Small sample size.
If you're a seasoned fantasy baseball expert -- be it one season or several decades' worth of playing in leagues -- surely you've heard that phrase, and certainly you'll hear it again countless times this season.
It's a phrase that refers to, naturally, small snippets of a player's statistics, and it's typically used in a dismissive manner as to suggest little relevance to the numbers. There isn't a set length to a small sample size; it can be as tiny as a couple of pitches, or, if you're more liberal in your estimation, as large as two months' worth of statistics. The length often is left in the hands of the person using the phrase. It's arbitrary in much the way that is simply calling a player "good" -- exactly what is he good at? Standing for nine innings without falling down?
Here's the problem with the "small sample size" phrase: Fantasy baseball is formulated upon statistics, many of them in small samples. To us, the small sample actually does matter. So although maybe there's not a lot to glean from the numbers in terms of long-term player analysis, they do matter to us today. And at this time of the season, when seasonal statistics are indeed small, it's understandable if fantasy owners react strongly to numbers at either extreme.
For the past several days, primarily on Twitter, I've been kidding around about "pace" numbers, player statistics projected over a 162-game season. The small sample size of 2012 seasonal statistics makes these "paces" look silly; and, when taken seriously, they directly contribute to fantasy owners overreacting.
There might not be one thing -- excluding injury-related developments -- that would cause me to radically alter my player rankings seven days into a season. You can see this reflected in the rankings in today's column. But I've heard some readers' reactions to some of the early numbers, and today, mostly tongue-in-cheek, let's examine some of these "pace" numbers.
After all, even if there's nothing to a single one of these, certainly the lessons warrant tucking away in the event these players remain close to pace come May 1.
(All statistics are through Tuesday's games and have been projected over the course of a full, 162-game season.)
• Dee Gordon: 97 walks, 130 stolen bases.
Dee Gordon is fast. There's no denying that, and even at the time that I placed him on my "Bleagh!" players list, I hinted at his ability to steal bases at a rate at least half of that 130-steal seasonal pace.
It was his ability to get on base that I questioned, and that ties into the walks. Let's compare: That 97-walk pace is over 162 games; he had 125 walks in 453 career games as a professional entering 2012. Add in that Gordon walked seven times in 74 plate appearances during spring training, and it seems he's making progress, providing himself some hope of getting on base noticeably more than 30 percent of the time exactly what he'll need to make his speed count on the basepaths. Gordon is hitting .238 with .048 isolated power; his .333 on-base percentage would at least be considered respectable.
Gordon's is the epitome of the "small sample," but if he continues to draw walks, he'll have a fighting chance of remaining in the lineup on an everyday basis and stealing 60-plus bases. That said, if he continues at his 227-strikeout pace, his batting average indeed might not finish higher than .238.
TOP 125 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 125 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued. Prev Rank is based off Tristan's preseason Top 250 rankings, which includes more than 125 hitters.
• Yoenis Cespedes: 270 strikeouts, 486 swings and misses, 648 "chased" (swings at pitches out of the strike zone).
Cespedes swings and misses a lot. Watch him play, and there's no denying that. He'll be prone to slumps, he'll probably bat beneath .250 come season's end, and he might be a viable contender for 200-plus K's if granted enough at-bats. Eric Karabell had an excellent take on it in his blog on Tuesday. And to put Cespedes' paces in the latter two categories into perspective, consider that in the past three seasons (2009 to '11), Mark Reynolds is the only player to have swung and missed more often in a season (499, in 2009), and no player has chased more nonstrikes in a season. (Pablo Sandoval's 579 in 2009 are next-highest.) At the same time
• Cespedes: 81 home runs.
When Cespedes makes contact, he hits the ball a long way, another thing you should know if you've watched him play. Ultimately, he's an all-or-nothing slugger with some speed; if you own him you need be prepared for some painfully rough patches.
• Omar Infante: 162 extra-base hits, 97 home runs.
No player in baseball history has accrued more than 119 extra-base hits in a season (Babe Ruth, 1921). Infante, meanwhile, had 52 career home runs entering the 2012 season, in 942 games played, plus 237 extra-base hits.
No one believes that Infante will hit 97 home runs, or even a third of that number, but what most fantasy owners might not realize is how unlikely a candidate he'd be to hit one-ninth -- or 11 -- of those homers. He had eight and seven the past two seasons, his primary appeal being that he was a .296 hitter in those years combined. Don't buy his pace; he's a back-of-your-lineup type in mixed leagues.
• Adam Dunn: 243 at-bats versus left-handers, 122 strikeouts, 0 hits.
It's the tiniest of samples, yes, but remember that Dunn began last season 0-for-38 versus left-handed pitchers and finished with .064/.235/.074 triple-slash rates -- six hits and only one extra-base hit, a double -- against them, one of the most troublesome weaknesses during his miserable 2011. The other weakness was his inability to hit pitches up in the strike zone or fastballs clocked 93 mph or higher; so far he has seen 24 and 17 pitches in either of those situations, so it's too early to tell whether he has made any improvements in those areas.
• Austin Jackson: 162 walks, 162 strikeouts.
Jackson is off to an outstanding start, and the relevance to these two numbers is that they would represent career bests in either category, and both are tied to his performance in batting average -- remember that he hit just .249 last season. Whether this is a sign Jackson will demonstrate more patience all season is unclear; if he is, however, at age 25, he might yet enjoy a breakout campaign in the range of a .290 batting average, 100 runs and 30 steals.
• Ryan Braun: 227 well-hit balls in play.
So much for Braun's "miserable" spring training; everyone was talking about his .213/.315/.404 triple-slash line in 19 Cactus League contests. Now that the games count, Braun looks like the Braun of old, and the relevance of this particular category is that he finished third (184, in 2011), ninth (164, in 2010) and seventh (169, in 2009) in terms of batted balls judged as "well-hit" in the past three seasons. He's as good as they come in the category still.
• Desmond Jennings: 243 strikeouts, 608 pitches "chased."
You might look at Jennings' .294 batting average and 41-steal pace as positives, but the reason I was so high on him this preseason was the level of plate discipline he showed in 2011. Last season, Jennings chased only 19.9 percent of pitches judged outside the strike zone, walked 10.8 percent of the time and chased only 34.9 percent of nonstrikes in two-strike counts. This season his numbers in those categories are 41.7, 5.6 and 47.4, those again a small sample size. But if they continue, there's little chance Jennings is going to maintain a .290-plus batting average. Heck, he might struggle to finish north of .250.
• Kelly Johnson: 162 walks, 194 runs scored.
If Johnson manages even 100 walks, he'll not only keep his current No. 2 spot in the Toronto Blue Jays' lineup, he'll also score more than 100 runs. He might a sneaky 20-homer, 15-steal, 100-run guy who bats .270, and if he accomplishes all four of those, he'll finish among the top 10 at second base.
Andre Ethier, Los Angeles Dodgers: A scorching-hot spring -- he batted .385/.431/.846 with 16 RBIs in 20 games -- has continued into a similarly impressive first week of the regular season, as Ethier's .316/.381/.842 triple-slash rates are MVP-caliber and at least reminiscent of his career year of 2009, when he managed .272/.361/.508 numbers. Hot starts, though, are nothing new for Ethier. During his seven-year big league career, he's a .321/.398/.539 career hitter in April (March included in that), with each of those rates at least 19 points higher than in any other individual month, and even in his down 2011 he managed .380/.446/.556 stats during the season's opening month. From that angle, you could downplay his performance, but health -- not skills -- has always been the question with Ethier. What if this is the year he's able to stay on the field for all 162? Surely he's a short-term must-start, and from that angle, he warrants a higher ranking.
David Freese, St. Louis Cardinals: Speaking of productive players on a per-game basis who have injury concerns, Freese is a player who hasn't appeared in more than 101 games between the majors and minors in any of the past three seasons, and he has averaged 84 games the past three years. At the same time, he's a .304/.359/.444 career hitter in the big leagues, those stats accrued in 190 games, and that's excluding his outstanding 2011 postseason performance. Consider that, since June 28, a span of 96 games, Freese has managed .313/.370/.527 triple-slash rates while appearing in all but 11 Cardinals games, meaning he'd project to 24 home runs and 109 RBIs over a full season. That's the player you're getting if you gamble on Freese, but understand that, with his health history, it's indeed a long-term gamble.
Derek Jeter, New York Yankees: Jeter is the kind of player for whom criticism might have reached an unreasonable extreme; he's a 37-year-old in his declining years but not one entirely without value. The Yankees are committed to batting him leadoff every night, padding his runs-scored total, and let's point out that he was a .327/.383/.428 hitter the second half of last season, a .318/.362/.455 hitter during Grapefruit League play and now a .391/.417/.565 hitter in his first five regular-season contests. That Jeter continues to generate ground balls on more than 60 percent of his balls in play (72.7 percent thus far in 2012) and is likely to decline in speed as he ages makes him a stronger bet to bat beneath .300 than above it. But if he's, say, a .290-hitting, 100-run, 10-apiece-in-homers-and-steals player, isn't that still a top-10-worthy fantasy shortstop?