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Infield Busts Set to Bounce Back in 2018

Collectively, the fantasy community seems to harbor contempt for players that have burned us in the past. After an established, trusted player delivers a poor season it’s hard for us to trust him again.

Building a team of last year’s busts is walking a fine line. For every Justin Verlander there’s an Adam Wainwright. This article will go around the diamond and examine an infielder at each position that’s due for a rebound after a disappointing 2017.

Let's look at some bounce back candidates that could be values in late fantasy baseball drafts or buy-low candidates to start the season.

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Infielders Due to Rebound in '18

Ian Desmond (1B/OF, COL)

Desmond never fully recovered from a broken hand suffered in spring training and it affected him all season. He posted a career high 62.7% ground ball rate, which is the last thing a hitter wants to do in Colorado. It led to a power outage, as Desmond hit just seven home runs and had a measly .100 ISO in 373 plate appearances. Despite what was a dreadful debut for the Rockies, they seem committed to him. They have $22 million reasons to give Desmond playing time and they are pushing down prospects left and right to keep him in the lineup. This makes him come off as a crusty, overpaid veteran blocking young talent. While some of those adjectives may be true, there are some positive takeaways with his 2017 season that suggest the potential for a rebound.

First, the gains he made in strikeout rate during his 2016 resurgence with Texas held. He struck out at 23.3% clip, which isn't great by itself, but it's a far cry from the near 30% rate he had during his final two seasons in Washington. Second, he also swiped 15 bags in his injury marred campaign and was caught just four times for a 79% success rate. Even at age 32 Desmond proved he is still a threat to steal 20 or more bases in a full season. Third, while rising launch angles and increased fly ball rates have become all the rage, a ground ball hitter like Desmond can thrive in spacious Coors Field. Groundballs in general are more likely to go for hits, and they’re even more likely to sneak through in an environment like Colorado. It would be bad for him to be anywhere near 60% like last season. If he settled back around 51.4%, his career average, then he could maintain a high BABIP while providing enough power to approach the 20 home run threshold. This power-speed skill set exists in only a few other first basemen, and as a key piece of Colorado’s lineup Desmond could be a five-category contributor in 2018.

 

Ian Kinsler (2B, LAA)

A power renaissance in 2016 made Kinsler exciting again as he eclipsed 20 home runs for the first time since 2011. The power gains held in 2017 but his batting average plummeted by over 50 points to a career low of .236. At age 35 it’s easy to assume that Kinsler fell off an age cliff, and his NFBC average draft position (ADP) of 184 shows that most drafters believe he did. However, even a cursory look at the underlying batting peripherals should make us question whether Kinsler’s really lost it. A .244 BABIP sunk any hope of a decent batting average. His 14% strikeout is still far above league average and lower than his 16.9% strikeout rate in 2016. He also upped his walk rate to 9%, his highest since 2011, and his 86.1% contact rate was far above league average.

The contact skills and plate discipline haven’t deteriorated, which is a good sign for a bounce back. If we dig a little deeper into his batted ball profile, the .244 BABIP looks like mostly bad luck. Kinsler recorded a career high 37% hard contact rate in 2017. He also had a 14.4% infield fly ball rate, which will hurt his BABIP a bit, but Kinsler’s had a similar rate in years past and didn’t experience such a low BABIP. Let’s have a look at his career BABIP (right) heatmap versus his 2017 season (left) heatmap. These charts were taken from brooksbaseball.net.

There is no way that a career .273 hitter lost the ability to hit balls in the zone, even at age 35. He got a significantly less amount of hits on batted balls between 0-10 degrees. Kinsler had a .262 xAVG and .278 xBABIP (per xStats.org) in 2017, yet his actual average and BABIP were significantly lower. He probably won’t have an average around .288 like he did in 2016, but he could realistically gain 30 or more points of batting average doing exactly what he did last season. And now he’s hitting directly in front of Mike Trout and Justin Upton.

 

Matt Carpenter (1B/2B/3B, STL)

Many players soared to new heights in 2017 by raising their launch angle. Matt Carpenter was not one of them. His career high 50.8% flyball rate was third highest among qualified hitters, behind just Joey Gallo and Kyle Seager. All it got Carpenter was the lowest batting average of his career (.241) by 30 points and his lowest ISO (.209) in three years. Carpenter doesn’t have the raw power of someone like Gallo to benefit from such an extreme approach. Increasing his launch angle led to the 2015 power explosion, but he took it to the point of detriment last season. Carpenter himself has vowed to fix his swing and return to the contact-first approach that made him a late 20’s breakout. An easy way to visualize Carpenter’s changes is by comparing his launch angle charts against right-handed pitching between 2017 (right) and his breakout 2015 season (left). These charts were taken from baseballsavant.mlb.com:

2015 vs. 2017

Carpenter's launch angle spiked way up in 2017 and inhibited his ability to get hits. Balls hit at a launch angle greater than 25 degrees are essentially either home runs or outs, there is little chance outside of good luck or poor fielding that one would drop for a hit. Carpenter his .253 against righties in 2017 after hitting .292 against them in 2015. The good news is that Carpenter can still pulverize the ball. He had a 42.2% hard contact rate last season, eight among qualified hitters. Even if a potential swing change affects his exit velocity, he’s been above 33% every season of his career. A change in approach should help Carpenter’s .274 BABIP normalize to his career .321 mark. This is a player that can be expected to make a large recovery in batting average. Carpenter’s plate discipline hasn’t waned either. He had a career high 17.5% walk rate in 2017, and his selectivity at the plate (33.9% swing rate, 18.2% O-Swing rate) means his OBP will remain healthy. The power might dip, but it will be worth it for Carpenter to regain past successes with the bat.

 

Marcus Semien (SS, OAK)

Though he didn’t deliver after a big 2016, Semien wasn’t so much a bust as he was a victim of injury last season. Fantasy owners are treating him as a bust this draft season, he is being criminally under-drafted (225th Overall per NFBC ADP as of 03/24).  The three months he missed with a wrist injury put him far out of owners minds. Even in just 85 games Semien had 10 home runs and 12 steals. If we paced those numbers out to 150 games he would have had approximately 18 home runs and 21 steals. Not bad for an 18/19th rounder in a standard 12 team league. Pacing is, of course, an imperfect measure, but it offers perspective to Semien’s contributions.

Semien’s price shouldn’t be dinged this hard due to the wrist injury. It was the first time he’d ever been on the disabled list during his major league career after back to back seasons of over 600 plate appearances. The injury also only cost him the first half, meaning he showed us in 85 games that it didn’t affect his production. He also posted a career best 30.3% hard contact rate after returning to the diamond. Semien’s flyball heavy profile means he won’t hit much higher than .250, but he’s going to the be Athletics leadoff hitter in 2018 and produce in every standard category except batting average. This is the late shortstop to target if you pass on earlier players, and a great middle infield option.

 

More 2018 MLB Sleepers and Undervalued Players




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