Matchups are often overrated for hitters.
For the most part, my strategy is similar to colleague Eric Karabell's; I keep my best hitters active and maximize games played -- total games in weekly leagues, doubleheaders in daily -- and on the rare occasion will exploit the odd Coors Field matchup while avoiding the one at Petco Park.
But nobody's lineup can run 13 men deep 24 weeks -- 24 this season, 26 many others -- of the entire season, and it's those cracks at the end that can potentially be filled by matchups plays. Another opportunity: They can plug holes created by such miserable slumps as those 2-for-22, zero-extra-base hits, 7-K weeks which is what Danny Espinosa did during the July 25-31 period.
This doesn't mean that everyone on today's list is a must-start when his matchup is stacked in his favor. What it does mean is that if you have a lineup spot to fill, these are your most trusted choices to fill it, assuming, of course, that their matchups fall right in line with their descriptions below.
At this time of year, even one additional favorable matchup per day can mean the difference between a league title and a third-place finish.
A note: Being on this list is generally a positive for most, because few are owned in many standard ESPN leagues. For others, it might be a black mark; if you've been relying on them every week, you might be missing out on obvious opportunities to bench them, while grabbing a similar player with better matchups.
The references below to the "worst six pitching staffs" account for both team ERA and OPS allowed for the season, and those six teams are the Baltimore Orioles, Chicago Cubs, Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins.
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.
Chris Iannetta, Colorado Rockies: He is as obvious a matchups play as they come, as simple as whittling down his splits to home versus road. He is a .318/.434/.591 hitter in 49 games at Coors this season, .150/.316/.236 in 45 on the road; in his career, his rates are .265/.379/.498 at home, .205/.338/.367 on the road, meaning there's historical evidence to support it. But that doesn't finish it: Iannetta is a noted lefty killer, having hit six of his 12 homers against them this season in 148 fewer at-bats and possessing a career OPS 148 points greater against lefties (.900) than righties (.752). He might be the No. 11 catcher on the Player Rater, but in no way is he a start-him-daily player.
Cameron Maybin, San Diego Padres: I've previously made a case for using him in his Petco games that centered upon his stolen-base potential (14 in 55 home games), but if you're in a shallow mixed league, it's smart to be choosy with his home/road matchups. He's a .235/.291/.324 hitter in 55 games at Petco, .316/.369/.484 in 55 on the road, and to further illustrate his reliance upon ballpark factors, he's a .367/.396/.633 hitter who has hit three of his eight overall homers in 13 games combined at Colorado's Coors Field and Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park. He's an effective All-Star in the right venue.
James Loney, Los Angeles Dodgers: He has a miserable -- and deserved -- reputation in fantasy thanks to a No. 38 ranking among first basemen on the Player Rater, but if you work hard enough, you might be able to exploit the rare single-day/single-series matchups with Loney. He's a .291/.341/.389 hitter against right-handers, .180/.244/.202 against lefties, and a .301/.356/.475 career hitter in road games, compared to .267/.329/.368 at Dodger Stadium. Now let's whittle those road games down to Coors and Great American plus Arizona's Chase Field and Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park: He's a .365/.422/.590 hitter in 128 career games at those four venues, .266/.325/.386 in 621 everywhere else. Sadly, the Dodgers have only one more series at any of those ballparks: the season-ending Sept. 26-28 three-game set at Chase Field.
Michael Brantley, Cleveland Indians: He has fattened up on weaker pitching all season, batting .351/.426/.489 in 25 games against the bottom-six staffs, compared to .244/.288/.356 in 89 versus everyone else. It's also smart to avoid his matchups against lefties; he's a .289/.335/.447 hitter versus right-handers, .214/.282/.243 versus lefties. Lo and behold, look at which teams the Indians face among their final 36 games: seven games against the Twins, six against the Royals.
Willie Bloomquist, Arizona Diamondbacks: Fantasy owners might have called him a neat little spark plug from day one, but the truth is that he's as much a matchups consideration as anyone. For your consideration: He's a .304/.353/.408 hitter at home, compared to .226/.283/.288 on the road; he's a .308/.370/.385 hitter against lefties, .239/.287/.322 versus righties; and his .296/.352/.420 rates in 21 games against bottom-six staffs, compared to .259/.311/.376 in 93 games against everyone else. The Diamondbacks have six more games against the Rockies, all in the next 15 days, and finish the season with 10 consecutive home games.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Boston Red Sox: Here's a guy Iannetta's owners can consider mixing and matching! Saltalamacchia feels like a player who has rescued his lost season, but the reality is that he has exploited his matchups all year. He's a .266/.332/.500 hitter from the left side compared to .195/.245/.356 from the right, which partners him splendidly with fellow Red Sox switch-hitter Jason Varitek, whose OPS is 140 points higher from the right side than left. But most notably, Saltalamacchia is a .269/.315/.627 hitter with seven of his 12 homers against bottom-six pitching staffs. The Red Sox finish the regular season with seven of their final 10 games against Orioles pitching.
Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee Brewers: Here's another catcher-matchups possibility, as Lucroy's best tends to come in his home games and/or matchups versus left-handers. He's a .333/.372/.519 hitter at Miller Park compared to .238/.281/.308 on the road, and a .293/.312/.507 hitter against left-handed pitching compared to .279/.327/.379 versus right-handers.
Will Venable, San Diego Padres: He has long been known as a start-him-only-against-righties, avoid-all-lefties hitter, with .274/.342/421 numbers against the former this season (.263/.334/.443 career), .194/.286/.226 versus the latter (.218/.300/271). But what you might not realize is how much Petco tends to drain his hitting numbers; he's a .227/.307/.366 lifetime hitter at Petco compared to .281/.349/.456 on the road. Sounds like an obvious matchups type!
