Slow Starts

Because baseball is played on a daily basis, moreso than any other sport, the way someone starts a season can impact the way their entire year is perceived. Take two hitters who each finish the season batting exactly .300. Let’s say one of them hit .150 in the first month, while the other hit .500.

The .150 hitter will spend the entire season raising his batting average to .300. He won’t appear among the league leaders until very late in the year and the majority of the time someone checks his name in the boxscore he will be a sub-.300 hitter.

Meanwhile, take the guy who hit .500 in the first month. He’ll spend the whole year with his batting average falling back to .300. He’ll always be among the league leaders and, when you check up on him everyday in the newspaper, his batting average will always look good.

Despite these hypothetical players having identical season totals, the perception among many will be that the guy who hit .500 in the first month had a better season, just because his numbers were better the majority of the time.

While some slow starts can alter the perception of a player’s season, other slow starts can simply take down an entire year. A good example of this is Miguel Tejada last season.

Tejada’s final numbers were significantly “off” from his 2002 performance.

YEAR       G      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA
2002     162     .308     .354     .508     .862     .286
2003     162     .278     .336     .472     .808     .270

He lost 30 points of batting average, 18 points of on-base percentage, 36 points of slugging percentage and 54 points of OPS. Using GPA as the judge, he lost about 6% of his total offense.

In 2002, hitting .308/.354/.508, Tejada won the AL MVP. In 2003, hitting .278/.336/.472, Tejada finished 11th. Aside from the first month of the season, however, Tejada’s 2003 season was nearly identical to his MVP season.

APRIL
 
YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA
2002     .295     .327     .486     .813     .269
2003     .161     .230     .286     .516     .175

Tejada’s first month in 2002 wasn’t even all that great, but it was far from the disastrous April he had last year.

POST-APRIL
 
YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA
2002     .311     .361     .511     .872     .290
2003     .303     .363     .511     .874     .291

After the calendar hit May, Tejada was essentially the exact same hitter in 2002 and 2003. Actually, the numbers are eerily similar.

This is obviously just one example, but I do think it’s interesting just how much one horrific month at the start of a season can impact a player’s numbers for the entire year. I know, for me, my perception of Tejada last year was totally different than it was in 2002. For most of the year, he was a “.200 hitter” or a “.225 hitter” or a “.250 hitter.”

All of which brings us to the players who are off to incredibly slow starts this season. There are some big names who have (through Monday’s games) sub-.600 OPS totals, including elite hitters like Carlos Delgado (.119/.288/.262), Brian Giles (.122/.271/.184), Alex Rodriguez (.160/.263/.280) and Bobby Abreu (.111/.289/.278).

Delgado is perhaps the most extreme example compared to last year. Though April 19, 2003, Delgado was batting .375/.494/.656. He finished April hitting .365/.483/.688. His incredible first month helped carry Delgado to an MVP-caliber season, despite a second-half (.284/.428/.538) that was very good, but not at an MVP level.

Delgado finished the season at .302/.426/.593. For him to match those stats this season, after his slow start, Delgado would have to hit .316/.441/.619 for the rest of the year. If, instead, Delgado finishes the year by duplicating his post-April performance from last season, his final numbers would look something like .275/.408/.548.

ARod also got off to a blistering start last season, batting .355/.444/.673 through April. Prior to this year, he had always done very well early in the season. From 2001-2003, Rodriguez hit .328/.426/.645 in nearly 350 April plate appearances.

Brian Giles got off to a similarly slow start last season, hitting just .226/.400/.323 through April, while missing time with a knee injury. Overall, from 2001-2003, Giles hit .267/.358/.506 in the first month of the season and then .307/.438/.585 for the rest of the year, so he may just be a slow starter.

Bobby Abreu is another guy who has been much better after the first month of the year since 2001. He hit .268/.376/.460 in April, which is certainly very nice production. Then, after the first month, his numbers jumped to .305/.414/.521 for the rest of the year.

In looking at the April stats over the past few seasons, it seems rare for a player to get off to a very slow start (sub-.600 OPS) in April and go on to have what I would call a “very good” offensive season (defined by an OPS above .800, for our purposes). Tejada turned it around last year to post an .808 OPS, and so did Dmitri Young, who had a .562 OPS in April finished the year batting .297/.372/.537.

In 2002, 42 players had sub-.600 OPS totals in April and the only one who went on to have a season-ending OPS of over .800 was Brad Fullmer, who finished at .289/.357/.531 after a .553 April OPS.

Similarly, in 2001 50 players had sub-.600 OPS Aprils. Only Derrek Lee (who hit .167/.239/.310 in April), Ray Lankford (.200/.280/.267) and Jeremy Giambi (.182/.265/.273) turned it around to finish with an OPS above .800.

In 2000, 30 players had sub-.600 OPS in April. Three guys — Ray Lankford (again), Dante Bichette and Tony Clark — finished the year above an .800 OPS.

All of which is a very long way of saying that unless this year’s slow starters — from Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Delgado and Brian Giles to Mike Lieberthal, Tony Batista and Tim Salmon — turn things around in the next week or so to finish April strong, recent history is not on their side when it comes to having a good 2004 season.

Of course, with all that said, I seem to be having a tough time finding someone to take my “Alex Rodriguez will have an OPS above .800″ action.

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