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2012 Fantasy Baseball Projections: Matt Kemp or Ryan Braun?

Wed, Nov 23, 2011

Player Projections

Milwaukee Brewers’ left fielder Ryan Braun was awarded the National League’s Most Valuable Player award on Tuesday, in what has to be considered a mini upset over Los Angeles Dodgers’ center fielder Matt Kemp.

While Braun hit 33 HRs, stole 33 bases and finished second in the N.L. with a .332 batting average, Kemp batted .324 and came up one dinger shy of the 40/40 threshold, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Alfonso Soriano went 46/41 in 2006.

While a worthy case for MVP could be made for both players — such as the ones made here and here — we’re here to determine something even more important: Which player will have more fantasy value in 2012?

This is Braun’s three-year stat chart, via FanGraphs:

…and now Kemp’s:

A few things stick out here. First, Kemp’s spike in power, from 26 and 28 HRs in 2009 and 2010, to 39 last season. Prior to 2011, his career HR/FB ratio was 14.3. In 2011, he posted a dinger rate of 21.4, good for sixth best in the majors. We can’t completely write this off as a fluke, as Kemp played most of the season as a 26-year-old, so he’s just now reaching his statistical prime.

Despite this, it’s probably unreasonable to expect another near-40 HR season. According to HitTracker, 31 percent of Kemps home runs qualified as “just enough,” a number slightly above the major league average of 27 percent. In easy to understand terms, he got more than his share of cheap homers.

Bill James is projecting 31 home runs for Kemp in 2012, and I’d say that’s about right.

Braun, meanwhile, sports a three-year average of 30 home runs, well within reach of his 2011 total of 33. Unlike Kemp, Braun’s 2011 HR/FB rate was a reasonable 18.8 percent in comparison to his career mark of 17.9.

Bill James has the recently-turned 28-year-old Braun down for 35 jacks in 2012. I’d say that’s probably his ceiling; 30-35 is about right.

Another stat that sticks out in comparing Braun and Kemp is strikeout rate. Braun’s three-year average is just under 16 percent, while Kemp punches out in more than 23 percent of his at-bats. These numbers are directly related to contact rate and swinging strike rate, two categories that favor Braun heavily.

Note: MLB average for contact rate is generally between 80-81 percent, while the average for swinging strike rate is around 8.5 percent.

So, to recap: Kemp is a below-average contact hitter who whiffs way too much. Braun, on the other hand, is an above-average contact hitter who swings and misses an average amount of times.

This brings me to my next point: batting average.

Kemp was a career .285 hitter prior to posting a .324 average in 2011. His high batting clip doesn’t appear to be sustainable, given his .380 BABIP last season. Though his career average on balls in play is a whopping .351, his 2011 luck is unlikely to repeat. A batting average in the .290-.3o0 range is more realistic for Kemp in 2012.

Braun has hit no less than .304 in four of his five major league seasons, and topped out at .337 in 2011. Like Kemp, Braun also sports a well above-average BABIP, checking in at .339 for his career. His 2011 clip was .350, a number he topped in 2007 and 2009. Would I be surprised to see him bat .320+ again in 2012? Not at all.

To summarize so far: advantage Braun in power and average. Now to speed:

Kemp has stolen at least 34 bases in three of the last four seasons. That’s darn-near elite. He’s an efficient base-stealer, too, posting success rates of 76.0, 80.1 and 78.4 in those three years.

Braun’s 33-steal season seemingly came out of nowhere (his previous career high was 20), but he’s become even more efficient on the basepaths than Kemp. Over the last three seasons, Braun has successfully stolen bases at  rates of 76.9, 82.3 and 84.6 percent.

Despite these eye-popping stolen base totals from these 30-HR hitters, I expect both Kemp and Braun to run much less in 2012. As these sluggers approach the age of 30, their wheels will slow. Kemp is clearly the bigger threat to steal, and that trend should continue. Expect no more than 30 steals from Kemp in 2012, however, while Braun should finish in the 18-24 range.

All told, the choice seems simple. Braun makes better contact, whiffs less and therefore produces a consistently high average. He also provides a slight edge in legitimate pop. Kemp certainly won’t hurt your batting average, but expect it to drop about 30 points next season, a la Carlos Gonzalez. Kemp edges Braun out in terms of steals, but don’t expect Kemp to top — or even match — his 2011 total ever again.

Bottom line is this: When contemplating your first-round pick, you want a consistency. You want to know what you’re getting. There aren’t many surprises with Braun — other than pleasant ones. Kemp’s out-of-this-world 2011 campaign, however, is likely to inflate in 2012 draft stock. Will he be a top-10 performer next season? Maybe. But will he out-produce Braun? I seriously doubt it.

Image courtesy of: Steve Paluch

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