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April 1, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

Legitimate Breakouts and Early-Season Flukes

by Josh Shepardson

The Rangers and Astros kicked the season off last night, and now the games and stats count. Questions about the legitimacy of strong spring training numbers turn into questions about players that get off to surprisingly good starts in the regular season. In most cases, the hot starts are a flash in the pan.

However, that's not always the case. Gamers frequently look for the next rags-to-riches success story.  Adding a breakout player out of the free-agent pool and onto a roster can help a fantasy team greatly, but it's often difficult to distinguish between real skills growth and a hot streak. That said, there are things I look for in a player when trying to decide whether he is worth adding.

One of the first things I research is whether the player was a heralded prospect. Players develop at different paces, and if their tools were great enough to earn them recognition as a top prospect, I tend to be more willing to believe that their hot start is the result of raw talent turning into usable baseball skills. Not every top prospect becomes an overnight sensation like Mike Trout or Bryce Harper did in 2012. Others, such as Alex Gordon and Ross Detwiler, take a little longer to put it all together at the highest level.

Another thing I consider is how the player finished the previous season. Jose Bautista and Ben Zobrist are the poster children for a big finish the previous season being an indicator of a player turning the corner. Adding stats from the end of the previous season doesn't create a huge body of work to analyze, but it does provide more reason to be optimistic that a player has made substantial improvements.

When a player didn't play in the majors the previous season, I look at how he performed elsewhere. I say elsewhere, and don't limit the statement to “in the minors,” because Colby Lewis is a recent example of a player that dominated in another professional league—Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan, to be exact—before bringing his skills growth back to the United States. If a player's stats are supported by what he did the year before, in the minors or in another professional league, he becomes easier to buy into.

It's not all about digging into the numbers when identifying whose early -eason success is sustainable and whose is fleeting. A player's statement about changing his approach should often be taken with a grain of salt. However, if there is visual evidence supporting it, the statement carries more weight. For a hitter, the change could be as simple as adjusting his stance or the placement of his hands on the bat. For a pitcher, the change could be throwing from the stretch exclusively or changing his positioning on the rubber. Finding visual evidence of a player's change in approach isn't always easy, but thankfully, sometimes numbers can illustrate a change in approach, too.

Prior to the 2011 season, Carlos Gomez hit just 17 homers in over 1,400 plate appearances in The Show. There are a variety of reasons for his low homer output in that timeframe, but one was that he rarely hit the ball in the air. His fly-ball rate jumped from 18.7 percent in 2010 to 28.8 percent in 2011, and not surprisingly, he found the seats with greater frequency. That rate increased yet again last year. In June 2011, Derek Carty published a study that he ran to determine when a hitter’s stats stabilize. As the table in his study indicates, some stats stabilize more quickly than others. It's important to keep that in mind when analyzing a batter's early-season work.

Thanks to all of the outstanding PITCHf/x work done by Dan Brooks and Harry Pavlidis, pitching changes can be measured and digested easily, as well. If a pitcher strings together a few solid starts, checking out his player card and PITCHf/x data at brooksbaseball.net can often be telling. In 2011, Chris Tillman's average four-seam fastball velocity was barely over 90 mph; last season, his velocity rose to approximately 93 mph. That's an easy change to identify, and it helped support Tillman's newfound success in the majors.

Raw velocity isn't all that is measured at brooksbaseball.net, though—pitch usage and the results of using those pitches are also available there. If a pitcher is suddenly striking out batters at a higher rate than he previously did, it could be the result of using a new pitch or changing the usage pattern of the pitches he already possessed in his repertoire. However, if the pitcher is doing the same thing and getting results that differ from his career norms, it's unlikely that the success will continue.

Even after following these guidelines for identifying a legitimate breakout, players will slip through the cracks. That's part of the beauty of fantasy baseball. Sometimes it pays to be lucky, but luck eventually runs out. Sustainable fantasy success is the result of a thoughtful and informed approach to the game. 

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