After months of preparation and then putting your team (or teams) together in a draft or auction, it was finally here. Opening Day is arguably the most exciting day of the year for baseball fans. Spring training is not without its charms, particularly if you had the time and money to travel to Florida or Arizona, but while it is a wonderful harbinger of the baseball season, it is not quite the same as the real thing.
For fantasy baseball writers, this is an odd time of the season. For writers who cover major league teams or the sport on the whole, the transition from spring training to regular season games is a smooth one. Game write-ups take precedence, but features pertaining to what a manager or a player are thinking present natural opportunities for copy. In fantasy, most of the heavy lifting occurs between January and Opening Day. While the subject well doesn’t run entirely dry, there nearly isn’t as much for much for us to do.
When it comes to information, we are all Rumpelstiltskins, attempting to spin the meager straws of the first two weeks of the season into gold. This comes primarily in the form of confirmation bias. There is a lot of “I told you so” happening on social media, as many rush to tell their readers how accurate they were based on the result of eight to 10 games.
These victory laps are generally harmless. Where the danger comes is if you begin buying into the hype and believing that your fast starting player is going to hit 40 home runs, put up a 2.00 ERA, or steal 60 bases. I am clearly exaggerating for effect, but the first week is a dangerous time where fantasy managers to tend to either see things through rose colored glasses or believe that their team is doomed because of one lousy Collin McHugh start.
Below are a few basic suggestions on how to survive the first couple weeks of the baseball season as a fantasy player.
Ignore Your League Standings
I’m pretty bad at following my own advice. But if you’re the kind of person who obsesses over every little detail, witnessing big jumps or drops in your team’s fortunes during the first week or two isn’t going to do anything to improve your team. Unless a significant injury has altered your squad’s preseason outlook, there is no good reason to readjust your team’s overall expectations based on early results. If you have the patience or discipline to do so, do not even look until late April.
Your Roster Is Better Than (Most of) The Free Agent Pool
This advice is obvious in only leagues. The waiver wire in these formats is bereft of talent, and you’re not going to drop a regular for Chris Johnson. The shallower the league, the more this goes from being a hypothetical to a reality. It won’t happen very much in the first two weeks, but when a hitter’s slump extends into the second week of the season, fantasy managers often get an itchy trigger finger and make a move.
For the weaker players on your team, these type of moves are likely a zero-sum game. If you feel the need to cut bait with Brandon Phillips for Erick Aybar in a 12-team mixed league, go right ahead. I prefer Phillips, but in this format it is extremely likely that neither hitter will make much of a difference. It is with the stronger hitters on your team where this desire to cut them – while strong – should be avoided barring injury.
Pitchers are a different story. There is more of a fungible feel to the bottom of the player pool, and it is okay to consider liberally streaming arms depending on matchups or if you simply have a change of heart. The same principles apply to your higher end pitchers as they do to your hitters. If you are sweating Michael Wacha’s first 2016 outing, you should not be.
To Trade or Not to Trade
Every year, someone asks me if I believe in the unwritten rule of “don’t trade before May 1st.” Sometimes the date is as early as April 15th, sometimes the date is Memorial Day, but the same sentiment applies.
I don’t have a rule-of-thumb for early trades. I tend to sit back and wait, but this doesn’t mean I won’t entertain offers. I don’t tend to send trade offers unless I have an imbalanced roster in terms of positions or categories. In Tout Wars, I did make an early trade—sending Jeurys Familia to Phil Hertz of Baseball HQ for Jay Bruce—because I had three closers and wanted to bolster my offense.
For the most part, though, I don’t like to make early trades. This comes back to my original idea. I’m good at drafting and auctioning, and two week’s worth of data (or less) is not going to tell me much of anything. I like the teams I purchased and have confidence that the teams I put together will be good. Reacting to early information is generally bad if it leads to a reactionary trade.
Does this mean that early information is always useless? Of course not. Universal rules are universally bad (I don’t know if I made this up or not, but it’s mine now and you can’t have it). You want to continue to pay attention to what’s going on in major league baseball, even if it doesn’t necessarily impact your team.
As a fantasy manager, you want to gather information all season long. You don’t want to be extreme in the other direction, tell yourself that “it’s just a week’s worth of stats”, and ignore everything completely. This is a surefire way to get fleeced in a trade when you do decide that it is time to start making moves or – worse yet – lose out on significant free agent pickups in a standard or shallow mixed league. Panicking and releasing good players is bad; doing absolutely nothing and sticking your head in the sand for 3-4 weeks is just as bad. Below are a few things that you should be doing in the early going.
