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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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17 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Ira

No mention of Chris Davis going .045/.160/.045 through his first 6 games?

Apr 14, 2009 11:05 AM
rating: 0
 
Marc Normandin

I'm not panicking about Chris Davis yet, but he is whiffing in 42% of his at-bats. It's tougher to build a case for him given this.

Pitchers are going after him with fastballs far more than last year. I'm interested in seeing if this is a new trend he can't deal with, or if it's just a blip.

Apr 14, 2009 14:29 PM
rating: 0
 
Jim Humdingding

Can Chien-Ming Wang get his ERA down in the ~15.00 range by the end of April?

Apr 14, 2009 11:22 AM
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Marc Normandin

As a Red Sox fan, I sure hope not ;-)

Apr 14, 2009 14:30 PM
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Pietaster07

I'm still celebrating picking up Aaron Harang and Chris Davis off the wavier wire because one guy panicked super early. Anything can happen in any two weeks of the season and this will be just another lesson that 1 or 2 starts or 7 bad games does not denote how someone will perform for 162 games. I'm still glad I didn't draft Webb or Hamels though.

Apr 14, 2009 13:36 PM
rating: 1
 
Marc Normandin

It's amazing how quickly some people give on up guys they wanted so badly they drafted them just a few weeks before.

Apr 14, 2009 14:30 PM
rating: 0
 
Marc Normandin

Just a general note: the line for Pat Burrell before last night's game (i.e., when this article was first submitted) was much lower, before he picked up a pair of extra-base hits. Though that was kind of the point of "not panicking" because it's just a week, so it fits.

Apr 14, 2009 14:28 PM
rating: 0
 
ddudley55

How about Justin Upton, Manny Burriss, and Andy LaRoche? They each have yet to get even a single hit, if I'm not mistaken. While small samples generally tell you very little, wouldn't something off the charts one way or another, two standard deviations from the mean, at least be suggestive of something going on?

Apr 14, 2009 16:02 PM
rating: 0
 
Dr. Dave

If everyone were a .300 hitter and always faced average pitching, you'd still expect 3 hitters each year to start 0-for-13. Throw in the fact that most players aren't .300 hitters and that you can open the season against 3 hot starting pitchers, and even worse starts are wholly unsurprising.

Apr 14, 2009 20:30 PM
rating: 1
 
Dr. Dave

Just to expand on that -- the idea of "two standard deviations" away from a priori expectations only applies in the usual way if you pick a player at random. If you chose those players to look at precisely because of their season-opening ofers, you need to do a "Bonferroni adjustment" to account for the size of the population you picked them from.

Apr 14, 2009 20:36 PM
rating: 1
 
ddudley55

Thanks for the reply, Dr. Dave--your analysis makes a lot of sense!

Apr 15, 2009 11:11 AM
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Ben Solow

Not to mention that the standard error of a Bernoulli process with 13 trials and 3 observations is probably really really really big relative to batting average, and therefore "2 standard deviations from the mean" is a really really big range also. Plus, given that we have an extremely small sample, it's not safe to assume a normal distribution of batting averages at this point since the central limit theorem doesn't hold.

Apr 15, 2009 11:20 AM
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oneilljm

Milledge to AAA after a tough start to the year. Was picked by many to have a breakout year, still hope though, as there is a long way to go.

Apr 15, 2009 07:58 AM
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Marc Normandin

I think a lot of that has to do with needing to give Dukes playing time while also giving Milledge time to acclimate himself to center more. He'll probably come back later if he shows he can handle the position.

Apr 15, 2009 08:25 AM
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anderson721

Expect Dukes to go on a rampage, as I dropped him off a fantasy team 11 minutes before the Nats sent down Milledge...

Apr 15, 2009 09:02 AM
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Marc Normandin

Thanks! I'll appreciate your sacrifice while he makes my team better ;-)

Apr 16, 2009 09:36 AM
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husier
(90)

The flip side ...

Two words: Emilio Bonifacio.

Apr 17, 2009 17:51 PM
rating: 0
 
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