Can you trust early hot, cold starts?
Small sample size.
It's a phrase you'll hear tossed about by baseball analysts, especially at this early stage of the season, when statistics are still relatively new and, well, small.
A small sample size -- usually only several days' worth of statistics that represent a tiny fraction of a full season's worth -- can often be a crutch: stats cherry-picked by an analyst to support a player's often flimsy case. Conversely, the phrase "small sample size" can be a crutch: a dismissive comment we make when we believe a particular early-season statistic is a fluke.
Here's the problem: Every stat counts in fantasy baseball. Whether it's the six runs on 10 hits in 3 1/3 innings Cliff Lee allowed this past Friday, the quality-start-with-11-K's outing he had April 8 or the 3.18 ERA and 1.00 WHIP he had the entire 2010 season, all of those stats matter to Lee's fantasy owner. Stats change every day, and at some point we need to make critical decisions based upon them. After all, at what point exactly is a sample size no longer considered small?
Twelve days of a season hardly seems a fair amount of time to make snap judgments, but as staying ahead of the curve is a critical aspect of the game, judge we shall. There's only one caveat: If you're to cherry-pick your samples, you're going to need some other type of supporting evidence. Conversely, if you're to dismiss samples, you'll need some reason to believe the numbers are fluky.
In one analyst's eyes, here are a few early-season returns that matter:
• Josh Beckett has a 2.08 ERA and 9.69 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio. Both of those stats, incidentally, would represent personal bests for Beckett, which serves as much to show how well he has pitched so far as how overrated he has been throughout his career. He was a tremendous disappointment in 2010, partly due to back problems, but curiously, despite his returning to full health this season, his average fastball velocity (92.5 mph) remains a career low.
It's his off-speed stuff that has made all the difference; per ESPN Stats & Information, Beckett threw 25 curveballs and 17 changeups in his dominant effort versus the New York Yankees this past Sunday, and the Yankees were 0-for-11 with six strikeouts in at-bats that ended with either pitch in that game. In his two starts combined, opponents are 0-for-19 with nine K's against either offering. Those are the kinds of stats that remind us of Beckett's heyday, and it's the reason he soars 17 spots in the rankings this week.
Might Beckett's 2011 peak be that of a top-25 fantasy starter? Perhaps, but the counterargument is that he has built up more "name value" than true value over the years. To that point, he has never managed an ERA beneath 3.27 or WHIP under 1.14 in a qualified season (or sub-3.04/1.14 numbers in any year of 100-plus innings), and among pitchers with 1,000-plus innings since 2000, his 3.94 ERA ranks 32nd (out of 112, or 72nd percentile) and 1.24 WHIP ranks 22nd (80th percentile). Good, yes, but not annual-Cy-Young-contender good.
• Phil Hughes has a 16.50 ERA. It's a lot more difficult to dismiss that bloated number if you take a look at Hughes' average fastball velocity (89.3 mph), or his 1.5 swinging-strike percentage. In 2010 alone, his numbers in those categories were 92.6 and 8.8, and in his career they're 92.4 and 8.5, so clearly there's something amiss. (From a personal -- non-statistical -- angle, I was shocked by Hughes' inability to locate during his first 2011 start.) To date, the Yankees have yet to admit there's anything physically wrong with Hughes, but I'll caution: If such a report is forthcoming, don't be shocked. Plenty has been said about Hughes' 71-inning increase in 2010, and the possible adverse effects of it, so there's enough evidence that this is not a mere dead-arm period, sure to end soon. Remember, that was said about Javier Vazquez a year ago at this time. Um, that didn't work out.
• Javier Vazquez's average fastball velocity is 88.9 mph. Speaking of that ex-Yankee! That number is only slightly higher than 2010's 88.7, so -- surprise, surprise -- apparently pitchers can't simply reclaim their lost velocity with a winter's rest. Here's another case in which "dead-arm period" or "small sample size" can't be tossed about as an excuse for the hard-worked-in-his-career right-hander. Vazquez might be in a favorable situation for a rebound, as he was with the Atlanta Braves in 2009, but his stuff is simply not the quality it was in that season. Light-hitting National League lineups, with a "freebie" out in the No. 9 spot, and games at Sun Life Stadium might present Vazquez a comfy enough cushion to make him streamer-worthy, but this is not a guy you'll want on cruise control all year.
