Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Small Samples That Matter

The other day in this space, I reminded readers of the importance of not putting too much weight into the hot or cold start, especially with only a week in the books.  There is an exception, though, and so today I want to talk about the flipside of that equation.  There are times when you do need to seriously consider how well a player has started and those occasions are when a player's manager believes that the player is better or worse than originally expected.  In other words, if a manager or team's front office becomes convinced that a hot or cold start is representative of a player's current ability (or lack thereof), then it can have a significant impact on the player's projected eventual value.  In particular, this happens the most with rookies and to an arguably greater extent, closers.

With rookies, everything the player is doing early is establishing the perception of how ready the player is for the majors.  A rookie hitting .150 at the end of April is at least somewhat likely to lose his job and one hitting that at the end of May is almost certainly headed back to the minors.  Veterans, especially the highest-paid ones in whom so much is invested, really don't have to worry too much about a slow start.  It can happen when a well-established player starts so poorly that he is given the boot but he's not facing the same challenge of proving himself that a rookie is.  With the rookie, losing a job is virtually guaranteed if the player doesn't offer at least some hint of hope by May or June.

In the case of closers, perception is so important because the manager directly controls the save opportunities.  In other words, potential saves are directly linked to what a manager thinks of a player and of the other pitchers on the team.  For example, Jason Frasor was designated Toronto's closer near the end of spring training but has been shaky in a couple of outings so far, this as Kevin Gregg has performed well enough to already potential challenge him for the role even though so little of the season is in the books.  It has me re-thinking forecasted saves for both Frasor and Gregg in the next edition of the forecasts.  Neftali Feliz has been given at least a temporary bump up to semi-closer status in the past few days, this because he's looked so good and Frank Francisco hasn't.  The list goes on and we're constantly evaluating whether our forecasts need to be revised based on the latest news.

While my entry of the other day was emphasizing that the first week or two of the season reveals only a little about a player's real hidden ability, there is no escaping that managers and front offices do put a lot of weight into early season performance, enough so that we must always consider the hot or cold start in the context of how it impacts a player's potential role and job security.

Therefore, in the same way that you can exploit early perception by getting better than par value for players who have been on hot streaks to start the season or acquiring undervalued ones on cold streaks, you can also take advantage of opportunities that will be earned by a player's hot start or the cold start of another teammate.  It doesn't mean you have to believe that a player is actually as good or bad as he has seemed in early April.  You just have to believe that his manager is putting a lot of weight into it and be looking to acquire players who may be on the verge of new opportunities as a result of unexpected performances early in the season.