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Thursday, April 15, 2010
BP: Sample-size superstars

By John Perrotto, Baseball Prospectus

We're just halfway through the second week of the season and Nelson Cruz has six home runs and 12 RBIs. At this pace, he will finish the season with 108 homers while driving in 216 runs.

Placido Polanco is hitting .486 with 12 runs scored. Scott Podsednik has a .457 batting and six stolen bases.

So the questions can begin: Will Polanco unseat Albert Pujols as the National League's Most Valuable Player? Will the voters go with Cruz's power or Podsednik' speed in selecting the American League MVP? Ah, the beauty of small samples sizes. It is very likely that Polanco, Cruz and Podsednik will all be far from the MVP discussions come September.

However, since these are the only statistics we have to this point of the season, the figures stand out and thrust some rather anonymous players into the early-season spotlight. If these types of numbers were posted over a 10-day stretch in, say late June, nobody would say anything more than Cruz, Podsednik and Polanco are on hot streaks.

All we have to do to understand that any player is capable of at least one unconscious stretch over the course of a six-month season is look back to 2009.

The player who had the highest OPS over any 10-game span last season with a minimum of 35 plate appearances was Orioles designated hitter Luke Scott. Scott is a decent power hitter on a bad team who has never received an MVP vote and likely never will. Yet Scott had a Ruthian 10-game stretch from May 3-30, which was sandwiched around a disabled list stint for a sprained left shoulder, as he posted an otherworldly 1.783 OPS with eight home runs during that span, sparked by back-to-back two-homer games against the Tigers on May 28-29.

Scott finished the season hitting .258/.340/.488 with 25 home runs in 128 games. Take away those 10 very merry days in May and his season totals would have been a pedestrian .240/.324/.428 with 17 homers.

More likely candidates to have a torrid stretch ranked second and third on the list as Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman compiled a 1.705 OPS from July 29 through August 8, and Pujols had a 1.682 mark from June 11-21.

Yet there were plenty of other run-of-the-mill players like Scott who went crazy for a week-and-a-half. Braves second baseman Martin Prado, fueled by 10 doubles in 39 at-bats, had a 1.409 OPS from September 16-27. Angels shortstop Erick Aybar went 22-for-39 (.564) from July 5-21 to boast a 1.406 OPS in that time. Prado's season OPS was .822 and Aybar had a .776 mark.

That is why those MVP ballots are distributed in early October rather than the middle of April. And while 10-game hot streaks to start the season are fun to follow, don't read much into them.

John Perrotto is editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus.