Few things in fantasy baseball are as frustrating as owning a player performing substantially beneath preseason expectations. (Well, besides losing a weekly head-to-head matchup to a team that picks up a vulture relief win during the Sunday Night Baseball game, that is.)
Fantasy owners are usually most vocal about these underachievers, for a few possible reasons: A) Despite most teams having already played 68 games, meaning more than 40 percent of the season is in the books, these owners continue to cling to these players; B) These players tend to possess a lot of "name value," and their reputations keep their owners hopeful (and partly explains the first point); C) These players' owners fear cutting them loose, as if dropping them would serve as the "wake-up call" the guy needs to turn it around.
Considering the laws of regression -- which dictate that it's highly unlikely for a .150 hitter to continue hitting as low as .150, and a .400 hitter to continue hitting as high as .400 -- the final point is a fair concern. Any struggling player, at least the ones struggling to the magnitude of those discussed in today's column, has to exhibit even mild improvement sometime, right? You know, that old, "Hey, he can't possibly get worse," theorem.
But then there's the Adam Dunn example of 2011, such a painful, year-long story, that serves as the counterargument to patience with these players.
Misread a player's declining skills as a short-term slump, and you'll torpedo your season. Today, let's avoid that. Listed below are nine struggling players, broken down into three groups: All-year stinkers, fresh-off-the-DL strugglers and hot starters who have since run cold. Who should we fear? Read on …
Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals: Picked 37th, on average, in ESPN leagues in the preseason, Zimmerman has been perhaps the most disappointing "name brand" player among batting title-eligible players, ranking 11th-worst on our Player Rater thus far. A shoulder issue (specifically an inflamed right shoulder joint) that led to a disabled list stint earlier in the year might have contributed; he recently admitted to the Washington Post that his shoulder is not 100 percent healed. Everything in his stats points to that being the likely cause.
Here's how: Divide the zone into four quadrants, "up-and-in," "up-and-away," "down-and-in" and "down-and-away." Zimmerman has struggled mightily on hard stuff up-and-in, batting .167 with a 30 percent miss rate, as well as off-speed stuff both down-and-in and down-and-away, batting .117 with a 33 percent miss rate. Those were previously strengths: He managed a .294 batting average and missed 19 percent of the time on hard stuff up-and-in from 2009 to 2011, and .278 and 27 numbers on off-speed stuff down in the zone during that time span.
All that suggests that Zimmerman, at least today's version, is one that hits only "mistake" pitches, off-speed stuff up in the zone, or fastballs over the middle of the plate. He's not hitting quality stuff anymore, so there's every reason to be concerned about his prospects the remainder of the year. Until Zimmerman proves he's healthy with improved stats in those categories, he's worth reserving … if you can.
Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee Brewers: He was a top-100 draft pick in the preseason -- his ADP was 82.9, ranking him 80th -- yet to date, he is the fourth-worst batting title-eligible player on our Player Rater (531st overall). Incredibly, Weeks' owners, at least those who still own him (he's down to 59.5 percent ownership in ESPN leagues), continue to cling to the hopes of a return to 2010 form, perhaps because he's a respectable .263 hitter in the month of June or because he has a 14.9 percent walk rate, which would represent his second-best single-year number. The problem, however, is that Weeks continues to struggle with "fast" fastballs -- measured at 93 mph or faster, that number chosen because only the fastest 25 percent thrown are within that range -- batting .135 with a 29.7 percent K rate and .115 well-hit average against them. From 2009 to 2011, meanwhile, he batted .317 with a 25.1 percent K rate and .282 well-hit average against them, underscoring that as a past strength.
So, no, I don't have a lot of hope for Weeks completely turning his season around.
Alexei Ramirez, Chicago White Sox: He's another top-100 draft pick -- he was picked, on average, 92nd (96.8 ADP) in ESPN leagues -- yet is not within the 300 best on our Player Rater thus far. He's a notorious free swinger, with his "chase" rate (swings at pitches outside the strike zone) at 36.7 percent, which is 12th-worst in the majors, and his walk rate is at 2.6 percent, second-worst. But in Ramirez's case, while his performance demonstrates that he's probably never going to reach top-five fantasy status at his position -- neither this year nor in future years -- his .291 batting average, 13 RBIs and six stolen bases in his past 23 games at least put him back on the map. Though he swung at non-strikes 38 percent of the time in the season's first month, he has done so only 32 percent of the time in June. He's being a bit more patient now and might still be a buy-low target in some leagues.
Carlos Santana, Cleveland Indians: Widely forecasted to be the potential No. 1 fantasy catcher entering the season, Santana missed time due to a concussion recently, and he hasn't performed like his old self since returning. He's a .191/.316/.277 hitter without a home run in his past 13 games, whiffing 12 times in 47 at-bats. Let's give him a mulligan, though, because: A) That's a terribly small sample for a player fresh off a concussion; and B) Concussions can be dicey and might have contributed to the performance besides. Santana might have more health risk now, specifically for reinjury, but he's also a player with every bit the same skills he had before getting hurt. Take a look at these numbers: He has a .213 well-hit average and 19.4 percent line-drive rate since returning, compared to .155 and 19.0 before his DL stint, and his BABIP is .250 since returning, compared to .284 before. A few unlucky bounces might have contributed to his recent "funk," and considering his upside, he's well worth targeting right now.
Michael Morse, Washington Nationals: Through 15 games of his season, Morse is a .230 hitter with one home run and a 24.6 percent strikeout rate, numbers that cannot help but build impatience in his owners. Considering his lengthy absence, though, isn't 15 games an awfully small amount of time during which to make judgments about his full-season potential? Morse is doing one thing differently than he did in 2011: He has swung at first pitches in the count only 21 times in 65 plate appearances (32 percent rate), whereas last year, he did so 38 percent of the time and batted .380 with eight of his 31 home runs. Morse is, simply put, an aggressive hitter, and those stats suggest a hitter fresh off the DL who has yet to fully adjust. Maybe that'll take another two to three weeks -- the length is unknown -- but when Morse does adjust, there's no reason he can't bat in the .270-.280 range while clubbing a good 15 home runs in a half-season's time.
Desmond Jennings, Tampa Bay Rays: Taking a look at his stats since returning from a sprained left knee, I'm left with the question, "Where did the patient Jennings go?" In 13 games since his activation, he's a .196 hitter with a 33 percent chase rate, 5.1 percent walk rate and 24 percent swing-and-miss rate. In the first 98 games of his career, meanwhile, he batted .264, had a 22 percent chase rate, 10.4 percent walk rate and 21 percent swing-and-miss rate. The Jennings that fantasy owners want is the one we saw late last year and during the first two months of this season, not the one we've seen in June. Perhaps that's something a minor adjustment can fix, but until we see Jennings being more selective at the plate, I can't help but be more skeptical about his immediate future.
Hot starters run cold
Derek Jeter, New York Yankees: Remember when Jeter was batting .397 and making a legitimate case for No. 1 fantasy status at his position, or at least top-3? Well, in his past 38 games, Jeter is a .252/.307/.288 hitter, stats that might remind his owners of the mediocre version we saw during the first two months of 2011. During his cold spell, he has a 66.9 percent ground ball rate, .141 well-hit average, .037 isolated power and has directed 34 percent of his hits to the opposite field. In his first 28 contests, meanwhile, he managed 62.6, .223, .198 and 40 percent numbers in those four categories. At this stage of his career -- Jeter is 37 -- he's probably a streakier player than we've come to expect in the past. This is probably just a "down spell" in his season, but it should also remind us that his ceiling might be something closer to top-10 fantasy status than top-five.
Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox: He was the highest-drafted player of anyone in today's column, picked 17th on average in the preseason (17.4 ADP), and has been surrounded by questions in recent weeks due to a thumb injury that had the threat of surgery a few short weeks ago. In 13 games since declaring his intent to avoid surgery and play through the pain, Pedroia is a .170 hitter with a 16.7 percent strikeout rate and only three extra-base hits, all doubles. Here's why that's a concern: In only two months in his career did he endure a streak of 13 games in length during which he struck out 17 percent of the time or more: May 2011 and September 2011. Pedroia's injury is having a noticeable impact on his stats, and he even left Tuesday's game after reportedly aggravating it. He's the kind of player who has played successfully through pain in the past; at the same time, he's still a risk to go under the knife at any point.
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.
Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks: His performance before and after his DL stint couldn't be more different; he batted .410 and whiffed only 10.9 percent of the time in 11 games to start the season, and has hit .148 with a 25.0 percent strikeout rate in 25 games since his activation. Young is a notoriously streaky hitter, but rarely runs cold to this extent. Yes, a 25-game sample remains small, and could be explained by his recovery from his shoulder ailment. At the same time, he has given back all of the gains in terms of plate discipline that he exhibited before getting hurt, meaning he's probably exactly what he has always been during his career: A .240-hitting, 20/20 candidate, albeit one who will whiff 150 times a year and endure painfully long slumps like this one.
Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks: One of the most promising power-hitting prospects at the time of his debut in 2011, Goldschmidt might finally have settled in at the big league level, batting .356 (32-for-90) with seven home runs and 15 RBIs in his past 26 games. Depending on your opinion of him, you likely reside in one of two camps: Either you believe this streak signals the beginning of his "career groove," or you think it's a mere short-term hot spell that's common from a player who whiffs as often as he does (27.5 percent so far in the big leagues). I'm leaning more toward the former, primarily because his improvement includes performance against breaking pitches, which was a notable weakness of his in 2011. Goldschmidt is a .269 hitter with a 28 percent swing-and-miss rate against curveballs and sliders this season, compared to .180 and 40 in 2011, and during his aforementioned hot streak, he's a .261 hitter with one home run in 23 at-bats plus a 24 percent swing-and-miss rate.
