Early impressions

As we all should know, it is important not to overreact to early season slumps or bursts. The most often repeated, and inarguably true, reason why this is the case is that takes a considerable amount of at-bats for a player’s stats to begin to normalize.

Encapsulated in this truth is a smaller kernel that isn’t widely articulated, perhaps because it is an inconvenient truth for most of those in the business of prognosticating and offering advice. That smaller kernel of truth is that it is virtually impossible for your preseason speculations to have been proven or disproven yet.

While a hot week may feel as if it has more significance because it happens to correspond with an educated guess you made in the preseason, your prediction is still far from the threshold of proof or disproof. As I’ve written before, the insight more readily attainable at this point in the season pertains to trends such as usage patterns and bullpen hierarchies.

However, the fact that much of what we want to know can’t yet be known does not preclude people in positions such as mine from offering their opinions. There’s nothing wrong with that—and I’m about to offer some shortly—but it is important to remember that such opinions aren’t necessarily more informed than they were a week ago simply because teams have a handful of games under their belts.

With that disclaimer in mind, here are some observations and opinions that attempt to blend empiricism and objective patterns with educated speculation.

Reports of David Wright’s death have been widely exaggerated
Many were down on Wright coming into the season, both because of potential health issues and more disappointing recent campaigns than stellar ones. But Wright has started the season off hot. I had written in the offseason that I expected Wright to bounce back this year, and I still expect that to be the case.

The new, shorter dimensions at Citi Field allow Wright to prosper by reverting to his natural approach at the plate. I’ve noticed in past years that Wright had adopted more torque in his swing and seemingly attempted to pull the ball more in an attempt to salvage his power numbers. Early indications are that he is shedding that tendency. Health issues still loom, but presumably Wright’s stock fell further than it should because the concern and uncertainty about his health hit their peaks during prime fantasy draft period.

As I’m writing this, news has broken regarding Wright’s now-injured pinky. It looks like he’ll be in a splint and miss some time; additional info probably will be known Wednesday, the day this piece runs. My observations here relate more to Wright’s ability to produce truly elite fantasy value than his ability to stay on the field. I worry more about that latter than the former and, obviously, playing hurt mitigates anybody’s ability.

The rebirth of Ichiro … meh
Another player whose stock hit bottom this offseason was Ichiro Suzuki. Coming off a poor season and at 38 years of age, the soft-hitting former batting-average monster wasn’t attracting many fantasy suitors this draft season. But he, too, is off to great start, and now that he’s hitting third, perhaps there’s some renewed optimism about Ichiro’s fantasy prowess.

Overall, color me unconvinced. My skepticism is not reflective of a lack of faith in Ichiro—I do think he will be better than last year—but I still question how much fantasy value to which such an improvement will translate. Hitting third sounds like a nice proposition, but Seattle’s offense is so anemic that it’s almost like a paper-only benefit.

Further, I don’t believe in Chone Figgins either, and I think it’s likely that if Ichiro does continue to hit, he’ll just be moved back into the leadoff spot. Either way, he faces an uphill battle. As a middle-of-the-order hitter, it will be difficult for him to drive in a ton of runs without hitting for more power, and as a top-of-the-order hitter, it will difficult for him to amass a gaudy runs-scored mark with his supporting cast.

So, at best, Ichiro becomes what he used to be, which is a player who really couldn’t earn his price unless he hit .350. Batting average is an underrated fantasy asset, but still, Ichiro is a middling commodity, and since vintage Ichiro was overvalued in the first place, anybody who thinks “he’s back” likely values him too highly now. If Ichiro keeps up to the point that his resurgence becomes a real storyline, I’d be looking to sell.

Matt Kemp is not really going to go 50-50
Selling a superstar at the height of his powers is one of the most difficult things for a fantasy owner to bring him or herself to do. However, when hype and talent crescendo, and you get a sprinkling of small-sample-size luck to boot, it’s worth exploring the market. After coming into the season as the consensus top overall fantasy player, Kemp has begun this season on an absolute tear. Who knows what other owners might be willing to pay for him?

