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Fantasy surprises, underachievers at plate so far

MLB.com

Every year, a handful of big leaguers surprise the fantasy baseball world by posting unexpected, eye-popping statistics. Pedestrian seasons give way to All-Star caliber performances -- if only for a few months or a single campaign -- and drive the fantasy waiver wires wild. And with the exceptionally good often comes the frustratingly bad. Players labeled as "can't miss" do, in fact, miss from time to time.

The 2013 campaign has not been an exception to these rules: Stellar stats have thus far been produced by players many knew little about during the spring. Meanwhile, several stars have fallen short of expectations. In compiling the below list of fantasy studs and duds, we considered every Major Leaguer currently active on his team's 25-man roster. In other words, Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp -- who has yet to play in June -- was not a candidate for inclusion despite his underwhelming 2013 totals.

Every year, a handful of big leaguers surprise the fantasy baseball world by posting unexpected, eye-popping statistics. Pedestrian seasons give way to All-Star caliber performances -- if only for a few months or a single campaign -- and drive the fantasy waiver wires wild. And with the exceptionally good often comes the frustratingly bad. Players labeled as "can't miss" do, in fact, miss from time to time.

The 2013 campaign has not been an exception to these rules: Stellar stats have thus far been produced by players many knew little about during the spring. Meanwhile, several stars have fallen short of expectations. In compiling the below list of fantasy studs and duds, we considered every Major Leaguer currently active on his team's 25-man roster. In other words, Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp -- who has yet to play in June -- was not a candidate for inclusion despite his underwhelming 2013 totals.

So without further ado, here are baseball's top 2013 surprises from the batter's box -- both the good and the bad. A similar piece on pitchers is soon to come.

*Please note that all stats are accurate through Sunday, July 23.

The Good

Orioles first baseman Chris Davis
MLB.com 2013 Player Preview Rank: 139
MLB.com Preseason Projected Stats: 31 HR, 88 RBI, .265/.316/.473, .789 OPS
Stats through 75 games: 27 HR / 70 RBI, .336/.413/.719, 1.132 OPS

Davis' 2013 MLB.com Player Preview profile described him as a "formidable masher," and mash he has. But that isn't all Davis has done this year. The lefty batter has belted 24 doubles so far -- he hit 20 in 2012 -- and is walking at a solid rate (10.5 percent of his plate appearances). He leads the Majors in homers, slugging percentage, OPS and total bases.

A closer review of Davis' season reveals that his batting average on balls in play (commonly referred to as BABIP) sits at .385 -- suggesting he has tallied some lucky hits -- but his updated ZIPS projections (source: Fangraphs.com) predict that he could sustain strong batted-ball fortune the rest of the way.

From a fantasy standpoint, Davis' breakout appears real in many ways, although his homer pace will likely slow down some. As of publication, Davis' HR/FB rate stood at 31.0 percent, a figure that seems impossible to keep up.

Brewers shortstop Jean Segura
MLB.com 2013 Player Preview Rank: 163
MLB.com Preseason Projected Stats: 5 HR / 48 RBI, 32 SB, .295/.344/.393, .737 OPS
Current Stats through 73 games: 11 HR / 31 RBI, 23 SB, .336/.369/.529, .897 OPS

Segura is wildly exceeding expectations, much to the delight of his fantasy owners. He has already doubled MLB.com's preseason home-run projection, and his immense speed is allowing him to rack up runs and steals at a breakneck pace. Additionally, the 23-year-old leads the Majors with eight triples. The pop in Segura's bat -- he has 11 homers -- may be the biggest aberration during what has been a stellar season. A look at the back of Segura's baseball card reveals that he had never belted more than 10 long balls in one professional campaign entering 2013, and his current HR/FB rate of 17.2 percent is uncharacteristically high for a player with his skill set.

Segura's batting average and steals are where fantasy owners can expect to find continuous value from the young shortstop. It isn't unreasonable to expect Segura to swipe another 25 bases from here on out. Segura regularly hit over .300 during his Minor League career, and he seems to have brought that sweet stroke to the big leagues. Looking ahead, Segura has the skills to remain one of baseball's top fantasy shortstops for seasons to come.

Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson
MLB.com 2013 Player Preview Rank: 421
MLB.com Preseason Projected Stats: 14 HR / 50 RBI, .249/.305/.407, .712 OPS
Current Stats through 76 games: 10 HR / 46 RBI, .305/.373/.488, .860 OPS

Donaldson entered 2013 with a chance to win the A's starting third-base job and, boy, has he capitalized on the opportunity. The right-handed batter was instrumental in Oakland's late postseason run last year, and he's taken his game to an even higher level in 2013. His BABIP is .347 -- well above the Major League average of .297 -- so fantasy owners can expect to see some regression. But aside from an average that is due to drop, the 27-year-old's peripheral stats suggest that he has a chance to remain a capable fantasy contributor.