Logan Morrison, Florida Marlins: Twitter king Morrison is due back with the Marlins on Wednesday, but looking forward, he looks far more matchups-type than ride-him-every-week hitter. A few things stand out: He's a .260/.335/.524 hitter against right-handers compared to .222/.310/.324 versus left-handers, and he's a .353/.431/.549 hitter in 13 games against bottom-six pitching staffs compared to .232/.310/.450 in 82 games against everyone else.
Raul Ibanez, Philadelphia Phillies: He has become such an obvious matchups candidate that even the Phillies are being choosy; they have benched him in each of their past three games versus a left-handed starter and five of their past seven and should let John Mayberry Jr. take all those starts looking forward considering Ibanez's .200/.225/.365 numbers against that side. Citizens Bank Park has clearly agreed with Ibanez; he's a .281/.323/.515 hitter there this season and .283/.353/.509 during his career, and has had a slugging percentage greater than .500 at the venue in each of his three seasons with the Phillies.
Danny Valencia, Minnesota Twins: He's an All-Star versus left-handed pitching and replacement level at best versus right-handers; Valencia has killed southpaws to the tune of .315/.361/.508 rates this season and .341/.398/.516 during his young career. Sure, he has hit 15 of his 21 career homers against righties, but he's also a .245/.283/.378 hitter against them in two seasons.
Shin-Soo Choo, Cleveland Indians: It appears that the Choo of old, the Choo who cost you a fourth-round pick in the preseason (average draft position 36.2, 35th overall), has returned. Small as a 10-game sample is, his .372/.438/.651 numbers since returning from a thumb injury restore much of the buzz that surrounded him in March; at the time he was widely regarded a lock for 20/20 numbers plus a .300 batting average. Perhaps most encouraging has been his success against left-handers, as in his career he has an OPS 182 points higher against righties (.912) than lefties (.730); he has managed .471/.500/.765 rates in 17 plate appearances versus left-handers during a span when the Indians faced four left-handed starters. With his team fighting for its playoff life, Choo is plenty motivated, and as noted above, he gets 13 more games combined against the Royals and Twins.
Desmond Jennings, Tampa Bay Rays: Judging by his returns in his first 29 games with the big club, the Rays were fools to keep Jennings in Triple-A as long as they did. He already has a 1.4 WAR, 10th-best on the team, meaning the case can be made that the Rays would be noticeably closer to the Red Sox and Yankees if they had been using him as a regular from day one. What matters for fantasy, however, is that Jennings is here and raking now, and we should consider his track record of .290-plus batting averages and 50-steal seasons. (Project his numbers as a pro to 162 games, and you'd actually get more.) He has no discernible platoon splits between righties and lefties or home and road, and even if you claim that his .404 BABIP is bound for correction, projecting him as more of a .290 than .330 hitter from today forward is still a fair expectation.
Derek Jeter, New York Yankees: Was the chase for 3,000 career hits truly that much of a drain on him? Could be, as since (and including) the date he reached the milestone, Jeter is a .367/.422/.480 hitter with 16 multihit efforts in 37 games. Since returning from the disabled list on July 4, meanwhile, he's a .351/.405/.470 hitter in 41 games. Those look like vintage Jeter stats. Let's not discount the possibility that it was mere coincidence and that this is a simple hot streak, but the hints that it is not are there: His ground-ball rate, once a shockingly high 65.5 percent before he landed on the DL, has dropped to 58.5 percent since; his well-hit average has risen from .126 before to .202 after; and he's back to handling righties -- .314/.369/.390 since his activation -- like he did during his prime.
Coco Crisp, Oakland Athletics: It has been a mere 18 days since he set a career best with four stolen bases on Aug. 6, but the concern is that he strained a calf muscle on that night and subsequently missed six games, and hasn't been his usual self since. In nine games since his return, Crisp is a .147/.216/.206 hitter and hasn't attempted a stolen base. He remains the American League's leader in steals (37), but his injury history -- three DL stints in the past three years and various other day-to-day ailments in 2010-11 -- puts a damper upon his long-term outlook. Crisp borders upon streak-riding status, and until we see some evidence that he's getting on base and running like usual, he can't be trusted in shallow leagues.
Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals: As hinted above, Espinosa has had some miserable weeks lately, and if we tally his post-All-Star break numbers, he's a .196/.265/.290 hitter in 35 games with a mere two home runs and zero steals, his numbers in those categories the primary reason fantasy owners desired him. During that time Espinosa has struck out 40 times in 138 at-bats, a 29.0 percent rate, and has chased 33.5 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, up from 29.1 percent before the break. This looks less like a cold spell by the day and more like a young player in need of some adjustments; as such, he's out of my top 125 and might not return to that status until 2012.
Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks: Speaking of cold spells, Young has always been known for them, but his performance since the All-Star break has been poor by epic proportions. He's a .137/.277/.188 hitter in 35 games during that span, with one home run and a 29.1 percent strikeout rate. In formulating the list of matchups candidates above, Young was under consideration, showing how far his stock has slipped recently except I couldn't even formulate a case for using him as one right now. He is a .171/.263/.257 hitter at Chase Field and a .226/.351/.387 hitter versus left-handers since the All-Star break, and those splits typically represent strengths for him. Bench him until further notice (if you haven't already).
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: Mark DeRosa (3B), Jerry Hairston Jr. (2B), Steve Pearce (3B), Trevor Plouffe (2B), Mark Reynolds (1B).
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.