If you're a regular listener of the "Fantasy Focus Baseball" podcast -- and if you're not, shame on you! -- surely you heard Monday's discussion about a certain up-and-coming, 24-year-old Colorado Rockies outfielder: Carlos Gonzalez.
There's plenty to love about "CarGo": He's batting .308, 20th-best in the majors among qualified hitters, and currently sports full-season paces of 32 home runs, 114 RBIs, 24 stolen bases and 108 runs scored. It's production like that that has earned him the No. 8 spot to date among hitters on our Player Rater.
But for all of Gonzalez's exploits, I'm still wondering whether this might be the best that it gets with him, as opposed to this being a mere stepping stone to future MVP-caliber seasons. We touched briefly upon this during Monday's podcast, but for all the good in Gonzalez's season, there are warning signs. We're not the only ones; other analytical sources, including FanGraphs, which offers many in-depth statistics, have touched upon the topic of Gonzalez's plate discipline and those signs.
Here's one: He's on pace for 30 walks and 155 strikeouts. No big deal, right? Well, consider that in the history of baseball, only one player has ever managed 30 or fewer walks, 150 or more strikeouts and still batted .300: Alfonso Soriano, who walked 23 times, whiffed 157 and still managed a .300 average in 2002.
Heck, only five players in baseball history have even whiffed 150-plus times and walked 30 times or fewer in a season -- a group that includes Chris Davis (2009) -- and those five combined to bat just .268. If you expand things to players who whiffed at least five times as often as they walked while qualifying for the batting title, only seven of 57 instances in history resulted in a .300-plus season.
In other words, Gonzalez is in some rare territory, and his plate discipline does offer as much cause for concern as his power and speed numbers offer hope for growth. We toss the phrase "plate discipline" around on these pages often, and the reason for it is that examining a player's peripheral numbers in that department can help identify players for whom some regression should be expected.
In Gonzalez's case, let's look at the facts: His walk rate this season (4.4 percent of his plate appearances) is less than half of what it was during his 89-game stint with the Rockies in 2009 (9 percent) and less than half of his 2009 stats between the majors and minors (9.3 percent). He's swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone, 38.2 percent of the time, per FanGraphs, up from 30.6 percent last season. As Inside Edge points out, Gonzalez's chase percentages both with two strikes (51) and on noncompetitive pitches (28) are significantly higher than they were last year (38 and 22).
That's not to say Gonzalez can't improve or at least offer some stability in terms of his offensive numbers. After all, free-swinging examples like Soriano and Vladimir Guerrero have made careers for themselves despite those "weaknesses," but those tend to be the exception rather than the rule.
Another reason to not get too carried away with a player's plate-discipline numbers: Jay Bruce showed significant improvement in that department in 2009 despite a miserable .223 batting average -- a 31-point drop from his rookie campaign. His numbers in terms of plate discipline have regressed to near their rookie-year levels, which shows growth. Regression doesn't always follow straight paths over several seasons. There's hope yet, CarGo!
So who else might be demonstrating significant changes in terms of plate discipline this season, perhaps explaining a surprising performance to date or hinting at a change in statistics in the weeks to come?
Andres Torres, OF, San Francisco Giants: From part-time role player in 2009 to a deserving regular, Torres has improved his game on many levels, not the least of which is his plate discipline. He has walked in 12.5 percent of his plate appearances (the best rate of his career), isn't swinging at as many outside-the-zone pitches (26.1 percent, down from 29.0 in 2009) despite seeing more of them and is making better contact with the ones he does swing at (63 percent, up from 45.2). Torres has dominated as a left-handed hitter (.307 AVG/.401 OBP/.547 SLG), which is a positive because last season he performed miserably from that side but terrorized lefties from the right. He's now effectively an everyday player and he should be one; fantasy owners shouldn't dismiss him as a flash in the pan.
Colby Rasmus, OF, St. Louis Cardinals: No player with at least 300 plate appearances has improved his walk percentage more than Rasmus this season; his 4.5-percent increase (from 7 percent of his PAs to 11.5) is tops in baseball. That 11.5-percent number also puts Rasmus' walk rate in line with his minor league numbers, though he has struck out in 32.5 percent of his at-bats, which is significantly higher than he ever has before. He's just not seeing as many pitches in the strike zone, so might this be as much him being handed free passes than him actually working them? Inside Edge shows Rasmus' chase percentage with two strikes is only 32, a huge improvement from his rookie-year number of 38, which helps suggest it's every bit as much his own effort. There's plenty of reason to believe Rasmus won't decline in the coming weeks.
Julio Borbon, OF, Texas Rangers: Ah, finally an explanation for his disappointing numbers. He's walking in only 3.8 percent of his PAs, down from 8.7 in his 46-game stint with the big club in 2009. That's a problem for a player like Borbon, who needs to get on base as frequently as possible to utilize his best skill: His speed. He's swinging at 37.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, way too much for a speedster with a track record of high batting averages in the minors. Until that improves, Borbon should continue to disappoint.
Adam Jones, OF, Baltimore Orioles: Maybe he's never truly going to turn into a superstar, because as the years go by, he's showing no improvement whatsoever in terms of his plate discipline (and he was never that disciplined to begin with). In fact, Jones has regressed in this department this year, his walk rate dropping from 6.9 percent in 2009 to a mere 2.9 this season, while he has swung at pitches outside the strike zone 39.9 percent of the time, easily a career high. Maybe this is just what Jones is, a .270-caliber hitter with streaky spells, 25-homer power and perhaps a chance at 10 steals annually. His keeper-league owners are surely expecting more. In their defense, at least he's only 24 years old and has time to grow. But Jones has considerable work to do.
Geovany Soto, C, Chicago Cubs: I still believe there's a career here, as opposed to a rookie-year flash in the pan, a la Jerome Walton. Soto's power might not be quite what it was in 2008, but there are pleasant signs, like the fact that he's walking a career-high 17.2 percent of the time and barely ever swinging at bad pitches, evidenced by his 14.5-percent swing rate outside the strike zone and his chase percentage of 13 with two strikes, per Inside Edge. Soto, in the long haul, might only be a .280-hitting, 20-homer candidate, but from a catcher, is there any reason to complain about that output?
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.
Gordon Beckham, 2B/3B, Chicago White Sox: It's about time he started hitting, right? After suffering nearly three full miserable months to begin his season, Beckham has hit safely in 15 of his past 18 games, during which time he has batted .400 (24-for-60) with three home runs, 12 RBIs and 13 runs scored. Since our topic today is plate discipline, let's address the improvements he has made in terms of his contact rate during his hot streak; he has struck out seven times in 60 at-bats (11.7 percent) compared to 48 times in his first 231 at-bats (20.8 percent). That offers hope that this streak is actually legit.
Nelson Cruz, OF, Texas Rangers: He has come out of the All-Star break riding a streak of five consecutive multihit games, and that's no small feat considering the Rangers' opponents were the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers in road contests. Cruz has hit safely in eight straight games overall, and since his return from the disabled list June 22, he's a .322 hitter with 17 RBIs and four stolen bases. The power should come, as he has Rangers Ballpark helping him in that department, but this is a true category-filler, at least when he's healthy.
Buster Posey, C/1B, San Francisco Giants: Though he didn't make his 2010 debut until May 29, Posey is doing everything in his power to make a run at National League Rookie of the Year honors. He's batting .350, second-best in baseball among players with 150-plus plate appearances, and has eight homers and 29 RBIs in 43 games. What's more, he's on a tear during the month of July, batting .450/.493/.883 with seven homers and 19 RBIs in 16 contests. Now the Giants' starting catcher after the trade of Bengie Molina, Posey is guaranteed regular at-bats, with which he should continue to hit for a high average with decent power and run production. There's little reason to think he won't be a top-10 catcher from this point forward, and he might yet make a run at top-five status.
Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Chicago Cubs: It's hard to imagine that a mere 15-day absence due to a thumb injury would be enough to fully cure him, but since Ramirez's return from the disabled list June 25, his statistics have been right in line with his prime years. He's a .338/.381/.714 hitter with seven homers and 18 RBIs in 20 games since being activated, with six of the homers and 17 of the RBIs coming in his past 11 contests alone. Ramirez traditionally performs better after the All-Star break than before it, as he's a lifetime .290/.348/.524 second-half hitter who has hit five more homers after the break than before it in 126 fewer games. There's reason to believe his early-season funk might be behind him.
Chris Coghlan, OF, Florida Marlins: He's quickly developing a reputation for being a streaky hitter, an odd development considering his walk and strikeout rates during his minor league career. He walked in 11.8 percent of his plate appearances and struck out in 13.2 percent of his at-bats as a minor leaguer, but with the Marlins this season, his numbers in those categories are 8.0 and 24.2. Coghlan has batted just .146/.192/.167 with one RBI and one stolen base in 12 games in July, struggling to the levels that he did in April, and now he's battling back pain that could cost him a few more games. Might it be that he has had lingering back soreness for much of the year, which could explain his cold spells?
