Fantasy baseball: Five players set to bounce back from bad 2014 seasons
One of the keys to winning any fantasy league is finding excess value in your draft or auction, and one of the best places to mine for that value is in the underperforming dregs from the previous season. Unless you’re Mike Trout or Andrew McCutchen or some other unassailable star, you’re probably capable of having a down season for any number of reasons. Quite often, those same players bounce right back to their previous level or production, or, at the very least, something resembling that.
All too frequently, recency bias pushes the players who underachieved in the previous year too far down draft rankings, despite their track records. That creates just the excess value any winning fantasy owner can find time and time again. The following five players fit the last-year’s-bums mold to a tee. Each has significant bounceback potential this season, a fact you shouldn’t bother publicizing before you sit down at your draft table this spring.
Chris Davis, 1B, Orioles
Everyone knows all about Davis’s fall from grace last year. He got off to a terrible start, hitting .250 with two homers in April. Little did anyone know at the time that would prove to be his second-best monthly batting average of the season. Davis suffered through the indignity of a .196 season, all while battling the specter of suspicions about his 2013 numbers, and then wrapped up his year with a suspension for taking Adderall without a waiver from the league. The Orioles made it all the way to the ALCS, but they did so largely without their moribund slugger.
Despite the unsightly batting average, however, Davis still managed to hit for plenty of power. He had 26 homers in 525 plate appearances, a .209 isolated slugging percentage, and 22.6% HR/FB ratio. The batting average made him nearly impossible to play, but he remained in the top tier or two of pure power hitters in baseball. He also racked up an 11.4% walk rate, making him a whole lot more palatable in OBP leagues. It’s the power that is bankable, though, and gives him a reasonably high floor in fantasy leagues. You just don’t see a ton of guys with easy 30-homer pop at Davis’s expected draft-day price.
While it would be foolish to expect him to get all the way back to the .286 batting average he posted in his monster 2013 season, he does have a career .253 average. The big change last year wasn’t with Davis, but rather with the way he was teams played him. Defenses shifted on him in 95.2% of his plate appearances, the highest rate in the league, and his BABIP on grounders and short liners in those situations was .121. But when the defense was straight up, it was .333. Davis is going to have to learn to hit against the shift, but there’s little reason to believe that would take away from his power. He has always driven the ball out to all fields, with 35 of his 79 homers the last two years going to straightaway center or leftfield.
With a touch more discipline and luck, Davis's batting average should rebound to the .240s. When he’s hitting 30-plus homers and driving in upwards of 90 runs, fantasy owners can live with that average.
Jay Bruce, OF, Reds
There’s one thing Bruce has always been able to do since becoming an every day major leaguer in 2008, and that’s hit for power. From his rookie season through '13, he collected at least 21 homers every year, and in the four seasons in which he played at least 140 games, he hit no fewer than 25 bombs. That changed last season, when he posted just 18 homers along with a career-worst .217 batting average, .281 OBP and 27.3% strikeout rate. But like Davis, an anomalous year has driven down his average draft position, and savvy fantasy owners can take advantage.
Bruce has been in the MLB spotlight for almost 10 years now, but he’s only now entering his age-28 season. You typically don’t see a player suddenly lose his power in his late-20s. If anything, a player is in his physical prime from 27 through 30. Indeed, Bruce didn’t appear to lose any power: His average true home run distance last season was 406.1 feet, the 12th-longest in the league. His fly balls flew an average of 284.64 feet—shorter than 2013 and '12, but not out of line with his career numbers.
Bruce was hitting for the same power when he put the ball in the air, but he just did that far less frequently than ever before. His fly-ball rate last year was 34%, the lowest mark of his career and just the second time ever he was south of 39% (the first was in his rookie season). Assuming Bruce’s fly-ball rate progresses back toward his 41.7% career average, he’ll easily hit 25 homers and could even approach 30, a threshold he had reached for three consecutive seasons before 2014.
