June 9, 2009
We already took a look at some sluggers who have been struggling to get things together during the first third of the season, so now it's time to take a look at the other end of the spectrum. Many players that you would not expect to hit for power have done just that in the first two months of the season, and as a fantasy owner, you want to know which ones are likely to keep it up, and which ones you'll need to trade immediately before reality hits them harder than an errant David Price fastball. Not all of these players were bereft of power (or the potential for power) in the past, but all of them are playing at a higher level than expected.
Name AVG /OBP /SLG ISO BABIP Raul Ibanez .329/.386/.676 .347 .325 Nelson Cruz .292/.356/.614 .322 .313 Jason Bay .277/.400/.599 .322 .294 Kevin Youkilis .349/.470/.631 .282 .426 Hank Blalock .253/.294/.534 .282 .252 Nick Swisher .250/.392/.529 .279 .291 Justin Upton .320/.393/.598 .278 .398 Jason Varitek .247/.337/.519 .273 .255 Torii Hunter .314/.395/.577 .263 .338 Brad Hawpe .339/.415/.601 .262 .377 Adam Jones .346/.397/.595 .249 .397 Casey Blake .292/.361/.528 .236 .339 Brandon Inge .277/.367/.508 .230 .325 Michael Cuddyer .275/.359/.503 .228 .306 Clint Barmes .285/.342/.494 .209 .336 Michael Young .336/.380/.541 .205 .369 Kendry Morales .273/.326/.475 .202 .303 Jerry Hairston .252/.303/.442 .190 .264 Aaron Rowand .309/.370/.497 .188 .361 Aaron Hill .311/.349/.494 .183 .327
People have been waiting for Nelson Cruz to turn into an excellent hitter for a few years now, but he finally seems to have broken through. The 28-year-old had just one impressive partial season on his major league resume prior to this year, when he hit .330/.421/.609 over 133 plate appearances in 2008. With his minor league numbers-.352/.428/.698 in 2007 at Triple-A, and a very similar line in 2008-it was possible that he had finally turned a corner, but considering that he had also hit .231/.282/.385 in his previous 442 MLB at-bats, any doubts were justified.
It's getting harder to feel skeptical at this point though, as his combined line from 2008-09 is .306/.380/.612 with 24 home runs and 21 doubles in 358 plate appearances. Pitchers have been less willing to attack him with strikes early in the count, as he went from a well above-average rate of first-pitch strikes to a below-average one over the past two seasons. With Cruz in control of more of his plate appearances, he has been able to not just increase his power production substantially, but he's also doubled his walk rate. Cruz has crushed the ball on the road as well during this time frame, to the tune of .290/.351/.604, so this is not just because he plays his ballgames in the American League's version of Coors Field. He is a legitimate power hitter that has finally come into his own, and even if he can't keep up that Pujols-like ISO for the remainder of the year, he's going to be one of the more dangerous sluggers you can own.
Why Nick Swisher is only slugging .529 is a mystery. That might seem like a strange thing to say considering he hit .219/.332/.410 last year while playing in a hitter's park, but it's true. Swisher has been disappointing at the new Yankee Stadium, putting together an uninspired .171/.382/.303 showing, but he's been completely different on the road (.313/.400/.708). That road rate is above where Swisher will end up-even when he was at his best, he was never that good-but conversely, his home line has nowhere to go except up. The league is hitting .274/.357/.477 at Yankee Stadium v2.0, and there have been 3.57 homers per game there, far more than at any other park. Why hasn't Swisher been able to take advantage of this, especially since the park is suited for lefties? (Keep in mind that Swisher, a switch-hitter, takes most of his cuts from the left side.) The reason why is that he just hasn't hit many balls in the air for much distance in New York. This is probably a case of a small sample size, given he has just 76 at-bats there, so as the season progresses, that line should improve. This is good news for head-to-head owners that were tired of his Two-Face routine in Gotham; it's lame that he hasn't hit, but patience is the only medicine we can prescribe in regards to Swisher's home numbers.
