Independence Day not only marks a significant date on the U.S. calendar, this year it represents the mathematical midpoint of the 2012 fantasy baseball season.
What better time to declare our Fantasy Baseball Midseason All-Star Team?
Continuing with Tuesday's Sixty Feet Six Inches theme, today's Hit Parade selects a fantasy All-Star at each of the primary skill positions. As in, one apiece at catcher, first base, second base, third base and shortstop, and three outfielders.
So what makes a fantasy All-Star? These are players whose performances have carried the most weight comparative to preseason expectations. That means that average draft position (ADP) comes into play, as does Player Rater standing. It also means that obvious superstars, such as Ryan Braun, won't be on the team. Braun was, on average, a top-five pick; considering he's No. 2 overall on the Player Rater, what he has done has hardly been surprising.
Let's get started …
Catcher: Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
Why he's an All-Star: Yeah, why is Molina the All-Star catcher? He isn't No. 1 at his position on the Player Rater; that honor belongs to Carlos Ruiz, who was drafted, on average, much later in preseason drafts. But Ruiz's ADP fell outside of ESPN standard limits -- he was picked in fewer than 20 percent of leagues -- while Molina was ninth at his position in ADP (173.6). That means Molina is the one of the two catchers who would've been a mainstay in fantasy lineups since Day 1, not to mention he has the upper hand of the two in home runs, RBIs and stolen bases. Molina is on pace for a 25/10 (homers/steals) season! He would become only the fifth catcher in history to do that and the second to do that while batting at least .300. (Ivan Rodriguez was the other, and he did it twice, in 1999 and 2001.) Ruiz has had a tremendous season, and this was one of the toughest calls at any position, but Molina is having a particularly rare year for any catcher in history.
What's in store during the second half: At 29 years old, Molina's power has been trending up for two seasons now, marking this the effective "prime" of his career. His line drive-plus-fly ball rate has risen, from 48.5 percent in 2010 to 55.0 in 2011 to 57.1 this season. His isolated power has risen, from .080 in 2010 to .160 in 2011 to .204 in 2012. And his well-hit average has risen as well, from .226 in 2010 to .263 in 2011 to .268 in 2012. Upticks like that support his candidacy for 20-plus bombs, and considering he's a .293 hitter who has averaged four steals per 81 games played since the beginning of 2008, there's no reason to think he'll slip much from his current paces.
First base: Mark Trumbo, Los Angeles Angels
Why he's an All-Star: Trumbo has become more patient, helping boost his batting average 50 points, from .254 in 2011 to .304 this season. Trumbo seems to have addressed every one of the criticisms I had of him during the preseason -- you can read about them right here -- as his "chase" rate (swing percentage at non-strikes) on all pitches is down four percent (41 percent in 2011, 37 percent in 2012), his chase rate on two-strike counts is down one percent (58 percent to 57 percent) and his swing rate on non-competitive pitches is down seven percent (22 percent to 15 percent). Trumbo's power has increased accordingly; he ranks eighth in the majors in both home runs (20) and RBIs (55) and is on pace for 41 homers and 111 RBIs.
What's in store during the second half: Trumbo's improved plate discipline does more to cement his status as one of the American League's up-and-coming sluggers more than it supports his candidacy to bat .300-plus. He's still a free swinger, and that .260 batting average he posted in June underscores the regression he's due in the category. But if Trumbo batted .260 the rest of the way, yet belted another 15 homers, would anyone complain? Hardly.
Second base: Jason Kipnis, Cleveland Indians
Why he's an All-Star: He's tops on the Player Rater among second basemen despite being selected just 13th at his position during the preseason (ADP: 183.3), thanks to full-season paces of 23 home runs and 41 stolen bases. Only 28 players in history have managed a 20/40 season, and just five of those were second basemen: Joe Morgan (1973, '74, '76 and '77), Davey Lopes (1979), Ryne Sandberg (1985) and Craig Biggio (1997 and '98). Even when Kipnis has struggled with the bat, though, he has at least contributed steals and runs scored to his fantasy owners; he had at least four steals and 13 runs in each of the season's first three months.
TOP 125 HITTERS
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.
What's in store during the second half: The one concern about Kipnis' 2011 second half was an unrealistically high 19.4 home run/fly ball percentage, but his 11.2 number in the category this season shows the effects of regression at work. Even with the decline in power, Kipnis is on track for 23 homers, and even the most conservative projection in terms of stolen bases should have him reaching double digits in that category the second half alone. Perhaps he's not the No. 1 name, or maybe not even top-five, but he should be top-10 at the very least.
