Four underrated, four overrated hitters
Maybe Evan Longoria is mad at me.
I won't mince words. During this past Thursday's chat, I said this: "Evan Longoria is overrated. There, I said it. Hey, great player, his future is bright, but right now there's this belief, based upon his reputation, that he's an automatic top-10 player."
In five games since, Longoria is hitting .429 (9-for-21) with three doubles, four home runs, 11 RBIs, two walks and seven runs scored.
Obviously, I'm being facetious about there being any correlation between these two things, but frankly, I'm sure I'm not the only one who looked at Longoria's weekend production and reacted with the comment, "It's about time."
This isn't to say that Longoria is the most overrated player in baseball. Far from it; the point was that he was a top-10 player in reputation while not even putting forth top-25 production to date. Even with his five-game hot streak, he's on pace for .249-20-69 numbers, and even if you project his year-to-date performance to 162 games, he'd still be a .249-31-106 hitter. That's an exceptional fantasy hitter, definitely top-25. It is not, however, top-10.
Continuing the topic from Tuesday's "60 Feet 6 Inches," fantasy owners as a whole often lean too much on players' reputations, failing to quickly recognize shifting trends. In Longoria's case, it's that perhaps he's no longer worthy of his No. 4 overall position in ESPN live drafts this preseason (ADP: 5.2), but rather has the kind of value equivalent to a second-rounder.
There are certainly more extreme cases, and today, let's start with a quartet that's underrated. All of these players remain available in a handful of ESPN leagues and, even if they're owned in yours, they might be cheap trade targets:
Ty Wigginton, 1B/2B/3B, Colorado Rockies: Why don't fantasy owners have more respect for this guy? In his past five seasons, Wigginton has both batted at least .273 and hit 22 or more home runs four times, and in each of those five years he has qualified at two different positions or more. This season he's batting .267 and is on pace for 25 homers, and since he's two games away from 20 at first base, he's right on track for another .270-20-multi-position campaign. No, that's not a fantasy superstar, but that's an awfully valuable back-of-your-lineup option, especially as an injury plug-in for multiple spots on your roster.
Roger Bernadina, OF, Washington Nationals: I completely understand why he's underrated. Heck, he's underrated by his own team! Remember, Bernadina didn't even crack the Nationals' 25-man opening-day roster, the team instead deciding that Rick Ankiel was the smarter choice in center field. Bernadina promptly batted .270 and swiped eight bases in 18 games for Triple-A Syracuse, earning himself a late-April call-up and, eventually, the center-field gig. He has 12 consecutive starts at the position and .296/.321/.500 numbers in them, but it's what Bernadina can do over the long haul that warrants respect. He's capable of a healthy batting average -- he hit .299 in 267 combined games between Double-A and Triple-A in his minor league career -- he can hit for double-digit power, as evidenced by his 11 homers for the Nationals in 2010 (13 if you include the minors), and he's capable of stealing as many as 40 bases. Remember, he had at least that many in both 2007 and 2008, and he's already on pace for 22 this year in 95 games!
Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves: To those of you in the 59.1 percent of ESPN leagues in which Freeman remains available, it's time to buy. And to those of you in the 40.9 percent of ESPN leagues in which he's already owned, it's time to make a trade offer for the rookie first baseman.
Although I wasn't much of a Freeman fan in the preseason, I'm warming to him as he earns experience, and his perceived value remains low enough that acquiring him is an attainable goal. Remember, he was Jason Grey's No. 2 fantasy prospect and Keith Law's No. 43 prospect overall in the preseason, so at some point soon he should be an impact player for our purposes. Freeman has made some noticeable improvements as the season progresses: In June, he has his highest well-hit average (.233), isolated power (.211), line-drive rate (19.7 percent) and fly-ball rate (44.3 percent) of any single month this season, so his recent uptick in value can be labeled legit. I cannot remember being asked a single question about Freeman since the season started, which shows how off-the-radar he has been, and perhaps it's because he's widely regarded a lower-tier option at his position. Sure, he's a lower-tier player, but he's not one devoid of upside.
