Commentary

Hit Parade: Annual slow starters

Updated: April 7, 2010, 12:41 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Hit Parade
Mark Teixeira stinks.

The nerve of that guy, going 0-for-4 on opening night and drawing one measly walk while every other New York Yankees hitter except Nick Johnson had at least one hit. For (roughly) $123,456.78 per night -- and that's no joke, go ahead and divide $20 million by 162 and see for yourself -- this was all he could offer?

OK, so I'm being facetious, and considering how many people out there these days preach patience in fantasy baseball, it's not like any of Teixeira's owners are worried … yet. He's not going to be available on a slew of leagues' waiver wires nor is he a buy-low candidate. At least, not on April 6, he's not.

But, sometimes, doesn't that reaction feel appropriate when one of your core players puts forth a stinker in the season's early stages? It's frustrating to watch a first-round pick go 0-for-4 in the opener, go 1-for-21 in Week 1 or have a batting average hovering around .130 a week past Tax Day.

Small sample sizes those are, but without any other current data for comparison, early April samples can sometimes feel at least as relevant as (and probably more so than) any other "small sample size" in the sport. After all, these are official, full-season statistics; it's only natural that you might look at them with the same scrutiny as you might stats accrued over 162 games. To put it another way, a .130 batting average over a three-week period at the beginning of the season means a hitter is batting .130. A .130 batting average over a three-week period in September means a .290 hitter might now be batting .273, and despite that having an equal impact on your team's numbers, you might not notice it as easily.

Here's the problem: Certain players have a tendency to start the season slow, so if you draft them, you need to be prepared for their annual April struggles.

That's where we return to the topic of Teixeira. He's an awful hitter in the month of April, and a terror once he gets the All-Star break in his rearview mirror. There's no better way to demonstrate that than listing these batting averages he carried into various dates in the month of May throughout his career: .188 (through May 6, 2003), .185 (May 12, 2004), .256 (May 3, 2005), .258 (May 6, 2006), .223 (May 1, 2007), .240 (May 16, 2008) and .182 (May 9, 2009). To put those into perspective, his season-ending batting average in those years has always been at least 24 points higher than each of those May numbers, and his career number in the category is .290 -- 32 points higher than any of them.

It might be easy for someone who didn't draft Teixeira -- as I (surprisingly) did not -- to tell you this, but if you were one of those who helped contribute to his 10.8 average draft position (10th overall) in ESPN leagues, this is something you had to know and prepare for when you selected him. Owning Teixeira, like any typical slow-starter, requires patience. If you lack it, you should've picked someone else.

But Teixeira isn't the only early round pick with a proclivity for poor Aprils. Listed in order of their preseason ADPs, here are eight notable fantasy names, many of them superstars, with whom you need be patient through their usual slow starts:

Ryan Howard, 1B, Philadelphia Phillies: Though he went deep on Opening Day -- only the second time he has done that (he first did it in 2006) -- his career OPS in the season's opening month is .793, more than 150 points lower than his overall number (.961). Perhaps more surprisingly, he has never hit more than five home runs in any March/April, but has surpassed that monthly total on 20 other occasions during his career, including every other month during the past four seasons except June 2008 (he hit "only" five then). If Howard's bat goes quiet for the remainder of April, don't panic and assume his career decline has arrived; he's obviously the kind of slugger who needs a couple of weeks to find his power stroke.

Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado Rockies: Wow, can you believe this guy is a career .194/.289/.328 (AVG/OBP/SLG) hitter in March/April, with .244/.340/.400 bests in any single opening month? Sure, it's only a three-season sample size, but it speaks volumes about the level of patience you should have with Tulowitzki early on.

Matt Holliday, OF, St. Louis Cardinals: Granted, his poor first month with the Oakland Athletics last season (.240/.288/.360) is largely responsible for his inclusion on this list, but Holliday has nevertheless registered an OPS beneath .800 in three of his past five March/Aprils. By comparison, he has fallen short of an .800 OPS in the season's final five months only three times total -- and that's out of 25 months. Even if Holliday starts slow, there's no reason to doubt his skills, especially not with superstar Albert Pujols getting on base oodles of times ahead of him.

