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Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Is Derek Jeter's start for real?

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Through three weeks, Matt Kemp and Josh Hamilton are enjoying outstanding seasons. They're ranked No. 1 and 2 on our Player Rater, and they rank among their respective leagues' top three in batting average, home runs and RBIs.

Hit Parade

But interestingly enough, it is the No. 3 name on the Player Rater who has had the most outstanding fantasy season to date, at least comparative to average draft position: Derek Jeter, the No. 112 pick in the preseason (ADP 111.7).

Jeter, an "old man" by baseball standards, checking in at 37 years of age (and he'll turn 38 on June 26), is playing like he's a man 10 years younger. Small-sample caveats apply, but Jeter is batting .411, the third-best mark in the majors, he's the major league leader with 32 hits and he's on pace for an incredible 38 home runs, 124 RBIs and 133 runs scored. So far, he has enjoyed every bit the level of success that he did in either 1999, 2006 or 2009, the three seasons in his 18-year big league career during which he managed a top-three finish in the MVP balloting.

Now, let's take that "small-sample caveat" and toss it out the window, because, statistically speaking, Jeter's resurgence looks completely legitimate.

Two statistical traits of Jeter's stand out when he's going right: His opposite-field hitting ability, and his performance on pitches up in the strike zone.

Jeter's 15 opposite-field hits this season are tops in the majors, and represent 47 percent of his entire hit total. Compare that to his down 2011, when his 47 opposite-field hits ranked 23rd. And in April of last season, when he managed horrendous .250/.311/.272 triple-slash rates, Jeter had seven opposite-field hits; 55 other players in baseball had more in that month.

Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter is playing even better this year than during his second-half surge last year.

As for Jeter's performance on pitches "up" -- judged by our pitch-tracking tool as pitches in the upper third of the strike zone -- look at the stark contrast in his statistics between this and last season:

2011: .225/.350/.270, 139 PAs, 20.6 miss percentage, sample 23.4 percent of total pitches
April 2011: .091/.160/.091, 25 PAs, 33.3 miss percentage, sample 20.7 percent of total pitches
2012: .467/.500/.800, 19 PAs, 9.5 miss percentage, sample 25.4 percent of total pitches

Granted, the case could be made that Jeter's resurgence began last July, following his return from a strained right calf, as his statistics picked up immediately after his activation from the disabled list. Perhaps it represented the first time in a while that he had been fully healthy, or maybe his recording his 3,000th career hit helped alleviate some of the pressure of such a milestone chase. But looking at Jeter's 2012 year-to-date performance, he doesn't seem to be playing at a level equivalent to his 2011 second half … he's playing at something closer to 2009.

Let's make a few statistical comparisons between Jeter's 2009 and 2012:

Opposite-field hits: MLB-best 15 in 2012, MLB third best 72 in 2009
OPS on pitches up in the zone: 1.300 in 2012, 1.062 in 2009
Miss percentage on pitches up in the zone: 9.5 percent in 2012, 15.3 percent in 2009
Hitting versus lefties: .630/.607/.926 in 2012, .395/.468/.542 in 2009
Hitting versus righties: .300/.352/.500 in 2012, .311/.381/.435 in 2009
Ground ball rate: 59.7 percent in 2012, 57.7 percent in 2009

Regression will obviously strike Jeter this season -- no one would predict he'll hit .411 -- but if his 2009 self has truly returned, we're talking about a potential .334 hitter, and that means from this point forward, not necessarily his final 2012 number in the category. Incidentally, in case you're curious what he batted from July 4 on last season, the first date he played following his activation from the disabled list: .331! A healthy Jeter, playing at this level, is well over a .300 hitter.

As crazy as it sounds, considering his age and 2010-11 history, Jeter might yet make a run at a top-three spot at his position on our Player Rater this season. As he possesses one of the most recognizable names and faces in all of baseball, he's a potential sell-high candidate … if you can fetch, say, top-70 overall value, which was roughly his average Player Rater ranking overall from 2009 to 2011 (averaged 68th, thanks to 10th, 95th and 98th finishes).

