Impatience is a common instinct of a fantasy owner in April.
Small as statistical samples are, said stats count, and owners tend not to want to wait until May or June, after which point it's often too late to determine that a slow start is more trend than fluke. To wit, six active members of the ADP top 25 from the preseason currently find themselves ranked lower than 300th on our Player Rater; and that group of six excludes Clayton Kershaw and Adrian Beltre, both of whom are currently on the disabled list.
So, as I often remind: When judging a player harshly for his poor play, make sure you first have an actionable reason behind his struggles. I'm always willing to help find you one -- where one exists -- and with that in mind, last Thursday I asked my Twitter followers to submit their geekiest stat questions.
It was a broad question, but a theme quickly became clear: People are worried about a large number of proven players. So let's get to the nine best, stressing that not every one addresses slumping stars. Hey, we need some positivity!
Matt Ward: Miguel Cabrera has a 50 percent ground ball rate right now. Potentially a sign of injury, or just SSS [Small Sample Size] noise?
I'd be more troubled by Cabrera's .159 well-hit average -- that means that he has made hard contact in approximately 16 percent of his at-bats -- than his ground ball rate, as he had a .307 mark from 2011-13 combined. In addition, he told the Detroit Tigers' official website last week that he has a daily regimen of core exercises that he has to do in order to stay healthy, so perhaps he's not entirely at full strength, hinting at your "injury" sign.
That said, Cabrera enjoyed a torrid spring -- four homers and a .611 slugging percentage in 20 games -- and he has appeared in all but one inning of the Tigers' 16 games to date. Plus, based on his track record, he warrants more patience than anyone else in the game, in the absence of significant injury evidence. Fantasy owners have a way of overreacting to said "SSS noise" early in the season; slumps in April result in a poor seasonal stat line, whereas those that occur in July or August tend to be masked by otherwise solid yearly stats. So, to help ease some of your Cabrera worries, I present another 16-game slump of his from earlier in his career:
.219/.296/.406, .266 WHAV, 22.8 Miss%, 59.3 GB%
That happened in June (7-24, to be exact), and Cabrera managed .355/.423/.679 triple-slash rates, a .313 well-hit average, 17.3 percent swing-and-miss rate and 39.7 percent ground ball rate in his next 89 games, en route to a Triple Crown and the MVP award. The year was 2012.
Hogie: Do you have any geeky stats to help explain Edwin Encarnacion's slow start? Or is it just the wrist?
Encarnacion's ability to make consistent contact -- he had a 10.0 percent strikeout rate in 2013, and has a 15.9 percent rate in his career -- has long been a strength, but his 22.9 percent K rate this season is his highest since his rookie year of 2005, and his miss rate has risen as well, from 17.8 percent from 2011-13 to 21.7 percent thus far this year. He has had a difficult time making hard contact against fastballs, his well-hit average against them just .233 this season after .317 from 2011-13, or any contact at all against sliders, which were responsible for 10 of his first 19 K's, including eight that were in the lower and outer half of the plate. I wouldn't be surprised if his wrist indeed has contributed to a sluggish start, though a player with his combination of power and selectivity over a three-year span of time warrants plenty of patience. I'm not selling.
Jeremy Baustian: Is there a threshold of groundball percentage a pitcher can have that would consistently make up for low K percentage? #Sinkerballers
There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer for that, primarily because when a pitcher affords a ground ball to be put into play, he's relying upon his infield defense, and the quality of said infield defense behind him therefore has a lot to say about the outcome. In other words, a pitcher with a 50 percent ground ball rate can expect to have much better numbers with the Atlanta Braves' rather than the Detroit Tigers' infield defense backing him.
But because ground balls tend to be converted into outs 75 percent of the time, whereas strikeouts result in outs nearly 100 percent of the time (don't forget those wild pitch/passed ball, reached-first-on-a-strikeout plays), I tend to want a pitcher to have three times the percentage points above the major league average in terms of grounders for every one percent his K rate is beneath that average. So, for instance, a pitcher with an 18 percent K rate -- this year's average is 20.8 -- I'd probably want at least a 56 percent ground ball rate -- this year's average is 47.0 -- before I'd really "trust" him. And that's an extremely difficult rate to reach: Justin Masterson and A.J. Burnett were the only ones to do so in 2013, though their final ERAs were 3.45 and 3.30.
Jerry: What's the geek word on Kyle Seager?
One of the things that bothered me most about Seager's poor 2013 second half -- .212/.309/.336, 19.8 percent K rate -- was how pull-conscious he had become last season: 44 percent of the time he put the ball into play, it was to right field. That caused him to face more defensive shifts, which can be a batting-average killer, but at least this season he has just a 38 percent pull rate so far. So why the struggles, then? More misses when he swings (19 percent rate, up from 18), more strikeouts (22.5 percent rate, up from 17.6) and more ground balls when he does make contact (46.7 percent, up from 34.7). Still, it's an awfully small sample for a player who has a reasonably good track record of plate discipline -- he has a 25.7 percent chase rate since the beginning of 2012, roughly 2 percent better than the major league average -- and contact ability -- he has an 18.5 percent miss rate, nearly 3 percent better than average -- which is why I'm willing to give Seager more time, keeping him in the borderline of top 10 fantasy third basemen.
