As the calendar flips to May, it's useful to remember that just about anyone can get hot or cold for a month. At this time last year, both Mark Reynolds and Dexter Fowler had eight home runs, and Lorenzo Cain and Nick Hundley were batting in the .320s. Meanwhile, Alfonso Soriano had all of six extra-base hits (only one of which was a homer) and Martin Prado was hitting a measly .217.
Not every unexpected early performance is a fluke, though. Evan Gattis' early-season power surge proved to be legitimate, as he hit 15 home runs in 278 at-bats after pounding six of them in April. Owners who waited for B.J. Upton to overcome his early-season slump had to suffer through several frustrating months before realizing he wasn't turning his season around. While it's ideal to wait another month or more to re-establish how we value players, you may need to make some roster moves now, before you miss your chance to make a statement in the standings.
Not many players have made a sufficiently dramatic shift in their performance and underlying skill stats to move the needle significantly in my rest-of-season rankings. Given that most everyday players have made only about 120 plate appearances, changes in their stats would need to be extreme in order to justify a big move in the rankings (barring a change in health status). The following 10 hitters have all at least created the appearance of a major change in Fantasy value, but not all deserve to be valued differently than they were a month ago. I'll take an in-depth look at three hitters who do, in fact, appear to be more valuable than they were on opening day and three who seemed to lost value. I will also spotlight four hitters who, despite surprising early-season stats, seem to be pretty much the same players they were before this season.
This analysis isn't going to help you if you're trying to assess pitcher value, but sit tight, because I will address that in my next column. In the mean time, this column just may help you to avoid a sell-high or buy-low that you could regret in the weeks to come.
Note: All stats are current for games played through Tuesday, April 29.
Hitters with Increased Value
Charlie Blackmon, OF, Rockies: Starting out the season with a 2 percent ownership rate in CBSSports.com leagues, few would have guessed that Blackmon would be universally owned within a month. That's exactly what has happened, but can we trust Blackmon's progress? At least in terms of his contact skills, we probably can. He didn't strike out much in the minors, and while his 7 percent strikeout per at-bat rate could easily rise, there's no reason to think he will revert back to last season's 20 percent mark. Blackmon is also proving himself to be a reliable line drive hitter, following up last season's 31 percent rate with a 25 percent rate. It's highly conceivable that Blackmon could approximate last season's .309 batting average over the remainder of this season's games (assuming some regression to his .373 BABIP), leaving him with an average around .325 for the full season.
While Blackmon should continue to help with batting average and steals, his early season power looks a little questionable. All five of Blackmon's home runs have come at Coors Field, and if he were enjoying a true power surge, you would think we would have seen some evidence of it on the road. In away games, Blackmon has just an .061 Isolated Power, and he will be unlikely to maintain an otherworldly .435 Iso at home. He's not going to be the next Andrew McCutchen, but Blackmon just might be a poor man's Jacoby Ellsbury who is a must-start in Rotisserie leagues.
Justin Morneau, 1B, Rockies: Blackmon isn't the only Rockie who is wildly outperforming his draft position. Expectations for Morneau were dampened after three years of disappointing power output, but he has opened 2014 with six home runs in April after hitting 17 over the entirety of last season. The fact that he is doing this without a decrease in ground ball rate (Morneau has actually increased it by three percentage points) is impressive, but we have to give park factors their due. Three of Morneau's home runs have come at Coors Field, and he has also hit one each at Chase Field and PETCO Park, which have been good home run parks for left-handed batters.
In the three-plus seasons that Morneau played his home games at Target Field, he was a much better power hitter on the road, so maybe all he needed was a change of venue. Morneau is currently a top five Fantasy first baseman, but his batting average and doubles rate are sure to cool off, as he surely won't maintain a .235 BABIP on flyballs. However, he should hit for a high enough average with sufficient home run power to be a must-start in leagues with a corner infield spot.
Miguel Montero, C, Diamondbacks: On the heels of a disappointing 2013 campaign, I left Montero out of my top 12 catchers heading into this season, but he currently ranks second among catchers in standard Head-to-Head value and 10th in Rotisserie value. As with Blackmon, the key to Montero's success has been a dramatically reduced strikeout rate. He's been inconsistent in his frequency of contact during his career, but he's never been close to his current 11 percent strikeout per at-bat ratio. However, the rate at which he is making contact when he swings (85.1 percent, according to FanGraphs.com) is not radically higher than his rate from 2009 (82.3 percent).
At age 30, Montero might still have the mid-to-late career power boost that befalls many catchers, but at the very least, owners in Head-to-Head points leagues should value Montero as a must-start option due to his superb walk-to-strikeout ratio.
Hitters with Decreased Value
Starling Marte, OF, Pirates: Even during his prospect days, Marte had questionable plate discipline, and he was exposed in his 2012 rookie season, when he struck out in 30 percent of his at-bats. He appeared to be making some gains early in 2013, but he struck out in 49 of his 142 post-All-Star break at-bats. Marte's difficulties have continued into this season with 37 Ks in his first 105 at-bats. While Marte gave us some hope of a high batting average to go along with 30- or 40-plus steals, his averages in the .250s both as a rookie and in the second half last year are probably better gauges for what to expect going forward.
