Fantasy: Batting Average Bonanzaby Ben Jacobs
August 09, 2004
For much of this season, it's seemed to me that there are several players with batting averages considerably higher than I would have expected. I finally decided to look into the matter more closely, and I found 20 players who I think are doing something pretty impressive.
All 20 had played at least 400 games in their career entering this season, and all 20 have played enough to qualify for the batting title this year and have an average at least 30 points higher than their career average entering this season. Here are the 20 players:
C Michael Barrett, Cubs: Barrett entered this season with a .253 career batting average in 542 games, but he's hitting .289 this season with 12 homers and 51 RBIs to make a surprise appearance among the top 10 (or 11) fantasy catchers. After watching him struggle for parts of five seasons with the Expos, it's easy to forget that some time ago the question about Barrett wasn't whether or not he'd hit in the majors, but whether he'd catch or play third base.
After hitting .284/.340/.411 in 116 games in Single-A as a 20-year-old in 1997, Barrett hit .320/.358/.525 in 120 games in Double-A the following season. In 1999, the Expos decided he didn't need to see much of Triple-A and he responded rather well, hitting .293/.345/.436 in 126 games as a 22-year-old in the majors while playing 66 games at third and 59 behind the plate.
Then, he struggled horribly in 2000, rebounded slightly in 2001, and had a decent season in 2002 before regressing again last year. In retrospect, Barrett would have been a decent choice if you were looking for a sleeper at catcher. He was entering his age 27 season, he had shown the ability to hit before and he was moving to a new team where he could have a fresh start. Too bad I can't claim that I saw this coming ahead of time.
C Ivan Rodriguez, Tigers: It's hard to say that you're surprised to see a future Hall-of-Famer doing well, but Rodriguez entered this season with a .304 batting average in 1,623 career games and was coming off a season in which his value was exaggerated by the fact that his team won the World Series.
Instead of having another merely good season, however, Rodriguez is hitting .343 with 15 homers, seven steals, 53 runs and 67 RBIs. He's only hitting .240 since the beginning of July, but I'd expect him to finish the season hitting at least .320 with 20 homers, 10 steals, 70 runs and 90 RBIs, which is considerably better than what I predicted before the season.
C Javy Lopez, Orioles: I'm taking half-credit on Lopez. After he hit .328 with 43 homers and 109 RBIs last year, he still had a career batting average of .287 in 1,156 games and I said you shouldn't expect anything more than a .290 average, 25 homers and 90 RBIs this season.
He's on pace for 25 homers and 87 RBIs, but he's also hitting .317. I don't know what caused his career to turn around, but it seems to at least be somewhat for real. He's going to hit over .300 (probably comfortably) again this year and I guess you can't bet heavily against him doing it next year as well.
1B Sean Casey, Reds: Casey's always been known for his batting averages, so it seems odd to say he's greatly exceeding himself this year, but he only had a .300 average in 798 career games entering the season. After a bit of a dip in June (.266 average) and July (.234), he's hitting .483 in the early part of August and .342 for the season.
Casey also has 16 home runs, 72 runs and 70 RBIs batting mostly in the No. 3 slot in Cincinnati's lineup. It looks like he'll at least match, and possibly exceed, his 1999 effort for the best performance of his career. When he finished the 1999 season, it looked like he was a rising star. Now we'll have to wait and see if he can maintain the performance this time.
1B Derrek Lee, Cubs: I expected Lee to set a career high this season, but in home runs rather than batting average. Entering this season, he had a .264 average in 866 games and I thought he'd hit .280, which would have been a close third on his career list. But moving from Pro Player Stadium (where he hit .269 the last three years) to Wrigley Field (where he's hitting .309) has helped him hit .300 so far this year.
It looks like he might get that career high in home runs as well despite hitting just five in the first two months of the season. He's now on pace for 32 longballs, which would beat last year's career best by one. With his power returning the last few months, Lee's improved batting average more than offsets the drop in steals from the last couple years.
2B Mark Loretta, Padres: Loretta hit .314/.372/.441 last year for his best season since 1998, but he was still hitting .297 in 971 career games. This year, he's finally kicked that career batting average up over the .300 mark by hitting .334 so far.
