It’s been debunked in The Book, and there are probably a few internet articles I could link to, that prove hitter hot streaks largely not predictive of future performance. That is, a player who out of nowhere bats .400 with four homers in one week is essentially no more likely to repeat that line next week than a player who batted .100 with zero homers. This is, of course, assuming the two players had the same true talent estimate for hitting home runs and such things beforehand.
If this be the case, then why do so many fantasy baseball articles revolve around this very phenomenon, the hot hitter? Are we, the fantasy community, acting short-sighted by jumping furiously on every hot streak to flash across our respective monitors?
The answer isn’t a straightforward “yes” or “no,” instead pulled by conflicting factors and falling somewhere in between. I’ll look at a few of those factors in the following paragraphs and argue that for the most part, the answer is in fact “no.” Despite what research has proven, investing in hot streaks in fantasy baseball is not a bad idea.
Playing time and batting orders
Like fantasy baseball managers, major league managers often make lineup decisions based on who’s performing and who is not. If this means that the hot player could be given a greater share of playing time in a platoon or moved from eighth to second in the lineup as a result of his good play, then that is a tangible benefit from playing well. Even if the hitter doesn’t continue his hot-hitting ways, his value has still increased.
Injuries and the threat of demotion
There may be a research piece that refutes this, but it makes logical sense that a hot-hitting player is less likely to be injured than an underperforming one, at least in the short term. Injuries can often explain poor play, but it would be quite an amazing story for an injury to explain great play. Freak injuries, of course, would be excluded here, as Troy Tulowitzki will tell you.
Similar to the playing time reasoning above, a hot streak can decrease the chance of being demoted for a fringe player whose roster spot is in jeopardy.
Given two identical players, except for whatever reason one has a greater trade value (say one was a top prospect), you would always take the player with more trade value. This is because being able to trade a player is like an option a fantasy owner can exercise on a player, and the more that player can return in a trade, the more valuable the option.
More often than not, a player on a hot streak will hold more trade value than a similar player who isn’t. And let’s say both players play very well the following week, which is fair because they are equally likely to do so. Now we have one player who people will still be fairly skeptical of with just one strong week. The other, the player who was hot before, now has two good weeks to his name and may start to convince people of his long-term ability.
If you hate trading with the people in your league, though, I guess you wouldn’t value this point too much.
The overarching theme here is of the discouraging sort: We know little of players’ true talent levels and even less about how they’ll perform in the short term, so the success of the personnel decisions we make is largely luck influenced. With that in mind, it makes sense to simply choose to add the hot hands for the extra benefits explained above.
No one is suggesting dropping a player who is clearly superior for a worse talent on a hot streak… but for two players ranked closely enough, there’s no shame in trying to ride the hot hitter.
It’s often more fun that way, or at least that’s how you’ll remember it.
Thanks to this Mr. Thell comment on a Fangraphs article yesterday for the inspiration.