2016 Fantasy Baseball: Plate Discipline — Outfielders
For those that watch baseball religiously, a lot has been made of the so-called five tools that scouts look to when evaluating players. While fielding and throwing are important, they typically don’t matter to fantasy players. Most fantasy players focus on the other three tools: hitting, hitting for power, and speed. That translates into hitting for average, hitting for power, and stealing bases.
More and more leagues are including an on base element. That could be walks or on base percentage. Even leagues that continue to use the standard five categories can take advantage of what some lovingly call the sixth tool (or fourth fantasy tool): plate discipline. As scouts and baseball executives are becoming increasingly aware, players are born with plate discipline or are not.
Essentially, the difference between the hit tool and the plate discipline tool is that with the plate discipline tool you are able to recognize which pitches you should swing at. When looking at the data, the key statistic (as found at Fangraphs) is Oswing. That is the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that a hitter swings at. Talented hitters can make contact on those pitches, but usually it is the kind of contact pitchers want.
Plate discipline is only one of the four tools that fantasy players look for, so you shouldn’t govern your entire draft based on plate discipline, but it does allow us to find the occasional sleeper and avoid the occasional rotter. In this series, we will identify a couple of sleepers and a couple of players who could end up being busts. Looking at all of the data helps us see why guys strikeout a lot or walk a lot. When we do that, it helps explain why some us end up liking certain guys and not liking others. Often we get criticized for that and we don’t have the words to articulate our feelings. Some of these numbers give us that articulation.
Fowler is much maligned for any number of reasons. ESPN has him ranked 58th among outfielders. That means he would barely qualify as a regular in a twelve-team, five outfielder league. That seems a bit low considering the skills he brings to the table. Obviously, those rankings are based on the standard five categories. He doesn’t necessarily excel in any of those categories, but these are not normal times. Fowler brings tremendous on base skills to the table in an offense with a number of talented run producers. So, if healthy, he could be a candidate to score 100 runs.
As we’ve noted before, plate discipline is only one of the considerations a fantasy player should consider. So, we shouldn’t vault Fowler way up the board because he has had problems staying healthy and he doesn’t bring elite power or speed to the table. However, he does bring a little bit of everything and that should be enough to move him up the board a little.
There are differences between process and results. Most of the time, process directly leads to results, but occasionally it doesn’t. Choo has an alarming drop in his contact rate on balls in the strike zone (Zcontact) but that hasn’t affected his overall contact rate that much. Obviously 2013 was a career season for Choo in terms of process and results, but he settled back in last year towards career norms in both departments.
In particular, his strikeout and walk rates have been fairly constant when you take 2013 out of the equation. Choo is who he is. He is a guy that will swing and miss more often than some players, but he rarely swings at anything bad. When he plays full time he normally comes in around 20 home runs and ten (or more) stolen bases. I’d expect that kind of production again along with a healthy on base percentage.
One of the hardest things to do for a stat junkie is to learn to let go sometimes of what you think a dominant player looks like. ESPN has Marte ranked in the top ten amongst outfielders. That’s difficult to wrap your head around if you believe in numbers like OBP, SLG, and RC+. Clearly, we have a gap between process, results, and the results that matter to fantasy baseball players. Fantasy players love the fact that he hits some home runs and steals quite a few bases. In real baseball, those numbers (particularly the steals) matter a lot less.
The number we should focus on is BABIP. In general, players don’t change who they are. Marte is a free swinger and will likely remain a free swinger. What does change is are the numbers that depend on others like BABIP. His career .353 BABIP just doesn’t seem sustainable. He might not drop all the way down to .300, but .320 doesn’t seem unreasonable and that is a 30 point drop from his career average. If Marte becomes a .250 or .260 hitter then he ceases to be a top ten fantasy outfielder.
If I were setting up my own comic book, Carlos Gonzalez and Ben Zobrist would be the primary characters. Of course, who is to say who the evil and good character is. They are polar opposites in terms of how hardcore sabermetricians view the game. One uses a tremendous process to arrive at his numbers while the other seems to have very little process and still produces numbers. You can’t help but root for one and against the other.
It should be no surprise that I’ve owned Zobrist nearly every season and have never owned Gonzalez in any league. That’s probably excessive bias. If Gonzalez is healthy, he will hit 30 or more home runs. That has value in any league, but the lack of plate discipline and the lack of consistent health is troublesome to be sure.