Print and Go Back ESPN.com: 2013 [Print without images]

Thursday, May 2, 2013
Improving hitting stats

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Is there a deadline to make a comeback in a fantasy baseball league?

Hit Parade

It's the question we asked in Wednesday's 60 Feet, 6 Inches, in which the consensus take, examining the five prominent rotisserie pitching categories, was that mid-May represented a sort of breaking point for improving one's squad. Beyond June 1, improvement -- especially to your ratios -- was more difficult.

It's the question we now ask today, turning our attention to the five prominent rotisserie hitting categories -- and it turns out that fantasy owners can afford to wait a little longer before improvement becomes more difficult.

But not much longer.

To illustrate, the chart below shows you what an average team's statistical contributions were in ESPN standard 10-team mixed leagues in 2012. These numbers should help you set full-season categorical goals. Every league will vary, but these are good baselines for setting your projections.

First, compare your team's full-season paces by category to the chart above. Are you considerably ahead of pace, or might you be surprised to learn that your "hot-starting" team is actually further behind than you thought? Take special note of any categories in which your team is noticeably ahead of the average first-place team or behind the last-place team; those are probably your excesses and weaknesses.

Returning to the initial question, let's assume for this exercise that your team is pacing for last-place numbers by category and your goal is to improve your overall rotisserie point total into the 80-point range -- that's eight, or third place, in each of the 10 standard categories -- to give yourself an excellent chance of winning. (The average winner's total in 2012 was 81.36 points.)

The chart below shows you what, using 2012 team averages, you'll need to gain from each of your 13 active hitting spots during the remainder of the season in order to make up the ground necessary to reach the 80-point threshold. To show degree of difficulty by stage of season, six start dates are used: May 1, May 16, June 1, June 16, July 1 and the All-Star break.

Oddly, unlike on the pitching side, where two of the five categories are ratios, on the hitting side, the one ratio category -- batting average -- might appear at first glance to be the easiest in which to gain ground.

Not so -- but at least you can afford to wait longer than you could for ERA or WHIP.

Batting average

Remember that the deeper we get into the season, the larger the sample size from which your team's batting average is drawn. In other words, a two-point difference in the standings has more weight in, say, July than it does today.

Let's analyze this statistically: If you're pacing for last-place numbers in batting average, you're batting .269 today (and with some hope, not worse than that). Your goal to finish third would be a .272 batting average.

As with ERA and WHIP, let's assume that some of your team's misfortunes were mere bad luck; you might have a team that also would place dead last in BABIP, or you own several players with horrible BABIP numbers. For this exercise, let's assume your team should regress to the mean in future weeks, meaning your squad should be capable of a .271 mark from this point forward, which was the league-average number in ESPN standard leagues in 2012.

If that's true, then you'll need one of your 13 hitting spots to provide you a .295 batting average over 420 remaining at-bats from May 1 forward, or you will need two of those 13 spots to provide a .283 mark, assuming the remainder of your squad hits exactly .271. From May 1 forward last season, 32 players managed at least a .295 mark in 420 or more at-bats, and 49 managed at least a .283 batting average in the requisite at-bats. Those hint that there's plenty of time to correct your batting-average problems if you act today.

Now, let's try this with May 16 as our starting point: You would need a .303 batting average from one player, a mark that 24 qualified hitters achieved after that date last season, or a .287 mark from two, which 47 managed in 2012.

Martin Prado
Martin Prado's batting average should get back to its normal level soon.

That still seems manageable, right?

Let's jump ahead by a month and use June 16 as our starting point: From that point forward, you would need one player to bat at least .324 or two to bat .296 around the remainder of your lineup that bats the league-average .271. Last season, only 11 players managed to bat .324 in the requisite at-bats after June 16, but 35 hitters managed to bat .296 or better.

That June 16 date is the first point at which the degree of difficulty significantly increases, but at the same time those numbers show that such improvement isn't impossible. The primary difference is that, 6-7 weeks from now, you might need to acquire two batting-average specialists, rather than one, to make up ground.

