What to make of hot/cold June hitters?
For most of us, we grew up investing considerable stock in full-season statistics. Baseball conditioned us that way; many popular records were based upon a season's accomplishments: 61 (homers, for a while), 190 (OK, until that one was revised to 191), .400 (less a record than the batting-average plateau of hitters' dreams), 1.12 (heck, in as pitching-rich a season as this, maybe someone will make a run). Another example: "He's on pace for a 100-RBI season," demonstrating how we pick a certain baseline in a category as a good year.
In recent seasons, however, as sabermetrics and statistical splits have infused themselves into our game, many of us have become obsessed with that familiar phrase we've come to know as the "small sample size," picking a tiny slice of a player's statistics to make (often significant) judgments about him.
Here's the problem: That's a lot of different stat groups with which to paint our perceptions, and often the importance of a small set of stats versus the full season's worth gets lost. See whether you remember this quote from April 20, in this very space: "Folks, there are 15 days of baseball now in the books. That's roughly one-twelfth of the season, meaning that the sample size of stats we've just experienced will happen 11 more times."
At the time, we were digesting statistics that represented one-twelfth of the full-season statistical pie. But it was also one identical to the player's year-to-date statistics, and, again, full-season stats carry a lot of weight with us. Resisting the urge to act upon them the same way we might a 162-game group of .300-30-100 numbers was tricky then. Hopefully, if you were listening, you did (in most cases).
Here's what has happened since: Those 15 days, that one-twelfth slice, was followed by another, creating two different stat sets, the most recent 15 days and the player's year-to-date statistics. Those 15 days were followed by another, and another and today we're rapidly approaching the point where six-twelfths -- or one half of the 2010 season -- are in the books. But as each time period has passed, players' year-to-date statistics have further solidified, such that with each passing one-twelfth fraction, those full-year numbers will change less and less.
That's where our perception comes in, because the 15 days that opened the season end up having a heck of a lot more impact with us than, say, the most recent 15 days, because of what either of those sets does to the year-to-date numbers. In order to illustrate, let's play a little anonymous comparison game, shall we?
April: 16 games, .143/.238/.286 (AVG/OBP/SLG), 1 HR, 4 RBIs
May/June: 47 games, .291/.395/.633, 15 HRs, 43 RBIs
April/May: 47 games, .292/.410/.578, 10 HRs, 38 RBIs
June: 24 games, .181/.287/.245, 1 HR, 7 RBIs
Player B is Jason Heyward, who, if not for his landing on the disabled list on Monday, might have been more easily forgiven his miserable June. In fact, once he's healthy he might be forgiven anyway; his thumb injury provides a convenient excuse.
Of course, age has something to do with our perceptions of these two. Ortiz is 34 years old and Heyward 20, and if you've ever studied age trends in baseball, you know at which of those two ages a player is more likely to improve versus decline.
To even better demonstrate the point, let's put Heyward into a more reasonable comparison bracket, with a similarly aged player:
Heyward's June: 24 games, .181/.287/.245, 1 HR, 7 RBIs
Player C's June: 17 games, .215/.278/.354, 2 HRs, 13 RBIs
Player C is Mike Stanton, who admittedly was panned in this very space just three weeks ago. As previewed in that column, now his owners are giving up on him, following his striking out a whopping 29 times in his first 65 at-bats and producing those meager numbers. Still, even as slow-starting as he has been, Stanton has been more productive in June than Heyward. Oh, and he's also 20.
It doesn't feel that way, though, does it? That Heyward has a .251 batting average, 11 homers, 45 RBIs and .821 OPS for the season makes him look significantly more valuable than Stanton. Yes, he probably should be, if only because his skills were more apt to translate quickly to the big leagues than Stanton's, but if you're going by straight numbers, neither one has been especially useful this month.
Of course, as noted in that April 20 "Hit Parade," while we shouldn't ignore recent performance, we shouldn't base any rash decisions upon it, either. June statistics shouldn't be any less relevant in our judgments than those accrued in April, but they also shouldn't be the deciding factor when making those judgments.
