- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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A season ago I participated in a fantasy league in which strikeouts counted, and it really changed the way I viewed the construction of my team. No, I don't mean that conventional strikeouts category we all know and love, the one in which Johan Santana and Jake Peavy do so well. I mean the one in which Mark Reynolds and Ryan Howard do so poorly. I avoided some of the bigger strikeout guys, but in many cases they also happen to be the big power hitters. Coincidence? I think not.
I think cumulative strikeout totals for those who swing the bat tend to get a bit overrated, frankly. Nobody really cares about Howard's strikeouts when he's hitting 50 home runs and knocking in another 140, even in Philadelphia, and they shouldn't. If Howard shortens his swing, or doesn't take as many chances guessing on pitches, he won't hit 50 home runs. And the Phillies and their fans don't want Howard fanning "only" 150 times if it means he hits "only" 30 home runs. I laugh every time I hear or read someone saying Howard is "killing their fantasy team with strikeouts." Really? You'd prefer he hit like a normal Casey Blake?
A strikeout is, at its core, an out just like most others, and while it's an unproductive one and deprives a batter of the chance to move a runner up or allow a fielding player to kick a grounder and let someone reach base, think about the tradeoff. I still think it's worth it if a productive power hitter whiffs a lot. Philly's Howard, for example, is on pace for his normal crazy power numbers, but he had a very different May from what he did in April. You know what? You in fantasy should thank him for striking out at more normal -- and to some, frightful -- levels in the month that just ended. Howard hit .288 in the season's first month with low totals of four home runs and 20 strikeouts. Since fantasy owners shouldn't care one bit about the strikeouts and often don't notice them, they weren't discussing Howard's potential evolution at the plate; they were angry he had homered only four times.
Ah, May was a bit more normal for the first baseman as he swatted 10 home runs, including a pair of rockets I saw in person Saturday night. Honestly, the grand slam Howard hit against poor Shairon Martis over the weekend that went into the third deck was probably the longest home run I have ever seen in person. Forty thousand people were in awe. Later in the game Howard struck out, and then he did it a few more times Sunday. He wasn't booed. Howard finished May with 38 whiffs, which is quite a few. It's basically a pace for more than 200 in a season, which is something Howard is used to. He also batted only .250 in May. And you know what? Fantasy owners shouldn't care, because Howard hit 10 homers and knocked in 25 runs. Ah, reunited with normal Ryan Howard numbers and it feels so good!
Disagree? Oh, you'd rather have the big guy hitting four home runs a month just so he can hit .275 or .280? No, you don't. You didn't draft Howard to win you a batting title, which he can't do anyway. You didn't draft Adam LaRoche in the second or third round, as you did with Howard. LaRoche hits four homers a month when all is said and done, and hits .270. There's a reason he's available in Round 15. Welcome back, Ryan Howard.
Strikeouts are overrated. Power hitters these days are going to strike out, except for the otherworldly Albert Pujols and a few others, and fantasy owners shouldn't care one little bit. We want our hitters to be aggressive, and some of these fellas are swing-for-the-fences types. That's all right. Yes, in some cases the prodigious strikeouts of some hitters prevent them from not only reaching the big power levels but hamper them into hitting below their weight, as we've seen from a certain fellow in Texas. You know what? If that fellow was hitting .240 with those same 12 home runs, you wouldn't care about the strikeouts.
Anyway, here are five random thoughts about what hitters are doing in the (mostly) non-fantasy category of strikeouts. After a year of using that stat in one of my leagues, I'm glad it's gone!
