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April 25, 2013
Move Along, Nothing to See Here (Probably)
Toward the end of April, something funny starts happening to fantasy baseball owners. After one week, nearly every fantasy player looks at the stats, looks at the sample size, and simply dismisses the numbers as the product of a good or a bad week. After three weeks, this mindset changes considerably.
For reasons I cannot comprehend, after about 20 games, fantasy owners start diving into the numbers and drawing conclusions about whether or not their players are going to have good years or bad ones. The difference between 25 plate appearances and 75 plate appearances isn’t significant—yet, in the minds of some, that 50-plat- appearance gap is the difference between an insignificant sample size and a reason to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat screaming “Giancarlo Stanton, you’re killing me!”
As a sport, baseball lends itself to long memories when it comes to the history of the game and the achievements of the men on the field. But when it comes to the fantasy version of the sport, every April we’re like poor, addled Leonard in the film Memento: trying in vain to remember what happened last month or any time before that, using a carefully crafted series of tattoos and riddles in the hopes that we can divine what Matt Kemp was like before the dark days when he stopped hitting home runs entirely.
If fantasy players are bad when it comes to forgetting a player’s past, they’re even worse at remembering that we go through this exercise in absurdity every April. Over a 20-25 game period, some players are going to perform well above their career norms while others are going to perform well below those same benchmarks. This year is no different than any other campaign.
Table 1: Top 10 AL Hitters, April 2012
It could be argued without hyperbole that I follow player valuation more avidly than almost anyone in the world, but with the exception of Hamilton, the only other player from this list I remember having such a fast start is Konerko, and that’s only because I had him in one of my leagues. If they had a bar trivia category for fantasy baseball, we’d all struggle to come up with the answer to “Who were the top 10 fantasy hitters in April 2012?” (It would also be a sad world if they had a bar trivia category for fantasy baseball, and I’m glad that’s not the world we inhabit.)
To get the most obvious observation out of the way first, we know that the very best hitters on these lists are extremely unlikely to earn $50 or more. Earning over $50 in 5x5 is virtually impossible. Mike Trout’s incredible 2012 was good for $47 in AL-only, and that’s because he stole bases and hit for power. If you were counting on Hamilton to earn $66, you were a fool, but even if you were expecting a $40 season from him, you probably should have adjusted your expectations down even further. Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown season was good for $40.
However, the takeaway that is useful here is that a strong start often leads to a profitable season. Nineteen dollars in earnings for Jeter in 2012 seemed fair; his strong April meant that chances were good that he was going to earn more. I never would have pegged Willingham as a $20-plus player in the preseason; his April made me change my mind.
Fantasy owners mistakenly focus on fast or slow starts to zero-in on “buy-low” or “sell-high” candidates. In my opinion, this is generally a waste of time. If you were in a league last year where you could convince someone that Ortiz was going to earn $53, stop reading this: You don’t need my help, unless by “my help” you mean the e-mail address of the village idiot you’re about to take to the cleaners. On the other hand, knowing that you have “x” amount of stats in the bank from a player is useful in terms of where you thought your team might finish overall. Obviously, Mike Aviles wasn’t going to earn $39, but knowing that you had almost half of what you paid for him in the bank was a good sign that Aviles was going to turn a profit for you—and give you more stats from Aviles than you thought you were going to get on Auction Day.
Table 2: Top 10 NL Hitters, April 2012
The NL side of the pool didn’t have as many examples of “A good start will lead to profits” but three of these players—Braun, Gonzalez, and Kemp—were paid $40 or more, and it’s hard to profit off of a $40 player. Altuve and Freese are the examples of “These guys will do better than I thought based on their April stats.” Bryan LaHair is often cast as a failure, but if you paid $11 for him and got $12 back, you should have been okay with that, not unhappy (and you probably had someone fill-in for him at some point in the second half). April skews our perceptions in many different ways.
The above tables are merely one side of the April coin. A better question to ask yourself might be: Based on historical trends, what can or should I expect from this year’s slow starters?
Table 3: Ten Most Expensive AL Hitters, April 2012
Few might remember Hamilton’s fast 2012 start, but nearly everyone remembers Pujols’ April struggles in Anaheim. Ellsbury played in all of seven games until an injury knocked him out of commission and ruined his season. I wouldn’t have pegged Cano as a member of the slow-starters club until I ran these charts. With many of these hitters, there is a fair amount of stability. Cabrera, Gonzalez, Pedroia, Fielder, and Granderson (to a lesser extent) all had fairly ordinary Aprils that didn’t foretell a fast or a slow start.
Table 4: Ten Most Expensive NL Hitters, April 2012
If you were looking for an exhibit on why you should be patient with your big-ticket investments, Table 4 delivers. With the exception of Tulowitzki, every hitter here earned at least $20, and seven of the 10 earned at least $25 in 2012. You had little reason to be disappointed by McCutchen’s April, but instead of putting up a $25 season, he was the second-best player in the National League. Despite slow starts, both Holliday and Stanton rewarded their owners’ patience with earnings near in the high-$20s.
However, the drawback is that nearly every hitter in this bracket took losses. Mirroring what I said about the fast-starting hitters, this is the biggest disadvantage of the slow start. If Upton had done last April what he’s doing this year, he might have earned the $37 he was paid. Instead, his April led to a big chunk of his fantasy losses. The same holds true for Stanton and Holliday.
The biggest lessons of these charts remains in the adjustments you will need to make in your preseason category estimates based on a slow or fast start. If you have the 2013 version of Giancarlo Stanton, don’t give up on him, but do dial back if you were expecting a 40-45 home run season. A slow start won’t destroy a player’s value, but it does have some influence. Likewise, if you have Justin Upton, it’s probably realistic to add a few home runs to your team’s preseason projection.