Justin Upton lives up to expectations
If that doesn't get your attention, I understand. Proverbially speaking, this boy has cried "wolf" so many times since 2007 the calls might now fall upon deaf ears. Through a little over four calendar years -- since the date of this particular player's big-league debut on Aug. 2, 2007 -- Justin Upton's critics have been the clear winners of this debate. He had not developed into an MVP candidate
Through 120 games this season, Upton finds himself on pace for better-than-.300-30-100 numbers (.305-33-100, to be specific), which represent the first time he has accomplished the feat in his career. Perhaps most importantly, at least from an MVP-voting (yet non-fantasy) perspective, Upton benefits from two other things: improved defense, as he ranks second among qualified right fielders in Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games played (UZR/150), per FanGraphs, with a 14.8 number; and that his Arizona Diamondbacks are clear playoff contenders, currently residing atop the National League West standings.
Yes, Upton, 23, has clearly arrived in this, his fourth full big league season, and his critics might yet be slow on the uptake.
Let's dig deeper into Upton's statistical improvements:
• Contact rate: His has soared this season, to a career-best 79.6 percent, ranking him in the 37th percentile among qualified hitters. From 2007-10, by comparison, Upton's contact rate was 70.5 percent, eighth-worst among the 195 players with at least 1,500 plate appearances (fourth percentile).
• Power output: Upton is on pace to set new career highs in isolated power (.256), well-hit average (.274) and fly ball rate (44.0 percent). As mentioned above, he's on track not only for a personal best in home runs (33), but doubles (45), which portends good things in the power department in future years.
• Splits balance: What was once a somewhat wide split in his numbers versus right- and left-handed pitchers -- Upton had a career OPS 95 points greater against lefties (.918) than righties (.824) entering 2011 -- has narrowed to a mere 24-point margin (.957 versus lefties, .933 righties) this season. Most notably, Upton is batting 36 points higher against righties (.314-.278). A more aggressive approach might be one reason: He has swung at 48.2 percent of pitches against right-handers, up from 41.5 a year ago, and 31.9 percent of the first pitches he sees in a plate appearance against a righty, up from 23.7.
• Road performance: Once criticized as a Chase Field product -- his career OPS was .163 points higher there (.905) than on the road (.742) entering 2011 -- Upton has made significant strides in road games recently. While his season OPS is 303 points higher at home (1.087) than on the road (.785), look at his road numbers since July 1: .244/.326/.564 rates, that .890 road OPS during that span 39 points higher than his overall career OPS (.851) and 28 points higher than his best single-season road OPS (.862, 2009). Small sample, yes, but look at where he played them: He homered three times at Petco (July 26-28) and once each at Busch Stadium (July 7-9), Dodger Stadium (July 29-31) and AT&T Park (Aug. 1-3), every one of those widely regarded a pitcher's park. That's progress.
Put them together and we're talking about a 23-year-old who has finally realized his fantasy-superstar potential, a player for whom today might represent your last chance to acquire him at a reasonable price -- that referring more to keeper than redraft leagues. Upton is now ranked sixth on the Player Rater, but his critics have been vocal enough over the years that he might still be snuck through at a trade price closer to that of a mere top-25 player overall. At that price, he would be a steal.
After all, would anyone be surprised if Upton gets drafted across the board as a first-rounder and backs up the pick with a top-five overall season?
Yes, I'm crying "wolf" again, but there's a key difference: Unlike the boy, I was never lying; Upton was always coming.
Today isn't merely your last chance to acquire Upton. Here are three others you should snatch up while you still can, ranging from redraft to keeper league values:
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.
Cameron Maybin, San Diego Padres: The cries in defense of Maybin might not have been anywhere near as strong as those for Upton, but the argument is similarly legitimate, just on a much smaller scale. Now in his fifth big league season, Maybin, 24, is on pace for a .274 batting average, 85 runs scored and 41 stolen bases, every one of those easily representing a career high. Like Upton, Maybin has elevated his contact rate, from 68.6 percent from 2007-10 to 76.6 percent this season, not to mention has put forth a .219 well-hit average and 16.8 percent line-drive rate since June 1 (up from .169 and 13.0 in April-May) that makes it look as if all he needed was a team patient enough to grant him the at-bats to get settled at this level. Most notably, Maybin is a .316/.369/.484 hitter in his road games this season, with counting numbers that would project to 18 homers, 77 RBIs and 133 runs scored if granted a full 162 games away from Petco. The Padres still have 18 road games, including seven at Arizona's Chase Field and three at Colorado's Coors Field, so at the bare minimum he would be an excellent fantasy play in those series. From a keeper angle, he's certainly underrated.
Kyle Blanks, Padres: As Maybin is already spoken for in practically every ESPN league -- the words above are advice to target him in trade -- why not take another readily available teammate? Blanks, whose career has been sidetracked by July 30, 2010, Tommy John surgery, has shown glimpses of his awesome, Mike Stanton-esque power potential since his healthy return. After belting 11 homers with a .351 batting average in 35 games for Triple-A Tucson, Blanks has managed three homers and a .197 isolated power in his first 24 games for the Padres. The memory of his terrible 2010 might remain fresh enough for some fantasy owners, which explains his minuscule 4.3 percent ESPN ownership, but at the bare minimum he would be a matchups play down the stretch, in the Maybin mold but on a lesser scale. In an NL-only league, if you can carry him over at a discount rate, Blanks, a probable regular for the 2012 Padres, might be a sneaky keeper option.
Mike Stanton, Florida Marlins: Speaking of Stanton, he's also a franchise keeper league player who might be attainable at a relative discount and that even applies to those of you in redraft leagues. How is it that full-season paces of 37 homers and 98 RBIs can be considered a "disappointing" year? Consider this: Per Baseball-Reference.com's P-I (play index) tool, only six players in baseball history hit more homers in their second seasons, and only four had at least as many at 21 or younger: Eddie Mathews, Mel Ott, Frank Robinson and Albert Pujols, three of them Hall of Famers and Pujols a lock once he retires. It's for that reason Dan Szymborski, in his Who's next to 600 home runs? column, projected Stanton the third-most-likely current major leaguer to reach the plateau (among those who haven't already), despite Stanton being only 8 percent of the way there. High praise, and definitely worthy of the high price in trade.
Melky Cabrera, Kansas City Royals: The Royals were widely criticized for two outfielders they signed within 24 hours of one another last December -- Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur -- and now, almost exactly three-quarters of the way through the season (75.2 percent, to be exact), both signings look like home runs for oft-questioned general manager Dayton Moore. But if I'm picking which of the two is more likely to keep it up through the final quarter -- who is "Bona Fee-day," if you will -- it's Cabrera. His improvements are unmistakable: He's fitter, more focused and more aggressive -- at the plate and on the basepaths. To those who believe he's a total fluke -- myself included earlier in the year -- consider that he's a .366/.382/.569 hitter in 31 games since the All-Star break, meaning he has actually improved of late. He's locked in as the Royals' everyday center fielder and No. 2 hitter, the latter a role sure to boost his counting numbers (runs, RBIs and steals). Enjoy this, because there isn't a sign he's about to cool anytime soon.
Mike Carp, Seattle Mariners: As with Cabrera, opportunity often makes all the difference for certain players, and in the case of the Mariners, there are plenty of opportunities for youngsters in the outfield and at designated hitter these days. Casper Wells, who has home runs in four consecutive games at Safeco Field, is one such Mariners hitter, but Carp's progress extends a little further back and is a little more relevant for our purposes. He has started each of the Mariners' past 23 games and finished all but one of them, and managed .374/.412/.637 rates -- including six home runs and 26 RBIs during that span. Look at some of the competition he faced: Red Sox (two series), Yankees, Rays, Angels and Rangers. Twelve of those games were at Safeco. Call it a flash in the pan if you want -- and some regression, of course, needs be expected -- but this is a 25-year-old who managed .282/.365/.520 rates in 286 Triple-A contests from 2009-11, meaning there's some legitimacy to his production. AL-only owners should have Carp active across the board, and he's even useful in shallow-mixed leagues right now.
