- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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It took 40 of his team's games, but in his (and the Kansas City Royals') past 14 contests, Eric Hosmer is a .353 hitter (18-for-51) with two home runs and 10 RBIs. Even better: He has chipped in three stolen bases during that time.
Hosmer, despite all that, still ranks just 23rd among first basemen for the season on our Player Rater. Yes, his slow, first-40-Royals-games start to the season was that bad: Remember that on the morning of May 21, he found himself batting .172/.238/.311, with five home runs and 19 RBIs in 38 games.
Hosmer does, however, rank seventh at his position if you sort our Player Rater by the past 15 days. And, sticking with the theme of the week, it is now time to declare that version of Hosmer -- the past-15-days one -- the real one.
Now, touting Hosmer as a currently underrated player, or a buy-low candidate, might not seem especially bold. We did, after all, rank him our No. 8 first baseman during the preseason, projected him for a .289 batting average, 20 homers and 89 RBIs, and in the "Hit Parade" rankings he has never dropped lower than 54th. But the perception of Hosmer today, accounting for his year-to-date performance, might have him priced considerably beneath that No. 7-8 value point.
That is why it is now time to pounce.
Simply put, consider this: In order for Hosmer to meet our preseason projection, from today forward, he needs to play in 101 of 108 remaining Royals games, bat .324 (with .364 on-base and .478 slugging percentages), hit 13 home runs, drive in 56 runs, steal seven bases and score 59 runs. With the exception of perhaps the batting average, do any of those numbers seem unrealistic?
In his final 101 games of 2011, to compare, Hosmer batted .290 (with .334 on-base and .452 slugging percentages), hit 14 homers, drove in 60 runs, stole nine bases and scored 53 runs. In other words, he needs to effectively match his level of production from June 5, 2011, through season's end the rest of the way, while getting 14 more hits -- "lucky bounces," perhaps.
"Lucky" might characterize a lot of what has changed in Hosmer's game. Consider that, during his first 37 games of the season (in 40 Royals games), his BABIP was .165. In his past 14 contests, meanwhile, his BABIP is .381, despite the fact that he has a lower well-hit average (.157) during the latter than the former (.199) time span. (Well-hit average, to remind you, measures the percentage of a player's at-bats -- not plate appearances, at-bats, that resulted in hard contact.)
Putting Hosmer's full season into context, he has the fourth-lowest BABIP among qualified hitters (.219), despite a .188 well-hit average that ranks 107th out of those 164 hitters (putting him in the 35th percentile). One statistic, in particular, tells the story of his season: He has a .500 BABIP when he makes hard contact, eighth-worst in the majors, and he has seen only 43 percent of pitches in the strike zone, 13th-worst in the majors.
To explain the former, an increased number of defenses have employed a shift against Hosmer, an odd strategy considering his skill set. When he has put the ball in play this season, 31 percent of the time he pulled it, and 33 percent of the time he hit it to the opposite field. That has even held up of late: He has pulled 27 percent of balls in play and hit 30 percent to the opposite field in his past 14 contests. Without having seen every one of his at-bats -- I admit I have not -- I'd wonder whether opposing defenses are taking note and shifting less often. At the very least, the numbers say that they shouldn't employ the shift.
To examine the latter, Hosmer appears to have compensated for a growing tendency for pitchers to be more conservative working him. The rate that pitchers throw him pitches in the zone has scarcely changed between his first 37 and past 14 games -- 0.2 percent higher during the latter (42.8-42.6) -- but he's being more aggressive with non-strikes, swinging at them 36 percent of the time (up from 30 percent during his first 37 contests) and managing .304/.407/.391 triple-slash rates against them (.122/.306/.204 during his first 37). Normally that'd signal erosion of a player's plate discipline, but in Hosmer's case, it's promising to see him making those adjustments, and that he has 9.6 percent walk and 14.6 percent strikeout rates during his professional career helps ease those concerns, signaling that when he swings at a bad pitch, he's confident that he can hit it hard.
Sum it up and Hosmer is well worth acquiring, even to the point that he might be a .300 hitter with 15-20 homer power from today forward. That's a top-eight fantasy first baseman, even during a year and at a position that sports Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Paul Konerko, Adrian Gonzalez, Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Teixeira. After those eight -- and arguably comparable with Encarnacion or Teixeira -- there isn't another first baseman I'd rather own.
Sticking with the week's theme, let's make some more bold, "it is now time" predictions for hitters.
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.
"It is now time " to take Gordon Beckham seriously as a fantasy option. Back-to-back seasons (2010-11) of horrendous production might have caused people to give up on Beckham, and even during his recent hot spell he has hardly fully restored what was once top-five-at-his-position fantasy upside, but he's making some key adjustments that could at least keep him in every lineup the remainder of the year. Still available in more than 50 percent of ESPN leagues, Beckham has batted .288 with six home runs in his past 18 games, fueled by an 87.5 percent contact rate during that time that easily exceeds the 79.7 percent rate he had from 2009-11. He's swinging and missing less often -- 14 percent rate in his past 18 games, compared to 22 percent during his career -- and has five hits and only six swings and misses on 34 swings against pitches measured at 93 mph or higher in his past 18. Small sample, yes, but those things hint at an adjustment that could keep him more stable in the batting-average category than he showed in either 2010 or 2011. His ranking shows the necessary caution, but that he has cracked the Top 125 this week demonstrates that he belongs in any lineup for now.
"It is now time " to call Colby Rasmus' recent hot spell a mirage and declare this a perfect time to sell. During his past 14 games, Rasmus is a .351/.403/.702 hitter with four home runs, 10 RBIs and two stolen bases, and that he's 25 years old and has long been projected to be a future fantasy stud might have his owners wondering whether he has finally arrived. I say no, he hasn't. Not yet. Take a look at Rasmus' schedule during that hot spell: Three games at Rangers Ballpark (May 25-27), games against starters in funks like Tommy Hunter (May 28), Jake Arrieta (May 29), Daniel Bard (June 3) and Philip Humber (June 5). Rasmus also hasn't shown substantial improvement this season, neither the full year nor in his past 14 contests, in the weakest area of his game: He's a .205/.205/.409 hitter against breaking pitches (curveballs and sliders) this season, although he did hit a home run off a Humber slider on Tuesday. That homer is a start, but Rasmus has work to do. I think this is more likely a hot spell and a sell-high opportunity for his owners than it is a sign of him having arrived.
"It is now time " to trade for Austin Jackson. It's rare that I endorse a trade for a currently disabled player, but in Jackson's case, this might be the one time you could pounce. The abdominal injury he suffered probably has spawned some questions in his owners, and the performance of Quintin Berry during his absence might have Jackson's owners wondering how quickly the Detroit Tigers will get him back into the lineup. The most common mistake a Jackson owner could make: thinking he's a mere speedster, useless in the other categories. He's not: His 18.2 percent K and 12.6 percent walk rates represent, by far, career bests, and they support his candidacy as a .300-plus hitter in his remaining healthy games. One month from now, with some luck in the health department, Jackson should have long since reclaimed his center field and leadoff role. And once he has, it'll be too late to have landed him at a possible discount.
"It is now time " to get Jay Bruce, who might be the most unfairly ranked player in this week's column. There's a simple reason Bruce ranks but 30th this week: He's a .158 hitter with two home runs and 24 strikeouts in 57 at-bats in his past 18 games, underscoring his tendency to be a wildly streaky slugger. Take his statistics from this date forward last season, too, and you might have concerns: He was a .235 hitter with 15 homers in his final 100 games, after .290-17 in 57 games before it. There's no better time to acquire one of the game's elite than during his cold spells, however, and Bruce, now 25 years old, continues to show the kinds of improvement that make him one of the best up-and-coming sluggers in baseball. Consider that he has his well-hit average in each of the past three seasons, reaching a career-best .241 thus far (that number 24th among qualified hitters), he has lowered his ground-ball rate accordingly and he has shaved a percent off his swing-and-miss rate in each of the past two seasons. Bruce is merely in a funk, understandable for a player who strikes out nearly once every four at-bats, but if you can acquire him on the cheap now, you might land yourself a steal.
Allen Craig, St. Louis Cardinals: This dude can hit at least when he's healthy. In four games since returning from the disabled list, Craig is 5-for-16 (.313 AVG) with a double and a home run, giving him a .358 batting average, six doubles and six homers in 17 games for the season, and he has split his games evenly between first base (2 starts) and right field (2). The Cardinals clearly regard him as an integral part of their offense, having batted him between second and fifth since his activation and started him against both right- and left-handers. Craig has managed .302/.353/.541 lifetime triple-slash rates with 21 homers and 80 RBIs in 136 games, numbers that might vault him into the top 50 on this list if not for his health risk. But that risk is legitimate: He has made four trips to the disabled list in 16 months, including for groin, knee and hamstring issues.
Dexter Fowler, Colorado Rockies: Colleague Eric Karabell recently took an in-depth look at Fowler's hot streak, which is well worth the read, and there is no better summation for how productive Fowler has been than that he currently ranks 12th in the majors in OPS (.961). As Karabell notes, however, Fowler's splits are substantial and disconcerting. Fowler is an incomplete player, so say his .170/.254/.321 road rates, but at least they underscore him as a brilliant matchups play when the Rockies are at home. He has historically been a better hitter at Coors: Last season was the only one during which he was a productive road performer (.286/.367/.415), but even in 2011, he had a higher OPS at Coors (.811) than on the road (.782). Appreciate him for what he is, but know what he is.
Justin Morneau, Minnesota Twins: I cannot begin a rational discussion of Morneau's value without first dishing out the caveat, "He will break your heart." He is not the kind of player in whom you can sink a hefty long-term investment; his health history, which includes multiple concussions and four DL stints since 2010, make him a risk to be lost for an extended period -- if not the season or his career -- at any moment. Morneau also still sports a second-half career OPS (.786) more than 100 points lower than during the first half (.893), so there's little doubt that you should trade him the moment you get an offer pricing him anywhere significantly higher than his "Hit Parade" rank. But why not appreciate his contributions today, if you have him? He's a mere .230 hitter in 19 games since his return from the DL, yes, but during that time he has six homers and 20 RBIs.
Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves: This isn't entirely about his .172 batting average or his 15 strikeouts in 58 at-bats during his past 14 games. It's mostly about those stats coinciding with the day he left a game early with blurred vision, May 14, representing the first day we heard reports of vision problems. Freeman, granted, has two multi-hit games out of four plus a .278 batting average and a home run since receiving prescription goggles to correct the problem, but for the foreseeable future he's a player whose performance needs be closely monitored. He's got top-10 fantasy first baseman potential when healthy, but as that's arguably the deepest offensive position in the game, any question about a first baseman's long-term outlook has to suppress his ranking. Monitor him closely.
Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves: His three-hit game on Tuesday was his first multi-hit contest in his past 22; he is a .221 hitter (17-for-77) with one home run and 23 strikeouts total during that span. Considering how poor his 2011, Heyward's owners are understandably concerned, having difficulty deciding whether this is a mere short-term slump or a return to the awful hitter he was last season. In defense of it being a short-term slump: He has a 23.9 percent strikeout rate and 32 percent chase rate this season, both of those significantly higher than his numbers in either category in 2010-11, painting the picture of a swing-for-the-fences, streaky slugger. Such prototypes tend to endure slumps comparable to this. But to hint at 2011 fears: Heyward's ground-ball rate has risen 8 percent during his 22-game slump, going from 35 to 43 percent, though the 43 is still a substantial improvement upon his 53 percent in 2011. Still, he has been frustrating to own of late, and there's reason to lower long-term expectations accordingly.
Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners: His batting average is in the midst of a three-year slide, his .256 mark to date representing a career worst, and don't be too quick to proclaim him "unlucky" thanks to his .266 BABIP. Remember, one of Ichiro's strengths during his heyday was his ability to hit non-strikes: A .283 hitter on those from 2009-10, Ichiro batted .197 against them in 2011, .247 so far this year and .175 since May 1 (in 46 plate appearances). He also sports another familiar poor trait from 2011, in recent weeks: Ichiro is a .227 hitter against fastballs clocked 93 mph or higher since May 1 (24 PAs), similarly poor to his .196 mark of 2011 and both substantially beneath his .333 mark of 2009. Ichiro, now 38 years old, looks like a player in the waning years of his career, and while he might be more .275 than .250 hitter, that still wouldn't be enough to vault him back into the top 50 hitters.
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: Allen Craig (1B), Taylor Green (1B), Corey Hart (1B), Orlando Hudson (3B), Stephen Lombardozzi (OF), Andy Parrino (2B), Omar Vizquel (2B).
Nearing new position eligibility
The following players are on track to earn new eligibility in the coming weeks: Tyler Colvin (9 games played at 1B), Greg Dobbs (9 games played at 1B), Matt Downs (8 games played at 1B), Eduardo Escobar (9 games played at 3B), Adrian Gonzalez (9 games played at OF), Josh Harrison (9 games played at SS), Elian Herrera (8 games played at 3B), Eric Hinske (8 games played at 1B), Maicer Izturis (9 games played at SS), Elliot Johnson (9 games played at 2B), Buster Posey (8 games played at 1B), Steve Tolleson (9 games played at 3B), Mark Trumbo (8 games played at 3B), Kevin Youkilis (8 games played at 1B).
9hAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com