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Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Panic over slow-starting bats?

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

It's a lesson we're taught every April, yet despite years of absorbing it, even experienced fantasy owners seem to forget it.

There's no reason to panic with your slow starters.

Hit Parade

Well, that's true for most players. Sample sizes are small, with stories that cannot yet be told merely by the numbers, but we understand if you're closely examining all your worst performers, hoping to find a rationale behind their stats.

For some -- a precariously small bunch -- a hidden injury or a change in approach could be responsible. For others, it's merely random variance, which we can illustrate by showing you five players from 2012 who were struggling as of this date:

Aramis Ramirez: He was batting .114 with zero home runs through nine games and hit .312 with 27 homers and 100 RBIs in his next 140.
Alex Gordon: He was batting .128 with one homer in 10 games, and he managed .305/.377/.469 triple-slash rates in his next 151.
Ryan Zimmerman: A .209 hitter without a home run through his first 11 games, he batted .288 with 25 homers and 91 RBIs in his next 134.
Freddie Freeman: He was hitting .162 without a home run in his first nine games, but he managed 23 homers and 93 RBIs in his next 138.
Giancarlo Stanton: He was batting .229 with zero home runs in his first nine games, and he hit .295 with 37 homers in his next 114.

So which is it for this year's slow starters?

There's no easy answer to that, but at the same time, it's foolish to completely write off the numbers to date. After all, small samples or not, that's what fantasy baseball is built upon: Small samples. The key is remembering not to overrate such facts, rather tucking them away as you formulate your decisions in upcoming weeks.

Today, let's examine 10 of the most frustrating players in fantasy baseball to date. Might any of them warrant panic? Read on &

Alvarez
Alvarez

Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh Pirates: Understandably, Alvarez's owners are frustrated, and with good reason. With a .073 batting average, zero extra-base hits and 16 strikeouts in his 41 at-bats, he has certainly earned his standing as the third-worst hitter on our Player Rater to date. His performance also might draw painful memories of his 2011, when he batted .191 with four homers and suffered a demotion to the minors.

Still, anyone who drafted Alvarez knew his propensity for streaks; players who have his strikeout rate of 30 percent or greater tend to endure painful slumps such as this. For example, he batted .067 with 15 K's in 30 at-bats (albeit with two home runs) in his first 10 games of last season. He also endured two separate spans of 15 games during which his batting average was .151 or worse later that year.

Granted, pitchers are testing him more with breaking pitches -- he has seen fastballs only 36 percent of the time thus far -- but Alvarez improved substantially against them in 2012, to the point where giving up on him this quickly would be foolish. He hit nine home runs against curveballs and sliders last season, meaning there's hope of a turnaround yet. Verdict: No reason to panic.

Martinez
Martinez

Victor Martinez, Detroit Tigers: Tigers fans -- and fantasy owners of their hitters -- might have noticed that, on Tuesday, six of their nine starters boasted batting averages of .300 or greater at the start of play. Yet remarkably, No. 5 hitter Martinez was one of the three to sport a sub-.200 mark entering the game, and he had only four RBIs despite the four men who bat ahead of him all having on-base percentages of .400 or greater.

Mark Simon shared one possible explanation. ESPN Stats & Information uses a video-tracking service that tracks "hard-hit balls" using the eye test but with definitions of hard-hit well-established after years of tracking. He points out that the average major leaguer gets hits on about two-thirds to 70 percent of his hard-hit balls. Martinez himself is evidence of this; from 2009 to 2011, he got hits on 68.3 percent of hard-hit balls.

In 2013, however, Martinez has 15 hard-hit balls -- and only six hits. An average player would probably have 10 or 11 by now. And Martinez's nine outs when he makes hard contact are most in the majors. Keep that in mind if you're sweating his "slow start." Verdict: No reason to panic.

Kipnis
Kipnis

Jason Kipnis, Cleveland Indians: In addition to missing each of the Indians' past three games and six of their past nine, Kipnis has gotten off to a miserable start with the bat, hitting .125 with no home runs or stolen bases. The latter two are more bothersome; Kipnis contributed 14 homers and 31 steals to his fantasy teams in 2012.

In Kipnis' case, there is something of long-term concern: the health of his right elbow, which was responsible for his recent absences. It's an injury that dates back to spring training -- the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported March 22 that he had injured it playing long toss -- and one that likely contributed to his .179/.230/.339 triple-slash rates during the spring. Injuries can help explain early struggles, so it's understandable if Kipnis' owners are worried. Verdict: Some panic -- all health-related -- is warranted.

Hamilton
Hamilton

Josh Hamilton, Los Angeles Angels: Hamilton was one of my "Bleagh" players for 2013, and many of the concerns outlined in that column have extended into the season. After striking out in 25.5 percent of his trips to the plate last season -- 29.3 percent after the All-Star break -- he has whiffed at a ghastly 29 percent rate in 2013. It is his newfound propensity to swing and miss that has put his batting average in the higher-risk category; he's a .200 hitter thus far and might struggle to approach 2012's .285.

That said, Hamilton deserves patience for two reasons. One is that he's adapting to new surroundings, which might have caused the kind of adjustment period we're seeing, and the other is that he remains one of the more powerful bats in one of the most potent lineups in the league, meaning home runs and RBIs should be plentiful. Verdict: It depends upon your preseason expectations; had you drafted him as a .270 hitter with 30 home runs, as recommended, there's no cause for alarm.

Bruce
Bruce

Jay Bruce, Cincinnati Reds: His is a strange stat line; he leads the National League in strikeouts (19) yet has batted .262 despite his early struggles. More frustrating is Bruce's lack of power, as he hasn't hit a home run in 61 at-bats. Still, it's not the longest homer drought of his career; Bruce has had four streaks that were longer in the past three seasons alone (2010-12).

Perhaps if Bruce continues to strike out at his elevated current rate of 29.5 percent of his plate appearances, he'll struggle to top his 2012 career high of 34 home runs and might have a difficult time batting higher than the .252 he did last season. But Bruce's streaky tendencies build his case for patience, as last season alone he endured a 25-game span in which he homered 12 times and an 11-game span in which he homered seven times. Verdict: No reason to panic.

Heyward
Heyward

Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves: He has the seventh-worst qualified batting average in baseball (.116), but if there's a most-irrelevant fantasy statistic for this time of year, batting average is it. Few numbers are flukier, and Heyward's .091 batting average on balls in play shows that he has hardly gotten the benefit of many lucky bounces.

Here's another thing to remember: Even in Heyward's outstanding 2012, he had just a .233 batting average and six home runs through his first 50 games, meaning that it's not like he started last year off hot either. He hit his second home run of the season Tuesday and has made contact at a higher rate thus far too. Verdict: No reason to panic, other than that batting average might never be his strong suit.

Kemp
Kemp

Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers: Unlike some of the names above, there is something with Kemp that could warrant concern going forward, that being his ongoing recovery from October surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff damage in his left shoulder. He has batted just .185 through his first 14 games, with a bloated 29.3 percent strikeout rate that is more than 6 percentage points higher than his 2012 number.

Kemp has made hard contact only nine times in 38 balls in play this season (24 percent), whereas in 2012, he did so on 33 percent of his balls in play. Still, a sluggish start coming off that kind of operation is understandable, and his fantasy owners need be patient accordingly. The problem: If Kemp is to be classified a buy-low candidate, might it be smarter to wait a couple of weeks to see whether he picks up the pace slightly first? Verdict: Some panic is warranted, but it doesn't remotely mean bail on him.

Montero
Montero

Jesus Montero, Seattle Mariners: This one is all about league context; there is a vastly different strategy required in one of our standard, 10-team mixed leagues than in, say, an AL-only league of 12 teams with two starting catchers. In the latter, Montero's owners need be patient, if only because there isn't much else out there to improve upon his lackluster production. Through 10 games, he's batting .211 with only one extra-base hit (a double) and he has yet to draw his first walk.

Montero's defensive performance, however, might be the larger problem. Through those 10 games, opposing base stealers are 6-for-6 against him, and he has committed one passed ball, the Mariners' five wild pitches with him behind the plate. In terms of raw defensive ability, Montero is probably more suited to being the designated hitter rather than catcher -- except the Mariners have a better bat there in Kendrys Morales, as well as several other players whose defensive deficiencies paint a similar DH picture (Raul Ibanez, Michael Morse). Verdict: In a 10-team mixed league with one catcher, feel free to panic. Otherwise, be patient.

Moustakas
Moustakas

Mike Moustakas, Kansas City Royals: At least he has a higher batting average than Pedro Alvarez (.167, to Alvarez's .073). Moustakas' fantasy owners can't be any more pleased with his results, though, and the aggravating part is that he finished the 2012 campaign similarly poorly, batting .204 with one home run in 29 games from Sept. 1 on.

Moustakas did spend the winter working to improve his approach at the plate, and it's possible that he's merely enduring an adjustment related to that. He's swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone, particularly when behind in the count, and he has cut 5 percentage points off his strikeout rate (15.2 percent this year, 20.2 percent in 2012). That he typically doesn't walk much and has a high fly-ball rate (47.1 percent) in his career makes him another player at risk of falling into extended funks. But he has untapped power potential, and he might be a nice buy-low option. Verdict: No reason to panic.

Gomez
Gomez

Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee Brewers: He's a streaky player if you ever saw one. His ratio of 4.9 strikeouts per walk last season was fourth worst among players who came to the plate at least 450 times. Gomez has also never batted higher than .260 in a single year, and even during his breakthrough in the second half of 2012, he batted just .278.

Still, what's most puzzling about Gomez's slow start is this: He hasn't stolen a base, having been caught stealing on his only attempt. That's a large part of what has been pushing his rotisserie ranking down, but his next-level stats continue to reflect the aggressive approach he brought to the plate last year. He has swung 83 percent of the time on pitches in the strike zone, which would represent the third consecutive year that number has risen, and his well-hit average (percentage of at-bats that resulted in hard contact) is up, going from .189 to .196. Verdict: No reason to panic.