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Behind the Numbers: Second-Half Sleepers

David Regan

David Regan

David Regan is a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, and was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.

I hope everyone enjoyed the All-Star game, but really, why call the games prior to the All-Star break the "first half"? The Red Sox have played a league-high 97 games, a number that represents 59.9 percent of their 162-game schedule. Not exactly "half." Anyway, it should be an exciting second half, with a few storylines that I'll be watching:

Can the Pirates avoid another fade?

Will the Dodgers' momentum continue?

Will Arod actually contribute anything to the Yankees this year?

A Cleveland-Pittsburgh World Series would be fun for this fan, but a nightmare for TV ratings. Can this really happen?

Will the A's ever be more than a team that plays well for five months but doesn't do much of anything in September/October?

I could go on and on, but the focus of this article will be on a handful of players I really like the rest of the way for various reasons and in various league formats.

Catcher - Hank Conger, LAA

Conger, of course, sits behind Chris Iannetta on the Angels depth chart, but with Iannetta batting .211 and (according to advanced defensive metrics) playing relatively poor defense, the opportunity could be there for Conger to steal more playing time over the second half. He's batting .256/.308/.455 with six homers in just 130 at-bats. A subpar 5.4-percent walk rate is holding down the AVG/OBP, but Conger has showed the ability to post in the 10-plus-percent range in his minor league years. Given regular at-bats, it's probable we could see increase production in that metric. Conger has the ability to bat in the .280 range with double-digit homers given adequate playing time. He's yet to show much of an ability to hit left-handed pitching, but then again, he's had very little chance to do so.

First Base - Eric Hosmer, KC

Hey look, a young Royals hitter who has failed (so far) to live up to expectations! Hosmer failed to build on a promising rookie campaign last year, following his 2011 season by posting a .663 OPS in his sophomore season. He's been better this year, however, batting .285/.332/.427 with nine home runs. Hosmer also has seven steals, so a third straight season of double-digit swipes appears to be in order, and that certainly has value. With his swing, I don't see it ever being a problem for Hosmer to hit in the .290 range, but what about the power? Well, posting a 56.4 GB% sure isn't helping there, and that has increased from 49.7 percent since his rookie season. It's rather simple - too many ground balls equals too few home runs. As a point of comparison, only 32.5 percent of Chris Davis' batted balls are ground balls, and while Hosmer isn't ever going to have that sort of power, pushing his GB% down to something in the area of 45 percent would likely result in the 20-25 homer range, and that's something we can live with. How he manages to close that gap is something for hitting coach George Brett to figure out. Perhaps an argument can be made that Hosmer doesn't belong on this list due to his recent exploits, but if you just look at the overall numbers, we were hoping for a bit more in year three. That said, perhaps Hosmer and Brett have already figured things out, as since entering June batting .269 with one home run, Hosmer is batting .311 with eight home runs. Whether that is a direct correlation to Brett's May 30 hiring is debatable, but that sort of power surge could have Hosmer in line to be a top-10 first baseman the rest of the way. Perhaps some folks in your league haven't figure that out just yet.

Second Base - Jose Altuve, HOU

Because he's already swiped 21 bases, Altuve won't be too underrated in many leagues, but he could be primed for a big second half. Altuve has taken a slight step back in his second full season. He's lost 10 points of average, 25 of OBP and 48 in his slugging percentage. Altuve is chasing bad pitches at a higher rate this year and missing more when he swings at both strikes and balls. The net result isn't an awful offensive second baseman by any means, but at 23, and with his contact ability and speed, Altuve should be hitting .300-plus every year. After all, he batted .404 in High-A and .361 in Double-A as a 21 year-old. If he can improve his 4.9-percent walk rate and push it closer to or above last year's 6.3 percent, .300 should be easily attainable.

Shortstop - Jed Lowrie, OAK

A healthy Lowrie is usually been a productive Lowrie, and so far this year, that has more than held true. Batting .295/.364/.424, Lowrie has been a borderline top-five shortstop despite just stealing one base. At age 29, Lowrie has never played in more than last year's 97 games in a season, so with 89 so far in 2013, he appears poised to blow through that career high before August hits. On the down side, Lowrie has nine fewer home runs in just four fewer at-bats compared to last year, and some of his BA increase could be attributable to a .330 BABIP. Lowrie is hitting more line drives this year, so that partially explains the BABIP increase, but it's also resulted in a fly-ball rate that has dropped from last year's 51.3 percent to 40.3 percent in 2013. On the other hand, perhaps Lowrie is now making more of an effort to get the ball in the air, as his fly-ball rate so far in July (yes, it's early) has spiked to 60.6 percent, resulting in Lowrie matching his combined May-June home run total of two in just 12 July games. If he can keep it up and hit perhaps 10 home runs the rest of the way, Lowrie will provide plenty of value for what is likely minimal cost.

Third Base - Kyle Seager, SEA

Maybe I'm the only non-Mariners fan who hasn't picked up on the year Seager is having, but he's had a good one, batting a solid .293/.359/.488 with 15 home runs in 93 games. Seager is drawing more walks and striking out less than last year and has simply been one of those quiet guys who is likely on a lot of fantasy teams at the top of the standings. Anytime you can get a player who could approach .290-25-80 on the cheap, you're looking good. Seager just seems to be seeing the ball better this year, swinging at just 25.2 percent of pitches outside the zone (30.3 percent last year) and when he does swing, he's making better contact as evidenced by a swinging-strike rate that has dropped from 8.3 to 6.7 percent year over year. I'm not sure if the Seager owner in your league would be willing to deal him, but given the improvement in his contact rate, this isn't a fluke.

Outfield - Colby Rasmus, TOR

Trading Rasmus helped net the Cardinals a World Series win, but the Jays still have to like what he's quietly done for them so far this year. Rasmus is batting .263/.332/.484 with 16 homers in a bit of a bounce-back year after he hit .223 and .225 the prior two years. What do we make of a .344 BABIP? It does look a bit flukish given that he's hitting fewer ground balls this year, so expecting much more than a .250 average the rest of the way might be foolish. That said, he is showing more power with a 44-point increase in his ISO, and he's walking more while striking out more at the same time. Rasmus may never reach the expectations that make him one of baseball's top prospects a few years ago, but there's still value to be had here.

Outfield - Justin Upton, ATL

Justin Upton a sleeper? Rationale: he was an MVP candidate two years ago, a former No. 1 overall pick and is still just 25 years old. Upton has suddenly turned terrible after a great April, now sitting with a .255/.353/.462 slash line after batting .211 in May and .226 in June with a combined three home runs for the month. Upton, though, is batting .319 in July, though he has missed time to a calf injury and has just one home run in 47 July at-bats. I'm not sure how low you can buy his second half, but I'll certainly be trying in the few leagues in which I don't own him.

Outfield - Adam Eaton, ARI

In Eaton's first game back from elbow issues, he went 0-for-4 while dropping a fly ball on the warning track, but the Dbacks appear committed to playing him just about every day the rest of the way. Eaton is 3-for-12 with a triple since his first game back and he started three of Arizona's four games prior to the All-Star break, a ratio that could hold true the rest of the way. I saw Eaton play quite a bit last year for Triple-A Reno, a year in which he batted a robust .381/.456/.536 in 119 games before joining Arizona where he hit .259/.382/.412. On the surface, Eaton does not appear to have a lot of power, and given he stands just 5-foot-8, there isn't 30-homer power here, but he has a nice compact swing, and while in Reno that year, he hit a whopping 46 doubles. Given maturity, we have to think some of those turn into home runs, so we could be looking at a guy with .300-15-60 potential, and depending on where he hits in the lineup, Eaton has the speed to steal 25-30 bases annually. With Gerardo Parra in a 1-for-21 skid, it seems Eaton will get a shot to play most every day. He'll have to hit (and quickly) of course to maintain that spot, but Eaton doesn't strike out a lot, and that should serve him well in his quest for regular playing time.

Starting Pitcher - Derek Holland, TEX

I would still like to see a bit more consistency from Holland from start to start, but he's still managed to pitch well enough to be worthy of starting the second game in a playoff series. Holland allowed four runs five times in a recent eight-start stretch, but in his last four starts, he's also tossed a two-hit shutout in Yankee Stadium and last time out, Holland held the Tigers to just one run in seven innings on the road. Holland has improved his K/9 rate from 7.5 to 8.7 compared to 2012 while holding his walk rate steady at a reasonable 2.7 per nine. The big key for Holland so far in 2013 is that in addition to being healthy and regaining a half mph on his fastball, Holland is keeping the ball in the ballpark. After surrendering 32 home runs a year ago, Holland has given up just eight this year as a result of cutting down on his fly ball rate - 34.5 versus 40.1 percent. In addition, while it's difficult to pinpoint the reason behind this (luck, "bearing down," etc.), but after allowing batters to hit .317 against him with runners in scoring position a year ago, that mark is just .217 this year. I like him quite a bit, perhaps enough to consider him a top-20 starter.

Starting Pitcher - Mike Minor, ATL

I have to admit that Minor snuck up on me a bit this year. In looking over some numbers in preparation for this article, I knew that he was having a solid season, but I did not expect to see him with an 8.5 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9. Those numbers last year were 7.3 and 2.8, respectively, so this has been a nice step forward for Minor, and his ERA has also not surprisingly declined - from 4.12 to 3.02. How's he doing it, and is this a mirage? While a 3.59 xFIP may indicate some forthcoming regression, Minor appears to be locating the ball better than ever this year with his low-90s fastball. His swinging-strike rate is way up, from 7.8 to 10.4 percent, and he's generating more swings (and misses) on pitches outside the strike zone. Minor's fantasy owners have to be pleased with the nine wins, and with that bullpen and a good offense, Minor should at least get to the 15-win plateau this year. I don't own Minor in any of my leagues, and I regret it.

Relief Pitcher - Blake Parker, CHC

With the Cubs firmly in rebuild mode, they seem certain to part ways with closer Kevin Gregg at the deadline, thus opening the job for the likes of James Russell or Parker. Russell is a solid left-handed reliever, but Parker throws a little harder and is carrying a solid 8.8 K/9 in 18.1 innings with the Cubs after posting a 13.6 mark in Triple-A. Parker is 28, and having just made his big league debut in 2012, he's a bit old for a prospect, but at this point he looks like the most obvious in-house solution should the Cubs have an opening. His 49-percent fly-ball rate is a bit high, and with a 90-93 mph fastball, Parker does not have the skillset of an elite closer, but again, stacked up against the internal competition, his numbers look pretty good. I'd look at him in all but the shallowest of leagues.