The critical time of season is here, both on the diamond and in fantasy; in the on-field game, the pennant chases are heating up, and in fantasy, many leagues -- especially head-to-head -- are entering their playoffs or stretch runs. A key date in the season arrives Wednesday: Sept. 1.
That date, naturally, has significance in baseball because it's the day rosters expand to 40 players, not to mention the day after postseason rosters officially lock, meaning no more trades/waiver moves for players who will be playoff-eligible. It's a good thing Manny Ramirez changed teams when he did; 48 hours later and he'd be sitting on the Chicago White Sox bench in October if his team reaches the playoffs!
Sept. 1 is important for another reason: It marks the beginning of the final month of the season, one in which historically we've seen some crazy statistical happenings through the years. I'll throw you two such examples, just so you realize how critical it is to maintain a high level of attention, even in these crossover fantasy football weeks: Last season, Jose Bautista -- yes, that Jose Bautista -- tied for the major league lead in home runs from Sept. 1 on with 10, while Chris Young of the Arizona Diamondbacks batted .278 with eight homers (fifth-most).
Now, that's not to say that every September statistic is relevant to predicting the future; Randy Ruiz batted .339 and clubbed six home runs last September and he hasn't done anything this year. As in any other stage of the season, you have to consider the context with which the numbers were accrued, as, after all, one month out of six still represents a somewhat small sample size.
But scattered between the fluky outputs are the consistent track records of September, often the guys who routinely pick up their level of play for a pennant chase, others who simply need 20 weeks of "practice" before they finally seem to get it, and others still who seem to tire out from the long, grinding, 162-game schedule. The way I see it, there are three specific groups of time period-related split statistics of relevance to fantasy owners: April, because some players need those early weeks to get their timing down; first- and second-half splits, because some players have natural tendencies to perform better before or after the All-Star break; and September (plus regular-season October games, when applicable), for the reasons detailed above.
That's where today's column comes in. We'll examine the September standouts and stiffs of the past five seasons (2005-09), hoping to unearth a hidden nugget as you enter your league's stretch run (rotisserie) or playoffs (head-to-head). Obviously, we're past most leagues' trade deadlines at this point, so use this data more to make tough lineup decisions, or to determine your team's need for matching up players more often in the season's final weeks. For instance, if you have a team stacked with historic September stiffs, you should probably be quicker to the waiver wire to exploit matchups on a day-to-day basis.
Besides, even five years' worth of historical data is still not an ironclad guarantee that the player will perform exactly as he has in September the past five seasons; it's merely something to consider when analyzing his final-weeks prospects. No rash decisions, folks. Just read, digest, react where applicable.
Daric Barton, 1B, Oakland Athletics: Might it surprise you to learn that he's the American League's leader in walks (86) and the No. 9 qualified hitter in the majors in terms of on-base percentage (.395)? What about the fact that of the five months during his three-plus big league seasons in which he had at least an .800 OPS with 75-plus plate appearances, three came in September (1.067 in 2007, .919 in 2008, .871 in 2009)? Barton often seems to show signs of life once September arrives, perhaps because it's usually a low-pressure time for his team. Between his history and his .395/.534/.628 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates in his past 13 games of this year, he might be an attractive sleeper for the stretch run.
J.D. Drew, OF, Boston Red Sox: Injuries have cost him a couple Septembers -- all of 2005 and all but two games of 2008 -- but take those out and Drew has had an OPS of 1.000 or greater after Sept. 1 in every other season since 2003 (1.018 in 2003, 1.021 in 2004, 1.145 in 2006, 1.072 in 2007 and 1.136 in 2009). Now, be aware that in four of those years, Drew's team made the playoffs, and the one that didn't, the 2003 St. Louis Cardinals, missed by three games. This season, his Red Sox might not get within five, and who knows, maybe that'll have an adverse impact. But even if Drew can rebound to, say, a .900-OPS September, won't that help?
Ryan Howard, 1B, Philadelphia Phillies: He has not only the most home runs (50) from Sept. 1 forward the past five seasons, he holds that distinction by a substantial margin, by 11 over David Ortiz. Howard also has a pretty stout postseason track record, with .271/.379/.542 rates in 32 games, numbers that look better if you consider the elite level of competition he was facing in October. To say he finishes stronger than he starts is an understatement, and it sure helps ease any worries about his recent funk fresh off his ankle injury.
