Commentary

Santana, Morse pick up the pace

Some slow-starting hitters finally starting to live up to lofty expectations

Updated: June 22, 2011, 12:20 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

It's easy to forget this today, but eight short weeks ago (and in a few instances even more recently), fantasy owners were in an all-out panic about a few slow-starting players. While we constantly stress on these pages that you should be patient with your most significant draft-day investments, time and time again, people tend to get impatient in April, itching to make judgments off tiny, tiny statistical samples.

Hit Parade

We -- the fantasy community -- can be an awfully reactionary bunch. We'll do it in April and we'll even do it in June, but that there's a difference today that wasn't present then: A player's season stat line looks a heck of a lot different in June than it did in April because of the many, many weeks that preceded it.

Yes, I am referring to the phenomenon of the full-season pace.

Let's face it, a player's full-season stat line -- and resulting pace -- is probably the most-cited set of numbers when it comes to making judgments about him. We can safely say, for instance, that so far Curtis Granderson has been a better power source than Mike Stanton, because Granderson has five more home runs (21-16) than Stanton. We might even use those facts to deduce that Granderson is a better power source than Stanton, and that includes the whole from-today-forward angle that's so important in fantasy. (For the record, I prefer Stanton, albeit only slightly.)

But for some reason, those judgments tend to take on equal weight no matter what point we are at in the season. For example: In April, we might have judged that Jonny Gomes, who had six home runs and 14 RBIs through the first 18 days of the 2011 season, was a trustworthy fantasy option. Meanwhile, if we treated Miguel Olivo, who has seven homers and 15 RBIs in the month of June, the same way, it'd be considered awkward. Those sample sizes are practically identical, but the reason for the difference, and our hesitance with Olivo, is his four homers and 29 RBIs in April and May, which keep his full-season paces at more modest 24-75 numbers.

Conversely, we seem to have given slow-starting Carlos Santana a harder time than deserved, because thanks to his .228/.358/.395 rates, six homers and 24 RBIs in April and May, he'll be spending the remainder of the season just trying to get his full-season pace numbers in line with most of our preseason projections.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Santana
Carlos SantanaCarlos Santana's batting average still needs work, but fantasy owners will take his recent power surge.

It's Santana upon whom I'll focus today: When we're talking about a player with considerably more skill than, say, a Gomes or Olivo, why can't we be selective about the sample sizes we care about? Just throwing this out there: In his past 25 games, Santana is a .287/.387/.506 hitter with four home runs and 10 RBIs. If we used those to generate a full-season pace, he'd finish with these encouraging "power" numbers: 26 home runs, 45 doubles.

Santana's actual paces in those categories: 23 homers, 29 doubles.

If it's OK for us to make rash judgments about players in April, who at the time might have had as little as 15 games' worth of stats backing them up, why isn't it OK for us to make similar judgments in June? Back in the April 12 "60 Feet 6 Inches," I suggested that drawing conclusions off small sample sizes was fair in fantasy: "If you're to cherry-pick your samples, you're going to need some other type of supporting evidence. Conversely, if you're to dismiss samples, you'll need some reason to believe the numbers are fluky."

Today, let's do that, because there are a lot of players like Santana who are suffering from unexpectedly miserable starts to 2011, yet whose performance in the past few weeks is actually the far greater future indicator.

In Santana's case, it appears to be a case of his becoming more aggressive. During that 25-game hot streak, he has swung 38.8 percent of the time and chased pitches 19.9 percent of the time, and managed .320/.426/.600 rates against fastballs; those numbers are right in line with his encouraging rookie year of 2010: 38.7 percent swing rate, 20.6 chase percentage, .266/.430/.481 against fastballs. Now compare those to Santana's performance before May 27, the date this hot streak began: 31.6 percent, 13.5 percent and .177/.327/.326 rates.

Being that he's a catcher, a position that often requires a longer adjustment period for a young player -- hello, Matt Wieters -- Santana's recent rebound seems more in line with what you should expect looking forward. He's again a top-five fantasy backstop; but that so-so full-year pace might actually make him a bargain.

