The Fantasy Baseball Surprise Party

So far this has been the year of the young aces with Matt Harvey, Shelby Miller, and Patrick Corbin all dominating the fantasy baseball landscape.  To some extent, all three hurlers are surprises, but fantasy managers were also very aware of their potential after years of prospect reports.  Such cannot be said about some of the sneakier fantasy surprises who are still posting big numbers nearly two months into the season.

Here’s a breakdown of the five biggest surprises so far in the 2013 fantasy baseball season:

5) Nate McLouth, OF, Orioles

The Orioles certainly benefited by nabbing this veteran outfielder after the Pirates let him go for producing just eight hits in 34 games last season.  McLouth had a strong finish for the Orioles with seven home runs and a .342 on base percentage over 55 games in the regular season followed by at least one hit in all six games of the postseason.

The 31-year-old leadoff man was once a fantasy star, crushing 26 home runs with 23 steals in 2008.  However, over his nine-year career, McLouth has only surpassed 350 at bats in two seasons (2008 and 2009).  Regardless, he seems to have picked up a second wind with a .285 average, four home runs, 34 runs, and 15 steals this year.  In particular, McLouth has shined bright as the Orioles leadoff man this year, racking up 19 walks for a .365 on base percentage while successful on 15 of his 16 stolen base attempts.

At this point, McLouth has proven to be a legitimate fantasy starter, and though he may not have the pop that he demonstrated five years ago, he can still offer 10-plus homers and 30-plus steals to register as one of the top 75 fantasy options in 5X5 fantasy leagues.

4) Clay Buchholz, SP, Red Sox

A 17-game winner in 2010, Buchholz dealt with arm issues the following season and then last year was mediocre with a 4.56 ERA.  As a result, Buchholz wasn’t drafted in many fantasy leagues as the consensus in baseball was that the Red Sox were a rebuilding team that could finish below .500.  It turns out that the blockbuster deal sending a lot of high-priced talent to the Los Angeles Dodgers last season has moved the Red Sox in the right direction and Buchholz has settled in as the team’s ace with an undefeated 7-0 record, 1.73 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and 73 strikeouts in 72.2 innings.

Buchholz has been remarkably consistent this season, allowing two runs or fewer in all but one start.  Last year, Buchholz allowed five or more runs in each of his first six starts.  A key difference has been Buchholz ability to keep the ball in play.  After allowing 25 home runs in 29 starts last season, Buchholz has surrendered just two home runs this year.  With the strikeouts up and the runs down, Buchholz appears to be in his prime and fantasy managers have reaped the rewards.

3) Starling Marte, OF, Pirates

Starling Marte has long been a Pirates prospect, but even with plenty of accolades including a spot on the 2011 All-Star Futures Game, his upside was always questioned.  He was never considered a top-50 prospect in a major baseball publication, and yet this season Marte has so far delivered a top-50 performance in Major League Baseball with a nice blend of power, speed, and a high batting average.  Entering the weekend, Marte boasts a .310 batting clip, five home runs, 35 runs, and 11 stolen bases.

There continues to be some questions about Marte’s ability and whether his hot start is sustainable.  Four of his five home runs came over a five-game stretch from April 30 to May 5.  It was a heck of a way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, but it raises questions about his ability to hit for power consistently.  Furthermore, his 46:10 strikeout-to-walk ratio is well below average, and not ideal for a leadoff batter.

Marte is a nice all-around player, but advanced analtytics suggest that he is bound to regress to a below .300 batter who will finish with no more than 15 home runs on the season.  It might be time to sell high for his fantasy managers.

2)   Jean Segura, SS, Brewers

Jean Segura is not only a pleasant surprise, but he is also on the short list of National League MVP candidates this season.  With a .351 average, seven homeruns, 26 runs, and 14 stolen bases while playing the most demanding defensive position, Segura has filled the box score.

The best part of Segura’s performance for fantasy managers has to be his incredible consistency.  The Brewers shortstop hit .367 in April and now is batting .333 in May.  He swiped seven bases in both April and May.  Against southpaws he is a .349 hitter this season compared to .351 against right-handers.  The big question is whether this is sustainable.

Segura has certainly exceeded expectations so far, but with a background of offering power and speed, and a batting title earned in the Dominican Winter League, it may be about time for fantasy managers to increase their expectations.

1)   Chris Davis, 1B, Orioles

It may not be a surprise that Chris Davis is slugging home runs regularly, but what certainly is surprising is that his .327 average and stellar run production rank him amongst Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout as the most valuable players in fantasy baseball.  Always known as a streaky slugger, Davis has already offered a few hot streaks this season, most recently blasting six home runs with 14 RBI over the last 13 games.

From an advanced analytical level, Davis is drawing more walks and striking out a bit less, but fantasy managers should not assume that he is capable of finishing the season with a Miguel Cabrera stat line.  In fact, Davis was hitting .315 last season as late as May 29, before regressing to a .270 batting clip for the season.  While the Orioles may have chosen correctly in keeping Davis and letting fellow slugger Mark Reynolds walk, the odds of Davis finishing the season with MVP votes remains unlikely.

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