Robinson Cano, 2B, New York Yankees: Much has been made of Cano's troubles performing with runners in scoring position, as he has .255/.291/.397 career rates in those situations and has experienced a decrease in OPS in that department in each of the past three seasons, but it's his early season struggles that should trouble fantasy owners most. Though he tore off .366/.400/.581 numbers in the season's first month in 2009, for his career his March/April OPS is just .709. What's more, his early season woes typically extend into May, where his career OPS is .713, meaning if you drafted Cano early, you'll need to be extremely patient.

Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Boston Red Sox: Before you get too excited about his opening-night home run, keep in mind Pedroia also homered in the Red Sox's opener in 2009, then didn't go deep again until May 31. He also kicked off his first full season (in 2007) with a .180 batting average through his first 22 games, his second season with a .250 mark through 11 games and his third season with a .235 clip through 12 games, but remember that this is a career .307 hitter. If Pedroia is an opening-night wonder who goes dormant the next couple of weeks, don't panic.

Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Washington Nationals: Many people know of Zimmerman's second-half exploits, but what they might be unaware of is how quiet his bat tends to be in the season's opening month. Compare his numbers: He's a .248/.306/.404 career hitter in March/April, and a .292/.355/.494 career hitter the remainder of the year. If Zimmerman starts slowly, it's not because his 2009 was a complete aberration; it might simply be that he's doing what he usually does in April.

Carlos Pena, 1B, Tampa Bay Rays: The 2009 campaign was really the first time in Pena's career he started off hot, as he clubbed nine home runs and drove in 24 runs with a .968 OPS in March/April. Overall, however, he's a career .217 hitter with a .753 OPS in the season's opening month, and if you flash back to his breakout 2007, he should consider himself lucky to have gotten an opportunity at all, being that he had just .213/.240/.468 numbers in that month. Pena struggled a bit this spring, batting .176, and if that extends into April, don't press the panic button.

Michael Cuddyer, 1B/OF, Minnesota Twins: He's traditionally invisible in March/April, with a .690 career OPS in the month, so even if you want to write him off as a two-year wonder (2006 and 2009) if he begins 2010 slowly, it's just as likely that he's following his usual trend. Take a look at those two great years of Cuddyer's: In 2006, he was scarcely a regular in March/April, starting but nine of the Twins' 24 games, and in 2009 he was a .224/.318/.316 hitter in the opening month. With the Twins adapting to life in a new ballpark, not to mention playing 16 of their first 25 games on the road, Cuddyer might again struggle to perform early on.

A final thought on sluggish starters -- and for an even more comprehensive list, see the chart at column's end: The collective major league OPS in March/April the past five seasons was .746, nine points beneath its full-season number during that span (.755). Granted, in 2009, the league OPS in March/April (.762) turned out to be higher -- significantly higher -- than the full-year number (.751), but in each of the previous four years the collective OPS was lower in March/April than for the entire season as a whole, three of those times by 10 points or more. In fact, in 10 of the past 15 years, the league's March/April OPS was lower, which hints that pitchers might have an ever-so-slight advantage in the season's early weeks.

Four up

Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta Braves: He made the Braves' opening-day roster, started in right field and belted Monday's longest home run in terms of true distance, measured at 433 feet according to ESPN Stats & Information, on his first career at-bat at that. A Braves rookie outfielder hitting a homer in his first career at-bat might stir memories of Jordan Schafer, who also did it last year, but there's no other comparison between the two; Heyward has the clear brighter future.

Garrett Jones, 1B/OF, Pittsburgh Pirates: Two opening-day homers has a way of catching fantasy owners' eyes, but this longtime minor leaguer has always had a powerful bat. Jones averaged 23 homers per year between the majors and minors from 2005 to 2009.

Sean Rodriguez, 2B/OF, Rays: He's already got multipositional eligibility, and is penciled into the Rays' opening-day lineup at second base. Rodriguez parlayed an excellent spring -- .460 batting average, six homers in 63 at-bats -- into a roster spot on this team, and with right fielder Matt Joyce on the disabled list, he might see almost everyday at-bats for now.

Brian McCann, C, Braves: You decide how much his bloated spring numbers -- .500 batting average, four homers in 42 at-bats -- matter to you, but McCann did extend the performance into Opening Day, clubbing a home run and adding two walks. It seems LASIK eye surgery has helped him feel more comfortable at the plate, meaning McCann might have a straight path to the No. 2 spot at his position.

Four down

Ian Kinsler, 2B, Texas Rangers: A high-ankle sprain landed him on the disabled list to begin the season, and considering a healthy chunk of Kinsler's fantasy value comes from his ability to steal bases, his rehabilitation will be worth monitoring closely. He's eligible to return April 10, but it wouldn't be shocking to see him miss two or three weeks of the season, then struggle initially upon his return.

Corey Hart, OF, Milwaukee Brewers: Again, it's up to you how much spring statistics matter -- my opinion is that they generally do not -- but Hart's ghastly .172 batting average and 18 strikeouts in 64 at-bats are tough to discard. The Milwaukee Brewers sure seem like they can't discard them, benching him for matchup purposes on Opening Day. If that's the way Ken Macha plans to shuffle his outfielders, Hart's value is going to suffer.

Travis Snider, OF, Toronto Blue Jays: Another strikeout king from the preseason, Snider whiffed 16 times in 56 Grapefruit League at-bats … then promptly whiffed three times in four at-bats on Opening Day. He has worlds of potential, especially in the power department, but could really stand some improvement in his plate discipline.

Geovany Soto, C, Chicago Cubs: He's a bounce-back candidate for sure, but Soto ended the Cactus League season on a sour note, with a final batting average of .216 and 12 whiffs in 37 at-bats, then he went hitless with a strikeout in three at-bats in the season opener. Soto's miserable .218 batting average last season is still somewhat fresh in his owners' minds, so we'll see just how patient they'll be with him.

Pickups of the week

Mixed: Kyle Blanks, OF, San Diego Padres: I've mentioned this name countless times on these pages, I've drafted this guy in countless leagues, and I'll keep singing his praises until I'm blue in the face. But it all stops here, because this is officially your last chance to snatch up Blanks in a mixed league. His ownership percentage in ESPN leagues is up to 58.0, and he hit another home run on Opening Day, after belting 10 in a 54-game stint in 2009. This might be the cheapest 30 home runs you'll find out there, so stop sweating the ballpark and get him. Now.

AL-only: Eric Chavez, 3B, Oakland Athletics: I feel dirty just recommending him, but Chavez did apparently do enough to earn the Athletics' trust as their primary designated hitter, and that Jake Fox's primary role on the roster is as the backup catcher ensures Chavez should get a few weeks to attempt a rebound. He's as brittle as anyone, but for a cheap, cheap bid in this format, why not? Perhaps the DH role might help preserve him longer.

NL-only: Jim Edmonds, OF, Milwaukee Brewers: Another seemingly ancient player, but Edmonds was the guy who started ahead of Hart on Opening Day, and it's clear the Brewers regard him as an important starter versus right-handed pitching. He wowed the scouts throughout spring training and had .250/.362/.521 numbers versus righties in his most recent year in the majors in 2008. There's value in that.

New position qualifiers

In future weeks, this section will list players who actually have earned new position qualification, but with only one game in the books for most teams (and zero for the Baltimore Orioles and Rays), let's take a look at some notable names who made opening-day appearances at positions where they did not qualify entering 2010: Gordon Beckham (2B), Jeff Clement (1B), Blake DeWitt (2B), Chone Figgins (2B), Troy Glaus (1B), Jose Lopez (3B) and Placido Polanco (3B).

Final thoughts: Hot and slow starters

As mentioned above, listed below are the 25 best and worst March/April hitters, ranked in terms of OPS differential between those months and their full-year number and counting only the past five seasons (2005 to 2009). Only active players are included, and hitters had to have a minimum of 250 plate appearances in March/April during that five-year span. First, the opening month's best:

Now, the opening month's worst:

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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