Whither Grady Sizemore?
Like clockwork, it happened every year.
The powers-that-be at ESPN Fantasy would convene a fantasy baseball summit in January. We'd all converge into a cozy conference room to sift through myriad projections and rankings. We'd have civil debate along with tons of snarky comments. And I'd dis Grady Sizemore.
I never bought the guy as a top-5 outfielder. I certainly never bought the guy a borderline first-round fantasy pick. There was no questioning the raw athletic skills, I said, but his statistical trends told me that he was a "tradeoff guy," someone who would hit for power only if he didn't hit for average and would hit for average only if he didn't hit for power. Even after his best season, 2008, in which he drilled 33 homers and stole 38 bases, I looked at that .268 batting average and worried. Not that he wasn't valuable, because of course he was. But I couldn't put him on par with the true superstars in the outfield. To me, he was a notch below the Ryan Braun, Matt Holliday, Ichiro Suzuki, Carl Crawford neighborhood, even going into '09.
Of course, not too many folks are placing him in that neighborhood after Sizemore's injury-riddled '09 season. He suffered a groin injury during the World Baseball Classic, then hurt his elbow in June. (Both problems were fixed by surgery this winter.) As such, Sizemore wound up disappointing his fantasy owners in a big way: .248, 18 HR, 64 RBIs, 13 steals and 73 runs. He wound up the 225th-best overall player in our Player Rater, and the 56th-best outfielder. When we arrived at our baseball rankings summit in January, the raw numbers we were given (put together according to very simplistic "statistical-average" projections) had Sizemore listed as the No. 24 outfielder, and I was put in a seriously unfamiliar position.
I had to defend Grady Sizemore.
Now, to be fair, once we actually cracked open the outfielder ranks, we quickly lifted Sizemore much higher than that initial ranking. Nevertheless, I still found myself numbering among those who wanted him included among our top 10 outfielders, and indeed, he wound up No. 8. He also wound up as our No. 27 player overall, sandwiched by Zack Greinke above and Jimmy Rollins below. And when the smoke had cleared after the Sizemore debate, I have to say: I'm pretty happy with that ranking.
That's right around where I've been ranking Sizemore for years. I never fully bought him as a 30/30 player (though 30/30 is exactly what he was in '08). Can he be a consistent 25/25? Absolutely. Our projections have him down for almost exactly that, and that's still darn valuable. And while I've regularly been skeptical about Sizemore's batting average, I think last year's .248 is something we just throw out the window. In fact, since I'm in Grady defense mode, I have to point out that Sizemore's batting averages the past two seasons -- .268 and .248 -- have perhaps been weighed down by an artificially low (and thus unlucky) hit rate: his Batting Average on Balls In Play for those two seasons was .290 and .275, and this from a guy who featured a BABIP in the .330s for the three seasons previous. He's fast. He's a good on-base guy (good for at least .374 in the three seasons from '07 to '09). He fits the profile of a player whose legs (when healthy) are likely to consistently lead him to an above-average BABIP. I still don't believe he's a .290 hitter. But I also think that with an adjustment in BABIP, he's likelier to hit .270 than .250 again.
So is that who Sizemore is now? A 25/25 player who'll drive in 80, score 100 and hit .270? That's roughly our projection for him for the '10 season, and I'm actually quite comfortable with it. Was it alarming to see him caught stealing on eight of his 21 attempts last year? Yes. (He was successful on 38 of 43 tries in '08.) Was it scary to see his OPS drop from .850 or above for three straight seasons to just .788 in '09? Yup. Does his high strikeout rate (22.2 percent for his career) continue to make him -- to put it kindly -- a "nontraditional" leadoff hitter whose batting average will always be of the high-risk variety? Indeed. But if anyone deserves a mulligan, Sizemore does. He reached 600 at-bats in all four of his full big-league seasons before his injury-decimated '09. His fly-ball rates (at least 45.7 percent in each of the past four seasons) give him a great chance at steady home run production. And assuming he can run at full speed again, that stolen-base percentage has to increase.
Listen, he's got downside. Heck, he may have something approaching Josh Hamilton's downside. (That may be a bit harsh, since Hamilton has battled injury in two of the past three seasons.) If his sports hernia surgery didn't fix his legs, maybe Sizemore doesn't run as much, or maybe the Indians decide to move him out of the top spot. There's a risk that his '09 injuries could recur. But he's only 28 in August, and if anyone's going to bounce back, you'd think it would be a guy who'd been healthy his entire career, and whose surgeries weren't considered very serious.
Want the ultimate proof that I'm buying Sizemore as a decent value play in drafts this spring? Every January, after we finish ranking players and evaluating projections, we do a preliminary mock draft. I picked eighth. And when my turn came around in the third round -- the 28th overall selection in a 10-team league -- I didn't hesitate. I took Grady, banked his multicategory very-goodness, and made sure to team him up with a couple guys about whose batting average I have fewer questions. It's certainly the first time I ever came out of one of those mocks owning Sizemore, and I have a feeling it might not be the last time I draft him in a mixed league this spring, provided he falls to me.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions on Facebook.