Commentary

Fun with hitting trends

Chris Davis, Yadier Molina improving; Eric Hosmer, Cameron Maybin struggling

Updated: May 2, 2012, 6:18 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

I have a confession: I was once one of fantasy baseball's biggest Chris Davis fans.

Hit Parade

The year was 2009. Davis was coming off an outstanding 2008 spread across three competitive levels -- Double-A, Triple-A and the big leagues with the Texas Rangers -- one in which he entered as Keith Law's No. 69 prospect and Baseball America's No. 65 prospect overall, and finished with a sparkling triple-slash line (.309 AVG/.364 OBP/.539 SLG), 40 home runs and 128 RBIs overall.

Davis' performance as a rookie with those 2009 Rangers, at the age of 22, made him look like a home run champ in the making. He clubbed 17 homers in his 80 games with the big club, or a pace of 33 if he had spent the entire year with the team. And as a member of the Rangers, who play in one of the most hitting-friendly environments in all of baseball, Davis understandably looked like a breakout candidate for 2009.

Unfortunately, those who shared my opinion of Davis at the time remember what happened; he struck out 114 times in 258 at-bats to begin that season, his propensity to swing and miss so dire that the Rangers had little choice but demote him to the minors by July. From 2009-11 at the big league level, Davis managed but a .238 batting average and .289 on-base percentage and whiffed in nearly a third of his plate appearances (33.1 percent). He was dumped upon the Baltimore Orioles in last July's Koji Uehara trade, and wasn't much better for his new team. Davis couldn't even warrant a second look in mixed leagues come 2012 draft day.

But…

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesChris Davis is once again flashing big-time power.

One month into the 2012 season, Davis finally looks like a hitter who might finally stick as a regular at the big league level. He hit his fifth home run of the season Tuesday night; he has hit all five in his past eight games. Most importantly, however, he has cut down on the strikeouts; his rate is a mere 22.0 percent, which is beneath the 24.5 percent career number he sported during his days as one of the most prolific power hitters in the minors.

Continuing with the week's theme of players who have exhibited statistical skill shifts, Davis' improved contact ability -- as well as newfound selectivity -- might yet support his candidacy as a breakout candidate … a mere three seasons after I initially expected it might happen. Compare each of Davis' numbers this year to those from 2009-11 in a few key categories:

Miss rate (on all swings): 27.3 percent in 2012, 32.8 percent from 2009-11
Chase rate overall: 35.2 percent in 2012, 36.3 percent from 2009-11
Chase rate in pitchers' counts: 35.6 percent in 2012, 40.8 percent from 2009-11
Chase rate with two strikes: 33.3 percent in 2012, 42.4 percent from 2009-11

Davis has also made one other noted improvement, and that's his ability to cover the outside third of the plate. After managing but .215/.295/.337 triple-slash rates with a 36.8 percent miss rate against pitches on the outside the past three seasons, Davis has boosted those stats to .393/.471/.714 and 25.3 percent. That has helped him to eight opposite-field hits, 17th-most among left-handed hitters.

Combine the two and Davis might yet have the plate coverage, plus the discipline, to maintain a healthy amount of fantasy value all season. He'll probably never be a batting-average standout -- our .272 projection for him in 2009 might even be a tad high for the remainder of this year -- but 25-plus homers is within reach. Since he's third-base eligible, he's well worth the pickup and start.

Let's take a look at some other hitters who have exhibited similar statistical shifts so far this season:

Yadier Molina is driving the ball with much more authority. This new $75 million man, fantasy baseball's No. 1 catcher through the season's first month, currently sports a .276 isolated power -- slugging percentage minus batting average, which serves as a measure of a player's ability to drive the ball -- making this the fourth consecutive half-season during which he has demonstrated improvement in the category. Molina's isolated power has gone from .072 during the first half of 2010, to .090 during the second half, to .132 in the first half of 2011, to .167 in the second half, to .276 this season. Even better: Molina is becoming more selective, as his chase rate is currently 22 percent, down from 32 percent last season; and remember that he has always been one of the better contact hitters in the game. It has been said that catchers often develop more slowly, and at a later age, than hitters at other positions. Molina, now 29, might be on track for a season of at least a .300 batting average and 15 home runs, and with the leading PA total at his position. That might well keep him among the top five at his position all year.

Eric Hosmer isn't seeing as many quality pitches to hit. Eric Karabell discussed Hosmer's BABIP misfortunes on Tuesday, and to add another wrinkle to the sophomore's struggles, how about the mere fact that he's not seeing as many strikes this season than last? Opposing pitchers threw pitches in the strike zone to him 45.3 percent of the time in 2011, but only 39.6 percent so far this season, the latter ranking him among the 10 most "worked-around" qualified hitters in the game. Better yet: Hosmer has seen only 36.1 percent pitches in the strike zone since April 21, the first day he was dropped to cleanup in the lineup, between Billy Butler and Jeff Francoeur.

Cameron Maybin is walking more, but suddenly can't hit lefties. As with Davis above, Maybin has been making more contact, chasing fewer bad pitches and drawing more walks, but the results to date, unfortunately, haven't been close to as pleasant as Davis'. Maybin ranks among fantasy's biggest disappointments through one month of 2012, and his statistical collapse versus left-handed pitchers is largely responsible. A .296/.342/.408 hitter against southpaws in 2011, Maybin has .094/.147/.188 rates against them this season, largely because they're feeding him a slew of changeups, a pitch against which he has a mere .186 batting average and only five extra-base hits, all doubles, in 90 PAs since the beginning of last season. His improving plate discipline offers hope, in light of his bad start, but until he corrects his issues against lefties, be extra picky with his matchups.

Justin Upton, slow start or not, is becoming more patient. Already a player who has turned in age-21 and age-23 seasons that rank among the all-time greats, Upton has an 11.9 percent walk rate, 18.1 percent chase rate and a 2.0 percent chase rate on noncompetitive pitches; every one of those is an improvement upon his numbers in 2011, when he was an MVP candidate. A thumb injury might partly explain his so-so rotisserie stats, but if you have any chance to acquire him on the cheap -- as in, at anything beneath a first-rounder's price tag -- you should do it.

Three up

Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston Astros: Sticking with this week's theme, Altuve has boosted his walk rate; he has walked in 8 percent of his plate appearances, up from 2.1 percent in his 57-game stint with the big club late last season. He also leads all hitters with a 6.8 percent miss rate on swings, meaning his .367 batting average shouldn't seem quite so absurd. If Altuve can keep that number between his .276 in 2011 and .300, plus chip in 34 stolen bases -- his average per season from 2009-11 -- he'll make a run at top-10 status on our Player Rater.

Edwin Encarnacion, 1B/3B, Toronto Blue Jays: With eight home runs to date, Encarnacion is already nearly a third of the way to his previous career high of 26, set in 2008. Could it be that this power-hitting prospect, now 29 years old and eight years into his big league career, is finally ready to realize his full potential? Encarnacion is hitting more fly balls this season -- he has a 55.1 percent rate -- and his 18.6 home run/fly ball percentage isn't outrageously high for a player getting that much lift on the ball. It's time to believe.

Bryan LaHair, 1B/OF, Chicago Cubs: The Cubs need to forget about Jeff Baker, because so far, LaHair has looked like a player who deserves at least a chance to play regularly at first base, both versus left- and right-handers. Sure, he's a lifetime .150/.292/.275 hitter against lefties, compared to .316/.378/.522 against righties, but a player cannot improve in that regard without experience. The Cubs have little to lose trying LaHair every day; they're not a contender and they want Anthony Rizzo to get as much of the year in Triple-A as possible. LaHair, even in his current platoon arrangement, is a worthy play in larger mixed and NL-only leagues.

Three down

Erick Aybar, SS, Los Angeles Angels: That dude named Pujols isn't the only Angels hitter struggling; Aybar, the team's leadoff hitter to begin the season, is in a funk of his own. Though he managed a surprisingly healthy 10 home runs last season, Aybar has not gone deep yet; his increasing ground-ball rate -- 70.4 percent this season, up from 51.6 -- shows that he's not driving the ball with as much authority. It has cost him a demotion to the No. 8 spot in the lineup in the past week, a move that could cost him a handful of at-bats and runs.

Mat Gamel, 1B/3B, Milwaukee Brewers: Where is the power? Gamel, who won the Brewers' starting first base job during spring training, hasn't hit as well so far as he did in the minors; his .348 slugging percentage ranks 133rd out of 183 qualified hitters. Strikeouts, however, haven't necessarily been the problem, as his 20 percent rate thus far is comparable to his 19.8 percent rate in 290 career games at the Triple-A level. Gamel needs to pick things up in the near future, because if he doesn't, he might soon find himself fighting for at-bats.

Albert Pujols, 1B, Los Angeles Angels: But let's not let Pujols get off too easily; his struggles have reached the extent that they're national news, and truly troubling to his fantasy owners. It's a fact: Dee Gordon has more home runs, 1-0. The league switch might have caused an adjustment that partly explains Pujols' problems, but statistically speaking, one change stands out: He has chased 36.5 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, up from 29.7 percent a year ago. Dan Uggla, who changed teams before last season, exhibited such an increase during a shockingly slow start in 2011. With time, though, he eventually returned to his former self. Can Pujols do that? Sure, but right now, he's a frustration.

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: Daniel Descalso (2B), Eric Sogard (3B).

Nearing new position eligibility

The following notable fantasy players are on track to earn new eligibility in the coming weeks: Jesus Montero (7 games played at C), Andy Parrino (8 games played at SS), Trevor Plouffe (8 games played at OF).

ALSO SEE