Leading Off: Stay patient with slow starters
In a few weeks, it will be the seventh anniversary of the day Shawn Green taught fantasy owners a valuable lesson. I was reminded of this lesson a week ago when Dexter Fowler ran wild, and Sunday when Carl Crawford ran even wilder.
The day was May 23, 2002, when Green pounded four home runs for the Los Angeles Dodgers at Milwaukee. I watched it happen from the ESPN Bristol office, and while I didn't know it then, I won a league title that day.
What, I won a title in May? How does that happen in fantasy baseball? Well, technically it didn't happen that way, since fantasy baseball is a six-month marathon, but it's a mistake to presume something that happens in mid-September matters more -- in a roto league -- than something that occurs in May. It all counts the same.
Green was a star player for the Dodgers then, a right fielder in his prime who a year earlier had hit 49 home runs, knocked in 125 runs and even stolen 20 bases. He was a fantasy monster. Of course, like some fantasy monsters, Green struggled out of the gates the following season. In April, he hit all of three home runs, stole one base and batted .237. Fantasy owners who made him a top-10 pick were outraged.
By the time that third of week of May started, I knew a Green owner -- and there were probably many more -- who had decided he was going to bench his second-round pick that week. The Dodgers were scheduled to travel to Milwaukee and Arizona for the period, (we had a weekly transaction deadline) and I don't recall who was activated in Green's stead, but I know he didn't produce the same. Maybe it was Jeffrey Hammonds, off to a decent start that season and batting third for the Brewers that memorable Thursday afternoon.
Of course, Hammonds couldn't match Green, who smacked four home runs among his six hits, scored six runs and knocked in seven. He raised his batting average 27 points and his OPS 118 points, and suddenly his power numbers looked like the rest of the leaderboard. All from one day. I won the league title by three RBIs and percentage points in batting average over that Green -- or is it green -- owner because he sat his star that week. It's the only week he did. We all learned a valuable lesson that day. Don't sit your stars.
I think the lesson goes deeper than that, however, as we're in a time when power numbers in general -- at least last season, as it's too early to project anything from this April -- are way down from what they were in 2002. All offensive numbers are down, except stolen bases, really. I can tell you this, whenever I am asked whether I will sit a top player, I don't do it. Well, I answer the question, but I don't sit the player. I don't do it for a week, or for a day.
My benches are normally made up of pitchers not starting that day, or with hardly fortuitous matchups that week. Check my teams, you'll see Alexei Ramirez still out there at a middle infield spot. I'm stubborn. I also don't want to miss his breakout game. Think it's too late in the season? It's one month and a few days! Shawn Green entered his breakout game in 2002 with five home runs in seven weeks. Later that day he had nine home runs. Sure, he started slowly, but he finished at 42 home runs, 114 RBIs and a .285 batting average. Um, who recalls his slow start? Still think homerless Adrian Beltre can't reach 25 homers? Think again.
A few weeks ago I wrote about players I was giving up on, and I really shouldn't have been that negative, or at least I should made my point more obvious. No, I don't think David Ortiz has much left, so I wouldn't deal original market value for his services, but if I had drafted him or protected him, I would wait for him. It will get better. He's just not going to win the league MVP. Neither will Matt Holliday nor Brett Myers, other players I have seen enough of in April to know it's time I lower my expectations for the season. But I still own those guys somewhere. It's not as though dumping Big Papi to add Craig Counsell from free agency will help, at least I really hope not.
I'm in a number of daily head-to-head leagues, and I'll tell you the reason I wouldn't carry an extra bat: I don't want to sit any of my regulars. I might drop someone if I'm convinced he can't play, but I'm single-minded when it comes to benches. If I leave a hitter there, he's going to pull a Shawn Green. I know I am not alone. How many of us have missed a big game in the past because we overmanaged?
I had Dexter Fowler active in one league when he swiped five bases, but I was lucky. Another owner had dropped him, and I scooped him up. If you owned Fowler, there was no reason to have him on the bench, especially knowing no pitcher in the world ignores the running game more than the Padres' Chris Young. (Get ready, Eric Byrnes and Felipe Lopez; you face Young this week.) Well, maybe Brad Penny is the AL version now, after Carl Crawford topped Fowler's accomplishment with six stolen bases Sunday. This is huge in fantasy baseball. Most fantasy teams don't get six stolen bases in a week. In my largest league, the 19-team auction format made up mostly of those in the office, an ESPN engineer has nine steals this season! Crawford got two-thirds of that on Sunday.
I don't know who would have had Crawford on the bench, since he was second in the majors in steals entering the game anyway, and hitting for average, but won't this make you think twice about sitting Willy Taveras, for example? He enters this week at five stolen bases, one per week, if you will, but isn't doing anything else. A .269 batting average; no home runs; two RBIs; and, well, he's scoring plenty of runs, for him. This is the perfect tease.
We all know he isn't a great fantasy player to start with, a one-category horse, but what a category it is. Not only will Taveras be on many benches this week, he's owned in a mere 81.6 percent of ESPN standard mixed leagues, down a bunch in the past few days. People are giving up. People, a Fowler-type game is coming. That's Willy. Learn from the past and leave those power hitters like Jack Cust and speedsters like Michael Bourn active at all times!
When it comes to missing a big game from someone, I am very careful. I can sit Clint Barmes from a game, certain that even if he goes nuts that day, the best I'll lose is a two-homer game. I got a text from someone the other day who had given up on Ryan Spilborghs, so nobody in this relatively deep head-to-head league enjoyed his two-homer, two-steal game. In April, this guy hit one home run, stole two bases. Then on the second day of May he swats two homers, doubles his stolen base total. Amazing. I won't compare Spilborghs to Taveras, Crawford or Fowler, because I don't expect 40 stolen bases, but it does go back to the original premise: You drafted the guy, why not give him more than a month to see what he can do?
In fantasy baseball the stars do the work for you, and all the games count. If you have six worthy outfielders on your team and only five spots to use them, I normally recommend a trade. Trying to guess from day to day or week to week who the right option is will almost always backfire. You're just guessing. Consider the fact back in that May 2002 game the Brewers' starting pitcher that day was lefty Glendon Rusch, who is still pitching today on the strength of being able to retire lefty hitters like Green. I can see why someone would have benched Green that day or for the week.
It just wouldn't have been me.
Here are 10 players for whom I will be waiting another month (at least) to turn things around. I don't want to miss not only a big game, but also a big week or month or a fine season:
Lance Berkman, 1B, Astros: Still walking, still hitting for power. I still expect a big season with his plate discipline.
Adrian Beltre, 3B, Mariners: If he had one home run instead of zero, nobody would be worried. And he is running.
Russell Martin, C, Dodgers: Normally a fast starter, but no reason to think this will continue. He can run, too.
Pat Burrell, OF, Rays: I wouldn't hold out hope he plays the outfield again, though. But 25 homers, he can absolutely still get there.
Carlos Delgado, 1B, Mets: Went to the plate once this past week. Note that those 16 RBIs have come in 19 games. He'll play through the pain.
Alexei Ramirez, 2B/SS, White Sox: Just too talented to stay down much longer. He can still reach 20/20.
Chris Davis, 1B/3B, Rangers: Strikeouts don't matter. His job is secure, and he will still hit 25 home runs.
Chris Young, OF, Diamondbacks: Still think he goes 20/20, but I am backing off expecting a decent batting average ever.
Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees: Just a reminder that your window to buy low on him ends the minute he plays, which could be before the next episode of this column. Even if he struggles this month, I will continue to buy, buy, buy.
Dodgers starting pitchers used to be about as safe as can be. Fantasy owners believe it, that's for sure. Well, here's some news for everyone: Their pitchers get lit up, too, just like everyone else's. This week's Jeff Weaver experiment is doomed from the start, but I know plenty of people who thought James McDonald was a big sleeper. Hey, I didn't think he'd lose the rotation spot this soon, but I'm sure those who pegged him a sleeper did so in part because of his seemingly "safe" home ballpark. In 2008, Brad Penny managed to have an ERA over 6 in 17 starts, and 10 of those starts were at home. His ERA was 5.74 there. Sure, he was hurt, but fantasy owners just assumed he'd be OK. In 2007, Randy Wolf had a 4.60 ERA over 11 home starts with the Dodgers, and Chad Billingsley was far worse in home games that season and actually has a career split better on the road. I don't write this to sway potential Weaver owners from avoiding him, as I'm sure people know better -- they do, right? Right?! -- but rather to warn people that being a Dodgers pitcher doesn't ensure a low ERA. Clayton Kershaw is finding that out these days as well. Don't be fooled.
Starting pitchers wouldn't have their outings wasted by rain delays. Not much we can do about Mother Nature, I suppose, and in no way do I want to see more games in ugly domes, but managers can get ahead of the curve and do what Tony LaRussa concocted for Sunday. He could see it was raining in Washington, D.C., and was uncertain that the game would be played. He didn't want to waste a Kyle Lohse start, so he named Kyle McClellan to take his place. Under that scenario, Lohse would start Monday against the Phillies. I like it. McClellan could have gone three innings, and then the bullpen could fill in the rest. It turns out the game was rained out anyway, so those who own the underrated Lohse appreciate LaRussa's managing. Now he's a two-start guy this week, and a good one at that. Meanwhile, there was rain in Atlanta on Saturday, and Roy Oswalt and Jair Jurrjens each lost outings. With Oswalt at 100 percent owned and Jurrjens close to 83 percent, let's just say plenty of fantasy owners were affected when they combined to throw three innings. The rain delay of an hour and 37 minutes forced both out of the game. Interestingly, Oswalt is scheduled to start again Tuesday in Washington, an even better matchup (though rain is still in the forecast), but Jurrjens won't hurl again until Thursday in Florida. He basically lost an outing.
"I'm very upset I'm not getting hits," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira told reporters Saturday. "I'm very upset I'm not coming through for my team and I'm embarrassed that I'm hitting one-something. It's embarrassing." OK, so it's not just fantasy owners who are embarrassed. But here's the key part of the quote: "I seem to struggle every year at the beginning of the season," Teixeira said. You know, I didn't have Teixeira in my top 10 back in March, but he is right; even though I argued for Ryan Howard in one of those Diamond Debates, I would have drafted Teixeira. He does struggle in the first month, and it will get better. While I think he falls short of 40 homers and 120 RBIs, as many expected a player of his contract demands would produce, you still have to try to get him.
For the record, Teixeira is essentially the CC Sabathia of first basemen. In the first six Aprils of his career, Teixeira has hit .249 with 22 home runs and 74 RBIs. His next worst month for batting average is June at .279, and over his career he's hit .314 in August and .309 in September. He's also hit 43 and 44 home runs in those months, though with slightly more playing time. Bottom line is that Teixeira is a slow starter, for whatever reason, and his fantasy owners have to be patient. Sabathia will be fine as well: He's won 12 games in his career in April, with a 4.54 ERA. Check out his August line, with 28 wins and a 3.21 ERA. Sabathia didn't really have that bad an April, considering his past. I still expect him to contend for Zack Greinke's Cy Young.
I actually wrote positively about the Nationals' Shairon Martis in March, but it didn't have much basis except that I had seen the guy pitch and thought something was there. Like most young pitchers, he needs to be more consistent, let his stuff do the work, and avoid walks and home runs and other things that derail unproven arms. Martis tossed a complete game over the weekend and didn't walk anyone. If you own Tim Lincecum, you might think this sort of thing happens all the time, but Martis is actually only the fifth pitcher this decade under the age of 23 to go the distance, strike out six or more in a game and avoid walking anyone. The others are pretty big names, I would say: Felix Hernandez, Dontrelle Willis, Mark Prior and Barry Zito. Hernandez is the only one helping fantasy owners today, but I think Martis is next. I saw him in the original World Baseball Classic for the Dutch and again in the Olympics, and while he doesn't profile as a big strikeout guy, he's a battler, a spunky Dave Bush type, someone who fantasy owners might start using in spot starts. I won't predict much better than a 4.25 ERA at this point, or more than 10 wins, or a K rate better than Jordan Zimmermann, but one of these pitchers is going to be owned in a lot more leagues than the other. Will they be that much different statistically in 2009?
Kudos to colleague Jason Grey for his portrayal of the Matt LaPorta promotion in Cleveland over the weekend. As Grey wrote, I think LaPorta's bat is ready for the majors right now, and when David Dellucci either doesn't perform or is stopped by injury, we'll see the kid play regularly and be helpful to fantasy owners with his power. LaPorta's lucky, really: Some power-hitting prospects don't get this opportunity right away, but LaPorta needed to spend only a month in the minors. I don't think the Indians will sit him on the bench to rot away, as Brandon Wood is doing. By the way, LaPorta has more upside across the board than Wood does, but still, if you bring a guy up, you find a way to get him at-bats. Look for more on LaPorta in our twice-daily chat sessions, Monday through Friday at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. ET. My chat session is the Wednesday afternoon one. Also, check out Tristan Cockcroft's Monday Out of the Box for more on Crawford's running wild on the Red Sox, and which catchers fantasy owners should point to for allowing many stolen bases.
Fantasy owners really shouldn't worry about whether a player is overpaid. I'm a Phillies fan, and I never had any problem with the three-year contract given to Raul Ibanez, but a few months after it was completed, it was easy to see how it looked distorted compared to those of Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn and plenty of others. You know what, who cares? For one, it's not my money. Mostly, though, it didn't matter to me because I don't assume every player is driven only by the benjamins. However, the Phillies, new GM Ruben Amaro Jr. and Ibanez seemed to get so much negative press about this deal that it clouded how the player was viewed, and that in turn affected our game.
Ibanez's age, 36, became a key issue and was blown out of proportion. That -- plus the fact that his lack of defensive prowess was repeatedly pointed out and that he would be a candidate for late-inning replacement -- really lessened his draft-day value in fantasy, I think. Ibanez was barely drafted in the top 100, despite moving to an obvious hitter's park and that a year ago in Seattle he finished as the No. 28 outfielder on our Player Rater, and in the top 50 among all hitters. He signs with the Phillies for a lot of money, and suddenly he's old?
Through the first month, Ibanez is off to one of the best starts in Phillies history; since 1920 no new Phillies in their debut hit more than seven home runs over their first 22 games. Ibanez won't hit .360 all season, or continue his pace for 60 home runs, but he's a professional hitter, and I'd still deal for him if you find his owner wants to sell high. Ibanez can still hit .300 the rest of the way and contribute five homers a month with plenty of runs batted in. In Year 2 of his mammoth contract, I'll still buy in and expect the same old numbers. Yes, some players get old all of a sudden, but Ibanez isn't one of them, not yet.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
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