Jorge Posada, C, New York Yankees: Considering he's 39 years old, it's bizarre to think of Posada, a catcher with more than 10,000 innings on his knees, as a historically strong finisher. But with the exception of his 2008, which was cut short in July by shoulder surgery, Posada has managed at least a .300 batting average and .500 slugging percentage after Sept. 1 in each year since 2005, as well as in 2003. He also drove in 20 or more runs after that date in 2003, 2004 and 2006. Considering the Yankees play 16 of their final 31 games at Yankee Stadium, as well as three more apiece at Texas' Rangers Ballpark and Baltimore's Camden Yards, there's reason to believe he might do it again.
Jimmy Rollins, SS, Philadelphia Phillies: No matter how injury-prone he has become, there is no denying he craves a pennant chase, at least judging by his late-season statistics. Rollins has an .838 lifetime OPS in the regular season after Sept. 1, 61 points higher than in any other month, and he has been a standout in some regard in every September since 2004: In 2004, he batted .325 with six homers and six steals. In 2005, he batted .400 with 12 steals and 32 runs. In 2006, he had six homers, five steals and 20 runs. In 2007, he hit six homers and swiped 14 bases with a .298 batting average. In 2008, he batted .313 with nine steals. And in 2009, he managed four homers, six steals and 20 runs. In every one of those six seasons, his Phillies were contenders, and lo and behold, they're in the race again this year!
Adam Dunn, 1B/OF, Washington Nationals: It's not so much that he has been a useless player historically after Sept. 1, it's that he hasn't been close to the superstar he historically has been before that date. Dunn has a .772 OPS and only 33 home runs after Sept. 1 in his 10-year big league career, the OPS 93 points worse than in any other month and the homers 24 fewer than in any other month (and his 57 in April, incidentally, came in one fewer game played). Last season, his first with the Nationals, Dunn had .212/.322/.333 September rates. This year, he's a .187/.303/.373 hitter in his past 22 games. It's understandable if that concerns you.
Nick Markakis, OF, Baltimore Orioles: There's a popular belief in fantasy that Markakis is a classic second-half hitter, and therefore if September is technically in the "second half," he's obviously saving his best stats for the final month. Not so. His lifetime .750 OPS after Sept. 1 is his worst of any month, with his 2007 the only one of his four big-league seasons in which he had stellar fantasy numbers in September (.325 AVG, 7 HRs, 23 RBIs). Markakis has regressed as a hitter these past two years, is only a .243/.303/.355 hitter in 42 games since the All-Star break and is easily one of the most overrated players in fantasy.
Justin Morneau, 1B, Minnesota Twins: Even if he can return from his concussion this season, his fantasy owners shouldn't expect much from him. After all, Morneau had sub-.700 OPS after Sept. 1 in 2007 and 2008, and a .357 OPS in 11 games after that date last season before having to be shut down with a stress fracture in his back. He has previously dealt with concussions in his career, so setbacks are understandable, and even if he can make it back, the Twins will be far more concerned about getting him up to full speed for the playoffs than getting him everyday at-bats to contribute during the remaining regular season.
Brandon Phillips, 2B, Cincinnati Reds: His inclusion on this side of the list is an ominous sign for his team, which actually shapes up as a strong contender for the NL Central crown. Phillips is a .238/.293/.364 lifetime hitter after Sept. 1, the caveat being that he batted .304 in 31 games after that date last season. Of course, that came with just two homers and 15 runs scored, so even when Phillips has been good down the stretch in past years, he hasn't been that good in fantasy. He also has a .757 OPS since the All-Star break, noticeably beneath his .820 first-half OPS, so perhaps his late-season swoon has begun already?
