When it comes to identifying the next fantasy baseball breakout players, Mr. Cheatsheet’s method helps narrow the field. I use a data-driven method to filter the draft pool to a small number of potential sleepers that are worthy of deeper consideration. As I laid out in the research behind this, my method here has been successful in finding breakout players as 64% of the sleeper candidates identified over the past five years returned value much greater than expected from their draft slots. In 2013, there are four players who meet the criteria. Today, we’ll look at one of those four as we try to determine if Will Middlebrooks (3B, BOS) could be one of the 64%.
Why He’s Here
A fifth round draft pick in 2007, Middlebrooks grew into a monster prospect over the past few years which culminated with him being crowned the top prospect in the Red Sox organization going into 2012. The only problem was that Kevin Youkilis, the Greek God of Walks, was blocking his path at 3B. That soon worked itself out as Middlebrooks was called up in May this past year when Youkilis went on the DL. He came out swinging a hot bat as he had a .316 AVG with 6 HR’s in his first month in the bigs. By the end of June, the Red Sox saw enough to put their trust fully in Middlebrooks and traded Youkilis away. He continued his hot play but unfortunately found his season over in August after breaking his wrist.
Despite the shortened season, Middlebrooks made quite the case for himself in 286 PA’s as he crushed 15 HR’s while hitting .288 over half a season. Keeping that pace over the course of a full season would certainly put him among the elite producers in fantasy baseball at a thin position. Despite his sky-high potential, his ADP is currently 166 which makes him a 14th round pick in a 12 team league. Huge potential with low risk: this is what we look for in our sleepers. And that is why he is a potential narco candidate.
Why He Might Fail
The main thing that makes Middlebrooks an attractive player is his power. The decent batting average and scattering of stolen bases are fine but if he hits 15 HR’s then those suddenly look a lot less valuable. His potential RBI numbers look good but those also hinge on the premise that he can hit gaudy HR numbers.
The unfortunate thing is that the HitTracker HR data doesn’t paint the picture of Middlebrooks being a natural power hitter during his major league career thus far. Despite hitting 15 HR’s last year, more than half of them were Just Enough HR’s which is far above the MLB average and is usually evidence of a player getting quite lucky with his HR’s. In addition, the average speed of his HR’s (another indicator of power potential) was merely at the MLB average as opposed to being among the top hitters in the game that regularly hit 30 HR’s. These are red flags which point to Middlebrooks maybe being lucky to even hit 20 HR’s next year and definitely not a candidate to hit 30 HR’s.
However, the biggest concern for Middlebrooks is his wrist injury. Power hitters and wrist injuries do not mix well. One common theory when it comes to recovering from a wrist injury is that it takes a full year for a player to return to hitting normally. If that’s the case then we might not see Middlebrooks hitting to his full potential until around August of this season. If he struggles out of the gate due to the injured wrist then we could see a myriad of things happen (more DL time? send him back to the minors to work on his swing? bench him? loss of confidence?). No matter what happens as he recovers, fantasy owners don’t want to have to deal with it for over half the season.
Why He Might Come Through
In roto leagues, he has the potential to give you positive value across the board. He shows big power potential with decent batting average and enough speed to add some value in SB’s too. The fact that he is playing at the thin 3B position is just icing on the cake.
While his AVG isn’t anything to make a roto team owner salivate, he should hit somewhere in the .275 to .290 range and that’s good enough for a roto team considering his other skills. Last year, his AVG was .288 and we really shouldn’t expect that to rise any higher nor should we expect a huge dip from that though. His BABIP was about where you’d expect it to be last year which indicates that his AVG wasn’t inflated by luck and his xAVG based on last year’s batted ball profile calculated to .279 which shows further evidence of that as well. Hitting at around that mark would certainly be fine if he can continue to hit for power and steal some bases.
We have a rather small sample size of major league data to go off of so it is hard to draw complete conclusions yet. However, initial scouting reports for Middlebrooks tell the tale of a player who should hit for power regularly. Early on, most scouting reports tabbed him as having 25+ HR power potential with one report saying “I see him as a .280 hitter with the potential for 30 HR seasons and full time starter defense at 3B.”
But, who cares about scouts? What do the stat geeks think?
Well, Bill James is on board. His projections show Middlebrooks coming up with the following numbers in 565 PA: .277 AVG, 29 HR, 99 RBI, 75 R, 11 SB. That seems extremely optimistic at first glance but it wouldn’t be far off from Middlebrooks’ 2011 minor league numbers. If we stretch out his 472 minor league PA’s in 2011 to be 565 PA’s like James projects then his numbers would have been: .285 AVG, 27.5 HR, 112.5 RBI, 74 R, 12 SB. So, there is some rationale for James’ projection. In regards to his power potential, we still haven’t touch upon the fact that he was crushing the ball in the minors last year prior to getting called up as he hit 9 HR’s in 24 games there.
Scouting reports and stat geeks agree that Middlebrooks is an above average offensive force and the Red Sox showed a lot of faith in him as well by trading Youkilis. Despite all of this, his price tag is relatively cheap for fantasy owners right now. That may be the last time we say that for a while though if he produces as expected.
I think the good outweighs the bad here. While he is certainly not a lock to be a stud 3B, there are a lot of good signs here and his current ADP makes him fairly low risk. Even if Middlebrooks doesn’t pan out, you could easily recover from your 14th round pick being a bust. However, I do think that he has the potential to deliver early-round value from that draft spot and is definitely worth reaching for given his offensive potential and the fact that he is at a thin fantasy position.