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April 1, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Three Tips for Surviving April

by Jason Collette

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Albert Pujols is on pace to hit into 486 double plays in 2011. This would shatter the record of 36 double plays that Jim Rice grounded into in 1984. Meanwhile, Robinson Cano is going to have problems hitting over .300 again, as he is on pace to strike out 324 times this season.

Opening weekend leads to all sorts of fun like this: remember how Tuffy Rhodes enticed fantasy players in 1994 by hitting three home runs on Opening Day off Dwight Gooden? Rhodes infamously went on to hit just five more home runs in his next 265 at bats that season. April is the month in which small sample sizes flourish, because it is all fantasy players have to work with.

For fantasy baseball owners, April also means finally getting an opportunity to see the labors of our hard draft prep pay off. Personally, I like to step away from baseball for two weeks after the season ends before I dive into my preparation for the next year, but I know people who start as soon as the season is over. I also know people who pick up a magazine the night before off the newsstands and cram for their draft, and even others who just run to this website or elsewhere and print off a cheat sheet as they sit down to draft. Whatever your level of preparation is, most of us are guilty for wanting immediate returns on our investments. In fantasy baseball as on the stock market, past performance does not guarantee future results, and some owners are day traders while others play in the mutual fund market where they make a pick and stick with it. There are benefits and drawbacks to each approach: the cautious player misses out on the latest hot tip, while the aggressive day trader could give away the next hot player in a panic move.

This time of year, my twitter account, IM accounts, email inbox, and even my cellphone blow up with requests for post-draft advice. I’ll let you in on my three simple mantras for the month of April.

Patience, Patience, Patience: April is better known for being Autism Awareness Month—at least it is for me, as the parent of an affected child. However, it should be known as the month of patience for fantasy baseball owners, because rash reactions to acquisitions seemingly gone wrong can quickly ruin a fantasy season. Just last season, there was talk in baseball that David Ortiz was washed up as he crawled out of the gate hitting .217 with a 524 OPS. In fantasy leagues everywhere, people were making rash trades as it appeared the fantasy horse needed to be put to pasture. Then, May happened. Ortiz posted 10 home runs, drove in 27, hit .363, and impatient fantasy owners everywhere banged their foreheads against their keyboards wondering why they did not have the faith to let Ortiz work through his issues.

Ortiz’s struggles were pretty simple to spot statistically: his BABIP was .210 in April, only 7 percent of his fly balls were leaving the yard, and he was striking out 37 percent of the time. All of those figures were well below his career norms, and those who reacted to the small sample size paid the price, as they watched another owner enjoy Ortiz hitting 31 of his 32 home runs last season. Ortiz was not alone in his April struggles. The following players put up these numbers in April, yet ended up worth $20 or more in standard 12-team mixed 5x5 leagues last season:

Among pitchers, Cole Hamels had a 5.28 ERA in April, Gavin Floyd was up at 6.49, and Justin Verlander fell in between both at 5.53. Meanwhile, Mike Pelfrey had the best April of all pitchers, going 4-0 with a 0.69 ERA in five starts—then won only 11 of his final 28 starts and ended the season with a 3.66 ERA. Conversely, Rick Porcello stunk up the joint in April with a 8.03 ERA and 1.91 WHIP but went on to post ERAs below 3.40 in three of the final five months, and had WHIPs of 1.03, 1.21, and 1.02 over the final three months of the season.

Bad things are going to happen in small sample sizes, as Albert Pujols owners witnessed yesterday against the Padres. You spent anywhere from five months to five minutes doing your off-season research on these guys, so you should at least give them more than 100 plate appearances or five starts to judge what they have in store for you this year.

No Trades: Unless some owner completely blows me away with an offer, I decline every trade that comes my way in April. Most of April trades center around a buy-low/sell-high attack where someone will come offering, say, Mike Pelfrey for David Ortiz. Trades are made to address shortcomings on your rosters, and the basis of any trade is dealing from a position of strength to address a position of weakness.

That is why it's illogical to make a deal that revolves around a reaction to a small April sample size while ignoring the projections that guided the execution of your draft in March. If you think your team is going to hit 300 home runs based on the projections you used for your draft, then you must also believe that Teixeira and Ortiz are going to hit their 30+ home runs. You also do not know which other players that start hot out of the gate will fail to meet their projections after only four weeks of the season. If you have a strength on your roster, whether it be power, speed, saves, or strikeouts, allow that strength to manifest itself in the standings as you build numbers in those counting categories before trading that advantage away. I know some players that refuse to make a deal until June 1st—I am not that extrem, but the next trade I make in April will be my first in quite some time.

Watch and Learn: You really only have one job in the month of April, and it is the best job in the world—watch baseball! I apologize for going Joe Morgan on you, but not everything can be learned from crunching numbers on a spreadsheet. For example, just yesterday we witnessed Russell Martin steal third base on his own. Clearly, it was not a called steal, because Derek Jeter on first base was so stunned he did not even bother to take second on the back end of a double-steal opportunity. Martin stole 21 bases just three seasons ago but has swiped just 17 over the past two seasons as he has fought his way through injuries. If Girardi is giving him that type of green light on the basepaths in 2011, Martin could once again provide double-digit totals in the stolen base categories, which will in turn put him in position to increase his runs scored, as he’ll be in scoring position more frequently.

In Tampa Bay, Joe Maddon has announced that Dan Johnson will hit in the fifth spot and Matt Joyce will hit seventh. The two players are very similar in skill set when you look at pitches per plate appearance, walk rate, and ISO, but Maddon has made the call to go with the older veteran. If that holds up, the RBI and run totals for each player should be slightly altered, as the fifth spot could benefit greatly from having four guys in front of it that historically get on base 35 percent of the time.

In summary, sit back and enjoy watching baseball as you follow both your favorite team and the players you drafted. Watch where they are hitting in the lineup, watch for them on the team health reports, and watch to see how platoon situations are being handled by managers. Watch baserunning tendencies (particularly in Milwaukee with Roenicke) and bullpen management to see who each skipper is going to in high-leverage situations in the late innings. Lastly, watch for guys on other teams that are struggling out of the gate and make them your trade targets for May, especially if you have the day-trader types in your weekly leagues. Once you have all of that data processed, then sit down and review your team’s performance and work on addressing its needs in May so you’re not the guy giving up a 30 home run hitter or a stud pitcher based on less than one-fifth of the season. The 80/20 rule is there for a reason; 20 percent of results can be poor, but 80 percent of the time things work out rather well.

On a more personal note, I mentioned Autism Awareness Month earlier in this piece. Baseball Prospectus alum Maury Brown now leads the charge for this cause in the sports blogging worlds at BizofBaseball.com. I got to know Maury initially through Twitter, as we are both parents of children on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD); we have since met at the Winter Meetings this past year and continue to offer each other support with our sons and their unique challenges. I encourage you to visit the link above to learn more about the Autism Awareness Challenge as early diagnosis (for my child, age 4) and intervention lead to significantly improved outcomes for children on the autism spectrum.

Jason Collette is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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