Chase Headley, San Diego Padres: In an era where third base is becoming increasingly weak, how can you not like a player batting .303? There are two knocks on Headley that fuel his underrated status, and both are understandable: He's a Padre, and the team doesn't score many runs; and he's almost devoid of power, with only two home runs to date. Still, Headley has 22 doubles, suggesting a possibility of a meager power surge the rest of the year, he has boosted his walk rate to 13.0 percent, a career best, and his 22.9 percent line-drive rate helps back up his .386 BABIP. The BABIP should come down slightly in the coming weeks, adversely affecting his batting average, but don't expect it to be substantial, considering that his .340 career number shows that he has always excelled in the category. Headley also has one other attractive trait in fantasy: eight stolen bases, putting him on pace for 16, just one shy of his 2010 number (17).
Returning to the Longoria example, I won't put him among my four most overrated players in fantasy baseball. These would be my top four choices:
Andre Ethier, Los Angeles Dodgers: Perhaps accomplishments like his 30-game hitting streak from April 2-May 6 this season, his four walk-off home runs in 2009, tying the single-season major-league record, or his status as a 2010 All-Star starter feed his reputation, because in fantasy, his numbers surely do not back up his No. 59 spot overall -- No. 17 among outfielders -- in ESPN live drafts this preseason (average draft position: 60.7). <\p>
Let's check the facts. Ethier has finished among the top 20 players in baseball in one of the five prominent rotisserie categories exactly once in his career, when he placed 14th with 106 RBIs in 2009. In fact, if you take all active players with at least 500 games played and scale their lifetime numbers to 162 contests, here's how Ethier would rank: 33rd in batting average (.294), 90th in homers (21.3), 74th in RBIs (85.7) and 124th in runs scored (79.8).
Even more damning: In each of his first five big-league seasons (2006-10), he endured a 50-game stretch (or longer) during which his batting average was beneath .260 and OPS was .725 or worse, showing how lengthy his cold spells tend to be. Since his hitting streak ended, Ethier has batted .274 with four homers and 23 RBIs in 48 games. He's simply not deserving of "elite" status.
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.
Derek Jeter, New York Yankees: He's a surefire Hall of Famer and on the verge of joining the 3,000-hit club, but in fantasy, Jeter still gets far more credit than he deserves. He's coming off a career-worst 2010 campaign that saw him lead the majors in ground-ball percentage (65.4), resulting in a mediocre .270 batting average, and all he did before getting hurt was again put up the majors' highest ground-ball percentage (65.5) that has resulted in a .260 batting average. New York sports-talk radio is abuzz about whether Jeter deserves to bat leadoff upon his return from a strained right calf, and the truth is that he doesn't. But he will, and that's one thing that keeps him on the fantasy radar even in shallow mixed leagues because of what it means in terms of run potential.
The main reason he's overrated, however, is the space he occupies on fantasy rosters. Surely those in the 95.4 percent of ESPN leagues in which he's owned could find a better option for their lone DL spot? I can name 10: Clay Buchholz, Shin-Soo Choo, Carl Crawford, John Danks, Josh Johnson, Ryan Madson, Martin Prado, Albert Pujols, Jonathan Sanchez and David Wright.
Alex Rios, Chicago White Sox: Like Ethier, Rios is simply a streaky player, so his sluggish start to 2011 really shouldn't have taken anyone by surprise. Although he enjoyed a bounce-back 2010, keep in mind that he did have just .258/.300/382 rates in 82 games from June 23 forward, meaning his season was awfully front-loaded. Rios' hot spells can come at any moment and, his cold spells can be team-killers -- just look at what he did following his trade to the White Sox in 2009. He'll always tantalize you with his 20/30 potential, but he's also one of the players with whom you should never feel completely cozy.
Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles: I'll state upfront that I hate putting him on this list, and that I hate doing it means I'm probably as responsible as anyone for hyping Wieters to the point that he's overrated. At some point, however, shouldn't we demand production worthy of a top-10 ADP among catchers (eighth, 171.7)? In five half-seasons so far, he has never had an OPS higher than .765, and in four of them that number was .730 or worse. It's often a long learning curve that a young catcher faces, and at 25 years old, Wieters still has plenty of time to get it figured out. But here's the scary number: He's being started -- not owned, started -- in 87.0 percent of ESPN leagues! Nine catchers currently rate higher than him on the Player Rater and three others are close in rank, so he's no automatic, every-week play.
