Fantasy Baseball: Can You Trust Anything About Francisco Cervelli's Hot Start?

By Nick Tom
Debby Wong-USA Today Sports

Despite their apparent abandonment of plans, the New York Yankees were, at one point, cutting costs to duck under the $189 million salary line and avoid a gigantic luxury tax payment. They let Nick Swisher sign with the Cleveland Indians and Rafael Soriano sign with the Washington Nationals and replaced them with old rubbish like Travis Hafner and Vernon Wells. It also resulted in Russell Martin’s departure and the ultimate instatement of Francisco Cervelli as the starting catcher.

When you have a tenuous, ever-changing staff like the Yankees do, sometimes it’s best to have a ‘catcher’s catcher’ behind the plate to call pitches, keep hurlers composed, and pick up on the patterns of opposing hitters rather than some goon masher who can’t block a pitch. Ultimately, though, you’d like to have both — oddly, Cervelli has kind of been that this season.

Cervelli was never considered a hitter. His career batting average is .271, he has eight career homers, 22 career doubles, and owns a .367 career slugging percentage. To his credit, his lifetime .344 OBP is relatively decent.

2013 has come as a surprise to Yankees fans, many of which expected a down year. If you’ve watched Cervelli at all you’ll notice an increase in power. Of his eight career yard-monsters, three have come this year — almost half the total in 10% of his career PAs — as his slugging sits at a steady .500. Though he’s never been a fantasy impact, or even close to one, the Yankees decent lineup that will only get better begs the question: can Cervelli keep it up? Should you give him a look? Is this real?

After having zero pop when he came up to the MLB in 2008, Cervelli posted an 8.5% HR/FB rate in 2011. He hit four homers in 43 games and 137 PAs. Skip 2012, where he saw two PAs, and now he has an 11.1% HR/FB. It’s not great but, eh, it’s not bad. He’s currently on pace for 30 homers, though, so you know this won’t keep. I’d forecast another six or seven along the way.

(FYI: ESPN’s Home Run Tracker has two of Cervelli’s HRs as solid homers, while one is considered ‘just enough’. Take what you want from that information.)

Though the home run rate won’t last, that doesn’t mean that Cervelli hasn’t improved his pop. He’s hitting more line-drives, is hitting more balls in the air and has the highest XBH% of his career. You should expect more doubles and gap power, which, considering manager Joe Girardi has him hitting in the 5-7 range in Yankee Stadium, could produce a steady flow of RBI.

The major bane to Cervelli’s fantasy production is Chris Stewart, fellow backstop, who is currently biting about 25% of the total plate appearances by Yankees catchers. Stewart sees a lot more playing time than your normal back-up player, even for a catcher, and he’ll ultimately cap Cervelli’s counting-stat potential. He’s also batting .333 in an extremely small sample of 21 at-bats, and though that won’t last, it doesn’t mean Girardi won’t continue to give him consistent at-bats until it stops.

Also, as you’re probably already thinking, Cervelli’s sample size is small, too. It’s only 61 PAs, which is 20% of what Fan Graphs’ Russell Carleton considers the PAs necessary until stats “stabilize”.

Small samples, small samples, small samples. Yet, hot streaks occur in small bunches.

Grabbing Cervelli in an AL-only or two-catcher league is smart for the near future; he’s hitting well in a decent position in a decent batting order. But once the rest of the Yankees come back and he’s sent down to the nine-hole, or he slows down (which he will), or Stewart somehow continues to hit, or his inclusion in the Biogenesis ledger leads to his suspension, just send him back to the wire.

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