Commentary

This year's most frustrating hitters

Updated: May 23, 2012, 3:59 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

In 78.7 percent of ESPN leagues, there is an owner who is extremely aggravated.

Hit Parade

He or she is Rickie Weeks' owner; that is his current ownership percentage.

Meanwhile, in 48.4 percent of ESPN leagues, there is an owner who has been immensely pleased with a certain player's recent level of production.

He or she is J.P. Arencibia's owner, and again, that's his ownership percentage.

Today, Weeks is a nightmare to own and Arencibia looks as good as any catcher, but one month from today, would anyone really be surprised if the prevailing opinions about either had flip-flopped?

After all, Weeks is only two seasons removed from a year in which he was the No. 3 second baseman, No. 33 hitter and No. 52 player overall in fantasy baseball, while Arencibia is only three weeks removed from a miserable April during which he batted .188/.232/.281 and whiffed 19 times in 64 at-bats. For players like these two, streaky, frustrating, maddening types, fortunes can change very quickly.

Separating the value and frustration with players like these is the challenge for the fantasy owner, and in many cases, successfully separating these traits is impossible. They are the players for whom I'll say things like, "Ride the streak," yet there's often no rhyme or reason as to when that hot streak might be coming. You can only identify it when it arrives, and exploit it.

Both Weeks and Arencibia are streaky for no other reason than this: Weeks' 24.0 percent strikeout rate since the beginning of 2010 ranks 15th among qualified hitters (1,000-plus plate appearances) and he has whiffed in at least 20 percent of his PAs in every one of his big league seasons. Arencibia's 26.5 percent K rate since the beginning of 2011 ranks seventh among hitters with 600-plus PAs; he whiffed 27.4 percent of the time as a rookie last season.

[+] EnlargeRickie Weeks
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesRickie Weeks enters Wednesday's play ranked just 45th among all second basemen on the Player Rater.

Most fantasy owners know that high strikeout rates lead to disappointing cumulative batting averages; what they might not know is that they also lead to painfully long, unpredictable slumps. Such players require patience, enough roster depth to spot them out and aspirin (for their owners' headaches, of course).

Sometimes, however, their struggles become so substantial that they never enjoy a meaningful hot streak, la Adam Dunn in 2011.

That might be what's happening with Weeks.

Weeks, whose .158 batting average ranks second worst among qualified hitters in baseball, is on pace for 215 strikeouts, which would be the third most by any player in a single season in baseball history -- second if Adam Dunn, the major league leader with a 241-K pace, falls behind in the "race." There is perhaps no more telling statistic about Weeks' struggles than this: He is an .080 hitter in 29 PAs that ended with a pitch clocked at 93 mph or higher; that's substantially worse than the .314 number he managed in 177 PAs against pitches that fast from 2010-11. He has also stopped hitting pitches up in the zone, his .118/.302/.235 triple-slash rates against pitches in the upper third of the strike zone (43 PAs) considerably down from the .258/.424/.454 he managed against them from 2010-11 (251 PAs).

Arencibia, meanwhile, has made noticeable enough improvements this season that he might be worth the headache. Most importantly, he has closed the weak spot in his strike zone, boosting what were .137/.226/.216 triple-slash rates and a 45 percent swing-and-miss rate (115 PAs) against pitches down and outside in 2011 to .250/.294/.406 with a 32 percent miss rate (34 PAs) this season. That's important, because opposing pitchers might have increasingly exploited that spot had he not worked to boost his performance on those pitches.

There's only one guarantee with either player, though: Brace for an inevitable cold spell at some point in the somewhat near future. In the case of Weeks, brace for the possibility that he might be 2012's version of 2011 Dunn.

Weeks and Arencibia are hardly the only streaky, maddening hitters in the game. Let's take a look at some others, wondering whether the headaches are worth it.

Dunn: He has been one of the game's most pleasant surprises, sporting a pace of 53 home runs and 121 RBIs. Still, Dunn also has what would be a record pace of 241 K's, and his .243 batting average would rank eighth among his 12 career big league seasons. Remember, even in Dunn's successful Washington Nationals years of 2009-10, he had his share of poor months -- see September 2009's .212/.322/.333 rates -- and there are hints in his 2012 peripherals that he's not completely "cured" of what ailed him a year ago. One puzzling change is that pitchers aren't challenging him with hard fastballs up in the zone like they did a year ago; he hasn't had a hit against a fastball of 93 mph or harder in the upper third since 2010, whiffing 21 times in 34 at-bats and missing on 59 percent of his swings against them. Dunn also continues to struggle against lefties, with .174/.291/.413 triple-slash rates and a 48 percent miss rate. There's enough here to suggest he's worth the roller-coaster ride, but if you can fetch anything within range of top-50 overall value -- he's 33rd on the Player Rater for the year -- you should move him now.

Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals: He's back on the "hot" list, thanks to a .286/.340/.551, 3-homer, 3-steal performance in his past 14 games, but veteran Espinosa owners can tell you all about his penchant for cold spells. Presenting for your evaluation: April 2012 (.205/.300/.269, 1 HR, 0 SB), July 2011 (.200/.298/.310, 2 HR, 3 SB) and August 2011 (.233/.307/.359, 2 HR, 1 SB). The sum total might seem like a smart player to stash -- Espinosa did rank 12nd among second basemen for the full 2011 campaign -- but he's excruciating to have in your lineup when he's struggling. He's the ideal player to shop when he's in the middle of a hot spell.

Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh Pirates: Already this season, he has enjoyed a 13-game span during which he batted .370 (17-for-46) with six home runs and 13 RBIs, but also a 13-game span during which he batted .146 (6-for-41), didn't hit a home run and struck out 17 times. Incidentally, those polar extreme streaks were back-to-back; they extended first from April 18-May 3 (the "hot" stretch), then from May 4-17 (the "cold" stretch). Alvarez's cold spells, unfortunately, outnumber his hot ones, and there's no better explanation than this: He cannot hit breaking pitches (curveballs and sliders). He's a lifetime .151/.208/.307 hitter with a 41 percent swing-and-miss rate against them, including 92 of his 250 career K's. It's too late now to fool anyone into a deal for Alvarez, but if you stick with him ruining your team's batting average, you're likely to regret it.

Drew Stubbs, Cincinnati Reds: He has two almost-fatal flaws in his game, his Alvarez-esque inability to handle breaking pitches and his Arencibia-in-2011-like struggles against pitches down and away. Stubbs is a .163/.196/.244 hitter against curveballs and sliders this season, after .176/.236/.209 rates against them in 2011, and he has only three hits in 61 at-bats against pitches low and outside since the 2011 All-Star break, missing on 59 percent of his swings against them. Stubbs might not have shown any improvement in either regard this year, making him highly probable to challenge for 200 strikeouts and a sub-.250 batting average for yet another season, but in spite of that he continues to offer his owners just enough in terms of power and speed to stick around. He's on pace for 19 home runs and 31 stolen bases, which would give him a third consecutive season of at least 15 homers and 30 steals.

Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks: Now fresh off the disabled list, Young has already, in five games since activation, demonstrated his highly streaky nature, going 3-for-20 (.150 average) with six strikeouts. No one really expected him to maintain a .410 batting average or 74-homer pace -- that was his pace at the time he landed on the DL -- but his owners surely were hoping he wouldn't kick things off this cold, either. Young does seem like a streaky player worth owning, and even more so than the aforementioned Stubbs, because of his 20/20 potential -- he has managed those numbers in each of the past two seasons -- and improved contact rate: His 81.4 percent rate so far this year would represent a career best.

Three up

Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays: Whatever ailed Bautista before, he seems to have cured it. It took a two-homer game at Minnesota's Target Field on May 11 -- that gave him 10 homers in 11 career games at the venue, the fifth most homers by any individual player there all-time, including Twins -- to get him started, but since and including that day, he's a .340 hitter (16-for-47) with six homers and 13 RBIs in 12 contests. For the third consecutive season, Bautista has improved his contact rate, and his .205 BABIP -- .450 on hard contact, down from .593 a year ago -- hints that poor fortune has been partly responsible for his early struggles. He's back in the top 10 this week, and might even have room to improve.

Josh Reddick, Oakland Athletics: It's time to regard Reddick as a viable regular both in the real and fantasy games. While his 16.4 percent home run/fly ball rate hints that he has been somewhat fortunate in the home run category -- he has 11 in 166 at-bats -- Reddick has shown through part of this and last season that he's capable of a .280 batting average and 20-homer power, which seems about right considering he was a .278 career minor league hitter who averaged 30 homers per 162 games played. Naturally there's some sell-high potential in him, as he's currently 16th on our Player Rater, but Reddick has shown enough to date that he should remain among the top 125 hitters from today forward.

Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels: Now this is the kind of production Trout's owners expected from a player who earned a No. 1 prospect ranking in the preseason -- that per Keith Law's rankings. Trout made his 2012 debut on April 28, or 25 days ago, and on our Player Rater, only 20 players have been deemed more valuable in the past 30 days. Projecting his numbers to date over the remaining season (adjusting for the 20 team games he missed to begin the year) Trout is on pace for 24 homers, 36 stolen bases, 71 RBIs and 95 runs scored with a .333 batting average. Those are competitive with his career peak numbers, incidentally, which underscores how remarkable his recent performance is considering he's still only 20 years old. Better yet: Trout no longer has much of a question of playing time, as since spring training the Angels have shed Bobby Abreu, and lost Vernon Wells for the next two months due to thumb surgery.

Three down

Adrian Gonzalez, Boston Red Sox: This isn't meant to criticize Gonzalez as a useless fantasy asset, but rather to point out that he's no longer a lock for first-round value. He's a .271 hitter who has had a sub-.800 OPS in both April and May, and he's on pace for 11 home runs, which would be his fewest since he was a part-timer for the Texas Rangers in 2005. Gonzalez continues to trade power for a more line drive-oriented approach; he has 22 opposite-field hits, putting him on pace for 81, after setting a personal best with 73 last season. He might again be nothing more than a .300-hitting, 25-homer performer, and while that's supremely valuable in fantasy baseball, it's not as rare from a first baseman as from a player at another position. To that end, there have been 15 instances of a .300-25 season from a first baseman in the past three seasons combined.

Eric Hosmer, Kansas City Royals: His season seems to only get worse with time; he's a .183/.264/.329 hitter in the month of May, after hitting .171/.232/.303 in April, and he has batted .140 in his past 15 contests. The source of Hosmer's struggles is perplexing. This season, he has improved his contact rate, boosting it from 84.3 percent in 2011 to 86.7, his swing-and-miss rate, lowering it from 21 to 20 percent, his chase (swings at pitches outside the strike zone) rate, lowering it from 33 to 30 percent, and hasn't suffered severely in well-hit average (the percentage of his at-bats that ended in hard contact), going from .241 to .196. All of those numbers hint that Hosmer is a smart buy-low candidate, but to date, he has shown little to generate excitement in fantasy. One stat that's somewhat troubling: His 43 percent rate of pitches seen in the strike zone is 17th worst in the majors. Opponents seem to be working around him, so don't be so quick to assume an instant turnaround.

Howard Kendrick, Los Angeles Angels: Everything about his career-year 2011 numbers screamed "regression," but even Kendrick's critics couldn't have expected him to drop off by this much. He's a .146 hitter (6-for-41) with zero extra-base hits and 13 strikeouts in his past 12 games. Kendrick has slipped into some bad habits this season, his K rate is 23.6 percent, which would be a career high, and his chase rate rising by 1 percent (31-32) this season. As a player who generates a healthy chunk of his value through his batting average, Kendrick cannot afford to swing and miss at the rate that he has to date.

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 (3B), Ryan Flaherty (3B), John Mayberry Jr. (1B), Donnie Murphy (2B), Jordan Pacheco (3B), Nick Punto (3B), Mark Trumbo (OF).

Nearing new position eligibility

The following players are on track to earn new eligibility in the coming weeks: Allen Craig (9 games played at 1B), Greg Dobbs (8 games played at 1B), Matt Downs (8 games played at 1B), Eduardo Escobar (8 games played at 3B), Maicer Izturis (8 games played at SS), Elliot Johnson (9 games played at 2B), Andy Parrino (9 games played at 2B), Trevor Plouffe (8 games played at 3B), Nick Punto (9 games played at 3B), Mark Trumbo (8 games played at 3B).

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