Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera?
It's a debate -- both on the field and in fantasy -- that has raged on for more than a calendar year, and is sure to extend for at least the next calendar year. On the morning of Sept. 19, Cabrera held a razor-thin edge on our Player Rater, leading Trout by less than one-tenth of a point. The race for fantasy baseball's most productive player of 2013, therefore, is on.
Now I know what you're thinking: You want me to tell you which one will be better in the season's final 11 days, scoring that top spot, don't you?
OK, I'll take Trout, as he's the one more likely to garner the greater number of plate appearances the rest of the way, considering Cabrera has dealt with minor but nagging injuries since July, and that his Detroit Tigers might prefer to rest him for the playoffs once they've clinched rather than push him in a pair of meaningless three-game road series in Minnesota and Miami to conclude the regular season.
But if you're fishing for the name of the No. 1 player in my early 2014 rankings, you'll just have to check back next week, when rankings return. For this week, rest-of-year rankings have been removed; any matchups-related information for the season's final 11 days can be found in either my Week 24 Forecaster, or my season-concluding Week 25 edition that will be published Friday.
For now, let's resume our awards conversation, which began with Wednesday's 60 Feet, 6 Inches. It's time for the hitters' side of "The Turks," my annual awards handed out for (mostly) unusual statistical baseball feats.
Here we go!
The Babe (fantasy's best hitter): Mike Trout. First, some perspective on the award's name: Babe Ruth is a household name to any baseball fan -- even my 6-year-old son knows about Babe Ruth -- but what many might fail to appreciate is how substantial his statistical advantage was comparative to his brethren during the earlier stages of his career. Consider this: In 1919, Ruth swatted a major league-leading 29 home runs; that was more than 10 of the 16 teams in baseball hit. And in 1920, Ruth hit 54 to again set a new standard; that was more than 14 of the 16 teams hit, and it was 8.6 percent of baseball's entire total! To compare, Chris Davis, this season's leading home run hitter (with 51) has hit only 1.2 percent of the majors' total. Had fantasy baseball existed in the 1920s, there might have needed to be a "Babe Ruth rule": Either he was ineligible to be drafted, or his statistical categories were drafted separately (one team gets his homers, another his RBIs, etc.), due to the comparative advantage he provided.
No one in today's game enjoys that kind of advantage, but Trout gets the edge here because of what he provides on the basepaths: He has 30 more stolen bases (33-3) and eight more runs scored (108-100) than Cabrera, and in a season in which steals production overall is down, it's the speedster you want if his other offensive contributions are good. There is no "clear" answer to the Player Rater leader question; perhaps I merely want to reward Trout after he was so badly stiffed in last year's MVP balloting.
The Breakout fantasy player of the year: Chris Davis. Davis just broke Brady Anderson's Baltimore Orioles franchise record for home runs on Tuesday, hitting his 51st, and he is now one of only two players in the past six seasons to have reached the 50-homer threshold (Jose Bautista, with 54 in 2010, is the other). Davis' accomplishments this year are astonishing: He has averaged one home run per 10.7 at-bats, has hit a major league-leading 14 opposite-field homers and has hit 24 home runs on the road (second only to Cabrera's 27), alleviating any concern that he was a ballpark-fueled power product. What's more, Davis has done it by substantially improving his plate discipline, with his 10.5 percent walk rate representing an increase of nearly 4 percent, and his 31 percent chase rate a 5-plus percent improvement.
Chris Davis was this year's breakout player of the year, hands down. He was the No. 86 hitter, and No. 149 player overall, selected in the preseason, and come season's end, he'll probably be the No. 3 hitter and player overall on our Player Rater.