Third base: Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays
Why he's an All-Star: Like teammate Jose Bautista two years ago, Encarnacion has experienced a massive power surge, thanks in part to a favorable offensive environment in Toronto. A late bloomer in the power department, Encarnacion ranks fifth in the majors in home runs (22) and eighth in RBIs (55), putting him on pace for 45/111 numbers … or just seven homers and 12 RBIs fewer than Bautista had during his breakthrough 2010 campaign. Encarnacion has slugged higher than .500 in each of the season's first four months, the first time in his eight-year big league career that he has done that, he has a 52.7 percent fly ball rate that shows the adjustments he has made to drive the ball, and he's batting a career-high .292, which hasn't been fueled by an absurdly high BABIP (.288).
What's in store during the second half: Maybe Encarnacion isn't quite the prolific slugger that Bautista has become, but what if he's "Bautista lite?" The 40-homer plateau seems a realistic projection for Encarnacion, and that's plenty enough to keep him among the top 30 hitters going forward.
Shortstop: Ian Desmond, Washington Nationals
Why he's an All-Star: At the difficult-to-pick shortstop position, the smartest "All-Star" choice should probably be the member of the Player Rater top five who cost the least in the preseason, and that's Desmond. The No. 21 shortstop in terms of ADP (233.3), Desmond has been the No. 3 performer at his position thus far, thanks to a May and June that, when combined, saw him manage .286/.314/.529 triple-slash rates, 11 home runs and seven stolen bases. Amazingly, Desmond's 13 home runs rank second among shortstops and his 43 RBIs pace the position.
What's in store during the second half: Desmond's walk rate is no better this year than in either of the two before it, and he has swung 10 percent more often (55 percent of the time, up from 45 percent in 2011), meaning a more patient approach at the plate isn't behind his hot start. An unusually high 14.6 home run/fly ball percentage has contributed in the home run category, but he also has career highs in terms of well-hit average (.227) and line drive rate (18.3 percent) that support him in the other offensive categories. Desmond might be this .270-hitting type with 15-20 steal speed, but would anyone be surprised if he hits only five more homers?
Outfielder: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
Why he's an All-Star: As if you need to ask. Trout made his 2012 debut on April 28, and since that date, he ranks first among major leaguers in both stolen bases (22) and runs scored (51), fourth in hits (80) and eighth in batting average (.339). He is the No. 5 hitter on our Player Rater … despite the fact that he has played in fewer big league games than any other member of the top 25.
What's in store during the second half: This is the far more legitimate question. Trout's adjusted pace -- his final-season pace numbers that don't account for the 20 Angels games played before his promotion -- have him on track for 21 homers, 78 RBIs, 52 steals and 121 runs scored. Guess how many players in history have ever managed better than 20-75-50-120 numbers in those categories? One: Hanley Ramirez, in 2007. Those facts demonstrate the difficulty for Trout to maintain those paces, but they also underscore his monstrous talent; he was Keith Law's No. 1 prospect in baseball entering the year. Trout's owners would hardly complain if he manages, say, a .290 average, 8 homers and 25 steals from today forward.
Outfielder: Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates
Why he's an All-Star: He was the highest-drafted player on our All-Star team during the preseason, with his ADP ranking him 28th overall (28.2), a third-round pick. But as the All-Star break approaches, McCutchen owns the No. 1 spot overall on the Player Rater thanks to full-season paces that would have him finishing with a .354 batting average, 31 home runs, 107 RBIs, 29 stolen bases and 103 runs scored. Only one player in baseball history has a season of at least a .350 batting average, 30 apiece in homers and steals and 100 apiece in RBIs and runs: Larry Walker, whose 1997 was obviously helped by his playing half his games at Coors Field. PNC Park, meanwhile, ranks among the bottom 10 in baseball this season in both runs scored and home runs on our Park Factor page. That McCutchen has done this, therefore, is rather remarkable.
What's in store during the second half: Regression is bound to strike McCutchen to some degree, as he has a .404 BABIP, second highest in the majors. Only four players during the expansion era (post-1961) have managed a BABIP of .400 or greater, so McCutchen's batting average, at least, is destined to drop. Why can't he, though, compete for 30/30 status? He already has a 30-steal season on his resume, and he has been trending upward in homers, isolated power and well-hit average in each of the past two years.
Outfielder: Carlos Beltran, Cardinals
Why he's an All-Star: He came at lesser cost during the preseason than either Josh Hamilton, Carlos Gonzalez or Adam Jones, yet compares favorably statistically to all three. The No. 6 outfielder on the Player Rater, Beltran is one of six players to have hit at least 20 home runs with a .300-plus batting average, and he has chipped in seven stolen bases, equal to his total number in 206 games between 2010 and 2011. He has also been remarkably consistent, rarely ever enduring a cold spell of longer than two weeks.
What's in store during the second half: Other than the risk of injury -- he's 35 years old and has made three trips to the disabled list, costing him a total of 171 games, the past three seasons combined -- Beltran has offered little reason to be concerned about his production since the beginning of 2011. He has .303/.389/.541 combined triple-slash rates during that time, which look like those of a top-10 fantasy outfielder candidate with a little luck in the health department. Yes, it's chancing it with players at his age, but Beltran might be the kind of player who, if you do chance it, might win you a title.
Predicting the future
In addition to selecting an All-Star team, I thought it'd be fun to take a look back at the 2011 second-half standouts. Why were they as successful as they were? Are there any trends we can apply to this season as we aim to predict the 2012 second-half studs? Let's examine the 2011 top five and pick a "comparable" to each this season, while stating up front that in no way is there such a thing as a perfect comparable. It's guesswork, and entirely for fun.
Jacoby Ellsbury: Would you believe that 21 of his 32 home runs last season came after the All-Star break? Always known for his speed, Ellsbury took a massive step forward in terms of power the second half of 2011, much the way McCutchen has in 2012. Among other speedsters who could break through in the power department during the season's second half: Starlin Castro, Desmond Jennings.
Matt Kemp: Great before the break, great after the break. Kemp, who managed a .313 batting average, 22 homers and 27 stolen bases in 92 games during the first half of 2011, managed .337-17-13 numbers in 69 contests in the second half. It's the classic story of "stud remains stud," which is largely what Ryan Braun has been thus far. Braun has batted .309 with 22 homers and 13 steals, answering any lingering questions following his tumultuous winter. He's as likely as anyone to keep up his paces: 47 home runs, 117 RBIs, 26 steals and 105 runs scored.
Ryan Braun: There's Braun himself; he was a .344 hitter with 17 homers and 14 steals before the All-Star break in 2011, so with the exception of his batting average, he's right in line with his performance at this point a year ago.
Miguel Cabrera: Though his 12 home runs might not sound overwhelming, Cabrera posted stellar .385/.470/.630 triple-slash rates the second half of last season, rating the most productive hitter in baseball, even if it resulted in only the fourth-best fantasy stat line. Cabrera continues to perform at his career norms, and his history of strong finishes signals another might be coming in 2012. But if Cabrera himself isn't the comparable, then how about Joey Votto? He's a fellow prime-of-career first baseman with the potential to lead the majors in the three primary triple-slash categories.
Mike Napoli: The Texas Rangers might have limited Napoli's at-bats the first half of last season, but thanks to his performance, they had to find him a regular place in the lineup as the summer progressed. He managed a .376 batting average and 17 home runs after the All-Star break, easily topping his position in fantasy value. Buster Posey might be the best comparable for Napoli's 2011; Posey's career is on the upswing, and he should only garner additional at-bats the further he gets from the ankle injury that prematurely ended his 2011, and he's off to a .300/.366/.475 start to 2012. There's a reason he took over as my No. 1 catcher in the rankings a week ago; it's because of the possibility of a breakthrough of this caliber.
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: Wilson Betemit (1B), Chris Davis (OF), Mark DeRosa (OF), Matt Downs (3B), Hector Luna (1B), Buster Posey (1B).
Nearing new position eligibility
The following players are on track to earn new eligibility in the coming weeks: Robert Andino (8 games played at 3B), Billy Butler (9 games played at 1B), Ronny Cedeno (8 games played at 2B), Steve Clevenger (9 games played at 1B), Brooks Conrad (9 games played at 3B), Maicer Izturis (9 games played at SS), Elliot Johnson (9 games played at 2B), Kyle Seager (9 games played at 2B), Mark Trumbo (8 games played at 3B), Justin Turner (9 games played at 1B, 8 games played at SS).