Last week I took a look at whether players who collected 40+ home runs, or 40+ stolen bases, were less likely to have poor starts to their seasons. The answer, not surprisingly, was no–bad Aprils were no more or less likely than bad Augusts. But that’s only one side of the coin. Of more interest to fantasy owners is the question of whether there’s any predictive value in a slow start–whether a weak April hurts a player’s chances of maintaining a high performance level.
This time around, I decided to use a sample of every player who hit 40 or more home runs between the years 1996-2003 (thanks, as always, to the fine folk at Retrosheet for the data). Those end points were chosen for a couple of reasons: It avoids the short-season strike years, but also cuts out the 2004 season, since we don’t as yet know what those players did for an encore. There were 101 player seasons of 40+ home runs in that span, but one of them was Andres Galarraga‘s 1998. Since the Big Cat didn’t play at all the following year due to his battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, we’ll remove it from the sample, leaving a nice round 100 data points–ranging from Alex Rodriguez‘s six-year march towards greatness, to one-hit wonders like Toni Basil…err, Tony Batista.
Those 100 player seasons averaged exactly 46 home runs between them. While only 44 of them had another 40+ HR campaign in the year immediately following, they did average 37.2 home runs in year plus one, an entirely respectable figure. Thirty-four of them had never hit 40+ HR before, and of those 34, 13 have yet to repeat the feat. The average calendar month yielded 7.67 home runs, with a standard deviation (SD) of 2.953.
That average and SD mean what I called a ‘bad’ April last week–between one and two SDs below the average–would be a two-, three- or four-HR month. An ‘awful’ April (more than two SDs below the average) would be an April with zero or one homers. Applying those standards to the follow-up months gives us 32 ‘bad’ Aprils, and four ‘awful’ ones.
On the surface, those slow starts seem to mean something. The average of the 36 follow-up seasons with ‘bad’ or ‘awful’ Aprils is 30.11 home runs, well off the overall average. One thing we haven’t accounted for yet, however, is injuries. That was intentional, as injuries are a fact of fantasy life, but in terms of seeing whether a slow start points to a slow season, it’s cheating: Knowing that a player is going to be on the DL until July two weeks into the season sort of makes the question of whether he can repeat as a 40-HR hitter moot. Jay Buhner in 1998 and Ken Griffey and Frank Thomas in 2001 all suffered serious injuries in April. Removing those three seasons from the picture boosts the average to 31.61–a difference, but not a huge one.
Let’s look a little deeper. The SD for those follow-up seasons is 12.88, putting 16 follow-up seasons at one full SD or more below the mean (in real terms, 24 or fewer home runs.) Removing the three seasons marred by serious April injuries leaves 13, nine of which featured ‘bad’ or ‘awful’ Aprils.
Putting it all together:
April One+ SDs Below Within One SD One+ SDs Above Good/Great 0 1 5 Average 4 48 6 Bad/Awful 12 23 1
Even if you remove the three injury seasons listed above from the first Bad/Awful column, that’s a fairly clear pattern. Good starts would seem to lead to good seasons, and bad starts seem to increase the chances of bad seasons.
There’s one more thing to consider, however:
April One+ SDs Below Within One SD One+ SDs Above Good/Great 0 1 5 Average 1 29 6 Bad/Awful 4 16 1
Those are the numbers for the ‘established’ sluggers, players who had reached 40+ home runs at some prior point in their career, and with the three injury-scarred Aprils removed. Suddenly the downside ‘pattern’ seems more like random noise. Established 40+ home-run hitters suffer little, if any, reduction in their chances of reaching that plateau again based on a slow start to the year.
(Incidentally, the players who started out hot and never cooled down are pretty much who you’d expect them to be: Barry Bonds, Griffey and Mark McGwire. The one player with a good April but just an average season? Vinny Castilla, in 1998.)
Now let’s take a look at players following their first 40+ home run season:
April One+ SDs Below Within One SD One+ SDs Above Good/Great 0 0 0 Average 3 19 0 Bad/Awful 5 7 0
The smoking gun is found at last. While a slow April doesn’t slow down an established slugger, it does seem to spell bad news for a player who did not have a previous 40+ home run season on his resume. If a slow April is a red flag for anything, it seems to be a clue to help weed out the Rafael Palmeiro 1998s–the first year at a new performance level–from the Brady Anderson 1996s-the one-hit wonders.
What does that mean for 2005? It certainly doesn’t bode well for Adrian Beltre, who has followed up his breakout 48 home-run 2004 with a paltry two jacks in April. Owners of Adam Dunn (46 HR last year, six this April), Paul Konerko and David Ortiz (both 41 and seven), however, can take Bobby McFerrin’s timeless advice to heart, and feel a little more secure that the power they paid for is for real.