How to handle slumping sophomores
When is it time to cut ties with Beckham, Coghlan, Fowler, Reimold?
Patience isn't always the right answer.
We talk a lot about the need to have patience with struggling superstars -- Mark Teixeira, Felix Hernandez and CC Sabathia, for example -- but for other players, especially lesser ones, patience will do little more than sink your fantasy team further into oblivion. I once came up with a suggestion to weigh the need for patience I called the "Regret Rule:" Flip over your draft's results and you had the number of weeks you were required to wait on the player before cutting him loose. So, for instance, a 26th-round pick could be cut in Week 1; a first-rounder requires 26 weeks' patience.
But patience is not something that can be dealt with in such cut-and-dried terms. Even when I devised the concept, I admitted that certain players deviate from those norms. Let's face it: Every season, someone is going to be surprisingly productive, just as someone is going to be unexpectedly bad.
Many of those times, there's an obvious hint to help you make decisions regarding your patience. Track record, health reports and peripheral numbers have a lot to say about that, and in case you haven't noticed, there's a common thread with the aforementioned Teixeira, Hernandez and Sabathia examples: None has an obvious concern in the health department, each has a good overall track record, and each has a track record of being a better player later in the year than he is earlier.
That's where we come to today's topic: Struggling players who lack the track record of those three megastuds. In case you haven't noticed, 2010 has not been a pleasant time so far for 2009's rookie standouts. If you've been following this sport for any length of time, surely you've heard the phrase "sophomore slump." Judging by the early returns, 2010 might be called the "Year of the Sophomore Slump."
Just ask a Gordon Beckham owner what I'm talking about.
Better yet, let me tell you, because in over a decade covering the game, I don't think I've ever seen the volume of questions about a slow-starting player that I have about Beckham this year. They're e-mailed, posted, chatted or tweeted in all shapes, sizes and colors, dealing with such issues as bench or cut, redraft or keeper, buy-low or leave be.
It's understandable, because through 44 Chicago White Sox games, or more than one-quarter of their schedule, Beckham is batting .200 with one home run, nine RBIs and a .548 OPS. To put those numbers into perspective, he ranks 176th of 184 qualified hitters in batting average, 178th in OPS, and has been outperformed in terms of both homers and RBIs even by such stalwarts as Roger Bernadina, George Kottaras, Darnell McDonald and Matt Treanor.
So what exactly is wrong with Beckham, and just how patient should owners be with him?
Plate discipline has not been an issue for him as, while his strikeout rate is up (21.4 percent of his at-bats, up from 17.2 in 2009), so is his walk rate (10.7, from 9.5). Inside Edge also reveals that his chase percentages early in the count (before two strikes), with two strikes, and on non-competitive pitches (not near the strike zone) are identical to those of his rookie year: 17, 36 and 17 percent, respectively. Each of those is right in line with the major league averages.
It's Beckham's performance versus fastballs that has regressed. His batting average against the pitch is only .208, down from .259 in 2009, and he has put only 38 percent of his swings against it into play, down from 46 percent. His tendency to swing at high fastballs has been hinted at as a weakness by scouts over the years, too, and sure enough, his well-hit average of swings on pitches up in the zone is only .085 this year, down from .142 (which itself was a remarkably high number).
In other words, when every White Sox media outlet says things like "he's pressing," they might be dead-on with their Beckham analysis. Pitchers appear to have adjusted to his weaknesses, and perhaps he's now at a stage at which he needs to readjust, as many young hitters do. The question is how much longer the White Sox might afford him the opportunity at this level.
To the second half of the question, while it's nice to see the White Sox exercising patience with one of their most promising young players, fantasy owners need not follow suit. Correcting his flaws is not something Beckham is likely to do overnight, and there's every chance it might take until the All-Star break before he's back on track. Even then, he might return to the productivity level of his rookie year before taking off in 2011, which suggests he has more keeper- than redraft-league value. This is the kind of player keeper-league owners with deep benches would love to keep stashed, but that's quite an exclusive group.
