- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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Even Chris Davis was once a virtual unknown.
The No. 2 name on our Player Rater, Davis was off most everyone's radar at the dawn of the 2012 season, one during which he finished with 33 home runs and 85 RBIs in a breakout year. Frankly, he was also underrated this year, having been selected 158th on average in ESPN drafts in the preseason.
Fantasy owners aren't always quick to latch on the latest and greatest, and it's the lag in recognizing those unheralded values that presents us with opportunities. There's always an underrated player out there for the taking, whether it's a straight free-agent pickup or a trade at a low point in the player's value curve.
Continuing with Tuesday's theme, "Underrated, under-owned or unknown," let's examine nine hitters who haven't received the attention they deserve.
These are hitters who are either widely owned in fantasy leagues, but whose perceived value doesn't do justice to their true value; hitters who are owned in a puzzlingly low percentage of ESPN leagues; or hitters who might not even be familiar names to the majority of owners.
Adam Lind, Toronto Blue Jays: Oh, he's legit. A player who four years ago managed a .305-35-114 season, and today is only 29 years old, shouldn't be entirely doubted. Besides, the Lind of 2013 has a vastly different approach than the Lind of 2009, best evidenced by these stats:
2013: 10.1 BB%, 23 Chase%, 3% Swing rate on non-competitive pitches
2010-12: 6.6 BB%, 32 Chase%, 11% Swing rate on non-competitive pitches
By "non-competitive pitches," we mean those that don't come even close to the strike zone; "Chase%" is the percentage of pitches judged outside the strike zone in which the player swung. This year's Lind is a much more patient hitter, even more so than during his breakout 2009. He also has one other key ingredient to his improvement: his performance against left-handed pitching.
2013: .350 AVG, .500 SLG, 25.0 K%, 23 Miss%
2010-12: .186 AVG, .281 SLG, 26.9 K%, 27 Miss%
The Blue Jays have recognized this and started Lind in each of their past seven games against left-handers, and there's a good chance that he's now locked in as an every-day bat for the team, maximizing his production in the counting-number categories (runs, RBIs, specifically). And if you're questioning whether he might sit out those interleague games in National League venues, due to Edwin Encarnacion's presence at first base, consider this: The Blue Jays have only three more games in NL parks, when they play in Arizona from Sept. 2-4.
Matt Adams, St. Louis Cardinals: Given the choice, I'm always going to invest in skills before role, and Adams is an outstanding such example of a player overflowing with the former but limited in the latter. But with his Cardinals playing a week's worth of games in American League venues, where they'll have the luxury of a designated hitter spot in which to utilize him, Adams might again make himself a familiar name to fantasy owners. He has homered in 4.4 percent of his at-bats, stroked line drives 20.6 percent of the time and batted .311 (albeit behind a somewhat unsustainable .375 BABIP); he had a 5.7 percent home run rate, routinely sported line drive rates around 20 percent and batted .318 (behind a .338 BABIP) during his minor league career. Ah, if only the Cardinals could find a place to use Allen Craig regularly in their outfield.
Jedd Gyorko, San Diego Padres: It's puzzling that he wouldn't have warranted DL-spot consideration in more ESPN leagues; he is owned in only 58.4 percent of all leagues as he gets set for activation. Yes, the list of DL-worthy players is constantly changing, but as things stand today, I see only 10 hitters and six pitchers who can even be considered for that spot ahead of Gyorko, and among that group, A.J. Burnett, Carl Crawford, Brett Lawrie, Michael Morse and Jake Peavy are debatable. Besides, even if you have a better player on your DL, Gyorko is valuable enough thanks to his dual eligibility -- second and third base -- that he'd have been worth using one of your three bench spots. Among the hitters who rank between 131st and 145th in terms of ESPN ownership percentage, you'll find Brandon Crawford, Jose Iglesias, Anthony Rendon and Michael Young, four players who are less deserving of the roster spot than Gyorko.
Gyorko clearly isn't garnering enough attention for his ability to square up the ball: He has a 22.8 percent line-drive rate that, yes, might be somewhat unsustainable, but keep in mind that he had a 20.8 percent number in the category between Double- and Triple-A last season. Gyorko has also thrived in home games, batting .336/.408/.536 with an impressive 1.46 strikeout-to-walk ratio, so there's no reason to doubt him simply because he calls Petco Park home.
Chris Carter, Houston Astros: How is it that fantasy owners seem to love all-or-nothing sluggers like Pedro Alvarez, Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds, all of whom are owned in more than 80 percent of ESPN leagues, but they cannot get behind Carter, owned in only 24.8 percent? Let's compare:
Carter: .230/.316/.460, 15 HR, 40 RBIs, .230 ISO, .333 wOBA
Alvarez: .237/.305/.512, 19 HR, 51 RBIs, .275 ISO, .339 wOBA
Dunn: .195/.299/.462, 20 HR, 48 RBIs, .267 ISO, .322 wOBA
Reynolds: .234/.323/.426, 14 HR, 44 RBIs, .191 ISO, .326 wOBA
Yes, Alvarez is the most valuable of this bunch, most of the edge thanks to his position (third base) and his age (he's 26). But is it really that large a gap? And why doesn't Carter get the attention his other all-or-nothing brethren do? He is not a platoon man, having hit 11 of his 15 home runs against right-handed pitchers, his OPS against them only 22 points lower than against lefties (.770-.792).
