Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Good Luck, Bad Luck

We've been working recently on introducing a report similar to one we used to publish a few years ago called "Good Luck, Bad Luck" which, if all goes as planned, will be part of a larger effort on our part to consolidate much of the most useful statistical info into a new-style newsletter, enabling readers to get items such as the weekly depth charts, week ahead reports and others possibly as early as Friday rather than having to wait for the weekends, when they're available at the site for all to see.  We're not sure of the details yet but at least elements of this old luck report will likely be a part of this effort and we're aiming for something that gives us a bit more flexibility on the presentation, such as an Adobe .pdf style newsletter.  Details will follow, probably at some point in June, but we think this could greatly enhance the free side of our site (the subscription side remaining the weekly-revised statistical player projections and ranking sheets).

As we've been toying with some of the information to include in such a report, we recently produced one of those old-style luck reports on the current year stats, through play completed last Thursday.  It revealed a few interesting things that reminded me of why I really liked having that information easily available.  Here are a few items that jumped out, again through play completed last Thursday:

Wes Helms has been picking up singles on 36% of the balls he has put in play, through play completed last week.  To put that in perspective, that's well above the typical league-leading level for any player and Ichiro led all of baseball last year with a 31.5% rate.  In other words, Helms' average so far this season is at least partially the result of some pretty favorable luck.

Put Sterlin Castro into that category too as heading into last weekend, he had been singling on 35% of the balls he had put in play.

Other players who were topping Ichiro's rate of singles per ball in play of 2009 include Elvis Andrus, Jamey Carroll, Mike Aviles, Ryan Theriot and Edgar Renteria.

On the flipside of the equation, there were some players who were having some pretty miserable luck on singles falling in.  Included among them was Aaron Hill, who had an incredibly low 11% of balls in play falling in for singles as of the end of last week.  To put that in perspective, a 13% or 14% would normally be the lowest we would see here among the worst player in the league (Carlos Pena was the lowest among qualifiers last year at 13.3%) and Hill himself had a rate of 20.1% last year in this column.  To say Hill has been unlucky would an understatement as there's no way this rate will stay at 11% in the long run even if he has become a worse hitter than his track record implies.

Hill's not alone at achieving incredibly low, and likely unlucky, singles rates so far this year as Carlos Quentin was on the list at 12% and the surprisingly-powerful Jose Bautista is also there at 12%.

On the pitching side of bad luck, Carlos Zambrano has seen 40% of balls in play, other than home runs, fall in for base hits and that rate is so high that there's no way it can't come down if he keeps pitching.  Others on that list included Doug Davis (39%), Bud Norris (38%), Justin Masterson (38%), Brandon Morrow (37%) and Gavin Floyd (37%).

On the lucky side of balls falling in for hits, Livan Hernandez has been not only incredibly lucky but almost historically lucky here in that just 18% of balls in play, other than home runs, have fallen for hits.  This is a rate that is virtually guaranteed to go way up and when it does, the rest of his pitching numbers will fall in line with exactly the type of pitcher everyone already knows he is.  Other names on the lucky list include Jason Vargas (21%), Jamie Moyer (22%), Doug Fister (22%) and Ubaldo Jimenez (22%). One name on the list was a surprise because even showing up here, he's still not having a good season and that is Todd Wellemeyer.  He has seen only 20% of his non-HR balls in play fall for hits, this even as his ERA keeps flirting with the mid-5's.

Anyway, I just wanted to share a few highlights from this report as we're working on something new that will likely include elements of this report.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Gomes, Cust, Cleveland infield, Sizemore/Scherzer/Boesch

As I contemplate the next set of major changes for the upcoming projection set this weekend, I wanted to take a moment to highlight a few players who I can already see are poised for some fairly significant upgrades and downgrades in the next set.

One that really jumps out at me is Jonny Gomes.  It's looking like he's established as a regular player in the lineup and while I'm not on the verge of upping his projected batting average much, he has some definite fantasy value.  If he continues to play on a regular basis, unlike what we originally and previously were forecasting, he's the kind of player who could still have close to 20 home runs and a handful of steals in him the rest of the way, this if we increase his projected at bats to around 300+ more from this point up, up over 100 from what we had listed previously.

Jack Cust's also a surprising comeback candidate in that he was essentially let go by Oakland in the spring by being designated for assignment, went unclaimed on waivers, and has now bounced back into a position where it looks like he's about to take over from the struggling Eric Chavez as the regular DH.  Assuming that happens, he's still capable of challenging 20 home runs with regular playing time and is probably still sitting on the waiver wire in a lot of fantasy leagues.

Asdrubal Cabrera's injury, which happened after the cutoff for last week's projection set, threatens to keep him out of action until late July or even August and a major downgrade in the next set is obviously coming.  The injury to Cabrera probably helps Luis Valbuena a little.  Valbuena, who had been playing second base but who can also play shortstop, was on the verge of losing his roster spot until this injury to Cabrera happened and while his job is still by no means secure, he gains at least a little bit of security on the roster side of the equation anyway, even if he isn't starting as often as he was earlier in the season.  Jason Donald, who definitely does get a big bump up as a result of Cabrera's injury, doesn't look to be of too much help here, even with a very slight power/speed potential.

One other transaction that had terrible timing in terms of last week's projection set was the completely unexpected demotion of Scott Sizemore and Max Scherzer by the Tigers.  Both were handed tickets to Triple-A after slow starts and neither has an instant path back to the majors.  There's no Detroit pitcher who's going to move up too much in value in the next set (Armando Galarraga projects out as ordinary here even with having it made it back to the majors) but on the hitting side of the equation, Brennan Boesch may have staying power with Sizemore sent down and he's been playing almost every day the past week or so.  If we upgrade Boesch to full-time playing status, he projects out as a low average (don't believe the fast start - he hit only .275 at Double-A last year), 10-15 home run type with only occasional speed, at least for this season.  If you're wondering how Boesch benefits from Sizemore's demotion, it seems the way things are about to play out is that Carlos Guillen, when healthy, will take over at second base and that opens up a lot of playing time through the DH position for Boesch, who can also play in the outfield.  It certainly seems this is the way the Tigers are leaning as of now anyway.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ol. Perez, Haeger, C. Young

As I consider next weekend's updated projection set, there are three pitchers likely to see a huge dive in projected innings for the remainder of the season, all of them National Leaguers.

Oliver Perez is supposedly keeping his spot in the rotation even after his latest disaster, which saw him walk 7 batters in 3.1 innings, but I expect keeping him in the rotation is a scramble to get something in return for the big contract the Mets gave him back before the start of the 2009 season.  After a strong 2007 season and a wild but still effective 2008, Perez then signed a three year deal that is paying him about $36 million total over the life of the contract.  Certainly, the lack of control can't come as a surprise and I now believe he's going to end up in the bullpen within the next couple of months.

Charlie Haeger should be so lucky to end up with such a fate as becoming a reliever.  Haeger was placed on the DL yesterday with plantar fascitis in his foot but I'm thinking that the move just delays the inevitable and that is that Haeger is going to end up losing his roster spot entirely.  In Saturday's outing, just after the cutoff point for our latest projection set, he didn't retire a single batter, walking three and giving up five runs, bringing his ERA up to 8.49 on the season.  If your fantasy league allows you to take players off the roster only when they end up on the DL, now is your chance to cut him.

One name who always seems to come up in the "falling short of expectations" category is San Diego pitcher Chris Young.  We listed Young not only as a very risky player prior to the start of this season but in the numeric version of our risk ratings, he was listed as the 19th riskiest pitcher in all of baseball.  He's living up to that as his return from the DL just keeps getting pushed back and given the latest news the past day or two, I'll be surprised if he's pitching again in the majors before mid-June.  He's poised for a massive downgrade.

In fact, what separates Young from the other two here is that I believe Young can pitch well if he can get active and is probably the only pitcher of the three worth stashing if you can, especially because of the home park.  That still won't stop me from downgrading him to perhaps 70-85 innings projected in the next projection set.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Heavy Weight of April

As we get deeper into the season, this will likely be the final time I get into this topic about hot/cold starts.  I know I'm not the first to say it but it can't be said enough that April absolutely distorts our perception of a player's season.  John Benson used to write about this concept in his one of his old Rotisserie A-Z books and I really like this way of looking at it: At the end of April, what a player did in April is 100% of their seasonal performance.  At the end of May, April is 50% and May is 50%.  At the end of June, April is 33%, May is 33% and June is 33%.  In other words, the player who has a great June but started the season slow gets attention for a hot streak but that's all it will be described as.  If he did it in April, he gets credit for having a great season that gradually cools off to more ordinary levels.  And so on... In other words, April is always there reminding us of how slowly or quickly a player started the year.  A player who hits .400 in April and .200 in May is thought of to be having a good season, even at the end of May, because he "is" hitting .300.  A player who has those exact two same performances but in reverse order, isn't thought of be to having a good season until at least late May, at which time he's viewed as having recovered from a slow start.

