Given the performance of my teams so far, I picked the right year to start writing this column. My rosters are turning into a "who's who" of futility both at the plate and on the mound, but hopefully I can suppress my frustration long enough to share some useful information and analysis.
All statistics through Saturday's action.
Rick Ankiel (OF, STL): Ankiel appeared to be the perfect sleeper candidate for 2009. He posted a line of .269-20-49 over the first 81 games of 2008 before an abdominal injury derailed his second half. With that as backdrop, it seemed only natural to expect big things from him over a full year. However, the first couple weeks may have the Cardinals contemplating moving this former pitcher back to the mound or into a role as the guy who replaces the urinal cakes. So what is Ankiel doing differently this season? The first thing to jump out is that his groundball-to-flyball rate has gone from 0.82 to 1.27, and I hear it's tough to hit homers if you can't get the ball in the air. Ankiel is also swinging at far fewer pitches in the strike zone (64.5 percent versus 78.7 last year), and his struggles against southpaws have continued. In a crowded St. Louis outfield with Ryan Ludwick (OF, STL), Colby Rasmus (OF, STL), and Chris Duncan (1B/OF, STL), there's just no way he plays every day. It's still reasonable to expect him to hit close to 20 bombs, but I would look for other options until he heats up, maybe even the aforementioned Duncan, who brings multi-position eligibility to the party.
Jay Bruce (OF, CIN): After bursting onto the scene during his first week in the majors, Bruce wore down and struggled to close out the 2008 season. Still, his power potential and generous home ballpark had fantasy owners drooling over the 22-year old, whose .250 batting average seemingly had nowhere to go but up. Instead, Bruce has gotten out of the gate slower than Vince Young on the Wonderlic test, with a .176 average and 10 strikeouts in 34 at-bats. A paltry .217 Batting Average on Balls In Play is obviously contributing, but given the frequency with which he's popping the ball up on the infield, don't expect that to improve until he starts hitting more line drives. Bruce's struggles against southpaws (.190 last year and .091 this year) have prompted Reds manager Dusty Baker to drop him in the order versus lefties. Bruce is far too young to give up on, but right now he belongs on your bench until his peripherals show signs of improvement.
Edwin Encarnacion (3B, CIN): I've lost track of the number of times Encarnacion has been tagged as a breakout candidate over the past few seasons, but inconsistency at the plate and incompetence in the field have kept him from fulfilling those expectations. On the surface, his .172 average in 2009 would tell you this is shaping up to be yet another disappointment, but a closer look shows reason for optimism. First, Encarnacion's career walk percentage was a measly 9.0 entering this season, but it's over 25 this year thanks to having drawn 10 free passes already. This has also led to a walk/strikeout rate that is nearly three times what he posted in 2008, thanks in large part to a healthy decrease in swings at pitches outside the strike zone. His BABIP is incredibly low and given his seemingly newfound batting eye, I think it's worth waiting it out with Encarnacion, especially given the general lack of depth at the hot corner this year.
J.J. Hardy (SS, MIL): Take solace, Hardy owners. April has always been his worst month and 2009 looks to be no exception, with a .125 average and strikeout rate approaching 25 percent. Look on the bright side, two of his five hits have cleared the fence! Interestingly enough, that home run stroke may be causing some of his issues, as Hardy has hit more fly balls than usual. He's also swinging at fewer pitches both inside and outside of the zone, which clearly isn't translating into an increase in walks since he has just one. That being said, Hardy is one of the more streaky fantasy players around, so his track record would indicate he'll eventually get hot and turn it around. However, if you have other lineup options, it wouldn't be a bad idea to use them while he's doing his Royce Clayton impersonation.
Chris Iannetta (C, COL): The good news is that 100 percent of Iannetta's hits have been home runs. The bad news is that he's hit one home run. The biggest surprise for Iannetta is the uncharacteristic rash of strikeouts, with 10 in just 21 at-bats. You'd think this is the result of him chasing a lot of pitches outside the zone, but given that he's swinging at fewer than 12 percent of such pitches, that isn't the case. Iannetta has even improved his contact rate on pitches inside the zone, but the issue is that he's swinging at fewer of the strikes he does see. There are three main reasons the Rockies won't be giving up on him soon. First, he just turned 26. Second, their backup catcher is Yorvit Torrealba (C, COL). Finally, he signed up to bring the deviled eggs to the team pot luck this week, and if you think you can have a pot luck without deviled eggs just stop reading now because you're dead to me.
Justin Upton (OF, ARI): After picking up two hits Saturday, Upton has raised his average 185 points since April 13 all the way up to, well, .185. Look, he's only 21 and already is in his third season in the bigs, which is a real accomplishment. When I was 21, I was eating cereal for dinner out of a giant serving bowl and helping O.J. search for the real killer. However, that doesn't erase the fact that Upton's striking out in over 35 percent of his at-bats while constantly trying to crank the ball out of the park. You know who else knows that? Major-league pitchers. That's why they're giving him fewer pitches in the strike zone and allowing him to get himself out. Upton is doing his part by swinging at more pitches outside the zone than last year (34 percent versus 23.8) while making much less contact with those offerings (29.4 compared to 50.5). He has shown signs of life the past few games, but you're sacrificing an awful lot to get the 20 homers he's expected to hit. I cannot explain why he is owned in significantly more leagues than Chris Duncan, Daniel Murphy (OF, NYM) and Jeremy Hermida (OF, FLA).
Jon Lester (SP, BOS): I loved Lester entering this season, so obviously I was hoping for more than an 0-2 record and 9.00 ERA after his first two starts. Am I scared? Absolutely not. The only thing I'm scared of right now is that I somehow get entered into a competitive eating contest that requires me to eat massive quantities of Hot Pockets. As for Lester, his strikeouts and walks per nine innings are both the best of his career, and hitters are making less contact against him than they did a season ago. He's also stranded less than 60 percent of his baserunners compared to over 75 percent for his career, and his BABIP is absurdly high. If you own Lester, stick with him, and if you don't, see if his owner is starting to panic.
Huston Street (RP, COL): By most measures, Street didn't really out-pitch bullpen mate Manny Corpas (RP, COL) to win the closer's job this spring, and now he's lost it. However, given that the Rockies would like to eventually deal Street this season, it made sense that they use him early in save situations as an audition for potential suitors. At this point, such a trade seems unlikely unless a team just wants to bring him and tell their pitchers, "Hey, at least you aren't as bad as this guy." Street's WHIP is nearly 2.75, he's allowed two homers in just 3.2 innings, and hitters are making contact on over 85 percent of his pitches when they swing the bat. He's also stranded more runners than usual so his numbers could be even worse.
Edinson Volquez (SP, CIN): It kills me to include yet another Red here, but the truth hurts. Sure, it doesn't hurt as much as getting mauled by a bear or getting your arm caught in combine, but you get the idea. Volquez was terrific early on in his rookie season before fading down the stretch, and he also battled control problems at times, and those issues have been on full display this year. His BB/9 is at 7.71 after two starts and he's throwing strikes less than 40 percent of the time. Volquez's ground ball-to-fly ball rate has more than doubled, yet somehow his home runs allowed per nine innings also sit dangerously close to 3.00. With opponents offering at fewer pitches outside the zone and making contact nearly 94 percent of the time when they swing at strikes, it's clear that Volquez just isn't fooling hitters right now. Entering this year, I thought it was very unrealistic to see him repeat last season's numbers and I am even more convinced of that now.