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June 10, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

Fast Starts and Slow Starts

by Mike Gianella

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Every year, in both real baseball and the fantasy version, we tell ourselves that certain players are prone to either fast starts or slow starts, as in: “Don’t worry, that player always gets off to a slow start. He’ll come around.” Or, “that guy is always en fuego in April. If you’re counting on a 40 HR, 100 RBI season from him, you’re surely going to be disappointed.”

In deeper leagues, it’s irrelevant whether a player is a hot starter or a cold starter. If you spend $20 on a slow-starting corner infielder and your alternatives in the free agent pool are Eduardo Escobar and Pedro Ciriaco, you’re not going to jettison the slow starter for these bottom-of-the-barrel options.

Mixed leagues are another story entirely. If you own a player who is traditionally a slow starter, it might behoove you to sit him in April. Along these lines, you might try to add a weaker player who is otherwise a fast starter to your roster at the end of your draft (or in the reserve phase) to gain an advantage over your opponents that don’t pay attention to this type of arcane data.

At least, that is what conventional wisdom says. What does recent history tell us?

Table 1: Fast Staring Hitters: 2009-2013

April Rank by OPS

Player

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

Average

Kosuke Fukudome

17

9

13

Ryan Braun

24

12

3

12

16

13.4

Jorge Cantu

1

27

14

Miguel Cabrera

21

10

6

25

11

14.6

Evan Longoria

7

14

11

38

17.5

Joey Votto

27

36

4

24

33

24.8

Robinson Cano

25

1

15

100

14

31

Josh Willingham

41

82

4

18

36.25

Corey Hart

65

10

37.5

Matt Kemp

23

45

7

1

133

41.8

Jason Bay

9

76

42.5

Adrian Gonzalez

6

18

51

94

47

43.2

Paul Konerko

49

2

52

5

122

46

Buster Posey

90

8

41

46.33

Carlos Santana

109

43

1

51

Nelson Cruz

56

3

56

110

32

51.4

Prince Fielder

82

108

8

54

9

52.2

David Wright

118

25

79

6

34

52.4

Lance Berkman

141

2

22

55

Chris Davis

145

29

2

58.67

Shin-Soo Choo

57

26

107

108

6

60.8

Colby Rasmus

4

43

102

98

61.75

Kevin Youkilis

2

66

37

144

62.25

Troy Tulowitzki

138

88

12

66

10

62.8

Alex Rodriguez

96

9

84

63

Nick Swisher

5

94

149

17

75

68

Justin Upton

138

40

95

4

69.25

Albert Pujols

8

8

87

165

87

71

Dexter Fowler

86

101

100

78

5

74

Derek Jeter

100

46

162

9

79.25

Jose Bautista

109

1

146

62

79.5

Justin Morneau

41

6

159

83

123

82.4

Brandon Inge

10

77

165

84

David Ortiz

171

80

2

84.33

Edwin Encarnacion

194

7

58

86.33

Carlos Gomez

99

157

7

87.67

Matt Holliday

164

75

5

131

68

88.6

Vernon Wells

97

7

193

123

27

89.4

Mark Reynolds

70

32

173

183

8

93.2

Josh Hamilton

160

57

3

176

99

Kelly Johnson

151

5

166

107.33

Raul Ibanez

4

137

192

111

Ike Davis

10

168

166

114.67


Table 1 lists every player who: a) finished in the top 10 in OPS in April among qualifiers in a single season between 2009 and 2013 and b) qualified in April at least twice. Bryce Harper was the third best hitter by OPS in April 2013, but including him on this chart isn’t instructive.

There is a lot to digest in this table, but the notion of a consistently fast-starting hitter seems to be more of a mirage than anything else. The hitters who are the most consistently strong starters happen to be the best hitters in the game. Ryan Braun, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, and Robinson Cano all are fast starters.

But, so what? The types of hitters we’re looking to find in this type of analysis are players who are middling or at best above average that consistently shine in April. For the most part these hitters are next-to-impossible to find. Paul Konerko pre-2013 is the closest thing we have to that: a very good hitter who is very good in April in some seasons and near-godly in others.

The vast majority of hitters on this table are anything but consistently fast starters; in fact, they’re all over the place. If you think Prince Fielder is a fast starter because of 2011 and 2013, you are selectively ignoring the other years on this table. David Wright is a similar example: three strong starts, one mediocre one, and one poor one. For the most part, hitters fluctuate in April. Strong starts don’t seem to be built into hitters’ DNA.

