Commentary

How to handle hot, cold starts

Updated: April 13, 2011, 12:03 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

"You're hot then you're cold. You're yes then you're no.
You're in then you're out. You're up when you're down." -- Katy Perry

Every year, as the major league season officially gets under way, there are always a few hitters who explode out of the gate, proving themselves to be what one might well call "a firework, who have showed them what they're worth." This season is no exception. For example, Cincinnati Reds shortstop Paul Janish -- a career .236 hitter -- has hits in all six of his starts and has posted a .444 (12-for-27) batting average, opening 2011 with a bang.

[+] EnlargeWells
Kim Klement/US PresswireVernon Wells got off to a very hot start last year in Toronto, but his first games with the Angels have been a disappointment.

At the same time, there are always those players who creep along like the proverbial tortoise as the season opens, barely managing to register on the statistical Richter scale at all. This sad lot will cause fantasy owners to lament at their being "so paper thin, like a house of cards, one blow from caving in." Case in point, take a look at veteran Vernon Wells -- a career .280 hitter -- going 4-for-40 (.100) with 11 strikeouts, making an anemic first impression on the fans in Anaheim.

Like clockwork, the questions start pouring in to the ESPN fantasy experts: Can I cut Vernon Wells? Should I replace Dan Uggla, hitting .158, at my middle infield spot with Yunel Escobar and his .476 batting average? Is it too soon to panic about Matt Wieters and his .192 average, or should I trade him for Miguel Montero, who is a scalding hot 13-for-26 (.500), tops in the majors?

Sure it can be frustrating if you spent the first overall pick on Albert Pujols and all you have to show for it is a lowly .143 batting average, while every "SportsCenter" highlight reel seems to feature Joey Votto (.455) dancing around the bases, mocking your selection with each run he scores. But it's not the end of the world.

Certainly, at this early stage of the season, there can be legitimate concerns about slumping players due to a lack of consistent playing time, health and injury issues, or perhaps the real possibility that a player's age has finally pushed his performance seesaw inexorably downward. Certainly, because he's pushing 40, Jorge Posada's current 0-for-17 slump certainly raises some legitimate red flags. Nobody would blame you for sweating at least a little bit here.

Barring specific extenuating circumstances, however, there's really no need for panic if your studs are simply stinking up the joint. If you thought they'd hit .300 for the year, then a poor 10-game showing -- about 6 percent of the total season -- is no reason to get concerned any more than a red-hot start to the season should make you think a career .230 hitter is suddenly destined to be the first hitter since Ted Williams to hit .400.

But don't just take my word for it that the wisest course of action is to take no action at all. Let's look at what history has to say on the subject. First, let's look at the "hottest of the hot" hitters of the past 10 seasons and see how much they cooled off after the initial spark. My definition of "hot" in this case is counting how many times a hitter got two or more hits during his team's first 10 games of the season. Here are the 20 players who had the largest number of these efforts in the past decade, and the stats from just those games.

As you can see, while five of these 20 hitters did top the .300 milestone the rest of the way, seven of them failed to even manage to hit .250 over the remainder of their at-bats. Certainly, you knew none of these guys was going to keep up such a hellacious hitting onslaught for six full months, but otherwise, the hot start didn't serve as an indicator of future performance one way or the other. These players, for the most part, ended up performing pretty much as expected.

So, now let's look at the other side of the coin and see if the "coldest of the cold" players showed any tendency to lean one way or the other on the spectrum of success after the glaciers began to recede. My definition of "cold" in this case is any game in which a hitter recorded one or fewer hits -- with at least three at-bats -- in any of his team's first 10 contests of the season. Here are the 20 players with the largest numbers of those efforts in the past decade, and the stats from just those games.

In this case, only three of these hitters managed to hit .300 the rest of the way, while just two ended up under .250 post-cold spell. I suppose one could make the argument that this means that because there don't seem to be as many players living at the extremes in this group, that by trading a hot player for a cold player, you may end up better off in the long run.

Intuitively, that does make a lot of sense. After all, if you can trade Shane Victorino for Vernon Wells right now, and if they both end up meeting their preseason projections at the end of the season, even though Victorino will still have better final 2011 numbers, you'll come out ahead of the game because of when you make the deal.

However, for the most part, any move made based solely on the hot or cold streaks to start the season are just as likely to backfire as they are to be successful. This point is borne out by the combined statistics of all the players who met my criteria for "hot" or "cold" since 2001. Take a close look at the batting average of each group after we removed their extreme starts.

That's about as close as you can get. I don't know about you, but I'm not going to try to split hairs that finely. I'll hold on to slow starters like Wells, Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre and let them prove to me that they are exactly who I thought they were.

But if you want to send that trio to me in exchange for Nick Hundley, Willie Bloomquist and Jhonny Peralta, based entirely on the incredibly small sample size of stats from 2011?

I take you up on that offer -- and I don't ever look back, don't ever look back.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.

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