Commentary

Big names get off to slow starts

Can we trust star hitters to return to their past greatness this year?

Updated: June 13, 2012, 5:49 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Think it has been a rough year for pitchers?

Hit Parade

Take a look at the troubles of our projected first-round -- or first- and second-round in an ESPN standard league -- hitters, and you might recognize it a rough year for all members of fantasy's elite.

Albert Pujols, our projected No. 2 hitter during the preseason, endured an atrocious first month-plus as he adjusted to his new digs in the American League, batting .197 with one home run in his first 35 games.

Matt Kemp, projected No. 3, for 34 games looked like he'd carry every fantasy team on his back, batting .359 with 12 home runs, before succumbing to a hamstring injury that has twice since landed him on the disabled list. As things stand, there is no timetable for his return.

Troy Tulowitzki, projected No. 6, was batting .287 and on pace for 26-homer and 89-RBI numbers before straining his groin on May 30 and landing on the DL.

Jacoby Ellsbury, projected No. 8, appeared in seven games, batting .192 with nary a stolen base, before suffering a partially separated shoulder that has him on the DL for at least another few weeks.

Justin Upton, projected No. 9, has stayed healthy, unlike the previous three, but currently sports a .245 batting average and a 13-homer pace. His struggles, in fact, reached a point at which he was benched in consecutive games last week.

Evan Longoria, projected No. 11, managed a .329 batting average and 28-homer and 134-RBI paces through his first 23 games, before tearing his hamstring on April 30 and landing on the DL.

And Adrian Gonzalez, projected No. 13, finds himself batting just .260 with a 13-homer pace, numbers that would represent easily his worst in any of his seven full big league seasons.

Let's focus first on Upton, because his owners might be most understandably frustrated -- remember the difficulty in predicting injuries -- of the bunch. This is a player who, after all, is 24 years old and coming off a breakout 2011 during which he managed 31/21 numbers, a .289 batting average and earned one first-place vote en route to a fourth-place finish in the National League MVP balloting. He's also a player who, on average, was selected 13th in ESPN leagues in the preseason, and whom I even touted a player who, based upon projected 2012 performance, might make a compelling case for No. 1 overall status entering 2013.

[+] EnlargeJustin Upton
Norm Hall/Getty ImagesMost of Justin Upton's underlying stats say he's potentially due to return to his level of greatness sooner than later.

Upton's statistics tell the tale of a slugger enduring perplexing struggles. Examining his numbers, there's not a lot to pinpoint as a specific cause:

• K rate: 23.5 percent in 2012, 18.7 percent in 2011. This is a problem, yes, but in defense of the number, Upton's K rate in 2009, when he managed .300-26-84 numbers as a 21-year-old, was 23.3 percent. It's not like this is monstrous regression.
• BB rate: 11.7 percent in 2012, 8.8 percent in 2011. OK, so he has improved in this regard, which helps ease worries about the K rate increase.
• BABIP: .307 in 2012, .319 in 2011, .334 career. Perhaps Upton has suffered a few unlucky bounces, but there's not enough to explain how he lost 44 points in batting average since 2011, and 29 points comparative to his career number.
• Well-hit average: .235 in 2012, .259 in 2011, .239 from 2009-12 combined. He's still making quality contact, so no real worry there.
• Isolated power: .117 in 2012, .240 in 2011. This is a problem. Upton clearly is not driving the ball with as much authority. Still, that's more identifying the problem rather than the specific cause.
• Chase rate up 4 percent (27 percent in 2012, 23 percent in 2011), zone rate (pitches to him thrown in the strike zone) up 1 percent (48-49), miss rate down 0.4 percent (26.8-26.4). He's also hitting .378 with a .486 slugging percentage against pitches clocked at 93 mph or higher, which compares favorably to his .305 and .558 numbers of 2011. In short, there's nothing to indicate that Upton's bat speed has slowed, that he has become excessively impatient ( la Rickie Weeks), or that opposing pitchers merely aren't challenging him as much.

There's only one, specific aspect of Upton's game in which he has shown a marked decline in performance between this and last season, and it's his performance against curveballs. Take a look:

2012: 0-for-19, 10 K's (50 percent rate), 40 percent miss.
2011: .327 AVG (17-for-52), 24 percent K rate, 30 percent miss.

This is Upton's performance against every other type of pitch:

2012: .271/.362/.401 triple-slash, 21.3 percent K, 25 percent miss.
2011: .285/.362/.520 triple-slash, 18.5 percent K, 27 percent miss.

Yes, it's a twofold problem, Upton against curveballs and Upton's isolated power, but some of that could perhaps be explained by a thumb issue he played through in April (and reportedly since), and it's difficult not to think that he'll improve if he makes some adjustments. The key is that he continues to play … and players with Upton's raw talent, coupled with past results that back it up, tend to figure these things out given enough time.

We've perhaps reached -- or are at least approaching -- the lowest point of Upton's seasonal value curve, so he's a steal of a buy-low target today. Judging by many of the trade proposals I've read involving him, he's unquestionably the type of player you should be acquiring, not questioning.

Addressing the other preseason fantasy studs:

Pujols: Since his aforementioned 35-game, season-opening cold spell, he's batting .349/.409/.651 with eight home runs and 25 RBIs, which represent seasonal paces of 46 homers and 145 RBIs. Pujols' seasonal career averages are .326/.417/.610, 42 homers and 125 RBIs, meaning the "Pujols of old" has been back ever since that apparent league adjustment period. No longer any questions here. Unless you're so fortunate as to play in a league in which Pujols' owner cares for nothing other than season-to-date statistics, your buy-low window has long since closed.

Injured studs Kemp, Tulowitzki, Ellsbury and Longoria: Injuries are Stephania Bell's area of expertise, but let's take a look nevertheless at these four in terms of quantity and quality of remaining games they might give you.

In Kemp's case, setbacks stink, because they sometimes beget further setbacks. There's little question that Kemp has been the most valuable fantasy player during his healthy games since the beginning of last season. The question, however, is just how many of those games he might provide you looking forward, as he already raced back too soon last time and is now out for even longer. The Los Angeles Dodgers play 75 games after the All-Star break, out of 99 remaining contests, or roughly 75 percent of their remaining schedule. Considering the lack of an estimated timetable on Kemp's recovery, that sounds about right as an expectation. And the problem with the quality of his remaining games is that, since this was a hamstring injury, his current five-steal pace might not be far off.

Tulowitzki is scheduled to begin a rehabilitation assignment on Wednesday, while Longoria will run the bases Thursday to determine his rehab plan, putting his estimated return in the one to two week range, per the Tampa Tribune. It's rare that I'd call a trade for a currently DL'ed player smart; but these are two who qualify. Tulowitzki might have four DL stints on his résumé, but the facts speak volumes: From 2007 to 2011 his average second-half stat line was .327/.395/.576, 13 homers, 51 RBIs and 64 games played, not one of those second halves fair to classify as anything less than excellent. Longoria, meanwhile, was performing like an MVP candidate before getting hurt, and his career history shows improved power during the second half. He has averaged one homer per 16.3 at-bats after the All-Star break, compared to one per 20.6 at-bats before it. Both should be ready to play every single remaining game from July 1 forward, if not sooner than that.

That brings us to Ellsbury, whose injury issues have become even more maddening than Kemp's. This will be Ellsbury's second season in the past three during which he failed to appear in even 100 games, and the earliest timetable for his recovery, per the Boston Red Sox's official website, appears to be the first week of July. There's plenty of time for a setback, and we won't know how much his shoulder has sapped his power until after he returns. If Ellsbury plays every second-half game for the Red Sox, he'd appear in 76 more out of 100 remaining Red Sox games (76.0 percent). I'm iffy about him, and might consider selling if I could.

Gonzalez: Per ESPN Stats & Information, one of his flaws this season is a much more aggressive approach at the plate. On first pitches in the count, Gonzalez has swung 35 percent of the time and batted .244 (46 PA-enders); he swung 28 percent of the time and batted .449 on that count in 2011 (81 PA-enders). Gonzalez's numbers also exhibit the same in pitchers' counts: 52 percent swing rate, .378 average in 2012; 46 percent swing rate, .466 average in 211. He also went a career-high 26 games without a walk from May 12-June 10, further compounding the problem. Gonzalez is at least aware of the issue, however, and it seems like something that, as with Upton, might require a mere adjustment. A player of his age (30), talent and stature should be able to correct it given time, meaning he's an attractive buy-low candidate in his own right. The rankings to the right show that he's no longer in the discussion for first-round status … but would anyone be surprised if he was a top-five fantasy first baseman from today forward?

