It's the middle of May, we're nearly a quarter of the way through the 2011 season, and baseball is still ripe with surprise players performing well above their true talent level. In fantasy baseball, these players can make or break league standings. It's never smart to jump on every waiver wire player batting .400 in April, but it isn't always smart to completely disregard surprising starts either.
A good fantasy baseball owner knows what to look for in these batters to find out if they're for real. We'll take a look at ten of this year's biggest overachievers, and decide whether they're championship material or just the key piece in your next big trade.
Lance Berkman's career counting stats don't really scream Hall of Fame potential, most likely because he didn't play more than 120 Major League games in a season until age 25, but his rate stats tell a different story. The career .297/.410/.549 hitter has proven over the past decade to be one of the league's best bats.
However, 2010 saw The Big Puma change organizations, appear in only 122 games, and post a career-low .345 wOBA. He certainly wasn't terrible, but he was 34-years-old and appeared to be on the decline.
Coming into the season, I wasn't sure how Berkman would fit into the St. Louis lineup, but I did figure he'd benefit from a move back to the National League. Even so, it seemed like his days of 6-plus WAR seasons were over.
Wrong. Berkman is currently leading the National League with a whopping .486 wOBA. He certainly won't sustain this kind of performance, but the drop off shouldn't be all that significant. His .353 BABIP will fall a bit, but he's maintained a .318 average on balls in play for his career.
His ISO will certainly take a dive and I expect his strikeout rates to slowly creep up towards his lifetime marks, but Berkman certainly has the talent to continue hitting at a very good level. ZiPS predicts a .301/.406/.546 finish, and I think it's reasonable to expect 25-30 home runs.
In the past two seasons, he played in only 136 and 122 games, respectively. Because of this, health could be a concern. However, as long as he's in the lineup, hold on to him. Berkman will experience a downward trend in his stat line as the season goes on, but he should continue performing at a level that deserves a spot in your outfield.
Confession: I'm a bit of a Zobrist fanboy.
2010 was a down year for Zobrist, but he proved in 2008 and 2009 that he could slug at an elite level for middle infielders. A few weeks ago, his stat line was bogged down a bit by an anomalously high strikeout rate and a low BABIP, but those have stabilized a bit and he's now hitting .282/.349/.565.
I could see his average dip down to around .260 but, as his walk rate continues to trend toward his career average, his OBP should remain about the same.
The deceiving parts of Zobrist's performance this year are his home run and RBI totals. He's currently on pace to hit 36 home runs and drive in 122 runs. Chances are he'll come up short in both categories. While I mentioned that he has exceptional power for a middle infielder, I don't expect him to maintain a .282 ISO. From April 23-28, Zobrist went on a power tirade, hitting four homers and driving in 18 runs. He's yet to tally a home run or a RBI since.
Still, he's a very good player with a solid track record. It's reasonable to expect 20-25 home runs and 20 steals. That, along with his multi-position eligibility, make Zobrist worth holding onto in any league.
Oh, Jeff Francoeur.
It's become a bit of a joke in the stats-minded community that Frenchy will go on an annual streak to incite hope among his weirdly persistent fan base. He almost never fails to disappoint, and this year is no different. The former future of Atlanta's franchise and Sports Illustrated cover boy has made a career of posting sub-.300 wOBA seasons, yet this year he's stroking to the tune of .308/.349/.579.
Just one of several Royals currently playing like they're ten feet tall, Francoeur will almost certainly come back to reality. His walk and strikeout rates are virtually the same as they were last year, and his .317 BABIP isn't too much higher than his career .299 mark.
So what implies he'll take yet another tumble into the world of below-average corner outfielders? His .271 ISO.
When Frenchy was still young and deceivingly promising, the redemptive part of his offensive game was his power. He hit a career-high 29 home runs in 2006, but even then his ISO failed to reach the .200 mark. He's clearing the bases with 20.5 percent of his fly balls. He hasn't topped ten percent since '06. With a career isolated slugging average of .162, Francoeur just can't sustain this kind of power.
My advice is to stay as far away from him as you can. You don't want to experience any collateral damage when he comes crashing back down to Earth. If you're one of the fantasy owners who have been riding his wave of production (84 percent in Yahoo! leagues), unload him for something while you still can. He strangely has enough cult-like fan support that you may be able to get quite a return.
As a prospect, Howie Kendrick was someone who didn't walk nearly enough, but he didn't have to because he could hit .350 with ease. In 312 AAA plate appearances in 2006, Kendrick hit .369/.408/.631. He didn't have elite power, but he had enough pop and could hit line drives all day.
The problem with Kendrick, as with many minor leaguers riding hype based on batting average, was his BABIP at the minor league level. Kendrick hit .369 in AAA, but he also reached base on over 40 percent of the balls he put in play. Since moving to the Majors, where top-notch defenders are making plays on pristine field conditions, Kendrick hasn't found the same success.
His career BABIP in the Majors is .342—very respectable, but nowhere near .400. His lifetime .297/.331/.433 stat line isn't a terrible disappointment, but he has failed to deliver on the three to four win seasons he once projected.
This year, he's making a little better on his promising talent. A .396 BABIP is slightly inflating his .322 average, but he sustained similar rates over 353 plate appearances in 2007. Given his track record, it's not crazy to think Kendrick could slightly outperform his career success on batted balls.
However, he most likely won't sustain his .208 ISO. Kendrick has six home runs right now, but ZiPS only projects ten more for the remainder of the season. That would still leave him outpacing his career .136 ISO, but at a more reasonable rate. Like Francoeur, Howie is leaving the yard with more than 20 percent of his fly balls. He's only exceeded 10 percent once in his career.
That said, it's not unreasonable to expect Kendrick to maintain his batting average. Just don't expect him to continue to turn one of every five fly balls into a home run. Because of his good contact numbers and the potential to steal 15 bases at a fairly shallow position, Kendrick is worth holding onto unless you can find an owner in your league ready to buy into his power numbers.
Not too many people are buying into Melky but, for some reason, he's Yahoo!'s 48th ranked player and he's owned in nearly half of their leagues.
Cabrera isn't doing anything spectacular this year. He got off to a very hot start, but has considerably cooled down. His current .282/.303/.456 line isn't going to inspire any All-Star votes, but it's still much better than it should be. Cabrera has four home runs and a .174 ISO. He's only hitting home runs on nine percent of his fly balls, but that's still nearly double his career rate. Not only that, but he's also sporting the highest BABIP of his career.
Despite being very mediocre at this point, he's still performing better than he should. An obvious candidate for regression, it's likely that he'll finish somewhere around .270/.300/.400 with 10-12 home runs. Couple that with maybe ten steals as an outfielder, and you have someone who belongs on every waiver wire.
He's only owned in half of all fantasy leagues, and I hope nobody is stupid enough to trade for him. However, if you're one of those people who have been milking him for what little he's worth, it's time to start looking elsewhere for your production.
Gaby Sanchez played his first full Major League season last year at age 26. While he posted somewhat decent Minor League numbers between 2007 and 2010, they never implied that he would knock out a .415 wOBA in his second Major League season.
Sanchez is playing a bit over his head. As someone who has never had great success reaching base on batted balls, his .349 BABIP tells us to expect his .331 batting average to fall. His power numbers are probably a little higher than they should be, but not by much. His ISO rate of .204 and HR/FB rate of 13.3 percent seem fairly sustainable.
ZiPS projects Sanchez to finish the season at .293/.367/.467. It's easy to see him hitting 20 or more home runs, and he's more than capable to steal a few bases. This all makes him a very favorable fantasy player.
The problem with Sanchez is that he plays first base. According to Yahoo!, he's the 29th most valuable player this season, but he ranks eleventh among players with eligibility at first base. With the likes of Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira, and Kevin Youkilis ranked behind him, he's probably correctly cast somewhere between 10 and 12.
This ranking puts Sanchez just on the fringe of first basemen worth holding onto. If you're carrying him on your bench or in a utility spot, or playing in a league where someone loaded up on first basemen, he's worth keeping. If you've got him sitting behind better first base depth, he should be a decent trade piece.
Placido Polanco and his .353 batting average are currently owned in 90 percent of Yahoo! leagues. I recently heard Bobby Valentine call him possibly the best hitter in the game, and insist that he's capable of hitting .330 every year.
The problem with that statement is that, quite frankly, Polanco is nowhere near the best hitter in the game and he's topped a .330 batting average only twice.
Kind of like Kendrick, Polanco is a player who deserves ownership in most leagues, but he won't continue to produce at this rate. Analysis on Polanco is pretty simple—his average will fall as his .353 BABIP regresses to a normal rate. Everything else you see is what you get.
He isn't going to hit for power or steal bases, but he isn't fooling anyone into thinking he will. Right now, his value is inflated purely because of his batting average. His career mark is .304, and his career BABIP is .313. His current numbers will decline, but it seems fair to suggest he could hit over .300 for the year.
However, as mentioned before, that's all he'll do. He has eligibility at second and third base, which helps his value. If you can field a decent return from anyone desperate for batting average help, do it. Otherwise, he makes a nice bench player or a starter in deeper mixed leagues.
Adam Lind is putting together an excellent season and, as a result, he's currently owned in 91 percent of Yahoo! leagues.
As a pretty big prospect, Lind showcased excellent power potential and made good on it when he hit 35 home runs for the Blue Jays in 2009. Last season, he hit only .237 and his home run total fell to 23. He's now sporting a .203 ISO and seven home runs, and there's nothing that says he shouldn't be able to continue that performance. A victim of poor BABIP last year, his current .313 batting average is probably closer to his true talent level than his 2010 clip.
He doesn't walk much so, if you're in a league that counts walks, OBP, or OPS, he'll need to maintain a high batting average to retain his value. Otherwise, it seems reasonable for him to continue hitting at this pace.
Lind recently started dealing with some back issues that have kept him out of the lineup. Keep an eye on that situation. Otherwise, there's no reason for him to be to be on the waiver wire. Along with Ike Davis (owned in only 82 percent of Yahoo! leagues), Lind stands out as the best way to immediately improve your offense if he's available.
I feel bad for Alex Gordon.
A top prospect from the moment he was drafted, Gordon has smashed minor league pitching but failed to produce at the Major League level.
When discussing Howie Kendrick, I mentioned that minor leaguers are often overhyped due to the inflated BABIP numbers in baseball's lower ranks. Gordon fits this bill perfectly. When he mashed AA pitching in 2006, he carried with him a .373 BABIP. Performing well in 68 AAA games last year, that number was .391. However, his career mark in the Majors is .300.
That doesn't explain everything with Gordon. He's also shown elite power in the minors, but his career ISO mark as a Major Leaguer is only .174. For whatever reason, Gordon has shown a pattern of not being able to translate minor league success to baseball's top circuit.
This year, however, Gordon has shown some great improvement. Once again, he's dependent on a .351 BABIP. Although that number will most likely drop, he's progressed in other areas of his game that may help him sustain some of his value. As pointed out by FanGraphs' Joe Pawlikowski, we've reached the point where swing rates begin to stabilize, and it appears Gordon has become quite a bit more selective.
If he's swinging less, and in doing so hitting better pitches, it's fair to assume some of Gordon's new-found success may stick even as his luck dries up.
He looks like a player who could potentially hit in the .280 range with 15-20 home runs and possibly double digit steals. He also provides multi-position eligibility. Owned in 87 percent of Yahoo! leagues, he's probably not worth dealing for. However, if he's available on your waiver wire, it's worth it to give him a shot.
I know. Curtis Granderson is only 30-years-old and he's only two years removed from a 30/20 season.
Still, he came into this season ranked 105th in Yahoo! leagues. Now, he ranks as the tenth most valuable player in fantasy baseball.
Granderson wasn't too great last year. He posted an OPS under .800 and only stole twelve bases. Coming into this year, he wasn't viewed by anyone as a top-tier outfielder. Still, he's managed to be very successful. Granderson currently leads the league with twelve home runs.
The power is obviously there, and he has the track record to support it. He won't sustain a .350 ISO (he's on pace to hit 57 home runs) but his career mark is .218 and there's no reason to believe he won't finish the season around there.
He's only stolen two bases thus far, but he's still a good candidate to end up with double digit steals. His .274 average is much closer to his career mark than the .247 he posted last year, and his BABIP and contact rates suggest he should be able to maintain that number. Also, hitting in the Yankees lineup provides him with an excellent opportunity to score and drive in runs.
Granderson is a pretty good player on a very good team who just happened to fall a bit off the radar due to a poor performance last season. He's still available in six percent of Yahoo! leagues. Outfield is a deep position but, if he's available in your league, snatch him up. It looks like he's back to producing like an outfielder worth owning.