As we approach the end of the third full week of the fantasy baseball season, we're starting to get bigger sample sizes from players and can start to make more informed decisions. However, not all stats are reliable this early and it's easy to make a rash decision based on incomplete data. Which stat are you looking at most closely at this time of year, and how do you continue to monitor those statistics as the next few weeks pass and we get more results?
Tristan H. Cockcroft: There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer to this, since I think "all-inclusive" stats like wOBA (or OPS, if you prefer; though I don't) tend to be just as influenced by fluky small-sample results, just as the traditional rotisserie category returns are at this time of year.
I prefer to examine the patience-oriented metrics, since they're based upon pitch data -- a significantly larger sample right now than those calculated per plate appearance or at-bat or ball in play. I usually compare them to the player's past history, both hitters and pitchers, in this order: swinging strike rate (I suppose No. 1, if I had to pick just one stat), chase rate (O-Swing%, if you're using FanGraphs), zone contact rate (Z-Contact% on FanGraphs).
That doesn't mean I'm ignoring any of the other numbers. A player's batted-ball distribution (ground ball, fly ball and line drive rates), quality of contact (Soft% and Hard%, specifically, if using the FanGraphs metrics for those; and both exit velocity and launch angle, if you're comfortable delving into the Statcast data) are my next go-tos.
What I'm looking for isn't necessarily extremely good or bad performance, but rather changes relative to the player's past history. So, for example, Javier Baez's leap of roughly 13 percent in hard-contact rate coupled with his drop of nearly 14 percent in ground ball rate instantly catches my eye, causing me to wonder whether his 11 extra-base hits are for real and could fuel a huge leap in home runs.
On the pitching side, Patrick Corbin's 18 percent swinging strike rate, a roughly 7 percent increase compared to his career rate, also stands out, especially in light of his increased reliance upon his slider this season.
Find the outliers and then check these stats! They can often provide you all the answers you need. Or, of course, you can just listen to the podcast and we'll tell you about them.
Eric Karabell: I would be lying a bit if I said I pay close attention to any stats in April, but certainly if a hitter is struggling, I look closer to see what is going on there.
Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Carlos Santana is a prime example of someone with a crazy-low batting average, but his 0-Swing percentage on FanGraphs tells us it really is not all his fault. He is not swinging at too many pitches outside the strike zone. His patience is there. And while it is too early to use BABIP as more than a conversation piece, Santana's is .135! That is going to rise a lot and soon!
I look at walk rates and strikeout rates, as well, for hitters. For pitchers, I also generally look at the strugglers first and want to see velocity and walk rates and what they are throwing in relation to the past. For statistics to watch, I would say K percentage and hard contact rates, along with FIP, interest me.
Kyle Soppe: We are entering that tricky period of the season when it is difficult to truly judge a player. Do you still use past data to give you a player baseline? Do you assume that as we near a month's worth of stats, any adjustments that have become obvious are here to stay? The answer, of course, is somewhere in the middle and is defined differently on a player-by-player basis.
That said, "approach" statistics hold some value, even in April. A dramatic shift in swinging percentage or chase rate may not be sustained, but it will give you insight as to what the plan of attack is for that hitter, and that is enough to make intelligent decisions.
If a power hitter is showing an increase in discipline, I'm likely to project a bump in his power metrics, even if the results aren't there quite yet: I'll take my chances on a power hitter swinging at good pitches. It sounds simple, but so many managers look at raw numbers and assume that those tell the whole story. They don't.
Every regular in the league will both overachieve and underachieve for a three week stretch, so don't panic. If you want an example, I'm looking at a player like Evan Gattis. He has made tremendous strides in terms of the quality of pitch that he is swinging at, and while the fantasy results have been ... well, basically nothing ... I'm trusting the simple process of a power hitter swinging at hittable pitches and taking my chances.
AJ Mass: In terms of pitching, my go-to stat always been K/BB rate. Wins have little to do with the pitcher's performance, and sure, a double-digit ERA means he's struggling. That said, for me -- especially early in a season, when cold weather can make it difficult for a starter to be in total control of his control -- I'm definitely more likely to lean on hurlers with a high K/BB.
Obviously, smaller sample sizes may well give you incredibly skewed ratios, like Yusmiero Petit's "undefined" K/BB, thanks to his not yet having awarded any free passes or league-leader (min. 20 IP) Jose Berrios and his 29.00 K/BB. It's very unlikely Berrios will continue at that level for the rest of the season, as only three qualified starting pitchers since 1990 have ended the season with a double-digit K/BB (Phil Hughes in 2014, Cliff Lee in 2010 and Bret Saberhagen in 1994), and there have been only 90 seasons in that span with a K/BB of 5.00 or higher.
That said, as the weeks pass and the stats accumulate even more, any starter with a K/BB under 3.50 is someone I'm not likely to consider having on my roster, especially in points leagues. So, Chad Bettis (1.50), Brandon McCarthy (2.25) and Trevor Williams (1.40): You've all got some work to do before I buy in.