Bryant: What pitchers have the most quality starts but fail to get the win due to lack of run support? Cliff Lee always loses, 0-1.
Since the beginning of 2013, four pitchers totaled exactly 17 quality starts apiece in which they failed to earn the win: Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, James Shields and Travis Wood. All 17 of Hamels' non-win quality starts came in 2013; that tied him with six other pitchers for the most in a single year since 1914 (thanks to Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index): Claude Osteen (1965), Jim Bunning (1967), Nolan Ryan (1987), Rick Mahler (1988), Jose Rijo (1993) and Felix Hernandez (2010, his Cy Young year).
Since the beginning of 2011 -- three years and change -- these are the 10 pitchers to amass at least 30 quality starts in which they failed to record the win: Cain (42), Lee (38), Hamels (36), Ervin Santana (34), Shields (34), Bud Norris (33), Anibal Sanchez (32), Mat Latos (31), Hernandez (31) and Wood (30).
Jared Liles: Give me some stats/data on why Billy Butler continues to hit ground balls and if you think he will continue to be terrible?
Why he hits ground balls is a bit unclear; he doesn't have an especially large number of outside pitches that he pulled, nor is he a hitter who sees an unusually large number of pitches down in the zone. But Butler has long been a ground-baller -- his rate since the beginning of 2010 is 48.3 percent -- and this season he has a 63.0 percent rate. His fly ball rate has also been trending downward, puzzling for a 28-year-old, but a sure reason why his home run/fly ball percentage also has been in decline. I'm not so sure that he's any better than the player he was in 2013, when he finished 152nd on our Player Rater.
Mike Loza: You said the other day that you were a fan of Jason Hammel, but at the time his BABIP was .063. Major regression on the way?
Well, his BABIP overall is now .118, but would you believe that against right-handed hitters it's .000 (zero hits in 18 balls in play)? Surely he'll regress, and probably significantly, as no one expects he'll maintain a 0.73 WHIP. Still, the reason I like Hammel is his combination of two-seam fastball/slider that made him successful for the Baltimore Orioles in 2012, as when they're on they help narrow his splits and generate a lot of grounders. He's now in a more pitching-oriented division (in the pitchers' league) and a low-pressure environment, and that means a healthy number of worthwhile matchups. Remember Travis Wood's 2013? I think that could be Hammel's ceiling.
Brian Koperski: I'm as big an R.A. Dickey fan as they come, but how can you continue to rank him so high every week? He has walked 15 in 23 innings.
He's inevitably going to drop a few spots Wednesday, as he's a 39-year-old knuckleballer, and at any point such a pitcher could suffer a steep decline in performance. That said, Dickey has a history of poor starts: He had a 4.26 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and 9.4 percent walk rate in the month of April from 2011-13. And in both 2011 and 2013, his mediocre performance extended deep into May.
As was the case when he struggled early last season, Dickey's struggles seem entirely a matter of his inability to consistently throw his hard knuckler; that's the one that clocks 78 mph or faster. Dickey threw 52 percent of his knucklers at that speed or faster during his 2012 Cy Young season, and 50 percent in the second half of 2013, but he threw only 21 percent that speed or faster during the first half of 2013 and 36 percent thus far this season. Incidentally, here's a reason Dickey warrants a little more patience: During his Cy Young campaign of 2012, he threw only 43 percent of his knucklers 78 mph or faster in the season's first two months, so it's clear he's a pitcher who gets his most "oomph" on that pitch after he has a good handful of starts under his belt. He's perhaps a buy-low.
Ben: Chris Colabello had a monster season in the minors last year, 24 homers and a .352 batting average in less than 400 PAs. Canadian Abreu?
Jose Abreu probably isn't the best comparable, in that I think of him as a player with more power, more of a free-swinging nature but also more consistent contact. Abreu, after all, has whiffed 18.4 percent of the time thus far (adding his spring training time) while walking 6.1 percent of the time; Colabello has struck out in 22.4 percent and walked in 9.6 percent of his PAs. Here's what Colabello will need to improve, however, considering his .469 BABIP is certain to drop by 100 or more points: He has a 58.5 percent ground ball rate in his first 73 big league games, a rate far too high for us to realistically expect him to hit 20 homers.
Colabello did have a 41.0 percent ground ball rate in two minor league seasons, however, so he has hope of improving in that area. I think he's a .270-hitting, 18-homer type of player, which might not be enough to be 162-game-worthy in our 10-team ESPN leagues, but even in those you might as well enjoy it while it lasts.