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May 13, 2016

Fantasy Freestyle

What Happened to Last Year's Hot Starters

by Mike Gianella

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On average, we are now a little over 34 games into the regular season. Another way of phrasing this is a little over one-fifth of the season is behind us. We are at the stage of the season where we stop talking about small sample size flukes and start talking about sustainable performances.

The question is should we? A better way of phrasing this question is how much emphasis should we place on year-to-date performance?

This query is at the heart of nearly every Bat Signal question that the fantasy experts at Baseball Prospectus answer at this juncture of the season. Within this type of question are two subsets of queries: will my player off to a poor start play better? and will my player off to a hot start keep playing at this level?

I started this research by looking at a couple of other website’s updated fantasy rankings in May 2015 but then remembered that I had posted updated player valuations throughout the 2015 season. Looking back at the valuations through 27 games made me remember how quickly we all forget.

Table 1: Top 10 American League Hitters through May 6, 2015

Rank

Player

$
May 6

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

$ 2015

1

Nelson Cruz

$53

22

32

24

21

20

$32

2

Jose Altuve

$51

32

19

35

31

30

$39

3

Jacoby Ellsbury

$48

31

16

32

33

29

$18

4

Mike Trout

$44

45

-1

46

44

46

$35

5

Adam Jones

$41

28

13

29

30

26

$21

6

Jake Marisnick

$41

3

38

6

2

2

$16

7

Lorenzo Cain

$39

15

24

15

15

16

$35

8

Miguel Cabrera

$39

37

2

39

35

36

$24

9

Stephen Vogt

$39

6

33

4

7

7

$15

10

Josh Reddick

$37

10

27

14

8

9

$22

Average

$43

23

20

24

23

22

$26


I’m sure some of you remember Nelson Cruz’s ridiculous hot start in 2015 (14 home runs, 26 RBI, 19 runs, .333 AVG in 111 at bats). But unless you’re a Yankee fan or a relative, you surely don’t remember Ellsbury was this good last April. I write about fantasy baseball quasi-professionally, but if you had asked me to name last year’s top 10 AL fantasy hitters through April, I would have named at least 50 other hitters before I got to Marisnick.

What is worth noting is how unsurprising these hitters are on the whole. Based on their prices in AL-only auctions, we would have expected Altuve, Ellsbury, Trout, and Cabrera to appear on this list in the early going, while Jones and Cruz should not have been that much of a surprise. Yes, a $53 pace for earnings over a 27-game clip for any player is somewhat surprising, but a hot week or two can make any hitter look like peak Rickey Henderson for short bursts, at least from a fantasy perspective.

I am more interested in the sustainability of the surprises on this list: in this case Cain, Reddick, Vogt, and Marisnick. Conventional wisdom suggests that the fast starters will fade. Conventional wisdom is right in three of the four cases. While Cain didn’t finish with a $39 season, the fact that he earned $35 means that if you “sold high” on his fast start you lost out in a big way. The idea of “selling high” is often a canard, but it is not too difficult to imagine a fantasy owner in early May of 2015 flipping Cain based on the assumption that an injury was just around the corner.

Table 2: Top 10 American League Pitchers through May 6, 2015

Rank

Player

$
May 6

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

$ 2015 Total

1

Dallas Keuchel

$54

11

43

15

9

9

$35

2

Felix Hernandez

$53

31

22

30

32

32

$22

3

Sonny Gray

$45

21

24

24

19

19

$25

4

Chris Archer

$43

16

27

16

15

17

$24

5

Jake Odorizzi

$39

11

28

9

13

12

$16

6

Andrew Miller

$38

7

32

5

8

7

$23

7

Michael Pineda

$34

13

21

16

11

13

$12

8

Wade Davis

$33

5

28

3

7

6

$22

9

Joakim Soria

$33

6

27

3

8

6

$12

10

David Robertson

$32

20

12

22

17

20

$20

Average

$40

14

26

14

14

14

$21


The “$ May 6” column makes it appear that most of these pitchers failed, or least stumbled a great deal. But this is what looking at a little over 20 percent of a season will do. For example, of the $35 Keuchel actually earned in AL-only formats in 2015, nine dollars were earned in his first six starts. Another way to look at this is that even if you take Keuchel’s first six starts away completely, he would have earned $26, or good for third best in the AL, behind David Price and Chris Sale. In other words, it would have been next to impossible for Keuchel (or any pitcher for that matter) to keep up a blistering $54 pace. Nevertheless, these early earnings (and fast starts) were far more predictive than you might have expected.

Of the 10 pitchers on Table 2, eight of them finished in the Top 25 overall among AL hurlers. Not one of these pitchers was able to maintain earning at such a blistering pace, but nearly every pitcher on this list was able to maintain enough value to be more than simply an April fluke. Sixteen AL pitchers earned $20 or more in 2015. Seven of those pitchers appear on this chart. If you bailed early on one of these arms, chances were excellent that you lost out on a fine season.

Unlike on the hitting side, we see more surprises in the AL relative to the market. Hernandez, Gray, and Robertson were the only pitchers to cost $20 or more while half of the pitchers on Table 2 cost less than $12. Not only did these pitchers maintain value relative to their fast starts, they were not expected to do so based on what we paid for them in late March of 2015. There are many indicators we look at when trying to project future success. Going forward, I’m curious to see if 2016’s crop of fast starters holds up as well as 2015’s did.

Table 3: Top 10 National League Hitters through May 6, 2015

Rank

Player

$
May 6

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

$ 2015

1

Dee Gordon

$59

26

33

27

26

25

$41

2

Paul Goldschmidt

$51

39

12

41

38

37

$41

3

Adrian Gonzalez

$49

27

22

27

27

26

$22

4

Anthony Rizzo

$45

31

14

32

30

31

$32

5

Justin Upton

$41

27

14

27

27

28

$25

6

Joey Votto

$40

26

14

25

23

29

$32

7

Matt Carpenter

$37

20

16

20

20

21

$25

8

Giancarlo Stanton

$34

37

-2

36

36

38

$18

9

Freddie Freeman

$33

29

5

28

30

28

$17

10

Charlie Blackmon

$33

22

11

22

20

23

$34

Average

$42

28

14

29

27

29

$28


This is a far more “predictable” group of hitters than their American League counterparts. There isn’t a Marisnick-type hitter in this group; in fact, every hitter on Table 3 cost at least $20 in NL-only leagues last year. At a minimum, we expected good things out of these hitters and for the first month of the 2015 season they delivered and then some.

Something that could be instructive based on these results is the lack of early surprises at the top would make it likely that the projected standings from the beginning of the season are fairly accurate. If the 10 best hitters in the early going were all relatively expensive in drafts or auctions, this gives less wiggle room to the teams that tried to win on the cheap or who thought that their scrubs could blossom into stars. Table 3 certainly doesn’t include every player in the National League, but even at a glance you have to go all the way down to the 19th best hitter on May 6thEnder Inciarte—to find a big surprise through the first 27 games of the 2015 campaign. The anchor hitters delivering meant bad news for the teams that refused to pay for a star last year. In retrospect, I could have applied this information to my Tout Wars 2016 NL-only auction and spent a little bit more to ensure I grabbed a star.

Table 4: Top 10 National League Pitchers through May 6, 2015

Rank

Player

$
May 6

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

$ Total

1

Zack Greinke

$47

22

25

21

21

25

$41

2

Shelby Miller

$38

9

29

10

6

10

$13

3

Matt Harvey

$38

21

16

21

24

19

$25

4

Bartolo Colon

$37

2

35

1

2

3

$11

5

Max Scherzer

$36

31

5

30

32

30

$34

6

Jeurys Familia

$35

1

34

0

1

3

$23

7

Johnny Cueto

$34

22

12

25

20

21

$18

8

Gerrit Cole

$31

19

12

18

18

20

$28

9

Mike Leake

$31

5

26

3

3

5

$12

10

Aaron Harang

$31

0

30

0

0

1

-$1

Average

$36

13

22

13

13

14

$20


The fast starters on the pitching side in the NL paint an extremely different picture than the ones in the AL did, and illustrate the problem with trying to draw definitive conclusions with a limited set of data. If you bet big on Miller, Colon, or Leake maintaining $20-plus value in 2015 based on their fast starts, you lost. Harang seems like an impossibility. Many remember his fast start, but it doesn’t seem likely that a pitcher who was going this well could have possibly fallen down to negative overall value. But Harang did, and while it is unlikely that anyone outside of an NL-only league put too much stock in Harang’s start, I’m sure a handful of mixed league owners gambled on him in mid-May.

On the other end of the spectrum, the pitchers who held their value weren’t surprises, for the most part. Familia is the exception to the rule, but closers who come out of nowhere and turn into top five options aren’t nearly as surprising as starting pitchers who maintain top tier value. Scherzer, Greinke, Harvey, Cueto, and Cole aren’t exactly pitchers who are surprising members of this list. What’s more surprising is that not one of these pitchers fell under $20 for the season with the exception of Cueto, who would have made it past $20 had he stayed in the National League.

This exercise was more for entertainment purposes than anything else, but it is a healthy reminder that nearly no hitter or pitcher will maintain the blistering pace of the first four to six weeks of the season. However, the biggest takeaway for me is that our pre-season guesstimates are far better than we believe they are at this point of the season. It is easy to lose sight of the big picture in mid-May, but we do better at predicting where players will finish in March than we think. There are always going to be players who exceed expectations or disappoint, but most of the players on the tables above came fairly close to delivering on their pre-season expectations.

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

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