Jose Constanza, Atlanta Braves: He's the sneaky inclusion in my top 125 rankings, and it's from the angle that if I'm pro-Jason Bourgeois, doesn't it then follow that I'd be pro-Constanza? Compare their minor league track records: Bourgeois had .296/.348/.405 career rates, a 12.5 percent strikeout rate and 6.5 percent walk rate in 504 Triple-A games, averaging 37 steals per 162 games played; Constanza had .316/.368/.374 career rates, a 12.9 percent K rate and 7.4 percent walk rate in 199 Triple-A games, averaging 46 steals per 162 attempts. Both had a "minor league journeyman" label, though Constanza is one year, eight months younger. He's with the better offensive team of the two, but also the No. 8 hitter, whereas Bourgeois is primarily the leadoff man (meaning a few additional at-bats and more favorable opportunities to run). In no way should you expect Constanza to continue homering at his 2-in-17 games current pace, but there's no doubt he can help you in stolen bases and runs scored, while offering a respectable batting average. He's a must-own in NL-only, and meaningful in mixed, too.
Andre Ethier, Los Angeles Dodgers: His midsummer struggles, historically speaking, are mind-boggling. Ethier is a .243/.319/.318 hitter in 29 games since the All-Star break, and since the day he snapped his 30-game hit streak in May, he has batted only .260/.338/.386 with a 23.2 percent strikeout rate. It isn't the first time this has happened; from his first 68 games after returning from a broken finger last July (conveniently taking him through Aug. 20), he was a .256/.320/.397 hitter with a 21.0 percent K rate. Injuries can be blamed for last summer's swoon, and perhaps they might explain this year's, too, as he dealt with a sore left elbow in May, then compounded the problem when he hurt his right elbow, his back and his big toe in a crash with the wall in a May 21 game. If true, hand it to Ethier for playing through pain, but at the same time his fantasy owners must recognize the adverse impact on his stats. He's so much more name than true value.
Mike Moustakas, Kansas City Royals: Another thing fantasy owners can't do is forgive rookies for their struggles, because while most of us understand the lengthy learning curve many face, the fact remains that these kids' poor numbers during their adjustment periods have a catastrophic effect on our teams. Such is the case with Moustakas, who has a mere six hits in 13 games in August, .128/.163/.128 rates in the month and zero extra-base hits, whiffing 13 times in 47 at-bats (27.7 percent K rate). Kudos to the Royals for being patient with the 22-year-old, who at times in the minors struggled to quickly adjust -- look at his 2009 Class A stat line as an example -- but fantasy owners can't afford the same. At this point, redraft owners might find zero value in Moustakas the rest of the year; the hope for his keeper leagues is that he makes the necessary adjustments in the spring.
Gaby Sanchez, Florida Marlins: One of the hottest hitters of the first two months of the season -- he ranked 11th in batting average (.322) among those with 150-plus plate appearances and 19th in RBIs (35) -- Sanchez's bat has cooled considerably since. He regressed to the level of mere mixed-league corner infielder/NL-only option in June and July, turning in so-so .250-7-23 numbers in 52 games, and in August has slipped to .122/.200/.143 rates in 14 games. As has always been true in his big league career, he remains more of a lefty masher (.315/.391/.526 lifetime rates against them) who has ordinary stats against righties (.257/.328/.420). The latter numbers are league-average at best from a first baseman, meaning Sanchez's matchups, on a daily and weekly basis, need be carefully considered from this point forward.
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: Alfredo Amezaga (2B), Mike Aviles (SS), Eric Hinske (1B), Brett Lawrie (3B), Brent Lillibridge (1B), Eduardo Nunez (2B), Jimmy Paredes (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.