I say all these fairly obvious things because I have noticed a theme among those who panic after April performance (and more rarely, celebrate too quickly).  I alluded to this in a couple of previous posts but the short of it is that there are some who want to estimate a player's ability based on a month of play and you simply can't do that.  Granted, a month can definitely tell you something and it's why performance to date still does affect our projected ability to a degree.  As far as the year 2010 is concerned, that one month seems like the only reliable information you have and 2009 seems like ancient history.  The temptation is to favor the sample that is recent over the one that is substantial and finding just the right balance of attention for both is the true battle of every prognosticator.

Just for the fun of it, let me float a couple of possible performances here, each representing a month's worth of performance.  These weren't deliberately selected by digging to find the most extreme examples.  I just picked the first couple I happened to land on:

Player 1: 98 AB, .378 Avg, 2 HR, 19 BB, 26 K, 9 SB
Player 2: 109 AB, .239 Avg, 2 HR, 9 BB, 35 K, 3 SB

Just looking at these two lines above, can we make any real conclusions about either player?  Certainly, we know that both are capable of stealing bases and taking walks but beyond that, is it reasonable to speculate with any degree of certainty based on this small sample that Player 1 is a superior player to Player 2?  How wide would the margin of error be if we attempted to estimate each player's specific skills based on just the information we have?  Well, as it turns out, they're actually the same player from the same season.  Player 1 is David Wright's performance in May of 2009 and Player 2 is his performance in September/October of 2009.  And for what it's worth, this year he's hitting .280 after 116 at bats with 6 home runs, 21 walks, 31 K and 7 stolen bases.

Let's try another, acknowledging now that the theme is that we're actually dealing with the same player each time, selecting two months within the same season.  Recognize this one?

Month 1: 2 W, 3 L, 5.44 ERA, 7 GS, 41.1 IP, 51 H, 23 BB, 37 K
Month 2: 3 W, 1 L, 2.36 ERA, 5 GS, 34.1 IP, 26 H, 10 BB, 33 K

That's Ricky Romero.  Month 1 is actually his final month of the 2009 season.  If we followed the rule of giving more recent data more weight, it should have been more important to us than "Month 2" here which is actually what he did in June.  He's off to a good start this year too but do the above look like the same player?  Of course they don't.  That's because samples of 5-7 games started actually are a small sample and  don't tell the whole story.  Not only is the competition highly variable in smaller samples but the natural course of outcomes says that there will be streaks and slumps to go with good luck and bad luck.  A true .333 hitter, for example, is not going to get a hit on a perfectly even cycle of exactly every three trips to the plate and can look like a .200 hitter in a month.

In some ways, wanting to focus on April data exclusively is akin to wanting to focus on data that only happened after September 1st last year, deciding that what a player has done in the most recent month is of absolute importance to us.  If we did that, we would have concluded at the end of last season that the rest of Ubaldo Jimenez's strong 2009 season was a fluke, this as he slumped to a 4.17 ERA after September 1st.  We would have to believe that Livan Hernandez has suddenly become an elite pitcher based on his start this year.  Honestly, is there anyone out there who believes that Hernandez is a pitcher you should be trading for right now?

The focus of today's piece isn't so much to argue about whether some hot/cold starts represent real changes in ability.  What I want readers to do, and this is crucial to fantasy success, is that you must recognize when a player has turned the corner and is back on normal track.  When that happens, try to not be confused by the April performance being included in the totals.  In other words, it's going to take two months for Javier Vazquez to repair his season no matter how he pitches from now on.  In fact, if Vazquez manages to keep his spot in the rotation (something we're becoming a little skeptical of now as we consider a revision to his games started column) and even if he performs exactly as projected from this point on, after his tenth start of the season, which will come sometime in June, his ERA to date on the season would still be in the high 6's.  To the reader who doesn't remember what we're saying here, if that were the case, it would appear as if he hadn't recovered yet from a slow start when in fact he would have performed from this moment on, in May, exactly as projected.  The season-to-date struggle cannot be removed from the total now and the law of averages does not mean that he will suddenly outperform the projection to balance out a terrible start.

So remember that the earlier a player does something in a season, the more it will skew your perception of his ability, for better or worse.  Keep your eye on (a) his real projected hidden ability, (b) his current role (which is definitely influenced by the hot/cold start) and (c) his health status, which can absolutely influence short-run outcomes, especially in a negative direction.  If you do those things, you'll be continuing to play the long run.