Even knowing what we do about small samples, it's often all too tempting to hope that a player who has seen ups and downs in his career is back for real based on a good April. With that caveat, today we will look at a few cases of players who struggled in 2010—either due to injuries, bad luck, or just general ineffectiveness—who have started out hitting well in 2011, in order to see if what they are doing is realistically sustainable.
Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay Rays
Zobrist hit .285/.387/.532 from 2008 through 2009, whacking 38 doubles, nine triples, and 39 homers, earning 116 walks, and stealing 20 bases. A revamped swing was said to be responsible for the turnaround—Zobrist had posted True Averages of .205 and .154 in his two previous partial seasons—and it was expected that Zorilla would be a beast once again in 2010: PECOTA projected him for a weighted-mean of .270/.378/.483, and I ranked him as a four-star second baseman heading into last season.
Things didn't turn out as expected, though, and Zobrist, after two great seasons, had merely an above-average one. He followed up his .298 and .336 TAv campaigns with a .268 season—above-average at second, but not the beastly season we expected back in the spring.
I covered some of the reasons why back in September of 2010: the ball wasn't carrying off of Zobrist's bat as well, meaning a lot of his flyballs were landing short of home run country. This was due to his swing, as there was too much loft in it, causing flyballs not to travel as far, and also resulting in too many popups for Zobrist's own good; his back troubles also didn't help the issue.
Things seem to be back in order to start 2011, though. Zobrist is hitting .260/.318/.590, with seven homers, eight doubles, a pair of triples, and even five stolen bases without a caught stealing. He is also driving the ball to the warning track and beyond with authority, something he had a problem with for much of last season. All of that is good for a .318 TAv, and while it is just one month—and he had a pretty similar month last May before the rest of his season got derailed—Zobrist is eligible at a position where he is worth the risk of collapse.
Second base isn't exactly overflowing with high-powered offensive options, and Zobrist's floor seems to be that of an above-average second baseman. When the ceiling is as high as this—and look no further than his 2008 and 2009 seasons or his start to 2011 for evidence of just how lofty it is—then he is worth holding on to or acquiring. Don’t think of selling high on him unless you get an offer that completely blows you away—a healthy and productive Zobrist is a fantasy jewel.
Justin Smoak, Seattle Mariners
Smoak didn't have MLB experience prior to 2010, but he had hit well in the minors heading into the year (.288/.404/.466 for his MiLB career). He didn't show off that quality with either the Rangers or the Mariners, though, hitting just .218/.307/.371 in 397 plate appearances, with True Averages of .250 and .249. Not only are those figures below the overall hitter average of .260, but they are miles behind that of the average first baseman, who had a TAv of .288 in 2010. In a 600 plate appearance season, a .250 TAv would have left Smoak 2.5 wins behind the average first baseman on offense.
You don't have to be a math whiz to know that stats like that won't translate well to fantasy, but Smoak has done his best to fix the problem to start 2011. Despite playing in Safeco, a park that is difficult for hitters, he has hit .284/.393/.527 for a TAv of .344. Expecting that TAv or line to last the season may be asking a bit much given his park, but PECOTA pegged him for a 90th percentile slash line of .273/.382/.431 (for a Safeco-adjusted .301 TAv), and last year when he was called up he was referred to as something akin to a "switch-hitting Justin Morneau," so a quality season is not out of the question for the 24-year-old.
Smoak is a must-own in AL-only leagues, and has worked his way in to the mixed league conversation as well—he is owned in 68 percent of mixed CBS leagues (a contingent you can count me among) and is started in 49 percent of them. Those figures are up from 45 percent and 18 percent to start the year, so people are starting to take notice of the young slugger. You may want to do the same before it's too late, once everyone else notices that Seattle isn't entirely bereft of offense anymore.
Curtis Granderson, New York Yankees
Granderson hit .249/.327/.453 in 2009 with the Tigers, and then hit .247/.324/.468 with the Yankees in 2010. So why would I include him in a column about players who performed poorly in 2010 when compared to their past?
This, to paraphrase Conker, is a context-sensitive situation. Those two lines, lines that appear similar on the surface, are anything but when you bring stadiums into the equation. Comerica is neutral, as it has a three-year park factor of 100. Yankee Stadium, on the other hand, has a two-year park factor of 104—we can't go three years for that one, as it hasn't existed that long yet.
Granderson should have, in theory, killed it in Yankee Stadium. Those park factors above are just general adjustments, but Granderson is left-handed, and the new Yankee Stadium was built with the idea of making any and all lefties look far more powerful than they actually are. He did take advantage of his home park, at least more so than the road ones, hitting .262/.336/.511, but injuries shortened his season and kept him from producing year round.
Things have started off well in 2011, with a (mostly) healthy Granderson putting up an early-season TAv of .324, compliments of a .273/.333/.620 line. That .348 Isolated Power won't survive the season, but there is no reason why he can't get the same kind of boost out of Yankee Stadium that other lefties and switch-hitters have in the park's short history. He has suffered some injuries in his career, but he's just a moderate risk to hit the disabled list according to CHIPPER, so don't be scared off by that.