- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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Some players are worth the wait.
Take Matt Wieters, for example. Baseball's No. 1 prospect -- per Keith Law's top 100 -- entering his rookie season of 2009, Wieters, by all accounts, was destined for fantasy superstardom. He was described as a future MVP, and was generously projected even during his rookie campaign.
Things didn't go particularly smoothly for Wieters during his first two big league seasons, however. He failed to earn a single vote in the Rookie of the Year balloting. He finished 15th among catchers on our 2009 Player Rater. And as a sophomore in 2010, he fared even worse, 20th at his position.
As is often the case, fantasy owners began to lose faith in Wieters' skills entering 2011; he was selected eighth among catchers on average, and was projected for modest .280-19-72 numbers. He would finally break through, hitting a career-high 22 home runs, 14 of those coming after the All-Star break.
Wieters serves two important lessons for fantasy owners: First, catchers tend to experience lengthier adjustment periods at the big league level than players at other positions. That could be a result of the physical demands of the position, or the mental demands of handling an entire pitching staff, or both. Second, any prospect could be subject to a multiyear adjustment period before realizing his full potential. Big league competition, after all, is substantially more challenging than anything a player might experience in the minors.
This season, though, Wieters appears on track for the superstar status projected for him a few years back. He is the No. 2 catcher, No. 44 hitter and No. 61 player overall on our Player Rater, and there's reason to believe he'll maintain those healthy rankings all season if not improve upon them. Wieters, so far, has been this year's top "post-hype sleeper," a delayed success story in the same mold of Alex Gordon in 2011.
Let's rattle off some of Wieters' statistical improvements, all of which support his candidacy to be fantasy baseball's No. 1 catcher come season's end:
• His isolated power -- or his slugging percentage minus his batting average, which helps measure a player's power -- has enjoyed a steady rise, going from .128 in 2010, to .141 during the first half of 2011, to .246 in the second half of 2011, to .280 through his first 27 games of 2012.
• He has maintained a better-than-80 percent contact rate both this and last season, and has seen his well-hit average -- the percentage of his at-bats that ended with hard contact -- go from .220 in 2010, to .242 in 2011, to .270 in 2012.
• He continues to exhibit the gains as a right-handed hitter -- remember that he's a switch-hitter -- that he enjoyed in 2011: He's a .381/.458/.476 hitter in 24 plate appearances from that side, after .339/.430/.694 triple-slash rates in 142 PAs in 2011, all of those numbers substantially improved upon his 2009-10 stats.
• As a left-handed hitter -- and this is the key -- so far this season he has reverted to the successful slugger that he was from that side in 2009-10, managing .278/.360/.608 triple-slash rates and a 16 percent miss rate. Much of that has been the result of more consistently hard contact: He has elevated his well-hit average from that side from .219 last season to .266 this season.
While Wieters' .311 BABIP and 20.6 percent home run/fly ball rate might hint at some regression in his fantasy stats, his improvement at the plate cements his status as a .290-hitting, 25-homer performer at the very least. In the best-case scenario, he could bat north of .300 and stick to his current 38-homer pace.
Wieters isn't the only "2012's Alex Gordon" post-hype breakout. Let's take a look at some other youngsters who, after a few early seasons of big league struggles, appear to have hit their strides this year:
Edwin Encarnacion: What is it with the Toronto Blue Jays and out-of-nowhere power surges? Encarnacion has long been regarded as a power-hitting prospect, earning top-100 status on Baseball America's 2005 list, and his having managed a career-best 26 homers in 2008. But this season, Encarnacion's age-29 season, he has enjoyed a start hotter than any other, his nine home runs in 30 games projecting to 49 over a full year. Colleague Eric Karabell recently analyzed Encarnacion's hot start in detail, with two key points about the slugger's outburst being that he's playing for a new contract, and he's embracing his status as a pure pull-power hitter. To the latter point, Encarnacion has pulled 59 percent of his balls in play, up from 50 percent in 2011, and he has pulled seven of his nine home runs. Jose Bautista, another career late bloomer, exhibited similar traits when he broke out with a 54-homer campaign in 2010. Encarnacion might by all rights manage a career high in homers this season. Is 40 possible? Perhaps.
Adam Jones: He's not an ideal fit for the "post-hype sleeper" label, as Jones did break through to a noticeable degree in 2011, but there's little doubt that he has elevated his game yet again so far this season. He's on pace for 43 home runs, 27 stolen bases and 124 runs scored; all of those would easily shatter his previous career bests. What has made the difference for Jones has been more consistent contact; his 86.0 percent contact rate would represent a career high, and with two strikes, he has slashed his miss rate from 23 percent in 2011 to 18 percent this season. Now 26, Jones looks like he has arrived as a fantasy star.
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.
Jed Lowrie: Two things have always stood in Lowrie's path to success, injuries and consistent at-bats. The latter is no longer an issue; the Houston Astros acquired him with the intent to play him every day for so long as he's healthy. Thrive in his new surroundings Lowrie has, as he's a .307 hitter with four home runs in his first 23 games for his new team. Before you get too excited, though, be aware that this isn't the first time he has enjoyed one hot month's play; he was a .286/.375/.527 hitter in September 2010 and a .368/.389/.574 hitter in April 2011. Maybe this is only a brief hot spell before Lowrie struggles with injuries, but considering this isn't the first time he has enjoyed a hot spell while at full health, it's well worth taking the chance that this is the year he finally stays on the field.
Jason Heyward: Many fantasy owners soured on Heyward after his disastrous sophomore campaign in 2011; he finished 380th on our Player Rater after being tabbed the No. 43 player on average in live drafts in the preseason. Injuries ruined his year and spawned awful habits, including an extreme ground ball tendency that severely impacted his power. Through a month-plus of this season, however, Heyward has looked much more like his 2010 rookie self than the undesirable 2011 model, the most encouraging development his nine stolen bases. At the plate, however, Heyward appears a new man. What was a 53 percent ground ball rate last season has become a 36 percent rate in 2012, and on pitches on the inside third of the plate he's a .261/.393/.522 hitter in 28 PAs, quite improved upon 2011's .180/.327/.247 numbers. Heyward has an outside chance at a 30/30 season, and that's exactly what people who drafted him a year ago were hoping they'd get. It's why patience is warranted with many youngsters.
Ryan Doumit, Minnesota Twins: If there is any silver lining to be found in Justin Morneau's injury, it's the resulting increase in at-bats due Doumit. The reason for the boost is twofold: The Twins desperately need productive bats like his in their lineup, and they lack many viable alternatives to eat up the abandoned designated hitter at-bats. Doumit has three home runs in his past three games, and is a .286 (12-for-42) hitter in his past 14 contests. He has also started each of the Twins' past 10 games, five at DH, four at catcher and one in right field, illustrating his status as an everyday player who is catcher-eligible in fantasy. Doumit has always been a good hitter -- he has averaged .279-20-78 numbers per 162 games played since the start of 2008 -- but health is the question, as he has played in only 417 of 676 team games during that time.
Adam Dunn, Chicago White Sox: He's baaaaaaack. Well, almost back. Dunn is off to a nine-homer, 23-RBI start, both of those ranking him among the American League's top five in either category; last season he didn't hit his ninth homer until July 8 or drive in his 23rd run until May 28. He's also on pace for 47 home runs and 120 RBIs, both of which would represent career highs. One reason for Dunn's improvement is his selectivity; the aspects of his game that presented the most problems last season, left-handed pitching, hard fastballs and pitches up, are the ones in which he's swinging less often overall and less often when out of the zone. Still, lefties remain an issue, as he has .097/.256/.161 triple-slash rates against them, and he's on pace for 240 K's, showing that some flaws remain. Treat Dunn like a bounce-back candidate, but only in that he's better than his 2011 self, but still maybe only 90 percent of his 2010 self.
Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins: A mere four-inch adjustment to his batting stance apparently made all the difference for Stanton, who, after a .247/.286/.342, one-homer April, is off to a .300/.400/.867, five-homer start to May. He attributes the improvement to his moving his hands back four inches in his stance. "Keep [the hands] back here and the shoulder stays down," Stanton told the Miami Herald. "Four damn inches was the whole thing." Improved plate discipline has also helped; he has chased 7 percent fewer pitches outside the strike zone (32 percent in April, 25 so far in May) and has five walks, up from four in April. The jury remains out on the effects of Marlins Park on power -- it ranks 26th in home runs on our Park Factor page through nearly six weeks -- but that Stanton hit two homers in three games at San Diego's Petco Park shows that he has the kind of power that could clear any fence. Maybe it's premature to declare him a 40-homer candidate once more, but it's not unthinkable that he could do it.
Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals: Talk about a sophomore slump. Espinosa's free-swinging ways have only worsened this season, as his chase rate (swings at non-strikes) has risen from 30 percent in 2011 to 35 percent this year, and his 31.1 percent strikeout rate would represent a professional high. His fantasy owners have long known not to trust him for batting average, and that he'll endure painful, extended slumps, but Espinosa hasn't shown us anything to hint at future excitement yet. There might come a stretch where he warrants a pickup for a short-term period -- something in the neighborhood of Pedro Alvarez's recent performance -- but Espinosa has quickly become more headache than help.
Colby Rasmus, Toronto Blue Jays: Here's a player who might have fit this week's lead topic had he gotten off to a good start. Rasmus was once considered nearly as good a prospect as anyone already discussed in this week's "Hit Parade" -- he was Keith Law's No. 12 prospect overall in 2009 -- but through three seasons and a month he's a .248/.319/.427 career hitter who has averaged 20 home runs and 66 RBIs per 162 games played. Optimists hoped Rasmus might thrive in new surroundings in Toronto this season; pessimists latched onto his struggles with breaking pitches as a reason he might never realize his full potential. To the latter point, he's a lifetime .212/.239/.379 hitter who has a 34 percent miss and 35 percent chase rate against breaking pitches (curveball, slider, knuckleball, screwball), and as a result opponents are throwing him more of them. Perhaps at some future point, Rasmus will make the necessary adjustments, but his 24.6 percent strikeout rate, up from last year's 22.1 percent, is discouraging for now.
Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee Brewers: This has not been a great year for the Weeks brothers; combined they're hitting .178 in 225 at-bats. Rickie is the one off to the most troubling start, as he's the National League's leader in strikeouts with 37. One aspect of his game sums up his problems: Against pitches clocked at 93 mph or higher, he's a .100/.182/.250 hitter in 22 plate appearances this season, whereas from 2009 to 2011 he managed .292/.384/.520 triple-slash rates in 232 PAs against them. Weeks has long been a mediocre hitter when he gets behind in the count, and it doesn't help that pitchers are working him more aggressively, throwing first-pitch strikes to him 2 percent more often (58 percent in 2011, 60 in 2012). There's legitimate reason to be concerned about his slow start.
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: Joaquin Arias (SS), Stephen Lombardozzi (3B), Jesus Montero (C), Laynce Nix (1B), Andy Parrino (SS), Trevor Plouffe (OF), Cody Ransom (3B).
Nearing new position eligibility
The following notable fantasy players are on track to earn new eligibility in the coming weeks: Jonathan Herrera (9 games played at 3B), Elliot Johnson (8 games played at 2B), Andy Parrino (8 games played at 2B), Nick Punto (8 games played at 3B), Mark Trumbo (8 games played at 3B).
2dKevin Van Valkenburg