Applying a Thoroughbred Handicapping System to Identify Breakout Candidates for the 2012 Season.

Horse sense: Applying a thoroughbred handicapping system to identify break out candidates for the 2012 season.

On July 6th 2011, at 6:31 on a succulent evening in Churchill Downs, Animal Kingdom made a Godzilla move around the final turn to win the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby. Going off as a 20-1 shot, Animal Kingdom provided the astute bettor with a handsome payout, for which to blow on julep cocktails and the subsequent races of the evening.

In the hallowed corners of Churchill Downs, somewhere there was a bar that smiled.

Earlier that afternoon, on the other side of a veeeeeery long wheat field, in Chicago, Alex Gordon went 2 for 4 scoring 2 runs to push his season average to .296. It was a resurgence of sorts, but one that should not have been shocking to the observant. For Alex Gordon was a prime candidate to vault from nowhere to the upper reaches of player raters that track this magical fake sport.

Today we’re going to look at some of the components that portend a break out season for offensive hitters. Identifying late round talent is what separates the playoff bound team owners from the schmuck-a-ducks that contribute to the payout pool. To do this effectively I will be introducing you to a handicapping system that is standard fare for the horse gambler. In applying this system you will be able to target elite candidates in the late rounds of your fantasy drafts.

"I can make a General in five minutes but a good horse is hard to replace." – Abraham Lincoln

Andrew Beyer is a world famous handicapper and columnist for the Washington Post, and is the father of the Beyer Speed Figure. His book, Picking Winners, revolutionized handicapping with the introduction and explanation of speed figures. The idea behind speed figures is simple – the easiest way to measure one race horse against another is by how fast it runs. Beyer devised a system that assigns a number – a speed figure – to each horse’s performance in a race. If every horse ran over a standard surface at the same distance we could compare their speeds simply by looking at their finishing times. Beyer’s idea is to be able to compare horses that run over different surfaces (fast tracks, slow tracks, etc.) and different distances.

In handicapping horses there are 4 standard perspectives for figuring out how ready a particular horse is to compete in a race. The four perspectives are:

Speed Handicapping

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The fastest horse always wins the race. Right? Not really. There are books upon books devoted to calculating how fast a horse ran in a particular race and giving that speed a numerical value. No system has proved to work with astounding accuracy. Still the fact remains, comparing the recent speed figures of horses in a race is a good starting point for separating the contenders from the pretenders.

Similarur-al-urally, batting average and OBP are vital tools for identifying good baseball players. But, as you know, they are only part of the puzzle of figuring a players future value. If you use them correctly however, they can be a useful tool. I’ll show you how in approximately 327 words.

Class Handicapping

When talking about class and horses we are mainly discussing the company they keep, or the races they have been running in. A horse that has been winning in $5,000 races at Buttscratch Downs will get ground into glue once he starts running at Belmont. He is running against horses far above him. That being said, what you like to see is a horse rising steadily in class, doing well at each level and making improvements each time out.

Just like ballplayers. Rarely have we seen a player succeed when moving swiftly through the minors. Even first year, elite prospects in the show go through an adjustment period while facing competition that?s a class above their comfort level. What we?re looking for in a breakout candidate is a steady improvement against steadily increasing competition.

Trip Handicapping

An error most handicappers make is looking at the results of previous races without asking what happened during the race to create those results. More than any other handicapping method, trip handicapping requires dedication and plenty of time. A trip handicapper wants to know how easy or tough the horse had it in his last race. Did the horse have trouble with traffic that compromised his expected late run? Did the horse break badly out of the gate?

The same concept can be applied to hitters. Last year Evan Longoria batted .244 with 78 runs, 31 homers, and 99 RIB’s (Eve of Eden, eat’cher heart out). A solid fantasy season on the surface, but not worthy of a top 20 pick – until you look at his trip. 483 total at bats, .232 BABIP, nagging injuries evident in his career low stolen base totals. If you look even deeper you find that his strikeout rate dropped from 18.8 to 16.9 percent, while his walk rate improved from 10.9 percent in 2010 to a career high 11.6 percent this season.

From a trip perspective, Longo is a lion who’s primed to roar in a big way.

Influence of Breeding or Bloodlines

Who’s your Daddy? Does it matter? Bloodlines are most useful before a horse has started running. It can suggest whether the horse will be a sprinter or a router, like the turf or dirt. Once a horse has established a race record it hardly matters what his bloodlines are.

The opposite is true for our analysis. In finding the next Alex Gordon we are only going to consider hitters with a pedigree. Former first round picks will be our bread and butter, for they have the tools in their shed that we so crave.

So, our 4 categories of analysis are:

Pedigree – Has the hitter been a former first round pick?
Class – Has the hitter showed some measure of steady success while moving up the ranks?
Trip – has the hitter experienced an injury or bad luck?
Speed – Has the hitter been producing respectable numbers?

For a handicapper it’s often easiest to start approaching a race by finding the losers rather than the winners. I often look at each horse entered in the race and try to find horses that are obviously overmatched. We?re going to apply that same procedure here.

As we are looking for breakout hitters we’re going to narrow down our scope to players between the ages of 24 and 28. This is the generally accepted age range of peak athletic performance.

"The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet."- Damon Runyon

Pedigree

The first Stage of our analysis begins with a process of deduction. Between 2005 and 2009 there were 79 hitters chosen as first round draft picks. Of those 79, I have deleted the 9 players who are in the top 40 hitters on the ESPN player rater (Braun, Upton, Tulowitski, Ellsbury, Longoria, McCutchen, Ry Zimmerman, Jay Bruce and Alex Gordon) because they have reached a status where it would be sa-ta-ooopid to call them breakouts.

The 70 remaining players were at one time determined by teams to have the potential to display elite production. They were the class of the draft, uuuh, class. The crop’s collective cream, so to speak.

Let’s move on.

Class

The next thing I do with the remaining horses is to see if anyone is making too big of a class jump? There?s a generally accepted rule that a double jump in class is too much for a racehorse to handle. High school basketball or football players are the easiest example to illustrate this point. Success for a player jumping from high school to college is difficult, but not impossible. As success jumping from the class of competition in college to the pros is not insurmountable. But a double jump from the level of competition in high school to the professional level is radically difficult, for any player. The same fact holds true for rookies in the big leagues. With exceptions, of course, rookies often take at least a year to adjust to the class of players at the major league level.

Keeping this fact in mind we then ask, how many of the remaining 70 hitters were on a major league roster last season for at least a half a season. (Or, put another way, how many players are in a position to make the leap this year?)

The answer: 35.

35 former first round draft picks are entering this year having adjusted to the class of competition they will face.

Speed

A horse that competes with an excelled level of competition does not necessarily stand out against such a level of competition. Remember, using speed figures as your only handicapping method will not produce consistent profits. However, if you use it as part of your overall handicapping strategy (mainly as a way to throw out some obvious non-contenders) it can help you narrow down the field in to profitable wagering targets.

Of the 35 former first round draft picks that have spent at least a half a season in the major leagues, 14 posted elite numbers against major league competition. These are the magic 14 players we?re looking for when identifying late round value in the draft.

Trip

More than any other handicapping method, trip handicapping requires dedication and plenty of time. A trip handicapper is looking for the information that may not show up in the past performances and he will use that to his advantage.

The same holds true for predicting major league performance and in my opinion this is the trickiest category to determine. This category must factor in luck and determination, specifically in the form of response to injuries, illnesses, insults, inner demon?s (ok, that’s a stretch) and red headed groupies named Irma (that?s not).

Of the 14 players who have been determined to have the tools to warrant a first round pick, have shown a steady improvement against steadily increasing competition, and have posted numbers indicating success relative to position at the major league level, we have the following team of players.

"Look not a gift horse in the mouth." – Unknown

Though they may not be household names, though they may not inspire the confidence of an early round pick, the following players have all the components necessary to make the leap into the next level of elite status at their respective positions, and be excellent late round targets in your fantasy drafts this season.

Ladies and genitalmen, The 2012 Animal Kingdom All Star Team:

Catcher – Matt Wieters, 25 years old, Baltimore Orioles

Few players have arrived with the hype that surrounded Matt Wieters two years ago upon his arrival to Showtime. Though he took a double jump in class in 2009:

Year Team G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS OBP SLG AVG
2008 A-Frederick 69 229 48 79 8 0 15 40 44 47 1 2 .448 .576 .345
2009 AAA-Norfolk 39 141 25 43 9 2 5 30 20 30 0 0 .387 .504 .305

His average and OBP remained in solid company. He has shown a steady measure of steady success while moving up the ranks thus far in his MLB career, finishing off his second half last year with 14 HR?s and a .259 average in 224 at bats. I project this to be the year is all clicks for Matt and he reaches elite catcher, and perhaps top 50 overall player status. .270 25/30-80-80 is looking like his floor coming into 2012.

First base – Eric Hosmer, age 22, Kansas City Royals

Hosmer’s first year in the bigs took the concept of steady production, spiked it with Viagra, and played it Barry White music until sunrise. He even massaged its feet!

After posting the following splits across 2 levels in 2010:

Year Team G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS OBP SLG AVG
2010 AA-Northwest Arkansas N 50 195 39 61 14 3 13 35 15 27 3 1 .365 .615 .313
2010 AFA-Wilmington Blue Rock 87 325 48 115 29 6 7 51 44 39 11 1 .429 .545 .354

Hosmer finished his rookie season with 19 homers, 11 base swipes, 78 RBIs, 66 runs scored and a .293 batting average. In a first year class jump!! If you can get Hosmer in a keeper league for anything in the top 40-60 overall pick range, get him. Barring injury, he’s a monster.

Ignoring sophomore slumpalitis, I have Hosmer down for 85/25/95/.280/10 slash line next year. That’s top 30 overall production at 23 years of age.

Second base – Jemile Weeks, age 25, Oakland Athletics

The 25-year-old Weeks showed a lot of promise during his rookie campaign in 2011 batting .303 for the season. Weeks hit .310 after the All-Star break (second best among AL second basemen) while stealing 22 bases (third most among AL second basemen) in 97 games.

He’s a solid manimal to target in the middle rounds next season. No power, ever, even when he was born, but a nice 40 steals, 80 runs possibility going forward, which would move him from a top 20 second baseman to the fringes of the top 10. I got him down for about 90/3/50/.295/35, which is tremendous value for his draft position.

Shortstop – Tyler Greene, age 28, St. Louis Cardinals

Here’s the reach of the bunch. Greene is here because, from a trip perspective, he has been blocked from an opportunity by Tony LaRussa’s insistence on going with others the past 2 years. He is also here because he shined with Triple-A Memphis last season and hit .323 with 14 homers and 35 extra-base hits.

A preseason favorite to win the starting job at second base (with SS eligibility in most leagues), he could prove to be a late bloomer. With impressive minor league power numbers, Greene’s ability to draw walks and steal bases has already translated to the majors during his limited time with the Cardinals. If he can deliver double-digit homer totals like he has in the minors, Greene will suddenly be in high demand in standard mixed leagues.

Third base – Brett Lawrie, age 22, Toronto Blue Jays

Third base this year is shallow as spit, so you had to have been hibernating to not have heard about Lawrie. After a 30 steal season in AA Huntsville, Lawrie made the dreaded double-jump to the majors on August 5th.

His reaction: 9 homers, 7 steals, a .293 average in 150 at bats.

Though I expect some growing pains over the course of the long season, such mastery of MLB pitching, at 22 years of age, with his pedigree, indicates a very bright future indeedy.

Outfield

Cameron Maybin, age 24, San Diego Padres

This year’s Alex Gordon, if Maybin still played for the Marlins I’d have him in my top 20 outfielders. He made huge steps forward in 2011, hitting .264 with 9 homers, 82 runs scored and 40 steals in 137 games – and would have been better if not slowed by injuries. In 2010 he showed power hitting 8 homers in 82 at bats.

This could be the year he brings it all together. Barring injury, 15-20 homers and 60 steals isn’t at all out of the question. At 24 years old, that’s a clear keeper with All Star upside.

Colby Rasmus, age 25, Toronto Blue Jays

I don’t like Rasmus. There I said it. And he’s going to be on a lot of my teams this year because of his implied value. In 2010 Rasmus was a 85-23-66-.276-12 youngster with the feet at his world. This year he’ll be drafted as the little engine that whined.

Check out these numbers:

Year Team G AB R H HR RBI BB SO SB CS OBP SLG AVG
2010 STL 144 464 85 128 23 66 63 148 12 8 .361 .498 .276
2011 STL-TOR 129 471 75 106 14 53 50 116 5 2 .298 .391 .225

With no injury to report, the only explanation for this fall from grace is that the wheels fell off his trolley with such force that they shot sideways at an amazing speed, made it past earth’s gravity, and are now in a revolving orbit of their own. (If you can imagine a man sitting in that universe now, looking at our universe and thinking the same thing as you are right now, you’re loopy!)

Regardless, there is no physical reason for Rasmus’s stats not to revert to the norm, which is top-25 outfielder production with upside.

John Mayberry, age 28, Philadelphia Phillies

From a trip perspective, Mayberry appears the kind of candidate who can pay great dividends for the late round price. A 2 time, former first round draft pick (2002, 28th overall by the Mariners, then in 2005, 19th overall by the Rangers) he’s been blocked by a trove (or Slew, depending on if your from Seattle) of quality OF’ers since he arrived in Philly in 2008.

In his first extended action last year, Mayberry put up 15 homers, with 49 RBIs, 37 runs scored, 8 steals and a .273 batting average in 267 at-bats.

What!!

15 homers and 8 steals in 267 at bats. That’s an impact player, Mr. Grinch! (Over the second half, when his playing time wasn’t in jeopardy, 10 homers, 3 steals, a .299 average with a repeatable .308 BABIP) As the starting left field job is his to lose going into spring training this year, grab him late and confidently plug in as a solid 3 outfielder with pounding upside.

As you see, identifying late round talent is no easy feat. Bad breaks, injuries and broken expectations litter the fantasy landscape. But, by applying a systematic method of deduction to the field of competitors it is possible to identify solid value amongst the rubble. By using handicapping theory, a major obstacle that separates the playoff bound team owners from the schmuck-a-ducks that contribute to the payout pool is solved – the identification of late round value.

Are there any other, under the radar talents you’ve identified in your preparation for this years draft? Do you agree in premise, or disagree in principle, with these observations?

I hope you’ve enjoyed the column, and gained a better understanding of the methods that handicappers use to identify a good priced talent in a wide field of possibilities.

Happy gambling folks.