I may have mentioned in this column before that I have a bit of a sneaker addiction, so I’m going to make an analogy here. When a hyped, limited sneaker is released, many of those people lining up to buy that pair are doing so with the intent to resell them. If hype reaches critical levels and there happens to be real demand for the shoe beyond its limited nature (the nexus of “hype” and “talent”) the secondary market explodes immediately.

That sneaker will fetch its highest price on ebay within 24 to 72 hours. Down the line, it will still be easy to sell that pair for much above retail, but that premium commanded when the commodity is “now” fades. Kemp may now be in that window of price maximization. It’s worth finding out what other owners will (or will not) pay for The Bison. Oh, and sneaker resellers—get a life!

Bullpens remain volatile
As usual, we’ve already witnessed some surprises, semi-surprises, and implosions out of various bullpens around the league. Alfredo Aceves and Mark Melancon have both struggled. Hector Santiago emerged with the closer job over Matt Thornton and Addison Reed. Joel Peralta seems to have given way to Fernando Rodney after one poor appearance. Sergio Santos has blown two saves already with Francisco Cordero waiting in the wings. Jonathan Broxton was given first chair in Kansas City, leaving Greg Holland without a closer gig.

None of these situations should be considered permanent. If possible, I’d avoid dropping any of these players. Quality middle relievers with a potential path to saves, an undervalued commodity class to begin with, are players whose values can skyrocket on a moment’s notice. I’d much rather drop a middling player with bounce-back aspirations, a Jason Bay type, than a player like Thornton who could become quite valuable and tradable in the span of two weeks.

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Comments

  1. Mark Himmelstein said...

    It’s really a shame about Wright. He was looking really good. I believe the only time he punched out was in his last at bat the other night, after the finger injury, and by my count he’d only swung and missed a handful of times. That was really encouraging after he cut back down on the swinging strikes last year despite his struggles.

    He does seem to be becoming injury prone as he ages, but I agree that there was a pretty massive negative halo effect around him. I was ready to target him in drafts before the oblique injury, then I shied away a bit, but traded for him in one league when at the end of the spring when it looked like he might be getting healthy (and also because I was getting him alongside Matt Wieters).

    Fortunately, in that league I also own Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Mike Aviles, and had stashed Chipper Jones on my DL, so it shouldn’t be a crushing blow, though I’d also just traded Jay Bruce partly because of how comfortable I was feeling in the Wright acquisition. That has me kicking myself a bit.

    As for the closer situations, I think your title captures the concept as well as the contradiction pretty perfectly. As much as those situations are volatile, and as much sense as it makes to own quality middle relief, performance and role for almost any relief pitcher (not just closers) is incredibly unpredictable.

    If you do own an elite middle reliever, it can really help, especially if he’s handcuffing a closer, but it’s also difficult to tell which middle relievers are going to have great years. We can guess in a similar fashion to starters based on recent performance, but even if we go three years deep into a reliever’s track record, that’s only about the equievalent of a single season of performance data on a starter, and very few dominant middle relievers last that long in the role without faltering or becoming closers (Matt Thornton being the obvious exception).

    So we’re basically left guessing on a class of players for whom the data suggests there’s a low predictability rate based heavily on recent performance and scouting data. Then, to make things worse, we don’t even get any kind of viable results on our gambles until a good chunk of the season has passed. It won’t even be until mid May before we get even the volume of data on our relievers that we get on starters by the time they finish their second starts.

    I’m willing to make a small bet that Greg Holland can repeat his success from 2011, but not a large one, and the larger part of the opportunity cost is his roster spot when I see other potentially strong gambles on the wire. He’d never been nearly so effective as he was in 2011, and even for most of last year, it looked Aaron Crow was the superior pitcher. It wasn’t until very late in the year that it became clear that Holland was actually going to finish the season with the better statline. And even after his dominant season, Oliver, ZiPS, and Steamer all see him as about a 3.60 FIP guy, which isn’t someone who is going to be much help to your squad unless he’s racking up the saves. He could obviously be much better than that, but the point is that the evidence we’re using to assume he’ll dominate is much weaker than we’re likely giving it credit for. I won’t tie myself to a gamble where the payoff is so volatile and difficult to read.

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