TOP 100 STARTING PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
• Trevor Cahill has 15 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings. The surprise factor depends upon whether you know his minor league stats; he averaged 9.90 K's per nine. But Cahill has never been an overpowering type; he relies on location and generating a high ground-ball rate more than he does missing bats. That said, the reason his early returns are encouraging is increased use of his curveball. After throwing it only 2.7 percent of the time as a rookie in 2009, he used it 13.1 percent of the time last season, and now 26.5 percent in 2011. Scouts often advertised Cahill's curve as his best offering, his "put-'em-away" pitch, so if 2010 represented growth for the 23-year-old right-hander, perhaps increased performance with and reliance on that pitch will help neutralize the regression concerns practically everyone had entering the year. I've picked 7.0 K's per nine as a reasonable over/under for Cahill this season, a number which, if he matches or exceeds it, could very well keep him near his 2010 ratios. And I'm tempted to pick the over.
• Jered Weaver is the No. 1 pitcher on the Player Rater. No shock here. Zero. Weaver was the subject of a "30 Questions" of mine during the preseason, and as pro-Weaver as I was then, I probably wasn't hard enough on the fantasy owners responsible for his 67.7 (66th) average draft position. He's an ace, period.
• Alexi Ogando has yet to allow a run in his first two starts. Fantastic start for this outfielder-turned-reliever-turned-starter who, if you weren't aware, had only three starts to his credit as a pro entering the year. As out-of-nowhere as this story seems, Ogando does have staying power. His mid-90s fastball and slider are each sharp enough to make him a viable starter, and his command of the slider in particular has been superb. Per ESPN Stats & Information, 22 of his 28 sliders during Monday's start against the Detroit Tigers were strikes, nine were called strikes, and the Tigers were 0-for-10 on at-bats that ended with the pitch. Ogando shouldn't be expected to maintain a 0.00 ERA and 0.54 WHIP all year, of course, but why not 3.00 (or slightly above), 1.15 and a K-per-inning rate? It's not his talent you should doubt; it's a possible innings cap by midsummer. After all, he totaled 72 1/3 frames between the majors and minors in 2010, so it's difficult seeing him exceeding 150 this year. Not to compare their styles, but he might very well be 2011's fantasy-value comparable to Jaime Garcia.
• Jaime Garcia has a 0.60 ERA and 18 K's in two starts. How about that for a transition! Garcia's April 3 masterpiece versus the San Diego Padres might be more easily dismissed because of the competition, but his Saturday outing in San Francisco has to have his fantasy owners excited. He's missing bats like never before -- 15.2 percent of the time, third in the game so far -- but don't forget he was also underrated in the category during his breakout 2010, his 10.0 percent number 14th-best among qualified starters. Not to suggest that Garcia is a burgeoning strikeout king, but his combination of strikeout ability and an extreme ground-ball rate (56.5 percent in his 40 career big league appearances) makes him somewhat low-risk. Like the aforementioned Hughes, Garcia's 2010 innings bump (125 2/3) is a concern, but it also could allow him to more easily hold up throughout the summer and approach 200 frames for the year.
Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles: Just four days after he was profiled in last week's "60 Feet, 6 Inches," Britton one-upped his big league debut, shutting out the white-hot Texas Rangers lineup for 7 2/3 innings on four hits this past Saturday. How's that for an encore? While Britton's eight strikeouts to six walks -- leading to lackluster 5.27 K's-per-nine and 3.95 walks-per-nine ratios -- might not inspire long-term confidence, his 52.9 percent ground-ball rate neutralizes it somewhat. Britton will walk a fine line as long as his ratios remain so-so, but his sinker has proved effective enough to keep that ground-ball rate high (at least over 50 percent), meaning he might stay above that line for an extended period. Certainly he should be owned in every league, and started in the vast majority.