Beckham isn't the only player seemingly enduring a "sophomore slump." Here's a quick look at the struggles of some other notable 2009 rookies:
Chris Coghlan, OF, Florida Marlins: He's another hitter who has had significant issues hitting the fastball, his batting average against the pitch dropping from .338 as a rookie to .225 this year, and his percentage putting the pitch into play dropping from 49 to 34. He's also hitting a lot more grounders, on 58.8 percent of his balls in play, and his BABIP on them has dropped from an unrealistically high .291 to .183 this season. Perhaps luck has something to do with the latter, but Coghlan, typically a speedy on-base type, appears to be another hitter mired in a "readjustment" period. Though he has picked up the pace somewhat in May, meaning a bit less panic-button mode than with Beckham, Coghlan is still batting just .254 with a .297 on-base percentage and two steals in his past 15 games. That's not especially valuable in a standard ESPN league, and he can be cut in that format.
Dexter Fowler, OF, Colorado Rockies: His isn't a fastball issue; it's a problem with breaking pitches. A .229 hitter versus off-speed pitches (which includes breaking balls) in 2009, Fowler has batted .156 against them this year, and he has put only 25 percent of them in play, down from 38 percent as a rookie. Much of the issue comes when he's a left-handed hitter; he's a .174/.269/.261 (AVG/OBP/SLG) hitter from that side, struggling often against sliders and curveballs. Hitting coach Don Baylor has told The Denver Post he believes Fowler is better served attempting to adapt to those pitches at the big league level, which again is a nice sentiment, but hardly encourages Fowler's fantasy owners. Batting average might be a problem during his adjustment period, and the Rockies do have enough alternatives in their outfield to limit the sophomore's at-bats. NL-only owners can't afford to shed the speedy Fowler, but those in standard leagues might.
Everth Cabrera, SS, San Diego Padres: A hamstring injury has been his primary obstacle this season, but even before he got hurt, Cabrera was hardly off to a spectacular start. He's not especially disciplined -- he has a chase percentage of 47 with two strikes -- and looks very much the part of a player only two years removed from Class A ball. I said it in the preseason and stand behind it: Cabrera's minor league career is probably not yet complete.
Nolan Reimold, OF, Baltimore Orioles: He got off to a dreadful start before being returned to Triple-A Norfolk, where unfortunately he has failed to pick up the pace. Reimold is batting .088 (3-for-34) with only one extra-base hit, a home run, in 10 games for Norfolk. At the time of his demotion, talk that his confidence was shattered was popular, and while it helps his possible position flexibility in fantasy that he's dabbling in some first base at Norfolk, it might be an unnecessary distraction. Reimold doesn't look nearly as close to a recall as another recently demoted player, Max Scherzer, so don't hold your breath.
Kyle Blanks, OF, San Diego Padres: A common thread with these sophomores is clearly a problem with fastballs, and Blanks is no different. He's hitting .183 against the pitch and has put only 26 percent of his swings against them into play, down from .291 and 32 in his rookie year of 2009. Maybe his elbow was an underlying issue, but it seemed to be more of an opportunity for the Padres to shuffle him off the roster. Even when healthy, there's no guarantee he'll quickly return to 2009 form. Blanks has a long swing that will lead to piles of strikeouts -- and therefore inconsistency in terms of batting average -- and it's possible he might need an extended stay in Triple-A before realizing his full potential. He's one of the most promising young power hitters, but he needs to make a lot of adjustments.
TOP 100 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Nelson Cruz, OF, Texas Rangers: If there's any knock on Cruz, it should be his propensity for injury, because in his healthy games this season he has been nothing short of one of the best players in baseball. In 10 games since his return from the disabled list, he's a .361 hitter (13-for-36) with two home runs, 16 RBIs and two stolen bases. On a per-game basis, Cruz is a surefire top-25 overall player.
Corey Hart, OF, Milwaukee Brewers: One of the streakier players in baseball, Hart is finally in one of his token hot spells, batting .280 (14-for-50) with six homers and 12 RBIs in his past 13 contests. Enjoy the ride while it lasts, because you never know when another Hart slump is looming, perhaps during the second half of the season, when his career OPS is 43 points lower than during the first half. Remember, there's still over a month before the All-Star break!
David Ortiz, DH, Boston Red Sox: What's most remarkable about Ortiz's to-date performance -- which is still a far cry from those of his prime years -- is that one year ago today, he was batting .195 with one measly home run in 40 games. Maybe a threat to his job security, presented recently by Mike Lowell, was all Big Papi needed to get his season back on track? Ortiz probably will never be a 54-homer, 137-RBI man as he was in 2006, but he's currently on pace for 41-104 numbers. Any fantasy team could use that level of production.