Michael Morse, Washington Nationals: Matthew Berry and I were both very much on this bandwagon in the preseason; though he projected 25 homers and I hedged a bit with a 20-homer expectation. Unfortunately, Morse wound up a tremendous disappointment in the season's early weeks, managing .258/.286/.351 numbers and only two homers in 36 games through May 21. The very next day, however, he made the first of what has been 28 consecutive starts at first base, a position that is now solely his, with Adam LaRoche out for the season. During that time, look at Morse's numbers: .351/.415/.739 rates, 11 home runs, 32 RBIs. Even with his miserable start, he's on pace for 29 homers and 95 RBIs. His hot streak, by comparison, projects to 64-185 numbers.

Morse isn't about to challenge for the single-season records in homers and RBIs, but 30 and 100 might actually be shortchanging him at this point. Consider this: He's a .293 hitter with 31 homers and 94 RBIs in 576 plate appearances in his three-year Nationals career. He also projects to 391 PAs in 89 games (the number the Nationals have remaining), using merely his numbers during his 28-game hot streak. Even if we're conservative and say 350, that means another 19 homers and 57 RBIs are coming. A 20-60 player from today forward? He sure could be.

Adam Lind, Toronto Blue Jays: That burgeoning power source we all witnessed in 2009 appears to be back, at least if you account for his performance since his June 4 return from a back problem; he's a .361/.429/.787 hitter with eight home runs and 18 RBIs in 17 games since that date. Frankly, though, he was slugging even before that, and that is largely the reason you should buy this hot spell. Another reason: Lind is a .320/.352/.500 hitter in his 54 plate appearances against left-handers in 2011, fixing what was a major problem area for him a year ago, when he managed miserable .117/.159/.182 rates in 145 PAs against them.

The Lind of 2009 was a 35-homer, 114-RBI man. The Lind we've seen since April 26 -- including the missed time due to injury -- projects to 24 more homers and 56 more RBIs. So why can't we say the 2009 Lind is back?

Brett Gardner, New York Yankees: Gardner's fantasy value point isn't the equal of Santana's, or Morse's, or Lind's, and I've openly questioned his appeal at times this season. But if you've hopped aboard this bandwagon, there's every reason to believe you won't hop off the rest of the year, at least not if you regard him as mostly a steals/runs player, not an all-around standout. Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long deserves much of the credit for Gardner's rebound; Long helped Granderson become a star the past calendar year and he has helped the speedy Gardner improve his hitting skills the past several weeks, to the point that Gardner is a .346/.427/.513 hitter in his past 27 games.

The big change: Gardner has become more aggressive, swinging at 13.3 percent of first pitches during that 27-game span, up from 9.0 percent in his first 39 contests and 7.4 percent in 2010. That had been a weakness of his; he would sit back and try to work walks and pitchers were adapting to that. Gardner isn't about to bat significantly north of .300 the rest of the year, and manager Joe Girardi still seems to fear using him against left-handers -- despite his .286/.390/.343 rates against them in 2011 -- but a .280 average and .375 on-base percentage is possible, and that'll provide him plenty of chances to challenge for the steals lead from today forward, not to mention tally a healthy runs total in this lineup.

Three up

Brennan Boesch, Detroit Tigers: So which is it: Is Boesch merely a first-half player,or, at age 26, has he finally arrived as an every-week fantasy option for the remainder of the year? I'll throw the numbers out there: On the morning of June 22 last season, Boesch was hitting .337/.384/.617 with 10 home runs and 36 RBIs in 47 games, but batted just .208/.283/.294 with four homers and 31 RBIs in 86 games from that point forward. On the morning of June 22 this year, he's a .298/.358/.482 hitter with 10 homers and 38 RBIs in 68 games. It's up to you whether you believe; I do. Besides the fact that he's a 26-year-old sophomore, meaning that his rookie-year second half might have been mere adjustment period than harbinger of things to come, Boesch has one most interesting strength: He's a .339/.406/.441 hitter against left-handers, meaning no platoon worry whatsoever. He's no top-25 hitter, but he's definitely a mainstay in your lineup.

