Reacting to odd-looking starts to 2011
Will Pujols, Jeter, Bruce stay cold? Can Martin, Bloomquist keep up the pace?
Thirteen days can feel like an eternity.
Maybe it's the excitement of a new season, the impressions of a small sample size of statistics that would have a greater likelihood of being concealed if they happened in August, or general impatience on fantasy owners' parts. Whatever the reason, it seems like year after year, the same types of questions come rolling in about hot and cold starters, just with different names in the list.
We're so reactionary when it comes to small sample sizes -- the very topic of Tuesday's "60 Feet 6 Inches" -- and I wonder whether there's a tendency for us to put more emphasis on a hitter's early-season performance than a pitcher's. After all, many hitters have 10 games' worth of data already. Most pitchers, comparatively speaking, have only 2-3 starts under their belts.
Put it this way: There seems to be a lot more outrage over Pujols' 9-for-45 start than there is Felix Hernandez's 4.50 ERA. Yes, a .200 batting average is the more troublesome number of the two, but I can't help but wonder whether it's the eight additional games that Pujols has played that has his owners more worried. It's as if they consider Hernandez's sample small, but Pujols' more sizeable.
The fact is, both sets of statistics represent small sample sizes. But that doesn't make either irrelevant, nor does it guarantee relevance for either. Remember the lessons of 60 Feet 6 Inches; any stat set can be meaningful, but you need to find some other supporting evidence before you act.
Let's take a slightly different approach today. Beginning with the eight names above, let's look at some early-season hitting samples, and see whether they matter:
• Albert Pujols is batting .200 and slugging .267. My immediate reaction is that it's ludicrous to worry about Pujols' poor numbers this early in a season, one in which he was the No. 1 pick off the board in practically any draft. But I've heard the counterarguments: "He's pressing because of his contract status." "He's pulling everything." "He's hitting oodles of ground balls and no line drives." There's merit to that last one: Pujols' ground-ball rate is 53.7 percent and line-drive rate 14.6 percent, each of those his worst numbers in either category. However, there's nothing in his profile that suggests he's likely to stray so far from his career numbers (40.6 and 19.2), since his contact rate is unchanged and he isn't swinging any more often at bad pitches (22.1 percent swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone) than he did in 2010 (27.5). He has also always been a bit of a pull hitter; per Inside Edge, he has pulled 58.5 percent of his balls in play to the left side since the beginning of last season. Could he be pressing due to impending free agency? Perhaps, but in many cases that's a motivating factor, not a hindrance. Ultimately, a dismissive "small sample size" comment is appropriate here.
• Jay Bruce has 0 homers and 15 K's in 41 at-bats. The strikeouts are frustrating, but we knew he was going to strike out a lot -- he whiffed 136 times in 2010 -- and as such, he'd be prone to some brutal cold spells. Perhaps this is simply one or, maybe, could it be that he tends to save his better numbers for later in the year? This might be true, considering his career numbers before the All-Star break (.243 AVG/.313 OBP/.433 SLG) compared to after (.276/.343/.527). Don't panic (yet). And for more on Bruce's prospects, check out Jason Grey's blog.
• Derek Jeter is batting .206 and has one extra-base hit. He also has a 79.3 percent ground-ball and 10.3 percent line-drive rate, has made contact on only 80.7 percent of his swings -- noticeably down from any of his numbers in the past half-decade -- and is just 4-for-26 (.154) against right-handed pitching, one of his major problem areas in 2010. A Yankee-fan friend of mine and I recently discussed Jeter's struggles since my friend is already deep into panic mode; I found myself able only to offer "law-of-averages" defenses for the New York Yankees captain. Those batted-ball percentages are pretty unsustainable and should return somewhat closer to his 57.1 and 20.1 career numbers, at which point his batting average should climb. But that's a flimsy argument and it still probably means nothing more than what Jeter offered you in 2010, which wasn't equal to what you paid for him. Panic is indeed acceptable. It doesn't mean cut him, but it means don't be hooked by another owner shopping him hoping you'll bite on his name value.
• Russell Martin has a career-best .977 OPS. The news isn't all bad for the Yankees; Martin has turned into an exceptional find, at least judging by the returns so far. What his hot start has done is ease any worry of a setback due to his December knee surgery, and as a member of the Yankees' lineup, his runs/RBI potential is greater than it would be almost anywhere else. Buy the fact that he's in a more potent lineup, a more hitter-friendly venue and that he's completely healthy. Beware, however, that he's not walking -- 3.1 percent rate -- and has a history of cooling off late in seasons in which he started hot. This is a top-10 potential fantasy catcher, but a sell-high candidate for midsummer.
TOP 125 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 125 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
• Willie Bloomquist is batting .349 and has six stolen bases. He has always been fast, stealing as many as 25 bases as recently as 2009, but Bloomquist's path to success depends upon finding a regular spot in the lineup. Since Stephen Drew returned to the lineup this past Friday, Bloomquist has started four of five games in left field, the most realistic spot for him to man regularly. He is a .266/.318/.340 lifetime hitter, but is now 33 years old. We've probably found our 2011 Emilio Bonifacio (referencing his white-hot 2009 opening week).
• Alex Gordon is batting .340. This coming on the heels of a scorching spring performance during which he had .343/.459/.729 numbers in 24 games, so there's every reason to get excited about this former top prospect's full-season potential. Gordon's confidence is improved, he's comfortable hitting out of the 3-hole and his line-drive rate is 27.8 percent, which supports his early hot streak even if it's a bit unsustainable (think something more like 22 percent). If he can merely stay healthy, he might indeed be ready to break out.
• Ben Zobrist has .190/.277/.357 rates and 11 K's. That comes on the heels of what was a terribly disappointing 2010, during which his two most valuable assets were his abilities to draw a walk and steal a base, neither of which he has exploited thus far in 2011. Zobrist's swinging strike rate has risen to 9.7 percent (compared to 6.3 career) and his contact rate on all swings has dropped to 73.0 percent (83.5 career), which means the true Zobrist might be the one we saw last season, not two years ago. As a second base-eligible player he's still valuable, but even at that position he might struggle to crack the top 10.
• Shin-Soo Choo is batting .190 and slugging .262. Would it help to be reminded that Choo's spring numbers were as positive as his early regular-season numbers are negative? He was a .322/.412/.593 hitter during the exhibition season, and while his 60 percent ground-ball and 10 percent line-drive rates are frustrating, there's little in his peripherals to hint at a hidden injury or declining skills. If not, how about this: He was a .143/.333/.286 hitter in his first six games of 2010 (.083/.154/.208 through six this year), so maybe it's just a "first-week jitters" thing. Choo has batted .300-plus and gone 20/20 in each of the past three seasons, so there's no reason to think that, at age 28, he can't do it again.
Asdrubal Cabrera, Cleveland Indians: It took him 10 games to hit more home runs (4) than he did in 97 games the entire 2010 season (3), and amazingly, power is not the reason you took a chance on Cabrera in the early rounds. No, the reason you did that was his ability to hit for a respectable batting average -- his career number is .285 -- while chipping in healthy numbers in runs scored and stolen bases. The power is a surprise and shouldn't be expected to continue at this rate -- 12 homers is probably a realistic expectation -- but keep in mind, Cabrera was a .308/.361/.438 hitter in his last full season in 2009, and a .287/.322/.368 hitter before fracturing his forearm last May. There's top-10 fantasy shortstop potential here, though partly due to the lack of depth at that position.