The Renoir (for the best off-the-waiver-wire hitting buy): Josh Donaldson. This award could just as easily have gone to Jean Segura or Matt Carpenter, but I dig deep when dishing these out. Both of them were late-round picks even in our standard 10-team mixed game, and upon the conclusion of the season's first weekend -- the April 6-7 one which often represents draft day for those who use old-school, traditional Rotisserie rules -- Carpenter was owned in 66.8 percent of ESPN leagues, and Segura was owned in 24.1 percent of them. Donaldson, meanwhile, was on rosters in only 0.4 percent of ESPN leagues, and to illustrate how unknown of a player he was, he was a mere $2 buy in the annual League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) and $10 in Tout Wars AL-only auctions; those are 12-team AL-only leagues with standard rosters (i.e. it's uber-deep).
With the lone exception of a so-so July -- he batted just .233/.340/.356 with three home runs in 25 games that month -- Donaldson has been consistently productive, with a batting average of .300 or better in four other months (April, May, June and September) and an OPS of at least .822 in every month but July. The result is a No. 24 current standing among hitters on our Player Rater, fifth among third base-eligibles and third at that position among players who will retain 2014 eligibility there. And as Donaldson has improved his plate-discipline numbers to the point that they're almost spot-on to the ones he enjoyed in the minors -- he has an 11.1 percent walk rate and a 16.4 percent strikeout rate this year (11.8 and 17.9 during his minor league career) -- he has an outstanding chance of repeating the performance in 2014, albeit with some possible batting-average correction (perhaps to the .280-.290 range).
The Tony Phillips (for the most versatile, productive player in fantasy): Matt Carpenter. Carpenter deserves some hardware, even if he missed the cut in the category above. It's both his role as the St. Louis Cardinals' leadoff hitter, as well as his multi-position eligibility, that warrants a mention this season. Here's a fun Carpenter fact: Using Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index (PI) tool, we can determine that there have been only 23 instances of a season during which a player appeared in at least 20 games apiece at first base, second base and third base to earn eligibility at all three in the subsequent season, and of those 23, only Frank Catalanotto (2000), Vic Power (1959) and Pete Runnels (1958) managed numbers in those follow-up campaigns that would have placed even in the ballpark of Carpenter's top-five status at all three on the 2013 Player Rater (and none would really have been close). Granted, this ignores the fact Carpenter actually didn't enter 2013 with second base eligibility, but researching first-and-third eligibles who added second base to the mix in-season would be massively time-consuming.
The point is that Carpenter's season has been one for the fantasy record books, one during which he has the majors' most runs scored (119), hits (190) and doubles (51, though he's tied with Manny Machado for that lead), and one during which he was adapting to full-time duty at the somewhat unfamiliar position of second base. Better yet, Carpenter played 40 games at third base, so he'll enter 2014 dual-eligible again.
The Late-Season Savior (for the most remarkable turnaround, mostly off the waiver wire, during the stretch run): Will Venable. Venable has earned "Hit Parade" praise on numerous occasions over the past several weeks, and it's with good reason. He was widely available in ESPN leagues for much of the summer, and on our Player Rater "Last 30" split, he's the No. 23 hitter thanks to .295/.336/.495 triple-slash rates, five home runs, 11 RBIs, six stolen bases and 15 runs scored in 26 games. But it's actually his second-half performance that warrants mention: He's a .325/.363/.569 hitter with 11 homers and 11 steals in 54 games since the All-Star break.
Venable's specific improvements were the topic of last week's column, but the importance of repeating his name here is to tout his remaining schedule: @PIT-1, LAD-3, ARI-4, @SF-3. That's four more road games, and 10 of his final 11 that, as things stand now, have him projected to face right-handed starters.
That Ball Had Eyes Award (for the highest BABIP in baseball): Chris Johnson (.401). Four-oh-one! Perhaps that number won't mean anything to you, but putting it into historical perspective might: If it sticks -- he has 11 days left to maintain it -- it would be only the 57th instance in history of a .400-plus BABIP season, the 46th among players with at least 500 plate appearances in the given season and, most remarkably, the second-highest BABIP in the history of baseball in which the player struck out at least three times as often as he walked (Jose Hernandez's .404 in 2002, when he whiffed 188 times but walked 52, is the record).
