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April 14, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Don't Worry, Don't Panic

by Marc Normandin

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April is a wonderful time for baseball-the season has just started up, and the games and the stats finally matter. That does not mean that the hitting lines and numbers posted by hitters these first few weeks have much meaning, though, as they may not be representative of a player's abilities. Small sample sizes are the culprit for much of this, but with some careful observation and some nifty statistical tools, you can start to sort out what performances should improve given more time.

Mike Lowell ended last season on a down note, as the pain in his hip got to a point where he could no longer play until he had it repaired and was given time to recover. This year, he has started to move about a bit better with more time, making better-looking defensive plays in the field than he had at the beginning of spring training, when he was a little less limber. His bat has not followed suit yet though, as he is hitting just .174/.208/.391 to start the season.

Here's the good news, though: his Isolated Power (SLG - BA) is .217. Yes, it's early, and you wouldn't want to make any definitive conclusion based off of one week's worth of at-bats, but it's good to see that he's putting some muscle behind the ball, even without a quality batting average. He's also not striking out any more than we'd expect, instead making solid contact that's in line with what we have seen from him in previous years. Just what is the problem for Lowell in the early goings, then? He's swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone (35 percent as opposed to last year's 22) and though he's making contact with far more of those than he normally does, he's making less contact overall. Making contact on pitches you can't necessarily do anything with besides pop out or hit weak grounders on doesn't help you out, but if this happened in June we wouldn't even notice.

So, Lowell's not whiffing more, and he's not having trouble making contact, but he is picking poor pitches to swing at. Give him some more time to shake off the rust and pick better pitches, and you'll forget this stretch in early April soon.

Pat Burrell is supposed to be a big addition to the Rays' lineup, helping fill the role of DH in their offense, but as of now he has hit just .200/.273/.250 in his 22 plate appearances. His line is a little confusing at first, as he's taking fewer pitches, but swinging at fewer pitches outside of the zone as well, all without picking up additional free passes to first. He's not making as much contact on those pitches he does swing at outside of the zone though; luckily he has struck out just 15 percent of the time, the lowest rate of his career.

So if he's striking out less often and laying off of pitches outside of the zone, what's his deal six games in? Burrell's BABIP is just .235, which is about 60 points or more below the league average (and below expectations given his liner rate). That's an entirely normal occurrence this time of year—sometimes BABIP numbers won't level out even with a full season's worth of data, which is how you end up with career years—but it's easy to pinpoint Burrell's early issue. He's still hitting fly balls at the rate we expect him to; he's a notorious fly-ball hitter over the full span of his career. Instead of driving the ball to the gap or over the wall, he's popping up. He popped up 24 times all of last season; he's already popped up twice this year, and while that may not seem like a big deal, we're working with only one week of data here, so everything takes on more significance percentage-wise until more playing time is accrued.

Jose Lopez finally started to hit on some of the potential we have heard so much about the past few seasons during the second half last year, when he put up a line of .294/.327/.487. It was about this time that people who had overrated him in the past for his potential stopped paying attention to him, making him somewhat of an underappreciated middle infielder that you could benefit from drafting late. As of now though, he hasn't done anything to make those folks who selected him very happy, as he's hitting just .238/.292/.429.

The sub-.300 OBP is ugly, but it's not for lack of trying; he's already walked twice in the first week after picking up just 27 all of last year. He's also making more contact this year than last, though due to swinging at 38 percent of the pitches he's seen outside of the zone thus far, his line does not reflect this bonus. It's tough to make great contact on pitches that aren't in your zone, so seeing that Lopez has hit few liners during the first week is not a surprise. However, his ISO is .190, which is about what he did during the second half of 2008. When he starts making better decisions about which outside pitches to swing at, we should see Lopez' average climb back up; combine that with his power, and he's doing just what you expected—and drafted—him to.

Finally, we have Matt Wieters, who as of now is still sitting in Triple-A for the Orioles. Chances are he won't be there for very long, whether he produces at the level or not. He's the best hitting catcher in the organization, and nearly all of the projection systems are in love with him. As of now, he's just 1-for-11 in the minors, with five punchouts and a lowly single to his credit, but he had hit a legitimate .365/.460/.625 for Double-A Bowie last year over 250 plate appearances after tearing up High-A during the first half of the year, and given that level of success, he's not going to struggle for very long at Triple-A.

Also, brief struggles in Triple-A for top talents do not necessarily mean it's time to give up or panic. Take Evan Longoria, for example; he was 2008's version of Wieters, the ultimate prospect with a major league-ready bat who started the year a level below. He hit jut .200/.333/.200 during his first seven games at Triple-A for the Durham Bulls, but was then promoted to the bigs. What he did from there was no biggie: he just hit .272/.343/.531 for the Rays and helped lead them to their first-ever playoff and World Series berth while playing excellent defense at third, and taking home the Jackie Robinson Award for his troubles. Then there's someone like Hanley Ramirez, who hit all of .271/.335/.385 for Double-A Portland in 2005 before hitting .292/.353/.480 for the Marlins the next year, and then subsequently turned into one of the top five players in the game. Sometimes it's tough to tell with young players just how things are going to turn out.

Now, the projections for Wieters are optimistic, but they aren't so positive that the Orioles are going to be taking home the AL East crown. Regardless, those of you who drafted Wieters and are already annoyed that he's sitting in Norfolk need not panic, as a talent this significant won't struggle forever-and he certainly won't stay in the minors forever either. We just finished fawning over him for his spring training performance and blasting the Orioles for not immediately making him a part of their major league roster, so getting upset over a week of poor hitting is an act of unnecessary overreaction in the other direction.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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