Commentary

Kemp leads first-half hitting All-Stars

Updated: July 6, 2011, 3:00 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

When it comes to Rotisserie Baseball, the dream player is the balanced player, the one who fills every hitting column.

Hit Parade

No matter how much you spent for him -- even a third-round pick (say, No. 25 overall, average draft position 26.5) -- he's the player everyone wants to own, the player with the greatest impact on an individual fantasy league and, in this writer's opinion, the pick for first-half fantasy MVP.

Matt Kemp, in 2011, has been this player.

Only two players in baseball have earned at least a 2.00 in five different statistical categories on our Player Rater this season: Kemp and Ryan Braun. Of the two, Kemp ranks higher in four of the five categories; Braun has more runs scored. Here's how good Kemp has been: He ranks fifth in the majors in home runs (22), sixth in RBIs (64), 16th in runs scored (54), sixth in stolen bases (24) and … get this … fifth among qualified hitters in batting average (.325)!

You read that right: Kemp is batting .325, 76 points higher than his 2010 number (.249) and 40 points higher than his career number entering the season (.285). Improved plate discipline is largely behind his improvement:

His draft kit profile told it all: "[Bad luck] probably had more of an impact on his [2010] statistics than you'd think because, for a player whose batted-ball rates were almost identical in 2009-10, Kemp's BABIP plummeted 50 points (from .345 to .295). He'll need to focus on making more consistent contact in 2011 to rebound to near-first-round potential and might be a streaky type who is frustrating to own in head-to-head leagues. But he's still only 26 years old with as much 30/30 potential as anyone in baseball."

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireMatt Kemp already has 20-plus homers and 20-plus steals to go with a .325 batting average.

Sure enough, Kemp's BABIP has rebounded to .364, a number high enough to suggest that his batting average might drop a couple of notches (think something closer to a .300 mark looking forward), so it seems that it was 2010, not his .297/.352/.490-rates and 26/34 of 2009, that is the true outlier. This is a legitimate first-round value, and there's little reason to expect much less in the second half.

A final note on Kemp, before we get to the rest of the "Hit Parade First-Half All-Star Team": He's on pace for a .325 batting average, 41 home runs, 119 RBIs and 45 stolen bases. No player in the history of baseball has managed at least a .320 batting average, 40 homers, 110 RBIs and 40 steals in a single season.

'Hit Parade' All-Stars

Listed below are my first-half picks by position, one apiece at catcher, first base, second base, third base, shortstop and designated hitter, and three outfielders.

Catcher: Alex Avila, Detroit Tigers. Catcher is not the easiest position to fill in fantasy, and six of the top 10 selected in ESPN live drafts in the preseason currently rank among the top 10 at the position on the Player Rater. That's why a waiver-wire pickup -- that's what Avila was in the majority of standard leagues -- has an edge on the field, especially when that pickup, through three-plus months, ranks as the No. 3 option at his position. He has had a .500-plus slugging percentage in each of his first three months, one of only three players to do that (Seth Smith and Mark Teixeira are the others). And while Avila's .356 BABIP -- .250 on fly balls, which is third-highest in baseball -- hints that some regression is in order, keep in mind he's a .259 career hitter who has averaged eight home runs and 33 RBIs per 75 games played -- the number the Tigers have remaining -- in his career. Who would quibble if that's all he is looking forward?

[+] EnlargePaul Konerko
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswirePaul Konerko has proven so far in 2011 that last year's offensive explosion was no fluke.

First base: Paul Konerko, Chicago White Sox. Who wants a 35-year-old on his/her fantasy team, anyway? Well, in the case of Konerko, everyone should. He's third among first basemen and 12th overall on the Player Rater; that means he has outearned such prominent picks at the position as Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Teixeira and Ryan Howard, all of whom were picked earlier on average in ESPN live drafts this preseason. That's despite the many black holes present in the White Sox's lineup so far -- Gordon Beckham, Adam Dunn, Juan Pierre, Alex Rios -- which shows how remarkable Konerko's 64 RBIs, sixth-best in the majors, are. He's almost spot-on with last year's numbers: .324/.393/.579 rates this year, .312/.393/.584 last; .316 BABIP this and .326 last; .291 well-hit average this and .310 last; .406 wOBA (Weighted On Base Average) this, .411 last. Make the case that Konerko will decline after the All-Star break due to his advancing age if you wish; there's no evidence to support it. His numbers are remarkably consistent and he had .327/.406/.611 second-half rates last season, as a 34-year-old.

Second base: Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals. He's on pace for 28 home runs and 17 stolen bases, but 20/20 potential wasn't really the question with Espinosa; it was his ability to hit for a high batting average that was in doubt. At .247, he's not a standout in the category, ranking 114th out of 156 qualified hitters, but at least he has shown he belongs at the big league level. Save for a 23-game stretch from April 21-May 15 in which he batted .133/.242/.241, Espinosa has managed .289/.367/.551 rates in his other 64 contests, making him one of the most reliable second basemen in fantasy. There are other cold spells ahead -- the .247 batting average alone shows that -- but his full-year pace seems about right.

Third base: Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays. Though he has actually appeared in more games in right field (70) than at third base (8) this season, Bautista gets the nod at third because that's the position he's likely manning in the vast majority of fantasy leagues. He very nearly scored MVP honors over Kemp, having proved himself this season that he's the elite power source in baseball. Bautista is on pace for 52 home runs; if he hits that many he'd become only the sixth player in baseball history to hit 50-plus in back-to-back seasons (Babe Ruth in 1920-21 and 1927-28, Mark McGwire in 1996-99, Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997-98, Sammy Sosa in 1998-2001 and Alex Rodriguez in 2001-02 are the five) and the 10th to have two 50-homer seasons in a career (add Jimmie Foxx, Ralph Kiner, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays to the previous five). And he has done it in a year when the major league ERA is 3.83. Need I say more?

Shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera, Cleveland Indians. Shortstop was the toughest call of the bunch -- other than the Kemp-versus-Bautista battle for MVP -- ironic considering how weak we regard this position in fantasy. Jose Reyes has had an excellent season, ranking fourth overall on the Player Rater, but he also cost a fourth-round pick (No. 34, ADP: 35.5). Scroll down 15 more Player Rater spots and you'll find Cabrera, who was effectively a final-round pick in the ESPN leagues in which he was actually selected (No. 234, ADP: 216.8). Simply put, it's a matter of the greater profit potential -- though I'll go on record as saying that I think Reyes will eventually overtake him as the top earner, comparative to ADP, by season's end. Cabrera finds himself on pace for 27 homers, 95 RBIs, 23 stolen bases and 102 runs scored to go along with his .292 batting average, and of those numbers, only the homers and RBIs raise an eyebrow projecting forward. He has a 13.5 home run/fly ball percentage, well north of his 6.9 career number, and with fewer homers should come fewer RBIs. Still, if he finishes at .290-22-85-25-100, he'll easily finish top-three at his position on the Player Rater … but definitely behind Reyes.

Outfield: Kemp.

Outfield: Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox. So much for the rib issue. After being limited to only 18 games in 2010, Ellsbury has roared back with a top-10 overall fantasy season, thus far managing career bests in each of the triple-slash categories (.310/.370/.464). And while he's on pace for only 51 stolen bases, he has traded in some of that for added power; his nine homers already match his previous single-season high (2008) and he's on track for 17 in the category. Ellsbury has the look of a .300-hitting, 15/50 performer, and in a lineup like that of the Red Sox, that's going to mean a certain 100-plus runs scored. Assuming everything remains fine in the health department, he'll remain one of fantasy's elite, all for the cost of a preseason sixth-round pick (ADP: 52nd, 53.1).

Outfield: Curtis Granderson, New York Yankees. Let's call this more than half-season kudos; Granderson's All-Star-caliber efforts date back to a pair of games in Texas last August, when he was held out of the starting lineup on back-to-back days while revamping his swing with Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. Since Aug. 12, 2010, the day Granderson returned, he's a .272/.365/.586 hitter with 39 home runs and 96 RBIs, but perhaps more importantly, he has been a terror against left-handed pitching, with .270/.341/.566 rates and 12 of those 39 homers against them. He's a dead pull hitter, 33.4 percent of his balls in play hit into the outfield (line drives and fly balls) and right field specifically, per Inside Edge, but that works for him, considering Yankee Stadium's cozy dimensions. Don't sell Granderson's skills short as a mere ballpark product, however. Of his 39 homers since last Aug. 12, 21 were hit at home, 18 on the road, and he actually has more road (13) than home (12) home runs in 2011. A potential 48-homer -- that's his current pace -- man? Yes, he absolutely could do it.

Designated hitter: David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox. Fantasy owners, generally speaking, spent on Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia this preseason, every one of them a top-30 selection on average in ESPN live drafts and the quartet totaling $122 on average in live auctions. Ortiz, meanwhile, went 130th on average (ADP: 135.3) and cost $6. Today, he outranks three of those four -- Gonzalez the only one higher -- on the Player Rater. Ortiz is on pace for a .302-32-93, 95-run, .950-OPS season, which would represent his best since 2007, and let's not forget his history of strong second halves. During his Red Sox career, he's a .290/.397/.598 hitter after the All-Star break, his second-half OPS at least .854 in each of his eight years in Boston, four of those over 1.000. Considering the depth of that lineup, there's no reason to expect an Ortiz decline.

Honorable mention: Lance Berkman, Michael Bourn, Prince Fielder, Jhonny Peralta, Reyes, Drew Stubbs.

Three up

Jason Bay, New York Mets: Many fantasy owners seem to believe that Bay's back-to-back performances of June 28-29 in Detroit, hitting a grand slam one day and stealing two bases the next, were the true signs that he was "back" as a viable option in all formats. But Bay's resurgence has been more than that; since that series he's a .346 (9-for-26) hitter with six walks in seven games, and since June 15, he's a .338/.400/.456 hitter with 13 RBIs and four steals in 17 contests. During that 17-game hot spell, Bay hasn't been missing much, missing on only 17.9 percent of his swings (that number 78th out of 184 qualified hitters) and producing a .236 well-hit average (81st). Compare those to his numbers entering play on June 15: 27.5 percent miss rate, 224th out of 251 hitters with 150-plus plate appearances; and .167 well-hit average, 211th. The homers still aren't coming in bunches -- and they might never, thanks to Citi Field's spacious outfield -- but Bay is no longer killing you in batting average, which is key. Get him back in there, if you haven't already.

Mark Ellis, Colorado Rockies: Boy, has he taken to being a member of the Rockies. In his first five games with the team, Ellis is a .500/.522/.955 hitter, including two home runs, and seven apiece in runs and RBIs. Blocked by Jemile Weeks in Oakland, Ellis is now the go-to guy for the Rockies at second base, filling what was a mish-mosh of candidates to begin their season, a group including Jonathan Herrera, Jose Lopez, Chris Nelson and Eric Young Jr. Ellis shouldn't be expected to remain at an All-Star pace, even with Coors Field helping his cause, but he's a definite NL-only asset, and actually warrants a look in deeper mixed leagues. Remember, while he has never been a batting-average standout, boasting a .266 career mark and never finishing with a qualified mark over .276 in a single year (his .316 and .291 seasons fell just shy of qualifying for the batting title), he does have some pop, on five occasions hitting double-digit homers.

Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco Giants: Has the All-Star-caliber edition of Pablo Sandoval, last seen in 2009, returned? Perhaps, as, while he struggled in his initial 11 games back from a broken bone in his wrist, batting .222/.234/.222, he has since turned in .356/.383/.733 rates, three home runs and eight RBIs in 10 contests. Altogether, Sandoval is a .301/.341/.503 hitter in 45 games this season, not far off his .330/.387/.943 stats of 2009, and if you project his counting numbers to the 153 games he played in '09, he'd have 27 homers, 82 RBIs and 75 runs scored, suspiciously similar to his 25-90-79 stats of that year. Remember, Sandoval occasionally gets a bad rap for what was a bad-luck-induced 2010; he had a .291 BABIP, well beneath his .324 career number in the category, and a 7.0 home run/fly ball percentage, beneath his 10.5 career number. This year, his stats in those departments are .321 and 12.9. This 2011 version is probably the real thing.

Three down

Ian Desmond, Washington Nationals: One of the Nationals' weaknesses is that they have a perilously streaky pair of middle infielders, and projecting forward, during periods when both struggle, they're going to have a tougher time winning ballgames. While Espinosa is currently hitting, Desmond is not, as he's a .127/.183/.127 hitter with 16 strikeouts in 55 at-bats in 17 games since the Nationals began a string of interleague games June 17. What's particularly bothersome: Desmond generates much of his fantasy value with his legs, as he has 20 steals this season, 11th-most in the majors, but during his 17-game funk he has only two, and he hasn't even attempted a steal since that June 17 interleague opener. Desmond has only five hits, two walks and a hit by pitch in his past 16 contests, and his .292 career on-base percentage in the big leagues shows that, when he runs cold, he's not even going to get the opportunities to run that his owners need. Right now he shouldn't be anywhere near your lineup.

Vladimir Guerrero, Baltimore Orioles: It's a bit unfair to come down too harshly on Guerrero, as he has only eight starts in the Orioles' past 17 games due to the absence of the designated hitter in their nine recent contests in National League venues, but his downturn in value is more than just a recent decrease in at-bats. A decline in power has been a problem: Guerrero has only one home run in 116 at-bats in his past 35 games, not to mention a .043 isolated power, and for the season he has just six homers and .099 isolated power. In fact, in the past calendar year, Guerrero has 17 homers and .128 isolated power in 158 games, further evidence that he's in the waning years of his career. It's no surprise; he's now 36 years old and relies quite a bit on bat speed, which typically slows around this stage of a player's career.

Justin Smoak, Seattle Mariners: One of the more surprising success stories of the season's early weeks, Smoak has slipped into a funk recently, batting just .108 with only two extra-base hits, both doubles, in his past 11 contests. He's falling into bad habits: During that 11-game funk he has whiffed 13 times in 37 at-bats (30.2 percent), missed on 25.3 percent of his swings and swung at pitches judged "noncompetitive" 12.1 percent of the time, up from 5.8 percent in his big league career to date. Such struggles aren't out of the ordinary for a young hitter, but in Smoak's case it's particularly bothersome, as he's more of a second- or third-tier option at his position in fantasy, and one who suffers in counting numbers (runs, RBIs) due to playing for the Mariners. The Mariners, incidentally, have scored the majors' fewest runs (292) and have the game's worst team OPS (.630).

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 (3B), Emilio Bonifacio (3B), Lucas Duda (1B), Edwin Encarnacion (1B), Adam Kennedy (3B), Michael Martinez (2B, OF), John McDonald (SS), Angel Sanchez (2B), Mark Teahen (1B), Wilson Valdez (3B).

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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