Mark Reynolds, 3B/1B, Arizona Diamondbacks: Maybe all those long swings and misses tire him down after five months. OK, I'm being facetious, but Reynolds' numbers after Sept. 1 the past two seasons have been miserable: .228/.326/.354 with a 41.8 percent strikeout rate in 2008, and .179/.270/.340 with a 43.4 percent K rate in 2009. If the strikeout rate doesn't trouble you, incidentally, remember that his career number is 38.4, so he's even more whiff-prone later in the year than sooner. Even with the two-homer game on Monday, Reynolds is hitting .207/324/.471 in August, so don't expect any miracle bounce-backs.
You can also see full charts of September studs and duds at column's end.
TOP 100 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics already accrued.
Jay Bruce, OF, Cincinnati Reds: It's about time he started hitting, isn't it? A .253/.320/.405 (AVG/OBP/SLG) hitter through his first 111 games of 2010, numbers that looked suspiciously like his .240/.309/.460 rates in his first two big-league campaigns combined, Bruce has managed .403/.479/.839 rates, eight home runs and 17 RBIs in his past 19 games. That included a three-homer performance versus the Chicago Cubs this past Friday, all three bombs coming off left-handed pitchers. In fact, six of his past eight homers have been hit off southpaws, a substantial improvement for a young slugger who had .198/.285/.312 rates and only five homers in 237 at-bats against lefties combined in 2008-09. Bruce has also walked 10 times (or in 13.7 percent of his plate appearances) and struck out only 14 times (or in 22.6 percent of his at-bats) during his 18-game hot streak, which hints at improving plate discipline. Might this be more than a simple hot streak, and rather his developing into an elite slugger?
Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Detroit Tigers: What else can be said about his phenomenal season? How about this: He's on pace for .342-41-133 numbers, including 117 runs scored, all four of those statistics representing personal bests. If he finishes right on pace, it'd be only the 22nd time in baseball history any player had at least those numbers in each of those four categories -- Babe Ruth (7), Lou Gehrig (4) and Jimmie Foxx (3) accounting for 14 of the previous 21 instances -- only the second such season since 1950 (Todd Helton, 2000) and it'd have come in a season where the major league ERA is 4.12, lowest since 1992. But historical accomplishments aren't what Cabrera's owners care about; they care most about the fact that he's still tearing the cover off the ball, even with his team losers of 28 of 45 games since the All-Star break. He's a .370 hitter (20-for-54) with seven home runs, 13 RBIs and 17 runs in his past 15 contests.
Stephen Drew, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks: Brother J.D. is the historic September sensation, but Stephen's September history is strong, too, with .289/.344/.484 career rates after Sept. 1, albeit primarily fueled by a monster .337/.387/.653 September in 2008. Perhaps he's just a late-season performer -- maybe the Diamondbacks' annual non-contender status helps ease the pressure -- but this year, it seems a mere shift into the leadoff spot spawned his hot streak. Drew is a .389/.411/.759 hitter in 12 games since his permanent shift there on Aug. 18, and a .314/.363/.546 hitter in 141 games in the leadoff spot since 2008. I've said in this space before that I think Drew ranks among the game's most overrated fantasy players, but if there's any time to trust him, it's late in the year.
Pablo Sandoval, 1B/3B, San Francisco Giants: It's about time he started hitting, too, as through his first 108 games of 2010, he was a mere .264/.322/.379 hitter, his .701 OPS (in addition to the batting average) at the time representing a lower number than he has had in any full professional season since 2006, when he was in Class A ball. Sandoval has roared back since, however, with .342/.375/.671 rates, six home runs and 14 RBIs in his past 19 games, eight of those multi-hit efforts. A 20.0 home run/fly ball percentage is partly responsible, but Sandoval is also elevating the ball a lot more during his hot streak: On 45.5 percent of his batted balls, in fact. The Giants need their slugger back at this form to hang in the playoff race, and his owners certainly welcome the bounce-back numbers, too.
Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates: With 87 strikeouts in 231 at-bats in 65 games, Alvarez is shaping up as one of the most whiff-prone sluggers in the game. Project that to a 150-game season and he'd have 201 K's, not to mention that among players with 250-plus at-bats, Alvarez's 37.7 percent strikeout rate ranks second, behind only Mark Reynolds (41.5). It's for that reason his keeper-league owners need be patient with the young slugger, because batting average is going to be a problem for as long as he's so free-swinging. Case in point: He's a .128 hitter (5-for-39) with 18 whiffs in his past 11 games. In redraft leagues, however, Alvarez might be a bit of a liability down the stretch.