Table 2: Slow Staring Hitters: 2009-2013

April Rank by OPS

Player

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

Average

Brendan Ryan

181

189

185

Juan Pierre

185

179

184

182.67

Mark Ellis

191

185

129

168.333

J.J. Hardy

190

147

164

169

167.5

Jose Lopez

152

178

165

Jason Kendall

193

132

162.5

Jeff Keppinger

124

188

156

Alexei Ramirez

183

179

117

178

116

154.6

Cliff Pennington

90

170

177

179

154

Yunel Escobar

128

173

93

171

181

149.2

B.J. Upton

185

71

116

183

138.75

Carlos Lee

101

186

175

93

138.75

Aramis Ramirez

183

86

137

135.33

Josh Reddick

82

185

133.5

Melky Cabrera

182

99

72

167

130

James Loney

93

111

190

121

128.75

Casey Kotchman

105

82

179

122

Maicer Izturis

62

182

122

Alcides Escobar

131

188

81

83

120.75

Chris Coghlan

187

42

114.5

Raul Ibanez

4

137

192

111

Will Venable

95

86

143

108

Alex Rios

157

80

191

62

49

107.8

Ian Stewart

35

176

105.5

Ty Wigginton

192

11

101.5

Marlon Byrd

67

20

132

185

101

Adrian Beltre

189

100

54

35

113

98.2

Carl Crawford

143

24

194

29

97.5

Mark Reynolds

70

32

173

183

8

93.2

Vernon Wells

97

7

193

123

27

89.4

Austin Jackson

28

187

41

94

87.5

Edwin Encarnacion

194

7

58

86.33

Adam LaRoche

42

19

151

18

187

83.4


While compiling the research for this article, one of my favorite discoveries of all time is that the idea that Adam LaRoche is a slow starter is a myth on the order of The Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Some years, he’s a slow starter and some years he isn’t. If someone in your mixed league isn’t drafting LaRoche late because he’s a slow starter, pounce. There is a better than 50/50 chance that this gambit will pay off.

On the whole, there are more hitters whose slow starts plague them season after season then there are fast starters who consistently come out of the gate on fire. Some of these players are fringe options like Brendan Ryan whose final offensive numbers aren’t going to be palatable in any format. However, there are a few players toward the top of this chart who aren’t very good at the beginning of the season yet ultimately do offer some value to their fantasy owners. It is fair to characterize J.J. Hardy and Alexei Ramirez as slow starters, but you do want to own them at some point during the season, even in a mixed format.

B.J. Upton might be the best example of this phenomenon. If you have owned Upton year in and year out, while his slow start this year still stung, you’ve probably been patient and have some vague memory of him doing this before. If not, you might have been more likely to ditch him in your 12-team mixer. But Upton is almost always a slow starter, and does improve as the season moves along.

Table 3: Fast Starting Pitchers: 2009-2013

April Rank by ERA

Player

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

Average

Kyle Lohse

8

4

9

29

12.5

Ross Detwiler

10

16

13

Johan Santana

2

17

25

14.67

Jered Weaver

17

27

2

21

16.75

Doug Fister

10

23

25

19.33

Madison Bumgarner

35

5

20

Jaime Garcia

5

8

45

27

21.25

Lance Lynn

7

38

22.5

Stephen Strasburg

3

42

22.5

Brandon Beachy

50

2

26

Clayton Kershaw

36

52

14

8

27.5

Barry Zito

69

7

12

44

33

Dan Haren

3

69

3

59

33.5

Zack Greinke

1

28

72

33.67

Jordan Zimmermann

84

6

14

34.67

Johnny Cueto

13

86

8

35.67

Wandy Rodriguez

4

51

77

13

36.25

Dallas Braden

10

63

36.5

James Shields

41

44

10

58

35

37.6

Roy Halladay

42

13

9

17

107

37.6

Josh Johnson

20

39

1

95

38.75

Ubaldo Jimenez

2

82

42

Francisco Liriano

84

4

44

Matt Moore

86

2

44

Tim Lincecum

33

6

29

100

59

45.4

Livan Hernandez

92

3

42

45.67

Anibal Sanchez

53

66

64

43

4

46

Trevor Cahill

76

5

70

34

46.25

Tim Wakefield

7

87

47

Matt Cain

9

56

48

28

106

49.4

John Danks

23

8

69

106

51.5

Armando Galarraga

6

98

52

Jake Westbrook

92

112

5

1

52.5

Jair Jurrjens

5

103

54

Justin Verlander

90

91

55

30

8

54.8

Mat Latos

102

10

56

Clay Buchholz

21

96

110

3

57.5

Mike Pelfrey

1

114

57.5

Brad Penny

9

109

59

Joe Saunders

36

95

108

1

92

66.4

Fewer pitchers qualify in April for multiple seasons, so it is harder to make definitive conclusions from Table 3. Kyle Lohse can be classified as a fast starter based on his April performances, and in the years that he qualifies Doug Fister can be put in this category as well. But because so many pitchers don’t qualify, there are a significant number of two- or three-year pitchers on this list. Is Ross Detwiler going to be a fast starter? Perhaps… but we need to see more than two years of data to be sure.