So today, to help balance your perceptions, let's take a quick-hitting look at players whose June statistics have fallen significantly out of line with their numbers of April and May. Do their performances this month matter? Is it time to buy or sell, or discard the numbers outright? While perusing the list, however, keep one thing in mind: Had these numbers been amassed in April, you can be sure you might be looking at them entirely differently than you are today.
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.
Julio Borbon, OF, Texas Rangers (23 games, .392/.437/.570, 2 HRs, 10 RBIs): He has always been capable of producing a batting average like this -- well, at least one of .300 or better -- having hit .310 in his minor league career and .312 as a rookie last season. If there's any gripe about Borbon, it's that he's supposed to be a speed demon, yet has been caught stealing on three of four tries in the month. That might be one point to use when you attempt to buy him, because you should.
Ryan Braun, OF, Milwaukee Brewers (25 games, .275/.312/.422, 3 HRs, 16 RBIs, 0 SBs): These aren't terrible numbers, projecting to 19 homers and 104 RBIs over a 162-game season, but they aren't exactly Braun-like, being that he was a consensus first-rounder in the preseason. Nothing in his peripherals indicates he's at risk for a huge decline, and past history indicates he has a career second-half OPS 41 points higher than in the first half. I'd dismiss this recent slump.
Chris Coghlan, OF, Florida Marlins (24 games, .378/.460/.643, 3 HRs, 27 runs): The sophomore slump is over! Coghlan's strikeout rate could use improvement, as never before as a pro has he struck out so often as in 23.3 percent of his at-bats, and he has swiped but two bases in the month. Still, Coghlan is back doing what he does best, working counts and getting on base. The steals will come, and his June statistics look a heck of a lot more like the real thing than the two months before it.
Stephen Drew, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks (23 games, .221/.287/.302, 0 HRs, 9 RBIs): Just wondering out loud here, but is Stephen Drew quietly developing into one of the more overrated players in fantasy? For all the buzz over the years, he has offered precious little production, and while he has a history of above-average finishes, he doesn't look at all the part of the .291-21-67 player he was two seasons ago. Maybe Drew's June serves as a reality check.
Andre Ethier, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers (25 games, .228/.274/.337, 1 HR, 9 RBIs): He's surprisingly still on pace for .313-29-116 numbers despite having made a trip to the disabled list this season and endured a miserable June, and perhaps the better way to demonstrate how far his value has slipped is that he once topped our Player Rater, a little more than a month ago, but today he ranks just 82nd on the list. Ethier is absolutely capable of meeting those full-season paces, however, so maybe his June numbers present you a brief buy-low window?
David Freese, 3B, St. Louis Cardinals (22 games, .234/.290/.250, 0 HRs, 5 RBIs): This is as obvious an adjustment period as you'll see with a rookie, and one of the reasons for it is that he's regressing in terms of plate discipline, whiffing 17 times compared to three walks in 69 plate appearances in June. Freese is talented enough to rebound, but he's also not an elite prospect; it's probably smarter to shop him around now in the hopes you could steal him back even cheaper once he finally begins to pick up the pace offensively.
Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, San Diego Padres (25 games, .378/.426/.714, 7 HRs, 22 RBIs): Ahhhh, now there's the real Adrian Gonzalez! OK, perhaps his June numbers projected to a full season would be an unrealistic expectation, but they're much closer to his true value than the two months before it. Plus, if he's traded next month, his value would soar with Petco Park no longer sapping his offensive rates.
Austin Jackson, OF, Detroit Tigers (19 games, .254/.303/.310, 0 HRs, 6 SBs): The steals are nice, but the rest is probably a package much closer to Jackson's true value in his rookie season than the ridiculous April pace he maintained. Remember, he boasted a BABIP north of .500 at one point; some correction should have been expected. Jackson is as free swinging as they come, whiffing once every 3.57 at-bats and 4.22 times per walk, so if you plan to keep him around instead of shopping him (the latter of which is far more advised), understand he'll be a batting-average risk whose primary asset is his speed.
Kelly Johnson, 2B, Diamondbacks (24 games, .235/.348/.337, 1 HR, 1 SB): As productive as he was the first two months of the season, it's difficult to dismiss Johnson as a flash in the pan whose fantasy value should be ordinary the remainder of the year. That said, he has a history of brutal slumps, rarely maintaining an elite level of performance for more than just a couple of months. Johnson's current .261 batting average looks about right and his 28-homer pace remains somewhat unrealistic, so it's probably still time to sell him.
Matt Kemp, OF, Dodgers (25 games, .196/.252/.326, 2 HRs, 3 SBs): He has slumped to the point where he's now getting a few nights' rest -- the oft-bandied about "breather" -- but that's probably a smart move on manager Joe Torre's part. Kemp's plate discipline has regressed during his slump to the point where he has fanned 32 times in 92 at-bats this month. Fantasy owners often lack patience with first-round talents in the midst of funks; Kemp is no batting-title contender but he's as sound a 30/30 candidate as there is in the game. Time to pounce!
Paul Konerko, 1B, Chicago White Sox (23 games, .360/.434/.605, 6 HRs, 23 RBIs): His bounce-back campaign rolls on, and while we discussed his lofty full-season paces months ago with a bit of skepticism, there they stand today at 45 homers and 127 RBIs. Konerko might not feel like a 40-homer hitter, but why assume he can't do it? He has done it twice previously, has swatted 30-plus on five occasions and has one of the most homer-friendly ballparks in baseball helping his cause. If his owners are "selling high," take 'em to the cleaners.
Adam LaRoche, 1B, Diamondbacks (25 games, .222/.300/.422, 5 HRs, 20 RBIs): The homers and RBIs are nice, but isn't this the point of year when LaRoche is supposed to begin picking up the pace in every offensive category? Strangely enough, he batted .296 in April in comparison. Then again, he did bat .344 in June 2009, the only time he has ever batted .300-plus in a month before July, yet has nine such instances of .300-plus months from July through season's end. Call his April a random fluctuation, but his power is promising, and he has one of the most favorable home ballparks helping his cause. He's as strong a buy-low bet as there is.
Carlos Lee, OF, Houston Astros (26 games, .299/.367/.515, 5 HRs, 20 RBIs): This depends entirely upon perception. On paper, Lee looks like an obvious buy-low, but that dreaded word, "obvious," means everyone might be onto you if you try it. After all, we're talking about the great Carlos Lee who averaged .296-31-109-11 numbers the past seven seasons. No question he's better than the guy currently on pace for .238-21-87 numbers, as evidenced by his rebound performance this month, and if he's priced according to those paces, swoop in. But is he still a .300-30-100 candidate? No, probably not.
Justin Morneau, 1B, Minnesota Twins (24 games, .295/.351/.477, 4 HRs, 13 RBIs): Nothing wrong with those June statistics, right? Of course not. What they do, however, is provide a sort of reality check for Morneau owners, who had to be thrilled with the .377/.493/.680 rates, 11 homers and 36 RBIs he accumulated in 49 games in the season's first two months. Morneau's June is far more in line with his career trends, which dictate that he only continues to cool as the calendar pages turn. He can still be a top-10 fantasy first baseman from this point forward -- he's entirely capable -- but if you can sell him as a certain top-25 performer, perhaps even first-round capable, by all means do it.
Carlos Pena, 1B, Tampa Bay Rays (23 games, .256/.361/.573, 8 HRs, 18 RBIs): Another player with whom the perception matters, because Pena is the kind of player who might bat .200 one month and .270 the next, and at season's end there he'll be with his almost entirely predictable .235 batting average, 35-40 home runs and 100-plus RBIs. Is his owner in your league realistic, and aware of his streakiness? By all means trade for him (if you can stomach the batting-average hit), but traditionally speaking it's not smart to deal for a streaky player coming off one of his patented "hot" periods.
Carlos Quentin, OF, White Sox (24 games, .275/.376/.625, 8 HRs, 23 RBIs): It's about time he began hitting, and there's hope he can stay close to these paces considering he has hot-starting Alex Rios and Paul Konerko hitting ahead of him in the order, increasing his RBI potential. One other reason to get Quentin now before it's too late: His career second-half OPS is 84 points higher than his career first-half OPS.