Initially, I thought Marte would be a top 20 Rotisserie outfielder this season, but looking at the bulk of his major league track record, I'm concerned that he might not crack the top 40. He's looking more and more like Michael Bourn with double-digit home run power.
Brad Miller, SS, Mariners: As Miller shot up through the Mariners' minor league system, he looked like a future points-league favorite, posting good walk-to-strikeout ratios with a good amount of pop for a shortstop. Miller's 2013 rookie season was mildly encouraging, given his 17 percent strikeout per at-bat ratio and .154 Isolated Power, but a 7.2 walk rate was something I figured he would improve over time. Instead, Miller has started 2014 off with a 2-to-26 BB/K ratio and a .174/.211/.326 slash line.
Miller has made only 90 trips to the plate, which would normally be far too few to panic, but Miller's performance has been extreme enough to justify a rankings downgrade. He has taken an already-low 3.55 pitch per plate appearance ratio from last season and reduced it to 3.33. Given Miller's limited exposure to the upper minors, his unexpectedly impatient approach in the majors is particularly troubling. Because of the potential for much better performance, it's too early to drop Miller, but he shouldn't be starting now, and he also shouldn't be a buy-low target.
Billy Butler, DH, Royals: After Butler saw his power numbers dip in 2013, he seemed like a strong candidate to bounce back and reclaim the 20-homer potential he showed in previous seasons. He even demonstrated in 2012 that he could flirt with the 30-homer mark, knocking a career-high 29 home runs. Butler has failed to reverse a creeping ground ball rate, and it has actually exploded this season, rising from 54 to 64 percent. To put that in perspective, Butler has hit 50 grounders so far and only 14 flyballs and 14 line drives. That doesn't bode too well for the expected power rebound.
With such a high grounder rate, Butler's .032 Iso (three extra base hits, all doubles) is looking like it's more the result of too little power and not the result of bad luck, though his owners can expect his .276 BABIP to rise at least a little. Butler has been trending in the wrong direction strongly enough and long enough that he should be benched, and in standard and shallow mixed leagues, he's not beyond dropping.
Hitters with Unchanged Value
Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Dodgers: Part of Gonzalez's early-season power outburst has likely resulted from his seeing a lot of pitches in the strike zone -- 49 percent, according to FanGraphs.com. Even though Gonzalez is getting plenty of good offerings, he is chasing pitches out of the zone at a career-high 39 percent rate. If he starts to get pitched around more often, Gonzalez could see an abrupt end to the surging Iso rate (.333) that eight April home runs and doubles have brought him.
Gonzalez may look due for an upward rankings adjustment, but I still view him as the 12th-ranking first baseman in Head-to-Head leagues and 13th-ranking first baseman in Rotisserie leagues.
Brett Lawrie, 3B, Blue Jays: Even though Lawrie is batting just .192, he is the 12th-ranked third baseman in standard Rotisserie and Head-to-Head formats, as six of his 19 hits have been home runs. Lawrie's power has also helped him to knock in 20 runs. Given that Lawrie is showing the most power he has had since his 2011 rookie campaign and he is starting to turn around a BABIP that was just .125 three games ago, he may look like a legitimate value-gainer.
However, like Gonzalez, Lawrie is chasing pitches at a much higher rate than he has previously, even though he is getting more than half of his pitches in the strike zone. Lawrie should continue to improve his batting average as he gets more hits on balls in play, but if he gets fewer good pitches to hit going forward, he may be putting fewer balls in play. With limited batting average upside and reduced power, Lawrie could easily continue to fall outside the top 20 at his position, just as he did last year.
Matt Kemp, OF, Dodgers: Because Kemp is batting only .221 with eight RBI and nine runs, he is falling outside the top 50 outfielders in Fantasy value. While his 34 percent strikeout per at-bat ratio is definitely not good, frequent Ks haven't prevented Kemp from being productive before. Even more problematic than the strikeouts is Kemp's .143 batting average on ground balls. While he is not the speedster he once was, he should be able to hit at least .200 on grounders. And Kemp has retained enough speed to garner three stolen bases, so he can still help in the category.
One area where Kemp is already succeeding is power-hitting, as he has four home runs and seven doubles. With more singles to come along with his extra-base hits, Kemp will start scoring runs, and improvement in his .176 batting average with runners in scoring position will bring more RBI. I have him ranked as a top 15 outfielder and still have confidence that he will finish among those ranks at season's end, as long as he can stay healthy.
Brian McCann, C, Yankees: Though he has struck out only 12 times in 85 at-bats, McCann is languishing with a .224 batting average. He's been light on walks, so he is getting on base at a .267 clip, but given that he is still working long plate appearances -- 4.00 pitches on average -- he could increase his walk rate as he piles up more trips to the plate. He could also increase his batting average and OBP by increasing his .229 BABIP. It's almost bound to rise given how low it is currently, but a 49 percent flyball rate is playing a role in depressing it.
Owners shouldn't root for McCann to hit fewer flies, as it would hurt his power numbers (though it remains to be seen if he will), and so far he's close to a 20-home run pace. With just a slight increase in power and run production and a likely improvement in batting average to come, McCann can get back into the top 10 of catchers, even though he currently sits outside the top 20. There is a lot of bunching among the No. 2 catcher-types, and it wouldn't take much for McCann to leapfrog them.