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Champ or Chump - Zack Cozart and Evan Longoria

Fantasy baseball has long been a game of perception. Will Player A continue his hot start or slump back into mediocrity? Are Player B's recent struggles signs of things to come or a temporary blip on the radar? An analysis of each specific player is the best way to answer these questions, but fantasy owners usually lack the time to thoroughly research everybody. Gut instincts based on nothing more than perception must suffice for players we don't get to.

Your own perceptions aren't the only ones that matter to your team either. If the fantasy community as a whole believes a given player will bounce back, his final ADP will be as if he never slumped in the first place. Likewise, a legitimate breakout nobody believes in will again be available for pennies on the dollar. Adding names to this thesis, Zack Cozart will be cheap because nobody thinks he can succeed in Anaheim, while Evan Longoria's name recognition will catapult his price tag well beyond what his current skills are worth.

How will these players fare on new teams in 2018?

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers received 13 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association including Baseball Writer of the Year, Football Writers of the Year, Golf Writer of the Year and many more! Be sure to follow their analysis, rankings and advice all year long, and win big with RotoBaller! Read More!


The Fantasy Jury is Out

Zack Cozart (SS/3B, LAA)

Kyle Richardson summed up the case against Cozart here, arguing that his unimpressive track record and move to a pitcher-friendly park are reason enough to ignore his impressive 2017 numbers (.297/.385/.548 with 24 HR). This view seems to have become common perception, allowing owners willing to look past it an opportunity to buy low on an extremely versatile player.

Let's start with the oft-noted ballpark switch. While Cincinnati allows more homers than Anaheim per game, Baseball Prospectus Park Factors suggest that the difference comes entirely from left-handed batters (HR Factors of 108 vs. 93 last year). Cozart is right-handed, so those numbers are irrelevant to him. The right-handed HR Factors are much closer (102 to 103 in favor of Anaheim), and his new home will be much better for his average (94 vs. 102 for right-handed singles).

To be fair, single-season ballpark factors can get wonky at times. Cincinnati had a HR Factor of 107 for righties in 2016 to Anaheim's 104, and nobody is claiming that Anaheim will give Cozart more homers than if he remained in Cincinnati. The point here is that the numbers are significantly closer than you might guess, rendering a ballpark-related collapse in Cozart's power production less likely than the current perception might indicate.

Cozart's breakout is also supported by contact quality metrics. He hit more flies (39.9% FB% in 2016 vs. 42.3% last year), ensuring Cozart has the volume of flies necessary to produce homers with middling power. While his average airborne exit velocity held constant last season (89.5 mph last two years), his rate of Brls/BBE doubled in that time frame (2.3% to 4.4%). He also pulled way more fly balls in 2017 (40.3%) than he has over his career (30.8%). Add in a juiced ball that seems to allow everybody to jack homers, and Cozart's HR/FB spike (15.6% in 2017, 9.5% career) suddenly looks more believable.

His .312 BABIP seems out of place next to his .280 career mark, but he might be a .300 guy moving forward. Anaheim's stadium promotes singles more than Cincinnati's does, and Cozart doesn't care if you shift him (.367 vs. shift last year). His .273 BABIP on the ground likely represents some luck considering his .246 career mark, but his improved contact quality should help him maintain last year's BABIPs on fly balls (.146 vs. .106 career) and line drives (.690 vs. .665).

His plate discipline also took a step forward in 2017. His eye improved dramatically, as his 28.7% career chase rate fell to 24.4% last year. Pitchers also learned to respect Cozart's power uptick, allowing him to produce a 12.2% BB% in complete agreement with his eye. He never really struck out a lot (16.2% career K%), but the improved eye helped reduce them further (15.4% K% last year).

Cozart's ultimate slot in the Angels batting order is yet to be determined, but it'll be tough to beat the second slot the Reds gave him last year. Still, this is a guy whose perception falls far short of the value he can potentially provide to a fantasy roster.

Verdict: Champ


Evan Longoria (3B, SF)

Tampa Bay's franchise player had by far the worst year of his career in 2017, posting a .261/.313/.424 line with 20 HR. Some commentators have suggested that a change of scenery will be all Longoria needs to get back to the performances of his youth, but his underlying metrics suggest that he's an incredibly old 32.

To begin, let's consider a 10.5% HR/FB that was 15.5% as recently as 2016. Don't be fooled by Longoria's track record, as his average airborne exit velocity (94.4 mph to 92.7 mph) and rate of Brls/BBE (12.1% to 5.2%) both nosedived last year. He also stopped lifting the ball with any regularity (36.8% FB% vs. 46.8% in 2016), so he can't fall back on Cozart's volume approach. He went from a feared superstar slugger to borderline punch hitter in one season!

The move to San Francisco will not help at all. The park's RHB HR Factor of 86 was tied for the lowest mark in the entire league, while Tampa Bay was roughly average last year (101). Longoria will find it easier to single in his new home (103 vs. 99), but not to an extent that makes up for an inability to sniff 20 long balls.

Singles seem to be all Longoria was trying to hit last year. His K% (21% in 2016, 16.1% last year) and SwStr% (11.9% to 9.4%) both improved, but his 34.9% chase rate was a career worst. This smells like the plate discipline profile of a guy with an extremely defensive approach at the plate, starting his swing earlier than ever before to ensure contact at the expense of batted ball authority. This approach sometimes prolongs the careers of aging veterans, but it does nothing in the fantasy game.

Longoria's .282 BABIP last season (.299 career) suggests that he will not be the exception to this rule. While a severe reduction in fly balls would be expected to improve a player's BABIP, Longoria's coincided with a surge in IFFB% (14.2% last year, 11.6% in 2016) that took back most of the benefits (.094 BABIP on flies last year vs. .134 career). His lost airborne exit velocity also made his liners less productive (.673 vs. .730 career).

Longoria's ground balls exceeded their career production last year (.250 vs. .232), but it's not clear why. His exit velocity on ground balls declined dramatically (87.5 mph to 82.4 mph), so he wasn't hitting his grounders any harder. His Statcast Sprint Speed also fell to 26.7 ft/sec, below the MLB average of 27 ft/sec. This suggests that Longoria lacks the athleticism to compile a significant number of ground ball base hits.

Longoria crushes the shift (.326 last year) and figures to hit in the heart of San Francisco's punchless lineup based on reputation alone, so he'll have role-related value in deeper leagues. You'll probably need to pay for Evan Longoria's name, however, making him among the worst investments available on draft day. He's just not the guy he used to be.

Verdict: Chump


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