2017 Fantasy Baseball Bounceback Hitters: Don’t Call It A Comeback
If you can take a lyric from one of the most bada** tracks of all time, I say you are honor bound to do so. When contemplating an article about bounceback hitters, the first thing that flashed into my mind was the opening line from LL Cool J’s magnum opus regarding the nasty things his mother told him to do, hence the title of this article.
The next thing that flashed through my mind was the question of why bounceback players are important. When it comes to draft prep, it’s all about value. Identifying and drafting players whose eventual production exceeds their draft position or auction value is one of the keys to having a successful draft and a successful season. Whether you want to call them comeback players or bounceback players, these guys can be some of the best sources of value out there.
Despite the almost overwhelming abundance of free information and stats available online, there are still Fantasy owners who make draft evaluations based solely on last year’s numbers. Due to this recency bias, these owners will disregard and ignore players who had unproductive seasons last year.
This is where the value of bounceback players comes in. If you can identify the players who did not perform last year, but whose numbers project to rebound this year, you should be able to draft these players in later rounds or for low auction prices that will generate significant value for your team.
To that end, I submit for your consideration the following three hitters who had subpar seasons in 2016 and who should rebound in 2017. Why three, you ask? Because thou must count to three. Three shall be the number of the counting and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither shalt thou count two, excepting that thou then proceedeth to three. Five is right out. If you ever have to deal with a killer rabbit, you’ll thank me for that.
2017 Fantasy Baseball Bounceback Hitters
The Boy Wonder Rises
Michael Conforto, OF, New York Mets
Yes, I know I’m mixing metaphors and characters, but my inner nerd will not allow me to pass up a chance to use the whole Gotham motif when it comes to the Mets. Call it my particular idiom.
I use this analogy because in 2016, Mets fans and Fantasy owners believed Michael Conforto would be Robin to the Batman of the Mets’ stud pitching; a young slugger to provide the run support for the Mets’ whiff machines. A 2014 first round pick (10th overall), he certainly looked ready for the show in his 2015 debut, posting a .270 BA/9 HR/26 RBI/30 R line in 174 AB.
In last year’s drafts, I took a flyer on him in a number of leagues, and in the early weeks of the 2016 season I almost felt the need to take a bow. Like the first season of Lost, he exploded out of the gates with a .365 BA/4 HR/18 RBI/15 R line through 74 AB last April. The rest of his season, however, was more like the second season of Lost – aimless and disheartening. With a .169 BA in May and a .119 BA in June, he was mercifully demoted. You could say he went from Boy Wonder to Boy Blunder, if you’re into Batman jokes.
Although he put up video game numbers in the minors and showed improvement after being recalled, Conforto finished 2016 with a .220 BA/12 HR/42 RBI/38 R/2 SB line in 304 AB. Looking back, he probably wasn’t ready for the show. He was promoted to the majors in 2015 with basically one season’s worth of minor league experience (and nothing above Double-A), and by April 2016 he was hitting third in the Mets’ lineup. When pitchers started to get a book on him after his huge April and began to make adjustments, he faltered like a lot of young players with limited time in the minors.
Looking at the underlying numbers, there are positive indicators. His contact numbers and walk rate are decent, and the power is unquestionably legit. His time in the minors gave him some much-needed experience, and he has shown the willingness and ability to make improvements to his game. Not to mention he’s still just 24 years old.
That being said, the real risk with Conforto is playing time. The Mets have Yoenis Cespedes, Jay Bruce, and Curtis Granderson in their outfield; but if Conforto performs early and/or someone gets injured, the Mets should find at-bats for him. At this point he’s more of a consideration in deeper leagues, but the bounceback potential is there.
He’s in the Cubs Lineup
Jason Heyward, OF, Chicago Cubs
In both Fantasy and real life, Jason Heyward is a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma (fun fact – Winston Churchill first said this way before Joe Pesci in JFK). He is a player of tremendous skills who never seems able to command them all, and who might be the quintessential “better in real life than Fantasy” player.
Like each of three players in this article, Heyward is a former first round draft pick. Taken 14th overall by the Atlanta Braves in 2007, he debuted in the majors in 2010 at the ripe old age of 20 to much rejoicing (if you’re not getting the Holy Grail references, you make me sad). He was heralded as the rare five-category contributor for Fantasy purposes, and his rookie season projected a bright future: .277 BA/18 HR/72 RBI/83 R/11 SB. But then things got weird.
Despite having the potential to score in every category, Heyward has never had a true breakout season in any of them. Over the course of a season, he has never hit the following totals: .300 BA, 30 HRs, 100 RBIs, 100 R, and 30 SBs. He has come close in all these categories, but has just never put it all together for an extended period of time.
That being said, Heyward has put together productive offensive seasons, has multiple gold gloves, will hit anywhere in the lineup, and is by all accounts a great teammate. Combine this with the fact that he is still in his prime, even though it seems like he has been around forever (turns 28 in August), and you can see why he was the most sought after free agent hitter going into the 2016 season. From both a real life and Fantasy perspective, the potential remains tantalizing.
