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July 9, 2008

Fantasy Beat

Midseason Retooling: Shortstop

by Marc Normandin

This week we continue our trek through the positions, alighting upon shortstops. Short has been an odd position this year, not unsurprisingly given PECOTA's take on things in the preseason, but not a whole lot of offense has been mustered there. The cumulative EqA for the position is .249-that's a point below catcher, the historically weak position of late-and the production via VORP is very clearly broken down into separate tiers with a few heavyweights on the top, a rapidly shrinking middle class, and far too many disappointing players. Today we'll take a look at some of each, to see what they are bringing to the table in the second half.

It wasn't that long ago that J.J. Hardy was struggling mightily and helping the Brewers' lineup unit-wide struggle, but since May 23 he's has hit .354/.410/.701, plopping himself into the fourth spot for shortstops in VORP. With Rafael Furcal out for the season, the argument can be made that Hardy is the top shortstop in that second tier-after all, he hit .277/.323/.463 last year, and is up to .296/.364/.493 in '08-but there's one potential problem standing in the way of that. Hardy switched to more of a fly-ball hitter last season, but at the expense of line drives as much as grounders; his fly-ball rates spiked, though he also surprisingly succeeded in cutting strikeouts despite this shift. Liners are the key to maintaining a high BABIP though, and Hardy does not hit them often.

This year, Hardy has a .312 BABIP, which by itself isn't too far out of the ordinary. He also possesses a low 14.4 percent line-drive rate, which gives him an expected BABIP of .264. Granted, that 14.4 rate is partially due to his early season struggles, when Hardy couldn't buy a clean, straight swing or hard contact to save his life. We can safely assume that this number will go up, most likely at the expense of his grounders, as has already been the case with his improvements thus far. We most likely will not see his BABIP rise further, as he's already had some lucky bounces go his way that have kept his average afloat despite the low liner rate-he's hitting .313 on grounders to the left side of the infield, a classification that makes up a stunning 38 percent of his balls in play this year.

One thing that makes me optimistic is Hardy's contact on pitches outside of the zone. Hardy has seen an increase in contact on non-strike pitches from just shy of 68 to 78 percent, despite swinging at the same percentage (21) of that type. He's still a pull-first hitter, but the ability to control more of the strike zone is something the inconsistent 25-year-old could always stand to improve upon, and would make him a more dependable fantasy pick less prone to the sort of issues we saw with him during the first two months of the year.

Like many of the young D'backs, Stephen Drew was hitting great during the first two months, but since that time, to borrow a Kahrlism, he has been about as effective as Napoleon's battles against the Russians on their home turf. If anything, the Corsican and his men certainly walked more often than the younger Drew on those campaigns: even when he was productive this year Drew had a .308 OBP, and since the calendar turned over to June he's sitting at the .266 mark, which is a bad thing despite his .205 ISO. Not to stretch a metaphor to tired lengths, but Napoleon wasn't the only one who couldn't cut it on the road: Drew is hitting all of .234/.261/.442 outside of 'Zona. He has four more homers, but seven fewer doubles and three fewer triples than at home. There's no denying his power, as he displays it at home and on the road, and against both lefties and right-handers, but the lack of walks is a problem for his production in the real world. If your league does not count OBP, walks, or OPS as categories, Drew may have more worth in it than he does in the NL at present.

Here's the good news, for those who have Drew on their teams or are in a position where he can be acquired: he's the owner of a .276 BABIP, as well as a 20.4 percent liner rate. He's in a park that boosts BABIP due to its hitter favoritism, and his expected BABIP is .324, 48 points higher than his actual figure. Adjusting his line for that puts him at a much-improved .288/.329/.506; those numbers make him a top five shortstop in the second half, but that assumes his luck turns around. Now is a good time to buy low on Drew; you don't want to be selling on a player with power at a position that lacks help at the category, especially if he's a bet to turn it around in the second half. This goes double if your league doesn't take a player's walk rate into account.

Jimmy Rollins was expected to follow up his MVP campaign in 2007 with another quality season this year, but it hasn't happened for him. The shortstop has hit .272/.337/.437, which is fine for the position-his .280 EqA is well above the average-but it's disappointing when compared to last season's .296/.344/.551 mark. Part of the issue for the Philly shortstop has been his pull power, or lack thereof. He's going the other way with a ton of pitches this year, and though he has some pop to the opposite field, four homers there at the halfway mark is not that impressive. More alarming is the .136 batting average on grounders to the right side of the infield, a place he puts the ball 28.2 percent of the time. Rollins chases a hefty portion of the pitches to the outside part of the plate, and he doesn't hit all that well on them percentage-wise, but his affinity for chasing those has led to a drop in production.

Hit Tracker tells us that Rollins had more power to the opposite field last season than he did pull power, but this year he just has not been able to replicate that production. One reason for this is his severe drop in fly balls. Rollins' 30 home runs in 2007 was a career high, but his HR/FB ratio was actually about half a percent lower than the previous seasons; the real difference was in his fly-ball rate, which spiked to 44.2 percent, well above 2006's 36.9 percent rate and his 36.5 career figure. This season has Rollins back down at 32.1 percent, with an uptick in both line drives and grounders. His 25 percent liner rate is well above where it should end up come season's end, which is a shame for Rollins' line since it's keeping his BABIP afloat. He's also hit .250 to the left side of the infield on 15.4 percent of balls in play, and those grounders have done a number on his line, as his BABIP is just .284 when his liner rate suggests a .370 mark. As his liner rate should fall back towards both the average and his career numbers, Rollins is going to need to hope for more groundballs to have eyes, or for some more loft to come from his swing in order to bump up his homer totals. As is, he's still a quality shortstop thanks to the sheer awfulness at the position and his 22 steals in 22 chances, he's just not the first- or second-round pick many made him before the season started. There's still a lot to like here though, so don't deal him unless someone is willing to overpay for a potential second half return to form, one that I don't see happening without a reworked approach at the plate.

Miguel Tejada started out the season with his new team well enough, pasting the ball at a .345/.380/.566 clip through the end of April, but things soon caught up to him, and he has hit an inadequate .250/.296/.375 since. He's now at .270/.319/.430 for the season, which is decent enough if your league doesn't pay attention to walks or OPS, but is not aesthetically pleasing or productive otherwise. He's another player who has not been able to take advantage of an absurd liner rate (25.3 percent) due to a high number of groundballs that result in outs-namely, his 28.2 percent of grounders that he pulls to the left side, where he holds a .190 batting average. Though his liner rate suggests a BABIP of .373, he's nowhere near that thanks to botching about one-third of his balls in play as weakly-hit grounders to his pull side.

Tejada is not historically a line-drive hitter either, meaning that his lofty rate is sure to fall with more playing time. If more of those grounders don't start to find holes in the infield defense, Tejada's line is not going to look any prettier as the summer months drag on. Tejada has a reputation for being a loafer in the second half, but of his recent campaigns, 2006 is the only year where there is a massive split in his pre- and post-All-Star break numbers. The only reason to ditch him in the second half is a fear that his cratering numbers are not going to climb out of their newly-dug trench anytime soon. With the way his line has been plummeting since his first month of play, that's a legitimate reason to jump ship and sell before his overall line loses even more of its already diminished luster.

Related Content:  The Who,  Hit Tracker

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