Oswaldo Arcia, Minnesota Twins: He might be the sneakiest power source that positively no one -- at least judging by his minuscule 2.3 ESPN ownership percentage -- knows about. In 158 plate appearances of his first stint in the bigs, he has homered in 4.2 percent of his at-bats; that actually ties him with Prince Fielder (counting out to infinite decimal points, even). Just watch Arcia's swing and you'll see the kind of burgeoning pop that might make him a perennial 30-homer source, perhaps even as early as 2014. Statistically speaking, his 45.6 percent fly-ball rate and .208 isolated power (driven by 10 doubles) hint at the same. Remember, too, that he's a left-handed hitter who calls Target Field, with its high right-field fence, his home, so that he has performed as well as he has is testament to his power potential. Frankly, if Arcia had a promise of every-day at-bats the remainder of the year, he might be close to 100 percent owned. As he has played every inning for the Twins since his June 11 recall, maybe such a promise isn't far off.
Matt Dominguez, Houston Astros: That multiple Astros hitters are underrated is no surprise -- this was a team many projected to lose well north of 100 games -- but in Dominguez's case, he's on this list because of how favorable a fit Houston is to his skill set. He has 16 career home runs and all 16 have been pulled to left field; every one of them has been hit into the area defined as the "Crawford Boxes" at Minute Maid Park. That short portion of the venue is ideal for enhancing Dominguez's power, and in defense of the rest of his offensive game, his .245 BABIP this season hints that his .242 batting average should rise. He remains available in more than 90 percent of ESPN leagues, but he'd be a worthwhile corner man in most any format.
Yasmani Grandal, San Diego Padres: Whether it's the stigma of his having been previously suspended for 50 games for testosterone use limiting his perceived fantasy value or not, let's face it, stats are stats. Even with Grandal's sluggish start to his 2013 season -- one that was delayed due to said suspension -- he's still a .280 career big-league hitter with a .382 on-base percentage, after he managed .310 and .408 numbers in those categories in three years in the minors. He's as adept handling the bat as any catcher, and his sluggish start might be understandable if you consider that his season effectively didn't start until May 18 -- that was his first game for Triple-A Tucson -- and his .317 batting average (13-for-41) and .429 on-base percentage (eight walks) in his past 13 games attest to that. There's little doubt that Grandal warrants starting consideration in any league that uses two catchers; he might even make a run at top-10 catcher value from today forward.
Kyle Blanks, San Diego Padres: Those Padres certainly don't seem to get enough credit, do they? Well, in this space today they do, though at least Blanks' rising ownership percentage shows that he was already beginning to catch fantasy owners' attention. In 35 games since May 15, he's a .295/.351/.525 hitter with seven home runs and 25 RBIs, moving into a near-regular role rotating between first base and both corner outfield spots. Most notably, he has made major strides in terms of making contact, evidenced by the following:
2013: 22.9 K%, 27 Miss%, 26 Chase%, 7% Swing on non-competitive pitches
2009-12: 31.6 K%, 33 Miss%, 30 Chase%, 9% Swing on non-competitive pitches
Injuries have long been an obstacle for Blanks, but he sure appears healthy today and the boost to his contact rate answers the other major question about his long-term value. His playing time could come into question once the Padres have both Yonder Alonso and Carlos Quentin healthy, but by that point Blanks might have answered any doubts about his ability, earning an every-day spot.
Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee Brewers: Upon closer examination of Lucroy's stats, there's no reason he should've been cut in any league this year … even a 10-team ESPN standard mixed league. All of the gains he enjoyed in 2012 have remained present: His contact rate, a healthy 86.1 percent, has risen slightly to 86.3 percent this season. His isolated power, though lower, has remained within range (.173 this year, .193 last). Plus, his fly-ball rate, which was 39.5 percent last season, has risen to 41.2 percent this year. Lucroy's .288 BABIP suggests that his .279 batting average might have room to rise, and there's little doubt that he's capable of at least 20 home runs. He's a top-10 catcher for sure in any format.
'Call me out'
Puzzled by a certain ranking of mine below? Wondering why a pitcher of yours might have exceeded or fallen short of his preseason expectations?
In next week's "Hit Parade," I'm devoting this space to your player questions. You can send me them via either Twitter (@SultanofStat) or Facebook (facebook.com/SultanofStat), with the subject or hash tag #Callmeout.
I'll address as many of your inquiries as possible next week in this space.
TOP 150 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 150 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued. For position-specific rankings, see the "Pos Rnk" column; these rankings can also be seen split up by position.
17hPat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler