Fantasy Baseball Breakouts: 5 Batters Whose Starts Mean Something

Posted on April 17, 2011

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Fantasy baseball players, please do not pay for Willie Bloomquist. If he’s out there on your waiver wire, fine: The Arizona Diamondbacks seem to have settled on him for now as their leadoff hitter and he has enough speed, so he’s worth a flier in deep leagues. In general, though, Willie Bloomquist is the same guy he has always been: He just happens to be hitting .340 with seven stolen bases.

But not everyone is Willie Bloomquist. Sometimes, when a player gets off to a hot start, we actually can glean something from their numbers. These occasions are rare: Most important offensive stats do not smooth out (i.e., become tolerably predictable) until a player accumulates about 200-plus plate appearances in a given year, so the numbers are not always informative. Still, when those opportunities are there, they must be seized. Here are 10 guys you should feel comfortable pursuing in trades or on your waiver wire.

1. Jonny Gomes

For years, the story has been the same for Gomes. He has real and meaningful power, but expands the zone too much, strikes out a lot and walks hardly at all. In 2011, though, he has begun to turn things around. In an admittedly small sample of 52 plate appearances, he has swung at just over 15 percent of pitches outside the zone, and fewer than 30 percent of all pitches seen.

It may sound crazy, since Gomez usually swings at roughly 50 percent of the pitches he sees, but I think that trend is real. According to this article, 50 plate appearances is actually enough to begin (emphasis on begin) to trust swing percentages as a stat. In Gomes’ case, that extra dose of patience could be the difference between hitting .240 with 15 homers and hitting .260 with 25 or more.

2. Jose Tabata

Tabata is another plate discipline stud in the early going, swinging at roughly one out of every nine pitches outside the zone. Maybe a better reason to trust him, though, is that Tabata spent years as an elite prospect, and seems to be tapping into a trove of talent that he had held in reserve for a while. If I had Alex Rios on my roster, I might try to wring Tabata and something else out of another owner for him. I think the two players could finish with surprisingly similar overall values.

3. Michael Brantley

He’s Tabata with less power. Brantley has been a prospect for a few years but finally looks ready to tap his potential. His .333 average is a little lucky, as he has a .372 batting average on balls in play, but the speed and the contact skills are there, and because Brantley, too, has stepped up in terms of taking bad pitches and drawing walks, he should finally get on base enough to steal some bases. Coco Crisp? Juan Pierre? Go for Brantley instead.

4. Billy Butler

I love Billy Butler. He’s only 25 years old, and he just turned 25 today. He has the better part of three big-league seasons under his belt and a career average of .301, and folks, power is coming. His mastery of the strike zone (nine walks against three strikeouts in the early going, with a shift toward swinging at fewer balls and making more contact) will only accelerate that development. His slugging average in April 2009 was .431. In 2010, it climbed to .457. In 2011, it is .583.

5. Lance Berkman

I don’t think he’s going to go on tears where he hits four homers in three games many more times, but Berkman has done something he has been needing to do for three or four years now: He has stopped out-guessing himself. Berkman got so cerebral at the plate last year that he took more than one called third strike on eminently hittable balls. This year, he has cranked up his swing rate to over 50 percent from 41-plus percent each of the past two years. That has infused his offensive game with much-needed aggression, and the results so far are singularly encouraging.

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