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April 3, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

Preaching Patience With April Struggles

by Paul Sporer

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This is a trying time for us fantasy folks: Our patience is tested repeatedly in the internet age.

We struggle throughout the winter to get our beloved baseball back, and once it is here, we are over-the-moon excited. Those of us who participate in fantasy baseball spend large portions of our free time analyzing our squads in pursuit of a title. Whether via trade or by finding a diamond in the waiver-wire rough, we look to adjust our puzzle pieces in just the right fashion to improve our teams.

Alas, your best move in April is to relax.

Optimistically, we are a week away from the initial flood of “should I cut *insert name of established player who isn’t hitting .800*?” Realistically, it could start this weekend. It will continue to gain steam as we hit tax day, close out the month, and then reach mid-May. Only at that point should any of it even begin to be taken seriously. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, the best advice I can give—and, trust me, no one wants to hear this when they tweet me their question—is to stand pat with your impact players.

Just last year, we saw six impact arms and a seventh who would become an impact arm give up a 5.75 ERA in 191 1/3 innings of work through April. The panic level was heightened to blood red, and some of these guys undoubtedly popped up on waiver wires in various leagues. You may have a story of your own where you saw one of these names hit the wire and you became the benefactor. Here is our Magnificent Seven:

PITCHER

April

Rest of Way

IP

ERA

IP

ERA

Max Scherzer

24.1

7.77

163.1

3.14

Adam Wainwright

19.2

7.32

179

3.57

Yovani Gallardo

26.2

6.08

177.1

3.30

Mat Latos

28.2

5.97

180.2

3.09

Josh Johnson

28.2

5.34

162.2

3.54

CC Sabathia

35.1

4.58

164.2

3.12

R.A. Dickey

30.1

4.45

203.1

2.48

I’ve grown frustrated with hearing Scherzer’s season characterized as the proverbial “tale of two halves,” because it simply wasn’t, unless you break up halves as one and five. He had one bad month, then mauled the league for five straight—or six, if you count the playoffs. Coming off of 2011’s frustrating season, in which Scherzer posted a 4.43 ERA, the rough start no doubt left some fearful of continued struggles.

In fact, one such fellow in a 12-team mixed league of mine deposited a nice gift for me on the waiver wire shortly after Scherzer’s trip to the Bronx (4 2/3 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 7 BB) on April 29. I urged everyone to stay the course on Scherzer at all points last year, and it paid off in spades, especially if you acquired him any time after April.

Both Wainwright and Johnson were coming off of injuries that limited them to a combined 60 1/3 innings in 2011 (all from Johnson), so their early creakiness was almost a given and the panic level, therefore, was considerably lower.

Gallardo bookended his April with outings against his arch-nemesis, the Cardinals, and they tattooed him to the tune of 14 runs in just 5 2/3 innings, causing the overwhelming majority of his damage, as he had a 1.71 ERA in the middle three starts. It has become clear, at this point, that you should just bench Gallardo against St. Louis until he turns the corner. He sports a 6.72 ERA and 1.51 WHIP versus the Redbirds in 73 2/3 career innings.

Latos is a chronic slow starter, with a career 5.73 ERA in 70 2/3 April frames. I chronicled his first-month struggles here last year, and it seems to be something that those who wish to roster Latos simply need to get used to. If or when he overcomes that hurdle, though, watch out: We could see a Cy Young Award-level season from the Reds righty. Keep an eye on him on Wednesday against the Angels; if his early-season struggles persist, put in a feeler to Latos’ current owner. I don’t generally advocate first-week trades, but if you can get a bargain, then it’s worth pursuing a deal.

Surely, no one was discussing releasing Sabathia from their fantasy team after his Opening Day dud, but cries of selling low rang out from the most panicked of fantasy managers. He has a touch of Latos-itis, wherein April is his worst month, but his 4.18 ERA is nowhere near as poor as what Latos does early in the season. And, as if on cue, Sabathia’s ERA is 7.20 after Monday’s debut, and the Twitter pitching coaches were out in full force diagnosing him with a bevy of injuries, as they are wont to do. I recommend you sit tight and let CC be CC.

Dickey only fits with this group in retrospect, because he went on to win the NL Cy Young Award, but I included him because his example is instructive. His conversion into a knuckleballer made him a surprise asset in the 2010 season, when he had a 2.84 ERA in 174 1/3 innings with the Mets, and he followed it up with 208 2/3 innings of 3.28 ERA ball in 2011. He also featured the same 15 percent strikeout rate and six percent walk rate in both seasons. Dickey was a pitcher that fantasy owners were beginning to trust, but not someone that they were rushing to roster. Thus, his cost was assuredly the lowest of the members of this group, making him the most likely to have been cut early on.

However, anyone who thought the luck had run out and that Dickey had reverted into a mediocre pitcher should have dug a bit deeper. Dickey’s 4.45 ERA was caused by one implosion on a rainy day in Atlanta, when he allowed eight runs in just 4 1/3 innings. The rest of the month, he had a 2.42 ERA in 26 innings with 23 strikeouts. Even if you cut him just after that flameout start, when he had a 5.71 ERA, you were still making a less-than-stellar decision, as allowed three runs in his first two starts combined. If you drafted Dickey, that means you believed in him on some level, and one blip was hardly a reason to cut bat.

We are just two days in and, along with Sabathia’s 7.20 ERA, we have seen a handful of highly regarded arms get smoked in their 2013 debuts. That list includes Gallardo, Cole Hamels, Jarrod Parker, Matt Harrison, Tim Hudson, and everyone’s favorite sleeper who eventually was awoken in every league, Marco Estrada.

Only Sabathia, Gallardo, and Hamels are on the level of the names in the chart above, but there will be a new batch of high-caliber guys causing widespread panic on May 1. And my advice will be the same as it is every year: Move your hand away from the mouse and just relax. One start can wreak so much havoc on an ERA right now that if you are making any snap judgments without digging deeper into the raw data or, better yet, watching the starts of the particular pitcher, you are doing yourself—and your fantasy team—a major disservice. Buy one of these to hang over your computer desk if it helps deter you from making any rash moves. 

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

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