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April 28, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Slow-Start Bargains?

by Marc Normandin

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April is a wonderful time to be a patient fantasy owner, as there is always someone (or someones) in your league that cannot handle the slow starts of some of their players, and eventually gives up on their early-season sluggards just a few weeks too soon. It's the perfect time for some buy-low shenanigans, as you scoop up the trash of another owner, only to plug it into your own lineup.

Dioner Navarro finally broke out last year, hitting .295/.347/.407, in part thanks to a hot start to the season. That was unusual for Navarro though, as he was a miserable hitter during the first half of 2007, and struggled prior to that in April of 2006. This year he's up to his old tricks, as he's put together a line of just .183/.197/.283 over 60 at-bats. He's swinging at more pitches outside of the zone, but overall he's more patient, with 4.0 pitches per plate appearance thus far (his highest mark since he hit 3.9 with Tampa Bay back in 2006). While swinging at more pitches outside of the zone and making less contact overall, the pitches he is making contact with aren't doing much of anything—he's hitting fly balls half of the time he puts a ball in play, but nearly one-third of those have been infield popups. Pitchers may have adjusted to him as well, as they're throwing fewer changeups and far more curveballs this year; a look at Inside Edge shows Navarro hitting .321 on changeups from right-handers (Navarro is a switch-hitter) and just .189 on curveballs from them. Things are even worse when he bats right-handed (.111/.111/.278 overall).

Given his history of picking things up late in the season and his slow start this year, chances are good that you can acquire Navarro on the cheap. Since he looks to be just an adjustment away from picking up the slack and producing more, it may not be a bad idea to buy low on this catcher, before he heats up.

J.J. Hardy had a slow start last year, struggling to hit for much power in both April and May before turning it on for the rest of the season, more than making up for his early-season issues. Owners wish he would just get with the hitting right away, but that has not been the case this year either. He's at just .175/.232/.333 over 69 plate appearances, but even with that low line there's hope that he'll rebound.

First, notice that his batting average on balls in play is just .178, and that's despite hitting line drives 14.3 percent of the time. Liners and BABIP correlate very well—in fact, if you add .120 to a hitter's line-drive rate, you get an approximation of what his BABIP should be. In Hardy's case, his BABIP should be closer to .263, which is also low, but a vast improvement over his current clip. Second, Hardy is at least still hitting for power, even with the lower batting average; he has posted an Isolated Power of .159, and has gone yard three times in April.

What is a bit more worrisome is that Hardy is making less contact on pitches in the strike zone—this has shown up in his strikeout rate (21.7 percent, well above last year's 15.6 mark). Given he's just 26 years old, it's a little early to say his bat is slowing down, so think of this more as a series of bad decisions that we wouldn't notice were it not the first month of the season. If someone is panicking about the sometimes inconsistent Hardy, feel free to take him off of their hands at a low price.

His teammate Rickie Weeks is also off to a poor start. With the exception of 2007, Weeks normally performs poorly during April, so this should come as no surprise. He's actually a little ahead of expectations at this point in the season, given how bad he was in the past. Still, you would like more out of Weeks than the .264/.321/.431 line he has posted thus far, especially if your league uses OBP or OPS as a category. What is most troublesome is that his walk rate has dropped all the way to around four percent, down from 12.2 last year and his career rate of 11.4. Weeks is swinging at a lot of pitches—30 percent of the ones he sees outside of the zone, which is about six percentage points above the average, and over 10 percentage points above his career rate.

Part of the reason that he has been attacking these pitches out of the zone is due to his seeing more first-pitch strikes. Weeks has seen a first strike pitch in nearly 63 percent of his plate appearances, up from 56.9 percent last season; he's starting out behind in the count more often than before, and is reacting to it by chasing pitches. If he could lay off of those pitches—and given his past patience, he should be able to—he may start to see pitchers forced to go back into the zone when facing him, which means more good pitches to hit. That would bring up Weeks' average as well as his power numbers, and would make him better resemble the heavy-hitting second baseman we have seen him be in the past.

Mark Teixeira is probably the most well-known slow starter of all of those in the game today. What makes this year different is that you have people wondering about whether his playing in New York has anything to do with his .218/.380/.418 line. Whether or not he's comfortable is not the issue; the problem is that his swing seems out of whack. Teixeira is hitting lefties well enough, though not for any power, with a line of .357/.444/.429. He's hitting for power against right-handers, but isn't doing much else, with a line of .194/.326/.472. That would give him an ISO of .278 against righties, right in line with his previous production.

Instead of consistently hitting for power though, Tex is popping up more often. He has actually accumulated more popups in the infield than he has line drives at this stage, which helps explain the low batting average; he has hit line drives just 11 percent of the time, and has a .220 BABIP to show for it, which explains the rest of the problem with his batting average.

Outside of this little statistical blip, nothing has changed in his actual approach—he's not swinging at more pitches out of the zone, or leaving too many hittable pitches alone, and he isn't whiffing an inordinate amount of times either. He just hasn't been hitting the ball squarely enough in the early parts of the season to bring up his batting average against right-handers. The power is there, and allowing more time to increase the sample size should see him come back to be the hitter the Yankees signed this past winter.

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

11 comments have been left for this article.

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