Fantasy Baseball: Most Sustainable First-Half Breakout Performances

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistJuly 17, 2014

Fantasy Baseball: Most Sustainable First-Half Breakout Performances

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    A popular preseason sleeper pick, Corey Kluber has emerged as a fantasy baseball ace.
    A popular preseason sleeper pick, Corey Kluber has emerged as a fantasy baseball ace.Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Questioning everything comes with the territory for successful fantasy baseball players. Just because things are going well today doesn’t mean it will stay that way tomorrow, so managers are constantly waiting for the bottom to fall out on their prized possessions.

    That skepticism often yields rational decision-making that pays off in the long run. Anyone owning Nelson Cruz or Mark Buehrle are wise to test the market while it’s hot and attempt to sell high. Such thinking, however, has become so mainstream that gamers always look to cash out, occasionally relinquishing a true breakout star.

    Anybody set on pawning off these six first-half studs is making a mistake. Every player has his price, and a wise fantasy GM will cater to his or her squad’s specific needs down the stretch, so this isn’t to advocate placing a giant “not for sale” sign on these guys.

    Just don’t push the issue in fear of a major second-half decline. These guys have taken significant strides upward that should last going forward. A couple are budding young stars beginning to realize their potential. Others have changed their approach and were rewarded with tangible results.

    A promoted role catalyzed one breakout. A change of scenery will continue to spark another, and the fantasy numbers have caught up to the sabermetrics suggesting stardom throughout less promising production on the surface.

    These players were not often early-round selections entering the 2014 campaign, but expect them to fly up the draft boards next year once they pick up where they left off during the season’s closing months.


    Note: Advanced statistics are courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

Brandon Moss, 1B/OF, Oakland Athletics

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    Dating back to 2013, only five hitters have hit more home runs than Brandon Moss.
    Dating back to 2013, only five hitters have hit more home runs than Brandon Moss.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: .268/.349/.530, 21 HR, 66 RBI, 45 R, 1 SB

    One of 14 batters to crank out at least 30 home runs last year, Brandon Moss was nobody to sneeze at heading into the 2014 season. A slugger must typically torpedo a manager’s batting average to not elicit mass attention with so many round-trippers, but Moss brandished a manageable .256 mark.

    Yet worries existed about that average raining south due to his 27.7 strikeout percentage and .200 clip against southpaws. Both presented legitimate concerns, especially his incompetence against lefties costing him playing time. Instead of getting exposed, however, Moss has morphed into a legit power hitter by improving both these weaknesses.

    He has slashed a few points off his strikeout percentage, decreasing his rate to 23.6 percent. In his third year with the Oakland Athletics, the 30-year-old is on track to mend that troubling metric for the second straight time.

    As for succumbing to southpaws, Moss is hitting .267/.353/.450 against them in 68 plate appearances this season. A small sample size and fortuitous .371 BABIP have overemphasized those numbers, but he is holding his own enough to stay in the lineup.

    His average on balls in play against lefties shouldn’t send anybody running for the hills, as his overall .301 BABIP is identical to last year’s level and just a few notches below his career .304 mark. The lower number of strikeouts and enhanced contact have led to a .268 average, which makes him a stellar option at first base or outfield when combined with 21 homers and 66 RBI in the middle of a superb Oakland batting order.

    That puts him on pace to exceed last season’s 30 deep flies, and it’s reasonable to count on him doing so. His 18.8 HR/FB rate is even to last year, so the same proportion of his fly balls are clearing the fences. This upgraded version of Moss can realistically push for 35 homers with a decent average, which makes him one of the game’s best unheralded power sources.

Corey Kluber, SP, Cleveland Indians

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    Kluber should be treated as a top-20 fantasy starter going forward.
    Kluber should be treated as a top-20 fantasy starter going forward.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: 131.2 IP, 9-6, 3.01 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 142 K, 32 BB

    I hate to say I told you so, but...

    A personal fantasy baseball man crush of mine, Corey Kluber’s 4.12 K/BB ratio and 3.30 FIP made him a 2013 sabermetric darling despite his unassuming 3.85 ERA. The discrepancy gave savvy drafters a chance to pounce on a terrific value, as the Cleveland Indians pitcher posed ace potential if the ERA ever caught up to everything else.