Jeff Francoeur, OF, New York Mets: There's talk that manager Jerry Manuel might soon hand over his at-bats to Angel Pagan on an everyday basis, and frankly, Manuel probably should. No matter what the Mets claim Francoeur brings to their clubhouse, his bat isn't helping them win games, as he's hitting just .156/.198/.234 in his past 24 games and .244/.296/.380 for the season. Pagan, meanwhile, has at least 50 points on Francoeur in all three of the offensive ratio categories for the season, and he's a .364/.418/.568 hitter in his past 23 contests. How could the Mets not turn over the right-field reins to Pagan?
Franklin Gutierrez, OF, Seattle Mariners: For a while, it appeared as if Gutierrez, smack in the middle of his age-27 season, was on his way to a breakthrough year, boasting a .290-plus batting average and .800-plus OPS into the month of June. In recent weeks, however, he has regressed at the plate, with .136/.190/.220 numbers in 16 games in July, totaling only three extra-base hits during that span. Gutierrez's strikeout rate has increased this season -- he has whiffed in 24.4 percent of his at-bats, up from 21.6 a year ago -- and he's swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone -- 27.2 percent, up from 23.2, per FanGraphs. Perhaps he's not truly ready to take that next step to stardom.
Miguel Montero, C, Arizona Diamondbacks: Though he's a .330 hitter through 29 healthy games this season, and .308 in 25 contests since returning from knee surgery, Montero hasn't been as valuable a fantasy player overall as he was during his breakout 2009. He's not hitting for nearly as much power, with only two home runs all season and none in his past 67 at-bats, and he has to tangle with backup Chris Snyder, who has started behind the plate in 10 of 31 Diamondbacks games since Montero's activation from the DL. One can only wonder whether Montero's modest power might have the Diamondbacks less apt to deal Snyder, a move that would free up more at-bats for the former.
Upgrade your roster
Add: Yunel Escobar, SS, Toronto Blue Jays
Drop: Mike Aviles, 2B/SS, Kansas City Royals
Year-to-date statistics sometimes have a way of tricking fantasy owners into foolish decisions. In the case of these American League middle infielders, that Aviles actually outranks Escobar among shortstops on our Player Rater -- the Royal ranks 27th, the brand-new Blue Jay 33rd -- might have some preferring Aviles.
Even as recently as two weeks ago, that's a decision that might have made some sense. Escobar's season wasn't going anywhere in Atlanta, and if you're looking for the statistical difference between the two thus far, it has been merely their batting averages; Aviles' number is 48 points greater than that of Escobar (.300 to .252). Escobar had scarcely showed any improvement since his return from a groin injury, either, posting only .247/.351/.291 (AVG/OBP/SLG) numbers in his final 53 games with the Atlanta Braves.
Given a chance for a fresh start in Toronto, however, Escobar might be able to recapture at least some of the form that made him one of the National League's better up-and-coming shortstops entering the season. He has already hit safely in each of his first four games for the Blue Jays, going 8-for-17 (.471) with two home runs, his first two all season. While his poor numbers of the first 75 games of this year are tough to ignore, the fact remains that he registered a .297 career batting average in the minors and .301 in his first three big-league seasons. This is not a .238 hitter; he should be closer to .290.
As for Aviles, while he has his uses in AL-only formats, he's only a .271 hitter in his past 35 games who has amassed nine RBIs, two steals and 15 runs scored while failing to hit a home run. He has missed eight Royals games during that time and only appeared as a late-inning pinch hitter in another. Aviles' skill set fits the oft-bandied-about description of "empty batting average," something that, at worst, Escobar should be able to provide with his new team.
Also consider adding
Matt Diaz, OF, Atlanta Braves: The impending return of Nate McLouth will have an affect on Diaz's playing time, but hasn't Diaz shown in seasons past that he can help NL-only owners even given infrequent at-bats? That's especially true after the All-Star break; in the three years in which he had 150-plus second-half plate appearances, Diaz batted at least .320 with an .850 OPS.
Omar Infante, 2B/3B/SS/OF, Atlanta Braves: Whatever your opinion on his All-Star status, Infante's value in fantasy leagues cannot be denied. He currently resides in the top 25 at all three infield positions at which he qualifies on our Player Rater, primarily because he's fifth in the majors in batting average among players with 200-plus plate appearances (.337). That's plenty valuable in a season in which we've seen several elite infielders lost to long-term injuries.
New position qualifiers
Twenty games: Miguel Cairo (3B) and Bill Hall (2B)
Ten games: Pedro Feliz (1B), Jake Fox (C), Andy Marte (3B) and Eric Patterson (2B)
Five games: Emilio Bonifacio (OF) and Paul McAnulty (1B)
One game: Casey Blake (1B) and Brad Hawpe (1B)
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.