- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
If asked to name the biggest story of the 2012 fantasy baseball season, most people would highlight the extraordinary performance of Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout. Not only has he locked up AL Rookie of the Year honors, but regardless of whether his team makes it to the postseason, I think he should be the AL MVP. For fantasy owners he enters the third weekend of August leading ESPN's Player Rater by a staggering margin, on pace for numbers rarely accomplished by anyone in the game's wondrous history, rookie or veteran.
Of course, that hardly means it's time to alter philosophy on all rookies just because one of them has proved to be about as special as they come.
The happy, optimistic baseball fan in me loves what Trout is doing and wishes I had him on more fantasy teams. As a relatively conservative fantasy player always trying to win now, I tend to let others overrate the rookies, and we should remember Trout played most of April in the minor leagues and turned 21 last week. His season performance was unexpected. But when I look around at some of the other highly touted first-year players, I'm reminded why it's best to carry a cautious attitude when analyzing expectations for these fellows either in drafts or trades.
Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, for example, has been unplayable for fantasy purposes since the All-Star break, batting .171 sans power and speed. Texas Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish, a dominant veteran of Japan baseball, is winning games and piling on the strikeouts, and doing so with an ugly 1.46 WHIP, negating his good stats for fantasy owners. Future Tim Lincecum clone (the good Lincecum prior to this season) Trevor Bauer made his long-awaited debut at 21, and after four starts and an ERA on the wrong side of 6, was sent back to Triple-A. We've discussed Kansas City Royals minor league slugger Wil Myers for four months and still he has yet to make his debut.
Despite Trout's evidence to the contrary, baseball is not an easy game to play. Both pitchers and hitters need to make many an adjustment over time, whether they've come from the minors or Asia. As I share my considerable thoughts on what was learned this 2012 baseball season -- and it's still got six weeks to go, so things could certainly change -- I'd say Trout's performance both teaches us that occasionally the unexplainable and unexpected happens. It's awesome to watch and analyze, but the historical narrative about rookies finding their way and needing time -- or sophomores, in the case of disappointing Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer -- exists as much as ever.
Here are other things learned and/or confirmed that have played a role for fantasy purposes this season.
• One more Trout thought: More than half of Trout owners in ESPN standard leagues are enjoying life in first or second place, and a third of them are winning their leagues. The same is not the case with Harper, who was viewed similarly, if not more favorably, by many in March. It makes perfect sense to use a late-round pick on a highly touted rookie (Harper was a 22nd rounder, Trout went undrafted), but this also reminds us that one dominant hitter, like Matt Kemp or Jacoby Ellsbury in 2011, can make a significant impact.
• Runs scored are down this season, but oddly enough, home runs are up. This trend can't be entirely blamed on Adam Dunn, either. I don't think this tells us much in preparing for 2013, though. Someone like Dunn, hitting all of .207, remains an acquired taste or just plain unownable for many. He and Josh Hamilton are on pace for 47 home runs, which would top anything that occurred in 2011, but falls in line with the past decade. A year ago on Aug. 17, 11 players had hit 27 or more home runs, led by Jose Bautista. Today 10 players have hit 27 or more long balls. Overall, entering Friday the home run per at-bat rate was 33.48, best since 2009. Last season it was 36.40 and in 2010 it was 35.85. It's premature to assume this continues in 2012 or beyond.
• Dunn is the only player in history to reach 40 home runs with a sub-.500 slugging percentage, achieving this odd feat in 2006. He's currently on pace for repeat performance, but he's not the only power hitter struggling to hit for average or providing little else in terms of fantasy production or extra base hits. Josh Willingham, Curtis Granderson, Bautista, Josh Reddick, Jay Bruce, Mark Teixeira, Adam LaRoche and others are on their way to 30 home runs, but hitting well below .270, a relatively expected benchmark for fantasy owners. With the league batting average in line with last year at .255 but a far cry from 2009, when it was .262, fantasy owners find it tough to avoid owning at least a few batting average problems, but that's OK since the overall bar has been lowered in fantasy leagues, too.
• Bautista has missed time with a wrist injury, and the absence of some of fantasy's top options has been a common though annoying theme. Of the top 10 players taken on average ESPN live drafts, half have spent time on the disabled list, including a pair of stints for Kemp. Troy Tulowitzki and his torn groin have missed more than half the season. Joey Votto's return keeps getting pushed back. Depth is important in fantasy, especially on offense, but it's not like Kemp and Votto have long histories of being brittle, either. Call it bad luck.
• I'd argue that little has changed in terms of securing top offensive talent on draft day and waiting on pitchers. Only Justin Verlander resides in the top 10 on the Rater among starting pitchers, and only 16 of the overall top 50 are starters. There have been myriad surprise performances -- and there always are -- from undrafted starters like R.A. Dickey, Ryan Vogelsong, Chris Capuano, A.J. Burnett, Wade Miley, Jason Vargas, and Kyle Lohse, not to mention Scott Diamond, James McDonald, Jake Westbrook, Paul Maholm and Ben Sheets. I'll continue to load up on offense, probably eight of my first 10 picks at least, and search for bargains late. If you fail to notch a decent team ERA and WHIP in fantasy, you're just looking in the wrong places, frankly. Help is readily available.
• As for those top hurlers, it's worth noting that a few of those sure-things have been anything but. Top starting pitcher Roy Halladay has missed time and boasts a 3.80 ERA. Cliff Lee has two wins, one more than infielder Chris Davis and five fewer than Cleveland Indians reliever Joe Smith. Lincecum has been a nightmare to own. CC Sabathia is on the DL for the second time and Dan Haren probably should join him. Grab an ace or two if you can, but don't be surprised when they don't perform like stars and you're lacking in offensive depth. I'm more likely to load up on Nos. 3 and 4 starters and win the hitting stats.
• With strikeout rates among relief pitchers going through the roof, one could argue non-save relief pitchers haven't been this valuable in generations. The top relief pitcher in fantasy has been Cincinnati Reds lefty Aroldis Chapman, with Fernando Rodney and Craig Kimbrel not far behind. What does this tell us? Well, Chapman's season has been incredible, but it's not going to lead me to draft a closer in the first 10 rounds next year. He's on pace for 146 strikeouts, more than many usable starting pitchers. His WHIP is 0.68. In fact, he might be a starter in 2013! Rodney's performance is even more stunning; his ERA was on the wrong side of 4 each of the past five seasons (4.42 cumulative) and he had more walks than strikeouts in 2011. Now his ERA is 0.81. If anything, we've learned that whatever Rays manager Joe Maddon does in his bullpen, buy into it. I'd also argue those in deep leagues that cannot find suitable starting pitching depth should look for strikeout middle relievers like Tim Collins, David Hernandez, Jason Grilli and Craig Stammen, among others. Saves aren't everything. Good innings and whiffs matter, too.
• As for closers themselves, those who follow my colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft and his excellent weekly Relief Efforts column know that more than half of the closer situations in baseball have changed hands since early April, providing a near-constant stream of saves on free-agent lists. This is critical information and proof that waiting on saves in drafts is the wise choice. Load up on what you feel are the "safest" closers all you want, but this season that might have been Mariano Rivera (second in live draft results), Brian Wilson (fourth), John Axford (fifth), Drew Storen (sixth) and Ryan Madson (seventh). Of the top seven closers on draft day, three haven't pitched, and only two are closing today. Then there's Heath Bell (12th), Andrew Bailey (14th), Jordan Walden (15th), Joakim Soria (18th) and Kyle Farnsworth (19th). Wait on your saves.
• Hey, Ryan Braun owners, are you happy with your first-round pick? He was my No. 1 pick, so I certainly am. Braun's interesting and controversial offseason resulted in him dropping in drafts, as some owners just refused to believe he could provide another MVP-caliber season. He has. Don't be so quick to judge proven players matching performance based on drug testing, because as much as ever there's too much we just don't know about causation and effect. I certainly won't expect mammoth production from current but not likely future San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera in 2013, but that hardly means he should go undrafted.
• Following up on a July blog entry about how scarce middle infield production was in the wake of terrific fantasy option Ian Desmond getting hurt, things remain gloomy. Of the top 50 on the Player Rater, four are middle-infield-eligible. This tells me Tulowitzki and Robinson Cano, notably, are first-round picks moving ahead, even if we cannot expect the same production provided by top first basemen or outfielders. I'm also more likely to rely on someone like Dustin Pedroia, coming off a disappointing season, than take three outfielders in the first five rounds. Five of the top six players this season play outfield, and then there's Miguel Cabrera. One could argue all six are first-round picks in 2013, but don't forget the middle infield. Load up on outfielders early and you get stuck with Darwin Barney starting. I'll try to make sure my starting middle infield is set by the sixth round.
• When it comes to stolen bases, as also noted recently, quite a few of the league leaders are simply sitting there on free agency, as it's been an odd season. Overall stolen bases are merely slightly down, but only Trout is on pace for 50 steals. The last time a National Leaguer failed to reach 50 steals was in 2002. I'd argue this category is like saves for 2013; sure, overdraft Michael Bourn all you want (he's like teammate Kimbrel), but you'll still need the occasional Tony Campana and Jarrod Dyson (like Dale Thayer and Greg Holland) to get you through the season. There are plenty of saves and steals out there, but the names change so much, you should concentrate on power and scarce positions.
• And finally, to end on an upbeat note, in 2012 we learned that Miguel Cabrera can stick at third base; Ryan Braun can rock again; Edwin Encarnacion can have a consistent, healthy season with different lineup protection; Alex Rios can play well when he wants to; Carlos Beltran can effectively replace Albert Pujols for the champs; Pujols is human; catchers like Buster Posey can return even stronger from a serious leg injury; Chase Headley can hit for power anywhere; Billy Butler can be the story of the All-Star week without doing much; players like Austin Jackson can sustain a high BABIP; and the vertically challenged like Jose Altuve don't need to be able to dunk to thrive. And that's just from top-50 hitters on the Rater. It's been an incredible season so far.
Enjoy the rest of your 2012 season, and I'll keep enjoying it with you with the Monday-through-Friday Box Score Bits and other blog entries. And have a great weekend!