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We kicked off the Fantasy Categorical Breakdowns series last week, focusing on the home run and strikeout landscape, and this week we will be taking a deeper dive in the batting average category. Yesterday Matt Collins did an excellent job in presenting his survey of the overall batting average landscape, and today’s piece will take a retrospective look at players who took big steps forward in 2015 in this statistical category, as well as identify a handful of hitters who regressed in batting average from the previous season.

In doing the research for this piece, I was able to find several players in both leagues with significant variances in their batting averages the past two seasons, both positive and negative, but have only noted the notable names for your consumption. Please also note that I am only referencing players who registered enough plate appearances in each of the past two seasons to qualify for the batting title, which is why you will not see the likes of Bryce Harper, Joey Votto, Prince Fielder, Mike Moustakas, or Victor Martinez mentioned this article.

Overachievers

Dee GordonMiami Marlins

2014: .289 AVG (T-24th)
2015: .333 AVG (2nd)

The speedy second baseman proved his 2014 fantasy breakout season was no fluke, as Gordon posted even better overall statistics this past season to the delight of fantasy owners who invested a high draft pick in the 27-year-old middle infielder. Gordon’s value is primarily tied to his speed, but a 44-point jump in AVG made Gordon an elite fantasy earner this past season. Gordon notched his first career batting title while also leading the senior circuit in stolen bases (58) and hits (205), and tied Paul Goldschmidt with $41 earned in standard NL-only 5×5 formats, the most in that format. It should be interesting to see how this will impact Gordon’s draft status heading into 2016, as his ADP in 2015 was only 41, which made him a considerable bargain.

Josh DonaldsonToronto Blue Jays

2014: .255 AVG (T-103rd)
2015: .297 AVG (24th)

Many folks were all in on Donaldson (me included) coming into 2015, citing the change of scenery from O.co Coliseum to Rogers Centre. That certainly wasn’t going out on a limb, based on the fact that he was projected to hit in the middle of a Blue Jays lineup that boasted multiple hitters with strong OBP numbers. However, while most anticipated spikes in his HR and RBI totals—because he posted an .874 OPS away from O.co Coliseum a season ago and launched 18 of his 29 home runs on the road—a 42-point spike in his AVG might not have been in your projections. The junior circuit RBI leader this year hit .330 in his home park this season, compared to his .233 mark in Oakland in 2014, the major factor for the spike. However, Donaldson is no stranger to posting strong averages, as he registered a .301 mark for the A’s back in 2013. Donaldson is a four-category fantasy stud, and his ADP should reflect that in 2016.

Xander BogaertsBoston Red Sox

2014: .240 AVG (T-129th)
2015: .320 AVG (5th)

While the former top prospect saw a drop in home runs in his second full season with the Red Sox, the talented shortstop bettered his numbers across all other offensive categories, with the biggest improvement coming in AVG. While Bogaerts did post a career .296 AVG over parts of four seasons in the minors, few could have predicted his 80-point spike in 2015. Some of that could be attributed to his .374 BABIP, but in any event, this Silver Slugger award winner will be a top shortstop on 2016 draft boards across all formats.

Yunel EscobarWashington Nationals

2014: .258 AVG (T-98th)
2015: .314 AVG (T-8th)

Looking at his .276 average over 3,913 at-bats heading into the 2015 season, and considering that he hadn’t hit over .258 in any of his previous three years, if you predicted that Escobar would hit .314 and finish in the top 10 in AVG in MLB this year, you get a gold star. However, he was aided by a BABIP 40 points above his career mark, and heading into his age-33 season, a repeat performance is unlikely.

Nelson CruzSeattle Mariners

2014: .271 AVG (T-69th)
2015: .302 AVG (18th)

While Cruz has been a reliable source of power the past few years, the slugging OF/DH surprised his fantasy owners by cracking the .300 AVG mark for the first time (in a full season) in his 11-year big-league career. Heading into 2015 drafts, some feared the move to Safeco Field would impact Cruz’s overall offensive numbers, but the 35-year-old posted his best fantasy season to date, and much of that was due to a big spike in his AVG. Cruz held a .268 career batting mark entering the season, but his consistency at the plate both at home and on the road (.304 AVG home, .299 road this past season) helped him best his career average by an impressive 34 points. While the metrics show Cruz might have had a little luck last year, with a BABIP nearly 50 points higher than his career norms, Cruz has had success in Safeco over the years during his time with the Rangers (career .277 AVG and 26 home runs over 524 PA), so it’s possible he will not suffer too much regression in this category in 2016.

D.J. LeMahieu – Colorado Rockies

2014: .267 AVG (82nd)
2015: .301 AVG (19th)

The LSU product began the season on a torrid pace, hitting .463 over his first 41 at-bats of 2015, on his way to a .406/.446/.522 triple slash in April. While the 6-foot-4 infielder was streaky this past season (hitting .400 or better in both April and July), LeMahieu was a consistent fantasy earner, and he set career highs not only in AVG, but in all other standard 5×5 scoring categories as well, including stealing 23 bases in 26 attempts. Unlike most Colorado hitters, LeMahieu was not a product of Coors Field, as his home/road splits were very similar, making him an intriguing option in 2016. LeMahieu’s average salary in NL-only expert leagues was $8 (I bought him for $4 in CBS), and his $26 earned in NL-only 5×5 formats made him one of the biggest ROI plays of 2015.

Jason KipnisCleveland Indians

2014: .240 AVG (T-129th)
2015: .303 AVG (T-16th)

One of the more disappointing fantasy performers of 2014, Kipnis bounced back in 2015 to put up a $24 season in standard AL-only 5×5 formats. His biggest impact was in runs scored (86), but right behind that was a .303 batting average, a career high and a 63-point jump from 2014. As with Yunel Escobar, Kipnis passing the .300 batting average threshold was unexpected (.262 career AVG heading into the season) and was helped by a .356 BABIP, well above his career norms. Kipnis should continue to be a top-ranked fantasy second baseman in 2016, but expect that AVG to regress a bit.

Underachievers

Adrian BeltreTexas Rangers

2014: .324 AVG (4th)
2015: .287 AVG (T-39th)

While it’s difficult to include Beltre, who is one of my all-time favorite players, in any article where he is deemed an underachiever, this future Hall of Famer did post his worst AVG since he left the Seattle Mariners back in 2009. Heading into his age-37 season, there is reason to think Beltre’s fantasy relevance could be waning… even as soon as next year. However, the positive news is that Beltre has remained durable, amassing 600+ PA the past four seasons, and his contact rates remain solid. A 50-point drop in his BABIP in 2015 gives optimism that a normalization is in order, and Beltre could resume being a strong contributor in AVG next year.

Starlin CastroChicago Cubs

2014: .292 AVG (T-20th)
2015: .265 AVG (T-81st)

I was a big believer in Castro heading into in 2015, but admittedly was wrong in my prediction the 25-year-old shortstop would take the next step forward and be a fantasy stud like he was in 2011. Castro has all the tools to be a fantasy force in the middle infield, but a major spike in groundball percentage and significant drop in BABIP led to a ho-hum fantasy season. It seems the Cubs might be ready to move on, which could have affected his play last year, so a change of scenery could catapult this talented young player (991 career hits at 25 years of age) back into the discussion of fantasy studs at MI, and make him a strong AVG play in 2016.

Jose Bautista– Toronto Blue Jays

2014: .286 AVG (T-36th)
2015: .250 AVG (T-113th)

When you draft Joey Bats, you are looking for power production first and foremost, but the slugging outfielder has put up solid AVG seasons of late, including a .302 batting average in 2011 and .286 mark a season ago. While Bautista slugged five more home runs in 2015 than in 2014, he saw a 36-point drop in AVG. His player profile will typically lead to a lower BABIP than league average, but his .237 figure from 2015 shows opponents’ shifts were successful at limiting his hits on balls that stayed in the yard. Bautista’s AVG will be difficult to project from year to year based on his game, but I think he underachieved in 2015, and I would not rule out a bounce back in 2016 based on the metrics.

Pablo Sandoval– Boston Red Sox

2014: .279 AVG (49th)
2015: .245 AVG (122nd)

Sandoval’s first season in Beantown was a disappointment, not only from a Red Sox perspective, but from a fantasy standpoint as well. Sandoval put up the worst statistical season of his big-league career, frustrating owners that felt he would thrive in his new surroundings. With an average salary of $21 in AL-only expert leagues in 2015, and final earnings of $8 in 5×5 formats, Sandoval was one of the more disappointing fantasy players last season. Kung Fu Panda really had his struggles away from Fenway Park, slashing a dismal .208/.259/.314—but in his defense, he suffered through myriad injuries that could have caused the regression. On the other hand, this is the fifth consecutive season in which he has seen a drop in batting average, which is not a small sample size. Sandoval’s career batting average was .294 heading into last year, so the optimists will expect a rebound. Don’t count me among them.

Albert PujolsLos Angeles Angels

2014: .272 AVG (T-64th)
2015: .242 AVG (T-123rd)

While the days of Pujols competing for batting titles have long passed, his precipitous drop in batting average in 2015 was quite alarming. After a slow start to the season, “The Machine” picked it up at the plate in May and June, and was sitting at his high-water mark of a .277 AVG on June 23rd. However, nagging foot injuries continued to plague him, and the future Hall of Famer hit a paltry .231 over the second half, ending his season with a career-worst .244 AVG . There was little variance in Pujols’ strikeout percentage and line-drive rates between his 2014 and 2015 seasons, so you can point to his .217 BABIP—a staggering 80-point dip from his career mark—as a major contributing factor behind the decline in batting average. Despite smacking 40 home runs and driving in 95 runs, Pujols’ drag in batting average held him to $24 earned in standard AL-only 5×5 formats, the poorest fantasy season (excluding 2013, when he missed 63 games with injuries) of his career. Pujols underwent toe surgery this offseason, and it’s unknown at this time if that will delay the start to his 2016. Even taking that out of the equation, and expecting some normalization in his BABIP, Pujols no longer appears to the AVG play he has been in past years.

Alcides EscobarKansas City Royals

2014: .285 AVG (T-39th)
2015: .257 AVG (T-101st)

I have been bullish on Escobar the past two years, but this past season was undoubtedly a disappointment from a fantasy perspective. While my adoration for the Venezuelan shortstop was geared more toward his SB rates than his hitting prowess, I was expecting a better batting average in 2015 than the .257 mark he posted. That said, in looking at Escobar’s career output, his BABIP fluctuations from year to year are hard to gauge and obviously will dictate his success in any given season. Given Escobar’s advanced age, it might be wise to temper expectations in 2016 if you are looking for an AVG play.

Thank you for reading

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