Premium Lineup Spots Yield Hidden Gems

The most important components of a player’s fantasy value are talent, and opportunity. Opportunity can come in many forms. The first that comes to mind is the opportunity to play. Another opportunity, that sometimes gets lost on gamers, is that of hitting in premium lineup slots. The premium lineup slots, as I’ll define them, are any of the first four spots in the order. Players that are penciled into any of these spots in the lineup card immediately benefit from additional plate appearances that they wouldn’t receive hitting lower in the order. As you’d guess, the best hitters tend to fill these spots in the order. Baseball Reference does an outstanding job of breaking down splits by league and lineup slot, and you can see how batters fare by position in the order in the American League, and the National League. When looking for hidden treasures, namely on bad offensive clubs, a little digging can go a long way. There are 26 players available in more than half of Yahoo! leagues that have accrued the majority of at-bats in one of the top four spots in their team’s order. Many of these players are waiver fodder, but a handful are in prime position to provide sneaky value to savvy owners.

Hitting in the leadoff spot was a good way to get a leg up on the competition in stolen bases in 2011. The leadoff spot in each league had the highest number of stolen base attempts and successful stolen bases. The second most stolen base attempts and successful stolen bases came from the second spot in the order. Also, unsurprisingly, hitting in each of the top two spots in the order was a good way to score runs. Batters slotted second in American League lineups scored the most runs collectively, with leadoff hitters scoring the second most runs collectively. In the National League, leadoff hitters came around to score the most often as a group, while number two hitters scored the third most runs as a group.

The third and fourth spots in the lineup are home to most team’s top power hitters. Those two slots accumulated the most home runs as a group, and most RBIs as well in both the American League, and National League. As you’d expect, the cream of the crop of third and fourth hitters are amongst the fantasy games elite. In fact, the vast majority of number three and four hitters around the majors are owned in at least half of Yahoo! leagues. Just three players that have taken the majority of their team’s at-bats hitting third or fourth are available in more than half of Yahoo! leagues, and only two are of any fantasy interest.

Angel Pagan, OF, San Francisco Giants, 27 percent Yahoo! ownership, 50-of-55 at-bats 1st in the order

Pagan has been the primary leadoff hitter for the Giants. He is off to a slow start hitting .218/.271/.418 going into Sunday. Pop-outs have hurt his line in the early going, but he’s still making lots of contact, and brighter days should lie ahead. He’s coming off of consecutive season’s of more than 30 stolen bases. He has done so efficiently, and while Bochy isn’t amongst the top skippers for sending base runners, Pagan should approach 30 stolen bases yet again this season. He’s not a fantasy star, but if speed is what you need, Pagan is an affordable option.

Jordan Schafer, OF, Houston Astros, 48 percent Yahoo! ownership, 48-of-50 at-bats 1st in the order

Schafer barely qualifies for inclusion, but he does, and here he is. He has wreaked havoc on the bases swiping six in eight chances. He’s hitting .280 on the season, but expect that to drop substantially. He is striking out too often, 26.2 percent, and is bound to suffer some regression in his sky high .394 BABIP. Working in Schafer’s favor for continued stolen base chances is his increased patience at the plate. While I expect his walk rate to go down from the 14.8 percent mark he’s sporting at the moment, he has walked at a slightly above league average rate in his brief major league time, and should continue to do so. He’ll be a bit of a one trick pony, but sometimes that’s all a team needs.

Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston Astros, 28 percent Yahoo! ownership, 27-of-49 at-bats 2nd in the order

Altuve has the lowest percentage of at-bats in a premium slot in his team’s order of any of the players featured. When he hasn’t hit second in the Astros order, he has found himself hitting near the bottom of the order. There is some risk here, as Jed Lowrie will provide competition for the second spot, but Altuve has an intriguing enough skill set that he is worth gambling on. He offers a bit of pop, a bit of speed (which, as I mentioned above, should play up hitting in one of the top two spots in the order), and a lot of batting average. In over 1,600 minor league plate appearances spread out across five seasons Altuve hit .327. In 288 plate appearances as a member of the Astros, he is hitting .289. He’s not hitting line drives as frequently as he did last year, but given his track record of spraying liners all over the diamond throughout his minor league career, and his 20.4 percent line drive rate in 2011, I’d guess it’s just a matter of time before that rate goes up. He doesn’t offer as much stolen base upside as either Pagan or Schafer, but he should have the better all-around stat line, and has the added benefit of playing a scarce position.

Danny Espinosa, 2B, Washington Nationals, 47 percent Yahoo! ownership, 50-of-51 at-bats 2nd in the order

Espinosa is flirting with the Mendoza Line hitting .216, but average isn’t his strong suit. Owners that drafted Espinosa were drafting him after a year in which he hit .236, but provided value with his pop and speed. He hit 21 home runs, and stole 17 bases in 2011. He also helped offset his low average with an above average walk rate, which helped him sneak above the league average on-base percentage (OBP) of .321 with a .323 OBP. He’s walking more often in 2012, and if he’s able to increase his batting average to last season’s mark, could reap the rewards in the stolen base category. He has just one home run so far, but that can probably be blamed on an uptick in ground balls. As he lofts more baseballs, the power will come. Espinosa’s not a perfect fit for every roster, but owners that are able to take on his poor batting average would be wise to kick the tires on his availability in the 53 percent of Yahoo! leagues in which he is owned.

Denard Span, OF, Minnesota Twins, 17 percent Yahoo! ownership, 57-of-57 at-bats 1st in the order

I covered Span in depth in Friday’s AL Waiver Wire: Week 2 article at The Hardball Times. Give that a read, and you’ll have a better idea of why Span should be owned in more leagues.

Juan Pierre, OF, Philadelphia Phillies, 8 percent Yahoo! ownership, 33-of-38 at-bats 1st in the order

John Mayberry Jr has struggled, and Pierre looks to be the main beneficiary. The Phillies lineup isn’t the juggernaut of season’s past, in fact, it is pretty putrid with key injuries to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. That said, Pierre could be asked to create more runs with his legs because of the teams offensive shortcomings. Pierre has been held in much higher regard in fantasy baseball than reality throughout his career because of his ability to steal bases in bunches and hit for a hollow average, but do little else. His slap singles approach has fit his skill set well, and resulted in a .296 average for his career. He isn’t the most efficient base stealer, but that hasn’t prevented him from trying. Last year he stole 27 bases while getting caught 17 times. The 27 stolen bases were a single season low excluding his 219 plate appearance rookie season. He’s as safe a bet as any to steal more than 30 bases with a full season of at-bats, and one year removed from stealing 68 in 2010, there is upside for significantly more. As long as he’s logging everyday at-bats, he should be rostered by speed hungry owners.

Justin Smoak, 1B, Seattle Mariners, 16 percent Yahoo! ownership, 56-of-56 at-bats 4th in the order

There is little in the way of a statistical argument that can be made for rostering Smoak. He has yet to have much major league success, and 2012 has been no different in that regard. He plays in a pitcher friendly ballpark, and is part of a bad offense that failed to reach base against Philip Humber on Sunday. Humber narrative aside, the offense is awful.

In spite of all the glaring negatives, Smoak should be extended a bit more leash by his owners in large mixed leagues starting a corner infielder, and AL-only formats. Smoak is a former top prospect, and was the main piece sent to the Mariners in return for Cliff Lee. He has also yet to reach 1,000 plate appearances in the show, and has some young talent in the lineup around him that could improve as they make adjustments throughout the year. He has hit two home runs this season, and is hitting line drives at the highest rate of his career. Owners with some bench flexibility should give Smoak another two weeks or so to make adjustments. If he’s still floundering at that point, it’s safe to cut bait and watch his development, or lack thereof, from afar.

Josh Reddick, OF, Oakland A’s, 5 percent Yahoo! ownership, 45-of-56 at-bats 3rd in the order

Like Span, Reddick was highlighted in Friday’s AL Waiver Wire: Week 2, and you can read more about why he’s a solid fantasy option there.