Yes, a .400-plus BABIP for a free swinger is a rarity, and Johnson and Hernandez fall into that classification. Johnson's 0.25:1 walk-to-strikeout rate is 16th worst of 141 batting-title qualifiers, his swing (52.5 percent) and chase (33.7) rates 16th and 25th worst. Hernandez's 0.28:1 walk-to-K rate, meanwhile, was seventh worst of 151 qualifiers in 2002. Even more startling, Johnson's ground ball rate (46.4 percent) is higher than the major league average (44.5), and his well-hit average (.171) -- that's the percentage of his at-bats that resulted in hard contact -- is below average (.174), meaning he's almost entirely fueling his BABIP with a bloated line-drive rate of 23.0 percent. Frankly, it's amazing that he has hung in the National League's batting-title race for this long, and his fantasy owners surely should've enjoyed it this season, because he might well revert to his .290 career-average self in 2014.
The 'Who Needs Air Conditioning?' Award (for the most whiff-prone hitter in baseball): Chris Carter, 36.8 percent K rate. Again, that raw number might not grab you, but putting it into historical perspective will: It is not only the major leagues' highest K rate this season, and by more than 4 percent at that (Mike Napoli's 32.4 percent is second), it's actually the highest rate in the history of the game among batting title-eligibles & and it easily trumps Mark Reynolds' 3-year-old record of 35.4 percent by more than 1 percent.
Incredibly, no one seems to be giving Carter the Adam Dunn-in-2011 criticism -- Dunn's 35.7 percent K rate in a 496-plate appearance (non-batting-title-eligible) season is the only other year in proximity -- and it's probably because Carter has been much more productive, with 16 additional home runs (27-11) and 35 more RBIs (77-42) than Dunn had in that year. Carter's whiff-tastic ways, however, are catching up to him, as he hit 18 of his 27 homers during the season's first half, with his isolated power dropping from .240 before the All-Star break to .205 after it. Pitchers might be catching on to the fact he's a dead-red fastball hitter -- 32 of his 48 career home runs came off fastballs and his slugging percentage against them is .548 -- and if he can't make adjustments, he could be in for a long 2014.
The "Jekyll and Hyde" (for first-half excellence followed by a second-half swoon): Jean Segura. No qualified hitter -- meeting minimum qualifications in either half-season, that is -- has experienced as much of a drop-off in wOBA (weighted on-base percentage) from the first to the second half, with Segura's plummeting by 106 points (.367 before the break, .261 after it). His swoon was the subject of last week's Hit Parade, and in his defense, at least he has gone 4-for-5 in stolen base attempts in six games, alleviating some of the concern regarding one of his disappointing numbers of late. But with Segura's hitting the subject of major question since the All-Star break, might it be that fantasy owners should regard his future as a more volatile one annually, rather than recalling his hot start that seemed to destine him for annual top-five status? Segura does have a checkered injury history (and suffered a hamstring injury Wednesday), so he might be one of the more unpredictable players over the next decade, as likely to finish second as 18th at his position, even if he should enjoy a productive overall fantasy career.
The "Hyde and Jekyll" (the previous one in reverse; terrible first half followed by great second half): Hunter Pence. A tip of the cap to colleague Eric Karabell, who brought attention to Pence's torrid second half on a recent "Fantasy Focus" podcast. Pence's 94-point boost in wOBA between halves (.324 before the break, .418 after it) is the majors' best among batting title-eligible players, and he's actually fifth in both batting average (.345) and wOBA (.418) since the All-Star break, chipping in 11 home runs and seven stolen bases.
What's more, in the past 30 days, Pence has the second-most homers (10), is one of only two players with at least nine homers and three stolen bases (10 and 3; Coco Crisp has the same of each) and he paces the majors with 29 RBIs despite playing for a team that has averaged a mere 4.39 runs per game during that span (that's only slightly better than the major league average of 4.13). Pence might take unjust criticism for his awkward hitting mechanics, but he has been remarkably consistent throughout his career, hitting between 22 and 25 home runs in each of his past six seasons and driving in between 91 and 104 runs in each of his past four. Where he winds up as a free agent should be one of the many stories fantasy owners should track this winter.