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Thursday, June 14, 2012
Leaps of faith

By Matthew Berry
ESPN.com

The Talented Mr. Roto

So this past Monday night in San Francisco, at the Fantasy Sports Trade Association's Business and Technology Conference, was a pretty heady night for me. I was inducted into that organization's Hall of Fame. Not to be confused with the FSWA (Fantasy Sports Writers Association), which focuses solely on content and fantasy analysis, the FSTA covers the entire industry of fantasy sports. And I was shocked and humbled to be inducted into its Hall of Fame this week.

Of course, being inducted into a Hall of Fame comes at a price: You have to make a speech. It's a nerve-racking thing, trying to figure out what to say about yourself, especially when the truth of the matter is, I wouldn't have had any kind of career, let alone be standing on that podium, if not for an insanely long list of people who all had one thing in common. They took a chance on me.

Hall of Fame
If you would be so kind, I'd much prefer you focus on the glare coming off of the trophy than the one coming off of my head.

No one enjoys reading a long list of names they're not familiar with, so I will spare you the list I read Monday night. But it was expansive and filled with people to whom I am forever indebted. I have published the speech on my Facebook page for those who care, but here's the short version: I am humbled, honored and shocked. No journey is made alone, and I'm here as a result of many people taking a giant leap of faith on me. With no justifiable reason for them to do so.

You see, most of the time, that leap of faith involved giving me a chance to show I could do something I'd never done before. From the first time someone published a fantasy column of mine, to the first person to put me on the radio and then eventually TV, to all those who partnered with and contributed to my two websites, and all the way to getting a chance to be a part of the Worldwide Leader, my life has been a series of blind leaps of faith by people who had every reason to doubt me, and then gave me unwavering support when I screwed up along the way, which was often. Those leaps of faith that so many people took on my behalf helped not just professionally, but personally. Without fantasy, I never move to Connecticut, I never meet my wife, and I don't have five great kids.

Therefore it's only natural that my column this week be all about taking a leap. Of faith. But unlike the people who have helped me throughout my career, in baseball, we do at least have some data to help us take that leap. So as we hit the middle of June, I'm taking a leap of faith that ...

... Melky Cabrera is a top-10 outfielder the rest of the way. I've written about Melky before, and I think folks realize he's having a good season. But do they realize how good? The sixth-best outfielder on our Player Rater so far this year and he was the eighth-best outfielder for the entire 2011 season. Walking more and striking out less than he did in 2011. I know people will point to his inflated BABIP as a sign he's getting lucky, but he's being even more selective at the plate this year and making the most contact of his career (tied for 17th-highest contact percentage in baseball). Last year was the first season he got 600 at-bats. Barring injury, this will be the second. Ultimately, his average is going to come down and the power will rise a bit, but you get 650 at bats and make a lot of contact, good things usually follow.

... That Chris Davis has finally figured it out. The classic "Quad-A" guy, he went from batting .192 in 2010 to .266 in 2011 to .301 this season. Big leaps, but his BABIP this season is .367, only one tick above the .366 he posted last year. He's lowered his strikeout rate (it's still not great, but it's better), but the key for me is that he's figured out how to consistently barrel up fastballs. The last time he has significant at-bats in the majors, 2009, he hit .210 on fastballs, missing 36.8 percent of the time. This year, he's hitting them at a .346 clip, missing on less than 25 percent of them.

... That Tony Campana leads the majors in steals, with more than 65. Look, we know he's fast. He's got 21 steals. It's the playing time that's the issue, and that's why he's available in 85 percent of leagues. Just eight at-bats in his last six games. But despite that, he leads baseball in stolen bases, and the encouraging thing to me is that although he's been sheltered from lefties during his major league playing time, he actually hit .300 (6-for-20) against lefties in the minors this season. It's a tiny sample size, but it's still better than if he'd gone 0-for-20 against them. Plus, he's a lifetime .303 minor league hitter. He's hitting a respectable .261 against lefties this season for the Cubs, and come on: He's got Joe Mather and Reed Johnson in front of him. He's on pace for just 314 at-bats -- and 55 steals. Imagine if he got anything close to full time? If you need speed at all, he needs to be owned.

Jason Kipnis
Cleveland fans have been hurt before, but Jason Kipnis could be the one to fill the void in their collective hearts.

... That we are all Kipnisses. Another case of yeah, yeah, you know Jason Kipnis is good. But how about "potentially the No. 1 second baseman next year" good? Obviously, let's see how the rest of the year plays out and it's still probably a bit too early for that talk, but he's in the discussion. Before you talk luck, did you know his BABIP and his HR/FB rate are actually down from his 150 plate appearances last season? (BABIP .313 in 2011, .303 this year, HR/FB was 20.6 percent in 2011 and is just 14.3 percent this year, per Fangraphs). His strikeout rate is way down from last year, and he's not only the No. 1 second baseman on our Player Rater this year, he's that good by a large margin.

... That Jed Lowrie will stay healthy and the power is not a fluke. The health thing is a gut call, but I have bribed Stephania Bell not to trade for him in any of her leagues, so that mitigates the risk somewhat. Currently on pace to hit 31 home runs, he may not get there, but he's absolutely pushing past 20 if he stays on the field. Two things I really like: His 14.3 percent HR/FB rate isn't that crazy and as The SWAN, Zach Jones of ESPN Stats & Information, tells me (he helped with this entire column), only Colby Rasmus has a better well-hit average (.293) than Lowrie this year (.289). Incidentally, Andrew McCutcheon is third with a .286 well-hit average.

... That R.A. Dickey can feel confident in legally changing his name to R.A. Diculous. Props to my Twitter follower @Coachescala for that joke, but people thought I was nuts for putting Dickey above the Wandy Line a while back. I've written about him a lot, both in the preseason and when we did our Top 250 ranks for the rest of the season in mid-May, when I was the only guy to rank him. He's currently fourth on the Player Rater among starting pitchers; I feel confident he'll finish as a top-15 pitcher and possibly top-10 depending on wins (always tough to gauge). I feel like I always talk about him, but then he goes out and throws a one-hitter, strikes out 12 and improves to 10-1 with a 2.20 ERA.

I've given the insane stats on him in terms of quality starts before (he's basically one the five best in baseball since the start of last year; he has the same number as Clayton Kershaw). But here's the thing: The concern with knucklers is always that they're going to either walk guys or get lit up when they leave the ball in the middle of the zone, right? Neither has been the case with Dickey this season, and he's been top-five in the majors in getting hitters to swing and miss at his strikes, which is one of the reasons his K/9 is through the roof this season: 9.00, after never being over 5.78 since his rookie season in 2003.

... That Ryan Dempster continues to be un-Dempster-like. I've never been a huge fan, but I'm kind of on board this year. Buster Olney told me on the Fantasy Focous podcast recently that he felt Dempster could be one of the first starting pitchers moved before the deadline, and that will hopefully help as well, in terms of wins and a better bullpen behind him. He's getting a little lucky with his left-on-base percentage and his BABIP is at .243 (career .301), but what I like is that he has the lowest walk rate of his career. His FIP is 3.26 and his xFIP is 3.54 and that strikes me as what I'd expect out of him, which is very useful.

... That A.J. Burnett won't break my heart. This might be the biggest leap of faith of them all. I have never liked Burnett. I mean never. Just one of those things. Every year, he was on my bust list. Every once in a while that would blow up in my face, but more often than not, Burnett did me right by being worse than folks thought and in some cases downright horrific.

Well, this year I'm on board. Pitching in the NL Central, in PNC Park (second-lowest runs scored per game there per our Park Factors), seems to have done wonders for him. He got rocked by the Cardinals, but he's allowed two earned runs or fewer in eight of 10 starts this year, has struck out 56 while walking 20, and even with the brutal Cards game (12 earned runs in less than three innings), he still has a 3.62 ERA and 1.25 WHIP while on pace for over 150 strikeouts. The biggest difference for him this year is that he's keeping it in the park, with a much lower HR/9 than the last few years, and he's inducing a lot more ground balls. In fact, in all of baseball, only Burnett and James Shields are inducing ground balls more than 56 percent of the time while also posting a K/9 of better than eight.

... That I was wrong about Ryan Vogelsong. Last week, in my mailbag, I was asked why Vogelsong wasn't at least in Lincecum Limbo. I spoke about his strikeout rate, which was still a bit too low for me. But then Zach Jones showed me the chart below, and as I thought about it more, I realized, yes, he's not as good as some of the elite pitchers, but he's also closer than you think and has been for a while. Still wish he got a few more strikeouts, but yeah, he's definitely in Lincecum Limbo.

Lowest ERA Last 2 Seasons - Min. 30 Starts

Johnny Cueto: 2.36
Clayton Kershaw: 2.38
Jered Weaver: 2.45
Justin Verlander: 2.48
Ryan Vogelsong: 2.57
Cliff Lee : 2.58
Roy Halladay: 2.74

... That soon we are going to be talking about Felix Hernandez the same way we're currently talking about Tim Lincecum. In five of his last six starts, "The King" has allowed four-plus earned runs (6.37 ERA) while allowing opponents to hit .349 off of him. I discussed this on the Wednesday podcast with AJ Mass, but dude, his velocity is down. In 2009, his average fastball (94.0) was faster than any fastball he's thrown this season (93.9 max). His 91.3 mph average is 2.5 mph slower than he averaged in 2009-2011, and he hasn't touched 97 mph since 2010.

Wins will always be a challenge with Seattle. Felix is inducing fewer than 50 percent ground balls for the first time in his career (it's at 46.7 percent), and his HR/FB rate is a bit elevated. His overall numbers look OK, but are nothing special. If I could get 75 cents on the dollar for him, I'd do it. You could say that, rather than taking a leap of faith on him, I'm telling him to go take a flying leap.

Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- thanks you, as well, for taking a leap of faith and reading him. Without you, none of this is possible. Berry is the creator of RotoPass.com, a website that combines a bunch of well-known fantasy sites, including ESPN Insider, for one low price. Use promo code ESPN for 10 percent off.