Chris Davis, 1B/3B, Rangers: He's on pace to embarrass the single-season record for strikeouts, much like Nolan Ryan has just a few more career strikeouts than the next guy. It's not even close. Davis has whiffed 77 times in 48 games and 165 at-bats, which seems almost impossible to do. Everyone knew he'd strike out, however, and I don't think the Rangers would care much if he was hitting for more power and his batting average was somewhat respectable. I still think it will be. He'll make adjustments to the pitches he hits, and raise the average. He hasn't really done this yet, and on Friday he whiffed six times in seven at-bats in the doubleheader, which earned him a few days off. Don't look at the strikeouts or the fact he's on pace for 257 of them (the record is 204 by Mark Reynolds, see below). Davis is also on pace for 40 home runs. I say he gets to 30 quite easily, and hits about .240 overall. You'll want this guy in fantasy when he improves, which he will.
Mark Reynolds, 1B/3B, Diamondbacks: I wouldn't necessarily call this a time to sell, even though he's hitting .268 and unlikely to sustain it, because he's also the only player in the National League with double digits in home runs and stolen bases. Yep, Reynolds is running, and while it's hard to believe, there's no reason to assume it will stop. Maybe he's this year's Lance Berkman in that respect, and just feels like picking his spots and taking off. We laud him. Reynolds went .239-28-97-11 a season ago and I think he's going to top every one of those numbers this season, so I wouldn't sell even though he's on pace to break his own record in strikeouts. So what if he strikes out 204 times again? We'd rather he makes contact a bit more and sends weak ground balls to the shortstop three times per game like Jeff Francoeur? Puh-leeze. Reynolds is performing very well, and needs to be known for what he's providing, not what he's missing.
Jordan Schafer, OF, Braves: Davis and Reynolds have power, lots of power. Carlos Pena, Ryan Howard and Adam Dunn each have hit 40 home runs. None of this is shocking. What is becoming a bit hard to believe is that Bobby Cox and the Braves are allowing Schafer to stick in the big leagues -- for now -- despite fanning at his pace of 200 for the season. Schafer has shown no power, except for the opening series of the season when he hit a pair in Philadelphia. Schafer also hasn't tried to steal bases, with two in three attempts. He has played terrific defense in center field and the Braves need that, but man, this kid needs work at the plate, and it appears he can't do it in the majors. Why do I care about the strikeouts in this case but not for Davis and Reynolds? They have power. The tradeoff is worth it. I was a bit surprised to learn Schafer remains owned in more than 15 percent of ESPN standard mixed leagues, but hey, I guess some people think this will get a lot better soon. Or they added the guy the first week of April and haven't paid attention. I suppose it could get better, but a .204 batting average hurts a lot more than owning an outfielder offering no power or speed. Schafer isn't the only powerless hitter striking out a lot, but I don't think Josh Fields, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, David Ortiz and Emilio Bonifacio belong in the minors to get more work. Hey, do you think Big Papi would like Pawtucket?
B.J. Upton, OF, Rays: He's a mess at the plate, and he comes off a week in which he struck out 11 times in a six-game span. Many fantasy owners were skeptical Upton would hit for power, as he had offseason surgery to repair his torn labrum, but his current strikeout rate seems to prove something remains wrong with the shoulder or his general plate approach. Upton famously hit only nine regular-season home runs in 2008, coming off 24 the season before, then looked like Babe Ruth in the postseason with seven home runs. Of course, the surgery blunted expectations for 2009, but this is downright crazy. Some people listened and backed off, lowering expectations from a 25-40 season; others didn't. I don't own Upton anywhere, but even I didn't expect this: Upton is on pace for seven home runs and 205 strikeouts and is hitting .204. Sure, he might steal 50 bases, but at what cost? We can live without the power if he steals 50, but the batting average is an obvious byproduct of his striking out. Upton needs to put the ball in play and leg out hits. The question is whether he's able to physically. Even as he struggled last season he hit .273, and really cut into his strikeout rate in the process. If you watch him lately, he's not really swinging for the fences, either. It wouldn't surprise me if the Rays either drop Upton in the batting order or give him a DL stint to rest. Fantasy owners should wait because he's running, but if he were to stop running he'd be one of the big busts of the season, because I don't expect any power.
Justin Upton, OF, Diamondbacks: There were 15 players who struck out 30 or more times in May and only three of them still managed to bat better than .300 for the month. Evan Longoria did it, but he's having a monster season so I'm not surprised. Russell Branyan did it, and that's obviously a big surprise, but also not even close to sustainable. They each hit just a bit better than .300. Justin Upton hit .373 in May with seven home runs, four triples, 21 RBIs and 25 runs scored despite the 31 strikeouts for the month. How do we explain this? He's going to be a special player, if he's not already, and he's really not comparable to anyone else. No, I'm not saying he's the best player, but he's certainly capable of hitting 30 home runs this season, stealing a bunch of bases and batting .300, while striking out 175 times. That might happen, and it's unusual. Do you care that this Upton struck out 31 times in May? You shouldn't, because if he hadn't, he might not have done some of those other things at the plate. Honestly, in a keeper league he's someone I'd target on a similar level to the top young players in the game, like Matt Wieters and David Price.
Quote of the week
"I think it's going to happen sometime this year. I can't guarantee nothing. The only guarantee in life is you're going to die."
Thanks to Carlos Delgado for his uplifting comment this week when asked if he would return to the field this season. Delgado has undergone his hip surgery and he knows it's a two-month recovery period, in general. It's probably longer for a 37-year-old who wasn't spry or quick to start with. The Mets have to get a first baseman at some point, and I don't expect Delgado to be a major contributor -- if he helps at all -- the rest of the season. I cut him in my 19-team office league with a six-man bench and no DL spots because I was desperate for a spot, as Carlos Quentin, Tommy Hanson and others I can't drop are taking up bench spots. He's right about there being few guarantees in life. I think one of them this season is the Mets aren't going to get much more out of Mr. Delgado. By the way, Fernando Tatis, Daniel Murphy and Jeremy Reed have managed one home run playing first base since Delgado went down, with 22 hits in 92 at-bats (.239 batting average). It's not good enough. Nick Johnson, welcome to Citi Field!
Whatever happened to ...
Many of the top rookies from 2007? In the NL, Ryan Braun is a top-10 player and totally legit, and Hunter Pence looks like a new hitter now that he's taking walks and hitting .341, but do you know who else got votes for top NL rookie that season? Troy Tulowitzki had 24 homers and 99 RBIs from the shortstop position and looked like he'd be a great player for years. Now I'm not so sure, and I wonder whether his rookie season is all that's keeping him from being in the major leagues. Don't tell me this is the next Bobby Crosby. I sure wouldn't trade for Tulowitzki, though. Chris Young the outfielder hasn't officially lost the center field job in Arizona, but he keeps regressing as well. It's hard to believe he hit 32 homers as a rookie and stole 27 bases and can't even get regular playing time now. I own him in a keeper league without a bench and where you can't drop players for free agents. Stunning how no one will take him in trade. Kyle Kendrick (awful), Yunel Escobar (average) and James Loney (no power) also got rookie votes. Yikes.
How about the AL rookie voting other than Dustin Pedroia? It's even worse! Delmon Young has no power and I'm done predicting it will ever come, Brian Bannister is just a bit better than Kendrick, Daisuke Matsuzaka is reminding me of the Japanese starting pitching version of former Mariners closer Kaz Sasaki (could it be a short-term run in the states?), and Reggie Willits and Josh Fields also got votes. Hard to believe.
It sure would be nice if ...
Fantasy owners wouldn't overreact to any problems Matt Wieters has this first week up in the majors. Look, I am absolutely on the Wieters bandwagon. On TV last week, I called him the fourth-best catcher in fantasy baseball, behind only Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez and Brian McCann, before he even played a major league game. He finally made his debut Friday night, going hitless, and I got e-mails and other communications about how he's not that good. Yep, we should definitely sum up his entire future in four at-bats in his first game. He stinks! One night proves it! C'mon, people! Wieters finished the weekend with two hits in 11 at-bats, so the .182 batting average gets noticed and picked apart, but did anyone notice the hits were a double and triple, not exactly a little bleeder to third base? Wieters is polished and ready to emerge as one of the best at his position. I've got him in a few leagues, and in one of them, he will play at utility. Yeah, I'm sure he's good. He might hit .182 over his first 10 games, and still, I'm buying. He's your AL Rookie of the Year, and unless Rick Porcello wins 20 games, it won't be close. And by the way, when the Tigers let Porcello air out that incredible arm and accrue strikeouts, we'll really have a fantasy monster on our hands.
Bold is beautiful
I can see from the most dropped list that few were impressed with what Ricky Nolasco did in his minor league start for Triple-A New Orleans (eight innings, three runs, seven K's). Hey, I feel ya, I do. But I don't have a short memory. A season ago at this time Nolasco was days away from his worst outing of 2008. On June 5, he allowed seven runs on 12 hits over 5 2/3 innings to a Dodgers team that, if you recall, couldn't score runs. I don't have the exact ownership figure here, but with a 5-4 record and 5.05 ERA as of June 6, I doubt Nolasco was owned in more than what, 2 percent of ESPN leagues? The rest of June he allowed six earned runs in four starts. His ERA after the All-Star break was 3.29, with 12 walks and 98 strikeouts in 95 2/3 innings. Nolasco has been a monumental bust so far, with an ERA over 9, but there are similarities to 2008 to be noticed, and I'm absolutely holding on to him in all my leagues. Want bold? This is a top-20 pitcher the rest of 2009, and he might be back with the Marlins this week.
Stat of the week: .191
Every time I watch Brian Tallet pitch, I'm impressed. He made six starts in May and didn't allow more than three runs in any of them. He beat the Red Sox over the weekend and allowed only three hits in 15 at-bats to right-handed batters. Tallet, a lefty who does fit the characteristics of a journeyman, has been doing this all season. In fact, no southpaw pitcher has a better batting average against right-handed hitters this season than Tallet's .191 mark. It's pretty clear fantasy owners aren't buying what Tallet's selling, since he's owned in 2.4 percent of leagues, but the way he's controlling right-handers, I don't see this as a fluke. Sure, Tallet is on the other side of 30, hasn't been a starting pitcher for long and the Blue Jays will get rotation candidates back soon, but why would a guy with six consecutive quality starts and a good strikeout rate lose his spot? Remove that ugly 10-run outing against the Royals and Tallet has a 2.98 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP. You'd notice that, I think.
The final word
I spent my weekend at Citizens Bank Park in Philly and continue to be amazed at how bad the Nationals are, particularly with their defense and bullpen. The offense at the top of the order has leveled off, dropping the team to ninth in the circuit in OPS, and when you don't score, can't catch the ball and don't prevent late-inning runs, you will lose a lot. The Nationals' bullpen wasn't even a problem this weekend. The biggest problem was defense, notably in the outfield.
You know when you sign Adam Dunn, it's not going to do the pitching staff any favors, and Dunn had an awful series in the field. For some reason Austin Kearns was playing center field, and again, that helps nobody, especially when he takes a Ryan Howard line drive and turns it into a triple. Those are earned runs, people, and it makes Nationals pitchers impossible to own when you know they won't win and they'll allow a lot more runs than say, Mariners pitchers who have a great defensive outfield to back them up. No, Endy Chavez couldn't sustain his strong start at the plate, and Austin Kearns has the big contract, but if you want to prevent runs, get people who play good defense.
Poor John Lannan was ownable and fine in 2008, but he can't be fine now as the franchise takes steps backward. Really, he might win like five or six games -- in 33 starts -- with this crew. Jordan Zimmermann has promise and he's been striking hitters out at a better rate than expected, which he's going to need to do, but still, I dropped him in a 10-teamer. Ultimately it's tough to own any Nationals pitchers except for closer Joel Hanrahan because they seem a lock for 100 losses. It's a shame.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
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