Commentary

Be patient with early-season stats

Don't get too concerned with struggles from your top draft picks

Updated: April 21, 2010, 11:31 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Patience, patience, my friends!

No matter how many times we preach it, no matter how many times we reply to questions like, "Are you worried about so-and-so-slow-starting-early-round-pick?" with a concise, "Nope," it's apparent that a sizable number of fantasy owners aren't listening. Knee-jerk reactions and itchy trigger fingers are all the rage.

Hit Parade

I'd say "it's understandable," but that's not entirely true. It's not understandable that, after weeks of preseason preparation on top of hours of draft-day roster building, people are willing to deconstruct their teams based upon only a small handful of days' worth of statistics.

Folks, there are 15 days of baseball now in the books. (In this case tossing aside the Sunday night opener, since Major League Baseball itself counts the first Monday its official "Opening Day.")

I'll wait a moment while you digest that number. OK, while you do that, I'll put that into a little statistical perspective: That represents 8.4 percent of the entire 2010 baseball season. That's roughly one-twelfth of the season, meaning that the sample size of stats we've just experienced will happen 11 more times.

To steal an oft-used idea from our own Keith Law, in order to help put this all into perspective, today, let's have a little fun with small sample sizes. Let's turn the calendar back by one year, and give you a sense of just where we were at through exactly 15 days of last season.

As of the morning of Tuesday, April 21, 2009:

Carlos Quentin was the major league leader in home runs with 7. (He hit only one in the season's next 15 days, and 21 total for the season.)

Emilio Bonifacio was fourth in the majors in runs scored (13), sixth in stolen bases (four) and was batting .316. (He batted only .243 from that point forward.)

Todd Helton was batting .231 with only two extra-base hits, both doubles. (He batted .333 with 54 extra-base hits the remainder of the year.)

Ryan Braun was batting .222 with one home run. (He was 5-for-5 with two home runs on the 16th day of the season, and batted .327 with 31 homers and 18 stolen bases from the 16th day forward.)

Endy Chavez had 20 hits, more than all but five other players. (He had only 24 more all year, and granted, part of that was because he got hurt in June, but still, those 24 more hits resulted in a .218 batting average in his next 41 games.)

There are countless other examples of players who started hot and quickly cooled, and other stars who started slow and soon after returned to form, in 2009. Many of these players can be found in the "Hit Parade" of April 6, which detailed players who typically under- or overachieve historically during the month of April.

Prince Fielder
Jerry Lai/US PresswirePrince Fielder seems to have a knack for slow starts, but stick with him the whole year and he should be fine.

But if you're fretting 2010's early returns, there might be no greater basis for patience than this next one, the granddaddy of them all. See if you can name this player, based upon his stats from the first 15 days of each of the past two seasons:

2008: .222 AVG, 0 HRs, 6 RBIs, 5 R in 13 G.
2009: .175 AVG, 1 HR, 7 RBIs, 3 R in 12 G.

Those stats belonged to Prince Fielder, the No. 6 player in terms of average draft position this spring. How scary does his first-15-days stat line look now?

2010: .244 AVG, 0 HRs, 3 RBIs, 6 R in 12 G.

Not to suggest that the season's first 15 days are entirely meaningless, however. Just as with the 11 sample sizes that follow it, the season's first set sometimes can offer a glimpse into things to come. Returning to that April 21, 2009, leaderboard:

Aaron Hill was the major league leader in hits, and was batting .365 with four homers and 14 RBIs. (He hit 32 more homers and drove in 94 more runs.)

Alexei Ramirez had a .125 batting average without an extra-base hit. (Yes, he batted .289 from that point forward, but with only 30 extra-base hits, making him a considerable disappointment compared to his preseason expectations.)

Chris Davis was hitting .179 and had struck out 18 times in 39 at-bats. (He struck out 132 more times and suffered a brief demotion to the minors.)

Jason Bartlett was batting .429 and had five stolen bases. (He batted .310 from that point forward and added another 25 steals.)

Adam Lind had 12 RBIs, 11 runs scored and was hitting .352. (He had 102 more RBIs, 82 more runs scored, hit 32 more homers and batted .300 from then on.)

A few conclusions we can draw from this: One is that baseball players' performances, in general, can be unpredictable. Remember, this is a game of probabilities, not guarantees, and if you'd like to claim that you could have predicted all 11 of these examples' finishes to 2009 based simply upon their first-15-days numbers, either you're lying or I need you to pick me some lottery numbers.

The other is that the stronger the hitter's reputation, the more likely he is to put a slow start behind him. There's a reason you select Fielder in the early rounds, and that reason is that he's one of the game's most talented players, more than capable of overcoming any 15-day funk. Conversely, the more unproven the player, the more unpredictable his performance over the long haul.

Here's a succinct way of putting it: Take your league's draft results, and that's the order, roughly, with which you should have patience in your picks.

