2014 Fantasy Baseball: Best First-Half Hitter Values
With Yoenis Cespedes claiming his second straight Home Run Derby crown and the
Derek Jeter Memorial Game All-Star Game over with, the festivities of the All-Star break are officially in the rear view mirror. The second half of the 2014 Major League Baseball season is about to commence, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a look back the top performers of the first half.
This column aims to identify the top-10 position players who have provided their owners the most “value” based on their current ranking compared to their average draft position. In a standard 5×5 12-team rotisserie league on Y!, 23 picks are required per team, which makes for 276 total picks. For the purposes of this article, only players with an ADP of 300 or better will be considered for the primary positions (C/1B/2B/SS/3B/OF/OF/OF) while the two utility positions can be occupied by any player, no matter the ADP. With 162 games in a grueling 180 day schedule, fantasy baseball provides many opportunities to find terrific additions off the waiver wire to plug into your lineup, and the utility position in this article is meant to reflect the revolving door of finding waiver wire gems.
With the rules established, it’s time to identify the best values of the first-half in MLB. You can comment below with any questions or remarks about who you may agree or disagree with or you can let me know on Twitter.
5×5 stats: .304-16 home runs-45 RBI-32 runs-1 stolen base
Although he had to be placed on the 15-day disabled list early in the year due to a strained left hamstring, Mesoraco has been dynamite when on the field. Trailing only Jonathan Lucroy (71) in the catcher rankings, there’s no question “Meso” would be ranked highest if he had stayed healthy. Out of all catchers, Mesoraco only trails Lucroy and Suzuki in batting average, while his 16 homers tie Evan Gattis for the top spot. The homer output is especially impressive considering he has only played 60 games, much less than most of his fellow backstops. The 26-year-old also sports a .301 ISO, easily the best among catchers. Mesoraco’s wRC+, an advanced stat that shows how many more runs said player has created compared to a league average hitter, is a remarkable 170. If he had enough at-bats to qualify, this would represent the fourth best wRC+ mark in the league.
The Reds catcher has been especially hot over the last month (.321-7 HR-18 RBI-16 R) and his rank of 28th overall tops all catchers over that time. Mesoraco has no glaring platoon splits to speak of as his average against right-handers (.306) is actually higher than when he faces southpaws (.300). From 2013-2014, Mesoraco has upped his fly ball rate from a below average 33.8% mark to a healthy 43.5%. This is especially helpful since he plays half of his games in the bandbox known as the Great American Ball Park, where routine fly balls turn into homers. He has also increased his line drive rate by 2.3% to 23.4%, which is an above average mark. The former top prospect seems to have figured it all out and owners lucky enough to have him will be reaping the benefits of his stellar play in the second half.
First Base: Justin Morneau – (56), Y! (239), NFBC (216), ESPN (223)
5×5 stats: .312-13 HR-60 RBI- 38 R-0 SB
Lets face it, coming into the season expectations just weren’t that high for the former MVP after a string of disappointing seasons. His post-concussion syndrome in the past nearly derailed his career and he hadn’t cleared 20 homers since 2009, so it was easy to be skeptical of a bounce back campaign this year. Baseball is a crazy game though and Morneau has had a career resurgence at the plate this year.
A career .280 hitter, Morneau’s current .312 mark would go down as his third best average of his career. While he’s hitting .320 at Coors Field and has most of power and run production at home (8 HR-39 RBI), which is to be expected in the high altitude, he hasn’t exactly been a slouch on the road either (.303-5 HR-21 RBI). The left-handed slugger is drawing walks only 4.5% of the time, a career worst rate, but he’s also drastically slashed his strikeout rate from 17.3% last year to a career-best 10.6% this year. Oddly, he is chasing more pitches out of the strike zone (41.7%) than ever before, yet he’s rarely striking out while also hitting for a high average. Something has to give. He is due to regress some in the second half, but so far he’s been money in the bank for owners and has thoroughly outpaced even the most generous projections.
Second Base: Anthony Rendon – (25), Y! (246), NFBC (239), ESPN (226)
5×5 stats: .287-13 HR-53 RBI-67 R-8 SB
In 89 games played this year, nine less games than he played all of last year, Rendon is producing better in all five categories. Rendon’s 67 runs only trail Brian Dozier among all second baseman and only Robinson Cano bests Rendon in RBI. Additionally, the 24-year-old Rice alum has a 3.5 WAR tied with Cano and Ian Kinsler for best at the position. The young stud is on pace for 23 homers, 94 RBI, 119 runs, and 14 steals. Those are some eye-opening numbers right there. Over the last 30 days, Rendon is the eighth ranked player in Y! leagues as he has hit a sizzling .333. Check out his spray charts below to see his improved ability to hit for power to right field.
Shortstop: Dee Gordon – (29), Y! (217), NFBC (298), ESPN (222)
5×5 stats: .292-2 HR-25 RBI-52 R-43 SB
Coming into this season Gordon was a career .255 hitter, so owners who drafted him were realistically targeting his stolen base prowess. The 170-pound speedster has lived up to that end of the deal as his 43 steals lead MLB. To the shock of many, Gordon has excelled at the plate this year as evidenced by his rock solid .292 average. His new found success at the plate can at least be partially attributed to his vast improvement made versus righties. Last season, Gordon hit .222 against right-handers while this year he is hitting .297. Dee has been especially hot over the last month (.340-17 R-7 SB) and his rank (63) leads all shortstops over that time.
Gordon has also made great strides on being able to hit the fastball, which is very important considering the fastball is the most commonly used pitch. Last year he rated as -1.5 wFB while this year he has improved to a 6.3 wFB. This statistic shows the total runs above average that a hitter has contributed against the pitch. Gordon has also slashed his O-Swing rate to 30.6%, a career-best mark. All one has to do is look at his heat maps below from the last two years to notice his improvement. The Runs Above Average per 100 pitches (RAA/100P) in the following graph compares how said player is doing compared to the league average. Any number above 0 is above average while anything below 0 is obviously below average.
Third Base: Todd Frazier – (16), Y! (239), NFBC (227), ESPN (231)
5×5 stats: .290-19 HR-53 RBI-57 R-14 SB
No one could have expected Frazier to deliver second-round value coming into the season, heck just look at his ADP, but that’s why you play the game folks. Unexpected surprises happen every year in baseball. His 3.7 WAR is tied with Kyle Seager for the best mark among third baseman and ranks seventh best in MLB. Considering he sported a 3.3 WAR last year, it’s safe to say Frazier has evolved as a player. The “Toddfather” has generated a lot of value through his legs, as his 14 steals already represent a career-high. He’s currently on pace for 24 steals. He might just reach the 30 HR/25 SB threshold.
Frazier is crushing fastballs this year as evidenced by his 15.9 wFB, ranking 10th best in MLB against that pitch. He has also made considerable strides against right-handers as he’s batting .295 this year after hitting a paltry .233 against them last year. While most of his power has come at the Great American Ball Park (15 HR-35 RBI), and predictably so, he’s hitting a solid .286 on the road. Additionally, Frazier has raised his line drive rate from a below average rate of 18.1% in 2013 to an above average mark of 23.4% in 2014. If you’re worried about a second-half slump, Frazier looks poised to finish out the year on a high note. Check out his month-by-month averages for the season.
April – .233
May – .291
June – .316
July – .308
OF1: Nelson Cruz (8), Y! (138), NFBC (151), ESPN (138)
5×5 stats: .287-28 HR-74 RBI-56 R-3 SB
After Cruz’s 2013 season ended prematurely due to a 50-game suspension as a result of his involvement with Biogenesis, many fantasy owners were weary about spending a valuable pick on an aging and injury-prone player whose value was unpredictable due to the unknown of how much the performance-enhancers really helped him. So much for that line of thinking. His 28 bombs lead all outfielders and he only trails Jose Abreu (29) for the MLB lead. Cruz is five homers away from matching his career-high mark of 33 he set in 2009….and we still have the whole second half to go! His current .284 ISO would also be a career-high mark and it’s fourth in all of baseball while his .570 SLG% is seventh best in MLB.
The Dominican slugger has been a beast with the bases loaded as he is 6-11 (.545) with two homers and 17 RBI. Although all but five of his homers have come against righties, southpaws should be wary of pitching to Cruz as he’s dominating them to the tune of a .361 average over 83 at-bats. ATTENTION PITCHERS: Don’t pipe Cruz fastballs as he owns a ridiculous 23.2 wFB rating against the pitch. In addition to all of the aforementioned stats, he has also cut his strikeout rate by nearly four percent while also raising his walk rate. If he can stay stay healthy, Cruz is going to end up with some gaudy numbers when the season is complete. His on-pace stats will leave you foaming at the mouth (48 HR-128 RBI-97 R).
OF2: Michael Brantley (9), Y! (207), NFBC (221), ESPN (225)
5×5 stats: .322-15 HR-63 RBI-63 R-10 SB
Brantley certainly had some nice sleeper potential entering the 2014 campaign after a mini-breakout in 2013, but no one could have imagined the all-around category juice he would provide this year. The No. 4 player in Y! has already set his career-high in homers, and he is well on his way to posting career-best marks in the runs, RBI, hits, average, and steal departments. His 3.7 WAR is sixth best among outfielders, while his 8.2% strikeout rate is lowest among all outfielders. With offense and batting averages way down across the league, it’s a huge boon to own a guy who hits well over .300 like Brantley. His .322 average trails only Andrew McCutchen and is ninth best in baseball.
Brantley is smoking right-handed pitchers to the tune of a .343 average and he is also enjoying playing at Progressive Field (.361 AVG). Smacking line drives 26.3% of the time will do your batting average wonders as well. He may not keep up his home run pace in the second half, but if he can finish with a final line resembling .310-22 HR-100 RBI-105 R-18 SB, owners will be extremely giddy. One final note…I would be remiss not to mention perhaps the best nickname in all of baseball belongs to Brantley. Great half so far, “Dr. Smooth”.
OF3: Marlon Byrd (63), Y! (237), NFBC (250), ESPN (222)
5×5 stats: .263-18 HR-54 RBI-49 R-1 SB
Even after a solid year in 2013 split between the New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates, it was hard to believe Byrd would again be a fantasy force since his last fantasy relevant season before last year came in 2009. Byrd has proved his doubters wrong though as he is once again having a very underrated season. Byrd’s increased power output has been the biggest boon to his value as he is only four long balls away from setting a career-high in that category. The 36-year-old outfielder sports a 44.8% fly ball rate, the highest rate of his career, while his 16.2% HR/FB ratio suggests he has a legitimate shot at 30 homers. He’s actually on pace for 31 homers to be exact. With power down across the league as well, owners will take all the homers they can get.
P.S. – Rumors have been floating around that the Mariners are targeting Byrd in a trade because they need power. Moving from Citizens Bank Park to Safeco Field would definitely be a downgrade, but hitting between or after Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager would give him an abundance of RBI opportunities.
UTIL: Charlie Blackmon (17), Y! (141??) NFBC (400), ESPN (260)
5×5 stats: .306-14 HR-52 RBI-53 R-18 SB
Now we get to address the biggest surprise performers of the seasons first half. Blackmon certainly deserves the first utility spot, as Y! owners only deemed him worth of selection in 10% of leagues, but he’s now owned in 90% of leagues, although that number should be 100%. First things first, Blackmon took the league by storm as he got off to an absolutely blistering start at the plate in April over 95 at-bats (.389-5 HR-18 RBI-23 R-7 SB). After striking out 19% of the time last year, Blackmon has significantly lowered that rate to 12.8% of the time in 2014.
Furthermore, the left-handed batter has more than held his own against righties this year (.320) while also posting a respectable average against southpaws (.270). Blackmon detractors will point to the fact that his numbers are inflated by playing half of his games at Coors Field (.355-11 HR-36 RBI), and while that notion may be right, production is all that matters at the end of the day. It’s crazy to ponder the fact that someone who went undrafted in the majority of leagues has been the sixth most valuable fantasy outfielder so far. Wow. His on-pace numbers of 24 homers, 89 RBI, 90 runs, and 31 steals are downright silly.
UTIL: J.D. Martinez (110), Y! (N/A), NFBC (661), ESPN (260)
5×5 stats: .346-13 HR-43 RBI-27 R-2 SB
There are many candidates for best waiver wire additions of the year, but Martinez may just top the list. After being cut by the Astros this pre-season, not something to be very proud of considering their current ineptitude, Martinez has been amazing at the plate for the Detroit Tigers. The 26-year-old owns a sensational .346/.380/.654 triple slash line. The young slugger has been adamant that mechanical adjustments he made in the pre-season have led to his new found success. It’s hard to doubt him at this point as his ground ball rate is down (44.2% to 36.8%) while his fly ball rate is up (34.1% to 39.6%).
Martinez has 31 RBI and is batting an impressive .296 with RISP. Right-handed pitchers don’t stand a chance against him as he has racked up enough hits to own a scintillating .402 average against their likenesses. He owns a solid .309 ISO, which would rank third best in MLB if he had enough at-bats to qualify. J.D. has been phenomenal over the last month (.412-10 HR-27 RBI-19 R) and is the number two ranked player over that time.
This just goes to show you that baseball is the best game out there. Just another example of a player being tossed to the wayside by a team, only to resurrect his career with a change of scenery.
Thanks for reading and thanks to FanGraphs, Y!, and ESPN for providing the statistical information. You can comment below with any questions or remarks. You can follow me on Twitter @MattMoczy.