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Top 10 positive stat surprises from '09

7/27/2009

Dwelling for months on a bad trade you've made is never healthy, even when you realize the deal might have cost you a chance to win a fantasy championship. Back on draft day in my oldest league, I decided all logical evidence pointed against Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer having a big season. Sure, I was aware of his potential and the batting titles and the scarce position he plays, but c'mon, a back injury and DL stint for a catcher who already wasn't hitting for power? Time to move on!


Then Mauer started hitting home runs every other day in May, and my trade quickly became one of my worst ever. My trade partner, who I have known since college, sends me e-mails every few weeks, in a playful way, to remind me what I did. Or what he did, I suppose. In one of the notes he said he was just as surprised as anyone that Mauer might end up with double his career high in homers and was threatening the .400 batting-average mark along the way, but oh, how much fun it is to own him. All I can do is laugh. Oh well, at least Ronny Paulino is getting it done in Mauer's place. Or not.


Mauer's power is the most shocking, surprising statistic of the 2009 season for me, and not because I foolishly dealt him away. There were myriad reasons for the trade, including his contract status to ease the pain, but hey, I got beat. It happens to all of us. Ricky Nolasco was the key to the deal coming back to me, and I have a feeling by the time September comes the deal won't look as ridiculous as it did when Nolasco was in the minors. But here's the rub: Had I dealt Nolasco when the Marlins demoted him, that would have been more foolish. I believed all along he'd come back and pitch like he did in 2008, which he has. Mauer? Back in late March we all knew he'd miss a month or more as he dealt with lingering back problems from offseason kidney surgery. I thought we'd get something like 2007, when Mauer batted .293 with seven home runs. Even last year, when he took his second batting title, he hit only nine home runs. Oh yeah, hitting 30 this year makes perfect sense, right?


Because of how surprising Mauer's new power is, I feel no real guilt for the six-player trade. I wonder if I should. I have Mauer on other teams, and they're doing well. And guess what? I'm looking to trade him again. Point is, I've moved on, and I don't cringe each time Mauer homers. Good for my trade partner, but I root for the players I got in the deal, and two of them, Nolasco and Shane Victorino, have done just fine.


In last week's ESPN Fantasy Newsletter, I discussed the 10 most surprising statistics of the season from a negative aspect. The Mets and Manny's suspension and Carlos Marmol were among the 10. Speaking of which, you can sign up now to get the fantasy newsletter delivered right to your inbox at this link and check 'em out.


Since we're thinking positively today, I'll start it off by calling "Mauer's power" No. 1, and then give you the next 10, or 11 in all. Let's begin:

Stolen bases for Mark Reynolds: 18 and counting
When you think about this Arizona Diamondbacks corner infielder, most people think about his prolific strikeout totals. Yes, the guy swings and misses quite a bit. But he also has legitimate power, and apparently can run too. Reynolds looks like he's going all out for a 30-30 (homers and steals) season, and I think he's the only player who can still get there, other than maybe Ian Kinsler. Reynolds will get to 30 homers pretty soon, as he's already at 26 and could roll all the way to 40, and with three steals already since the All-Star break, it's clear that part of his game will continue as well. Who cares if he strikes out 200 times? Reynolds is in the top 10 on our Player Rater, and just might remain there.


Batting average for Russell Branyan: .264
A few weeks ago this paragraph would have looked a lot better, as Branyan was hitting .303 when July began. That's just unbelievable for a journeyman of eight teams with a career .230 batting average. Of course, so far in July, he's hitting like the Russell Branyan we used to know, though the power continues. Still, if you knew Branyan would hit even .264 this season -- for comparison's sake, Ryan Howard is hitting .266 -- and hit 30 home runs, a figure he should easily top, you would have drafted him, no? Branyan's power is no surprise, but the health and batting average surely are.


Saves for David Aardsma: 24
As this exercise reveals, there are actually quite a few stats dealing with the Mariners that seemed to come from nowhere. Back in the spring Brandon Morrow was all set to close games for the M's, while Aardsma was a journeyman reliever with a high walk rate and durability issues. What Aardsma has done, though, being not only in the top 5 in baseball in saves but also possessing terrific peripheral stats to go with them, has set up his career to close for other teams in the future as well. Remember, it happened for Antonio Alfonseca! Aardsma was, naturally, a free agent in just about every league in mid-April. Example No. 2,814 why you don't spend a third-round pick on Jonathan Papelbon.

