Lessons learned from early stats

Updated: April 10, 2013, 6:10 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

It's only natural to overreact at this stage of the season.

Let's face facts: We've just come off a 153-day span without baseball that counts (115 days if you're counting from the final 2012 World Series game through the spring training openers) and are only days removed from the excitement of draft season. The 2013 campaign is fresh and new, and the urge to put plenty of stock in your league's standings is often irresistible.

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My advice: Ignore them, at least until May.

This is the worst time of the year to trust numbers, because there's no other time of year in which samples are smaller. Year-to-date statistics are based on a maximum of eight team games played, meaning that streaks and slumps are magnified, the perception greater than at any point of the year. We are far more unfair judges of player performance today than we would be in, say, July. Frankly, we would do ourselves far greater service -- that's fantasy owners and analysts -- if we always cited a player's statistics in past-calendar-year blocks. At the very least, we'd be better off if every sample cited was of identical size.

To illustrate, consider this: Had the 2012 season begun Aug. 9, Adam Jones would have had full-season triple-slash rates of .233/.303/.267, zero home runs and one stolen base 16 games in. Had the year started then, his fantasy owners might have been running for the hills. Instead, they presumably exercised more patience with the eventual No. 11 hitter on the 2012 Player Rater, because his full-season numbers would have had more influence on their opinion.

So here's the question: Why should a Buster Posey owner panic today, despite the fact that he's a .208/.269/.250 hitter with zero homers or steals through seven games? Considering there is no injury or obvious obstacle to Posey's path to success, there's no reason he should be treated any differently than Jones was in August. Heck, he deserves more leeway, being that he was drafted earlier this spring (16th overall) than Jones was last season (81st).

That said, a "don't worry" brush also shouldn't be used to paint broad strokes across the entire baseball population. Sometimes there is deeper meaning to the numbers, or at least something that warrants more closely monitoring the player's performance in the coming days.

[+] EnlargeGiancarlo Stanton
Brad Mills/USA TODAY SportsDon't get too worried about Giancarlo Stanton's slow start to 2013.

With the caveat that the tiniest of samples often lead to the worst of misinterpretations, let's take a look at some of 2013's more curious early numbers:

" Through 34 plate appearances, Giancarlo Stanton has four hits and zero home runs. The Stanton numbers of greater relevance are this: He has walked or struck out in 56 percent of those PAs, whereas in his first three seasons he walked or whiffed 39 percent of the time, deviating by only 1 percent from that 39 number in any individual year. In addition, only 35 percent of the pitches thrown to him have been within the strike zone, the second lowest rate in the majors and a 9 percent decline from 2012.

Naturally, those kinds of facts, plus the fact that Greg Dobbs (5 starts) and Placido Polanco (3) have been the cleanup hitters behind him, spawn the inevitable "lineup protection" debate. Yes, perhaps the Miami Marlins' lineup deficiencies will limit the number of quality pitches that Stanton sees in 2013. But he will see some, he does have power potential that rivals that of anyone in the game, and there are two other points to cite in his defense. The first is that, as a "three-true-outcomes" hitter -- meaning a player who has a large percentage of PAs result in a home run, walk or strikeout -- Stanton is going to be prone to slumps from time to time. The other is that, judging by his career history, he has been known to get off to his share of slow starts.

The chart below lists the 15 active players who had the largest OPS differential between their April and full-season numbers from 2010-12 combined (minimum 150 PAs in April, 900 total), with April being the poorer side:

That's as compelling evidence as there is that Stanton's owners should give him a longer leash. It's also something to keep in mind if you're disappointed with the early returns of Victor Martinez or Albert Pujols.

" Marco Scutaro has hit only one line drive in 34 PAs. By comparison, Scutaro hit three line drives in his first game of 2012. No one hit more line drives last season (138), and only Paul Goldschmidt was higher than Scutaro's 23.4 percent line-drive rate. We caution so often on these pages the difficulty of a player repeating such a high number. Line-drive rates often vary by multiple percentage points -- it's rare to see a player consistently manage higher than 22 percent from year to year -- and Scutaro had a mere 18.9 percent rate in 2011 and 19 percent in 2010. His fantasy appeal remains that of the "can't hurt you" middle infield type, being that he's rarely one to disrupt your team's batting average, but a .290 mark in the category might be his eventual result.

" Josh Hamilton has only one extra-base hit in 29 at-bats, and it was a double. Again, there's a more telling number at play: Hamilton has chased pitches outside of the strike zone (swings on non-strikes) 50 percent of the time, and he has missed on his swings 32 percent of the time. Last season, he set career worsts in both departments en route to a .259 second-half batting average. There's a simple solution for what ails Hamilton: Recapture the kind of plate discipline he had during his outstanding 2010 season.

" Coco Crisp has hit four home runs and has made hard contact 12 times, second most in the majors. Wherefore thy power, Coco? Crisp's critics will be quick to point out that three of the homers came against mediocre Houston Astros pitching -- Brad Peacock, Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell, to be specific -- and there's another reason to doubt: Our Home Run Tracker notes that two of Crisp's homers wouldn't have cleared the fence in any park except Houston's Minute Maid Park. Heck, Crisp is already more than a third of the way to his entire 2012 season total in homers (11).

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
Joy R. Absalon/USA TODAY SportsChris Davis is among the early leaders in homers, and that could last longer than many might think.

" Chris Davis has four homers and a major league-leading 17 RBIs. Fantasy owners probably know by now that the RBIs are somewhat fluky and reliant upon team performance, but Davis' early power surge shouldn't be entirely cast aside as a mere streak from a historically streaky player. Two other numbers of his stand out as hints of skills improvement. One is his 16 percent miss rate on swings, which is 15 percentage points beneath his 2012 number (31 percent). The other is his 6-for-8, 2-homer performance on "soft" stuff -- specifically curves, sliders and changeups -- which reflects an equal-or-better level of performance to that of 2012. Certainly Davis' early surge supports his 2012 breakthrough as legitimate, and it's not unthinkable that if he's closing more of the holes in his swing that he might even take a small step forward in 2013.

" Brett Wallace has struck out in 17 of 22 PAs. Contact has never been Wallace's strong suit, but that's a somewhat unbelievable strikeout rate, even with the sample as small as it is. The Astros could always restore Chris Carter to either first base or designated hitter, using Carlos Pena at the other spot, if Wallace doesn't pick up the pace. From a long-term angle, continued struggles by Wallace could lead to midsummer questions about Jonathan Singleton's arrival.

" Jesus Montero has neither walked nor made hard contact once. This is another one that is difficult to believe, though it's worth pointing out that Montero did have the 17th-highest swing rate in baseball last season (51 percent) and the 19th-lowest walk rate (5.2 percent). He did get off to a comparably aggressive start last year too, walking only twice in April, but fantasy owners were probably hoping for a breakthrough, especially with the Seattle Mariners bringing in the outfield fences at Safeco Field this year. Still, give Montero some time: The Mariners have played just two games at Safeco.

" Josh Reddick, who struck out the 31st-most often in 2012, has struck out the fifth-least often in 2013. Oddly enough, most of his other numbers are largely in line, with the exception of his ground-ball rate (41.7 percent, up from 29.7 percent) and his BABIP (.087, down from .269). There appears not to be any reason to worry about Reddick's early struggles, though a boost to his contact rate could help him be more of a contributor in terms of batting average over the long haul.

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