In Fantasy terms, Jason Heyward’s 2016 season was atrocious. There’s no positive spin here. We’re talking Attack of the Clones/House Party 2 level badness. The numbers don’t lie: .230 BA/7 HR/49 RBI/61 R/11 SB. Ouch, that’s going to leave a mark. In real life, however, he won a gold glove and a world championship, gave the game 7 speech that will be part of a movie someday (it will be called Cubs Win and Christopher Walken will play Joe Maddon; just watch), and became a Chicago legend. So he’s got that going for him, which is nice.
But we’re talking Fantasy here, and from that standpoint 2016 was a train wreck for Jason Heyward. Looking at the underlying numbers and other factors, however, there are reasons to be optimistic for 2017 beyond the fact he can’t get much worse.
The biggest reason for optimism is that Jason Heyward makes contact and he gets on base. In 2016, he posted an 82% contact rate; a 9% walk rate; and a .58 BB/K ratio. In today’s whiff crazy hitting environment, these are solid numbers. So what happened last year? BABIP tells the story. Jason Heyward’s BABIP in 2015 was approximately .330; in 2016 it plummeted to .270 (including .250 in the second half). To maintain that kind of BABIP for an entire season, Heyward was not just unlucky; he basically turned into Mush from A Bronx Tale. As a result, BABIP alone points to a 2017 rebound.
Putting aside the statistics, Jason Heyward has a lot of other things going for him: he’s in the Cubs lineup; he doesn’t turn 28 until August; he’s in the Cubs lineup; the skills are still there; and did I mention he’s in the Cubs lineup? Last season proves that he’s going to be a lineup regular no matter what he does with the bat thanks to his defense.
Take a look at that projected lineup (or bask in it if you’re a Cubs fan), and just envision the opportunities for a hitter. Yes, he will probably start the season towards the bottom of the lineup, but never forget Joe Maddon’s daily lineup alchemy. The Cubs’ leadoff situation is also in flux following Dexter Fowler’s departure, and Heyward has had prior success as a leadoff hitter.
Based on early draft results, you can probably grab Jason Heyward as a fourth or fifth outfielder. For a player still in his prime with skills in all five standard hitting categories and a spot in a dominant lineup, that’s some serious potential value and a bounceback gamble worth taking.
The Moose is Loose Again
Mike Moustakas, 3B, Kansas City Royals
No, that’s not a Bullwinkle reference. In the interest of full disclosure, Mike “Moose” Moustakas is one of “those guys” for me, and we all have them. What I mean by “those guys” are players we hear or read about when they get drafted, and we decide they have the potential to be the next big thing.
We follow “those guys” as they rise through the minors and we draft them in dynasty formats. We make sure to draft them in redraft leagues for their rookie seasons, or we snag them as soon as they hit the waiver wire for a mid-season call to the big leagues.
And that is what I did with Mike Moustakas. A 2007 first round pick of the Royals (second overall), he and Eric Hosmer (drafted in the first round the following year), made both Royals fans and prospect hounds giddy with the thought of two slugging franchise cornerstones drafted in back-to-back years. A world championship later, and I guess you could say things worked out.
When I learned about Moustakas, a left-handed power hitting third base prospect, I hopped on the Moose bandwagon (or would Moose Train be better?) and followed his progress through the minors. I grabbed him off the waiver wire when he first got the call in 2011, and proceeded to draft him regularly for the next two years.
Like the first hour of Rogue One, some patience was required. Although there were glimpses of promise, Mike Moustakas began to look like another hyped prospect whose major league career would never match his minor league promise. By 2014, his BA fell to a cringe-worthy .212, and I had almost written him off.
In 2015, however, I was short a third basemen in my auction league for the first week of the season due to Kris Bryant’s need for fielding work in the minors (cough, service time, cough), and I saw Moustakas sitting there on the waiver wire. Maybe I picked him up out of nostalgia, but I kept him on the roster even after Kris Bryant worked out his fielding problems (cough, total fiction, cough), and his .284 BA/22 HR/82 RBI/73 R season helped me win the league. Needless to say, I felt validated.
When I looked back at the underlying numbers during his career, I saw the progression. Mike Moustakas did everything you want a see a hitter do during his career. Each year, he cut down on his strikeouts, improved his walk rate, and maintained his power. It seemed the performance had finally caught up with the potential.
Through the first 27 games and 104 AB of 2016, the Moose was loose with seven HRs. Yes, he had a .240 BA, but that was with a comically low .210 BABIP. With an 88% contact rate, he was making contact and crushing the ball, and once that BABIP normalized you were looking at a potential .300/30 HR hitter. That came to a screeching halt, however, when he tore his ACL in May in a freak injury after colliding with a teammate.
Assuming he is back to full health, the skills are there; the power is for real and he has been making contact at near-elite levels for the past two seasons. There’s solid evidence to support a breakout, just like last year before the injury. Also keep in mind he’s 28 years old and still in his prime.
If you’ve been looking at position rankings lately, you’ll notice a talent drop-off at the corners this year. If you can land the Moose for your CI, UTIL, or even first bench player, you could be in for a big bounceback year and big value for your team.
So there you have it: three hitters who may be off a lot of radars this year due to less-than-stellar seasons in 2016. They all should be available later in snake drafts and for low dollar values in auction drafts. If their performance rebounds like the information above suggests, you will have serious value on your roster and be in a position to succeed in your league. If you should win your league as a result and someone asks you how, just tell them “don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years.” You know the rest.
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