Wins for Jonathan Broxton: 7
He's outta control! For a top-shelf closer to already have seven wins in a season is unique. Consider that no other closer with more than 11 saves has more than three wins. The three pitchers leading the bigs in saves (Brian Fuentes, Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan) have one win each, and it's not like the setup corps for their teams are regarded as strong. The past three years Nathan is the only pitcher to save 30 or more games and win seven others. Getting wins from a top closer is really valuable in fantasy baseball because it's never expected. Broxton might have ended up the top closer in fantasy anyway, but with six more wins than the top save guys, he has a big head start.


On-base percentage for Michael Bourn: .358
There's no other way to put it: This guy was bad in 2008. We saw he could run like the wind, and fantasy owners do love 50-steal guys, but I think everyone gave up on Bourn. He wasn't selected in most ESPN standard-league drafts, and even now I think detractors remain. You know what, though? His on-base percentage isn't the best in the league, but it is 70 points higher than last season, and plenty good enough to create opportunities to run. It took awhile for manager Cecil Cooper to trust him at the top of the lineup, but now Bourn is helping fantasy owners in batting average and runs scored, and he's on pace for 62 stolen bases, which would lead the NL. We all knew he could run, but now he's getting on base, which of course is an important and often underrated prerequisite -- right, Willy Taveras? -- to actually stealing bases.


Wins for Matt Cain: 12
No starting pitcher had less luck winning games the past two seasons than this guy. The Giants' woeful offense seemed to pick and choose who it scored for, and Cain was rarely a beneficiary. Despite a cumulative ERA of 3.71 in 66 starts between 2007 and 2008, Cain was 15-30. That's terrible. Of course this served to get Cain pushed down in drafts to the point fantasy owners were barely taking him in the top 150, as if the Giants would never score for him. The Giants still don't score much, but this season that hasn't stopped Cain from racking up 12 wins, which ties him for the major league lead, and he might just win the ERA title. I know, it's stunning to see Jason Marquis winning at this rate as well, but he also has been a double-digit winner most of this decade. Cain has not.


Plate appearances for Ben Zobrist: 300-plus
He's certainly not the only player putting up numbers few thought possible, but who thought he would even play this much? Zobrist is 28 years old, and his batting averages his first three years in the league were .224, .155 and .253, respectively. He was a utility guy, and one who didn't seem to warrant more playing time for the defending AL champs. Now Zobrist is hitting cleanup for the Rays, still has his average over the .300 mark and remains on pace for 30 home runs, 90 RBIs, 100 runs and 21 stolen bases. His presence in the top 50 on our Player Rater belies his value, since he's eligible at both middle infield spots and the outfield. Hey, I believe it will continue. And it was all made possible because he got regular playing time early on.


Starts for Chris Carpenter: 15
A big season seemed improbable for Carpenter due to injury concerns. We projected him for 15 starts, albeit with strong numbers, but he obviously is going to top that number with ease. Like Rich Harden, Carpenter can be expected to pitch well, but not necessarily pitch enough. And pitch well he has: Carpenter is third in the bigs in ERA and second in WHIP, and showing no signs of slowing down.


Home runs for Aaron Hill: 24
Fantasy owners should have just forgotten about Hill's 2008, when lingering concussion woes ruined his season. Back in 2007, Hill hit 17 home runs and batted .291, so I would argue him doing something like that again wouldn't have been a shock. Instead, Hill has shown that power and more in this season's first half, and he's not stopping. Basically, Hill, Adam Lind and Marco Scutaro have carried the Toronto offense. Hill might have a season only Ryne Sandberg has had at second base if he hits 40 home runs, Lind has turned into a 35-homer, 110-RBI outfielder, and Scutaro, believe it or not, has nearly the same numbers as defending AL MVP Dustin Pedroia, including OBP and slugging. But Hill's impact has been the greatest, and the biggest stunner for fantasy purposes.

ERA for Jarrod Washburn: 2.71
It's one thing when a young pitcher such as Edwin Jackson or Jair Jurrjens emerges and finishes in the top 10 in ERA, but Washburn's ascent to reliable fantasy option at the age of 34, when everyone seemed to know what to expect from him, is mind-boggling. Jackson and Jurrjens had room to grow. Did Washburn? This is his fourth season with the Mariners, and in each of the first three his ERA was well over 4.00 each time. Washburn credits what might end up being his career year to learning a new sinker, which has really improved his numbers. The last time he allowed fewer hits than innings was 2002, and he's likely to do it again. He might also set a new best for strikeouts. Fantasy owners apparently aren't impressed; he remains available in more than half of ESPN's leagues. I'm impressed, though.


