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April 27, 2017

Fantasy Freestyle

I’m Very Nervous

by Mike Gianella

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Yes, I know: April isn’t even over—heck, we haven’t reached the 1/8th point of the season yet—but there are reasons why I’m nervous about my chances to win this year.

To start with, my competitors seem to have all the freaking luck. I know that Michael Conforto was supposed to be good, but a .365 batting average, four home runs, 15 RBIs, and 18 runs in 86 plate appearances? I thought he was going to provide a fourth outfielder’s production. I know Bryce Harper always gets off to a fast start, but nine home runs and five steals in 96 plate appearances? Boy, do I regret not going the extra dollar on him in Tout Wars. Even more annoying are the hitters who came out of nowhere. Colby Rasmus (7 HR, 19 RBIa, 95 PA) and Aledmys Diaz (4 HR, .423 AVG, 75 PA) are killing me. not only in my AL and NL leagues, but in my mixed leagues as well.

And, wouldn’t you know it, my team has had no luck whatsoever. I’m thinking of changing my team name to the Broken Mirrors to reflect my team’s bad fortunes. You always expect one or two slow starters on your team in any given year. But I seem to have every one of these bums on my team.

Coming out of my draft, Justin Upton, Joey Votto and Jose Abreu seemed like a pretty reasonable core. But the three them have combined for seven home runs and a paltry .225 batting average. My best hitter—Daniel Murphy—is mitigating their bad batting averages with a .370 mark, but he is barely doing anything else (2 HR, 12 RBIs, SB). I never spend on catchers but made an exception this year, so wouldn’t it figure that Jonathan Lucroy is doesn’t have a home run or a steal yet and has a pitiful six runs batted in. Justin Turner is another disappointment. No homers, no steals, and a .247 batting average. I could tolerate one or two slow starts but it feels like my entire team stinks.

Don’t get me started on the pitching. I rarely splurge on an ace (Clayton Kershaw is always too expensive) but this year I took the plunge on Max Scherzer. He looks healthy, but a 4.35 ERA and a strikeout rate of 8.7 per nine innings isn’t going to take my team to the promised land. I know Justin Verlander isn’t quite the pitcher he was in 2012-2013 prime, but I was expecting an ERA around 3.50—not a 5.46 with a home-run rate of close to two dingers per nine. My big-ticket closer? You guessed it, Cody Allen, he of the 6.97 ERA and 1.35 WHIP. Over at the Closer Report, Matt Collins says that I “shouldn’t worry” but he also mentions Zack McAllister as a potential replacement. Seriously, Matt? Et tu, Collins?

Stop telling me not to panic! This is bad! Everything is going wrong and there is no way to recover from this disaster! Maybe it’s not too late to trade half of my team for Eric Thames!

Ok, take a deep breath. Now re-read what I wrote above.

If you were paying attention at all, you can see that none of these statistics are from 2017. They are from April 2016. Do you remember any of this? I sure don’t. What we remember about last year isn’t what happened in the first month, but throughout the entire season.

Working backward from the list above:

  • Cody Allen was fine and turned out to be one of the better relievers in fantasy baseball.
  • Justin Verlander not only turned his season around, but came very close to winning a Cy Young Award.
  • Max Scherzer did win a Cy Young Award. I hear that guy is good.
  • Justin Turner did not finish with zero home runs. In fact, he nearly doubled his career home-run total, hitting 27 to go along with 90 RBIs.
  • Jonathan Lucroy hit 24 home runs, drove in 81 runs, and batted .292. He was the best offensive catcher in baseball.
  • Daniel Murphy not only hit for power, he finished with 25 home runs, 104 RBIs, and the second-best ISO among qualifying second basemen (only Brian Dozier was better).
  • Jose Abreu came within five home runs and one RBIs of his 2015 season totals while bumping up his batting average by three points.
  • Joey Votto overcame his slow start to hit 12 points higher than he did in 2015, while matching his home-run total to go along with six more runs scored and 17 more RBIs (he did steal three fewer bases).
  • Justin Upton tied his career high in home runs (31), while coming within six runs and RBI totals of 2015. He did lose five points in batting average.
  • Believe it or not, Aledmys Diaz did not finish with a .423/.453/.732 line. His 13 home runs in 385 plate appearances from May 1 forward were certainly solid, but Diaz was not the second coming of Alex Rodriguez.
  • Colby Rasmus only hit eight more home runs for the rest of the season. His batting average was .206. Bret Sayre and I had him on our LABR team, so the less I talk about this, the better.
  • Bryce Harper was not a hitting deity. He provided a good deal of power and speed but saw his home run total drop from 42 to 24 and lost nearly 90 points in batting average.
  • Michael Conforto not only failed to keep up his torrid pace, he completely fell off the map, hitting .174 with eight home runs in 262 plate appearances. To be fair, a wrist injury impacted Conforto’s swing and production for most of the season, but stats are stats.

We have reached a dangerous point in the season. One or two weeks in, we constantly reassure ourselves that a bad start is the product of a small sample size. A month into the season, many of us start to panic.

It is possible that a bad April can be an ominous signal for a bad season. But unless a player is injured, or there is a severe mechanical flaw in his swing or delivery, chances are excellent that a correction to the mean is coming. We have grown so conditioned to laugh at oversimplifying the idea of regression to the mean that we sometimes ignore it entirely—and yet, for players with an established performance baseline, this frequently is what happens.

If you drafted or auctioned well and your team is off to a slow start, chances are good that your team will bounce back and begin turning it around in May. Player valuation does fluctuate on a few players every year, but for every 2016 version of Jason Heyward there are many more players whose stats will “fix” themselves the rest of the way.

Too often, May 1 is bandied about like a signpost instructing us that it is the “right” time to begin trading. As I noted in last week’s column, there is no "right" time. You should make a trade in April if you see an opportunity to improve your team, or if an injury necessitates making a trade to improve your team. However, this precept applies the other way as well. If your team is off to a slow start and is healthy, it is often best to wait for performances to level off in either direction. If you did a good job drafting and it isn’t showing up in the standings yet, don’t worry. Chances are it will sooner rather than later.

One final note. Since 1999, only one hitter who led the majors in home runs in April also led the majors in home runs at the end of the season (Alex Rodriguez in 2007). This doesn’t mean that Eric Thames can’t keep up this torrid pace, but odds are excellent that he won’t.

Mike Gianella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

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