Ben Zobrist, 2B/OF, Tampa Bay Rays: It took him 39 games to go deep this season, but is anyone really going to complain about a lack of power from a player batting .307 who is on pace for 86 RBIs and 33 stolen bases? Perhaps Zobrist's sudden power burst will serve as a steppingstone to greater offensive numbers; he's hitting .420 (21-for-50) with two homers and 10 RBIs in his past 13 games, after all.
Aaron Hill, 2B, Toronto Blue Jays: There aren't many fantasy owners out there who believed Hill could repeat 2009's 14.9 home run/fly ball percentage, which was more than six percent higher than his career rate. Still, how many observers expected he'd remain in such a funk this deep into the year? In 30 games since his return from the DL, he's a .158 hitter (19-for-120) with five homers and 13 RBIs, and one can only hope the hamstring injury that sent him to the shelf in the first place isn't still a lingering issue.
Jose Lopez, 2B/3B, Seattle Mariners: He's a noted second-half standout and one about whom we annually preach patience, but even the patient types might be frustrated with Lopez's lackluster performance to date. He's hitting just .211 with one home run and a .503 OPS in 43 games. One encouraging note: Last year on this date, he was a .226 hitter with three homers and a .592 OPS in 44 contests.
Justin Smoak, 1B, Texas Rangers: He hasn't been any more productive than the man he replaced, Chris Davis, through the first 30 games of his big league career, and let's not forget how difficult it is sometimes for a young player to adapt to the top level of competition. One thing Smoak can do well is draw walks -- he has done so on 14.8 percent of his plate appearances -- but a prospect like him cannot survive on taking pitches alone. What Smoak's owners should worry about: Davis is hitting .312 with 22 RBIs in 27 games since being demoted to Triple-A.
Rickie Weeks, 2B, Milwaukee Brewers: Hitters who strike out as often as Weeks does -- 26.6 percent of his career at-bats -- are susceptible to streakiness, and he's no different, batting just .118 (6-for-51) with only two extra-base hits, both doubles, and 16 K's in his past 12 contests. Fantasy owners might more easily live with Weeks' hot and cold spells if not for the fact that he's one of the most injury-prone players in baseball. By the time he rights himself, he might be on the DL.
Pickups of the week
Mixed: Mike Napoli, C, Los Angeles Angels. Napoli's fantasy owners were nothing but frustrated the first two weeks of the season, as the Angels, preferring defense behind the plate, started Jeff Mathis at catcher in 10 of their first 14 games. Through that period, Napoli had come to the plate only 17 times, or just better than once per contest. Not that anyone should celebrate an injury, but Mathis' DL stint has opened a door for Napoli, and while it took him a couple weeks' time to get readjusted at the plate, he's back to being the underrated power source expected in the preseason. Napoli has hit home runs in three of his past four games and six total in his past 16 contests, batting .283 with 14 RBIs during that time. If the Angels would only afford him a starter's at-bats, he might yet be a 30-homer candidate.
AL-only: Trevor Crowe, OF, Cleveland Indians. Crowe was never truly regarded as an elite prospect, deemed by scouts as more of a fourth-outfielder type while he was rising in the minor league ranks, but if there's one thing he could always do well, it was steal bases. He swiped 122 bags in 455 career minor league games, which equates to 43 per 162, and averaged 20 per minor league year regardless of his number of games played in each. Crowe is also disciplined enough at the plate to not hurt an AL-only team in batting average, and with Grady Sizemore on the DL, center field is his on an every-day basis.
NL-only: Laynce Nix, OF, Reds. Unlike with Crowe, batting average is a problem for Nix, a .238 career hitter who has struck out in 27.7 percent of his at-bats. But while Crowe lacks power, Nix has plenty, averaging one home run per 19.2 at-bats between this and last season. If you can afford yourself the luxury in a daily format, pick and choose Nix's matchups to minimize the batting-average risk, but there's a lot to like about a slugger like this who calls a homer-friendly ballpark (Great American Ball Park) his home.
New position qualifiers
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.