Justin Upton, OF, Diamondbacks (23 games, .322/.427/.563, 6 HRs, 12 RBIs): Now there's the Justin Upton we were touting when we declared him a potential top-20 fantasy player overall in the preseason! Forgive his early season struggles, because it's easy to forget that he's still just 22 years old, mainly because he's already in his fourth season as a big leaguer. Upton is a free-swinging slugger, so slumps should be expected, but as he continues to gain experience his value will only continue to soar. Even with his sluggish first two months, he's on pace for 30 homers, 84 RBIs, 24 steals and 101 runs scored. Consider this your last chance to acquire him at an affordable price, especially in a keeper league.
Adam Jones, OF, Baltimore Orioles: He's a player who, through parts of five big league seasons (the past three of them as a full-timer), seems to have thrived more upon reputation than performance. Jones had the 66th-highest average draft position (69.5) of all players in the preseason, yet through 398 career games to date, he has .269/.312/.424 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates, which don't sound much like those of a top-100 player. That he's still 24 years old means he has time to straighten his career out, but consider this: From June 1, 2009 through May 30, 2010, Jones batted .241 with 13 homers, 49 RBIs and seven stolen bases in 124 games. So if he's that disappointing, why does Jones place in "four up" this week? Simple: It's his stats since June 1. He's a .315 hitter (29-for-92) with seven homers and 18 RBIs in 24 games, five of the homers coming in his past 11 contests alone. Perhaps there's hope yet that Jones will make good on that No. 66 ADP, though his eight walks (compared to 64 whiffs) are disconcerting.
Will Venable, OF, Padres: Anyone who doubted his ability to repeat 2009's 24 home runs -- counting both his Triple-A (12) and Padres (12) totals -- couldn't have been termed crazy, especially accounting for his team's spacious home ballpark, not to mention his own 14.8 fly ball/homer percentage that seemed unsustainable. Through 67 games, however, Venable has maintained a 12.7 percent number in the latter category, which helps explain how he's on pace for 18 homers. At this point, it's clear he has decent pop, but it's his advances in terms of stolen bases that are most pleasing; he's on pace for 32. Venable had a couple of double-digit steal campaigns in the minors, but never has he topped 21 in any professional season. He's still very much limited to a platoon role, with only 31 plate appearances versus lefties all year (.200/.355/.320 rates against them), but if you play in a deep mixed or NL-only league, he should be active on your team.
David Wright, 3B, New York Mets: Like Hamilton, Wright is an obvious must-start in every league, but when a player with his talent endures a challenging year like what was his 2009, dissecting his follow-up campaign is important. Something you might not have realized: Wright is on pace for 30 homers and 131 RBIs, the latter potentially representing a personal best, the former falling only three shy of his previous best. A scorching hot June is responsible; he's batting .389 (37-for-95) with six homers and 27 RBIs in 24 games, and in fact tied the National League record for RBIs during interleague play (24). Citi Field is still gobbling up his home runs, as he has hit only four of his 14 at home this season, despite having played five more home than road games. Wright also could stand to cut down on the strikeouts, as his 67.9 percent contact rate represents a personal low. Still, he's about as hot as could be right now, and while this might signify the high end of his value curve, there's little reason to think he can't post a 25/25 campaign with 100 RBIs and a batting average in the .290 range.
Michael Cuddyer, 1B/OF, Twins: The Twins are certainly trying to find creative ways to not only get all of their outfielders into the same lineup, but to also plug holes in their injury-depleted infield. Cuddyer, who earned a rare start at second base on May 31, has started at third base in seven of his team's past 10 games, a strategy that initially seemed designed to get every piece into the lineup during interleague games at National League parks. After Monday's game, however, it's clear this is a longer-term strategy by the Twins. While fantasy owners might be pleased by Cuddyer's additional positional flexibility, remember that third base was the position that frustrated him to great lengths earlier in his professional career, including as recently as 2005. He posted a miserable .942 fielding percentage at the position and .263/.330/.422 rates at the plate that year, but after shifting to the outfield the following season bounced back with .284/.362/.504 numbers. Cuddyer is batting only .218 (17-for-78) with one homer and five RBIs in 21 games in June; one can only wonder whether the timing was right for such a move.
