You hear the phrase "small sample size" bandied about in fantasy baseball analysis, and such a comment often inspires a retort: Just how large must a sample be before it can no longer be considered "small"?
Much analysis has been done on the topic -- you can read a bit about it on FanGraphs here, for example -- but after a half-season's worth of statistics in the bank, I think it's fair to say that the 2014 sample is sizable enough from which to draw judgments. (Well, at least in certain categories, per that link.)
That in mind, this week looks like as good a time as any to compare some of my preseason rankings to my current going-forward rankings. Much has changed in a half-year's time -- as it should -- and considering the timing, it's a wise week to take a step back and see just what has changed.
What we're looking for is players with different circumstances today than in March; perhaps improved plate discipline, an expanded role, more aggressiveness on the basepaths, a new pitch learned or a change in velocity? Those -- not year-to-date numbers -- are the things that truly drive the going-forward rankings, as they're the ones that influence rest-of-season player projections. Remember, these rankings are not about "so-and-so player ranks 15th on the Player Rater, so he should be 15th in your ranking;" it's about examining what the player's statistical (or, more important, scouting) profile tells us about his prospects from today forward. After all, some players enjoy fluky statistical success, and it's our job to weed those out.
The following nine players have enjoyed the most substantial increase between my final preseason rankings and the ones listed at column's end. Let's explore just what changed:
His improvements aren't limited to one specific area. A contact-rate spike, particularly against right-handed pitchers, is a key one: Overall his is 90.9 percent, a big league career high, and it's 93.4 percent against righties. He also has stepped up his game against left-handers, batting .282/.370/.437 this season after .255/.313/.320 in his first five big league seasons. And, yes, Brantley has been somewhat fortunate when he hits fly balls, as 17.5 percent of them have cleared the fence, compared to just 5.1 percent entering the year. The latter hardly overshadows the two former, though it does explain how Brantley doesn't rank as high as 10th overall here, as he does on the Player Rater to date. He's good ... he's not 25-homer-seasonal-pace good.
Corey Kluber, SP, Cleveland Indians
Preseason: No. 220 overall/No. 58 starting pitcher
Midseason: No. 73 overall/No. 20 starting pitcher
Look beyond Kluber's raw Rotisserie numbers from 2013 and 2014 and you'd realize that his seasons aren't that different; his 3.10 (2013) and 2.80 (2014) xFIPs best illustrate it. Also consider that his 2013 first-half xFIP was 2.97, his full-season number adversely impacted by his mediocre September. Kluber's fastball has generated more sinking action this season than last, and he's seemingly more up to the task of a 200-inning season. Beyond that, not a lot has changed; it's more that he has now proved his substantial worth over a calendar year and a half.
Colleague and co-host Eric Karabell had it right when he challenged a statement of mine on a recent Fantasy Focus Baseball podcast; Frazier's 2014 boost in value is not entirely centered upon his increased aggressiveness on the basepaths. I've been quick to point out how important that is: He has three more steals this season (13) than he did in his previous three (10) in 230 fewer games played, and the Reds have given no indication they plan to be any more conservative on the basepaths going forward. But Frazier also has improved his power-hitting ability in a way I was hoping he might entering the 2013 campaign; I was unfortunately a year too early projecting it, and should've remained as optimistic this spring. Nearly 60 percent of the time Frazier has hit either a fly ball or a line drive, and a reasonable 17.9 percent of his fly balls have cleared the fence. Five of his homers, in fact, have been hit to the opposite field, showing an all-fields power approach.
I'm not sure how much more I need to say about Abreu. I've already outlined his improvements several times in this space, including here, here and here. The dude's legit. He's going to hit 45-plus homers, and he might have himself the single-season rookie record in the category come year's end.
Cruz's preseason rank suffered for a simple reason: He signed with the Orioles four days after full squads were due to report to spring training, and I wondered whether the delay might have slowed his acclimation to the team, especially after he sat 50 of the 2013 season's final 51 games because of a PED suspension. So much for that. But one of the primary changes for Cruz has been health; he has missed just one Orioles game all season. If you believe he'll stay healthy, you shouldn't expect a major drop in production from him. After all, during his five full seasons with the Texas Rangers, he averaged .272/.331/.511 triple-slash rates, and 35 homers and 106 RBIs per 162 games played. This season, Cruz is on pace for .294/.359/.591 rates, 50 homers and 131 RBIs. Correct for his career-best 25.0 homer/fly ball percentage if you wish; he'd still be a 45-homer hitter if he stayed healthy and had a 20 percent rate.
His batting average (.232 this season, .244 last) and slugging percentage (.411 and .414) have largely remained the same, yet his counting numbers -- specifically homers and steals -- have swelled. Much of it is Dozier's rising walk rate, 12.8 percent this season after 8.2 percent last, the result of his being a smarter strike-zone judge. Consider that he's a .168 hitter with 36 percent of his career strikeouts on pitches thrown in the bottom third of the zone (or lower); but this season he has swung at non-strikes thrown in that area nearly 7 percent less often. Dozier might simply have closed enough of the holes in his swing to avoid those painful, lengthy slumps that often result in the player being demoted to the minors, and the result is still a streaky player, but one with tremendous odds of 25/25 numbers.
Rendon was more of a line-drive than a pure power hitter as a rookie in 2013, though it's possible that experience explains most of the change. He has made hard contact on 21 percent of his at-bats, up from 19 percent in 2013, and he has a 25.1 percent line-drive rate. Rendon also has stepped up substantially against fastballs: He has a .401 weighted on-base average, which ranks 32nd out of 161 qualifiers. Let's not forget that he was the No. 6 pick overall in the 2011 amateur draft; Rendon has always had the potential of a future All-Star, and he's not all that far from that status now.
Calhoun's going-forward ranking falls more into the bold-call than earned-already category, as he's a player who has received the platoon-player treatment for much of the year. Monday, for example, represented his first start against a lefty in the past 11 Angels games, despite the fact that he's a .289/.327/.454 hitter in 105 career trips to the plate against southpaws. In a way, he's kind of like a "lite" version of the aforementioned Michael Brantley, the major difference a greater strikeout rate that should result in a lower batting average between the two. I think the Angels will play Calhoun regularly the rest of the way, and he'll reward his owners with 10-12 homers and 6-8 steals in his remaining games.
Erick Aybar, SS, Los Angeles Angels
Preseason: No. 215 overall/No. 18 shortstop
Midseason: No. 125 overall/No. 11 shortstop
Perhaps his stolen-base decline in 2013 was an aberration rather than trend. Aybar swiped just 12 bags, and attempted a steal on only 9.3 percent of his opportunities (those as judged by Baseball-Reference.com), but this season, he already has 11 steals and a 10.1 percent rate of attempts. He's now 30, a stage of a player's career when his speed might wane; that FanGraphs shows his Speed Score has risen from 5.2 (2013) to 5.7 (2014) alleviates some of that concern. Aybar might once again be a 20-to-25 steal candidate with some of the best contact ability in the game, and keep in mind that he was the No. 12 shortstop (and No. 144 player overall) in 2012, which was a .290-hitting, 20-steal campaign for him.
Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 250 "going-forward" rankings
For a detailed rankings breakdown by position, click here.