The real value of hitters

Today's the day!

Wednesday is the day we roll out our updated top 250 rankings, and with them, the excitement of the debates they create. Among the common ones: How so-and-so player could possibly have dropped that much since the preseason, or, how could we possibly still have any faith in that preseason megastud-turned-regular-season stiff? (Hanley Ramirez, I'm looking at you.)

One I'm sure I'll hear: How could I possibly have become so anti-hitter this quickly in the season? It's a topic addressed briefly in Tuesday's "60 Feet 6 Inches," and to continue the theme today, it's partly because of my belief that pitching becomes "safer" once you get a firmer sense of individual in-season trends and partly because, simply put, hitting as a whole has stunk this year.

Something to think about: Major League Baseball has averaged 4.21 runs per game, .250/.320/.388 offensive rates and 0.88 home runs per contest. To put that into perspective, in 2010, the oft-described "Year of the Pitcher," those averages were 4.38, .257/.325/.403 and 0.95.

Still, there's the matter of value over replacement, and it's for that reason you'll find that hitters occupy each of my top three spots, seven of my top eight and 18 of my top 25. This remains a game in which it's smarter to build around elite hitting it's just that it's no longer nearly so scary to invest greater resources in pitching, especially once you get out of the upper tiers.

Keeping that in mind, I probably ranked the majority of hitters lower than the group average, but that hardly means I don't like them. Being 10 spots or so off is the rough equivalent and might mean we see eye-to-eye; I merely think that a few pitchers are more valuable than that particular hitter.

But there are a few hitters I ranked considerably higher or lower, compared with the group consensus, and it's those we'll focus on today. Let's get started (Rankings in parentheses are where I ranked them overall, not just among hitters):

I ranked them higher

Curtis Granderson, New York Yankees (31): A popular question among readers lately has been, "Can Granderson really hit 50 home runs?" (The 50 homers, obviously, referencing the fact that he's on pace for 57.) My ranking says I believe the answer is "no," but that's only because a 50-homer Granderson would belong in the top 10, not 31st overall. A 30-homer hitter? Absolutely. Forty? Sure, I could see it. After all, Granderson's swing seems tailor-made to Yankee Stadium; Inside Edge notes that, in his Yankees career, 67.0 percent of his balls in play have been fly balls, and 55.8 percent of his balls in play have been hit to the right side. Granderson also has made one key adjustment since his mid-2010 sessions with Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long: He's now as legitimate a threat against left-handed as right-handed pitchers, hitting seven of his 14 homers against lefties this season and possessing .270/.336/.586 rates against them since last year's All-Star break. I completely buy the hot start.

Mike Stanton, Florida Marlins (52): What can I say, I'm a fan, with the highest Stanton ranking of the group. (And I'm proud.) Ever hear the phrase, "light-tower power"? Stanton possesses it, with Hittrackeronline.com describing 11 of his 30 career homers to date as "No Doubts," and his 465-foot bomb at Citi Field on Monday having come darn close to knocking fans in the Shake Shack line unconscious. He's on pace for 32 homers; we projected him for 36; and I firmly believe he'll make a run at 40-plus. By the way, if you're worried about his free-swinging ways leading to a low batting average, a prolonged slump and, in the worst-case scenario, a demotion to the minors, consider this: Per Inside Edge, Stanton's chase percentage with two strikes is 29, well beneath the league average of 36, and his swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone is 29.5 percent, 114th out of 192 qualified hitters. He should not be classified a swing-at-everything slugger, so that .254 batting average might be entirely realistic.

Coco Crisp, Oakland Athletics: (135): I can't in good conscience like Rajai Davis but not Crisp, not given that Crisp's on-base percentage (.296) is right in line with Davis' (.284), not to mention that Crisp has attempted steals on 31.5 percent of his opportunities, those judged by Baseball-Reference.com, the third-highest rate among qualified hitters. Davis, incidentally, would rank first (51.9 percent) if his 95 plate appearances had qualified him. The primary difference between the two is injury risk; Crisp has more, so that's why he's 26 spots lower.

Eric Hosmer, Kansas City Royals (138): Yes, I liked Brandon Belt, too, and have so far been wrong about him, but I'll stress that I liked Hosmer better of the two at the time of their big league debuts, not to mention Hosmer has already shown us so many things that Belt has not (yet). Hosmer, incidentally, had the higher contact rate (82.7 percent to Belt's 78.8) in his minor league career, one accomplished over nearly twice as many games and at a younger age (he's 21, Belt is 23). Sure, there's risk with Hosmer, just as there was with Belt. There's risk with every rookie. But isn't it more fun to take chances with prospects, if you have a particular gut feeling about one? What I saw of Hosmer in his series against the New York Yankees impressed me; if he's in the top 10 first basemen on the Player Rater come season's end, I won't be shocked.

I ranked them lower

Mitch Moreland, Texas Rangers (245): For the record, I like Moreland and think he has value and a fine career ahead. But I'm not sure what all the hubbub is about. He's on pace for 19 home runs, 46 RBIs and 77 runs and is 197th on the Player Rater, and he still has significant platoon concerns at this stage of his career. The Rangers have started him only seven times in their 14 games versus left-handers, and he's a .208/.321/.271 career hitter against southpaws. Sure, there's the ballpark; sure, there's the supporting cast -- when healthy at least -- and sure, there's the multi-position eligibility, but if Moreland is merely a .280 hitter with 20-homer power, that's a back-of-a-mixed-league-lineup type.


Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 125 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.

Adam LaRoche, Washington Nationals (unranked): If this were July, maybe I'd offer a more generous rank, but are we supposed to stomach week after week of awful statistics on the chance he might match his .295/.354/.535 career numbers after the All-Star break? Here's something that might quell your excitement: He was a mere .269/.307/.481 second-half hitter in 2010. By the way, did you know the All-Star Game is 55 days away? To put that into perspective, we're only 49 games into the 2011 season, so we're not even halfway to the traditional "midway" point of the year. LaRoche has battled some minor ailments, but the other problem is that opponents are simply working around him, showing no fear of his supporting cast. To that point, he has a career-high 14.3 percent walk rate and a career-low 39.7 percent rate of pitches seen in the strike zone, according to FanGraphs. And if you want to make the case that a healthy Ryan Zimmerman will help, remember, LaRoche probably will bat behind Zimmerman.

Justin Morneau, Minnesota Twins (178): I've knocked Morneau so many times in this space that perhaps the column's title should be changed to the "Anti-Morneau Report." What's to like here? Morneau has slipped into a platoon-candidate state, with .163/.196/.204 numbers versus left-handers, and although it can be argued safely that he'll only get better from here, that's mainly because he cannot possibly get worse. Ranking Morneau 178th means I have hope he'll have mixed-league value. The hope of more, however, is unfounded. Remember, this is a .260/.334/.457 lifetime hitter after the All-Star break, and one who has averaged 16 games missed in the second half the past seven seasons. Morneau doesn't typically improve as temperatures rise; he gets considerably worse, which neutralizes any hope of his completely restoring his former MVP form.

Brett Wallace, Houston Astros (unranked): I'm not a fan, and part of it is that I'm still not entirely sure what he is. He was supposed to be a monster all-around hitter at the time he was drafted in 2008, a future .300-hitting, 30-homer candidate. Then, as he became the minor league's favorite "hot potato," traded three times in a little more than a year, Wallace looked as if he was morphing into an all-or-nothing, decent-power, low-average slugger. Now, the Astros' everyday first baseman, he looks like a hitter shortening his swing to trade power for batting average. So which are you, Brett? You're whiffing "only" 21.6 percent of the time in 2011, but if that number rises to 25 percent, the hopes of a .300 average, let alone, .321, aren't great. You're also hitting grounders 52.8 percent of the time and are on pace for 12 homers and 50 RBIs. That kind of power won't cut it from a first baseman, especially not one more likely than not to bat under .300. That's effectively James Loney's fantasy production.

