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The Proof Is In The Peripherals: June 13-19

Folks, it's time for some naval-gazing.  I'm currently sitting 10th of 12 teams in my most cherished fantasy league, the one run in one form or another since 1999 with all of my old hometown buddies.  Since a poor finish here will doom me to months of taunting, it's high time to figure out what's going wrong.  Well, besides injuries, but 'complaining about injuries to your fantasy team' ranks somewhere between complaining about a bad beat in poker or whining about your great putt lipping out of the cup.

I've covered a few of my players in this space already, namely guys who are underachieving in one particular category (like Matt Holliday's lack of homers) or guys who essentially just had one bad month and one good month (like Homer Bailey or Jed Lowrie) but really, the root of the problem stems from a few guys at key positions who simply aren't carrying their weight.  Let's look into these players to see if you or I should keep hoping for a turnaround or if enough is enough...

* Where's The Power, Mauer?  I think we can all agree that Joe Mauer's 28-homer season in 2009 was a total anomaly, given that the Twins catcher first baseman has only 79 homers in the other 4717 plate appearances of his Major League career.  The days of expecting Mauer to provide a huge homer boost from your lineup's C spot are over, yet his high average, RBI totals and runs scored provide more than enough incentive to make him one of the very first catchers taken in any fantasy draft.

Now, however, not only has the power cratered, but the rest of Mauer's hitting ability is seemingly going down the tubes as well.  Mauer took a .263/.342/.336 slash line into Friday's play, all of which project as career lows over a full season, and Mauer has produced only two homers and 15 RBI over 263.  Ironically, just as the Twins made Mauer a full-time first baseman in order to keep him healthy enough to stay in the lineup, Mauer's bat has gone as cold as....well, Minnesota.

Before looking at the metrics, I wondered if Mauer was simply trying to do too much now that he was playing first, and his problems stemmed from trying too hard for homers in order to fill the stereotypical 1B power role.  This doesn't appear to the the case, however, as Mauer is actually getting the ball in the air less than he ever has; his 19.1% fly ball rate would also be a new career low while his 54.6% ground ball rate would be his highest (over a full season).  Mauer also has a .324 BABIP, so it's not a question of him being particularly unlucky with those extra grounders.

There are lots of catchers who put up middling offensive numbers but "they're good for a catcher" and thus you put up with having such a third-tier guy in your fantasy lineup.  But for Joe Mauer to sink to such levels?  And frankly, he isn't even putting up good numbers "for a catcher" given that his 89 wRC+ is topped by a whopping 18 other catchers with at least 130 PA.  If you're in a league that doesn't count last year's positions and had Mauer listed as a first baseman from day one, he has below replacement-level and not been worth having on your fantasy roster.

Unfortunately for me, I was forced into actually using Mauer at first for much of this season due to injuries to Joey Votto and Mark Teixeira.  On draft day I took Mauer, Carlos Santana and Jonathan Lucroy with the logic that I could either trade from depth later or simply rotate them all between my C/1B/Utility slots, yet while Lucroy has been terrific, the other two have been duds.

For my specific situation, I can afford to drop Mauer since ultimately right now I'm just using him as a glorified backup catcher.  That said....how can you just outright release Joe Mauer??  Heck, even my mother still busts out "well played, Mauer" as a wisecrack every once in a while, that's how much of a cornerstone star this guy has been for the last several years. 

Is he really finished at age 31?  He wouldn't be the first longtime catcher to drop off a cliff after he hit his thirties, but still, Mauer's contact rates are still relatively normal and that average could shoot up 30 or 40 points and suddenly things wouldn't look so bad.  Mauer does have a .771 OPS against righties, but his .501 OPS against southpaws is killing his overall performance.  Absolutely bench Mauer against left-handed starters for the time being and hopefully your backup (while probably not a Lucroy) can help carry the load until Mauer gets back on track.  Catcher is such a thin spot that dropping Mauer isn't an option at this point.

* Hill Of Beans.  This has been a pretty rough season in Arizona, needless to say, and Aaron Hill's performance is one of the many reasons why the Diamondbacks are struggling.  Both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs rate Hill as a below replacement-level this season, as the second baseman has only a .246/.292/.393 slash line to go with six homers, 31 RBI and 20 runs scored.

If you're a Blue Jays fan, you've seen this movie before.  Hill was one of the worst everyday players in the majors from Opening Day 2010 to virtually until the day he was traded (August 23, 2011) from Toronto to Arizona, bottoming out with just a 56 wRC+ over his last 429 PA as a Blue Jay.  Fortunately for Hill, he turned things around in the desert and posted an .878 OPS in his first 33 games as a Snake, followed by a .298/.359/.501 performance in 2012-13.  Hill wasn't just back in form, he was arguably the second-best second baseman in the game.

So what changed?  Hill is both swinging at more strikes and swinging more in general this season than in the previous two years, plus swinging more often at pitches outside the zone (32.6%, up from 29.3% in 2013) and swinging less at strikes inside the zone (59.5%, down from 61.9% in 2013).  This extra aggression in swinging at balls is hurting his patience at the plate, as the gap between his walk rate (5.3%) and his strikeout rate (17.3%) has never been wider in his entire career, even during his rough period with the Jays.

Hopefully it won't take another trade to shake Hill out of his slump, as even though Tony La Russa won't be afraid to shake up the D'Backs roster, moving Hill at this point doesn't seem too likely for a team that still has eyes towards contending in 2015 (not to mention the fact that the D'Backs would be selling very low on a valuable asset).  Should you or I trade him off our fantasy rosters?   

I was as optimistic as anyone about Hill when the season began but now I can't shake the hunch that 2014 will just end up being a lost year for him.  Nagging shoulder and ankle injuries haven't helped Hill's cause and while these knocks could be a partial reason for his struggles, he was already hitting poorly when these injuries surfaced in mid-May.  If you have a second base backup in place (or someone like Tommy La Stella is still available on your waiver wire), I'd bite the bullet and try to move Hill elsewhere.  You won't be getting his full value back, obviously, yet try trading Hill for another under-performing player like...

* Put Your Lights On.  Carlos Santana has the second-lowest (.197) BABIP of any qualified hitter in baseball, so when an accomplished batter like Santana is getting so little batted-ball luck, that itself is almost reason enough to predict a turnaround.  Combine that with the fact that Santana's contact rates are close to career norms and he's walking almost as much as he's striking out, and BOOM...where do you sign up?

Of course, it may not be that simple.  Santana's miserable .175/.337/.315 line can't be totally attributed to BABIP when you consider that he's hitting the ball with less authority than ever before.  The Indians catcher/first baseman third baseman has only a 12.4% line drive rate this season, the third-lowest of any qualified hitter in baseball.  With a 49.7% ground ball rate that is well above his 43.3% career average and that aforementioned buzzard's luck with BABIP, it's essentially been a year full of routine groundouts for Santana.  (Oh, if only he could hit against his own team's terrible infield defense.)

The huge drop in line drive rate is troubling yet just because doesn't not hitting line drives doesn't mean that you're not hitting the ball well.  Several players in the bottom 16 of line drive rate are enjoying tremendous seasons (Yasiel Puig, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Jones, Alex Gordon, etc.) so it's not the be-all and end-all of quality batting.  Santana does have seven homers, 22 RBI and 25 runs, so he's roughly on pace to post his usual counting stats.  With a boost of even 40 or 50 BABIP points, Santana could suddenly be having a pretty normal campaign.

Like Mauer, Santana switched positions this season but the Tribe ex-catcher had an even bigger transition to make in moving to third base for the first time since he was a Dodgers farmhand in 2008.  Let's just say that Santana is still getting used to the move --- he has a -43.8 UZR/150 at the hot corner this year.  By comparison, Miguel Cabrera had "only" a -19.9 UZR/150 at third last season, so as bad as Miggy was, he was basically Brooks Robinson compared to Santana.  In any case, the Santana third base experiment might be coming to an end, as Santana has only played 3B once in his last 13 games.  The red-hot Lonnie Chisenhall suddenly looks like a viable everyday option for the Tribe at third, so Santana is likely to find himself in more familiar terrain at either 1B or DH, with the odd start at catcher in a pinch.

I'll predict that with the stress of playing third removed, Santana gets back to his old self over the last few months of the season.  If and when he gets going, I'll feel more comfortable in selling low on Mauer if need be, and getting Santana regular utility at-bats (Votto is my starting 1B and Encarnacion is my starting 3B).  With everyone healthy and with me making some canny managerial lineup maneuvers, I just might be able to save my fantasy season yet!  And by save, I mean finish in, like, seventh.



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