Here are some potential batting-average contributors you might acquire cheaply:

Martin Prado: His .225 batting average is 35 points beneath his worst single (full) year number (.260 in 2011), and it's 65 points worse than his .290 mark in the past three seasons combined. A .223 BABIP has a lot to do with it; Prado's batted-ball rates are largely the same as they've always been, and he has made as consistently hard contact as he always has. An added advantage if you target him via trade: He's both outfield and third-base eligible.

Adrian Beltre: Granted, he's not making quite as quality contact as he did during his previous two years with the Texas Rangers -- his well-hit average (percentage of at-bats that resulted in hard contact) is .214, down from .309 in 2011 and .284 in 2012 -- but Beltre still has a good chance at finishing with a batting average in the .290 range. After all, it's difficult to imagine a hitter with a mere 11.3 percent strikeout rate since the beginning of 2011 batting a mere .214.

Billy Butler: He batted .306 from 2009-12 combined, never finishing with a single-year mark beneath .291, and he's a lifetime .300 hitter in the majors after hitting .336 during his minor league career, yet he's batting only .272 in 2013. Fortunately, it's not a product of Butler making bad decisions at the plate. He has an elevated 18.2 percent walk rate and opposing pitchers have thrown him only 47 percent of his pitches in the strike zone (50 percent from 2010-12).

Now, let's address the other counting categories on the hitting side, ranking them from easiest to most difficult in which to gain ground:

Stolen bases

There's a reason steals are the easiest category -- among the five rotisserie hitting ones -- in which to singularly gain ground: It's that speedsters are easy to identify, and many of them suffer in terms of perceived value because of the old "one-category player" stigma. Ask Juan Pierre; for a decade he has gotten a bad rap for "helping you in steals only," yet year after year he's about as smart a trade target as there is for a steals-seeking team.

Consider that if you make a move for a speedster today, all you need as a last-place team seeking a third-place finish is to pick up an additional 8.5 steals from your 13 lineup spots. Look at some of 2012's biggest surprises: Mike Trout swiped 49 bags, Everth Cabrera 44, Norichika Aoki 30, Jarrod Dyson 30 and Tony Campana 30.

Brett Gardner
It should be a matter of time before Brett Gardner has far more stolen bases than home runs.

Frankly, you could wait until as late as mid-June, if you're willing to trade for your steals, considering the chart above shows that a team needs to gain 22.3 steals from its roster from June 16 forward. If there's any difference between now and then, it's that you might be able to scoop up steals off the waiver wire; by June, you'll almost certainly have to get it via trade.

Here are some potential speedsters you could target:

Angel Pagan: He swiped 37, 32 and 29 bases the past three seasons, working forward, and has the on-base skills necessary to give himself another reasonable chance at 30 come year's end. There's little in Pagan's profile to suggest he's slowing down, yet to date he's on pace for only 23 steals. You might be running out of time, though; he has three steals in his past six games.

Brett Gardner: He hasn't appeared quite his usual self through the season's first month. His walk rate down (9.1 percent, after 12.1 percent from 2010-12 combined), and his season pace for stolen bases is merely 24. But considering Gardner missed almost the entire 2012 campaign with elbow issues, might it be understandable that he needed some time to get comfortable at the plate? There's no question he has the on-base skills to drive his stolen-base opportunities and the speed to get his final number into the 40-45 range.

B.J. Upton: He's off to an awful start with his new team, the Atlanta Braves, but has everyone simply forgotten how hot and cold Upton has been throughout the course of his career? The main reason his slump is more noticeable is that it's coming at the beginning of the year. His June 2012 was every bit as poor, as he batted .194 with only one home run and three stolen bases in 27 games that month. If Upton's owner is in a panic, swoop in. He's probably just adjusting to a new league and team and is bound for a hit streak soon.

Runs scored

This is a category in which your standing can quickly get out of hand, but unlike RBIs, it's not necessarily as difficult to address because of how frequently it's underrated by fantasy owners. It's often tied to other rotisserie departments, as home run hitters and speedsters tend to also be solid contributors in runs.

Erick Aybar
Erick Aybar could be in for a bunch of runs leading off a talented Angels lineup.

Here are some potential runs scored contributors you could target:

Everth Cabrera: There are few smarter runs scored targets than speedsters who bat first or second and know how to draw a walk. Cabrera is one of the quickest players in the game -- he has 51 steals in 58 chances since the beginning of last season -- and he has an 11.3 percent walk rate in 2013.

Desmond Jennings: He brings with him some danger in the batting-average department -- a .245 career hitter in the bigs -- but he's adept at drawing walks with a career rate of 9.1 percent, he's the table setter for the Tampa Bay Rays, and he lacks any significant competition for either his center-field or leadoff role.

Erick Aybar: Now healthy, Aybar has returned as the Los Angeles Angels' leadoff hitter -- effectively swapping spots with new No. 2 hitter Mike Trout -- and that means getting to bat ahead of run producers like Trout, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Mark Trumbo.

RBIs

RBIs tend to be a difficult category to address the deeper we get into the season, primarily because of their correlation to home runs -- the next category we'll discuss. Still, those seeking improvement in this category might want to target slow-starting players ticketed for middle-of-the-order jobs over the long haul or players who hit reasonably high in loaded lineups.

Ryan Zimmerman
Ryan Zimmerman could be back soon off the DL to provide plenty of RBIs in the middle of a solid Nationals lineup.

Here are some potential RBI producers you could target:

Miguel Montero: He's the No. 4 or 5 hitter in a lineup in which the leadoff/No. 2 hitter (Martin Prado) sports a puzzling .271 on-base percentage and in which both Adam Eaton and Aaron Hill should return in several weeks to capture two more of those top 3-4 spots. Montero himself is off to a slow start; his .194 batting average is 77 points beneath his career average, and he has slugged at least .435 in each of the past five seasons.

Ryan Zimmerman: He's a streaky, injury-prone player, but he's also one destined to slot back into the heart of the Washington Nationals order, behind the hot-starting Bryce Harper (who, granted, is now day-to-day). Remember, Zimmerman batted .319/.384/.580 with 20 home runs and 64 RBIs in 83 games over the final four months of last season, so he has the ability to get massively hot.

Home runs

Why are home runs the most difficult category, being that they're a counting category? Simple: People place more of a premium on home runs than the other four categories. The chart above illustrates that, come June 1, you would need to pick up an additional 20.1 homers from your squad in the final four months in order to make the nine-point rally you would need to go from last to third place.

Jay Bruce
Jay Bruce finished third in the National League in home runs (30) and second in RBIs (109) last year.

In other words, you would need to specifically target potential league leaders in homers, players available to you only via trade, and you're going to play a hefty price because the majority of them are valued in or near the top 25 players overall. This is the category in which you will want to make your move sooner rather than later -- especially since right now is a good buy-low time.

Here are some potential home run hitters you could target:

Jay Bruce: He is a streaky hitter, period, best illustrated by his career .256 batting average and 23.8 percent strikeout rate, so his current season total of one home run shouldn't come across as completely shocking. Remember, this is a slugger who once belted seven home runs in an 11-game span right around this time in 2012 -- April 26 to May 8 -- and his current 4.0 home run/fly ball percentage is ridiculously beneath his 16.3 percent number from 2010-12 combined.

Ike Davis: I'm still buying, but I've always been clear that this is not the kind of player you want for his batting-average contributions. Slow starts are nothing new to Davis. He was batting .170/.228/.296 with five home runs through May last season, meaning he was off to an even worse start than now. From June 12 forward last season, Davis hit 27 home runs, a number exceeded by only nine players in baseball.