In 2008, Jason Varitek was making awful decisions about what pitches to swing at. His bat moved at just a tick above the speed of evolution, which conveniently enough is just what he was failing to do against the pitchers who were owning him. Red Sox fans were tired of him, and they were pretty open about not wanting him to re-sign with the team that winter. The Sox signed him anyway, and as of now, they look like they knew what they were doing: V-Tek is hitting .247/.337/.519, a much more robust showing than last year's dismal display. He has nearly doubled his HR/FB ratio, and also bumped up his contact on pitches both inside and outside of the strike zone. Varitek's low BABIP is a little deceptive, as he isn't much of a line-drive hitter these days; he has been well below his career rate the past two seasons, and was never one to consistently post lofty BABIP anyway.
That means that we probably won't see his batting average or OBP figures recover any more than they have already relative to 2008; that could be a problem once you look a little deeper. Varitek is hitting .260/.349/.603 at Fenway, but just .235/.326/.444 on the road. That's still good as far as catchers are concerned, but you're seeing a much different hitter outside of Fenway, something that could hurt owners in head-to-head leagues. The only other major concern is his lefty/righty split; Varitek traditionally hits southpaws better than right-handers (.256/.353/.424 from 2006-2008, against .231/.329/.381 versus righties) but this year he's taken that to an extreme with a .297/.400/.757 showing that includes half of his home runs in just 37 at-bats. If that rate doesn't keep up-and it probably shouldn't-then we'll see his power numbers dip some as he piles on the at-bats.
Remember when Brandon Inge was a solid player? That was just a few years ago, and it all came crashing down when he hit .223/.309/.373 over a two-year period. He seems to be back in good form in 2009 though, and he has started hot; he's now at .278/.369/.510, and has already surpassed his 2008 total for home runs. The "how" of this needs some looking into, as Inge's current HR/FB rate would be a career-best mark, and it isn't even close, as it's double last season's rate, which was right around his career average. Inge has been very fly ball-oriented this season, with 43 percent of his balls in play fitting into that category, while also hitting line drives just 16 percent of the time. That puts his .325 BABIP well above expectations, though with his patient eye (4.1 P/PA) and nine infield hits, we at least know how he's managed to do it. He has below-average speed, so expecting him to keep up that rate of infield hits is asking a bit much.
It also bears noting that Inge has three "Just Enough" homers according to Hit Tracker, though he hasn't had any home runs that wouldn't go out in the majority of parks, or any that were significantly boosted by the elements. The homers seem to check out, but just like Varitek, he owes an enormous debt to his performance against lefties-Inge has hit .349/.472/.744 with five bombs against them in just 43 at-bats. Inge is useful and is a solid hitter, but you don't want to start making decisions for your team based on the idea that he has found some new stroke that's going to keep the homers coming.
Michael Young did not just make the switch from shortstop to third base on defense this season, he also began to hit like a third baseman. That's great for those of you that drafted him as your shortstop, but let's take a look at what brought this on. Young's ISO is now perched at .205, which would be his career high as the first year he's ever been over .200. His HR/FB rate is 14.3 percent, a smidge above his career high, and well above his career rate. Nothing is very different in his batted-ball data, and he's actually making less contact than he has in the past. His BABIP is .369, and is the reason his batting average and doubles are so high, but that's standard procedure for Young, who owns a .341 career BABIP thanks to his hitting loads of liners.
What you don't see when you look at his numbers today is how different they look from just a few weeks ago, when his HR/FB was double his career rate, and his ISO was looking a little out of place given his career rates and his current age of 32. Young is on the downswing from where he was earlier in the season, in the sense that we can't expect him to maintain an ISO near .300 as he did in April, certainly not over an entire year. Then again, the .131 mark he posted in May could be low, since he is healthy. If you need power and power alone, then keeping Young may be a bad idea, but if you're all set with his being a well-rounded hitter (not to mention one who's still eligible at short), then Young is quite capable of the job.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .