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.