Alcides Escobar, Kansas City Royals: To think that just two short weeks ago, Escobar was shaping up as one of the worst every-day players in baseball, with a horrendous .472 OPS in 60 games through June 6. He was swinging at everything, with his 51.9 percent swing rate 18th among qualified hitters and his 38.4 chase percentage (swings at pitches outside the strike zone) 10th, and barely doing anything with the balls he did put into play. But in 12 games since that date, Escobar has nine multi-hit efforts, a .512/.543/.744 hitting line and six stolen bases, which can be attributed to the high on-base percentage. Could it be that he's finally adapting to the new league, something that even the great Adam Dunn can't yet claim? Perhaps, which is why owners in desperate need of steals might want to take a look. Escobar should provide little else than that one category, but his value in it is strong; he's actually seventh in steals among shortstops (12) for the entire season, despite his miserable production the first two months.

Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals: We stressed during the preseason that Espinosa would be a streaky hitter, and a streaky hitter he has been. Right now, however, he's in the midst of one of those hot streaks; he's a .287/.348/.590 hitter with nine home runs, 24 RBIs and five steals in his past 33 games. Still, you can break his 2011 down into three separate "streak" periods: the 20-game hot streak to begin the year, during which time he hit .281/.364/.484 with 15 RBIs in 20 games; the 23-game cold spell that followed it, during which he had .125/.231/.288 numbers in 23 contests; and this hot stretch. The total package might not amount to anything more than a .250 batting average, which presents problems for fantasy teams, but keep in mind that he's on pace for 29 homers, 98 RBIs and 18 steals. That has a place in every league, even if it means you sit him in a mixed league when cold.

Three down

Gordon Beckham, Chicago White Sox: It's getting more and more difficult to be patient with him, and the White Sox certainly appear to have lost their patience. They've now benched him for three consecutive games, primarily due to his .188/.264/.333 stats in the month of June, numbers that hint he's actually regressing in terms of performance. Owners in shallow mixed leagues have long since passed the point of patience; Beckham is owned in only 63.1 percent of ESPN leagues, which might actually be too many. Any pro-Beckham case is centered around one somewhat arbitrary fact: It was at this precise time of the year in 2010 that he turned a lost season around, as he batted .310/.369/.516 in 67 games from this date forward. Maybe the three-day "breather" will help him get there -- he wouldn't be the first such success story -- but the smart play is to keep Beckham reserved or on waivers and monitor him for progress in the coming weeks.

Hanley Ramirez, Florida Marlins: Two hits and a stolen base Tuesday represent a step in the right direction, but Ramirez has a long way to go to restore his first-round draft-day stock. Even with it he's a .174/.269.217 hitter with only one extra-base hit, a double and two steals in eight games since his return from the disabled list. In addition, he's now surrounded by clubhouse controversy: new Marlins manager Jack McKeon benched him Monday, reportedly because he missed a team meeting. Fresh blood at the helm could be a positive for Ramirez, and this isn't a signal for his fantasy owners to unload him on the cheap. But he's got work to do, and right now is, simply put, not first-round material.

Anthony Rizzo, San Diego Padres: From rookie hype to rookie bust, all in the course of just two weeks? I've said we're a reactionary bunch, and I maintain that the Padres would be smart to stick with Rizzo through his big league adjustment period, and that fantasy owners might yet get useful numbers out of him in time. One piece of supporting evidence: Kyle Blanks, a former top Padres prospect, was a .188/.316/.344 hitter in his first 27 big league games, before exploding with .298/.385/.643 numbers, eight homers and 15 RBIs in his final 27 contests in 2009. Still, if you play in a mixed league, you cannot sit through Rizzo's adjustment period, and if you can't bench him, it's not unthinkable to cut him. (Just make sure you monitor him closely for signs of improvement if you do.)

New position eligibility

The following players have become eligible at new positions -- it's 10 games to qualify at a new spot -- in ESPN standard leagues during the past week: Jeff Baker (1B), Conor Jackson (1B), Scott Sizemore (3B), Chris Stewart (1B) and Omar Vizquel (2B).

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 email him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.

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