Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Slow Starts that Continue

I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago in this space but I continue to get questions to the mail bag related to players who are off to a cold start.  Some are more strongly-worded than others and we have to be careful not to overreact.  It's a major conclusion to decide that players with long track records are suddenly unable to play the game anymore, especially when we're talking about players in their late twenties or early thirties.  Of course, there's a broader range of ages involved in the slow starts.  Is David Ortiz facing the ultimate decline?  Will Chris Davis ever learn to make contact?

The following seven names seem to be the ones that are showing up the most often in emails sent to our mail bag and I'd like to focus briefly on what each player's start might mean to their remaining season:

David Ortiz: I downgraded Ortiz's forecast in the latest projection set published on the weekend.  No, it wasn't that I was able to make an entirely new conclusion about Ortiz's ability based on fewer than fifty at bats.  It's that I believe the Red Sox are forming an entirely new theory about his ability and what we've seen over the past week is that Ortiz is starting to ride the pine a bit more in favor of other options.  Remember, the DH position is the easiest one to fill because you can use any hitter and the concern with Ortiz is that even with last season's second-half recovery from a terrible start, he did end up with a .238 average by season's end.  I don't believe he's as bad as he's looked this year nor is he as bad as he looked at this time a year ago but it won't matter soon.  I've dropped him to fewer than 300 projected at bats the rest of the way, or about 200 fewer at bats than many regulars in the set.

Chris Davis: There's really not much that needs to be said here except that the Rangers were surprisingly quick to give up on him this year, already sending him back to the minors in favor of Justin Smoak.  As good a prospect as Smoak is, his immediate projected ability is unexciting for a first baseman (our new forecast for Smoak is .259, 11 HR, 48 RBI in 377 at bats from this point on).  So, while we had to downgrade Davis significantly to reflect his demotion, we left in about 100-150 at bats to reflect the expectation that he'll climb back up at some point later this year.  This was a pretty quick trigger, no doubt motivated by Davis's continued propensity for striking out, something that the Rangers shouldn't have been surprised at considering they saw it throughout the year last year.  Strikeouts are part of the Chris Davis power package.

Jay Bruce: We continue to expect good things from Bruce and haven't downgraded him too much, even with his miserable opening to the season.  He's rebounded somewhat the past week but is still only up to .215 on the season through play completed yesterday.  The most important two things you must remember about Bruce are that (a) he just turned twenty-three and (b) he was a .240 hitter in the majors coming into this year in more than 750 at bats.  The reason the second item is important is that because hitters very rarely decline at his age and so his average should be going up as he gains experience and continues to mature physically.  The most difficult aspect of our projection is knowing just how much job security he has and we believe that at least for now, he doesn't have to worry there.

Ian Desmond: Desmond was the highlight of a blog entry I wrote back in the opening week of the season and there's no point in restating what I said there.  In Desmond's case, our projection from before the season still stands pretty much and that is that we're projecting he will lose his job at some point this season.  So, in Desmond's case, the slow start matters because we believe that it represents a real problem for his current ability to hit in the majors, enough so that it challenges his job security.  He did have a 2 for 5 night last night, raising his average from .226 to .241, which is exactly our forecasted level of ability for him for the remainder of the season as well.

Carlos Quentin: There's very little chance Quentin will lose his spot in the lineup unless he gets hurt and his slow start likely represents one of those strange elements of streaks and slumps.  His power performance the previous two seasons promise better things and if you can find someone who believes that Quentin's permanently lost it at twenty-seven, get your trading hat on as quickly as you can.

Javier Vazquez: He's been getting knocked around so far this year and the April misery will form part of the final totals, meaning he'll be in a struggle for a while to get his ERA to respectable territory no matter how he pitches from now on.  Still, he's not quite yet in lose-your-spot-in-the-rotation territory and he's definitely a better pitcher than his 9.00 ERA reveals.  Look at the track record and then look at his age (33) and realize that a sudden decline, while not impossible, is unlikely.

Jason Kubel: Again, we come back to the idea that if a player is still relatively young and has a lengthy track record, then the greatest concern about a slow start should be that it hurts his chances of playing.  Kubel may be facing a little of that now as he did get a day off on Sunday but you have to remember that he hit .300 last year, will turn twenty-eight next month and was a career .278 hitter in the majors heading into this season, in more than 1,600 big league at bats.  In other words, the slow start is almost certainly just a fluke.

In short, if you're trying to assess whether a player's start matters, here are the key factors you have to consider:

1. Is he old enough that this could represent a real, permanent decline?  In other words, a player can decline at thirty-four or thirty-five or, in rare cases, even in his early thirties.  Players generally do not significantly decline in their twenties unless some outside factor happens to permanently change their ability, such as multiple injuries or major surgeries.

2. Is the performance this season over enough of a large sample that we can now give little weight to his previous big league performance?  In short, we're asking here whether a player's .150 average over 50 at bats should have our attention more than his .280 average in the majors over 1,500 at bats.

3. Is the player's performance so far enough to jeopardize his role as a regular contributor?  This one's the most challenging and the most important to get right.  With young players, it's common to see benchings or even demotions as a result of bad starts.  With veterans, they have to be a little worse but you do see it and theoretically, just about any player can end up moved from the rotation to the bullpen or given an extended stay as a pinch-hitter when they're performing poorly.  This is the key question to answer in most cases for if you believe in the player's long run skill, the player still needs to get the playing time to demonstrate his real hidden ability.  In other words, if a pitcher gets moved to the bullpen after 40 miserable innings to start the season, it will take an incredible performance in the bullpen, where he'll get fewer innings, to right the perception ship with his manager.

4. Is a potential replacement candidate good enough to keep this player's job?  For example, we're asking here whether Justin Smoak is good enough to offer enough 2010 ability to the Rangers that they will feel justified leaving Chris Davis in the minors.

Those are the main elements I'm considering when I'm evaluating whether a player's slow start really matters for what we'll forecast the rest of the way.