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 with 64% of the sleeper candidates identified over the past five years returning 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 I try to determine if Justin Ruggiano (OF, MIA) could be among the 64% of successes.
Why He’s Here
Let’s be clear right away: Ruggiano will be 31 this season so he is not a young prospect bursting onto the scene. He bounced around in a few minor league systems throughout the past nine seasons but spent most of his time as a member of Tampa Bay’s Triple-A team. In his many Triple-A seasons, he posted numbers that would make most fantasy owners happy as he consistently showed potential to be a player who could hit 20 HR with 30 SB and a good batting average. He broke free of Tampa last year by declining to be sent back to the minors. He ended up in the Astros organization in… Triple-A again. However, he was traded to the Marlins in May where the Marlins wasted no time by calling him up to the majors the next day to finally give him the shot that he deserved.
He rewarded them for their faith with huge offensive outputs from June through August. In those three months, he hit .330 with 13 HR’s, 31 RBI’s, 22 R’s and 11 SB’s over 215 AB’s. If he could keep that pace over 600 AB’s in a season, we’d be drafting Ruggiano in the first round of drafts this year as that would be a 30/30 player with one of the best AVG’s in the league. Of course, that’s not realistic to expect and he came back down to Earth in the final month of the season by hitting .264 AVG with 0 HR’s and 3 SB’s.
Regardless, for a long stretch, Ruggiano showed the ability to produce at an elite level and has minor league numbers to back that up. His age is a concern and the fact that he was never a “top prospect” keeps him under the radar as well. The fact still remains that he is slated to possibly be the starting CF for Miami this season yet, despite that, his ADP is 202 at this point. We have a player who shows us the potential for elite numbers without a hefty price tag on draft day and that is what makes him a potential narco candidate.
Why He Might Fail
Ruggiano is a player who has basically been stuck in Triple-A since 2007. In that 2007 season, he hit .309 with 20 HR’s and 26 SB’s and was given a short look in the majors over 2007 and 2008 but he didn’t impress the Rays and then was locked away in Triple-A again for the next few years. Despite his gaudy minor league numbers, he couldn’t translate that to MLB success for the Rays despite them giving him 98 games of big league experience. He hit .225 with 6 HR, 3 SB and a ton of strikeouts (28% k-rate) over 207 PA’s. While he seemed to put it together last year, that was only over a short stretch.
One of the biggest components of his success last year was his high batting average (.313) but that was boosted by a possibly unsustainable BABIP. His BABIP was .401 last year and xBABIP calculations say it should have been around .322 in a luck-neutral world. With that dip in BABIP, he would have dropped his AVG down to .259. Less hits mean less runs, less RBI’s and less stolen bases. Suddenly, Ruggiano’s miracle season would have looked a lot less appealing. In the last month of the season, Ruggiano’s AVG was closer to that xAVG mark which is further proof that it is likely closer to his true talent level.
On a depleted Marlins squad, it would seem that Ruggiano is going to at least get a large share of at-bats this year. However, that may not be the case. To get the starting job, he’s going to have to compete for it against Gorkys Hernandez and Bryan Peterson according to the team. The fact that there are other options there may mean that the Marlins won’t go all-in on Ruggiano regardless. With his high strikeout rate, they may be quick to pull the plug on him if there is any sign of struggle.
Why He Might Come Through
The previously cited xAVG does indicate that Ruggiano’s AVG may not be sustainable and that’s hard to argue against. But, while it may drop, his minor league numbers do indicate that he has the ability to hit for a high AVG regardless as he hit .296 throughout his minor league career. And, yes, that’s quite a long history of minor league at-bats so that should be a pretty good indication of his talent level. Expect a drop in AVG but don’t expect the floor to fall out from beneath him.
Ruggiano is an attractive option because he has the ability to contribute in all five roto categories. The speed is definitely there to stay and all signs point to him being able to get 20 to 30 SB’s. The bonus is that he hits for good power too. Based on data from HitTracker, it seems that the power is legit. One of the better predictors for future HR totals is the Avg Speed Off Bat from HitTracker and Ruggiano had an Avg SOB of 105.6 MPH which would put him among the top tier power hitters in the league. So, by those indications, the power is legit and a 20 HR season is definitely within reason.
If we peek at the projections, we see that Bill James is predicting a nice year for Ruggiano too. He has him projected to hit .278 with 19 HR and 24 SB. That is a more optimistic projection than most but it does indicate that even the stat-based projections aren’t discounting Ruggiano’s 2012 numbers as a fluke.
There’s definitely some concern about Ruggiano’s age in addition to the fact that he was quite lucky last year. But, there are still some good core skills beneath all of that. He certainly does have the potential to hit 20/20 with a decent AVG on the year. If the asking price for Ruggiano was in the top 100 then there might be reason to pass on him. But, with his ADP outside of the top 200, there is little risk to adding Ruggiano as a backup outfielder and hoping for the best. I see enough positive here that makes him worth targeting as a sleeper in the later rounds.
I’m just speculating here though. Let’s go right to the source and see if Justin Ruggiano himself has any advice for fantasy owners in 2013!