Sometimes you just know.
It's a bad swing, a deer-in-the-headlights look, a step out of the batter's box (to figure things out) whatever the case may be, there are times you just know a certain batter won't hit a certain pitcher. Even the best hitters are overmatched at times or on certain nights.
A fantasy owner's job is to determine when that will happen before the game even begins.
Of course, there are several methods to determine this -- batter versus pitcher splits, recent hot or cold streaks, etc. But often it has nothing to do with the hitter at all; it's the pitcher. For instance, if a right-handed pitcher doesn't have good breaking stuff, he'll often struggle to get right-handed hitters out. If that righty lacks a good changeup, splitter or two-seam fastball, he'll struggle against lefties. That's the best thing about major league statistics; there's predictability about them, and each player amasses enough of a sample size that the stats can be telling.
Every Randy Johnson highlight reel inevitably has ESPN's own John Kruk in it. It was during the 1993 All-Star Game, and when it came to the telltale signs listed above, Kruk had all three (and more). Kruk had no chance. The Big Unit fired one to the back screen on Big Bad John, and then owned him after that. He struck him out with ease.
And yet it wasn't because Kruk couldn't hit lefties; he hit them OK during his career. It wasn't because Kruk couldn't hit Johnson; that was the only time during his career that he faced him. Or that Kruk was struggling at the time. It was because no lefty could hit Unit at the time. Kruk was one of many left-hitting victims to look sick against him.
With that, we look at the pitchers you don't want your right-handed, in some cases, or left-handed hitters, in others, to face. I believe the difficulty in hitting a baseball is such that if a decent track record of at-bats from like hitters indicates a horrible split, then it most likely applies to even superstars.
How do you use this info? Well, in daily-transaction leagues, that answer is obvious. It's time to make a change. But even you weekly owners can use it to help make lineup decisions, especially if you see two tough matchups on the docket in any given week.
Don't want your lefty hitters facing these starters
1. Randy Johnson, Diamondbacks: You had to know he'd (still) be No. 1, right? The Big Unit is still so nasty against lefties that managers rarely start their lefties against him. Over the past three seasons, lefties who have started against him are batting .188. He has allowed three homers to lefties during that span. Most interesting victim: Todd Helton (.238 average, just two RBIs and one walk in 42 at-bats).
2. Scott Kazmir, Rays: Over the past three seasons, lefties have hit just .205 against Kazmir in 458 at-bats. In fact, he has allowed just nine doubles and struck out 129 lefty batters. Most interesting victim: David Ortiz (.189 average in 37 at-bats).
3. Dontrelle Willis, Tigers: Believe in him or not, the guy is still a nightmare against lefties, who are hitting .197 and slugging just .265 against him since 2005. He had allowed just four homers in his past 385 at-bats versus lefties coming into the season. Most interesting victim: Jim Thome (4-for-25, 11 K's).
4. Kenny Rogers, Tigers: Must be the big curveball. Since 2005, righties have hit .281 against him, lefties .200. Most interesting victim: Ichiro Suzuki (.245 average, two extra-base hits, zero RBIs in 49 at-bats).
5. Tim Wakefield, Red Sox: You just try to figure out why lefties have hit .222 with just a .291 OBP against the knuckleballer since 2005. For comparison's sake, that BAA is 11 points lower and the OBP just two points higher than Johan Santana versus lefties. b>Most interesting victim: Hideki Matsui (.156 average in 45 at-bats).
Don't want your righty hitters facing these starters
1. Carlos Zambrano, Cubs: No pitcher, not even a qualifying reliever, has held righty hitters to less than a .200 average over the past three seasons like C-Zam has. He still allows the occasional homer to righties, but that's it. Most interesting victim: Albert Pujols (.234 average in 47 at-bats).
2. Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks: It's not like he's been bad against lefties, but righties have less than a .300 slugging percentage against him and just 13 homers in 1,281 at-bats over the past three seasons. Most interesting victim: Troy Tulowitzki (3-for-23).
3. Johan Santana, Mets: Aha, so here's Johan. Yup, the righties can't hit that disappearing changeup; only one in four righties gets on base against him. Most interesting victim: Alex Rodriguez (4-for-19).
4. Jered Weaver, Angels: The big curveball has held righties to a .276 OBP against him the past two seasons. Most interesting victim: Michael Young (5-for-21, no extra-base hits).
5. Daniel Cabrera, Orioles: Since 2005, righties have hit just .222 against him, and hey, he even walks fewer of them than lefties. Most interesting victim: Vernon Wells (2-for-26, no extra-base hits).
Justin Upton, OF, D-backs: This good, this soon? Nope. Consider that he has put 34 balls into play this young season, with 18 of them going for hits. No way. Eventually the K's will begin to catch up to the younger Upton. (Coincidentally, older brother B.J. has actually cut down on his K's, but the balls aren't falling quite as often as they did last season.)
Manny Ramirez, OF, Red Sox: In 2007, he entered play on April 29 with a .188 average and two homers. In 2006, he started the season 8-for-39. In 2005, the start was 10-for-45. I could go on, but the point here is that Manny has made a habit of getting out of the gate slowly, which makes his relatively hot start all the more appealing. It's obvious Manny still can produce like an elite hitter. One thing he can't do like an elite hitter: play 150-plus games. The Sox will build a safe playoff-berth lead and coast, and Manny will go down with some mysterious leg injury; it's almost inevitable. Now would be a good time to own him, but right around mid-June is when you should look at selling high on him.
Jeff Keppinger, SS, Reds: The Reds announced Monday that Alex Gonzalez still has a fracture in his knee and is still at least a month away from returning. Alex who? Who we kidding? This is Keppinger's job now, and the middle infielder who was barely drafted in most leagues is now owned in 90.6 percent of ESPN leagues. He won't hit 15 homers or steal 12 bases, but he will hit .310 with decent runs scored and RBIs for a shortstop. They always say fantasy leagues are won in the middle rounds or later in drafts. In other words, they're won with guys like Jeff Keppinger.
Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies. He's batting just .159 on the young season, but I have two important numbers to throw at you. First of all, at this point last season, he was hitting .162 and, well, that turned out OK. More importantly, while most everyday players face lefties about 25 percent of the time, Tulo, who specializes in hitting southpaws, has had only two of 44 at-bats against lefties this season. Once that split squares up a bit, we'll see improvement.
Placido Polanco, 2B, Tigers, and Freddy Sanchez, 2B, Pirates. Two more examples of good hitters trying to play through injuries and killing fantasy teams in the process. Polanco has been bothered by a bad back and can hardly hit the ball out of the infield. In fact, he doesn't have an extra-base hit this season. Sanchez has a bum shoulder that has bothered him since spring training, already has missed four games and had two hits in his last 26 at-bats before going 3-for-5 Monday. That said, owners of these two guys have no choice but to stick by them, except in shallow mixed leagues. Selling off now would be taking a huge loss.
Matt Diaz, OF, Braves. Diaz is blowing a perfectly good opportunity here. A 4-for-24 slump has sunk his average down to .267, and as a guy who is trying to shake the "platoon-player" tag, he doesn't have the long leash of an established player. The Braves have prospects Brandon Jones and Josh Anderson, and later in the season, Jordan Schafer could fit into the mix, too. Diaz needs to lock it down by then, and early on it doesn't appear he can.
Pickup of the week
Mixed leagues: Angel Pagan, OF, Mets: Right man, right spot, right lineup, right time, right .300 average capability.
AL-only: Justin Ruggiano, OF, Rays: With Cliff Floyd (knee surgery) out, Ruggiano has been getting reserve outfielder time. Who the heck is Justin Ruggiano? Well, a guy who hit 20 homers and stole 26 bases in Triple-A last season. That has fantasy sleeper written all over it.
Chris Duncan, OF, Cardinals: Coming into this season, Duncan was a career .272 hitter with 44 career home runs. However, he was hitting .306 with half of those homers against NL Central opponents. That's important right now, considering 16 of the next 19 games and 23 of the next 30 games are against NL Central counterparts.
Hunter Pence, OF, Astros. Definitely something to track: Pence hit primarily in the No. 2 hole the first 10 games of the season but then was tossed back at No. 7 on Friday. He then hit leadoff on Saturday and was out of the lineup altogether Sunday. I'm afraid if he doesn't pick up that .180 average, he might be stuck at No. 7, which would seriously hinder his run and RBI production in that lineup.
Tip of the week
When making pickups in head-to-head leagues, be sure to check which categories your upcoming opponent is strong in. For instance, if you're looking for a fifth outfielder and have the choice between a power guy or a fringe speed guy, see whether your upcoming opponent is strong in steals or homers and try to counter. The objective in H2H leagues, in my mind, is to be able to compete against your upcoming opponent in at least nine of 10 fantasy categories.
Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy.