Tuesday April 14th, 2015

Fantasy baseball owners like to think of themselves on the forefront of critical thought. Don’t bring them your pitcher win-loss records as evidence of anything other than being on a good team. If you want to prove a player’s value to a fantasy owner, you better have a case that is built, at least in part, on WAR, wOBA and FIP.

So why is batting average still the standard in typical fantasy leagues?

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It’s true: The heavy hitters in the MLB fantasy commissioner service game still default to batting average. Even in some advanced leagues, batting average is the favored rate category. In their everyday lives, fantasy owners long ago left behind batting average as the standard for judging hitter performance, preferring on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. Why isn’t one of those the standard? It’s a question anyone playing in a batting average league is hard pressed to answer.

Let’s take Anthony Rizzo’s first week of the season. He didn’t have a great start to the year, going 2-for-14 in the five games the Cubs played last week. Neither of his hits left the yard, and he drove in just two runs. Regardless of what rate you use, that’s not going to be a strong week. In a batting average league, however, it’s miserable. It also doesn’t account for the two walks he drew, or the four—yes, four—times he was hit by a pitch. Rizzo’s .143 batting average for the week was deleterious to his owners, but his .381 OBP was a boon to those in OBP leagues. It also does a much better job of reflecting the value he brought to the Cubs, who went 3–2 last week.

We’re better than this, and we know it. It’s time to make OBP the standard. And with that, let’s get to this season’s first edition of the Hitting Report.

Hitters of the Week

Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers: .609 BA (14-for-23), 5 HR, 8 R, 7 RBIs, .667 OBP

Gonzalez had one homer in each of the first two games of the season, then dropped an exclamation point in the third game, belting three homers to carry Los Angeles to a 7–4 win and series victory. Gonzalez slowed down in the power department over the weekend, but he still went 4-for-10 with four walks against the Diamondbacks.

Gonzalez hasn’t reached the 30-homer mark in a season since doing so with the Padres in 2010, but fantasy owners were still making the mistake of discounting him because of his lackluster '12 season. He seemingly hasn’t been able to recover from that year, despite hitting .284/.338/.472 with 49 homers and 216 RBIs across the last two seasons. The Dodgers had one of the best offenses in the league last year, but they could be even better with Jimmy Rollins at the top and an improved Yasiel Puig. In other words, don’t be surprised when Gonzalez tops 100 RBIs for the third straight season.

Miguel Cabrera, Tigers: .520 BA (13-for-25), 2 HR, 4 R, 8 RBIs, .586 OBP

I like to imagine Cabrera looking askance at all those spring training rankings that had him behind Paul Goldschmidt and Jose Abreu before stepping into the box for the first time this season, but then, I kind of like to imagine Cabrera reading anything that I write. So if you’re reading this, Miguel (please say you are): I apologize.

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After a slow first series, Cabrera hit everything in sight against the Indians over the weekend. In that three-game set alone, he racked up 11 hits—including a double and two homers—and six RBIs. He had 15 plate appearances in the series and reached base 12 times. The Tigers smacked down the would-be–throne-stealing Indians, and Cabrera was right at the center of that. Injuries limited Cabrera to a 2014 season that was merely “great,” rather than his typical “otherworldly.” If he can sidestep those nagging issues this year, he’ll once again be a top-three fantasy hitter.

Ian Kinsler, Tigers: .440 BA (11-for-25), 10 R, 7 RBIs, 1 SB, .500 OBP

Cabrera couldn’t drive in all those runs without having guys on base in front of him, and Kinsler was more than happy to hop on the carousel and get things started all week. Kinsler reached base at least twice in all of Detroit’s six games last week and had four multi-hit games, and after failing to cross the plate on Opening Day, he did so 10 times over the next five games. In the team’s second game of the season, he had a single, double, four RBIs and two runs scored. And while Kinsler didn't pick up a hit the next day, he walked and scored twice. He followed that up by getting seven hits, two walks and six runs in the sweep of the Indians over the weekend. Kinsler scored 100 runs for the fifth time in his career last year. With the bats he has behind him in the Detroit lineup, it would be a surprise if he didn’t do so again in 2015.

Billy Hamilton, Reds: .250 BA (6-for-24), 7 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 7 SB, .357 OBP

Hamilton looks set once again to test the bounds of batting average, seeing how low he can go while remaining a valuable fantasy player. Hamilton had more steals than hits last week, but he also singlehandedly won his owners a category, and that made him one of the best fantasy hitters for the first week of the season.

The steals are great and are the reason why Hamilton’s owners bought in at his draft-day price, but the big news here is that he also drew four walks last week. If Hamilton can post just a .330 OBP this year, he’ll likely lead the league in steals. If he can push up toward .350, he’s going to provide an enormous return on what was a sizable investment. It was just one week, but the results were still encouraging. Hamilton had exactly two multi-walk games last year, and two six-game stretches with at least four walks. He’s already halfway to both of those totals this season.

Hitters of the Weak

Evan Gattis, Astros: .000 BA (0-for-20) 0 HR, 0 R, 0 RBI, .048 OBP

The day when Gattis provides some pop in the middle of Houston’s order is coming, but it certainly didn’t happen during his first week in an Astros uniform. It might seem impossible, but the numbers above don’t adequately translate just how bad Gattis was last week. He struck out at least three times in three of his five starts, wearing a golden sombrero in back-to-back games, and had a stretch of 10 plate appearances with nine strikeouts.

Gattis finally reached base in his late plate appearance of the week, drawing a walk in the 14th inning of Houston’s 6–4 win over Texas on Sunday, but that was only after striking out three times in the game. It was a singularly ugly week for the new Houston slugger.

Chris Carter, Astros: .052 BA (1-for-19) 0 HR, 0 R, 0 RBI, .100 OBP

Perhaps Carter wanted to show some solidarity to his new teammate in Houston, because he had nearly as miserable a time at the plate as Gattis did last week. Carter at least managed to get a hit, something Gattis couldn’t do, and he struck out just eight times, compared with Gattis’s 12. The only way Carter’s week could be spun positively, however, was to say, “Well, at least he’s not Gattis.”

The Astros are going to go through weeks like this, with George Springer joining Gattis and Carter on the whiff-mobile. That’s going to make them a tempting team against which to stream, especially when you’re in need of a few strikeouts. There will also be better weeks ahead for Carter, who’s a safe bet to hit 30 homers while pushing 200 strikeouts.

Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers: .050 BA (1-for-20), 0 HR, 2 R, 0 RBI, .136 OBP

Lucroy has been one of the most valuable fantasy catchers for each of the last two seasons, a run that was presaged by a huge 96-game sample in 2012 that was unfortunately cut short due to injury. In other words, his owners are likely frustrated with his opening week of the '15 season, but they should be more than willing to cut him some slack. Lucroy had just one hit and two walks in 22 plate appearances against the Rockies and Pirates, and it was all the more frustrating that the five starters he faced were Kyle Kendrick, Jordan Lyles, Eddie Butler, Jeff Locke and Vance Worley—a group that doesn’t exactly bring to mind the ’91 Braves.

Every player is going to have his share of bad weeks this season. Lucroy’s just game right off the jump. He’s going to be a nice source of runs, especially from the catcher position, so long as he’s hitting second in Milwaukee’s order.


Kathy Willens/AP

Buy, Sell or Hold

Buy: Alex Rodriguez, Yankees

It’s time to believe, folks. Rodriguez is 6-for-20 with a homer and six RBIs on the young season. He has an everyday spot in the Yankees’ lineup, and while it hasn’t yet been settled (Rodriguez has hit second, third, fourth, sixth, and seventh this year), he’s going to be in there more often than not. No one expects Rodriguez to revert to his MVP form, but he can still hit and retains plenty of value as a third baseman or corner infielder in standard fantasy leagues. Look at what he did against this Clay Buchholz pitch, sending it into the left-center gap to drive in three runs.

That pitch caught more of the plate than Buchholz wanted it to, but it wasn’t egregious by any means. Rodriguez goes down and gets it, then drives it into the gap with authority. Yanking that pitch back to the left side of the field isn’t as easy as he made it look. He’s also still going to make pitchers pay for mistakes, as he proved to Daniel Norris last week.

