With fantasy baseball drafts on the horizon, Michael Beller will answer a series of burning questions leading up to the start of the MLB season.
You remember 2011, right? It wasn’t too long ago, just four short years. A lot can change in that much time, however. For example, here were the top-10 players in voting for the NL MVP Award that year.
Well, 2011 sure feels like it’s a lot further away, doesn’t it. Berkman and Halladay have retired; Fielder, Pujols and Howard have all seen their skills deteriorate (and the first two have decamped for the AL); and Votto just suffered through the worst year of his career. Those players were in down-ticket races, though. Braun and Kemp staged an MVP race for the ages, with the former ultimately taking home the hardware, under what are now viewed as dubious circumstances. No two players in the same league have each amassed 300 points in the MVP voting since, and they were the first pair to do so since 2008. The duo to do it that season were—you guessed it—Pujols and Howard.
No one is expecting Braun or Kemp to compete for the NL MVP this year. What is up for debate is just how valuable these players can be, both to their real-life and fantasy teams. Can they, like Pujols and Howard did three years after their shared quest for the top award in the NL, post top-10 MVP seasons now that they’re on the wrong side of 30? Will they, at the very least, turn a profit for the their fantasy owners? The second entry in our 2015 Burning Questions series searches for those answers.
While you won’t find anyone predicting either of these guys to win the MVP, it’s not like they’re slipping deep into fantasy drafts. Braun’s average draft position is currently 26.87, and Kemp’s is 42.84. Typically, Braun’s coming off the board early in the third round of a 12-team league, while Kemp's name is being called in the middle of the fourth. Neither guy is going to come cheap, but they’re also not nearly at the heights they were recently (just last year for Braun).
Let’s start with Kemp, if only because I think the case for him being a profitable fantasy player has a much better foundation. This fact has been lost in the noise, but Kemp’s only real problem with his final years in Los Angeles was his health. That is, of course, not something you can just dismiss out of hand, but when Kemp was healthy, he was still very productive. He played in 329 games in his last three years with the Dodgers, which comes out almost perfectly to two full seasons. Here are his 162-game averages for the timeframe: .288/.349/.493, 26 homers, 94 RBI, 13 steals, .362 wOBA, 134 wRC+
In 2013, various maladies limited Kemp to just 73 games, resulting in a wildly unproductive year for the Dodgers. In every other season, if he was on the field, he was an effective player.
Sure, it’s foolhardy to expect Kemp to play in every game this season. In fact, he probably won’t play in 162 games by design, with the Padres giving him strategic off-days to keep him healthy all year. He did, however, play 150 games last year, and hit .287/.346/.506 with 25 homers, 89 RBI and eight steals. From both a wOBA and wRC+ standpoint, it was his third-best year in which he played at least 100 games, trailing only 2011 and 2012.
The one problem I can see prospective owners having with Kemp is his new home. Petco Park had the third-worst park factor for homers by right-handed hitters at 91, meaning it suppressed longballs by nine percent against an average park. Dodger Stadium was that baseline average, coming in at an even 100. Kemp has always hit his home runs and fly balls far—2013 was the only season of his career he was beneath 290 feet—but it’s seemingly going to be hard for him to post another HR/FB ratio north of 20 percent, as he did last year and in 2012.
And yet, not every hitter is created the same. Kemp has actually found a lot of success at Petco in his career. In 234 plate appearances, he has a .322/.372/.495 slash with seven homers. He left the yard three times in 2012 alone. While he didn’t hit a home run at Petco last year, he did hit .308/.357/.423. Petco may keep his power down a bit, but I’m not convinced it will gut his home run total.
The more I think about Kemp, the more convinced I become he will be a profitable fantasy player. Steamer projects him to hit .266/.336/.452 with 20 homers and eight steals in 128 games. I think Steamer is being a little unfair in the OBP department, given that Kemp has showed much better plate discipline in the last three seasons than he did at the beginning of his career. You have to bake the injury risk into your projections for him, but even if he misses 20 games, his counting stats should be better than Steamer’s calculations. Kemp is an intriguing target in the early-middle rounds.
For me, Braun is a much tougher sell. It begins with the fact that he’s more expensive than Kemp, checking in a full round-and-a-half earlier in an average 12-team league. That means the bar for him turning a profit is higher. I’m dubious about his ability to clear that bar.
In short, there’s a real reason to question just how much pop is left in Braun’s bat and that was always central to his fantasy value. When he was one of the league’s best hitters at the end of the last decade and beginning of this one, he was hitting a ton of fly balls. Just as importantly, an outsize share of those fly balls was leaving the yard. That has not been the case in the last two seasons.
Braun has posted the two lowest fly-ball rates of his career in the two most recent years. He has also compiled the highest and third-highest ground-ball rates of his eight-year career. The only way a ground ball is going to result in a home run is if you’re Billy Hamilton, and you pull a ground ball just inside the first base bag that rolls all the way into the right field corner.
Braun isn’t just hitting fewer fly balls. He’s hitting them much shorter, too. His 13.8-percent HR/FB ratio in 2014 was the worst of his career. Last year, his average true home run distance was just 391 feet. That was the 13th-shortest mark among players with at least 18 home runs, according to ESPN’s hit tracker. The only season in which Braun’s average home run distance was worse? You guessed it, 2013. They were basically also the only two seasons in which he checked in south of 400 feet (we’ll round up 2008’s 399.3 feet).
His average fly ball distance from 2014 tells a slightly different story. Relative to the rest of the league, Braun was still impressive here, with his average fly ball carrying 295.5 feet. That was good enough for 32nd in the league. However, it was also the shortest average of his career. His previous low was 299.45 feet, and surpassed 300 feet in all but two of his seasons. Both of those years, he was between 299 and 300 feet.
It must be said that Braun dealt with a thumb and oblique injuries last year, and those sapped some of his power. The thumb issue has since been surgically repaired, without reason to expect that he’s any more susceptible to reinjuring it than generic player X is to hurting his thumb. Even if he does regain some power, how much can we realistically expect? Braun’s ISOs the last two seasons have been .200 and .187. This year, Steamer projects a .203 ISO and 24 homers in 610 plate appearances. That all assumes he regains some of his lost power, and even those projections make him a potential landmine at 26.83 overall.
The opportunity cost of Braun is someone like Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Beltre or Justin Upton. Whether or not it’s worth it to you depends on how much you think the injuries played into his down year in 2014. If Upton’s there, I’m probably not willing to take the risk. If he isn’t, I can jump on the Braun bandwagon for at least one more season.
• BURNING QUESTION I: Is Miguel Cabrera still a first-round pick?
• BURNING QUESTION II: Will Kemp and Braun live up to their price?
• BURNING QUESTION III: Will Harper reach superstar status this year?
• BURNING QUESTION IV: Worth it to draft the oft-injured Tulowitzki?
• BURNING QUESTION V: Coming off surgery, how big a risk is Harvey?
• BURNING QUESTION VI: Invest in Adam Jones's boring consistency?
• BURNING QUESTION VII: Could Strasburg emerge as No. 1 fantasy SP?
• BURNING QUESTION VIII: Will Alcantara emerge as a top-10 2B?