Which guys are hitting their way out of potentially fantasy valuable positions?
Ah, two things I love: Our annual rankings summits -- hopefully you followed along with our fantasy football rankings summit on Tuesday -- and baseball trivia.
Combining the two is all the more fantastic.
Odd as it might seem to be talking baseball trivia on a day we rank fantasy football players, anything's fair game for discussion on this day. Here's a doozy of a statistic, shared by colleague Brendan Roberts: Joey Votto hasn't hit an infield popup since July 2009, per FanGraphs, and in the past two calendar years -- a span of 286 games played -- he has one infield popup. You read that right; Votto went the entire 2010 season without popping up a single time, and he has yet to hit one this season. (For the record, FanGraphs' definition of an "infield popup" is a fly ball caught within 140 feet of the plate; there could be any number of "shallow outfield" pop flies that Votto has hit in that time -- including one Tuesday.)
Toss in the fact that Votto's strikeout rate has dropped significantly this season -- his 13.7 percent rate ranks 50th out of 196 qualified hitters (down from 20.9 career) -- and it's clear that, four years into his big-league career, he has established himself as one of the game's premier offensive forces.
Not that you need us to remind you of that. After all, Votto does have .317/.407/.560 lifetime major league rates, and he was the No. 10 player off the board (10.0 ADP) in preseason drafts. He's a great hitter, no duh.
But back to Brendan's point; what makes Votto so great is his ability to avoid pointless outs: Strikeouts and harmless popups. As Brendan put it, "Those are automatic outs." That got me thinking; who are the players most susceptible to throwing away at-bats? The opposite group, I mean?
The list includes some notable fantasy names: (Balls-in-play stats per FanGraphs.)
Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh Pirates (34.3 percent K rate, 3 infield popups): He was a preseason breakout favorite -- and I was very much on that bandwagon -- yet has gotten off to a miserable start, primarily thanks to all the strikeouts. Alvarez's strikeout rate is sixth-worst among qualified hitters, only three times all season has he recorded a hit in back-to-back games and not once has he strung together even a three-game hitting streak. By contrast, Alvarez is riding a current seven-game strikeout streak and has had a K streak of five or more games on three occasions. Unfortunately, this is precisely the downside we warned you about, though fortunately, the Pirates are one of the few organizations capable of being patient with a potential franchise talent. Here's what bothers me: This -- approximately the 25-game point -- was the stage of his rookie 2010 at which he began to heat up at the plate, chipping in .270/.345/.490 rates and 53 RBIs despite a 32.0 percent K rate in his final 70 contests. This year, Alvarez has hit either a line drive or a (non-popup) fly ball 39.1 percent of the time. Last season, he did that 49.6 percent of the time. The point of giving up is rapidly nearing.
Adam Dunn, Chicago White Sox (39.8 percent K rate, 3 infield popups): His strikeout rate is worst in the majors, by a noticeable margin, and quite a bit higher than his 35.7 percent rate of 2010 or the 32.9 percent in his career. Feel free to forgive him the slow start somewhat after his appendectomy, as he's a .130/.250/.232 hitter who has struck out 43.5 percent of the time since, but Dunn is going to have to get comfortable in his new digs at some point or he'll wind up a cut candidate. Fortunately, there's a glimmer of hope with Dunn that hasn't been present with Alvarez: His line-drive/fly-ball rate is 62.0 percent, in line with 2010's 63.6, which suggests that the power is still there, but maybe his timing merely is not. If you can buy low on Dunn, you should.
TOP 125 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 125 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Austin Jackson, Detroit Tigers (35.0 percent K rate, 2 infield popups): Everything sabermetricians cited to warn you about Jackson's prospects of a sophomore slump has come to fruition. In addition to his pile of "automatic outs," his BABIP has dropped from .396 as a rookie to .293 as a sophomore, and his line-drive rate has slipped from 24.2 to 17.8 percent. He's speedy and that's about the best you can say in his defense in fantasy at this stage of his career. It's AL-only appeal at best, and it might not even be enough to keep him in the lineup.
Mike Stanton, Florida Marlins (32.9 percent K rate, 3 infield popups): Somehow, I'm not surprised he's on this list. Wow, Stanton whiffs a lot and gets under the ball too often? That's the name of his game; he had a 34.3 percent whiff rate and popped up 19 times in 100 games as a rookie. In exchange, Stanton has smoked line drives or meaningful flies 50.9 percent of the time this season, and that's up from 48.9 percent in 2010. I've said previously that I believe all the preseason time missed to injuries might have put him a bit behind the pack in terms of preparation, so I was willing to be patient. Sure enough, he has rewarded the patient with .294/.390/.627 rates in his past 14 games, and if you're to have any hope of investing in this elite talent, now is likely your last chance.
Gordon Beckham, White Sox (18.9 percent K rate, 10 infield popups): That infield popup number is most shocking; he had 16 apiece in each of his past two seasons. This year: 10! In addition, Beckham has fallen into all sorts of bad habits: His swing rate at nonstrikes has soared to 35.0 percent; his contact rate on all swings has dropped to 76.7 percent; and he has missed on 12.0 percent of his swings. As talented as he is, he's off to an even more disconcerting start than he was in 2010. It took Beckham until July to get his 2010 on track. Can you afford to wait that long, especially given that there's no guarantee when it might happen?
Carlos Lee, Houston Astros (9.9 percent K rate, 16 infield popups): He's not on this list for the strikeouts; he's on here for the absurd number of popups he has hit, easily the majors-leading total in the category. Like Beckham, Lee is off to as poor a start as he endured in 2010, and his ground-ball rate continues to rise, up to a career-high 40.0 percent so far. He's turning 35 on June 20, so the prospects of a rebound aren't necessarily as good as Beckham's. Lee has had a fine career, but he's on the clear downslope of his career, so set your high-end expectations at the .264/.314/.454 rates, 19 homers and 68 RBIs he had in 108 games from June 1 on last year, if not slightly beneath that.
Matt Joyce, Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays suggested that Joyce might be under consideration for their cleanup role once Evan Longoria returned from the disabled list, and that apparently is their plan. Sure enough, he has started each of the team's past five games against a right-handed starter in that spot. It makes sense, as he's a .270/.363/.525 lifetime hitter against righties and .382/.432/.588 this season, though his .156/.276/.219 rates against lefties assure that he might always suffer the life of a platoon mate. Platoon players are rarely attractive in fantasy, unless they're so strong against a particular side -- and from the left-handed side at that -- and are in a prominent enough role to rack up counting numbers. Joyce could wind up playing against every righty and hitting behind Sam Fuld (.355 career on-base percentage), Johnny Damon (.354) and Longoria (.360), so he could be a sneaky source of homers and RBIs if you pick your matchups right.
Adam Lind, Toronto Blue Jays: He was incredibly lucky in 2009 and equally unlucky last year, and the notion of splitting the difference and declaring it a realistic 2011 expectation seemed fair in the preseason. But Lind has made huge, noteworthy strides in one area so far, and it increases the hopes of his returning to 2009 form: He's a .355/.364/.548 hitter against lefties, substantially improved from his dreadful .117/.159/.182 numbers of 2010. He's also 13-for-28 (.464 average) with four homers and 11 RBIs in his past seven games, which helps erase the memory of his poor start to the year but also cements his status as a streaky player.
Alfonso Soriano, Chicago Cubs: He's the National League's leading home run hitter (11) and is already nearly halfway to his 2010 total of 24. Soriano's plate discipline has been shaky, as his walk rate is a career-worst 2.8 percent and he has swung at a whopping 48.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, and his 28.2 home run/fly-ball percentage shows that he has been incredibly lucky in that department. In other words, he'll cool off, but it's nevertheless a good sign for a 35-year-old who hadn't shaped up as one of the more durable players of the past few years. Enjoy the ride if you've got him.
Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals: We warned you that Espinosa would be a streaky player. After getting off to a scorching .292/.383/.563 start in his first 16 games, he has slumped to .146/.226/.146 rates in 13 contests since. It's his strikeout rate; he has whiffed 25.0 percent of the time, not to mention has nine infield popups. Espinosa was a player with sleeper potential thanks to his 20/20 ability, but batting average should be a persistent problem and if you have the luxury of sitting him through his cold spells, you should. Most disturbing: He has a mere 11.1 percent line-drive rate after only 8.3 in 28 games last season.
Raul Ibanez, Philadelphia Phillies: He wasn't far off inclusion on the strikeouts/popups list, as he has a 28.4 percent whiff rate and has popped up twice already. Ibanez also isn't driving the ball -- he has a 14.7 percent line-drive and 52.9 percent ground-ball rate -- which is a problem for a Citizens Bank Park hitter. There's already talk of Ibanez slipping into a straight platoon, perhaps a smart strategy for a 38-year-old who has had an OPS below .700 against lefties in five of the past 10 seasons and has .174/.269/.391 rates against them this year, but unlike the aforementioned Joyce, Ibanez isn't quite lethal enough against righties to be a helpful fantasy asset in shallow leagues in that role.
Justin Morneau, Minnesota Twins: His return from a concussion this season might have gone smoothly thus far from a game-play angle, but from a pure run-production aspect, he has been nothing but disappointing. To date, he has yet to string together a three-game hitting streak, and his isolated power is .108, or less than half his career number (.223). That's particularly troubling considering Morneau's early-season history; he's a .285/.362/.507 lifetime hitter in April and .302/.373/.544 before the All-Star break. Obviously, he should get better than this, but he was still overdrafted in the preseason.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.