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Fast starters versus second-half monsters

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Nothing is more disappointing and frustrating than your fantasy baseball team getting off to a very slow April and facing a six-month uphill battle to become competitive.

To combat this problem, what you need are hitters and pitchers who start their season with a bang. Toward that end, we have compiled a list of players whose history says they will get off to a flying start, that they are at their best in the first half of the season.

For our analysis, we will use statistics up to the All-Star break as "first half" and post All-Star break as "second half." And instead of simply using batting average for hitters, we use OPS (On base Plus Slugging) which provides a much more accurate display of a player's production.

In later pieces, we will analyze pitchers by their first-half and second-half SSRD360 number - a new statistic which measures a pitcher against the league average in four categories - wins, ERA, WHIP and strikeouts.

We know from seasons past that hitters like Adam LaRoche, Mark Teixeira, Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Howard are not players you want on your roster if you expect to hit the ground running in April.

LaRoche is the "poster child" and the very definition of a slow starter, with a first-half OPS of .758 and a second-half OPS 131 points higher at .889. The Washington Nationals first baseman is the guy you trade for in July, but not one you want in your lineup in April, when his career batting average is .208 and OPS is .688.

Howard posts similar splits over his eight years in the majors. Before the "Summer Classic," the Philadelphia Phillies first baseman has a career batting average of .262 and an OPS of .867, and after the break the numbers jump to .290 and .996, respectively. That's an OPS variance of 129 points.

In this first piece we will evaluate National League hitters. According to the research, more players seem to improve when the weather gets warmer.

Of the 111 non-rookie starters in the NL, 74 improved from mid-July to the end of the season while just 37 were better in April, May and June. Therefore, the fast starters are even more valuable that the second-half guys because there are twice as many who improve in the second half of the year. Of course, some of the 37 hitters who are better in the first half are still not fantasy- worthy, so let's see which of the NL hitters would give you an advantage if you have them in your Opening Day fantasy lineup:

Gaby Sanchez, Miami - Sanchez has completed two full seasons in the majors and been very consistent overall, hitting 19 homers in each season and knocking in 85 and 78 runs, respectively. But inside each season are two very different hitters. The first-half player bats .297 with 67 extra-base hits and a .839 OPS. The second-half Sanchez struggles, batting just .234 with 50 extra-base hits and a .718 OPS. Your strategy should be to draft Sanchez in the 16th round (Yahoo ADP 191) and play him through June at which time you should trade him to an unsuspecting owner who hasn't read this fantasy analysis.

Danny Espinosa, Washington - Espinosa showed a lot of power for a second baseman, blasting 21 homers among 65 extra-base hits in his first full season. It appears Espinosa will bat second in the Nationals lineup and that's a great spot for him in front of Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse. He did, however, stumble mightily after the All-Star break (post All-Star OPS of .663 vs. 793 pre-break) and with only one year under his belt, the 104-point better first-half OPS might be a mirage. As a 17th-round pick, it's not a big gamble and the upside might be enormous if the split is a legitimate trend.

Martin Prado, Atlanta - Prado's 2011 season was right in line with his career numbers which show much better production in the first half. However, 2011 wasn't a very good year for the Braves outfielder who batted .302 but with a low .687 OPS. If his 2012 season returns to his career .775 OPS, then his dual eligibility at both third base and the outfield adds to his value and makes him a solid fantasy reserve.

Lance Berkman, St. Louis - Berkman is another dual-eligibility guy - at least at the start of the season. With Albert Pujols gone, Berkman will likely only play first base this season and lose his outfielder status. There is no mistaking his first-half value, however, because a 13-year veteran who has a 60-point variance between the first half and second half is statistically very significant. Over his career, Berkman has hit 82 more homers before the break than after and his first-half OPS of .982 is starter-material. As a seventh- round pick, he's a perfect candidate for the "use three months and trade" strategy.

Brian McCann, Atlanta - McCann is one of four catchers on the 37-man NL list of better first-half hitters. That would seem to fit with the theory that catchers tire in the heat of the summer and their hitting statistics slide as the season wears on. McCann is 49 points better in the first half, owning a solid .867 OPS before the All-Star break. McCann is currently the third catcher off the board in most leagues behind Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli, but his numbers drop more than either of the catchers ranked ahead of him.

Michael Morse, Washington - Morse is a difficult player to categorize because he's become a much-better hitter in the last two seasons. While his career first-half numbers are 46 points better than the second half, his 2011 numbers were just the opposite. He posted a 2011 second-half OPS of .935 versus .886 from April through June. We believe he will continue his strong hitting all season long and think his 2011 trend will hold through 2012.

Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh - In his three major league seasons, McCutchen has proven to be a first-half guy with an OPS 31 points better during that span. The differential was even wider in 2011 when he posted an .892 first- half OPS versus .722 down the stretch. He's another prime candidate for "play and trade."

Tomorrow, we evaluate the American League hitters.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Steve Schwarz at sschwarz@sportsnetwork.com.

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