Comparing mid-May hitter ranks

Mid-May rankings week is a fun week. It's a week when our "big three" columns -- "60 Feet, 6 Inches" and "Relief Efforts" being the other two -- provide an opportunity to discuss some of the differences in my rankings comparative to those of the ESPN Fantasy group as a whole.

Here's one that stood out: Apparently, I'm more pro-pitching than the group. We ranked 101 pitchers in the overall top 250; I had nine more, or 110, in my personal top 250. And as I compared my rankings to those of the group, I found that, most often, hitters ended up ranking lower on my list than the others.

That's no surprise to me; I've been a bit more pro-pitching than most in recent seasons, as league ERAs have dropped. I've also long argued that pitching tends to be easier to project once a season begins than before it, meaning that the investments on the pitching side are somewhat safer in May than in, say, March.

Still, pitchers weren't the only ones whose rankings resulted differently on my list than the group's. As with "60 Feet, 6 Inches" on Tuesday, Wednesday's "Hit Parade" examines the hitters with the greatest differential in rankings.

I like them more

Jordan Schafer, Houston Astros: Go figure, he was the player I ranked highest comparative to the rest of the group, and I'm not even that big a fan. It's a numbers thing; these are Schafer's full-season paces: .248 batting average, 9 homers, 41 RBIs, 50 stolen bases, 95 runs scored. Now take a look at Cameron Maybin's final 2011 numbers: .264 average, 9 homers, 40 RBIs, 40 steals, 82 runs. Maybin finished 81st on the Player Rater. I'm not saying that Schafer is Maybin's equal, or that I expect Schafer to steal 50 bases; he has averaged 29 per 162 games played as a professional. But all of the other paces are reasonable, especially for a player who is going to remain in the lineup regularly due to a lack of stronger alternatives. Schafer has appeared in 34 of 36 Astros games and started 31 of them, 30 of those out of the leadoff spot. Why can't he remain one of the game's most underappreciated sources of steals and runs?

Cameron Maybin, San Diego Padres: It's only fitting that I follow up a Maybin reference with an actual listing of Maybin. He was one of the most frustrating fantasy players in the month of April, sporting a .188 batting average in the month, but he has picked up the pace of late, his .371 on-base percentage in his past 22 games (some of those in April) supporting his candidacy as a top source of stolen bases. Sure enough, he has eight in those 22 contests. Like Schafer, Maybin also finds himself on pace for nearly 50 steals -- his pace is exactly 48 -- except that I prefer him to Schafer as a hitter. I think Maybin is exactly what he was in 2011, at the least, and that's a clear top-100 player overall.

Austin Jackson, Detroit Tigers: I'm surprised that more people aren't boarding the Austin Jackson bandwagon, because his numbers back up his torrid start as being legitimate. Jackson's strikeout rate has dropped by approximately 10 percent (27.1 in 2011, 18.6 in 2012), his walk rate risen by 5 percent (8.4 to 12.8), his chase rate (swings at non-strikes) has dropped by 6 percent (26 to 20) and he has done a remarkable job of improving his performance against fastballs from right-handers, helping boost his numbers on that side to .372/.465/.547 (he managed .279/.334/.393 triple-slash rates versus righties in 2010-11). If Jackson indeed has become the patient hitter we never saw in either of his first two seasons, he's absolutely capable of a breakout year. Heck, at 126th overall, I've probably underrated him if his plate-discipline stats stay even close to their current rates.

Matt Joyce, Tampa Bay Rays: Matt Joyce is the kind of player who has always looked like one capable of more, yet through multiple big league seasons hasn't taken the big leap. Three times from 2008 to 2011, he managed 200-plus plate appearances and an OPS of .800 or greater, and during that four-year span, he ranked among the top 60 in baseball in OPS (minimum 1,000 PAs). This season, however, he has kicked his OPS north of .900, with .256 isolated power that would trump the .201 he managed during his first "full-time" season of 2011. Joyce does have a weakness -- he's a .235/.297/.324 hitter versus left-handers -- but he's 27 years old, smack dab in his prime, and might do enough simply against righties to make a run at top-100 status.

Martin Prado, Atlanta Braves: I might be somewhat too high on Prado, putting him at the back end of my top 100, but considering the state of third base right now, I think it's justifiable. Look at his paces: .301 batting average, 83 RBIs, 18 stolen bases, 101 runs scored, and be aware that in 2010 he managed a .307 average, 66 RBIs and 100 runs, meaning his paces aren't completely out of hand. Prado's shortcoming is his power; a 5.4 percent home run/fly ball rate, the worst he has managed in his career as a full-timer, shows that his current pace is probably a tad unlucky. I think he's a buy-low candidate.


Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 125 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.

I like them less

Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee Brewers: I sincerely wonder whether there's something physically wrong with him, and not just the hand injury that cost him a brief spell during the past week. Weeks is on pace for a career-worst 198 strikeouts, his miss rate on swings has risen by 3 percent (28 in 2011 to 31 in 2012), his well-hit average (percentage of his at-bats that resulted in hard contact) has dropped from .227 to .135 and on "fast stuff" (pitches clocked at 93 mph or higher) he has managed miserable .087/.192/.217 triple-slash rates in 26 plate appearances. Combine those and I wonder whether bat speed is an issue, something that seems odd for a 29-year-old. If Weeks misses some time, or takes weeks to break this funk, I won't be at all surprised.

Jhonny Peralta, Detroit Tigers: We as a group ranked Peralta 122nd in the preseason, and have now dropped him a mere 32 spots. Thirty-two spots? That's hardly enough for a player whose current pace is this: .252 batting average, .351 slugging percentage, 5 home runs, 50 RBIs. Even if Peralta improves those paces, his numbers don't look much different from the player we saw in either 2009 or 2010. Incidentally, this is where he finished on our Player Rater in those seasons: 357th in 2009, 291st in 2010. He was 93rd last season, or 60 spots higher than where we as a group have him ranked for the remainder of 2012. It's simply too generous.

Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox: I worry about his separated shoulder, especially in light of how long it took him to recover from fractured ribs in 2010. Ellsbury is out until at least mid-June -- that because he's on the 60-day disabled list -- so at the bare minimum he'll give us approximately 75 percent of the Red Sox's remaining schedule. Even after that, there are questions: Will he require time to return to form as the hitter we saw in 2011? Might he be less aggressive on the base paths initially? In a month, maybe I'll feel like he's a top-50 player again, but with a month to go at least before his activation, I think a hesitant approach is warranted.

Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals: Thanks, Bryce, you had to hit home runs in back-to-back games to make my ranking look foolish, didn't you? Harper earned a bump of a few spots thanks to his sudden power surge, cracking this week's top 125 list, but I'd still like to see more. Before that he seemed to possess only "doubles power," and his penchant for walks, too, wasn't something that showed up in his traditional Rotisserie statistics. Harper is 19; I need to see more than a two-day homer hot streak before I'll call him a bona fide top-200 player. But I'll say this: I was wrong about his being able to stick as a big leaguer. I think he's here for good, and I do think he'll matter even in larger mixed leagues.

Alexei Ramirez, Chicago White Sox: Alexei Ramirez has had exactly one season that could be classified as "elite-caliber," and it was his rookie year of 2008. He has never batted higher than .290, hit more than 21 home runs, driven in more than 77 runs or stolen more than 14 bases, and per 162 games during his career, he has managed .274, 18, 77 and 13 numbers in those categories. Ramirez is also on pace for two troubling numbers: 18 walks and 96 strikeouts, which would represent his worst in either category as a big leaguer. He's chasing more bad pitches -- 33 percent chase rate in 2011, 39 percent in 2012 -- and he's a .111/.172/.111 hitter in 30 PAs against pitches clocked at 93 mph or higher. I'm not so sure he's even the player he was in 2011, and he finished 147th on the Player Rater then.

Three up

Allen Craig, St. Louis Cardinals: He has seven multihit performances and five home runs in 12 games so far this season. So much for any sluggish performance initially upon his return from knee surgery! Craig has started nine consecutive Cardinals games, six at first base, two in right field and one in left field, and has quickly emerged as a middle-of-the-order regular for the team. He's a .305/.355/.546 hitter with 20 home runs and 76 RBIs in 131 career big league games -- those project to 25 homers and 94 RBIs per 162 -- and if the Cardinals cannot recognize those as deserving of everyday at-bats, they're in trouble. Fantasy owners should plan as if Craig will get those regular at-bats.

Rafael Furcal, St. Louis Cardinals: St. Louis sure seems to agree with him. Furcal, the No. 2 shortstop on our Player Rater, currently sports a career-low strikeout rate (9.9 percent), and his 9.9 percent walk rate is his best in any full season since 2006. Those are pluses for a leadoff man; they assure the kind of competitive on-base percentage that should rank him among the game's leaders in runs scored, not to mention they diminish the risk of slumps or a mediocre full-season batting average. In a season when so many shortstops have disappointed, it's two veterans -- Furcal and Derek Jeter -- who have stepped up not only as surprises, but clear top-10 fantasy options for the long haul.

Raul Ibanez, New York Yankees: Yankee Stadium certainly seems to agree with him. He's a .297/.373/.635 hitter with seven home runs in 22 career games there, but don't dismiss those as ballpark-induced; those seven homers averaged 411 feet in distance. Yes, Ibanez will inevitably benefit from the venue's favorable confines, but all that does is support his candidacy as -- at the bare minimum -- a "streaks" pickup even in shallow mixed formats. He's a must-play in weeks loaded with either home games (he's a .294/.357/.627 hitter this year at home) or games against right-handed starters (.268/.330/.585 against them).

Three down

Dustin Ackley, Seattle Mariners: It's not often that a player riding a 11-game hitting streak lands in "Three down," but even during that streak, Ackley is a .293 hitter with exactly one home run and one RBI. He'll probably enjoy a lengthy, productive career, and in a keeper league he's well worth having around. In shallow mixed redraft leagues, however, his potential in the counting numbers (homers, runs, RBIs) leaves much to be desired. Ackley is on pace for 9 homers, 43 RBIs, 9 stolen bases and 77 runs scored, and even before the season few -- myself included -- believed he'd be much more than a 15/15 player.

Brett Gardner, New York Yankees: A setback with the strained arm muscle -- he also landed on the disabled list due to a bruised right elbow -- has effectively restarted Gardner's DL clock, as ESPNNewYork.com reported on May 11. "It's the muscle that he strained, that healed, that he's re-strained basically," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He will not pick up a bat for 10 days, and then we'll go from there." That puts Gardner's return somewhere in the range of June 1, if not later, and it means that, like Ellsbury, he's probably only going to provide you with approximately 80 percent of the Yankees' remaining schedule.

Dee Gordon, Los Angeles Dodgers: I am nothing if not consistent with Gordon. He's a .212 hitter with a .248 on-base percentage and he has two stolen bases in his past 16 games, yet manager Don Mattingly inexplicably continues to slot him in the leadoff spot night after night. Granted, that's better for Gordon's fantasy prospects; as a No. 8 hitter he might get the green light to steal less often with the pitcher due up next. But at his current pace, Gordon's role needs come into question in the near future. He's no longer drawing walks at the surprising pace that he did during spring training and in the early regular-season weeks, and he has the majors' worst well-hit average (.074) among qualifiers. Gordon is a one-category fantasy player, and one with a monstrous downside that includes a possible demotion to the minors. You know, exactly what I explained he was during the preseason.

New position eligibility

The following players have become eligible at new positions -- it's 10 games to qualify at a new spot -- in ESPN standard leagues during the past week: Josh Donaldson (3B), Jonathan Herrera (3B).

Nearing new position eligibility

The following notable fantasy players are on track to earn new eligibility in the coming weeks: Joaquin Arias (8 games played at 3B), Allen Craig (9 games played at 1B), Elliot Johnson (9 games played at 2B), John Mayberry Jr. (8 games played at 1B), Andy Parrino (9 games played at 2B), Nick Punto (9 games played at 3B), Mark Trumbo (8 games played at 3B).