Player injuries, slumps and hot streaks are all a part of the Fantasy experience, and wouldn't it be great if you could predict when they were going to happen? Of course, that's all but impossible. However, as I discussed in my last column on pitchers, there is such a thing as "manageable inconsistency," and it's not just relevant to pitchers.
Some hitters get hot or cold based on the time of year, where they are playing or which pitchers they are facing. If we can identify hitters with extreme splits, then we are able to get a leg up on managing -- and taking advantage of -- inconsistency, even if we can't usually foresee when they will enter into a random prolonged slump or hot streak. I have zoomed in on a dozen hitters who have displayed extreme differences in their Fantasy and skill stats (e.g., contact rate, Isolated Power) depending on their situation. These are players who regularly struggle or thrive under certain conditions, and if we can see those conditions coming we can make roster decisions accordingly.
Below are four categories of inconsistent players: those who slump and streak according to the time of year, their venue, whether the opposing pitcher is a righty or lefty and what kind of repertoire the opposing pitcher offers. In each group, we will take a look at a trio of hitters who typify their category with an eye toward how to use them most effectively over the course of a season.
Inconsistency based on time of year
Ryan Ludwick, OF, Reds: Some hitters wrongly get tagged with the label "fast starter," but in Ludwick's case, he has earned the distinction. Last season, Ludwick hit eight of his 13 homers by the end of May, which fits into a pattern of a slugging percentages of .497 through May over the course of his career. From June forward, Ludwick has slugged .438. He is not getting drafted in many standard mixed leagues, but if Ludwick gets the bulk of the starts in left field for the Reds, he is worth using in those formats early in the year. However, at the first sign of midseason trouble, it's a good idea to try to deal Ludwick at his peak value. If nothing else, Ludwick's owners should have a replacement at the ready.
Ryan Doumit, C, Twins: If Justin Morneau gets the bulk of his playing time at first base, that opens up the DH slot for Doumit to get plenty of at-bats. Since Doumit is catcher-eligible, frequent playing time alone gives him value as a No. 2 catcher in mixed leagues. Especially since he has put up a .306/.359/.524 line in March and April over his career, Doumit is definitely worth a shot to start off the season. As with Ludwick, owners should be on alert for a midseason slump. There is at least one reason to think that Doumit could break the trend this year, though. As a backup to Joe Mauer, Doumit will probably spend far less time behind the plate this year than in the past, and that could contribute to his durability and productivity as the season wears on.
Luke Scott, OF, Rays: Scott gets a new beginning as the Rays' DH, but in the past, he has not been very good at turning the page. It has taken Scott awhile to warm up to a new season, as he has hit just .230 in March and April in his career. Maybe it's the cool springs in Baltimore that have slowed the slugger down in the early weeks, and that won't be an issue with his move to the Rays' domed stadium. Even better, Tampa Bay only has two cold-weather outdoor series (at Detroit and Boston) in the month of April. On the other hand, Scott has never hit very well at Tropicana Field, so between that trend and his penchant for slow starts, he could frustrate owners in the early going. There is reason to be patient, though, as Scott could rake in the AL East's more hitter-friendly destinations, especially once the season moves past the first month.
Inconsistency based on venue
Gordon Beckham, 2B, White Sox: To be sure, Beckham has fallen short of the expectations he set for himself during his 2009 rookie season. A flurry of road homers (10 home runs in 204 away at-bats) boosted his power numbers in '09, but he has yet to recapture his inner road warrior. Over the last two years, 14 of Beckham's 19 home runs have come at home, and given that the Sox play at U.S. Cellular Field -- one of the majors' most notorious launching pads -- that result isn't very surprising. Until Beckham can improve on his high pop-up rate and mediocre walk rate, he shouldn't be used in standard mixed leagues, but in deeper formats, he is a viable start during home stands.
Kelly Johnson, 2B, Blue Jays: If we trust the .239/.346/.299 slash line that Johnson put up in 78 plate appearances at Rogers Centre last season, there is little reason to think his first full season as a Blue Jay will be a good one. I don't trust that small sample, but I like what Johnson has done over his six-year career in hitters' parks. Not only has Johnson slugged .514 at Chase Field (his home park as a Diamondback), but he has also hit for power in Colorado, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. When Johnson was a Brave, he put up tepid power numbers at Turner Field, and he has been even less potent when visiting the Dodgers or Giants. In short, Johnson's performance seems to be strongly tied to where he hits, and that's good news whenever he's at home -- as well as at Yankee Stadium or Oriole Park at Camden Yards. In most of his other road stops, though, owners in standard mixed leagues need to look into giving Johnson a breather.
Jason Kubel, OF, Diamondbacks: The Twins' move from the Metrodome to Target Field two years ago was not good for Kubel's Fantasy health. His .495 slugging percentage from their old park was whittled down to a .403 mark at Target Field, which ranks among the worst places in the majors to hit homers. That's why Kubel's signing with the Diamondbacks this offseason has been accepted warmly by Fantasy owners, but remember the NL West is also home to three pitcher-friendly parks: PETCO Park, AT&T Park and Dodger Stadium. Standard mixed-league owners should call on a replacement when Kubel visits these venues, but he needs to be active when he plays at Chase or Coors Fields.
Inconsistency based on lefty-righty splits
Kurt Suzuki, C, Athletics: Suzuki is that rare right-handed hitter who fares much better against righties than lefties. His .229 batting average against southpaws is 40 points lower than his career average against right-handed pitchers, and he is also much more of a singles hitter when facing lefties. In mixed leagues that use only one catcher, it's a non-issue, as Suzuki isn't productive enough to use in those formats. He is worth starting in deeper formats, but if he is facing more than one or two lefty starters in a given week, owners should turn to their bench or the waiver wire for a substitute.
Carlos Lee, 1B/OF, Astros: Over his career, Lee's lefty-righty splits have been fairly similar, but the gap between them has grown tremendously over the last two seasons. Unlike Suzuki, Lee is following the more typical pattern of a right-handed batter who clobbers lefties. In 2010, his batting average versus righties dropped to .238, and last year, while that average inched up to .253, his power declined substantially. He can still clout the ball when facing portsiders, so he is a must-start in standard mixed leagues in weeks where Lee has a lefty-heavy schedule. Otherwise, you may be better off going with another option.
Sean Rodriguez, 2B/3B/SS, Rays: Even if Rodriguez can win and keep the Rays' starting shortstop job all year, his questionable plate discipline makes him a less-than-attractive choice in most mixed leagues. He does walk far more often against lefties and hits for more power against them, too. In an AL-only league with reserve slots, you can draft a shortstop like Cliff Pennington, who hits righties better than lefties, and then use Rodriguez in a semi-platoon in weeks where he faces more than a couple of lefties.
Inconsistency based on an opposing pitcher's repertoire
Michael Cuddyer, 1B/OF, Rockies: Cuddyer has never been a great fastball hitter, but he has crushed pitchers, like Mark Buehrle and John Danks, who rely heavily on their changeup. In his new division, Cuddyer will get to face a new cadre of changeup artists, like Ted Lilly, Matt Cain and Chris Capuano. In weeks where he gets to face a high proportion of starters who lean heavily on their offspeed pitches, Cuddyer will have some extra value. In mixed leagues where owners can start only three outfielders, the flipside of this trend is that Cuddyer may need to sit when facing a succession of flamethrowers.
Edwin Encarnacion, 1B/3B, Blue Jays: Data from FanGraphs.com show Encarnacion has consistently hit curveballs well and that would probably explain his success against Wandy Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte (yes, he is Fantasy-relevant again). It also gives us a hint as to why he has struggled against fastball-heavy pitchers like David Price and Carlos Zambrano. Encarnacion should be safe to start most weeks in Rotisserie formats and in deeper Head-to-Head leagues, but look out when he faces the Yankees. Three of their projected starters -- CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda -- are among the pitchers who have used the curveball the least.
Peter Bourjos, OF, Angels: Over his first two years in the majors, Bourjos has also proven to be a better curveball hitter than a fastball hitter. That nugget of information won't be too relevant for owners in Rotisserie leagues, who should plan on starting Bourjos no matter what. In Head-to-Head formats, though, it may be worth bringing Bourjos off the bench or waivers when he goes up against the Mariners. In particular, Bourjos could see more than his usual level of success against Jason Vargas, Blake Beavan and even Felix Hernandez.
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