Carlos Quentin, Chicago White Sox: Doesn't it feel like we've been waiting forever for Quentin to finally realize his long-advertised superstar potential? Sure, there was that 36-homer, 100-RBI season he had in 2008, but injuries, inconsistency and bad habits have sunk practically every other year for him. Still, Quentin has averaged 32 homers and 101 RBIs per 162 games played in the big leagues, so no one should be surprised he's off to a hot start. His contact rate (85.7 percent) is a career high so far, his line-drive rate (16.7 percent) is too, and he's driving the ball like never before (career-best 52.8 fly-ball percentage). Considering he calls U.S. Cellular Field his home, Quentin's 10.5 home run/fly ball percentage is actually low for him -- maybe by a considerable amount -- so there's every reason to believe he might have more to offer in the coming weeks. Assuming two things, of course: one, he stays healthy, and two, he remains locked in at the plate!
Jose Tabata, Pittsburgh Pirates: There's so much to like about Tabata's hot start, and not simply the .342 batting average, two home runs and five stolen bases. How about the walks? He has seven, representing 14.9 percent of his plate appearances, and all of his plate-discipline numbers support it; he has swung at pitches outside of the strike zone only 10.8 percent of the time (31.9 in 2010), and swung and missed only 5.8 percent of the time (8.2). Also, if you care to criticize his 64.7 percent ground-ball rate, you shouldn't, as Tabata has the speed to leg out enough grounders to keep his batting average high. Sure enough, he already has three infield hits, fifth-most in the majors. Perhaps pitchers will catch on with time and challenge him more, but there's nothing in his profile that suggests he can't at least match his 2010 per-game numbers. That's effectively a .300 batting average, 30 steals and 95 runs, making him quite the underrated outfielder.
Chone Figgins, Seattle Mariners: Maybe it wasn't the adjustment to a new team or new position that caused his 2010 offensive struggles after all; maybe Figgins really isn't as good a hitter as he showed in 2009. Now back at third base, a position at which he was supposed to be more comfortable, Figgins is off to a comparably slow start, with .158/.195/.289 rates. Most disturbingly, he's not even walking like he did in the past, which was both a strength of his and necessary for him to make the impact fantasy owners expected in the stolen-base department; his walk rate has slipped to a career-low 4.9 percent. Figgins appears to still possess the speed to swipe 40 bases provided the opportunities, but he's going to need to boost his on-base percentage closer to his .358 career mark to get them. Right now, he has but two assets in fantasy: his speed, and his multi-position eligibility. Unfortunately, neither makes him an automatic top-10 option at either spot.
Brett Gardner, New York Yankees: Painful memories of Gardner's second-half slide in 2010 (.233/.366/.332 rates) might soon come roaring back, now that he has gotten off to a comparably slow start to 2011 (.167/.265/.267). For as speedy a player as he is, and knowledgeable of the strike zone, Gardner has had an extremely hard time making consistent contact since last July; he struck out in 25.2 percent of his second-half at-bats last summer and has now whiffed 30.0 percent of the time so far this year. People tend to think of him as one of the most attractive fantasy speedsters around, but that's primarily due to his spot atop the potent Yankee lineup. It's true that his ability to draw walks and his base-stealing prowess will always keep him in any fantasy lineup, but it was a mistake to think he would be an elite performer in three categories (batting average, runs, steals). He's a good player, not a great player.
Carlos Pena, Chicago Cubs: If the move to Chicago and the National League was supposed to rejuvenate him, we haven't seen any signs of it yet. Through nine games and 36 plate appearances, he has one extra-base hit -- a double -- four hits overall (.185 average) and 10 strikeouts. Pitchers seem to try to paint the corners against him as much as ever; his 38.7 percent of pitches seen in the strike zone is a career low. As strikeout-prone as Pena is, we've long known that he's susceptible to miserable cold spells, but he's in a tricky situation with the Cubs, who have four outfielders for three spots and have already shown a willingness to use No. 4 man Tyler Colvin at first base as necessary. Pena's cold spell could be a fleeting thing, but it could also extend long enough that he drops into some sort of time-share. And the point to owning him is the counting numbers -- the 30-homer, 100-RBI potential.
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.