Jeff Francis, Kansas City Royals: To think, just four years ago Francis was considered one of the National League's better up-and-coming young starters, a potential breakout candidate entering 2008. Shoulder problems interrupted each of his next three seasons, however, and during the winter he had to settle for a one-year, $2 million deal with the Royals, barely registering on the fantasy radar during most preseason drafts. Pitching in relative obscurity, however, and apparently having put his shoulder problems behind him, Francis appears to have recaptured some of his lost career momentum. He stood out during the spring, with a 3.60 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 5.00 K's-per-walk ratio, and has extended it into the regular season, with a 1.98 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 4.00 K's-per-walk ratio in his first two starts. Francis' command was always expected to be his strong point once he reached his prime, and today he looks like it's at peak levels. If you still doubt him, it should only be his ability to stay healthy; his talent shouldn't be questioned.
Derek Holland, Texas Rangers: When a pitcher kicks off his big league career with two seasons' worth of a combined 5.52 ERA, it's sometimes easy to forget how high the scouts were on him; Baseball America rated him the 31st-best prospect overall, 11th-best pitcher and second-best Rangers pitcher entering 2009. But as is the case with many young hurlers, the adjustment to the big leagues is difficult, particularly for those who call a hitter-friendly environment like Rangers Ballpark his home. The seeds for greatness have long been there, as Holland at times has flashed his awesome potential, but it seems like this, his third season, will be the one in which he puts it all together. Holland followed up his first strong outing against the Seattle Mariners -- an easy matchup -- with an even better one against the Orioles -- a tougher matchup -- and he has already missed bats 11.3 percent of the time in the two outings combined. They won't always be masterpieces, but Holland could be one of the Rangers' biggest 2011 surprises.
Clay Buchholz, Boston Red Sox: Just because the Red Sox were willing to lock him up long-term hardly means Buchholz's fantasy owners are prepared to. One of fantasy's best in 2010, the right-hander has been one of the game's worst through two starts, his five home runs allowed in 10 innings alarming for a pitcher who had ground-ball rates of 50 percent or higher in both 2009 and 2010. A 31.3 home run/fly ball percentage has had a lot to do with that, and some correction should be expected, but it's worth the reminder that Buchholz's 5.6 number in the category from a year ago wasn't likely to be repeated, either. It also doesn't help that the Red Sox's infield defense isn't quite as vaunted as it was in 2010; losing Adrian Beltre to the Rangers drops them back a step in that department. Buchholz should improve with time, but it's becoming all the more obvious he's more of a 14-win, 3.50-ERA type than the 17/2.33 performer he was last season.
Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays: His is a bright and promising career ahead, but for 2011 alone, there are concerns. First and foremost is that, despite the Rays' 16-run outburst at Fenway Park on Monday, theirs isn't quite as potent an offense as the one that averaged 4.95 runs per game in 2010. The 2011 Rays might be more of a 4.40-4.50 runs-per-game team, so Hellickson's win potential might not be as great as it could be. Second, he's a 24-year-old who logged 114 innings in 2009 and 155 2/3 in 2010, so a possible innings cap could be in order late in the year (perhaps in the 180-185 range). Third and perhaps most importantly, his command hasn't been quite as sharp as expected; he walked five in 11 spring innings and already has seven in 11 regular-season frames, which is a lot for a pitcher who walked 2.12 per nine during his minor league career. Hellickson's upside might be that of a top-25 fantasy starter, but there are enough questions surrounding him that it might be 2012 before he finally gets there.
Tim Stauffer, San Diego Padres: A sabermetric preseason sleeper -- and one of mine at that -- Stauffer hasn't impressed during his first two regular-season starts, his 3 K's in 10 2/3 innings and 24.4 line-drive rate allowed showing that hitters aren't having much trouble handling his stuff. What I wonder: A hip injury derailed some of his mid-spring momentum, perhaps leading to the dreaded "dead-arm period" referred to above. Or maybe Stauffer's hip remains an issue? Whatever the reason, he's a riskier fantasy play in the short term, even on a matchups basis.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.
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