    It has. Kluber is now harnessing a 3.01 ERA, and there’s no reason to scream fluke considering his 2.79 FIP. Seeing him left out of the All-Star Game was a true shame, but the 28-year-old will have to settle for receiving praise from avid fantasy gamers.

    The biggest question is whether Kluber can sustain his 9.71 K/9 rate, a measure topped by only five qualified starting pitchers. His swinging strike percentage rose half a percentage, climbing from 10.4 to 10.9. Opponents aren't whiffing significantly more, so it’s fair to surmise that he might struggle to punch out more than a batter per inning.

    Even so, we’re not talking a vast plunge down from relevance. Instead, maybe he notches a 8.75 K/9 rate going forward, which still makes him a darn good hurler complementing his steady command. He pitches too much to contact to generate a masterful WHIP, but Kluber is elite everywhere else.

Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds

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    As expected, Billy Hamilton has brought an influx of speed to the table.
    As expected, Billy Hamilton has brought an influx of speed to the table.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: .285/.319/.423, 5 HR, 38 RBI, 47 R, 38 SB

    Billy Hamilton befuddled drafters as the biggest preseason riddle. Would his game-changing speed offset his other limitations, or would those liabilities hamstring the gains made in his specialty?

    Past precedent usually exists for everyone, but few players possess Hamilton’s pedigree. A 27-year-old slugger saddled with the dubious Quadruple-A label has Chris Davis and Nelson Cruz considered as success stories as well as Wily Mo Pena and other less flattering tales on the other side. Hamilton, who swiped 165 bases dispersed through three different minor league clubs in 2012, is a much rarer breed.

    Those who took the plunge on him cringed through some offensive struggles, but he has found his rhythm in the batter’s box. Since June 1, the 23-year-old is hitting .321 with 20 extra-base hits, including four home runs. Although he has never produced double-digit homers in a single season, offering just a few deep balls could put him on par with Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury at their best.

    He’ll resume play on Friday with a .285/.319/.423 slash line, a sandwich of good news with stale meat in the middle. Considering some skeptics thought he could hit .225 and receive a one-way ticket to Triple-A, his early average is a major victory. For a speedster, that slugging percentage is better than anything we could have anticipated.

    If he can earn a few more base-stealing opportunities by walking, look out. Despite his 4.7 walk percentage, there are some positive signs for his plate discipline, including a depreciated swing percentage (44.5 percent) and swinging strike percentage (7.3 percent) that show more patience.

    Even with his low on-base percentage, he has 38 stolen bases to his credit. Dee Gordon and Jose Altuve surprisingly have him beat, but Hamilton is still on pace to finish with 68 swipes. Nobody is doubting the speed, but the true breakout spawns from him accumulating enough value in the other four traditional categories.

Sean Doolittle, RP, Oakland Athletics

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    Sean Doolittle has compiled 63 strikeouts and two walks in his first go-around as a closer.
    Sean Doolittle has compiled 63 strikeouts and two walks in his first go-around as a closer.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: 43.2 IP, 14 SV, 2.89 ERA, 0.66 WHIP, 63 K, 2 BB

    Why are people always so surprised when premier setup men succeed as closers?

    For some odd reason, Billy Beane engineered the least Moneyball move of all time last offseason by acquiring Jim Johnson, a highly paid “proven closer” whose value derived from gaudy save totals, all the while hiding unflattering strikeout numbers from a reliever.

    After fluttering terribly in his new domain, Johnson was expelled from the final frame, creating a vacancy quickly filled by Oakland’s true relief ace: Sean Doolittle. What do know? It turns out a guy who gets batters out in the eighth inning doesn’t get confused and forget how to throw a baseball when tasked with the same assignment later in the game.

    Doolittle has flourished in the ninth inning, enjoying the best season of his three-year career. Not only has he maintained his typical efficiency, but he’s flown past it to become one of baseball’s best relievers. The 27-year-old has posted a 2.89 ERA, which doesn’t come close to illustrating his true dominance.

    Through 43.2 innings, the 27-year-old has walked two batters. Two. While that precision is impossible for anyone to keep up, he’s always brandished terrific control with a 1.46 career BB/9 rate.

    All the while, he has collected 63 punch-outs, already a career high. That gives him an unfathomable 31.5 K/BB rate, more than triple the second-best mark, Joakim Soria’s 10.0.

    Much of his success stems from a heavier reliance on a wicked slider, which opponents have hit .053 against, per Brooks Baseball. That nasty breaking ball has made Doolittle the next in a long line of middle relievers who transitioned to the mystical closing gig without a hitch, and he should be treated as a top-10 stopper going forward.

Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago Cubs

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    Anthony Rizzo has amended a lackluster 2013 with a sensational start to 2014.
    Anthony Rizzo has amended a lackluster 2013 with a sensational start to 2014.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: .275/.381/.499, 20 HR, 49 RBI, 62 R, 2 SB

    Anthony Rizzo’s first-half breakout does not come as much of a surprise to onlookers who caught an impressive glimpse of the first baseman during his 2012 campaign. The fact that it didn’t happen last season is the more unexpected development.

    After hitting .285/.342/.463 with 15 homers in his first season with the Chicago Cubs, his slash line plummeted to .233/.323/.419 in 2013. Those struggles did not deter most drafters from standing by Rizzo, believing his .258 BABIP founded those woes.

    Good call. With his BABIP expanded to .298, the 24-year-old is now batting .275 with an 18.4 strikeout percentage identical to his 2013 output. His line-drive rate, which faltered to 19.6 percent last season after a stellar 24.4 percent mark two years ago, has risen back up to 22.5 percent.

    Chasing batting average is never a smart endeavor, but his breakout stems further from the one rudimentary stat. He is registering a career-high .499 slugging percentage and will soon set a new personal best in home runs with 20 entering the break.

    Power has always been Rizzo’s calling card, even after his brief stint with the San Diego Padres curtailed his monstrous bat. It’s reasonable for such a young player to have made legitimate strides in his second full season, giving credence to his lasting power as a 30-homer slugger going forward with a keen batting eye.

    Now that Rizzo is proving not to be a liability in the average department, expect him to endure as an early-round mainstay for years to come.

Jeff Samardzija, SP, Oakland Athletics

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    Jeff Samardzija should receive much more run support with the Oakland Athletics.
    Jeff Samardzija should receive much more run support with the Oakland Athletics.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: 123 IP, 3-8, 2.78 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 113 K, 32 BB

    If only baseball could escape the nonsensical tyranny of gauging pitchers by individual wins, Jeff Samardzija would get his deserved recognition as a true ace.

    He has always teased managers with gaudy strikeout numbers, but his run prevention has never followed suit. Those abiding by the traditional benchmarks will wonder why an impending free agent with a career 32-42 record and 3.94 ERA justifies such a fuss. Gosh darn it, he hasn’t netted double-digit victories once in his career!

    Unfortunately for him, the Chicago Cubs are terrible offensively. Before Samardzija took the mound on May 26, he held a 1.46 ERA through 10 starts without one stinking victory to show for it. Through those outings, the Cubs scored just 20 runs, and he eventually left the Windy City for Oakland with two wins and a 2.83 ERA.

    Since we’re all too smart to judge a book by its cover and a pitcher by an antiquated stat that factors offense, defense and relief pitching—therefore rendering it a useless individualistic measure of evaluation for a starter—let’s judge the stuff that matters. Although the thing that endeared Samardzija to us in the first place, strikeouts, have not been as plentiful this season, the righty is actually a better pitcher for it.

    In exchange for some strikeouts, he has issued less walks, posting a career-best 2.34 BB/9 ratio. Despite the declining 8.27 K/9 rate, his 16.1 strikeouts-minus-walks percentage is still a step up from last year’s clip.

    Targeting contact has also led him to generate more ground balls, as seen by his career-high 52.3 ground-ball rate. Less walks and weaker contact has his ERA and WHIP finally cooperating with everything else. Considering just 18 pitchers entered the break with more strikeouts than Samardzija, it’s a trade-off fantasy owners should gladly accept.

    As for those elusive wins, he now plays for the A’s, who rank second in runs scored behind the Los Angeles Angels. Problem solved. Probably. Travis Wood amassed seven victories for the same feeble Cubs offense despite his wretched 4.96 ERA. Why are we still using wins as a category again?


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