Three up

Carlos Beltran, New York Mets: Take your pick of which you like better, the .306/.406/.624 rates he has accumulated in 24 games since April 19, or the fact that he has played in 24 of 25 Mets games in that span, including all but 18 innings of the team's games? Beltran, who had microfracture surgery on his right knee in January 2010, hasn't shown any adverse effects of the significant operation this season, and it appears the shift to right field has done him well. His days of being a premier base stealer are gone -- he hasn't attempted a steal in 39 games all year and has only four attempts in 103 contests since the operation -- but it seems pretty clear he's capable enough with the bat to approach or exceed his per-162-games averages of .282-28-106 numbers in his career. You might always be taking a risk with Beltran the remainder of his career, but right now, it seems worth it.

Adam Dunn, Chicago White Sox: It's about time he started doing something -- anything -- with the bat, and in spite of a combined 0-for-11 performance his past three games, Dunn's numbers offer some encouragement in the month of May. Compare his April and May numbers: He was a .160/.300/.267 hitter in 21 April games, striking out in 41.3 percent of his at-bats. In 15 games in May, he's a .250/.355/.500 hitter with a 32.7 percent whiff rate, numbers much more in line with his career averages (.249/.379/.517 and 32.9 percent). Perhaps this recent, short-term cold spell will be just enough to provide you one last chance to buy low on Dunn. If so, you should take it.

Brett Gardner, New York Yankees: Give Kevin Long some credit because when he sits down to work with a struggling hitter, he generates results. We've discussed Granderson already, but how about Gardner's resurgence? In his first 15 games, he batted just .128/.196/.191, and struck out 29.8 percent of the time, far too high a whiff rate for a hitter who is supposed to be a table-setter. In his past 24 contests, however, Gardner has rebounded with .357/.444/.543 rates and a 20.0 percent strikeout rate, a more palatable number. Granted, he cannot sustain that level of production, but if he continues with this more aggressive approach, the prospects of a repeat of 2010's .383 on-base percentage plus 47 steals increase. I've been anti-Gardner all year and still don't see him getting on base at much more than a .360 clip, but that's still way, way better than what he was doing in April.

Three down

Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals: Just as quickly as that, Gordon has cooled off, and the worry here is that fantasy owners have become so accustomed to his being an annual disappointment that they're poised to hop off the bandwagon the instant a cold spell arrives. His is an awful one: In 14 games since May 1, he's hitting .170/.237/.302, including a 26.4 percent strikeout rate that's higher than his career number (24.8). Considering how hot Gordon began the year, however, as well as the considerable talent scouts have always seen in him, he at least requires a bit more patience. But there are troubling developments as well: He has walked only 7.3 percent of the time, a low number even by his standards (9.6 career rate), and, per FanGraphs, has swung at a career-high 28.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. Maybe opponents are truly finding holes he'll never be able to close.

Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves: The shoulder injury that has dogged him lately has been one recent concern, but the other is that he hasn't been so quick to fix some of his problem areas in his sophomore campaign. (And by "problem areas," I mean, "minor issues that are the only things preventing an MVP run.") One of them is his tendency to hit grounders; after sporting a 55.1 percent ground ball rate as a rookie, his number remains 54.5 percent this season, diminishing the hopes of his exceeding his current pace of 26 home runs. After all, you can't hit so few fly balls and expect all of them to be homers; that's incredibly rare. The other is that he's still striking out a fair share, 24.4 percent of the time, quite a bit for a player whose minor league K rate was 15.8 percent. Only 21 years old, Heyward has a long, impressive career ahead of him, but the problem is the true breakout might still be a year away.

David Wright, Mets: I admit it, I'm scared by his injury, and it explains why he was a serious candidate to drop outside my top 100 in our re-ranks. Wright landed on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his back, and, as Stephania Bell reported on Tuesday, Wright will miss at least two weeks, and it "could be as many as four to six." It's that latter timetable that's troublesome; that represents a good quarter and up to a third of the remaining season. Plus, even after Wright returns, what guarantee is there that the back won't cause a slow start? Back problems have presented problems for sluggers in the past -- Eric Karros immediately comes to mind -- and it's not as if Wright's ballpark is a great one for power, either. He's a definite "keep" if you have him, but feel free to sweat a little.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.