Top of fantasy draft not clear-cut

With Alex Rodriguez set to undergo surgery and miss at least a couple of months, Hanley Ramirez has now become the consensus No. 1 pick in fantasy baseball drafts, at least for most people. For me, there is no question who the No. 1 pick is, but it's not Hanley. Sure, he plays shortstop -- a position that thins out quickly -- and sure, he had an excellent 2008 season, but last season's numbers were inflated by quite a bit of good luck, which we simply can't expect to continue into '09. Let's take a look at some of the underlying indicators.

If you're new to THT Fantasy Focus and are unfamiliar with True Home Runs (tHR) or any of the other stats I'm using, check out our quick reference guide. These stats provide a much clearer picture of a player's talent, so it's well worth taking a couple of minutes to learn them.

As you can see from the chart at the end of this section, Ramirez's home run total didn't change much from '07 to '08. On the surface, it's easy for us to say that he was adjusting in his '06 rookie campaign (and played very well then), then exploded in his sophomore year and continued into his age 25 season in '08, firmly establishing himself as the premier middle infield power threat.

If we look just a bit deeper, however, we see his '07 and '08 power were achieved in different ways. In '07, he hit a lot of fly balls (37 percent) while keeping a modest HR/FB (14 percent). In '08, his fly ball rate fell (33 percent) but his HR/FB skyrocketed to 21 percent.

If we look even deeper, though, we see that True Home Runs doesn't buy this '08 power surge. His tHR/FB is on a three-year upswing, but even at 14 percent in '08, his tHR/FB is much lower than his actual HR/FB. Put all of this together and tHR thinks Ramirez should only have hit 21 home runs in '08.

Going forward, marginal gains in tHR/FB should be expected as he ages, but unless he can hit more fly balls, cracking 25 home runs won't be likely. As I believe that your first round pick needs to be consistent, that you need to have a good idea about how they are going to perform, I wouldn't put Ramirez down for more than 22 home runs on my cheat sheet.

First the numbers ...

Ramirez has posted batting averages over .300 two years running now, further giving the illusion of dominance, but we see that his True Batting Averages (tBA) have been less than excellent. His .332 average in '07 was driven by an inflated BABIP (.355 compared to a .331 xBABIP) and an 85 percent contact rate that looks like the outlier in this sample set. Let's look at our plate discipline stats to see the cause of this:

As we can see, Ramirez's '07 contact rate was driven by an increase in Bat Control, even while his Judgment fell. Bat Control is normally a very stable stat, but Hanley wasn't able to maintain his gains into '08. It's possible he'll get back up there, but as Bat Control is so stable, it's not entirely likely.

In '08, Hanley's BABIP regressed as expected, but his batting average was then propped up by all of those extra home runs that we discussed earlier. When they disappear, his True Batting Average falls all the way to .282.

Going forward, it's pretty safe to put him down for a BABIP in the .330s -- that's where his xBABIP has been his entire career. If we give him an 80 percent contact rate (maybe a little pessimistic, but again, we need to know what our first round pick will do), a .334 BABIP, a 14 percent HR/FB, and a 33 percent fly ball rate, his batting average would be .292 -- less than what almost every major projection system is predicting.

Again, the numbers first ...

While Ramirez stole more than 50 bases in his first two years in the league, last year his total fell all the way to 35. This was mostly a result of him attempting to steal less frequently (SBA% -- a rate that has dropped each year he's been in the majors), despite having the opportunity to steal much more often (thanks to a big spike in his walk rate). He was also successful on his steals less frequently (SB%).

His official web site posed the question, "Are the days of [Hanley] swiping 50 a year over?". Ramirez responded by saying, "It's getting close to being over. Not completely over, but I won't have as many." This absolutely explains at least a portion of the drop in his attempt rate.

So what does this portend for '09? Well, it's entirely possible that he'll start stealing more again -- he is, after all, just 25 years old and has done it two out of three years -- but we must also take not that he'll be moving to the third spot in the batting order and that he's actually said he'll be stealing less. Given these two facts, it's entirely possible -- perhaps even likely -- that Hanley falls even further in '09, into the 25 to 30 SB range.

All said, Hanley's stolen base situation for '09 is murky at best -- again, something we want to avoid in our first round pick, especially for the guy taken first overall. I'd be comfortable putting him down for 30 or 35 steals on my cheat sheet.

I'm not going to run through the whole exercise here. Almost everyone has Ramirez as the No. 1 shortstop and as the No. 1 player overall.

All said, I'd be comfortable expecting this line out of Hanley: 600 AB, .292 BA, 22 HR, 33 SB, 100 RBI, 90 R. While this is certainly a quality fantasy line, I don't believe it even touches what we might expect from Jose Reyes: 650 AB, .300 BA, 15 HR, 55 SB, 65 RBI, 110 R.

By my calculations, this would make Reyes worth several dollars more than Ramirez, perhaps as many as $5. Ramirez would probably be my second choice, but I just can't digest these assertions that he is the undisputed No. 1 pick. He is not. Reyes is more consistent and will quite likely post better stats.

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