Russell Martin, C, Dodgers: It seems like with every passing season, the Dodgers fail to learn their lesson with Martin, whose catching workload during his brief big league career to date has been hefty. In each of the past three years, he caught at least 137 games and 1,201 innings, and in each subsequent season his OPS tumbled, from .843 in 2007 to .781 in 2008, .680 in 2009 and now a career-worst .676 this season. Sure enough, Martin is on pace to appear in 149 games, 141 of those at catcher, and catch 1,226 innings, or 25 more than he had at the position last season. His numbers, unsurprisingly, have been poor in June; he's a .233 hitter (17-for-73) with only three extra-base hits, all doubles, and four RBIs in 22 games. And as the summer temperatures rise, Martin's chances of turning those numbers around don't seem likely to improve.
Bengie Molina, C, San Francisco Giants: Anyone who selected him on draft day knew that eventually, Buster Posey would begin to shove him out of the picture. If you had "end of June" in your office pool, you might be a winner, because the Giants' plans include getting Posey more work behind the plate in the coming weeks. Molina started only one of three games over the weekend, sitting once apiece for Posey and Eli Whiteside, and in the month of June he has appeared in only 18 of 25 Giants games, and batted .250 (15-for-60) with one homer and six RBIs. Expect rumors to heat up in the next month that Molina might be traded, and if he is, there's always the worry he might not be a regular for his new team, either.
B.J. Upton, OF, Rays: Besides all the hubbub about his altercation with Evan Longoria in the dugout over the weekend, Upton has also been the subject of much criticism in fantasy leagues of late, thanks to a miserable slump dating back more than a month. He completed interleague play batting .136 (9-for-66) with one homer and 20 K's in 18 games, and in his past 51 contests overall is hitting just .200 (36-for-180) with three homers and 55 K's. The only solace is that he has 19 steals during that time, but if you're an Upton owner, surely you didn't pay a draft-day (or in-season trade) price for steals and steals alone; if he has offered any other contribution, it has been adversely affecting your team batting average.
Upgrade your roster
We laid out our concerns with Sanchez in his profile during the preseason: " Sanchez's platoon splits in the minors (.341/.435/.565 BA/OBP/SLG versus lefties, .283/.373/.451 versus righties) might paint the picture of a future role player and one who might, by season's end, be mired in a gig only stealing [top prospect Logan] Morrison's starts versus southpaws." Platoon worries then might have been valid, but so far this season, Sanchez has not only managed .290/.361/.456 numbers versus righties, right in line with his minor league career numbers, but averaged one strikeout per 5.68 at-bats versus that side, which is decent enough. Remember, minor league numbers typically require translation; Sanchez spent much time in hitting-friendly leagues in the minors and the Marlins' home ballpark is pitching-friendly, so for him to match those minor league splits should be considered nothing short of remarkable.
As for Sanchez's June, he's a .368 hitter (35-for-95) with four homers and 15 RBIs in 24 games in the month, but has also averaged only one strikeout per 8.64 at-bats, meaning he's even improving his contact rate as he earns valuable experience. Whether he's the team's long-term answer at the position is open to debate, but it's clear he's a fantasy-worthy option in the short term, certainly one with greater upside than Lyle Overbay, a .238 hitter without a homer in his past 20 games.
Also consider adding
Jarrett Hoffpauir, 2B, Toronto Blue Jays: He's a contact hitter who batted .293 during parts of four seasons at the Triple-A level, and now third base in Toronto is his for the taking, following Edwin Encarnacion's demotion.
Chris Johnson, 3B, Houston Astros: He's a .277 hitter since his recall, and should continue to receive regular at-bats, seeing as the veteran who formerly manned his position, Pedro Feliz, has a .552 OPS and .938 fielding percentage.
Matt LaPorta, 1B/OF, Cleveland Indians: Why not give him one more chance? LaPorta was once considered one of the better young, slugging prospects in the minors, and the Indians, following the trade of Russell Branyan, are prepared to give him everyday at-bats at first base.
New position qualifiers
Five games: Michael Cuddyer (3B) and Jason Donald (2B)
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.