2015 Fantasy Baseball: What to Make of Devin Mesoraco
Fantasy football season is over and there’s a short slate of NHL games on tap tonight, so I’m turning my attention to fantasy baseball for the first time in 2015. I intended to do a breakdown of the differences between early NFBC ADP data and rankings according to the 2015 Steamer projections. But as I got into it, I found myself focusing on one player, Devin Mesoraco.
Before I get specific on Mesoraco, I want to share something I found interesting when researching for this post. In addition to looking at the difference in how catchers are ranked per the projections and ADP, I took a look at how the projections and ADP compared to how players finished in 2014. I assumed that ADP would correlate more closely with how 2014 ended since humans tend to place a ton of weight on what happened most recently while the Steamer computer model is built to give a certain amount of weight to what happened prior to 2014. That assumption was correct, but I was a little surprised by how correct it was.
Below are two charts. The one on the left shows the correlation between 2014 end-of-season rankings and ADP, and the one on the right shows the correlation between 2014 end-of-season rankings and Steamer projections. Each chart has the “r-squared” listed, and the higher that number the stronger the correlation.
Fantasy baseball obviously isn’t as easy as looking at what happened last year. For that reason I’m a little skeptical of the ADP data and likely more inclined to agree with the Steamer projections. Perhaps the most interesting example of that is Mesoraco. He finished last year as the third most productive fantasy catcher per Zach Sanders, and he’s being selected as the third catcher per early ADP data. But, by my calculation, Steamer projections have Mesoraco ranked 13th going into 2015. That’s a surprising gap, and I want to know where he’s most likely to end up in that range.
Prior to Meso’s breakout last year (which I distinctly remember Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris calling), Mesoraco had 536 plate appearances in which his offensive production was 28% below average. Last year, in 440 PA, his offensive production was 47% above average. That’s a truly amazing increase in production.
How did he do it? Power.
Mesoraco popped 25 bombs last year which led all catchers and was tied for 21st among all hitters. Mesoraco’s power surge was part luck, part approach. The luck part was 20.5% of Mesoraco’s fly balls leaving the yard. Prior to last year his HR/FB rate was an even 10%, which is close to last year’s league average of 9.5%. The approach part was Mesoraco making a concerted effort to hit more balls out of the park. Last year Mesoraco eschewed frequent contact in search of the long ball. His contact rate fell almost 10% last year, but his fly ball rate rose almost 10%. And swinging for the fences at the expense of frequent contact worked because Mesoraco’s average batted ball distance on home runs and fly balls increased by 22 feet. That took him from the 192nd highest average fly ball distance in 2013 to 24th last year.
That means the increase in HR/FB rate certainly wasn’t just luck. But of the 12 hitters that had a HR/FB rate north of 20% in 2013 only four maintained that rate in 2014. The guys that did it were Chris Davis, Chris Carter, Giancarlo Stanton and Nelson Cruz. I find it hard to believe that Mesoraco belongs in a category with those names even though I do believe Mesoraco can maintain some of his power gains. But Steamer thinks Mesoraco is going to see his fly ball rate and HR/FB rate decrease significantly. Assuming his batted ball rates hold, the 18 home runs Steamer projects would mean that Steamer is projecting Mesoraco for a 9.9% HR/FB rate. More likely Steamer expects both his fly ball rate to decrease some and his HR/FB rate to decrease some. Batted ball profiles fluctuate constantly, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he sees a dip in his fly ball rate. But I think the obvious disregard for making contact in favor of hitting the ball farther means Mesoraco’s HR/FB rate is more sustainable than Steamer thinks it is. I wouldn’t quite project him for 25 home runs again, but I do expect him to top 20 bombs. This all assuming he sees around the same number of plate appearances, as Steamer projects that he will.
But just because I disagree with Steamer’s assessment of Mesoraco’s power does not mean I’m more in line with the ADP ranking of ‘3’ that has Mesoraco finishing exactly as he did last year among catchers. Because despite a lack of concern for making frequent contact, Mesoraco saw a massive spike in batting average. It’s pretty rare to see a guy have his strikeout rate increase by 6% and also see his batting average rise 35 points. But thanks to a .309 batting average on balls in play, Mesoraco’s added power didn’t kill his batting average. Prior to last season, Mesoraco’s BABIP was .254. He has a line drive rate for his career of 20.6%, so a .254 BABIP is unsustainably low. But Meso’s 22.6% line drive rate last year probably isn’t good enough to sustain a plus-.300 BABIP for a guy who doesn’t have speed with a league average infield hit rate.
That’s where the concern with Mesoraco really lies. It’s highly unlikely he hits anywhere near .273 again. Prior to 2014 he hit .230, and Steamer has him pegged for .246. I think he can hit about .250, and I think he hits 20+ homers as opposed to the 18 Steamer projects. That probably puts him in the 8-9 range among catchers for me with a chance to crack the top five if his luck continues or if he makes further improvements. Plus, there are only four catchers I’m comfortable with, so the last spot in the top five is up for grabs in my eyes. But whether he cracks the top five or finishes just outside the top 12 as Steamer projects, I find it hard to believe that taking him as the third catcher off the board is going to be a decision you look back on kindly.