Loretta's also already tied last year's totals in home runs (13, a career high) and runs (74) and has 60 RBIs and four steals after recording 72 RBIs and five steals last year. He turns 33 on Saturday, but it looks like Loretta's getting better as he gets further away from 30. He wasn't a bad hitter before, but he's a top-three fantasy option at second base now.
2B Ron Belliard, Indians: Even spending last year in Colorado didn't do much to help Belliard, as he hit .277 and entered this season with a .266 batting average in 605 games. Away from Coors Field full-time now, he's hitting .299/.370/.420 in the OBP machine that is the Cleveland lineup.
Unfortunately, that .299 average and 63 runs scored are about all Belliard brings to the fantasy table. He only has five home runs, two steals and 48 RBIs, and if that batting average drops even 10 points, he's probably not a top-10 second baseman.
3B Melvin Mora, Orioles: After suddenly figuring out how to hit at age 31 last year, Mora has figured out how to mash at age 32 this year. Despite his .317 average last year, he was hitting .262 for his career in 571 games entering this season. His .348 average so far is 90 points higher than that.
Mora also reached career highs in home runs (20) and RBIs (67) today, and he should top his career high of 86 runs before too much longer (he has 81 right now). What he's done the last two seasons completely defies explanation, but you can't expect it to stop when he's hitting .386 with seven homers in his last 19 games.
3B Scott Rolen, Cardinals: Rolen was a great player before this season, but he was also a .282 hitter in 1,053 career games. After never hitting .300 before in his career, he's hitting .338 this season and is on pace to shatter his career highs with 38 homers and 144 RBIs.
Rolen's been very consistently good throughout his career. He's had a 121 OPS+ twice, a 126 OPS+ twice, a 132 OPS+ once and a 139 OPS+ twice. This year, he's going to blow all those numbers away as his 1.037 OPS is more than 100 points better than his previous best. For that reason, he's also going to blow away the field as the best fantasy third baseman.
3B Aramis Ramirez, Cubs: An up-and-down career with its fair share of injuries had produced a .263 batting average in 622 games coming into this season for Ramirez. Now fully healthy, Ramirez is surpassing his breakout 2001 season by hitting .326 with 23 homers, 76 runs and 71 RBIs.
The scary thing is that Ramirez is still just 26 years old, and his best season could be ahead of him. I thought he might not be worth the $6 million he's getting this year because of his past inconsistencies, but he's definitely looking like the real thing right now.
3B Adrian Beltre, Dodgers: After a .290 average in Dodger Stadium at the tender age of 21 had everybody buzzing about how great he could become, Beltre entered this season with a .262 average in 810 career games. Whatever potential everybody had been drooling over or cursing at for years finally clicked this season, as he's hitting .324 with 30 home runs, 67 runs and 76 RBIs.
Beltre's struggling in August, but he's had three different months (April, May and July) where he hit better than .335 with an OPS above 1.000, so I wouldn't expect him to fall apart over the stretch run. At worst, he should finish around .315 with 40 home runs, 90 runs and 100 RBIs.
SS Carlos Guillen, Tigers: I've written about Guillen several times this season, and he continues to amaze me. Aside from a .333 average in 10 games in 1998, Guillen's .276 mark last year was the best of his career and he was just a .264 hitter in 488 games. This year, he's hit above .300 every month and is hitting .323 for the season.
He is struggling so far in August, but he's been so consistently good the rest of the season that it's hard to imagine him completely falling apart the last two months. Perhaps most important about this season is that he has more home runs (17) than in any two other seasons combined and he's doubled his career high in steals (8). He's also set career highs in both runs and RBIs with 81.
SS Michael Young, Rangers: Young's .306 batting average last year looked like it had a very strong possibility of being a fluke. First, he had 103 strikeouts against just 36 walks. Second, he was still hitting just .277 in 424 career games. This year, he's improved the strike zone control (66 strikeouts and 33 walks), improved the batting average (.321) and proved that he's not a fluke.
On pace to hit 21 home runs, steal 13 bases, score 114 runs and drive in 94 runs, Young's the top fantasy second baseman and figures to be one of the top four or five shortstops next season.
SS Jack Wilson, Pirates: Every person mentioned so far on this list was at least coming off a season in which they showed some sort of improvement over the previous season that they could build on. Wilson, however, went from hitting .252 with a .306 OBP in 2002 to hitting .256 with a .303 OBP last year. He did hit five extra home runs and knock in 15 more runs, but he also scored 19 fewer runs.
Most importantly, there was absolutely no reason to expect him to suddenly improve his career batting average by 17 points, but that's exactly what he's done. He was hitting .246 in 405 games coming into this season, but by hitting .320 in 106 games this year, he's upped his career mark to .263.
Wilson's batting average has dropped every month this season, however, from .369 in April to .336 in May to .319 in June all the way down to .257 last month. It wouldn't really shock me if he finishes the season with an average below .300, and I certainly don't expect him to approach this level of hitting again in the future.
SS Miguel Tejada, Orioles: With amazingly consistent home run, run and RBI numbers, the variable in Tejada's fantasy value over the last five season has been his batting average. He entered this year with a .270 average in 936 games and a career best of .308 in 2002. This year, he's hitting .314, and he already has 22 home runs, 101 RBIs and 72 runs.
If you had told me Tejada would be the first player in the majors to 100 RBIs this season, I don't think I would have believed it, but there it is. He's hit at least .300 every month this season and had 15 home runs and 81 RBIs from May through July. He'll be favored to be the top fantasy shortstop next season.
SS Royce Clayton, Rockies: Belliard wasn't able to take advantage of Coors Field last year, but Clayton isn't having the same problem this season. A .255 hitter in 1,605 games entering the season, he hasn't figured things out at age 34, but Coors Field has allowed him to post a .285 average so far.
His seven home runs, seven steals and 74 runs combined with that decent average make him a marginal starting shortstop in fantasy baseball. You're much better off if you have somebody else you can use while the Rockies are on the road, allowing you to take full advantage of Clayton's .321 average and six homers at home.
OF Barry Bonds, Giants: Time for another lesson on how great Bonds is. He entered this season hitting .297 in 2,569 career games. Not only is he hitting 56 points better than that (.353), but this will be the fourth consecutive season in which his batting average was at least 30 points higher than his career mark entering the season.
Bonds was a career .289 hitter after hitting .306 in 2000, and then he went on to hit .328 in 2001. That raised his career average to .292, but he had his amazing .370 season in 2002. Now a .295 hitter, Bonds hit .341 last year to bring his average up to the .297 mark he entered the season with. He's simply amazing.
OF Jose Guillen, Angels: I didn't think Guillen would be able to approach what he did last season, but he's actually been better, all things considered. After hitting .311 last year, he had a .270 career average in 750 games. This year, he's hitting .310 with 21 home runs, five steals, 68 runs and 88 RBIs.
The most encouraging thing is that after posting 95 strikeouts and 24 walks last year, he has 64 strikeouts and 30 walks far this season. His .373 OBP is not entirely dependent on a high batting average (like his .385 OBP with the Reds last year was), and he actually looks like he's performing at a level he can sustain.
OF Jeromy Burnitz, Rockies: When you talk about taking advantage of Coors Field, what Clayton's doing looks like nothing compared to Burnitz. He entered this season with a .251 batting average in 1,273 career games, and he's hitting .249 on the road this year. But his .351 average at Coors gives him a .304 average overall.
He also has 30 home runs, 70 runs and 84 RBIs, all thanks to the friendly environment he plays half his games in. As long as he's a member of the Rockies, he should continue to be a very dangerous fantasy player.
OF Danny Bautista, Diamondbacks: Not everything has gone sour in Arizona. Bautista entered this season with a .268 average in 754 career games, but he's hitting .301, has tied his career high in home runs (11) and should reach his career highs in runs (54) and RBIs (59) within a week or two.
Most of his value came from a very strong April, however, and he's struggling mightily in August. I wouldn't expect him to come real close to hitting .300 for the season, and he probably won't reach the 16 home runs, 72 runs and 80 RBIs he's on pace for.
Ben Jacobs can be reached via e-mail.
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