Obviously a 5-for-40, 0-homer 15 days for your second-round pick should be nowhere near as disconcerting as if it came from that 20th-round pick you made where you were merely trying to fill an open position. Sure, it might feel like the second-rounder's slow start hurts more, but the reality is that it's the 20th-rounder's performance that requires immediate attention.

To help you on your way, let's take a quick look at some of the most asked about players by concerned fantasy owners:

Carlos Lee: Be patient, be patient, be patient, and I know that's easier to say than do when a consensus sixth-round pick is just 5-for-48 without an extra-base hit. However, the Houston Astros as an offense stink thus far, and it's foolish to make any long-term determinations about Lee when the lineup has been missing Lance Berkman, whose return this week might help. If Lee goes 5-for-48 without an extra-base hit in the next 15 days, then we'll talk.

Mike Napoli: Some panic is warranted, being that he has four starts in 14 games as the Los Angeles Angels appear to prefer Jeff Mathis' skills handling the pitching staff over Napoli's immense power.

Jose Guillen: Absolutely buy in, because Guillen has demonstrated on countless occasions in the past half-decade that when he's on and he's healthy, he can rival even top fantasy outfielders. The caveat: He's not nearly as trustworthy over an 162-game schedule as most top fantasy outfielders, so you can count on there being a date at which it's time to let him go. (Perhaps July? We'll see.)

Vernon Wells: I still refuse to buy, at least at the price that his numbers might fetch today. The guy is still riding high off a season-opening series at bandbox Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, and the aforementioned April 6 "Hit Parade" did list him as a classic April stud. Sell now, because you're running out of time.

David Ortiz
Elsa/Getty ImagesFor the second straight year, David Ortiz is off to a very slow start. Can he rebound like he did in 2009?

David Ortiz: He's one player who traditionally starts slowly but for whom you should have some long-term concern, and it's that this is the second consecutive year he has started terribly slowly. Check out Ortiz's returns during the season's first 15 days of each of the past two years:

2009: .196 AVG, 0 HRs, 6 RBIs, 4 R, 15 K in 51 ABs
2010: .158 AVG, 0 HRs, 2 RBIs, 2 R, 15 K in 38 ABs

Ortiz is also 34 years old, so while he's certain to improve -- other than if he retires, where else can his numbers go from here -- there's a good chance that this represents the steep downward slope of his career.

Billy Butler: More than a few people have asked what I think about his "slow start," but how is a .294 batting average and 10 RBIs a "slow start"? If you think this, you're the kind of spring turkey upon which buy-low vultures feast.

Jason Bay: Keep in mind he's adapting to new surroundings with a team that calls a spacious ballpark its home, not to mention one that performed miserably the first two weeks. Maybe Ike Davis' promotion will inject some life into this offense; it sure seemed to on Monday night.

Magglio Ordonez: Can't say I entirely trust the guy coming off his down 2009, but one thing that stood out about that campaign was his 51.0 percent ground-ball rate, which was an astronomical number by his standards. Through 15 days he has that number down to 40.4 percent, which is actually beneath his 43.9 number since 2002 (per FanGraphs). Maybe there's something here.

Four up

Nelson Cruz, OF, Texas Rangers: If you're not ready to embrace him as a viable top-25 candidate among all hitters, you're missing out. Cruz continues to excel regardless of venue, with power to all fields, which presents him a tremendous opportunity to challenge for the American League's home run crown. In fact, about the only thing standing in his way of a possible 40-homer, double digit-steal campaign is the threat of injuries, which have dogged him in the past.

Cameron Maybin, OF, Florida Marlins: The Marlins' new leadoff hitter, Maybin might not fit the prototype, but his owners shouldn't complain about the help he'll get in terms of both runs scored and stolen bases. In fact, the team is exercising a similar strategy that Maybin's fantasy owners -- or prospective ones -- should: Ride the hot streak. He has a .377 on-base percentage thus far, a number sure to come down somewhat, but who's to say he can't be a 20/20 player who reaches the century mark in runs if he does enough to stick in his new role?

Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates: Even when he's not hitting up to his full potential -- he sports a .250 batting average and one home run -- McCutchen seems to find ways to help his fantasy owners. He's already the major league leader in stolen bases (seven, tied with Rajai Davis, Brett Gardner and Scott Podsednik), and his plate-discipline numbers couldn't be better. According to Inside Edge, his chase percentage early in the count is a mere eight (compared to a 17 percent major league average) and his chase percentage on non-competitive pitches (not near the strike zone) is 11 (18 average). If McCutchen is working the count and trying to find ways to get on base this effectively during his so-so hitting spells, can you imagine what he might contribute when he's performing at peak levels?