Carlos Pena, Chicago Cubs: Whereas fellow league switcher and Chicagoian Adam Dunn has struggled to adapt to a new league, Pena appears to have not had the same problem. Though he endured an awful April, batting .159/.289/.175 in 23 games, he has roared back with .249/.372/.571 rates, 17 home runs and 39 RBIs in 52 games since May 1, an extremely lengthy hot streak for a player who whiffs as often as he does. Pena has a .900-plus OPS in both May and June, and to put that into perspective, he had only three such months total from 2008-10 (counting only his healthy months, that is). He remains a terrible player against left-handed pitchers, with .097/.240/.210 rates in 75 plate appearances, but that only enhances his appeal in daily leagues. So long as you pick his matchups, he's worth it.
Aramis Ramirez, Cubs: Though the Cubs have had their troubles scoring runs at times -- they averaged 2.65 runs per game over a 17-game stretch from May 27-June 13 -- Ramirez, along with Pena, has helped them begin to turn things around. In the month of June, Ramirez has .294/.318/.559 rates, seven homers and 19 RBIs in 25 games. That comes on the heels of a 36-game stretch during which he managed .263/.315/.350 rates from April 16-May 31. It's not the first time he has run so hot and cold; he was a .307/.348/.587 hitter in July and August last season but only .162/.227/.269 in April and May. Might it be that Ramirez is simply a player who needs a few weeks to hit his groove? Perhaps, as he has a lifetime second-half OPS (.869) 60 points higher than in the first half (.809).
Nick Swisher, New York Yankees: It took him more than two months, but finally Swisher is performing like the player we saw with the Yankees from 2009-10. He hit three home runs during a nine-game, west-coast swing to Seattle, Oakland and Los Angeles and, beginning with those games, he has batted .320/.444/.649 with eight homers and 23 RBIs in his past 29 contests. Breaking pitches are still problematic for him; he's a .145/.250/.145 hitter in 64 plate appearances that ended on a curveball or slider this season, his .457 in 14 PAs against those pitches in June scarcely better. But Swisher has been killing fastballs -- .435/.509/.978 in 55 PAs ending with them in June -- as he has historically in his better seasons, and that should help restore his fantasy owners' faith.
Rajai Davis, Toronto Blue Jays: It's not so much that he's not hitting, though his .079 batting average (5-for-63) in his past 22 games is terribly unpleasant. It's that Davis isn't even running anymore, going 0-for-1 on stolen-base attempts during his slump, robbing his owners of the one category in which we've come to trust him most. Davis also isn't drawing walks, so his opportunities are down; he has only one free pass in his past 65 plate appearances. He plays on a team that has alternatives in the outfield, and although fantasy owners should obviously have him benched, he might begin to lose at-bats soon, which could drop him to must-drop status for our purposes.
Adam Dunn, White Sox: This just isn't getting any better, and now that the White Sox are in the midst of a six-game stretch at National League parks, where they won't have the designated hitter, there's no reason for them to play Dunn. Here's how bad things have gotten: Dunn is a .143/.239/.270 hitter in 18 games in June, striking out in 49.2 percent of his at-bats, and he has been held out of four White Sox games in the month. He's on pace for 205 strikeouts, and his .173 batting average actually puts him on pace for the sixth-worst single-season number in modern history. Dunn continues to struggle with fastballs, batting .161/.257/.226 in 35 plate appearances that have ended with one in June, and there's nothing in his peripherals to suggest a turnaround is imminent.
Raul Ibanez, Philadelphia Phillies: We might not be far from the rumors returning that the Phillies might consider benching Ibanez. He's a .193/.244/.253 hitter with no homers and three RBIs in 23 games in June and continues to have problems with left-handers, batting only .200/.200/.240 in 25 plate appearances against them in the month. Now 39, Ibanez probably warrants being dropped into a platoon role, something that could happen should either Ben Francisco heat up or the Phillies decide to recall John Mayberry Jr. from the minors. Ibanez is no longer the kind of player you want active every week; he's ride the streaks/matchups potential and nothing more.
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: Brian Bixler (OF), Lucas Duda (1B), Pete Kozma (2B), DJ LeMahieu (2B), Daniel Murphy (3B), Tsuyoshi Nishioka (SS), Scott Sizemore (3B), 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 e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.
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