Mat Latos, SP, Marlins
What is Latos not? Well, he’s not a big-time strikeout pitcher. Even before injuries last season limited him to 16 starts, he had two straight years with fewer than eight strikeouts per nine innings. He’s not a real-life or fantasy ace, either, partially because of the strikeouts and partially because he just doesn’t put up the consistent rates necessary to be an elite starter. He’s also not stuck in a horrible park for his skill set, and that makes him a strong bounceback candidate in 2015.
It would be unfair to call Latos an extreme fly-ball pitcher, but he’s always had a higher fly-ball rate than league average. That number differs from year to year, but it’s typically around 35 or 36%. In six years in the majors, Latos has been below that just once, while he has been north of 39% four times. That obviously doesn’t play well when you’re making about half your starts at the Great American Ballpark. Marlins Park, on the other hand, has been a nightmare for power hitters since it opened. Last season, it proved to be the third-toughest park on righties and second toughest on lefties. Overall, only AT&T Park limited homers more than Latos’s new home.
Additionally, Latos's elbow injury clearly limited his effectiveness last year: He lost two miles per off his average fastball and compiled a career-low 17.6% strikeout rate. He may not have been putting up gaudy strikeout numbers before the injury, but his K-rate was at a healthy 21.2% in 2013 and 21.6% the year before. If he can recover that velocity, he should push that rate back up over 20% this season.
Michael Wacha, SP, Cardinals
Wacha headed into the 2014 season as a breakout candidate after starring for the Cardinals in their run to the World Series the previous year. Unfortunately, a stress reaction in his shoulder limited him to 107 innings, stopping a huge season in the making in its tracks. He has a clean bill of health this spring, however, and that’s not being reflected in his ADP.
In 90 1/3 innings before the injury last season, Wacha had a 2.79 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 83 strikeouts. Even if you include the substandard 17 innings he threw once he made his return, he has a 22.5% strikeout rate and 159 whiffs over 171 2/3 career frames in the majors. He traded in some of his four-seamers last year for more cutters, and the latter was quickly becoming one of the best of its kind in the majors. He didn’t throw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, but the 1.47 runs saved with the cutter for every 100 pitches would have ranked eighth in the majors, just a few slots behind teammate Adam Wainwright.
Now that Wacha is once again fully healthy, the fantasy community should have every reason to expect him to pick up right where he was when he first went on the disabled list last year. There may be a slightly increased risk of injury with him, but all pitchers, as we are learning again this spring, are at a risk every time they pick up the ball. In Wacha’s case, the risk is well worth it. He could be a top-20 starting pitcher.
Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Rangers
After one standout season with the Reds, everything looked to be in place for Choo to build on that with the Rangers. He was apparently taking his elite on-base skills to the top of what was going to be one of the best offenses in the league, with one of the best home environments for hitting. The best-laid plans, right? Injuries limited Choo to 123 games, and his stats took a hit across the board.
First of all, Choo was an extremely unlucky hitter last year. Despite a 20.2% line-drive rate, 50% ground-ball rate and zero (yes, zero) pop-ups, he had just a .308 BABIP. Taking those rates, as well as his strikeout rate and 13 homers into account, Choo was expected to have a .348 BABIP. Even if he recoups just half of that difference, his batting average probably approaches .300 rather than sitting in the mid-.200s all season.
Choo swiped a total of 42 bases in the two seasons leading up to last year. He attempted all of seven in 2014, getting caught four times. An ankle injury in April clearly bothered him all season, making him a much less effective base stealer. He’s expected to hit third this year, so he may not attempt 30-plus steals like he did with the Indians and Reds, but he should get back into double-digits. And while the batting average crashed last year, Choo’s 11% walk rate helped him to a .340 OBP.
Choo’s best days are behind him, but with a little better batted-ball luck, he should get back 20-to-30 points of average. With Adrian Beltre behind him, he’s likely to score more than 80 runs this year, while going 15-10 in homers and steals. It’s a far cry from where he was in 2013, but it would also be a major bounceback from last year resulting in a profit on his expected price.