average Exit Velocity||BABIP|
When I first started looking into Dozier’s season, this is where I truly became convinced his 2018 was injury related. First off, we see a substantial drop in BBL%. It’s important to remember that a barreled ball (or BBL) is defined by Baseball Savant as a hit with the perfect exit velocity and launch angle. Take a look at the Average Launch Angle for all three years. It’s pretty consistently in the same range of outcomes over that time period. When combined with Average Exit Velocity though, we see the real problem at hand. While his launch angle really didn’t change, Dozier lost nearly a full point of MPH on his Average Exit Velocity. In a nutshell, he simply wasn’t hitting the ball as hard. This would be troubling if it weren’t for the knee injury. When a batter hits a baseball they are essentially acting as a lever. The knee, hips and core act as a fulcrum to swing the arms/bat and exert effort to lift the ball. If you damage or weaken any piece of the lever, it requires much greater effort to lift that ball the same distance. What was previously a HR now becomes a routine fly ball. The machine (Dozier) operated in pretty much the same exact manner as always but the knee injury sapped him of the exit velocity component, which explains the drop in BBL% and Exit Velocity. If the knee is fully healthy as reported then I don’t see how the power and BBLs don’t come roaring back to their seasonal norms.
The last thing worth noting is that massive BABIP drop. As we talked about with Travis Shaw, we’re looking at a BABIP nearly 40 – 50 points lower than the previous two years. My theory is that the aforementioned drop in Average Exit Velocity caused many of Dozier’s extra-base hits and HR balls to turn into routine fly balls, which would absolutely explain the drop in BABIP. Once the Exit Velocity returns, I expect his BABIP to jump back up to its normal levels. All in all the numbers truly seem to reflect a player who had a rough season due to an injury that never really got the chance to fully heal. If you can weather the typical Dozier slow start to the season, I would fully expect him to return to form and be the kind of pick that wins you your league with a red hot second half push right into the fantasy playoffs.
The Mini-Corn Dog Tier
Mike Moustakas (2B, 3B)
NFBC ADP – 148
Staff Consensus Rank – 130
My Rank – 114
Listen, don’t give me that “you’re too old to love corn dogs” nonsense. Corn dogs are literally delicious hot dogs wrapped in corn meal. AND THEY’RE BITE-SIZED. I will never not love mini corn dogs and I will never stop loving Mike Moustakas. Like a corn dog, he might not be the flashiest or most interesting meal but he’ll absolutely get the job done, and when you’re done you’ll realize you enjoyed the experience a lot more than you thought you would have. Nailed that analogy baby!
So I’ll admit this last pick is a little bit more about planning for the long-game than just for week one. While he has been a third basemen his whole career, the Brewers have already declared that Moose will serve as their primary second baseman for the 2019 season. So if you miss out on the three guys we’ve talked about so far, grab Moustakas and wait a week. Sure, you’ll have to pick a replacement for week one but once he gets five starts at second (which should happen in the first week) then he’ll rocket up the rankings. I have Moustakas ranked 34 spots higher than he is going in NFBC drafts currently. Why the Moose love? I believe that what we’ve seen over the last two years are both Moustakas’ floor and ceiling. Look at his numbers the last 2 years.
I feel like given his skill set, 2017 accurately represents Moustakas’ ceiling while 2018 represents his floor from a power and average perspective. His low OBP will always limit his wOBA, unfortunately, but he makes up for it with good power and an elite K%. Here’s the thing though: I firmly believe Moose’s most likely outcome is closer to his ceiling than his floor. First, his xStats tell an interesting story about his overall numbers.
The tale of the tape tells us that Moustakas was possibly robbed of nearly 20 points of AVG, OBP and wOBA while also stealing 23 points of SLG! That bumps his OPS back north of .800 for the season. Now, let’s take those xStats and put them next to his 2017 numbers.
Outside of the home runs and BABIP, those are incredibly similar seasons, right? In actuality they are even closer than you realize. xStats actually says that his xHR and xBABIP in 2017 were 32.0 xHR and .285 xBABIP respectively so they end up almost identical. Given that, I feel we can reasonably expect at least a .265 AVG with 28 HR and 85+ RBIs in a stacked Brewers lineup and 60 or so runs. When you search through Steamer’s projections, here are players expected to put up similar numbers in 2019.
|Mike Moustakas||3B,(2B soon!)||575||30||74||88||43||95||3||.261||113||148|
I definitely feel Steamer is being overly skeptical with some of these projections, but they are still worth looking at. We’ve already covered why I think the projection for Travis Shaw is way too conservative. I’m all-in on Eugenio Suarez this year as well and think he will greatly surpass this projection, but let’s entertain the idea that there could be a little regression coming. Suarez hit .283 with 34 HR last year. Let’s say those numbers drop to .275 and 30 HR? Is that really that far from Moustakas’ .270 and 28 HR? Is it enough of a difference to justify a near 100 pick difference in ADP? I do think Suarez has enough upside to justify a decent chunk of that difference but it sure makes you think. Look at Justin Upton versus Moustakas.
Really the only thing separating the two players is 14 R and 4 stolen bases. Is that worth 50 picks in ADP? How about Rougned Odor? Those nine extra stolen bases are nice, but given that Odor has a career 57% success rate at stealing bases I don’t know how long we can count on the Rangers to continue letting him run. If those stolen bases disappear is there really any difference between the two players? Not really. When you take that list into consideration, it becomes clear why we should be targeting Moustakas (and probably Carlos Santana and Randal Grichuk) in each and every one of our drafts. No one in your draft room will cheer when you take Moustakas, nor will they curse your name when you snipe them. They may think it’s a boring pick but you will be having the last laugh when Moose helps you win your league this year.
(Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)