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Overrated/Underrated Week 9: Sell Martin, Buy Cervelli

Week 1 (OF/SP) | Week 2 (OF/SP) | Week 3 (SS) | Week 4 (1B) | Week 6 (SP) | Week 7 (2B) | Week 8 (SP)

* * *

We're about a third of the way through the season, which puts us at about the 40-percent mark for leagues with playoffs. The light at the end of the tunnel grows dimmer by the day for teams that are pulling up the rear in their leagues. The urgency to make something happen for teams in the middle of pack becomes more so.

For those who have held on far too long to once-renowned hitters, it may be time to consider cutting bait. These kinds of prolonged slumps always seem to arise from nowhere and can be pretty jarring. Worse, not everyone warrants optimism for the comeback.

This week, I investigate the mostly barren catcher landscape. It's especially difficult to cut a once-established catcher with a track record, but sometimes, the red flags become too much to bear.

 

Overrated

Russell Martin, TOR
52% owned, via FleaFlicker

There's something very wrong with Martin. The power looks bad, for one. Martin is on pace to barely achieve double-digit home runs were he to reach 507 plate appearances, his playing time threshold in 2015 during which he belted a career-best 23. It was probably unreasonable to expect him to repliace such power, given he's good for about 17 home runs each of the last five years. But his current pace looks to barely reach half of that.

There might be a glimmer of hope here: per FanGraphs' batted ball data, Martin has posted the best hard-hit rate (Hard%) of his career -- 34.8% -- thus far. Given he notched a 16.4% home run-per-fly ball rate (HR/FB) since 2011 on a 30.0% hard-hit rate, it's not unreasonable to think his current 9.4% HR/FB will double by the season's end.

Unfortunately, Statcast data could be interpreted as an absolute contradiction to this notion. Without commentary, observe Martin's average exit velocity by pitch location last year:

russell martin 2015

And, again, without commentary, the same plot, but for this year:

russell martin 2016

Martin's average exit velocity is down as many as several ticks in all parts of the zone. Most striking, perhaps, is the dip of more than 5 miles per hour (mph) in the heart of the zone. Martin should be feasting, but he's not. Even on less optimal pitches, he's making sub-par contact. And it's not a platoon thing -- he's struggling equally badly against lefties and righties.

Unfortunately, this ties into his atrocious plate discipline. I deliberately hadn't mentioned until now that Martin, to date, has generated the worst strikeout and walk rates of his career. In fact, his 31.8% strikeout rate (K%) is about double his career rate; his 6.5% walk rate (BB%), about half his career rate. He has evolved as a hitter, so this isn't exactly telling the perfect story, but it is telling, regardless.

With that said, Martin is not only making poor contact on pitches on the zone but also making much less contact, period. His in-zone contact rate (Z-Contact%) of 74.8%, per PITCHf/x, is almost 15 percentage points worse than last year's mark and more than 10 percentage points worse than his previous worst. FanGraphs' heat maps help explain the issue. Here, from 2015:

martin heat map 2015

And here, from 2016:

martin heat map 2016

Just look at the dead center of the heat maps. The four most central squares. One of them in 2015 says "91%" -- Martin's contact rate on a total meatball. That same square in 2016? Sixty-eight percent. It's bad, folks.

Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs chronicled issues with Martin's swing. If he has made any discernible changes, they haven't cultivated discernible results. Martin looks bad, and he's probably tanking your team. FleaFlicker's 52% ownership rate isn't much, but that's good for 6th-most among all catchers. Consider other options.

 

Underrated

Francisco Cervelli, PIT
34% owned, via FleaFlicker

I don't think Cervelli is an especially valuable fantasy asset. He offers batting average and not much else; even the seven home runs he hit last year are something of a mirage. Like clockwork, he has yet to hit a single home run through his first 175 plate appearances.

Pull a list of on-base percentage (OBP) leaders among catchers with at least 100 PAs, however, and you get the following list:

Wilson Ramos, .363
Yadier Molina, .362
Cervelli, .360

Cervelli is now a legitimate asset on OBP leagues despite almost nonexistent power thanks for a 13.7% walk rate. Cervelli's overall contact rate (Contact%) is down because of dips both in and out of the zone. Typically, that's not good. But Cervellis is swinging less often than ever before on bad pitches while seeing far more bad pitches than he did last year. It's that adjustment that has helped him maintain a high OBP despite despite losing almost 40 points of batting average -- a fortunate turn of events, given it was hard to expect Cervelli to sustain such elevated batting averages on balls in play (BABIPs).

The OBP is not exciting if you're in a league that counts batting average, though. Which is why you should be excited about the stolen bases. Cervelli has stolen three bases on five attempts. He attempted only three steals in his previous 650 plate appearances (across four seasons in mostly part-time duty). He has accounted for almost one-third of his career attempts in roughly one-seventh the time. One-seventh is an ugly fraction, but just know he's attempting to steal not twice but thrice as frequently as usual.

That means only good things for a hitter who loses his only real asset (batting average) when his BABIP betRays him. His three steals actually paces the entire position, tying him with Tony Wolters and staying one ahead of Chris Herrmann, Molina, J.T. Realmuto and Welington Castillo. At a position utterly devoid of talent, you'll take what you can get. If Cervelli sustains this pace for the season, it somehow wouldn't be crazy to think he could be a top-10 catcher -- far better than his preseason average draft position (ADP) of 18th.

 

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