As you can tell from where Russell Martin sets up, Norris wants this fastball to be low and away. Instead, it sails right over the middle of the plate. Rodriguez knows exactly what to do with it, depositing it into the stands in leftfield.

A-Rod is still widely available in many leagues, and that just shouldn’t be the case at this point. He’ll likely get enough starts at first base to qualify there eventually, and you shouldn't put too much stock into his struggles in his first start there last week. Remember, Rodriguez was once the best defensive shortstop in baseball. Even at 39 years old, he can learn to play first with a few more reps.

Sell: Ryan Braun, Brewers

Realistically, this is one you’re going to have to put in your back pocket for a while. Combine Braun’s terrible start to the season with the red flags surrounding him coming into the year, and it’s going to be hard to get much of anything for him in a trade right now. However, the moment he goes on a hot streak is when you want to start bandying about his name.

Pitcher Scouting: Breaking down Tanaka's lackluster Opening Day start

We warned you against buying into a rebound throughout the draft prep season. Not only had his cosmetic numbers taken a serious tumble over the last two seasons, but he also had noticeably lost power, with his isolated slugging percentage falling all the way to .187 last year. That’s a neighborhood typically called home by players like Kyle Seager or Anthony Rendon: They’re fine hitters in their own right, but not exactly mashers. Braun’s fantasy value was always centered in his power, and he just doesn’t have it the way he did five years ago. When that first hot streak arrives, don’t waste any time getting Braun on the market.

Hold: Chris Davis, Orioles

Hold recommendations are admittedly a touch silly this time of year, because you shouldn’t be panicking about anyone who you liked a week ago. Still, it’s occasionally easier said than done for fantasy owners to have perspective, especially with a player who is in need of a bounceback in the current season, so let’s talk about Davis. He has five hits, including one homer, in his first 19 at-bats, but also has six strikeouts against zero walks. Part of what made Davis so valuable in 2013, in addition to the 53 bombs, was that he drew 72 non-intentional walks. When Davis is patient and making pitchers challenge him, he gets pitches he can drive to all fields. In the first week of the season, he swung at a ridiculous 47.5% of the pitches he saw that were outside the strike zone, according to Pitch F/X data.

Davis is going to have to cut back on his swing rate significantly, or pitchers are going to continue to let him help them. Davis has never swung at so high a rate of pitches outside the zone in his career, and even as he careened to a .196 batting average last season, he had an 11.4% walk rate. The bet here is he settles down at the plate and hits somewhere around .250-to-.260 with 30 home runs.

Prospect Watch

Addison Russell, SS, Cubs

The Kris Bryant talk has finally, and thankfully, died down. The potential future star will be with the Cubs likely in no more than a week, hopefully never again to set foot—or at least to play in a baseball game—in Des Moines. That’ll leave Russell, who just might be a better prospect, to hog the spotlight on the Cubs’ Triple A affiliate.

Russell—who came to the Cubs from the A’s in last summer’s Jeff Samardzija trade—is off to a great start at Iowa, slashing .389/.421/.611 with a homer, double and three RBIs in 19 plate appearances. Russell was rated as a top-five overall prospect by every service this year, topping out at No. 2 in Baseball Prospectus’ rankings. He’s getting his first taste of Triple A this year and is seemingly finding it just as elementary as Double A. Here’s video of his first homer of the year, a blast to left-center off Memphis (Cardinals) starter Tyler Lyons, who has made 12 starts in the majors over the last two years.

Russell isn’t likely to make a fantasy impact this year. He could force his way to the majors, but the Cubs won’t even think of promoting him before the Super Two deadline hits in the middle of the summer. However, he looks every bit the future star that Bryant does and will be a factor in fantasy leagues next season. He’s definitely owned in any format with minor league rosters, but those of you in shallower keeper leagues should definitely have an eye on him all season. Depending on your league rules, there may come a time where you stash him for the future.

GIF of the Week

We probably won’t feature a pitcher here often, but any time you get the following elements in a single at-bat, you pretty much owe it to society to make it into a GIF: Bartolo Colon, Bartolo Colon swinging, lost helmet, RBI single. With that, I present to you Bartolo Colon’s first RBI in 10 years, during which he lost his helmet while lining a single over a drawn-in infield.

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