- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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This season, kids rule the school.
It has been 32 days since the 2012 debuts of two of the most anticipated prospects in baseball: April 28 represented Game 1 of the seasons for Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, the Nos. 1 and 2 prospects on Keith Law's preseason list.
Since that date, Trout, all of 20 years old, has been as valuable as almost anyone in fantasy baseball. Although he kicked off his 2012 campaign with an 0-for-7 combined performance in his first two games, perhaps instilling a sense of fear in his owners that he'd repeat his mediocre 2011 (.220/.281/.390 triple-slash rates), he has since gone on a monstrous 30-game tear. That's a convenient number; our Player Rater scores players on seven-, 15- and 30-day periods as well as for the entire season, and in the past 30 days, Trout has been the eighth-best hitter in fantasy.
Trout's statistics are eye-popping, and as said in this space a week ago, his full-season paces compare to numbers that scouts forecasted for him during his prime -- something that people probably wouldn't have expected for four or five more years. Assuming he maintains his current per-game levels of production, Trout's final "pace" stat line would look like this:
.304 AVG, .364 OBP, .522 SLG, 23 HR, 65 RBI, 37 SB, 93 R
(Note: These numbers do not match the "pace" stats on Trout's ESPN player card because, whereas those account for all Los Angeles Angels games played thus far, these don't dock him the 20 games the Angels played before his promotion.)
Those are historic statistics. Although it's perhaps a stretch to assume Trout can maintain those lofty paces, let's put them into perspective: The home runs and stolen bases would rank him among the 10 best single-season numbers in those categories among players in their age-20 seasons or younger, and the batting average would make him only the fifth player to manage a .300 mark or better during the expansion era (1961 forward). He'd become only the second player in an age-20 season or younger to manage a 20-20 season with a .300-plus batting average, joining Vada Pinson (1959, .316, 20-21), and he'd become the first player in history to manage a 15-30 season of .300-plus.
It's that .300, 15-30 stat line that has frequently been cited as Trout's expected prime, and his per-162-game minor league rates support it: He managed a .342 batting average, 13 homers and 61 steals per 162 games during his minor league career.
But can Trout, who won't turn 21 until Aug. 7, really keep that up?
Trout's strikeout numbers might seem troubling -- he has a 22.5 percent K rate, higher than the major league average of 19.5 -- and his .361 BABIP hints that regression is in order. But a closer examination shows that both numbers might be misleading. Trout's miss rate on his swings is 16 percent; that's significantly better than the 22 percent major league average. His BABIP is also fueled by a .382 number on ground balls, but as one of the quicker players in baseball, he should be able to sustain a BABIP well north of .300 on grounders.
Here's what's most encouraging about Trout's breakthrough: He's swinging at more non-strikes, his 28 percent "chase" rate three-tenths of a percent higher than the major league average, but he's also succeeding a good share of the time that he does. Those who watched his Tuesday night performance might recall the Andy Pettitte slider he went down and pulled for a triple; our pitch-tracking tool shows that that's Trout's first hit of 2012 on what it calls a "noncompetitive" pitch (meaning well outside the strike zone). Trout also has 10 hits on nonstrikes, which is 15th-most in the majors since his April 28 debut this season.
Last season, Trout performed horribly on pitches outside the strike zone: He managed .136/.283/.273 rates and missed on 35 percent of his swings. He's a noted low-ball hitter who, in a comparable number of plate appearances (58 in 2012, 57 in 2011), has stepped up his ability to recognize his pitch and hit those that sink low out of the strike zone. That's testament to his performance being legitimate.
Sure, Trout's elevated BABIP hints that some regression is in order, but it might be to the level of a .280 hitter during his weakest stretches of the year, not to the .220 he batted in 2011. We might indeed be looking at a player whose final line looks something like this: .290 AVG, 15 HR, 55 RBI, 35 SB, 70 R.
That's a top-60 caliber hitter this year, even from today forward.
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.
Harper, meanwhile, might rank only the No. 59 player during the past 30 days per our Player Rater, but many of his accomplishments cannot fairly be measured there. Just 19, Harper has shown he belongs in the majors, and many of his non-rotisserie-standard statistics hint that greater things lie ahead.
Harper's 14 walks and 11.2 percent walk rate are the first; they show that he's not pressing, swinging at everything in an effort to prove his worth. And, like Trout, when Harper swings at a non-strike, he's reasonably effective: He has seven hits on those and two on noncompetitive pitches, both of which were thrown well higher than the strike zone. Harper has a 24 percent miss rate on his swings, higher than the 22 percent major league average since his debut, but not by a margin that inspires a great deal of fear that a dreadful, lengthy slump is coming.
Harper also has been an extra-base machine with 14 since his promotion, as well as a .239 isolated power and 57 total bases, the latter ranking 35th in the majors since April 28. Much of that has come in the form of doubles and triples, but as he matures, those should eventually become the home runs fantasy owners desire.
Perhaps Harper's .284-20-55 pace -- that forgiving him the 20 Washington Nationals games played before his promotion -- isn't eye-popping in fantasy, but he might not finish far from it. That could land him easily within the top 100 hitters.
Angel Pagan, San Francisco Giants: So far this season, Pagan has looked much more like the spark plug he was for the New York Mets in 2010 than the streaky, so-so outfielder he was in 2011. Oddly enough, it was a move to the middle of the Giants' order that has fueled Pagan's recent hot spell; he is a .429/.493/.556 hitter with 10 RBIs in 17 games since May 12, which was the first day of a string of 17 in which he batted third, fourth or fifth (though he did bat leadoff on May 23). Fantasy owners might have drafted him for his stolen-base and runs-scored contributions, but in Pagan's defense, he has five steals and 11 runs during that 17-game span, illustrating how speedsters like him don't necessarily stop running simply because of a drop in the batting order.
Mark Trumbo, Los Angeles Angels: If only he could get those two additional games played at third base to qualify there in ESPN leagues. No matter, because Trumbo's fantasy owners -- and the Angels -- can find a place for a bat as productive as his. He has home runs in three consecutive games and is a .352 hitter with six homers and 15 RBIs in 27 games in May, starting all but one Angels game during the month. What has made the difference for Trumbo has been improved discipline, as his walk rate has risen from 4.4 percent in 2011 (3.5 during the second half) to 7.3, and his "chase" rate (swings at non-strikes) has dropped from 41 percent in 2011 (43 during the second half) to 36. A .393 BABIP shows that his batting average is largely fluky, but Trumbo's power is legitimate.
Dayan Viciedo, Chicago White Sox: There's no question that Viciedo is a powerful slugger; the question is whether he'll be patient enough over the long haul to remain a consistently useful fantasy option. For now, however, his owners are thrilled. He has eight home runs and 22 RBIs in his past 15 games, and because he has whiffed only four times in 59 at-bats during that span, he has a sparkling .424 batting average. That Viciedo has only four walks all season, as well as a 37 percent chase rate, underscores that there's going to be a cold spell at some point in his 2012. But this is your classic ride-the-streaks player, and his home ballpark is conducive to power. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals: Was he a one-year wonder? It sure seems it, as Gordon has followed up his miserable .232 April batting average with a .231 mark in May, and after hitting four homers in April, he hasn't hit one yet this month. Remember when Gordon was an aggressive hitter, attacking pitches early in the count? No longer: He's a .250/.294/.375 hitter in 17 PAs on first pitches in the count this season, swinging just 17 percent of the time, after managing .403/.411/.833 rates in 74 PAs, while swinging 30 percent of the time, in 2011. It seems that opposing pitchers, during the winter, caught on to Gordon's attacking the first pitch, or those when he's ahead in the count, and simply aren't giving him as good pitches to hit in those situations this season. He has failed to adjust accordingly, and until he does, he's an effective no-go in fantasy.
Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox: A top-10 overall caliber hitter when healthy, Pedroia hasn't had the best fortune in the injury department during his career. His health has come into question again this week, which has cost him in the rankings; he has a torn abductor muscle in his thumb that cost him Tuesday's game. Pedroia plans to play through the injury, but there's a good chance that he'll either press through and perform at a lower level or eventually succumb to a disabled-list stint. In his defense -- and to explain his still-top-20 ranking -- Pedroia did suffer a knee injury on May 16, 2011, nearly succumbed to surgery yet played through the pain, and batted .295 with 23 RBIs, 24 runs scored and 6 stolen bases in his next 30 games. He's capable of contributing even when at less than 100 percent but his health indeed bears watching in the coming days.
Nick Swisher, New York Yankees: Speaking of playing through injuries, Swisher's hamstring injury, which cost him six games at the beginning of May yet didn't cost him a DL stint, apparently has taken a toll on his numbers since his return. He's a .202/.244/.321 hitter in 22 games in the month, striking out 23.3 percent of the time, which is a higher K rate than he has managed in any single season during his major league career. Swisher might return to form the further removed he gets from his injury, but his performance is frustrating nevertheless, and until he shows signs of improvement, he's probably better reserved in shallow mixed leagues.
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: Jamey Carroll (3B), Elian Herrera (2B), Joe Mather (3B), Logan Morrison (1B), Donnie Murphy (2B), Trevor Plouffe (3B), Nick Punto (3B).
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 (9 games played at 1B), Matt Downs (8 games played at 1B), Eduardo Escobar (8 games played at 3B), Taylor Green (8 games played at 1B), Josh Harrison (9 games played at SS), Eric Hinske (8 games played at 1B), Orlando Hudson (8 games played at 3B), Maicer Izturis (9 games played at SS), Elliot Johnson (9 games played at 2B), Stephen Lombardozzi (9 games played at OF), Andy Parrino (9 games played at 2B), Nick Punto (9 games played at 3B), Mark Trumbo (8 games played at 3B), Omar Vizquel (8 games played at 2B).
Tristan H. Cockcroft discusses the performances of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper since their call-ups and what to expect from them.