One of the fun ways we all try to outsmart our opponents in fantasy is by searching for hidden value in players who, for one reason or another, we suspect have the ability to outpace their projections (and, relatedly, their draft cost). Our Darkhorses series features staff picks for players who could very well outpace their PECOTA projections for the year and finish at the top of one of the standard five-by-five categories. We’ve all picked one player currently projected by PECOTA to fall just shy of the top 10 (in the 11 to 25 range) and one longer shot player currently projected outside of the top 25. We’ll take a look at offense this week and pitching next. To kick things off here is a bounty of hidden treasure in the batting average department:


Jose Reyes, SS, TOR
The owner of 2011's black ink in the category, Reyes is projected to hit .287 in 2014 by PECOTA, but with some health and a single-digit strikeout percentage (which he accomplished in 2011 and 2012) he could see black ink once again. Last year saw a hike in that rate (up to 11.2 percent), but it was a transition season, moving to the American League and a new country to boot. Regardless of spring performance (I don't care in the least), Reyes is a good bet to crack .300 again and with a little BABIP luck, that number could shoot much higher. And don't let Reyes' low stolen base total from 2013 fool you, he hasn't slowed. —Bret Sayre

Andrew McCutchen, OF, PIT
I am guessing PECOTA dislikes McCutchen’s high BABIPs and believes he cannot sustain the high batting averages, but he has done it for two years in a row. His speed helps him in this department, and he could easily have one of those years where the high BABIP maintains, he gets even a little more luck, and wins a batting title. —Mike Gianella

Matt Carpenter, 2B/3B, STL
Carpenter swung at a lower percentage of pitches (37.3 percent) than any other hitter in baseball, and that selectivity was the key to an approach that saw him rip line drive after line drive last season. It’s not like the book was written on him and he failed to adjust, either; he managed a line-drive rate over 2 percent despite seeing first-pitch strikes in 61 percent of his plate appearances. In other words, he was able to stick to his plan and execute despite frequent pitchers’ counts. Doubters will point to his .359 BABIP last season and talk about regression, but Carpenter’s always been a high-BABIP guy, posting a .374 career mark in the minors and a .351 clip to date in the majors. While last year was likely a career year, don’t talk yourself out of him as an elite option for AVG this year. —Wilson Karaman

Allen Craig, 1B/OF, STL
I actually found PECOTA’s projection for Allen Craig interesting given the fact that he’s been at .307 or better each of the last three seasons. His line-drive rate is ascending and hit a career-best 26.9 percent last year, which is almost certain to regress, but he still topped .300 with 19.1 and 22.7 percent rates in 2011-2012. He seems to consciously trade power for line-drive capability, which makes him a strong bet for a strong average. Additionally, he has maintained an above average contact rate each of the last three seasons, only improving his big batting average chances. —Paul Sporer

Adrian Beltre, 3B, TEX
Beltre's PECOTA projection of a .291 average—13th among all qualified players—is fair. But if we're looking for someone outside of the top 10 who can make the leap easily, Beltre is a sound choice. He's hit for a .314 average since his escape from Seattle over the past four seasons, including a .315 mark in 2013. He's registered a BABIP of .319 or better in three of the past four campaigns, and there's nothing in his line-drive, ground-ball or fly-ball percentages to suggest a significant dip in the future. Beltre is entering his age-35 season so his decline may be coming soon, but I'd rather jump off of this bandwagon too late than too early considering the upside. I also really like watching Elvis Andrus touch Beltre's head, so I'm rooting for the average to remain high. —Ben Carsley

Yasiel Puig, OF, LAD
BABIP concerns get overblown sometimes when it comes to hitters. Puig did come down from "BABIP fueled" .436 he hit in June, but he adjusted after a bad July and had an overall impressive 2013. It's a small sample, but Puig's 2013 season showcased his ability to make adjustments in season as his approach changed after an initial hack-tastic start. He increased his walk rate as the season wore on, which in turn led to a better approach to hitting overall. The book is out on Puig now, and he'll have to readjust to the league as they continue to find and needle his weak zones. So while I do think the .288 PECOTA projection is responsible I also think his ability to learn on the fly, coupled with freakish natural ability and good speed, makes Puig an excellent candidate to post a top 10 finish in the AVG. category. —Mauricio Rubio Jr.

Matt Holliday, OF, STL
PECOTA projects four hitters to hit for a .300 average. That's obviously conservative—as PECOTA tends to be—but it means that if Holliday doesn't experience a massive regression, he could easily end up top ten in baseball, as he hit for .300 last season and his a career .311 hitter. The issue with this train of thought is that other hitters will likely outperform their projections as well. Holliday has a strong case for a consistently high average, combining his high groundball rates with his solid line drive rates, and a strong ability to avoid the strikeout. That means he's putting the ball in play often, and when he does, he gets (relatively) good odds that it could drop for hit. He's not likely to challenge for the top spot in the game, as he continues to exit his prime, but his consistency could easily land him inside the top 10 if some of the more variable players don't hit their high notes. —Craig Goldstein

Dustin Pedroia, 2B, BOS
Pedroia hit .301 in 2013 with torn ligaments in his thumb. While his thumb ligaments are smaller than the average major leaguer’s, I am still impressed. Even with the injury, his bat skills were still elite as posted a 10.1 percent walk rate and 10.4 percent strikeout rate in 2013. If Pedroia can control the bat better and drive the ball with more authority this season, post-surgery, he has a good shot of putting up a top-10 batting average in 2014. —Jeff Quinton

Pablo Sandoval, 3B SFG Through his first 787 plate appearances, Sandoval carried a .333 BA and .355 BABIP. Then the league figured him out and held Sandoval to a .268 BA over his next 616 PA. Since 2010, he’s recorded a .300 BA just once while battling injuries and criticisms about his weight and conditioning. But are we so sure that 2014 isn’t the Year of the Panda? Sandoval enters his walk year in the “best shape of his life” and carries a .321 BA through Saturday’s spring games—that trifecta alone should give you all the confidence in the world. I’m kidding, of course, but a little more luck could provide some wiggle room for a batting average north of .300. He’ll need to shrink his strike zone, which might be a lot to ask from a free-swinger like Sandoval, but last year’s PITCHf/x data showed that the 27-year-old committed to 42.4 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone, his lowest mark since 2009 (when he was second in the NL with a .330 BA). —Alex Kantecki


Manny Machado, 3B, BAL
After the first three months of 2013, Machado was hitting .321 with a billion doubles and was the talk of the league. Flash forward to this spring and he's struggling to get on the field after knee surgery and has been falling in drafts as a result. PECOTA has him projected to hit .262, which is understandable from a projection standpoint, but not so much from a scouting standpoint. Machado had a strikeout rate under 16 percent as a 20-year old over 710 plate appearances–an extremely impressive feat in bat barreling. He's a long shot (hence why he's on this list), but if he can return by May 1 and show minimal ill effects from the surgery, he's a guy who can hit .320 for a full season this time. —Bret Sayre

Prince Fielder, 1B, TEX
I don’t believe in the theory that Texas is going to provide a significant boost to Fielder’s offensive output. This guess is based more on Fielder’s .299 and .313 batting averages in 2011 and 2012, respectively. His BABIP in 2013 was in line with what he did in 2011-2012. A bounce back is likely, and if you believe in the (admittedly goofy) premise that Fielder is owed a little luck for his bad 2013, maybe he hits .330 this year. —Mike Gianella

Eric Hosmer, 1B, KCR
If it weren’t for a bizarrely low BABIP through 2012 and the first couple of months of 2013, we might not be having this discussion. But Hosmer rebounded strongly over the final four months of the season, finishing with a robust .335 mark. I think that’s more in line with the median number we can expect from him going forward, as his ground-ball and line-drive-heavy batted-ball profile should produce higher-than-average numbers. That output coupled with a solid strikeout rate combines to give him a steady foundation for sustainably high batting averages. A .310 or .320 season as soon as this year would not surprise me. —Wilson Karaman

Bryce Harper, OF, WAS
Picking Bryce Harper as a darkhorse for anything certainly doesn’t feel too gutsy, but he does have just a .272 batting average in his 1,094 plate appearances. While most will admit his ceiling is sky high across the board, his primary excellence is supposed to come from power—which isn’t typically associated with batting-average upside. I don’t think we’ve seen close to the best of the 21-year-old phenom, and we could honestly get a Mike Trout-esque season from him sooner than later. —Paul Sporer

David Wright, Mets
If you're looking for a surprise from PECOTA when it comes to superstar projections, Wright's predicted average of .273—tied for 60th among qualified players—is a good place to start. Wright's hit .300 or better in seven of his 10 MLB seasons and has dipped below .280 just once (2011). Wright hit for a .307 average over the past two season and in each of those seasons his BABIP has been right in line with his career average of .341. Wright is still only entering his age-31 season, meaning we don't have to anticipate significant regression yet, especially given his strong performance over the last two years. Wright might not be a good bet to challenge the Miguel Cabreras of the world, but I'm confident he'll finish with a higher average than the likes of Ben Revere, Shin-Soo Choo, and Carl Crawford, all of whom PECOTA likes to hit for better averages in 2014. He isn't as shiny and new as many of today's up-and-coming fantasy stars, but Wright is still a huge asset. —Ben Carsley

Shin-Soo Choo, OF, TEX
Choo has a well-earned reputation as a patient hitter with a good idea of what the strike zone is. What might get overlooked is how well Choo has hit for average over the course of his career. Choo is a career .288 hitter who has topped .300 twice over a full season. Choo makes solid contact and has enough pop and speed to merit consideration for sneaking into the top 10 for average. It's a long shot as he is getting older and the lucky infield hits he'll need to up the average won't likely be coming with more frequency. Choo is a good hitter with a great command of the strike zone. PECOTA’s .276 projection is a good forecast but I think there's a decent sized chance that he can become a top-10 producer in the category this year because of how well he knows the zone. He has the ability to hit for average, all he needs is just a little luck to sneak in. —Mauricio Rubio Jr.

Hanley Ramirez, SS, LAD
While what he did in half a season last year is not a sustainable product, a healthy Hanley Ramirez should have little issue factoring into the top ten in terms of batting average. PECOTA foresees a .284 average for the Dodgers' shortstop, which is a fair projection given the up and down performance throughout his career. If he is happy though—and he appears to be—he's a different player. While the .345 average from 2013 was buoyed by an absurd .363 BABIP, it's worth noting that Ramirez's career figure for BABIP is a healthy .334. So while regression will surely be a factor, it isn't necessarily likely to drop all the way to a league average number. Add in his reduced strikeout rate and you have a player who hits the ball hard (22 percent line-drive rate last year), putting the ball in play often, with a good chance of landing for hits. While it's hard to factor in how the grind of a full season, the pursuant likely nagging injuries, or even just his level of contentment will affect him over the course of the upcoming year, it shouldn't surprise anyone to see him among the top ten hitters in the game at year's end. —Craig Goldstein

Jose Altuve, 2B, HOU
I always told Jose, “don’t play with that no good Jimmy Paredes, you are going to get hurt one day.” Did he listen? Of course not. After hitting .333 through his first 167 plate appearances, Altuve injured his jaw colliding with—guess who?—Jimmy Paredes on May 13. More embarrassing than the “I told you so” was the .266 Altuve batted the rest of the way. He will be 24 in May and I think he has learned his lesson. Consequently, I think a healthy Altuve can crack the top 10 in batting average. —Jeff Quinton

Starlin Castro, SS, CHC
Castro collected 207 hits as a 21-year-old in 2011, becoming the youngest player to lead the senior circuit in base hits. That magical season, the second-year shortstop batted .307 for the Cubs. Since then, his batting average has declined considerably (.283 in 2012; .245 in 2013). Last year, it got really ugly, as Castro’s strikeout rate increased from 14.5 percent to 18.3 percent, and his walk rate decreased from 5.2 percent to 4.3 percent—despite a concerted effort to see more pitches per at bat. Dale Sveum is no longer in Chicago, and the belief is we’ll see Castro go back to his pre-2013 ways under new manager Rick Renteria. Castro would really need a hefty rebound in his BABIP to see .300 again, but keep in mind that he sustained a .304 BA through his first 1,221 PA. The talent is still there. —Alex Kantecki

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Good idea.

Any thoughts for those of us in OBP leagues?
I don't think the take-more-pitches dictate came from Sveum. I think it's organizational --- which is what worries me. Saw one of those games -- last year --- where the GM sits in with broadcasters for an innings, and got the distinct impression from Theo that cutting down on the free-swinging and the "wasted at bats" was a mandate from his office. He's very proud of his "we set goals for everyone" management approach, and I worry that this will continue to infect Castro's natural abilities.
Theo admitted they "tinkered" with Castro's swing too much. I think we'll see him go back to the player he was before last year's fiasco. I didn't intend to throw the blame directly onto Sveum.
I'd actually take the under on Adrian Beltre. Thirty-five years old is almost as old as I am and I can't even walk up a few flights of stairs without losing my breath.