Ryan Howard, 1B, Philadelphia Phillies: You've now read above how strong Howard's September history is, but his performance since returning from his ankle injury understandably has people worried. He's 4-for-36 (.111 AVG) with zero extra-base hits and 16 strikeouts in nine games, walking but once. Howard's timing seems off, but missing 20 days shouldn't trouble his owners for the remainder of the year; consider the past week something akin to a minor league rehabilitation assignment. As mentioned above, his team has a phenomenal late-season history, and with time Howard's bat should heat up.
Jose Reyes, SS, New York Mets: He's expected to miss the Mets' entire four-game series against the Atlanta Braves, and since his injury is a strained right oblique, there's the worry that he might be a disabled list candidate, if not a player who misses a few days then returns without the freedom he previously had on the base paths. Reyes hasn't been quite the dominant speedster he was in the past anyway; he's on pace for only 36 stolen bases in 144 games, 20 fewer than he has had in any other season in which he appeared in 100-plus contests.
Mike Stanton, OF, Florida Marlins: I've cautioned you before and I'll continue to do so, because I do now believe that Stanton will make it as a bona fide star and that 2011 might very well be the time it happens, but if you think of him as anything other than a maddeningly streaky player, you're setting yourself up for frustration. A damning stat: He has two hits in his past 41 at-bats (.049 AVG), both of them singles, and 17 strikeouts during that span. Fantasy owners cannot count on a hitter in that significant a funk, not in these critical weeks, but Stanton's keeper value shouldn't be impacted at all. Remember, he was a .394 hitter (26-for-66) with seven homers compared to 16 K's in his previous 18 games.
Upgrade your roster
A healthy Helton can go a long way toward putting a fantasy team over the top, as for all his injuries, all his poor performance earlier this season, let's not forget that he has batted .320 or better in two of the past three years and .313 since his 30th birthday, amassing exactly 500 RBIs since that specific date in 2003.
Helton, as hinted above and detailed in the chart at column's end, has routinely thrived in September, whether his team has been a contender or not. With the exception of 2008, when he was hurt and limited to two games after Sept. 1, he has batted .313 or better after that date on the calendar in every season since 2001, and last season alone he had .323/.430/.427 September rates. He's also a .307/.398/.560 hitter in 22 games since returning from a back injury, and has started 14 of the Rockies' past 16 contests, demonstrating that, for the most part, the everyday first-base job is once again his.
Overbay, meanwhile, has been notoriously streaky this year, with two months of .280-plus batting averages and two sub-.250, not to mention one month (July) of an .896 OPS and one with .611 (April). That's not the kind of hitter fantasy owners enjoy counting on in the final weeks, especially not with him increasingly losing at-bats at first base to Adam Lind. Overbay has his place in fantasy, but it's more in AL-only or deep mixed leagues; Helton just has a higher ceiling the rest of the way.
Also consider adding
Logan Morrison, 1B/OF, Florida Marlins: While fellow teammate and all-or-nothing slugger Mike Stanton seems mired in a funk, Morrison appears to be "getting it" at this level, batting .313/.436/.448 in 25 games in August, buoyed by 20 walks in 117 plate appearances (17.1 percent).
Mike Morse, Washington Nationals: Josh Willingham's season-ending injury has paved the way for more at-bats for Morse, who has more pop than people give him credit. Morse has started 12 of the Nationals' past 14 games, and he has .349/.383/.651 numbers during that 14-game span.
Marcus Thames, OF, New York Yankees: Speaking of pop, Thames has grabbed hold of the designated hitter role in New York in Lance Berkman's absence, and now it's a question whether Berkman will get a chance to take it back. He shouldn't; Thames has six homers in his past six games.
New position qualifiers
25 best Sept./Oct. hitters from 2005-09, ranked by OPS differential between the final month and the first five months; only statistics from 2005-09 are used and retired players are excluded
25 worst Sept./Oct. hitters from 2005-09, ranked by OPS differential between the final month and the first five months; only statistics from 2005-09 are used and retired players are excluded
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.