Watch the Bullpens
If there is a place where you should react quickly, it is with major league bullpens, particularly in the case of a closer who struggled or had injury issues in 2015. Glen Perkins went on the disabled list on Wednesday; while predicting the exact date of his injury would have been impossible, he should have been high on your list of relievers at risk. Shawn Tolleson’s bad outing to start the season shouldn’t have led you to push the panic button and release him, but if Sam Dyson was available in your league, you should have stashed him quickly. This advice is more applicable to shallower leagues, but even in deeper mixed leagues a few of these quality set up relievers are available on the cheap. Managers don’t overreact to one or two bad starts or a slow week by a hitter. They will react to 2-3 bad outings from a closer, because once a closer loses it, he can have a sizeable impact on a team’s fortunes.
Look at Process, Not Results
Everyone who reads Baseball Prospectus knows this, and has access to a long list of gifted writers who drive this point home in nearly every piece published on this site. Yet even with this knowledge, it’s impossible not to get sucked into a somewhat poor start by Yoenis Cespedes and tell yourself “I knew it! He WAS a fluke last year!”
Cespedes’ numbers over his first eight games are utterly meaningless. In fact, his first eight games this year are nearly identical to games 2-9 last year. You can find eight game stretches over nearly any player’s career that are uninspiring. Would you overhaul your fantasy roster based on a period of eight games in late July? If not, why would you do it based on eight games in April?
What I am interested in knowing isn’t what a player’s numbers look like on April 15th but whether or not there is something that a player is doing differently that could impact his performance for the rest of the season. Examples of things I’m looking for include but are not limited to:
- Is he hurt? This is the most important factor to note; if a player is nursing an injury (like Adam Jones has been) his value could be impacted. If I can move someone like Jones for fair market value, I might do it.
- Does he have a new pitch/swing? Sometimes a player starts fooling with something in spring training, but it is difficult to tell if it is a change that will have an impact in the regular season. If you watched Vincent Velasquez closely this spring, you saw him tinkering with his off speed pitches and working on his sequencing. This change didn’t necessarily mean that he would succeed once the regular season started, but it did speak to the possibility of improvement. While one incredible performance yesterday doesn’t mean that he’s automatically an elite pitcher, the knowledge that he is doing something different plus results are actionable.
- Is his (batted-ball/pitch) velocity up or down? This information can also fall prey to small sample size noise, but it is worth watching. Trevor Story was hitting the ball extremely hard this spring, and much harder than he had in the minors. While no one ever would have anticipated the ridiculously hot start that Story had, the improved results in this area should have at least led us to consider that an improved outcome was possible.
Speaking of Story, there is one final thing to consider that almost always gets ignored but falls within my wheelhouse (no, I’m not going to make a stupid pun).
Trevor Story has exceeded his expectations already this year. He won’t continue at this pace and has already tailed off somewhat after a ridiculous start. However, the fact that he has put these gaudy numbers together thus far already means that he should be one of the stronger shortstops in the National League.
Story entered Thursday’s action with seven home runs, 10 runs, 13 RBI, and a .343 batting average in eight games. Barring a complete collapse, what is the worst case scenario for Story in 2016? I plugged 20 home runs, 60 RBI, 60 run, 10 steal, and .240 batting average season into my 2015 NL-only valuation formulas and came up with a $15 season for Story. That doesn’t come close to what he’s done thus far, so it might sound bad. But if that’s “all” Story does, that would have been good for sixth best shortstop in NL-only in 2015. In deep leagues, all of this is an exercise in mental gymnastics, because you’re not going to cut Story at this point unless the ghost of Hans Gruber takes your family hostage and even then you still might not drop Story.
But in terms of “how” to gauge a slow or fast start, this is arguably the most important factor to consider and one that frequently gets overlooked. The fact that Story can finish with 20 home runs is often negated by pundits with the overwhelming desire to knock him down and say “it’s impossible for him to continue on this blistering pace!” We know that, and it is a waste of everyone’s time to harp on this obvious point. Story is more valuable than he was on Opening Day. Determining what his value is going forward is what we should be concerning ourselves with, not how badly he will collapse. Eight games are a lousy sample size. However, very few players will ever hit seven home runs over an eight game time frame in their entire careers. While we always resist getting sucked into small sample sizes, as fantasy managers we often have to make snap decisions. Looking at what a player’s floor is based on what he has done so far can give us an excellent grasp on what a player could be worth…and could put us ahead of the curve against our opponents going forward.