Brett Wallace (1B - HOU): I've never been enamored with Brett Wallace as a fantasy option, but with his strong start to the season I figured it was time to pay a little respect to the early season improvements he's made (and I was asked to cover him on twitter by a subscriber). My biggest issues with Wallace in the past has been a mediocre command of the strike zone coupled with what most scouts have suggested as more gap power, than elite HR power. As a result, I've often thought of Wallace as a 1B in the mold of Lyle Overbay. Someone who might have some very useful fantasy seasons down the road but will never be elite. Early on this year he's doing his best to try to change that impression. He's shown vast improvements in his command of the strike zone, cutting his K Rate down to a manageable 19% and even drawing BB's at a rate of 9%. His usual strong LD swing is back in full force (with a 25% LD Rate) and despite a high GB Rate (46%), he's even shown some mild improvements in power. Now, a .127 ISO, still leaves a lot to be desired from a corner infielder, but it is an improvement. The improvement is carrying over into the swing data, but not as much as you might expect. Despite cutting the K Rate from above 30% to below 20%, his contact rate has maintained steady at 76%. He is chasing fewer pitches outside the zone at 32%, but that rate still remains above league average. From my vantage point it looks as if Wallace's early season success has been a bit over-stated. His production has shown tremendous improvement in his K and BB Rates but his zone command has only shown mild improvement. Throw in a .444 BABIP that is supporting much of Wallace's value (through batting average), and I think we're seeing the best we may see of Wallace all year. For those in redraft and even keeper leagues (where I think Wallace has more prospect name value than actual fantasy value), I believe now is an opportune time to sell high.
Ryan Dempster (SP - CHC): Well, that went poorly. Dempster turned in what might be the worst start of the season on Thursday night allowing 7 ER's on 4 hits, 4 BB's, and recording just 1 out. Dempster's been a popular topic of debate with our writers. Some have noted the similar peripherals in the K, BB, and GB Rates along with the unusually high HR/FB Rate and unusually low LOB% and noted that Dempster's luck just needed to turn in order to get back to his consistently strong production the last 3 years. Others noted the dip in velocity and the decreased swinging strike % as reasons to be leery the slow start may be here to stay. Last night was certainly a check in the detractors box as Dempster looked lost on the mound last night. Any strike he did throw was right down the middle and anything that wasn't down the middle was out of the strike one and up. I'm somewhere in-between on Dempster. I wonder if he's going through a bit of a dead arm period after being extended early in the season, topping 114 pitches twice in his first three starts and consistently struggling in the final innings (another sign of fatigue). As a Dempster owner all the signs of deterioration concern me to the point he won't be in my starting lineup until I see the ship righted. That being said, I'm still not willing to drop a guy who is still getting K's at a decent rate and has a consistent track record the last three years. Even while Dempster's velocity is down (90.3 mph avg fastball), he pitched successfully at 90.6 mph average fastball in 2009. I'm staying patient although owners should avoid using him in their lineup until they see some signs of improvement.
Lance Berkman (OF - STL): So much for my scouting capabilities. Early in the season I noted that I thought Lance Berkman's bat looked a little slow in the first few games. This came after touting him all preseason (based on the numbers) as a tremendous late round value. Turns out I should probably just stick to the thing I know best; the numbers. Berkman launched his 7th and 8th HR's of the season on Thursday night in a 4-5 effort that included 3 Runs and 5 RBI's. He's now hitting a ridiculous .410/.467/.795 line that looks just as good from a peripherals perspective. Berkman's hitting everything hard, posting a 25% LD Rate and a ridiculous 27.3% HR/FB Rate (before last night's 2 jacks). He's swinging a bit more aggressively as his overall swing rate has increased from 41% to 50% this year and his chase rate has risen to a career high 25%. I noted in the preseason that aging players tend to start their bats early to hide bat-speed issues and it results in an increased swing rate, with decreases in the K and BB Rates. We've seen that formula early on for Berkman and while it's worked I wonder how long it will last. I went into the year thinking Berkman would be a nice draft target that would ultimately become a sell high candidate (as health is really the biggest concern) and I still feel that way. If owners can capitalize on Berkman's sky-high value and land a consistent Top 50 hitter in their prime who is struggling early, I'd jump on it.
Andrew McCutchen (OF - PIT): McCutchen took another 0-4 on Thursday and is now in the midst of an 0-13 streak that includes 5 strikeouts. I noted on twitter a couple weeks ago that I wasn't worried about McCutchen's slow start because the peripherals remained in line with last season's performance, but since then they've eroded a bit. McCutchen's K Rate is back up above 23% (just 15.6% last yr), while his LD Rates and ISO are both mildly down as well. Digging deeper on McCutchen and looking at the swing data I see nothing but improvements in McCutchen's approach. He's chasing fewer pitches outside the zone (just 15%) and has actually improved his contact rate (up to 88%). Now because he's taking more pitches overall (just a 38% swing rate) he's getting deep into counts. It's resulting in more K's and more BB's, but with an increased contact rate I'd expect those K numbers to come down as the season wears on. His swinging strike % is just over 4%, an elite rate and with great zone command its hard to imagine his K Rate stays as high as it is now. His ISO and LD Rate are down a bit, but not to the point that he deserves a .242 BABIP. Even more unusual is the fact his ISO has dropped despite the fact he's hitting more fly balls. With most of the indicators showing improvement in skills, I believe McCutchen is a tremendous buy-low candidate. Owners who focus on just the increased K Rate may actually believe McCutchen's peripherals are deteriorating when the swing data shows its improving. Go out and make some offers now to the McCutchen owner in your league.
Chad Billingsley (SP - LAD): It's been an up-and-down start to the season for Billingsley as he's posted flashes of brilliance (8 shutout innings with 11 K's) and mediocrity (4 of 6 starts with 3+ ER). Taking a look at the peripherals, they show a few things worth pointing out. The first and perhaps most important thing with regards to Billingsley's fantasy value is a regression in his BB Rate (3.24 BB/9 last season, 3.67 BB/9 this season). The BB's have been the achilles heel for Billingsley in his career (3.88 BB/9) as he's always posted above average K Rates and shown a propensity for limiting the long ball. Last year he got improved results in his BB Rate but the improvement seemed a little overstated when digging in on his secondary indicators. He threw just 47% of pitches inside the strike zone and saw his swinging strike % drop to 8.9%. As a result, the regression in his BB Rate should've been expected and early in the season it's settled in at a more normalized level. The second indicator that's worth noting with Billingsley is he continues to struggle generating swings and misses. His swinging strike % early on in 2011 has drifted down even further, to a middling 6.9%. His K Rate has stumbled down to 7.86 K/9 (down from 8.07 K/9), which is still strong, but may have further room for deterioration. A change in approach appears to be at the core of this deterioration as Billingsley has scrapped throwing his slider and instead opting for more change-ups. The result has been more ground balls, but fewer swings and misses. It's a trade-off that can help him work deeper into games, but one his fantasy owners ultimately won't appreciate. As a result I think there's a bit further drop in the K Rate still possible. With a drop down to 7.5 K/9 (a guess on my part), Billingsley's value dips slightly. He's still going to be a mid-to-high 3's ERA pitcher with a 1.30-1.32 WHIP, but it will come with about 20 less K's. Unfortunately those who believed the 27 year old's improved command last year may result in a jump in value this year may find out that Billingsley's scrapping of the slider cost them some K's along the way. Ultimately I think he settles in as a solid back-end #3 starter in mixed leagues and more likely a good #4/#5 on staffs.
Follow me on Twitter all season - @drewdinkmeyer