April 22, 2010
Fantasy Jeopardy: Hot Starts
I’ll take Hot Starts for $600, Alex.
Answer: Vernon Wells, Scott Podsednik and Jose Guillen
Question: Who are the three most valuable players in the American League through Tuesday's games as measured by VORP?
Judging by the ADP of the aforementioned three outfielders, this comes as a great surprise. It probably goes without saying all three carry considerable baggage that should make you leery of any kind of sustained excellence.
Wells (.339/.426/.797, 7 HR, 12 RBI, 14 Runs) once carried 30 home run, 100 RBI promise, but the last time he reached those heights was as a 27 year old in 2006 when he finished with a .302 BA, 32 HR and 106 RBI. With a WARP of 5.4, it was the best year of his career. Since then, he hasn’t necessarily been a fantasy drag… Let’s just say he’s been overvalued based on his past performance, averaging 17 HR and 75 RBI while hitting .265. Last year though, he hit bottom, finishing the worst year of his career with a -0.1 WARP and .254 TAv.
This year, Wells got off to a blistering start, hammering four home runs in his first three games. Wells’ statistical outliers in the early going include his walk rate at 13% compared to a career rate of 7%. Plus, he’s hitting for extra bases in 17% of his total plate appearances, way up from his normal rate of 10%. Finally, his HR/FB rate is an astronomical 34%.
Podsednik's (.449/.526/.469, 7 SB, 6 Runs) fantasy value has normally been limited to stolen bases, but he hit .304 last year, the second best batting average of his career while swiping 30 bags. After posting a .341 BABIP last summer, he was certainly a candidate for regression entering 2010. Not so fast… Podsednik owns a .512 BABIP. Plus, after walking 39 times in 587 plate appearances last year (6.6%), he’s already taken a free pass seven times in 56 plate appearances - a 13% walk rate. Of course, with the increase in OBP, Podsednik has been running wild, stealing seven bases in seven attempts. He missed a couple of games this week to take care of a family emergency, but was back in the lineup on Wednesday.
Guillen’s (.377/.406/.738, 6 HR, 13 RBI, 13 Runs) home run total represents over 20% of what would be his career high when he blasted 27 long balls playing in Anaheim six years ago. He’s also been scorching line drives. Over 22% of all batted balls have been classified as liners - that’s exceptional given that Guillen hasn’t topped 20% since 2005.
The question is, what do you do with these players who are off to unexpected hot starts? For example, if you thought Guillen’s best-case home run scenario for this year was 20 (an optimistic number a month ago) do you adjust your projection upward, or do you accept the fact you’ve already seen a quarter of his fantasy power production?
Clearly, they won’t sustain their current levels of production. If you’ve added these players in the last couple of weeks, odds are strong you’ll need to address their presence on your roster sooner or later.
It seems there are a handful of options.
1) Develop an irrational admiration for these players and hang on to them, even after they slump in the summer months.
These players were hot for a few weeks, so they have to snap out of it sometime, right? Keep asking yourself this question as you complete your fade to the lower half of your league.
This is the Dayton Moore school of fantasy ownership, doing nothing even though you really should do something.
2) Start finding potential trade fits.
Ideally, you’d find a player who is underperforming and strike a one-for-one deal. Maybe something like Guillen for Nick Swisher. Swisher is the anti-Guillen so far this year in that he possesses 20+ HR and 80+ RBI potential, yet has only 1 HR and 4 RBI to his name in games through Tuesday. Plus, with a .200 BA, he’s well below where we expect him to finish the season (maybe around .250). If you grab a guy like this, you're betting he'll pull his production to normal levels while sparing you the disaster of his first couple of weeks. This could be a big win if you're dealing with an impatient owner.
Do your level best to stay ahead of the curve. This is the Billy Beane school of fantasy ownership, always looking to improve by constantly wheeling and dealing.
3) Wait until they slow down before finding potential trade fits.
The obvious danger is you’ll wait too long and ultimately get little in return. The Guillen-Swisher deal won’t be on the table all season. Your rival owner will just laugh once Swisher starts lofting those balls into the new Yankee Stadium jet stream while Guillen is nursing some sort of leg injury.
This is the JP Riccardi school of fantasy ownership, failing to make a trade when the market (and situation) indicates you really should.
4) Decide to churn and burn.
If you made a move to pick up one of these hot starters, you likely dumped a late round draft pick you didn’t really care for in the first place. You can basically keep this spot in play for the entire season by picking up the current “hot” player and dumping a player who has cooled - a revolving door on your roster of sorts. By the time Podsednik comes back to Earth, maybe someone like Carlos Gomez is heating up. Grab him for a few weeks, wait until he cools, then move on to someone else.
This is the Kenny Williams school of fantasy ownership, always making a move. Sometimes just for the sake of being able to say you made a move.
So, what’s your game plan? For my teams, I probably fall somewhere in between option two and option four. The idea is to be aggressive on the trade front, but failing that, I can just live with a rotating roster space. If you become tied to option number four, it takes some work to stay ahead of the curve. However, with some savvy, you can get plenty of production out of that spot.
Craig Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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