Commentary

First- and second-half all-stars

Players who trend better in the first or second halves of the season

Updated: March 1, 2010, 6:57 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

What is it about the All-Star break?

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Three days' rest might seem insignificant, but for some baseball players, it represents a turning point in their seasons. For some, perhaps it's lengthy enough to halt their momentum, leading to a downturn in performance for the remainder of the season. For others, maybe it's enough of a breather to refresh for a second-half push.

Or, perhaps, certain players simply have a tendency to either start or finish strong regardless of relation to the midpoint of the year. To put it another way: There are morning people, and there are afternoon people. Draw a line at, say, noon, and comparing a person's performance before and after that "midpoint" might identify those who excel at 10 a.m. and others at 3 p.m. By the same token, some baseball players might excel in May, others in August.

Whatever the cause, fantasy owners should always pay heed to first- and second-half players. Load up on too many of one, and you might find yourself either starting strong before slowing down or starting too slow to rally once your players heat up come midsummer, especially if you're in a league that traditionally doesn't do a lot of trading. Balance the two evenly, and you might not be maximizing your statistical potential enough during certain stages of the year, especially if you're in a league that does trade frequently.

In addition, the knowledge of such players can help you evaluate said trade market, as some of the more obvious names -- Dan Haren and Ryan Howard, to name two -- have trends so well-known by this stage of their careers that you might have to adjust your price tags for both depending upon when you're shopping them.

One other thing to consider when it comes to first- and second-half studs: When you're considering players coming off especially strong second halves -- especially younger ones -- don't be so hasty to declare them potential breakout candidates for 2010. There's enough data to suggest that players who put forth exceptional second halves might be every bit as likely to continue such a pattern in future seasons as take the next step in terms of career growth the next season.

In the analysis of players with second-half surges maintaining their performance in subsequent seasons, one thing to be aware of is that 60 of the 108 hitters in that study had second-half OPSes that were 50-plus points greater than during the first half in the past five seasons combined. Of those 60, 23 players had OPSes of 100 or more points greater in the second than in the first half. In other words, there's very real evidence to suggest "once a second-half player, always a second-half player."

Listed below are fantasy's first- and second-half All-Star teams, one player per infield position, three outfielders, four starting pitchers and one to two relief pitchers. How you use these trends is up to you, but the insights might be valuable to you not only on draft day but also when considering midseason trades.

The first-half All-Stars

Catcher: Russell Martin. In his four-year career, Martin's batting average has dropped 24 points and his OPS 56 points after the All-Star break as compared with before it, and he has swiped only 23 of his 60 career bags (38.3 percent) in the second half, during which he has played 45.4 percent of his games. But this might not surprise you, right? He's a catcher who has started at least 130 games and played 1,200-plus innings in each of the past three years, and that's a workload that might wear down any backstop during the warm, sweaty summer months.

Justin Morneau
Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMIJustin Morneau is a .299 hitter with 98 home runs in 449 first-half games, but his average dips to .260 with 65 homers in 418 second-half contests.

First baseman: Justin Morneau. Even if you want to explain that injuries might have been responsible for some of his career second-half woes, Morneau doesn't deserve a mulligan for them. After all, that might just mean he's a second-half injury risk, and that just clinches his spot. He has had a batting average of .243 or worse and OPS of .713 or lower after the All-Star break in three of the past five seasons and hasn't homered more than 11 times in the second half of any of those five seasons. Eleven, incidentally, is the fewest first-half homers he has hit in any year from 2005 to 09, and three times he belted more than 20.

Second baseman: Ian Kinsler. Again with the injury excuses, and I won't forgive. Before pointing out that Kinsler's career second-half OPS is nearly 100 points lower than in the first half (.868 to .770), it bears noting that during the past three seasons, he has appeared in 93 percent of the Texas Rangers' games before the All-Star break but only 66.5 percent after it, missing at least 16 second-half contests in each season. He's no catcher, but the scorching summer temperatures of Arlington, Texas, might have something to do with his tendency to wear down.

Third baseman: Scott Rolen. Although his career second-half OPS (.874) is actually higher than in the first half (.864), he'll turn 35 in April and has displayed a tendency in recent years to get off to hot starts before dropping to very ordinary production levels come midsummer. Two cases in point: the 2006 season, when he batted .331 with 14 homers and 57 RBIs before the break, and 2009, when he hit .320 with an .847 OPS. In both those years his numbers waned during the second half, and in four of the past five seasons, both his batting average and OPS dropped after the break. Also, he has played at least 70 games before the break in each of the past four seasons; he has averaged 50 after it during that span.

Shortstop: Miguel Tejada. He'll probably be the Orioles' starting third baseman this season, not their shortstop, but in fantasy this is his primary position, and he's one of the few who is an obvious fit here. Last season alone, Tejada saw his batting average and OPS drop from .329 and .830 before the All-Star break to .294 and .751 after it, and let's not gloss over the fact that he's now 35 years old. In the past five seasons, his second-half OPS is 59 percentage points lower than in the first half.

Outfielders: Brad Hawpe, Xavier Nady and B.J. Upton. Don't forget that the Colorado Rockies benched Hawpe during last year's Division Series because of his poor second-half performance and 0-for-3 Game 1. He was a .240 hitter with an .813 OPS after the break, but in terms of first-half performance he's as consistent as they come, batting .310-plus with a .900-plus OPS in three of the past four seasons, belting either 14 or 15 homers in each of those four years.

Nady's missed time last season might lead a fantasy owner to think his second-half struggles might have been skewed by a small sample size, but he was typically a hot starter even before his Tommy John surgery. He had an OPS greater than .800 before the All-Star break each year from 2005 to '08 and an OPS beneath that in each year from 2005 to '07. And even when he managed an .825 number in the second half of 2008, when he finished strong after a midseason trade to the New York Yankees, his numbers paled in comparison to his .901 first-half OPS that year.

Not one of the more consistent players in baseball, Upton is coming off a miserable 2009, and even though his 37-point drop in OPS from the first to second half wasn't devastating, his diminished stolen-base performance was. After swiping 31 bags in 81 games before the break, he dropped to 11 in 63 after it, and not once in his career has he stolen more than 17 bases during a season's second half.

Designated hitter: Gary Sheffield. Even if he can somehow find work this season, Sheffield is not the kind of player you want to trust for long. Sure, he was a .284 hitter with an .867 OPS before the All-Star break the past five years combined, but those numbers dropped to .246 and .763 after it. Sheffield also averaged 65 games before the break but only 43 after it during that span. And he's 41 years old.

Dan Haren
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireDan Haren's second-half swoon in 2009 was predictable based on his career trends.

Starting pitchers: Nick Blackburn, Mark Buehrle, Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson. No pitcher in baseball better exemplifies first-half pitchers than Haren, who through seven years of his big league career has a 3.08 ERA and 1.06 WHIP before the All-Star break, compared with 4.21 and 1.32 after it. Something Haren owners need to think about: He has an ERA north of 4 and a WHIP of 1.25 or higher after the break in each of the past four seasons, and in 2009 he had a first-half 2.01 ERA and 0.81 WHIP but second-half numbers of 4.62 and 1.26. In other words, Haren's splits became even more extreme last season.

Blackburn has two full big league seasons under his belt in which he has displayed an alarming trend of being an entirely trustworthy fantasy option before the All-Star break but a pitcher you can't afford to use come July. He's 15-9 with a 3.35 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 37 first-half starts the past two years combined, compared with 7-13 with 5.09/1.50 numbers in 29 second-half starts.

You might recall Buehrle's perfect game last season being pitched on July 23 -- after the All-Star break. What you might not recall is that in his next six starts, he went 0-4 with a 6.21 ERA. For all of Buehrle's heroics on that July afternoon, the truth is that he's typically a better pitcher before the Midsummer Classic than after it, with a 3.57 career first-half ERA and 4.08 in the second half.

Jackson's track record might not feel lengthy enough to label him as a clear first-half pitcher, but if you look back at what he did in each of the past two seasons, he had pleasant ERA/WHIP numbers before the break -- including 3.93 and 1.38 in 2008 -- yet his ERA rose to above 5 with a WHIP greater than 1.50 after it.

Relief pitchers: Ryan Franklin and Francisco Rodriguez. The first thing people might point to when trying to poke holes in Franklin's astonishing 2009 is his second-half WHIP, which was an unsightly 1.70. It wasn't the first time he has struggled in the category, as he has never registered a second-half number lower than 1.24 and has been over 1.40 in four of the past five seasons. Even if he (and Dave Duncan) somehow keep up the magic early in the year, Franklin is a prime trade candidate leading into the All-Star break.

Blame K-Rod's putrid 2009 second-half ratios -- 6.75 ERA and 1.42 WHIP -- on the New York Mets' miserable performance if you want, but the truth is that his numbers have tailed off on many previous occasions in his career. In four of the past five seasons, his second-half WHIP was 1.33 or greater, and his second-half ERA has been at least three in four of his seven full seasons.

The second-half All-Stars

Catcher: Carlos Ruiz. Did you know he's a .303 hitter with a .905 OPS in 32 career postseason games? Perhaps that wouldn't surprise you so much if you realized this spark plug has a career second-half OPS (.789) that's 133 points higher than in the first half, not to mention that he has a lifetime OPS greater than .800 in both August and September. Ruiz might very well be a catcher you should ignore entirely on draft day but target come July.

First baseman: Ryan Howard. He's as obvious a choice for either list as anyone not named Dan Haren. During the past four seasons, Howard has ranked among the top four in both home runs and RBIs after the All-Star break, and he led the majors twice in each category during that span. Even better: He's a .302 career second-half hitter whose worst single-year number in the category during that span was .276 (2008).

Second baseman: Robinson Cano. Another obvious pick, Cano has managed a second-half OPS at least 100 points greater than during the first half in each of the past four seasons, resulting in a career second-half OPS 138 points greater than that of the first half. He's a .329 career hitter after the All-Star break, not to mention he has slugged hit 52 of his 87 home runs and driven in 214 of his 394 runs after it.

Third baseman: Ryan Zimmerman. He has never batted less than .282 or managed an OPS south of .815 after the All-Star break during his five-year big league career and has .297/.871 lifetime numbers in those categories during that time span. By comparison, twice Zimmerman has batted beneath .260 with an OPS of less than .750 before the All-Star break, and his career first-half numbers are .273 and .783.

Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki. His career has been briefer than even Zimmerman's, so we can't yet be positive that he'll keep up a lifelong first-half/second-half trend. Still, Tulowitzki has been so amazingly good after the All-Star break the past three seasons, compared with somewhat ordinary before it, that his statistics cannot be ignored. He's already a .312 second-half hitter with an .896 OPS, 37 of his 65 career homers and 152 of his 243 career RBIs, compared with a .249 career first-half hitter with a .755 OPS.

Nick Markakis
Mitch Stringer/Icon SMINick Markakis has a history of playing his best baseball during summer vacation. He owns a career .903 OPS in July and .986 OPS in August.

Outfielders: Nick Markakis, Carlos Quentin and Chris Young. One of the reasons Markakis' 2009 was so disappointing was it snapped a pleasant, stepping-stone kind of pattern that he had seemingly established during the first three years of his major league career. Check out his OPS by half, beginning with the first half of 2006 and ending with the second half of 2008: .683, .896, .771, .939, .895 and .899. Then, last season, right when it seemed as though he was ready to be a consistent, breakout performer, his by-half OPS went .790 and .810. Markakis apparently looks safe to trust after the All-Star break, but maybe not before it.

Health has not been Quentin's friend, but for a player with three disabled-list stints on his résumé already, he has done a nice job wrapping up each of the past two seasons strongly. He clubbed 13 of his 21 home runs after the All-Star break and actually managed 36 RBIs in his final 52 contests of 2009, and in 2008 he had a .312 batting average and 1.117 OPS in 39 second-half games before getting hurt.

The concern with Young is that another sluggish first half might ultimately cost him his job, eliminating any chance at a second-half surge, but previously in his career he showed plenty of reason to invest in him once the All-Star break arrives. He has an OPS that's 124 percentage points higher after the break than before it in his career and in fact has hit 32 of his 71 career home runs and stolen 20 of his 54 career bases after Aug. 1.

Designated hitter: David Ortiz. This guy apparently craves a pennant race, because even in his down years of 2008 and 2009, his second-half OPSes were .914 and .866 (the latter far more pleasant than his .794 full-year number). In fact, in his career he has hit 199 of his 317 career home runs after July 1, or 62.8 percent, despite playing 55.9 percent of his career games after that date.

Starting pitchers: Bronson Arroyo, Ricky Nolasco, Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia. Sabathia is the notable name on this list, and although his critics point to his girth as reason to believe he might break down at some point, he has been a remarkably productive late-season performer, particularly in the past two years. Check out these numbers: 20-4 record, 2.11 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 216 strikeouts in 30 second-half starts in 2008-09 combined. Combining this with the point about Haren from the first-half team, fantasy owners who can fool an unsuspecting owner into a Haren-for-Sabathia midseason deal might guarantee themselves numbers from that pitching slot that better the year's Cy Young winner.

Speaking of strong second-half numbers in 2008-09, take a look at Nolasco's, at least in the ratio and strikeout categories: 3.84 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 9.62 strikeouts per nine. We've already discussed in many places on these pages how wholly unlucky Nolasco was last season, so that ERA is probably a bit high for him, too.

Arroyo might never have been a go-get-him kind of fantasy ace, not by a long shot, but take a look at his second-half numbers during his Cincinnati Reds career: 3.17 ERA, 1.18 WHIP in 61 starts. Pretty good, right? He also has kept his ERA beneath 4 after the All-Star break in each of those four seasons. Now check out his first-half numbers: 4.74 ERA, 1.44 WHIP in 75 starts. Even if you're underwhelmed by Arroyo on draft day, you might want to target him in July.

Those fantasy owners with the painful memory of stomaching Pettitte's brutal 4-7 record, 5.35 ERA and 1.53 WHIP the second half of 2008 might not think of him as a historic second-half performer. That season was his outlier, however. It's the only season since 2002 when his second-half ERA was higher than 3.84, he has maintained a WHIP beneath 1.25 in five of his past eight seasons and he has won in the double digits on four occasions after the All-Star break.

Relief pitcher: Chad Qualls. Surprisingly enough, no other closer but Qualls so perfectly exemplifies the label of second-half pitcher, so although there are two relief pitchers on the first-half team, he's the only one on the second-half team. In his career he has a second-half ERA (3.79) more than a run lower than during the first half (2.78), and his WHIP differential is 0.15. Had Qualls not gotten hurt when he did last season, maybe his first-half/second-half splits would today appear more obvious, making him tougher to steal from an unsuspecting owner at midseason.

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.