The Barry Bonds Case Study
In 1989, at age 25, Barry Bonds had what appeared to be a sub-par season, falling short in HRs and AVG vs. 1988 and stagnating in runs and RBIs. A deeper look shows that he established a career high in doubles and BB/K ratio. The next season, he established new highs in HR, AVG, runs and RBIs. This phenomenon happened again in 1992, when Bonds' largest improvements were in doubles and BB/K ratio, translating into new highs in HR, AVG, runs and RBIs in 1993.
In the Bonds case, most observers would have fixated on HRs, AVG and run production in their assessment of him. However, Bonds' full stats showed that he was improving as a hitter and this translated into new highs in homers and run production.
Doubles and BB/K ratio can be used with other data as a predictor of a player's rise and fall. Specifically, the ratio of BB/K can signal changes in a hitter's selectivity and eye-hand coordination, and doubles can indicate changes in strength and power. Since many doubles are hit deep into outfield gaps, when a rising star generates more doubles you can reasonably expect him to make strides in homers as his strength and swing improve.
Below, I have identified players who are improving as hitters, and may be on their way to establishing career highs. At the end of this piece, I identify players whose play is deteriorating more quickly than is noticeable to the casual observer.
Star is Rising
Scott Rolen, 3B, Cardinals
Scott Rolen is an All-Star third baseman, but his production appears to be stuck since hitting 31 homers as a 23-year-old in 1998. In 2003, he quietly had one of his best years, and showed improvement over 2002 by establishing career highs in doubles and BB/K ratio. Now at 29, he may be ready for another leg upward and should establish himself as an elite fantasy player at third base.
Miguel Tejada, SS, Orioles
Sure, 2002 MVP Miguel Tejada was unable to repeat his fantasy production in 2003. While his fantasy numbers dropped, he may not have regressed as much as you thought. Since Tejada was less productive in runs, homers, RBIs and average, most fantasy owners will downgrade him in this year's draft. Take a look at his doubles, walks and strikeouts, and you will notice that Tejada improved in categories that owners tend to ignore. Tejada is just 27 years old, and with a move to hitter-friendly Camden Yards, some of those doubles should turn into HRs. If you can't get A-Rod, Tejada is your man.
Edgar Renteria, SS, Cardinals
Edgar is usually an after-thought at shortstop, but it's time to give him a closer look. In 2003, he established career highs in average, runs and RBIs. The rest of his numbers were just as strong, as he achieved career bests in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, doubles, walks and strikeouts. At 28, if Edgar can turn some of those doubles into HRs, he should be considered a strong option at shortstop.
Milton Bradley, OF, Indians
In 101 games, Bradley put up decent stats in 2003. Owners who note the 10 homers will miss out on a guy whose OPS was higher than Sammy Sosa, Vernon Wells, Chipper Jones and Carlos Beltran. Bradley's walks and doubles took off, and at age 25, he is capable of a 20/20 season. He makes for a great sleeper pick and could round out your fantasy team as a third outfielder.
Doug Mientkiewicz, 1B, Twins
Historically, Mientkiewicz has been a fantasy league bench-option, lacking power at a position that features 30+ HR guys. His 2003 stats give a green-light for further development in 2004. In deep leagues and AL-only leagues, he is a good late round option to help you out at first base.
Star is Falling
Rafael Palmeiro, 1B, Orioles
For the last 9 seasons, Palmeiro has been one of the most consistent hitters in baseball. Now, at 39, it appears that his stats are beginning to slide. Most alarming is the sharp reduction in his doubles last season. Will this be the season that Palmeiro's age finally begins to show?
Edgar Martinez, DH, Mariners
At age 41, we all know that Edgar is nearing the end of his career. While he helped many fantasy owners in 2003, the numbers show that he will have a tough time repeating those stats. Specifically, his doubles are way down over the last two years, and his BB/K ratio has begun to slip. Unless he winds up slipping in your draft, you can take a pass on him.
Veteran writer David Capece will be an occasional contributor to ESPN Fantasy Games, specializing in statistical analysis.