Dee Gordon, Los Angeles Dodgers: His inclusion in "Three up" should not be interpreted as any burgeoning breakout prediction; it's more a tip of the cap to a player who, thanks to a recent uptick in performance, has at least assured himself regular at-bats for the foreseeable future while diminishing his prospects of a minor league demotion. In 16 games in June, Gordon has batted .246 with 11 runs scored, seven stolen bases and a 6.6 percent walk rate, the batting average and walk rate at least competitive with the major league averages and the steals driving up his fantasy value. Sure enough, he's the No. 5 shortstop on our Player Rater in the past 15 days, and No. 8 in the past 30. Enjoy it, because Gordon should remain the streaky type, frustrating during his "Mendoza Line" periods. But hey, at least he's in the bigs for the long haul.
Ben Revere, Minnesota Twins: The Twins' decision to not grant Revere a starting outfield job at the season's onset was a puzzling one, but they handed him one in mid-May, and he has rewarded them ever since. In 27 games since his recall from the minors, he's a .325 hitter with 12 stolen bases and 16 runs scored, his speed an asset not only in AL-only leagues, but also in many mixed formats (including ESPN standard). Revere is quick; he has eight steals in his past 14 contests. It's for that reason that his .207 BABIP on ground balls is puzzling; the major league average is .224, and most of the quicker hitters in baseball typically range between .275 and .300. Teammate Denard Span, for example, has a .273 ground ball BABIP. It's for that reason that Revere's .319 batting average might not be as far off his true value as you might think; he has a 68.8 percent career ground ball rate and the speed to beat out many infield grounders.
Dexter Fowler, Colorado Rockies: He is renowned for being a total no-go in his road games, thanks to a .157/.231/.286 seasonal triple-slash rate away from Coors this season, but even during the Rockies' most recent six-game homestand, Fowler was 2-for-15 with five strikeouts and nary an extra-base hit. Small-sample caveats apply, but in the month of June, he's a .200 hitter with a 33.3 percent strikeout rate, zero homers and one stolen base in 15 games, eight of which were at Coors. Here's the truth about Fowler: Much of his outstanding seasonal stat line was the product of out-of-his-mind hitting during a seven-game, May 28-June 3 homestand; Fowler had 15 hits (.556 AVG), two homers, 13 runs scored and three stolen bases during that stretch. Now extract those stats from his 2012 totals: He's a .208/.309/.416 hitter in 55 games, with six homers and three steals. That sure looks like a more ordinary player, doesn't it? It underscores Fowler's streaky/matchups tendency, and he drops in the rankings accordingly.
Kelly Johnson, Toronto Blue Jays: His listing here is twofold: A) He's a .242/.296/.273 hitter in 17 games in the month of June; and B) Mostly as a product of his recent struggles, the Blue Jays have dropped him from the first or second spots in the lineup to fifth or lower. Couple Johnson's struggles with Colby Rasmus' uptick in play lately, and there's no hint of a reversal in the near future, which is a problem for a player who derives much of his value from runs scored. For instance, Johnson was on pace for 100 runs through the conclusion of May, but he's on pace for fewer than 40 apiece in runs and RBIs through the month of June now that he's hitting lower in the order. Again, small samples come into play with Johnson's June performance, but the role change is an obstacle, especially if continued struggles lead to a demotion even lower in the order.
Kevin Youkilis, Boston Red Sox: I've said it before and I'll say it again, but why is it so easy to say that a trade is both imminent and guaranteed to restore him to his prime-year levels of production? It's a leap of faith we might not want to take with a 33-year-old whose slugging percentage has dropped by more than 100 points in each of the past two seasons (counting this one), and who has a $13 million contract (plus $1 million buyout of a $13 million option for 2013) that might prove difficult for the Red Sox to move. Youkilis' future is cloudier than people realize; they assume that a trade is easy and that fresh circumstances will be an instant cure. Here's a better question: What if the Red Sox can't move him until the July 31 deadline? Using the Red Sox's schedule as a barometer, 58 of the Red Sox's remaining 95 games are scheduled after that date, or 61 percent. There is a heck of a lot of baseball to be played between now and then, meaning potentially a heck of a lot of waiting for Youkilis owners.
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: Tyler Colvin (1B), Ryan Flaherty (OF), Tyler Moore (OF), Brandon Moss (1B), Jayson Nix (OF), Steve Pearce (OF), Will Rhymes (3B).
Nearing new position eligibility
The following players are on track to earn new eligibility in the coming weeks: Matt Downs (8 games played at 3B), Taylor Green (8 games played at 3B), Maicer Izturis (9 games played at SS), Elliot Johnson (9 games played at 2B), Jose Lopez (8 games played at 1B), Hector Luna (9 games played at 1B), Buster Posey (8 games played at 1B), Kyle Seager (8 games played at 2B), Mark Trumbo (8 games played at 3B).