Casey McGehee, 3B/2B, Milwaukee Brewers: Fantasy owners sometimes have a hard time trusting players who spend years toiling in Triple-A only to break through at the big league level closer to their 30th birthdays, but every once in a while a gem manages to hang around for a few productive years. McGehee sure seems to fit the bill, batting .400 with four home runs through his first 12 games, and with Mat Gamel still on the disabled list and Rickie Weeks always a candidate for it, regular at-bats should be his all year.

Four down

Chris Davis, 1B, Texas Rangers: Buster Olney has a good take on the Davis situation, and I agree with Olney's assessment that Davis' job might soon be threatened by top prospect Justin Smoak, off to a smoking hot (pardon the pun) start with Triple-A Oklahoma City. Smoak is batting .333 with two home runs in 12 games there, but more importantly has drawn 14 walks in 53 plate appearances. Davis, meanwhile, is batting .222 with no home runs and 13 K's in 36 at-bats.

Chris Coghlan, OF, Florida Marlins: Does the dreaded sophomore slump have this speedy on-base specialist in its clutches? It sure seems like it, judging by Coghlan's two walks in 49 plate appearances, which is entirely out of character for this youngster who averaged one walk per 8.45 PAs during his minor league career, and once per 10.66 during his Rookie of the Year campaign. As they say, "You can't steal first base." The Marlins already dropped Coghlan from first to second in the batting order, and at this rate he might soon slip into the bottom third.

Kurt Suzuki, C, Oakland Athletics: He's one of the sneakier top-10 candidates at his respective position, but through 15 days Suzuki's numbers look even less attractive than some little-used backup catchers. For example: Donny Lucy, who has all of six at-bats, ranks six spots higher on the Player Rater among catchers. Suzuki's owners can't help but be patient, being that he'll continue to get everyday at-bats since his backup, Jake Fox, is better suited to a corner infield or designated hitter role. But it's frustrating to swallow these stats, especially since last April, Suzuki was on quite the tear (.343 AVG, 8 RBIs in 17 games).

Dexter Fowler, OF, Colorado Rockies: Speaking of sophomore slumps, Fowler's slow start to the season bears watching mainly because of the intense amount of competition in the Rockies' outfield, not to mention the team's playoff aspirations resulting in lesser patience than another team might have. Carlos Gonzalez and Brad Hawpe are off to strong starts, and while Seth Smith is batting .188, his numbers in the clutch should have the Rockies tempted to increase his playing time. Don't bail on Fowler yet, but be concerned.

Pickups of the week

Mixed: Ty Wigginton, 3B/1B, Baltimore Orioles. Reports in the Baltimore Sun describe Brian Roberts' status as something measured more by "weeks" than "days," and it's worth noting that Wigginton has started five games at second base during Roberts' absence, not to mention four more at the corner infield spots in the Orioles' past 10 games. Wigginton is getting the at-bats to help in deeper leagues right now, and he's not a far cry from second base eligibility. Once he gets that, he'll be well worth middle-infielder status in all formats, and if you're worried about his playing time upon Roberts' return, don't forget that Wigginton did log 436 plate appearances serving mostly as a utilityman last season.

AL-only: Fred Lewis, OF, Toronto Blue Jays. He was a smart little pickup by the Blue Jays, who through 15 days have endured all of a .143 batting average and 12 strikeouts in 42 at-bats from opening-day left fielder Travis Snider. Lewis is a speed demon, having topped 20 stolen bases on four occasions during his professional career, and he has started each of the Blue Jays' past two games in left field. If you're hurting in the steals category, he's well worth a pickup.

NL-only: Ike Davis, 1B, New York Mets. It's a bit of a cheat, because Davis might have been plucked in the late/reserve rounds of many NL-only drafts, especially those that occurred late during spring training, not to mention he's as adequate a pickup in deeper mixed formats as NL-only. Still, he deserves a place in this week's column, does he not? Davis is a must-add in this format, and that's in spite of some of the reservations with his swing expressed by Jason Grey last October and reiterated by John Kruk on the Monday edition of "Baseball Tonight." Even if Davis is only a short-term sparkplug, enjoy the ride while it lasts.

New position qualifiers

10 games: Gordon Beckham (2B), Geoff Blum (1B), Blake DeWitt (2B), Chone Figgins (2B), Troy Glaus (1B), Jose Lopez (3B), Placido Polanco (3B) and Miguel Tejada (3B).

Five games: Reid Brignac (2B), Pedro Feliz (1B), Cristian Guzman (2B), Andruw Jones (OF), Adam Kennedy (1B), Felipe Lopez (SS), Nick Punto (3B), Adam Rosales (2B) and Ty Wigginton (2B).

One game: Eric Chavez (1B), Alex Cora (1B), Willie Harris (3B), Conor Jackson (1B), Paul Janish (3B), Joe Mather (3B), Mike McCoy (SS), Adam Rosales (SS), Omar Vizquel (2B) and Delwyn Young (3B).

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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