But, once again, there are a number of one-year outliers on this list. Anibal Sanchez’s 2013 isn’t in line with the previous four years. Trevor Cahill’s 2011 is the outlier, and so is Joe Saunders’ 2012. Jake Westbrook has had two strong Aprils in a row, but my guess is that this means nothing, and the fact that he is at the bottom of this table supports this notion.

Table 4: Slow Starting Pitchers: 2009-2013

April Rank by ERA

Player

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

Average

Rick Porcello

87

112

76

107

95.5

Aaron Cook

96

90

93

Joe Blanton

100

71

108

93

J.A. Happ

110

87

63

86.67

Nick Blackburn

51

106

94

83.67

Edinson Volquez

57

102

64

105

82

Josh Beckett

97

108

22

80

83

78

Kyle Davies

64

52

115

77

Matt Harrison

99

89

57

62

76.75

Edwin Jackson

14

105

107

53

103

76.4

Max Scherzer

64

63

109

67

75.75

Aaron Harang

29

107

67

99

75.5

Chris Volstad

22

97

104

74.33

Philip Humber

36

112

74

Javier Vazquez

35

111

73

Brandon McCarthy

70

56

53

111

72.5

Mark Buehrle

28

77

91

60

104

72

Gavin Floyd

78

104

54

51

71.75

Yovani Gallardo

25

45

104

103

72

69.8

Ervin Santana

75

86

105

13

69.75

Kyle Kendrick

110

26

68

Travis Wood

113

21

67

Ryan Dempster

72

33

116

45

66.5

Joe Saunders

36

95

108

1

92

66.4

Vance Worley

20

109

64.5

Jake Peavy

80

111

11

55

64.25

Ricky Nolasco

93

60

45

55

61

62.8

Jeremy Guthrie

67

78

18

101

37

60.2

Brad Penny

9

109

59

Clay Buchholz

21

96

110

3

57.5

Mike Pelfrey

1

114

57.5

Mat Latos

102

10

56

Jair Jurrjens

5

103

54

Jake Westbrook

92

112

5

1

52.5

John Danks

23

8

69

106

51.5

Randy Wolf

38

42

15

108

50.75

Matt Cain

9

56

48

28

106

49.4

Livan Hernandez

92

3

42

45.67

Roy Halladay

42

13

9

17

107

37.6

If you want “evidence” that fast starts and slow starts aren’t predictable, all you need to do is look at the repeaters on Tables 3 and 4. A few pitchers appear on both lists. Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.

For the most part, the pitchers at the top of the chart haven’t been very good. Rick Porcello certainly has potential, but it’s not as if the memory of his terrible Aprils has been erased by solid numbers the rest of the way. Aaron Cook, Joe Blanton, and J.A. Happ are not pitchers that are subject to poor Aprils followed by excellent bounce-back years. These aren’t pitchers that are merely poor at the beginning of the year but rather poor performers overall. There is no tactical advantage to knowing that these guys don’t pitch well in April.

There are also some pitchers on this list who have been categorized as slow starters even though there isn’t enough data to say this is so. Mat Latos had a slow start in 2012, but didn’t throw enough innings in any prior Aprils for us to say whether this is a trend or not, and his 2013 tells a completely different story. Max Scherzer is another pitcher who is often put into the slow-starts crowd. While he has never come out of the gate strong, only his 2012 can truly be categorized as a bad April; the rest of his Aprils have merely been pedestrian.

Conclusions

The concept of the fast start/slow start is something that isn’t just embraced by the fantasy layperson but by many fantasy experts as well. I have been guilty of doing this also. For years, I assumed that there was something to the idea that there was a significant core of players who were slow starters and fast starters.

However, the data do not support this notion. Only a very small handful of players fall into the category of consistent or perennial fast or slow starters. In the case of the best hitters and the worst pitchers, these players aren’t fast starters who decline or slow starters who improve, but players whose “fast” or “slow” starts are consistent with what they do the rest of the season.

The mythology of slow and fast starters is strong enough that despite the evidence or the lack of evidence, players who are not truly fast or slow starters are lumped into this category. This is truer of slow starters than fast starters, as fantasy owners are always looking to avoid poor performances at any cost.

There are a handful of annual slow starters who improve as the regular season moves forward. In mixed leagues, these players can probably sit on your bench while you wait for the calendar to turn and for these players to improve.

On the whole, the slow start/fast start concept is a canard: a lazy myth embraced to explain away bad performance that is not indicative of a player’s “typical” April but rather a bad month that isn’t predictive of performance in future Aprils. It is best to ignore broad declarative statements that say, “this player is a slow starter” or “this player is a fast starter” unless you have the numbers to back it up.

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

Related Content:  Mat Latos,  Fantasy,  Adam Laroche

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