But don't just give Jeter away, certainly not at anything close to No. 10 value at his position (No. 112 overall), which was his preseason ADP. At his current performance level, he has an excellent chance at remaining a top-five shortstop.

"Old men" resurgence

Jeter isn't the only player of advancing age off to a scorching start, nor the only one likely to maintain a steady level of production all summer.

Division rival David Ortiz ranks sixth among hitters on our Player Rater, so far enjoying a second consecutive outstanding season at age 36, following age 32-34 campaigns that made it appear as if his career was beginning its downward slope. Ortiz, who managed a No. 33 finish on the 2011 Player Rater, now has an 84.2 percent contact rate since the beginning of last season, after managing a 76.1 percent number in the category from 2008 to 2010 (his ages 32-34 seasons).

While it's difficult to explain why Ortiz has improved in this regard, his performance against fastballs is largely behind his resurgence. His OPS against the pitch has risen steadily each year, going from .832 in 2009 to 1.019 in 2010 to 1.126 in 2011 to 1.286 this season. His swing-and-miss rate against them, too, has improved, going from 22.2 percent in 2010 to 14.3 in 2011 to 11.3 percent this year. And, perhaps most encouraging, against fastballs clocked at 93 mph or faster -- that number chosen because approximately 25 percent of all fastballs are clocked that speed or higher -- Ortiz is a .390/.442/.789 hitter who has missed on a mere 16.5 percent of his swings since the beginning of 2011.

In short, Ortiz is hitting like a player 10 years younger, too, and considering the strength of his team's lineup, he might well be a top-50 hitter again in 2012.

Meanwhile, eight spots further down the hitting rankings on our Player Rater is the St. Louis Cardinals' current cleanup hitter, Carlos Beltran, one of the more promising microfracture surgery recovery stories among athletes. While Beltran, now 35 years of age, might no longer possess the speed that once made him an annual 30/30 candidate, his performance at the plate remains as good as ever. Take a look at his statistics both before and after the surgery:

2007-09: .290/.375/.510, 12.2 BB percentage, 14.7 K percentage
2010-12: .284/.371/.496, 12.0 BB percentage, 15.9 K percentage

Health is the question with Beltran, but the only viable question at this point, and in defense of him in that regard, consider this: Of 253 eligible team games since his return from microfracture surgery, he has appeared in 223, or 88.1 percent, and that's in spite of his having made one DL trip during that span (last August, for a hand injury). Beltran might not be the safest bet to play 150-plus games, but he might not miss by much, and during the healthy games he gives you he should perform at a level equivalent of a top-20 outfielder.

Three up

Adam Dunn, 1B, Chicago White Sox: I've been as vocal with my skepticism about a Dunn comeback as anyone, but his performance to date, at the minimum, warrants recognition. After struggling through one of the most miserable seasons in the history of baseball, Dunn at least has elevated himself to the level of fantasy respectability; he's batting .246 and is on pace for 38 home runs, numbers that would rival those in either of his two seasons in Washington. Dunn has made one critical improvement: He's a .345/.513/.897 triple-slash hitter versus fastballs (in 39 PAs that ended with one), after managing .160/.327/.274 rates against them in 2011. That said, some flaws remain, which is why despite his addition this week, he's low in the "Hit Parade" rankings: He's an .056/.190/.111 hitter versus left-handers, comparable to his .064/.235/.074 rates against them last season; and he has a 37.5 percent strikeout and 34.3 percent swing-and-miss rate, both higher than his 35.7 and 32.2 rates of a year ago. Tread carefully.

Desmond Jennings, OF, Tampa Bay Rays: Some players were born to be stars in certain fantasy scoring formats, and ordinary performers in others. Such is the case with Jennings: The No. 28 hitter on our Player Rater, he's only 58th in ESPN's standard points-league scoring system, his stolen bases more valuable in Rotisserie scoring but his strikeouts more to his detriment in points-based scoring. It's for that reason you could have Jennings in "Three up" in this space, yet "Pointing down" in AJ Mass' new "Vantage Point" column, which specifically addresses the latter scoring format. Jennings is off to a solid start -- at least in Rotisserie -- as he has three apiece in homers and steals, and it's a plus that he has slashed what was a 22.9 percent miss rate on swings last season to 16.7 percent this season.

