Baseball is getting ready for the second half, and many of the big stories have been beaten to death. Yes, Aaron Judge is not of this Earth. Sure, Cody Bellinger’s looping, uppercut swing is a thing of beauty. Craig Kimbrel, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kerhsaw, Kenley Jansen — good luck hitting those guys. A bunch of first basemen you formerly wrote off are now clubbing home runs.
And yes, home runs and strikeouts rule the diamond. We live in the era of the Two True Outcomes. Pitch like your hair is on fire. Swing out of your shoes on every pitch, and if you strike out, so what? No one cares.
Today’s assignment is to assemble a handful of big stories that have an off-the-path hook to them. These are all roto godsends, names you know and stats you cherish. But in each case, there’s something not obvious that’s helping to spark the value.
Say hello to the Jose Ramirez All-Stars.
— Jose Ramirez, Indians: I recognize that .322-62-17-48-10 line, it was roughly what I expected Francisco Lindor to do this year. Ramirez has turned himself into a great player — don’t forget he slashed .219/.291/.340 just two years ago. He’s going to get MVP consideration; at minimum, he’s Cleveland’s most important player.
The sneaky hook: Ramirez qualifies at three Yahoo positions (second, third, outfield), which is especially valuable in today’s game, where injuries (and maintenance-chicanery injuries) are as common as a cup of coffee. By owning and maneuvering a Swiss Army Knife like Ramirez, you’re allowed to use a top replacement when an injury strikes elsewhere. It’s not the driving part of Ramirez’s value — those numbers have him as the No. 8 hitter in the Yahoo game — but flexibility is a wonderful thing.
While we’re playing up the versatility card, let’s salute some other multiple-position grabbers who have exceeded expectations: Miguel Sano, Jedd Gyorko, Chris Taylor, Josh Harrison, Scooter Gennett, Marwin Gonzalez.
— Starlin Castro, Yankees: Although Castro is currently on the DL, rehabbing a balky hamstring, his .313-52-12-52-1 first half stands as the career year we’ve been patiently waiting for. If we merely rank him with his second-base peers, Castro stands third in runs, seventh in homers, and third in average.
The sneaky hook: Castro swings at just about everything — his 4.8 percent walk rate is right around his career norm — and while we’ve been trained to take a critical eye to that sort of thing, it allows more bang for the buck with the batting average. A .313 average is delicious enough as is, but it’s extra useful when it’s tied to 313 at-bats. Other keystones doing the same thing — lofty average, low walk count — include Dee Gordon and Jon Schoop. Jose Altuve isn’t quite in this hacker class, but he’s another high-average star who treats walks as an afterthought.
— Jason Vargas, Royals: Vargas was never much of a fantasy factor in his 20s, and when he underwent Tommy John surgery in the middle of the 2015 season, it looked like his roto-relevant days were history. Alas, he’s come back stronger than ever, utilizing a sharper arm slot and finding a way to dominate games without dominant stuff. Despite a puny strikeout rate of 18.2 percent, he’s carrying a 2.62 ERA and 1.15 WHIP through 17 starts. He’s the No. 8 starting pitcher in the Yahoo game.
The sneaky hook: Vargas shows you can be successful with mediocre velocity (his average fastball is in the mid-80s) and a fly-ball bias. He’s also figured out how to succeed in the upper half of the strike zone; once a pitching no-no, it’s now a ripe target area, given how batters and umpires have shifted to the bottom half of the plate. I don’t think anyone is expecting Vargas to carry his first-half ratios for the entire season, but I’ve stopped fearing the pumpkin risk. I expect Vargas to be fantasy-useful for the remainder of the year.
— Chris Devenski, Astros: Devenski is the No. 6 reliever in the Yahoo game, and the highest-ranked bullpen jockey who hasn’t taken hold of a closing role. A 2.73 ERA and 0.84 WHIP jump out at you, along with those pretty 74 strikeouts, and he’s collected six wins and three rogue saves along the way. A good example of what a knockout reliever on a winning team can do for you.
The sneaky hook: Devenski leads all relief pitchers in innings, which gives extra juice to his wipeout work. It’s also helped him score some of those glorious relief wins (riding shotgun with the Astros is a boost, too). Although Devenski might have been drafted in some deeper leagues, this is generally the type of pitcher we can look to identify and grab after the season starts. If you missed out on Devenski, perhaps you latched onto Felipe Rivera or Archie Bradley.
— Elvis Andrus, Rangers: In the early stage of Andrus’s career, his value was almost entirely tired to his defense. Things have changed in 2017; he’s having his best hitting season by far, while his defense is barely over the league average at the position. Of all the qualifying shortstops who have double-digit home runs, Andrus is the only one with double-digit steals as well, a whopping 20. (With almost zero fanfare, Andrelton Simmons just misses that distinction.)
The sneaky hook: Andrus is a good reminder that player careers — and improvement — are never guaranteed to be linear. There was an respectable but boring sameness to Andrus’s output through his 20s, but out of nowhere he’s busted into a career year. And for all the hullabaloo about plate patience, Andrus has gone off despite plate discipline metrics headed in the opposite direction — he’s drawing fewer walks and striking out more than ever before. Let’s raise a toast to the joys of aggressiveness at the plate (a similar aggressive theme has boosted Zack Cozart in Cincinnati).
— Alex Avila, Detroit, and Tyler Flowers, Atlanta: In a year where most catching has been terrible, Avila and Flowers have saved many a fantasy roster, especially in leagues where you need two backstops. Both players are controlling their at-bats, dramatically reducing their strikeout problems from recent seasons. Avila also carries a juicy walk rate — I can’t think of anyone who spits on as many borderline pitches as he does. Maybe there’s something to the idea that veteran catchers often mature later as hitters — a combination of settling into the job (when catchers are first recalled, defensive responsibilities dominate their world) and all the pitches they’ve been asked to corral over the years (it probably can’t hurt for pitch-recognition skills).
The sneaky hook: Every MLB catcher is subject to a partial schedule — the position is too demanding for anyone to play every day, even the superstars. Some Avila critics might ding him for the fact that he won’t handle (or play against) left-handed pitching, but that becomes a useful tool if you’re in a daily-transaction league. There’s no guesswork to the Avila matrix — you sit him against the lefties, and you liberally employ him against the righties. We can accurately predict when he’ll be in the lineup, and we know he’ll usually be slotted No. 2.
Some additional sneaky hooks: Matt Adams took off the moment he was traded away from a St. Louis organization that never fully believed in him. I can’t imagine how any player, no matter how talented, is ever to blossom when he’s jerked in and out of the lineup, seemingly at random . . . Tommy Pham has been the best Cardinals player, combining category juice with reasonable outfield defense. I fully expect him to keep playing regularly, even with more options available now . . . We knew Travis Shaw would fit Milwaukee’s home park, a LHB haven, but he’s actually been better on the road. The Red Sox have to be kicking themselves for trading Shaw so cheaply . . . Houston has the best offense in the majors by far, and Josh Reddick is loving the catbird seat. He’s carrying a .900 OPS when batting second in that ridiculous lineup, and his small-sample stats in the No. 3 hole are even better . . . Although no one can seem to pinpoint the exact reason why, Petco Park is no longer a pitcher haven. Petco graded out 12th in its effect on run scoring last year (only dinging home runs slightly), and this year it’s been about neutral for scoring . . . Jimmy Nelson is getting tremendous results from a more streamlined delivery. I’d call him a SP3 at minimum for the rest of the way, and he could conceivably be a No.2 for some contending fantasy teams.