Throughout the course of a season, most batters are going to have their ups and downs. Heck, even Joey Votto had a slump of sorts, hitting a paltry .192 from May 1-8. That didn't mean you should have gone into a panic and debated whether to place the reigning National League MVP on your bench until he got his mojo back. You kept the faith and were immediately rewarded with a much more Votto-like .351 batting average over his next 10 games.
However, not all players are created equal. There are clearly a tier of superstars who need to remain in the lineup at all times. As the infomercial tells you, barring injury, you simply "set it and forget it" with hitters like Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum are the interchangeable "always back on the waiver wire" level of players like Brad Hawpe, Allen Craig, David DeJesus and A.J. Pierzynski. Owners will gladly roll the dice on these guys for a week or two, but have no problem sending them right back into the free-agent pool if the gamble doesn't pay off.
But after the obvious stars, where exactly should we draw the line between guys we should never cut and those who we shouldn't hesitate to toss to the scrap heap if they fail? What kind of production should we consider to be above average, and therefore, should be stashed during cold spells rather than sent packing? What exactly is average?
In the spirit of Matthew Berry's Wandy Line for pitchers, we sought to determine a similar benchmark for hitters. To start the process, we took a look at the overall production for hitters so far in 2011 in the five standard offensive categories: batting average, home runs, runs scored, runs batted in and stolen bases. Dividing that by 30 major league teams yields a per-team average, and then dividing that number further by nine gives us the expected average production from any given lineup spot.
It's true that batting stats are not evenly spread from top to bottom of the order and that some managers juggle their lineups on a daily basis. Plus, pitchers' batting stats skew the numbers downward and numerous planned platoons would generally split some of these "average" stats among pairs of players. That's all the more reason to value this estimate of "average production" as a line in the sand.
With a grand total of 814 hitters all contributing to these 270 available lineup spots, attaining even this level of statistical accomplishment is quite the task. Not only that, but we also need to consider that this average describes players who are contributing across all five measured categories. Juan Pierre may well be an asset to you if you need stolen bases, but he's not going to contribute a lick in home runs, and RBIs aren't exactly bursting forth from his bat in multitudes, either. His value is based on your team's need, but on a universal nature, he's not a given.
So, taking a look at the chart below, we have pinpointed a Player X, who best matches up with the average production of the league thus far in 2011. It is here that we shall draw the line of comparison.
Who is this paragon of the middle of the pack, the virtuoso of the steady but unspectacular? It's none other than Shin-Soo Choo of the Cleveland Indians, currently ranked 88th on the ESPN Player Rater among hitters. That's where we place the "must be owned and started" line for hitters, hereafter known as Better Than Choo.
Let's take a look at a few of the players who fall closely on either side of this new measuring stick so as to get a better feeling for how you should be making those borderline calls. If the player in question is as good as or better than Choo in at least three categories, then he probably should remain in your fantasy lineup. If not, then feel free to sit these players if they're slumping, and consider sending them packing if someone "better" is there on the waiver wire.
As the season goes along, the league average will also move, requiring our comparison point to move. Perhaps Shin-Soo Choo himself will no longer measure up to the median as time marches on. There may well be a new torch-bearer whose statistical line should be used in order to provide a speedy eyeball test to answer the question, "Can I bench this guy?" (Cameron Maybin certainly seems to be standing on deck behind the Indians right fielder right about now, with barely any noticeable difference between the two players.)
If you're worried about Albert Pujols, you have some faith and keep him in your lineup. When Jose Bautista suddenly goes cold and hits .226 for a stretch of nine games, you don't lift a finger. But when you're at your wit's end with a guy like Danny Espinosa or Brennan Boesch, and you simply can't decide what to do, you need to ask yourself just one question in order to settle the debate
Is this guy Better than Choo?
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.