Gerardo Parra, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks: Currently available in 94.7 percent of ESPN leagues, Parra has recaptured a starting role with the Diamondbacks following the injury to hot-starting center fielder Chris Young. Parra's strengths are twofold: His glove, which is irrelevant in fantasy leagues, but also his speed, which can be of help, even if only in the short term, in NL-only and deeper mixed leagues. He already has five stolen bases on 17 opportunities (those judged by Baseball-Reference.com), after 15 on 203 in 2011, and since the beginning of last season he has batted a respectable .289. Parra, incidentally, was a lifetime .314 hitter in the minors. He's getting some time in the leadoff spot and might yet steal additional at-bats from, say, the defensively challenged Jason Kubel in left field even after Young's return, so take a look if Parra is available in your league.

Three down

Peter Bourjos, OF, Los Angeles Angels: As with the aforementioned Parra, Bourjos' strengths are his glove and his speed, but thus far his struggles at the plate have been troublesome. He's a .186 hitter, he has struck out in 26.1 percent of his at-bats and he has chased 37 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, all of those numbers representing significant drops from his 2011 levels of production. Why is that relevant? Simple: Top prospect Mike Trout is off to a .419/.483/.649 start for Triple-A Salt Lake, and he potentially brings similar traits to the Angels that Bourjos does; the difference being that he projects as a much better hitter long-term. The Angels might soon be looking for a space for Trout, and if Bourjos hasn't improved his performance by then, Bourjos could be dropped into a lesser-used fourth/fifth outfielder reserve role, or worse … back to the minors.

Adam Lind, 1B, Toronto Blue Jays: His performance to date has been puzzling; his peripheral numbers seem to hint at improvement, but his standard Rotisserie numbers haven't followed. Through three weeks, Lind's walk (9.5 percent) and strikeout (14.3 percent) rates represent career bests, and his 12.6 percent miss rate on swings ranks 23rd best out of 192 qualified hitters. At the same time, he has a 50.0 percent ground ball rate, significantly higher than his 39.5 percent rate in 2011, neutralizing his power. One possible explanation: Lind has seen an increased rate of two-seam fastballs (13.1 percent of pitches seen, per FanGraphs) and sinkers (6.7 percent), pitches that tend to induce more grounders. He could really go one of two ways: He might improve as he faces fewer pitchers who lean on those two offerings; or future opponents might recognize his struggles with those pitches and challenge him more with them. The latter is the worry.

John Mayberry Jr., OF, Philadelphia Phillies: If you speculated upon Mayberry in an NL-only or deeper mixed league, you should be concerned. While it's a fact the Phillies had a short leash with him -- they granted him starts in seven of their first games and he "rewarded" them with .222/.222/.259 triple-slash rates, one extra-base hit, a double, and eight strikeouts in 27 at-bats -- the fact remains they gave him a short leash, starting him only three times in 10 games since. The Phillies are effectively treating him as a platoon man, starting him almost exclusively versus left-handed pitchers, and that's a limiting role even in deeper NL-only formats. And with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard getting closer to their returns by the day, Mayberry's playing time might not improve anytime soon.

New position eligibility

The following players have become eligible at new positions -- it's 10 games to qualify at a new spot -- in ESPN standard leagues during the past week: Yuniesky Betancourt (2B), Matt Carpenter (1B), Jesus Guzman (OF), Bryan LaHair (1B), Casey McGehee (1B), Xavier Nady (OF), Marco Scutaro (2B).

Nearing new position eligibility

The following notable fantasy players are on track to earn new eligibility in the coming weeks: Daniel Descalso (9 games played at 3B), Josh Donaldson (9 games played at 3B), Eric Sogard (8 games played at 3B).