Donaldson is walking and whiffing at solid rates that are consistent with his Minor League ratios -- suggesting that his strike-zone command is real -- while also posting a strong HR/FB ratio (13.2 percent) that helps explain his increased power. Fantasy owners can expect another 10 round-trippers and 40 to 50 more RBIs from Donaldson, but don't be surprised if his average dips into the .280 to .290 range.

The Underachieving

Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton
MLB.com 2013 Player Preview Rank: 16
MLB.com Preseason Projected Stats: 31 HR / 105 RBI, .288/.354/.528, .881 OPS
Current Stats through 72 games: 10 HR / 25 RBI, .207/.262/.378, .640 OPS

Following his monster 2012 campaign, Hamilton has struggled a great deal during his first year with the Anaheim Angels. His recent move to the lineup's seven-hole is a reflection of his across-the-board struggles so far.

Looking deeper into the stats, the left-handed hitter's infield fly-ball rate (currently 8.9 percent) would be, by far, his single-season worst if the year were to end today. The higher percentage of popups -- the most unlikely of batted balls to fall for a hit -- suggests that he hasn't made contact or driven pitches with his trademark authority.

Fantasy owners need to be aware of Hamilton's exceptionally low .242 BABIP, a mitigating factor that suggests the slugger's struggles have been compounded by bad luck. It's fair to expect that the 32-year-old's end-of-season average will fall within the .250 range, well above its current mark of .207 but far below Hamilton's career .304 average entering 2013. Looking ahead, fantasy owners can expect the five-time All-Star to record another 10 to 15 round-trippers and 40-something RBIs by season's end.

Feel free to sell Hamilton to any fantasy manager willing to pay 80 cents on the dollar, as his contributions going forward this year likely won't be worth what fantasy owners paid during March.

Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro
MLB.com 2013 Player Preview Rank: 31
MLB.com Preseason Projected Stats: 16 HR / 79 RBI, 25 SB, .301/.355/.444, .789 OPS
Current Stats through 74 games: 3 HR / 24 RBI, 6 SB, .228/.264/.318, .582 OPS

Simply put, Castro has underperformed at the plate this season. He entered the year as one of fantasy baseball's most highly touted shortstops, ranking 31st overall in MLB.com's Player Preview, just ahead of the likes of third baseman Evan Longoria, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and catcher Yadier Molina.

Castro started the 2013 season on solid footing, hitting .277 with 12 RBIs (half of his yearly tally to date) and three homers -- the only long balls he has belted this year. But since May 1, the youngster has triple-slashed .201/.246/.261, a line that no one can honestly claim to have predicted prior to Opening Day. Some of Castro's woes can be attributed to his lack of plate discipline; he is walking less and whiffing more than he has in the past, a sign that he isn't seeing the baseball as well as he would like.

There's no way around it, Castro's stats have not been particularly positive. The shortstop, however, has built himself a nice track record during his young career. In fact, he ranks first among National League batters with 461 hits since the start of 2011; only Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez and Robinson Cano have tallied more during the span.

Castro may not collect 200 hits by season's end, but fantasy owners should trust that he has the skills to experience positive regression as the year progresses. Expect another five dingers, 20 to 30 RBIs and, perhaps, eight steals from the young Cub, who successfully swiped 25 bags last year but has attempted to run just eight times all season.

Braves outfielder Jason Heyward
MLB.com 2013 Player Preview Rank: 31
MLB.com Preseason Projected Stats: 30 HR / 82 RBI, 23 SB, .288/.361/.522, .883 OPS
Current Stats through 52 games: 5 HR / 13 RBI, 1 SB, .211/.312/.332, .644 OPS

After displaying star potential in 2012, Heyward was selected high in many fantasy baseball drafts this spring. But so far this year the outfielder has underperformed expectations. At the age of 23, he has suffered through an ice-cold opening and a stint on the DL due to an appendectomy.

The left-handed hitter struggled mightily during April and May, batting .146, thanks in large part to an unsustainably low .163 BABIP. His production numbers though the season's first two months -- two homers, eight RBIs in 103 at-bats -- left a lot to be desired, as well. The low long ball total can be explained in large by his lack of at-bats and HR/FB ratio of 9.3 percent, which is far lower than his 16.9 percent mark from the year prior.

Heyward has fared much better since the calendar flipped to June, however, triple-slashing .287/.340/.437 and raising his overall average 65 points -- to .211 -- in the process. As one might imagine, batting average luck has played a role in the outfielder's improved play at the plate; his BABIP in June is .338, which may be considered lucky but is not off the charts for a player with Heyward's speed.

When all is said and done in 2013, Heyward's average should fall in the .250-range, but fantasy managers shouldn't expect much more than seven homers, 30 RBIs and five to stolen bases, given his lack of aggression on the bases this year.

Caroline Warren is a fantasy writer for MLB.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Starlin Castro, Chris Davis, Josh Donaldson, Josh Hamilton, Jason Heyward, Jean Segura