Fantasy Notes: 9/1/04

Remember when everybody was wondering whether Ivan Rodriguez could become the first catcher to win an AL batting title?

Well, Ichiro Suzuki took all the fun out of that race, but you may not have noticed another batting race developing. Rodriguez actually has some competition for the highest batting average from a catcher this season.

Rodriguez went 4-for-4 on Tuesday to raise his average to .339, but surprise star Johnny Estrada is hanging tough with a .332 average. Even if Estrada passes Rodriguez in batting average, Pudge’s edge in home runs and steals makes him the better fantasy player. However, their high averages simply highlight an impressive season from the catching corps as a whole.

Aside from Rodriguez and Estrada hitting better than .330, Javy Lopez (.315), Jason Varitek (.307) and Jason Kendall (.304) are all above the .300 mark. And Michael Barrett is hovering on the edge with his .298 average.

If all six players hit at least .300 this season, there will be almost as many .300-hitting catchers this year (6) as there were the previous four seasons combined. In those four seasons, Kendall and Mike Piazza each hit at least .300 twice and A.J. Pierzynski, Mike Lieberthal and Paul Lo Duca each did it once.

When you consider that Rodriguez, Lopez, Varitek and Kendall could all still have good seasons in them and Estrada is just starting his big-league career, you might not view catcher as the super-thin position it’s generally been. Throw in blossoming star Victor Martinez, aging stars Piazza and Jorge Posada and potential star Joe Mauer and catcher position might not even be the thinnest fantasy position next season.

With Michael Young only qualifying at shortstop, Jeff Kent turning 37 and Alfonso Soriano seemingly on the verge of becoming thoroughly mediocre, second base could become a tougher position to find a quality player than catcher.

A tale of two batting champs

The AL and NL batting champions are pretty much decided at this point, and it’s amazing how completely different they are. Ichiro is batting .371, and Barry Bonds is right behind him at .368.

Ichiro has 1.86 times as many at-bats (572) and 1.88 times as many hits (212) as Bonds (307 and 113), while Bonds has exactly five times as many walks (185) as Ichiro (37). Bonds has 4.75 times as many home runs (38) as Ichiro (8), while Ichiro has exactly five times as many steals (30) as Bonds (6). Despite having a similar batting average, Ichiro’s OPS of .878 is less than 60 points higher than Bonds’ SLG of .821.

What’s as amazing as the differences between these two soon-to-be two-time batting champions is yet another similarity: neither of them is among the top three fantasy outfielders despite clearing their closest competition in each batting race by at least 20 points each.

Ichiro’s batting average has a tremendous impact on your fantasy team because he’s leading the majors in at-bats and, obviously, hits. And his edge in hits is significantly bigger than his edge in at-bats. However, his lack of home runs and RBIs (51) makes him simply one of the top 10 fantasy outfielders, without much chance to finish higher than sixth.

Bonds is closer to the top three thanks to his gaudy home run and run (105) totals, and a respectable RBI total (88). But thanks to all the walks, his batting average only helps you about as much as a .335 average (roughly) from somebody with at least 500 at-bats would.

The fact of the matter is that despite having batting averages below .300, Bobby Abreu and Carlos Beltran have both been better fantasy players than Ichiro and Bonds this year because of their superior ability to fill out each of the other four categories.

Part-time Power

Bonds’ 38 home runs in 307 at-bats is certainly amazing, but does anybody even come close to matching his limited at-bat home run power? Here are the 10 most homerrific players I could find who have at least 100 at-bats but have yet to reach 300 at-bats. Some of them are part-time players, some of them are full-time players who have only played part of the year.

3B Eric Munson, Tigers: Munson has 17 home runs in 278 at-bats, or one homer every 16.4 at-bats. Munson’s always had good power (as you can see by his 117 career professional homers in 2,340 at-bats), but he doesn’t have the ability to hit for a decent enough average to be a good hitter and he doesn’t play defense well enough to not be a good hitter. That’s why he’ll probably never have a season with at least 450 at-bats.

OF Ruben Sierra, Yankees: Sierra has 15 home runs in 243 at-bats, or one homer every 16.2 at-bats. Sierra’s turned himself into a very solid part-time player the last three years, with 51 home runs in 1,006 at-bats. That’s allowed him to reach 300 home runs for his career, but he’s 38 years old and he’ll never again contribute to most fantasy teams.

1B Bucky Jacobsen, Mariners: Jacobsen has nine home runs in 143 at-bats, or one homer every 15.9 at-bats. Since getting called up, Jacobsen’s played almost every game and he’s been one of the few bright spots in Seattle, showing that his considerable minor-league success throughout his career can certainly carry over to the major leagues. If he keeps a regular role for next season, it wouldn’t surprise me if he hits 30 home runs.

C Doug Mirabelli, Red Sox: Mirabelli has eight home runs in 125 at-bats, or one homer every 15.6 at-bats. If you’re surprised by Mirabelli’s power as a backup catcher, than you haven’t been paying much attention to his career. In the last four seasons, Mirabelli has 32 home runs in 629 at-bats. If you’re in a league that allows you to start two catchers but still sets a normal minimum of 162 games, you should definitely consider taking Mirabelli to complement your starter. He doesn’t hit for a high average, but he can boost your home run and RBI totals.

1B Daryle Ward, Pirates: Ward has 14 home runs in 211 at-bats, or one homer every 15.1 at-bats. Ward was supposed to become a power hitter in Houston, but it never happened as he had mediocre numbers over parts of four seasons before getting shipped to Los Angeles, where he struggled mightily last year. Ward is still only 29 years old, and I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t hit 25-30 home runs if he could find a full-time job.

OF Jason Bay, Pirates: Bay has 20 home runs in 299 at-bats, or one homer every 15 at-bats. Bay is quickly emerging as one of the better young hitters in baseball, as he’s posted a .301/.375/.579 line since returning from his preseason injury about a week into May. Not only do I expect him to hit at least 30 homers next season, but he should be one of the top 25 all-around fantasy outfielders as well.

1B Tony Clark, Yankees: Clark has 15 home runs in 223 at-bats, or one homer every 14.9 at-bats. Since a disastrous 2002 season with Boston, Clark has regained his power, if not the rest of his offensive ability. Spending one year with each New York team, Clark has 31 homers in 476 at-bats the last two seasons. If you’re hurting for home runs and know Clark is going to see some playing time over a certain stretch of games, he’s not a bad option.

OF Wily Mo Pena, Reds: Pena has 22 home runs in 297 at-bats, or one homer every 13.6 at-bats. One positive about all the injuries to Cincinnati’s outfield is that they’ve allowed a couple of former prospects to show what they can do in somewhat regular playing time. Last year, it was Jose Guillen, this year it’s Pena. Not only is Pena hitting a respectable .256/.312/.515 (although with way too many strikeouts and way too few walks), he’s also only 22 years old still. If he continues to get regular playing time, he could still develop into a good major-league hitter.

1B Justin Morneau, Twins: Morneau has 15 home runs in 188 at-bats, or one homer every 12.5 at-bats. After letting him wait in the minors long enough to hit 38 Triple-A home runs, Minnesota is finally letting Morneau play every day in the majors. He’s displaying the same kind of power in the big leagues, and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t hit at least 30 homers next year. I don’t think 40 is out of the question by any stretch of the imagination.

3B Troy Glaus, Angels: Glaus has 11 home runs in 114 at-bats, or one homer every 10.4 at-bats. Everybody knows about Glaus, and he’d probably be among the AL league leaders in home runs had he not missed most of the season with an injury. Unfortunately, you could say the same thing last year as well. Every season, Glaus has the potential to hit 50 home runs and the potential to miss 50 games.

By the way, the 15 non-Bonds players with at least 30 home runs this season are averaging a home run every 14 at-bats. Bonds is hitting a homer every 8.1 at-bats.

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