Three up

Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals: I was wrong. Apparently a 19-year-old with only 129 games of minor league experience, 57 of that at Double- (37) or Triple-A (20), can become an instant fantasy mega-stud. I like to adjust in-season call-ups' pace numbers to scheduled remaining games, so let's do so with Harper: 95 games played, .307 batting average, 17 home runs, 45 RBIs, 47 walks, 71 runs scored, 19 doubles, 9 triples. Consider that among all teenagers in the history of Major League Baseball, no one has ever managed more than 24 homers, 82 RBIs, a .322 batting average or 100 runs scored, and remember, the players who achieved those benchmarks at age 19 or younger all played more games than Harper possibly could in 2012. This is a historic campaign thus far from Harper, his .247 isolated power one of his most telling statistics. He's no longer a mere dynasty-league franchise chip; he's a meaningful, must-start even in all redrafts.

Trevor Plouffe, Minnesota Twins: Speaking of isolated power, Plouffe's is .276. There are only 10 batting title-eligible hitters who have a greater number than his, and it's not like his home run/fly ball percentage is entirely driving it; his is 19.2, a tad high, but not substantially above the 14.0 rate in his 513 career big league plate appearances (149 of them this season). Where did this power come from? Who knows, because his lifetime minor league isolated power was .148, though he did manage a .322 mark in 51 games for Triple-A Rochester in 2011. Now 25, Plouffe absolutely warrants plug-in status at the bare minimum, and you never know with players like this … they might just earn mainstay status in time.

Carlos Quentin, San Diego Padres: He's in the midst of a massive power tear since his return from right knee surgery, batting .432 (16-for-37) and clubbing five home runs with 10 RBIs in 11 games since activation. Whatever happened to Quentin's power drying up at Petco Park? He has two homers in his first five contests there, and they were measured at 431 and 429 feet. Quentin, simply put, has the kind of power that can clear any fence, and his tendency to pull for power capitalizes upon the one soft spot at Petco: The left-field line. This isn't to say that he's destined to finish among the top five in homers from today forward. It merely states that he shouldn't be a mere afterthought in homers/RBIs.

Three down

Brett Gardner, New York Yankees: As with the Matt Kemp example above, Gardner has endured setback after setback with his injured right elbow, and now questions are being raised as to whether he'll return this season. He visited with Dr. James Andrews on Monday, and per the Newark Star-Ledger, Gardner learned at least that there are no issues with his elbow ligaments, eliminating the prospect of season-ending Tommy John surgery. "It really doesn't matter what [Dr. Andrews] said," Gardner said. "I think I'm going to play [this season]." Still, that's a vague prognosis, and there remains no timetable for Gardner's recovery. He might play -- at best -- half of the Yankees' remaining season. That's approximately 50 games, and it's not necessarily worth waiting for in shallow mixed leagues.

Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox: Maybe now we have our answer. Pedroia, who is pushing to play through a thumb injury, has batted .129/.222/.161 with a 25.0 percent strikeout rate in eight games since returning to the lineup, numbers that hint that he's probably well beneath 100 percent. The strikeout rate represents a massive increase from his 11.4 percent number in April and May combined, his well-hit average has slipped from .200 in the first two months to .129 in June and he has missed on 23 percent of his swings in June, up from 14 percent in April and May. Now, some of that is the adjustment required to play through the issue, but what percentage of his usual form might Pedroia reach given time? Ninety percent? Eighty? Here's the worst part: If the true answer is, say, 50-60, might the Red Sox consider asking him to undergo surgery to correct it?

Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks: Whereas Young got off to a scorching start to the season, batting .410 with five home runs in 11 games, before landing on the DL with a shoulder injury, he hasn't looked remotely close to the same player since his May 18 activation. In Young's past 18 games he has batted .175/.288/.222 with only three extra-base hits, all doubles, he's 0-for-2 in stolen base chances and he has struck out 17 times in 63 at-bats. He has historically been a streaky player, yes, but those recent statistics demonstrate a player less the breakout candidate he seemed in April, and more his historical, 2007-11 self: That's a .240-hitting, 23-homer, 71-RBI, 20-steal, yet 23.0 percent K rate player.

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: Greg Dobbs (1B, OF), Matt Downs (1B), Eduardo Escobar (3B), Adrian Gonzalez (OF), Josh Harrison (SS), Elian Herrera (3B), Eric Hinske (1B), Omar Quintanilla (SS), Steve Tolleson (3B), Kevin Youkilis (1B).

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), Matt Downs (8 games played at 3B), Maicer Izturis (9 games played at SS), Elliot Johnson (9 games played at 2B), Hector Luna (8 games played at 1B), Tyler Moore (9 games played at OF), Jayson Nix (8 games played at OF), Buster Posey (8 games played at 1B), Will Rhymes (9 games played at 3B), Kyle Seager (8 games played at 2B), Mark Trumbo (8 games played at 3B).

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