Ah, September. Temperatures dip, leaves change, and baseball's pennant races reach their pinnacle.
It's a fine time of year, and some hitters would certainly agree. Whatever the reason, certain individuals enjoy their most productive weeks during the regular season's final month, their September splits significant enough that we need take note.
Examination of historical September standouts is a project we've undertaken all week; Tuesday's "60 Feet 6 Inches" identified starting pitchers with strong final-month numbers, and Thursday's "Relief Efforts" will do the same for relief pitchers. In addition, colleague Eric Karabell did an excellent roundup on Monday of historical September standouts who might still be available in deeper leagues.
Today, let's take a look at the overall September hitting standouts. These are more shallow-league targets, many of whom are already owned in your league, but a few who might not be. Inclusion on this list means the hitter's September track record -- generally speaking, 2006-2010 statistics -- is substantially greater than that during the previous five months.
As usual, the standard caveat: Past success during a given time period doesn't guarantee future success, because the player's circumstances often change. Picking from this group is merely playing with greater odds, but at this critical time of year, increasing your odds is what it's all about, right?
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.
Jay Bruce, Cincinnati Reds: Remember Bruce's torrid May? His Septembers, historically speaking, have rivaled that; he has had slugging percentages of .573, .652 and .750 and OPS of .924, 1.078 and 1.183 in the month during his first three big league seasons. Granted, in two of those, 2009 and 2010, he lost the beginning of September recovering from injuries, a fractured right wrist in 2009 and sore right side in 2010, but he quickly rebounded from them with .326/.426/.652 rates in his final 18 games of 2009 and .346/.433/.750 in 18 games in 2010, which is a significant plus. Bruce's numbers have already been trending upward recently; he has seven homers and 22 RBIs in his past 20 games. Expect it to continue.
Notable September matchups: @CHC (Sept. 5-7), @COL (Sept. 9-11), CHC (Sept. 12-15), @PIT (Sept. 23-25).
Carlos Ruiz, Philadelphia Phillies: Let's follow up the obvious with the less obvious. Ruiz is a lifetime .291/.394/.460 hitter in the month of September. He has managed a batting average of .300 or greater and OPS of .900 or greater after Sept. 1 in each of the past two seasons, and it's not like this is a one-month trend, either. In August, he also has .289/.371/.468 lifetime rates, and in 41 career postseason games, he's a .280/.412/.456 hitter. Ruiz is a player who historically has saved his best for last, and sure enough, he is a .310/.373/.430 hitter in 31 games since the All-Star break.
Notable September matchups: @CIN (Sept. 1), @HOU (Sept. 12-14), WAS (Sept. 20-22), @NYM (Sept. 23-25).
Ryan Howard, Philadelphia Phillies: Sticking with the Phillies, Howard is an obvious fantasy star, but his owners might not realize how massive his impact once the calendar reaches September. He's a lifetime .307/.422/.662 hitter in the month, those numbers 19, 40 and 96 points greater than his in any of the other five, and he has hit 59 of his 280 career homers, or 21.1 percent. Howard has been an absolute beast down the stretch for a Phillies team that is an annual contender, which should help ease the sting of his so-so .228/.315/.481 numbers this August.
Magglio Ordonez, Detroit Tigers: This has been a miserable season for the 37-year-old Ordonez, and at this point fantasy owners can barely find reason for hope. Here's one: From 2006-2009, he managed at least 25 games played, a .340 batting average, .402 on-base percentage and .553 slugging percentage after Sept. 1 each season. That's not to say that he's going to suddenly manage .340/.402/.553 numbers or better from this point forward, because he's getting older and in the midst of the worst season of his 15-year career. But look at 2009 as your reference point: He was a somewhat forgettable .275/.348/.390 hitter on the morning of Sept. 1, but from that point on he batted .439/.486/.571 in 28 games. There might yet be a little value left in his bat.
Notable September matchups: KC (Sept. 1), @CHW (Sept. 12-14), @KC (Sept. 20-21), BAL (Sept. 22-25).
Mark Ellis, Colorado Rockies: His September splits are astounding; he's a .308/.367/.456 lifetime hitter in the month, good for an .823 OPS, but a .257/.323/.385 hitter, for a .709 OPS, in the other five months. Of his seven career months of 100 plate appearances or more during which he batted at least .300, four were in September, and of the six months in which his OPS was greater than .900, three were in September. Ellis is also lined up for a strong finish merely because he's a Rockie, and they play 13 of their 25 September games at Coors Field. He's a .284/.319/.403 hitter already for the Rockies and a .323/.337/.484 hitter at Coors.
Notable September matchups: The 13 Coors games, ARI (Sept. 5-7), CIN (Sept. 9-11), SF (Sept. 15-18), SD (Sept. 19-21); @HOU (Sept. 22-25).
Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees: Injuries might have put his fantasy value in question heading into the season's concluding weeks, but A-Rod does have a phenomenal final-month history, at least with the Yankees. In seven Septembers since donning the pinstripes, he has .320/.415/.601 numbers in 183 games, not once finishing with less than a .275 batting average, 22 RBIs or an .855 OPS in the month. In four of those months, his OPS was north of 1.000. A-Rod is going to get some time off as the Yankees ease him back from knee surgery, but in the games he plays he's as good a bet as any to win you a matchup on his own.
Notable September matchups: BAL (Sept. 5-7), @BAL (Sept. 8), @TOR (Sept. 16-18).
Aaron Hill, Arizona Diamondbacks: He had a miserable September in 2010, managing .165/.222/.352 rates in 26 games, but even with that his lifetime rates in the month are a stunning .285/.350/.451. Say what you want about Hill's miserable 2010-2011 performance; he's getting a fresh start with a contending team that calls a hitter-friendly ballpark, Chase Field, its home. How is this not a chance you'd take? Hill is a .262/.311/.476 lifetime hitter in 22 career games in the National League West's five ballparks, and a .298/.348/.529 hitter in 28 games against the Diamondbacks' four division foes. Small sample sizes, yes, but considering the minimal cost, Hill is well worth the proverbial dice roll.
Notable September matchups: @COL (Sept. 5-7), SD (Sept. 8-11), PIT (Sept. 19-21).
Jorge Posada, New York Yankees: Is this the "last hurrah" for Posada? If so, perhaps he'll lean upon his favorable September history in an effort to go out on a high note. Or, if he intends to play in 2012, he can make one last push for a contract with a strong finish. Posada did struggle in September 2010, managing .182/.299/.333 rates, but he was money in the four Septembers that preceded it, managing .308/.408/.567 rates in 92 games combined after Sept. 1 from 2006-2010.
Three September stinkers
Adam Dunn, Chicago White Sox: To you Dunn owners in 41.3 percent of ESPN leagues, you gluttons for punishment, there's not much room for optimism even in the season's closing weeks. Dunn stinks in September, period. He has .222/.351/.420 lifetime rates in the month, has never hit more than six home runs, driven in more than 19 runs or batted higher than .274 in any single September, and has batted sub-.230 in five of 10 career Septembers. The White Sox have started him only 16 times in 26 August games, and he has "rewarded" them with .158/.238/.211 numbers. This won't end well.
Scariest September matchups: @DET (Sept. 2-4), DET (Sept. 12-14).
Mark Reynolds, Baltimore Orioles: He'll qualify as one of the year's notable comeback stories -- his OPS is .813 and he's on pace for 18 fewer strikeouts this year than last -- but Reynolds' September history, outside of his rookie season in 2007, is disconcerting. He has managed OPS of .681, .610 and .291 the past three Septembers, his strikeout rate 41.8, 43.4 and 48.4 percent during those months. The Orioles also face a lot of contending teams down the stretch, so it's not like he'll have many cakewalk matchups the rest of the year.
Scariest September matchups: @TB (Sept. 2-4), TB (Sept. 12-14), LAA (Sept. 16-18), @DET (Sept. 22-25).
Justin Morneau, Minnesota Twins: The reason I'm so anti-Morneau is that he ranks among the game's least productive players during the season's second half; his OPS after the All-Star break (.786) is 113 points lower than before it (.899). It doesn't get better in September, as he's a .251/.323/.413 hitter in the month during his career, and he hasn't had an OPS higher than .696 after Sept. 1 since 2006. Morneau has also dealt with numerous health issues late in seasons, and while he might make it through this year healthy, his history raises some doubts.
Scariest September matchups: @LAA (Sept. 2-4), @DET (Sept. 9-11), SEA (Sept. 20-22).
Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks: As with midseason 2010 call-up Mike Stanton, Goldschmidt's power is legitimate, and he can play at the big league level, period. I'm officially on the bandwagon. Goldschmidt might have 29 strikeouts in his first 78 at-bats, a ghastly 37.2 percent rate that paces him ahead of Reynolds (35.1) but behind major league leader Dunn (42.5), but he also has five home runs and 14 RBIs in his first 25 big league games, numbers that project to 30 and 84 in 150 contests. Perhaps most impressively, his isolated power has been no less than .244 at any level at which he has appeared as a professional: .303 in rookie ball in 2009, .291 in Class A+ in 2010, .320 in Double-A to begin this year and now .244 for the Diamondbacks. Batting average might always be a problem for Goldschmidt, his .269 mark a fair expectation (if not slightly high), but there's little doubt that he has 30-plus-homer potential.
Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals: He is one of 2011's most notable breakout stories, his .305 batting average and 23-homer, 86-RBI paces looking much like the player we all expected during his sophomore year of 2008. It took Gordon three additional years to truly "get it," and don't even start with that whole, "it was his age-27 season" thing. Correlation does not imply causation; age-inspired breakouts happen within a range, not a specific year, and there are countless such examples who flopped at 27 despite all indications that they'd break out. Gordon simply benefited from the fabulous opportunity of scoring the No. 3 lineup spot, and eventually a share of the leadoff role, at season's start, a decision that earns manager Ned Yost kudos for being so bold; as well as a newfound aggressive approach to the plate. To the latter point, he has a 26.0 percent chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone but has missed on only 37.5 percent of those swings, a noticeable improvement upon the 20.7 and 39.9 percent he averaged in 2009-2010 combined. One way to look at that: Gordon is more willing to swing at non-strikes, but it's not as bothersome because he's making more contact when he does. Gordon has honed his pitch selection and ranks in the upper third among qualified hitters in isolated power (.201) and in the 46th percentile in well-hit average (.227), both of which are vast improvements upon his previous numbers. Buy this breakout, and enjoy it through the fantasy postseason.
Nick Swisher, New York Yankees: Few players in baseball are as scorching hot as Swisher. He's the No. 2 name on the Player Rater, one behind Gordon, in the past seven days, and is a .393 hitter (11-for-28) with six home runs, 10 RBIs and six walks in his past eight games overall. In fact, Swisher, who struggled miserably during the season's first two months, has hit a scorching .308/.420/.562 with 18 homers and 57 RBIs in 78 games since June 1, ranking him among the most productive hitters in the game. That hot streak has given him 20-plus homers for the seventh consecutive season, and an .800-plus OPS for the fifth time in the past six years. As a member of the Yankees, Swisher's counting numbers get extra padding, and here's what's most notable regarding that: He has had an on-base percentage of .359 or greater in five of the past six seasons. That means runs, runs, runs, certainly a healthy number of them for a No. 6 hitter!
Carlos Beltran, San Francisco Giants: The Beltran in San Francisco experiment hasn't gone so well thus far, his tremendous numbers in New York transforming into poor stats on the West Coast. A strained right wrist cost him 13 Giants games while on the disabled list, and while he has batted .310 (9-for-29) with one home run in eight games since his activation, he has had times where he didn't look quite his usual self, in particular his 0-for-8, three-strikeout performance combined the past two games. Small sample sizes these are, but Beltran hasn't been hitting with the same authority with the Giants as the Mets, in particular his isolated power a mere .122, compared to .224 when with the Mets. He's still a fantasy option in deeper leagues, but there are better choices out there in shallow mixed leagues.
Michael Cuddyer, Minnesota Twins: Kudos to Cuddyer for gritting it out through injuries, but his numbers are suffering for it. He's a .208/.235/.333 hitter in his past 14 games, but has also missed 11 Twins games during that time period due to neck and wrist injuries. If not for his second-base eligibility, Cuddyer might fall beneath the cut in mixed leagues; he's the kind of player who has 25-homer, .270-hitting ability at his peak, but at less than 100 percent he's a mere average fantasy first baseman or outfielder. Temper your expectations for Cuddyer the remainder of the year, as he might play hurt right until season's end.
Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins: He has taken a lot of criticism for his diminished power and frequent injuries this season, but it's the former that is most bothersome to his fantasy owners. Mauer has a mere one home run in 262 at-bats, the worst per-at-bat ratio of his entire career, and both his .290 batting average and .065 isolated power would represent career worsts. Especially disconcerting: What were .329 and .378 well-hit averages by Mauer in 2009 and 2010 have slipped to .248 this season, meaning this isn't a mere power drought. He's probably still playing at less than 100 percent and might need the winter's rest for it to return.
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: Robert Andino (3B), Brandon Belt (OF), Jason Donald (2B), Matt Downs (1B), Mark Trumbo (OF), Josh Wilson (2B), Danny Worth (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.