OK, on to the rest of "Leading Off" …

Whatever happened to … Carlos Gomez and Delmon Young?

The Twins are AL Central contenders despite getting very little from these guys. Remember back in the spring, when fantasy owners were worried about there being too many Twins outfielders and not enough playing time to go around? Well, Jason Kubel continues his emergence to 30-100, Michael Cuddyer could be on his way to his best season yet and Denard Span has been able to get on base enough to be among the top leadoff hitters in the game, and also has played a very strong center field. Meanwhile, the bloom is off the Gomez rose. Still only 23, he hasn't developed power, has been allergic to taking walks, and if you watch his at-bats, he doesn't seem to have a plan. The Johan Santana deal isn't looking so wise now. As for Young, think about that awful trade the Twins made with the Rays, to catapult Tampa Bay into the best team in the AL last season. Minnesota still doesn't have a shortstop, or apparently a decent left fielder in Young. He has more than 1,500 career at-bats, and is making no progress toward slugging like an outfielder. People forget that Young, like Gomez, is only 23, but still, it's going to be a lost season for both these guys, and I have serious doubts about either of them being viable keeper candidates as well.

It sure would be nice if … the Rangers could keep the AL West interesting

Not that I want to see the Angels miss the playoffs, but the daily checkup on September pennant races is a blast, and I'm hoping the Rangers make their division interesting till the end. I also have quite an investment in the guy who, with apologies to the team's second baseman, was supposed to be the team's top player. Josh Hamilton struck out three times Saturday against Luke Hochevar. Three times! Then he got Sunday off. Hamilton really isn't showing any signs of last year's production, hitting barely .200 in July, and it's not like he's hitting deep fly balls, either. He looks awful and lost at the plate. Andruw Jones, meanwhile, has an OPS nearly 200 points higher, with a similar number of at-bats. Hamilton is looking like one of the season's biggest busts.

Stat of the week: 6

Suffice it to say Mark Buehrle will never be underrated by fantasy owners again. Buehrle's perfect game last Thursday, combined with his 2007 no-hitter, means he is one of six pitchers ever to throw two or more no-hitters, with one of them a perfecto. Four of the others are in the Hall of Fame (Sandy Koufax, Jim Bunning, Addie Joss, Cy Young), and surely Randy Johnson will get there. Buehrle doesn't figure to end up in Cooperstown unless he keeps plugging away to 300 games, but consider that he might have been a free agent in your mixed league back in April, or even May. Want another stat? The Rays had a team on-base percentage of .353 entering the perfect game. Since 1920, only one team (the legendary 1922 Tigers, who were stymied by Charlie Robertson) had a better OBP and failed to reach base in a game. This wasn't Buehrle blowing through a Nationals lineup in late September. The guy really is good and consistent, and while he doesn't have a sexy name for keeper leaguers, it's a lot safer than Brandon Morrow, Homer Bailey or Luke Hochevar, all of whom I did see protected in keeper formats for this season.

Final word

On Friday night I watched the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park with new players hitting first, second and fourth in the batting order, and in each case the NL Central leaders (at the time) didn't give up anything of immediate importance to acquire these players. Julio Lugo is someone I've picked up in a few leagues, thinking he could steal bases, while Mark DeRosa certainly brings power to the table. The cleanup hitter behind Albert Pujols was Matt Holliday, who didn't stop hitting all weekend. By the way, I wrote about the Holliday trade here.


The point is, I read and hear way too often from whiny fantasy owners how they can't change their teams without parting with their best player. The Cardinals are proof it doesn't have to be that way in real life, and I think there are similarities to fantasy. In every NL-only league, one lucky owner picked up (or will pick up) Holliday for nothing, I presume, just by using his waiver position or free-agent dollars. DeRosa was cut in many leagues when he had a recent DL stint, and Lugo is owned in fewer than 2 percent of ESPN standard leagues even now. It's not only OK to change your team as clearly as the Cardinals did, but sometimes it's warranted, and not as tough as you think.


One other thing about fantasy as I run across a team in my 16-team league that is winning all five pitching categories yet is still barely in the money hunt: Too many fantasy teams load up on offense -- or pitching, doesn't matter -- yet don't have a balanced team. The Cardinals won with ease Friday, then I watched in person Saturday, and on TV Sunday, as the Cardinals gave up a whole lot of runs, and it didn't matter what Lugo, DeRosa and Holliday did. I don't deny the Cardinals needed a big bat to help Pujols out, but did they perhaps need Roy Halladay more than they needed Holliday? Fantasy owners should always make sure they're trading for need, not want.


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.