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Behind the Numbers: April Heroes and Zeroes

David Regan

David Regan

David Regan is a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, and was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.

As a so-called expert, I have the good fortune of fielding a lot of your questions. In April, most of those questions tend to revolve around whether a certain player is for real (Chris Davis) or whether it's time to sell a guy (Matt Kemp) before his value plummets to zero. It's tough to endure seemingly safe bets drafted in the first few rounds whose early performances have your team scrapping to stay out of last place in your 12-team mixed league. I'm there in a couple leagues myself having drafted the likes of Josh Hamilton, the aforementioned Kemp, and April dud Rickie Weeks. This week, let's look at a handful of players on both sides of the ledger in relation to what we can expect the rest of the way.

Clearly given the space and time limitations, this isn't designed to be a comprehensive list of "hot" and "cold" players, but it does represent the players about whom I'm most often asked. If you want a quick take on anyone else, feel free to ask in the comments and I will respond.

APRIL HEROES

Chris Davis (1B-BAL) -
I'm getting a lot of Davis questions. "I also have Billy Butler, so should I trade Davis for David Price?" Yes! This is no knock on Davis, but if you have an adequate first baseman to slot in place of him, by all means, use Davis to upgrade another part of your roster. I will caveat this by saying that yes, the power is real. It's not 60-HR power, but 35 is reachable for the 27-year old. Now the .439 BABIP is obviously not sustainable, leaving Davis looking at probably hitting .260-.270 the rest of the way, but if his 12.8 BB% and 20.5 K% are even close to real, he could be looking at batting in the .280s. Davis' numbers last year in those two categories - 6.6 and 30.1 percent, respectively. Now I'm not saying you should go out and dump him for the likes of Josh Beckett, but there's a real opportunity to upgrade your team if you had the foresight (or luck) to roster Davis and another quality first baseman coming out of your draft/auction.

Jed Lowrie (SS-OAK) -
Lowrie is off to a hot start, batting .361/.446/.597 with three home runs and a 14:11 K:BB in his first 72 at-bats. Lowrie, of course, has a sketchy track record health-wise, never having played more than 97 games in season and topping 300 at-bats just twice. That said, he's a middle infielder with power, having homered once every 32 at-bats in his career with a 21.3 mark last year. Lowrie is a player on whom I would say to sell high, but is there really an owner in your league willing to pay for his current level of production given his checkered medical history? If yes, deal him. If you get low-balled, hold tight, enjoy the production, but plan on having to whether another injury or two.

Mark Reynolds (1B-CLE) -
It's not necessarily surprising to see Reynolds (.283/.371/.700) with seven home runs given he's hit 113 the previous three years, but the average is very surprising. It's even not BABIP-inflated, as Reynolds' BABIP sits at just .270. This is a guy with three 200-plus strikeout seasons who has fanned in a whopping 32.4 percent of his career PA, but this year Reynolds has lowered that rate to a much more reasonable 22.6 percent. Think back to last April in which Reynolds struck out in 30 of 63 at-bats and wound up hitting .221 for the second straight season. This appears to be a whole different Mark Reynolds. He's still just 29 and in the prime of his career, so it's possible he's figured some things out. But while the power is certainly real, I'm skeptical he's suddenly a .280s hitter given his .236 career mark. Still, .260 the rest of the way with a year-end total of 40 homers appears possible.

Justin Masterson (SP-CLE) -
Masterson took a step back last year when his BB/9 rose from 2.7 to 3.8, but I've always liked him for his pure stuff. Masterson sports a fastball that sits in the 90-92 mph range, occasionally touching 94. His slider is a plus pitch, and through five starts this year, Masterson is 4-1 with a 1.85 ERA. A .270 BABIP (.304 career) and inflated 85.9 percent strand rate are fueling some of the sub-2.00 ERA, but at 28, Masterson could be primed for a career year. I'm pretty comfortable with him as my No. 3 starter in my 24-team Scoresheet league.

Clay Buchholz (SP-BOS) -
Buchholz stayed healthy enough last year to toss a career-high 189.1 innings, but an ugly April (8.69 ERA) and a brutal final start of the season (1.2 IP, 8 ER) resulted in a disappointing 4.56 ERA. This year has been a different April, as through four starts, Buchholz is 4-0 with a 0.90 ERA. Buchholz has seen his walk rate trend down gradually from 2009's 3.5 to 3.0 last year, but it's the strikeout rate that has really disappointed. After looking like a strikeout-per-inning pitcher earlier in his career, Buchholz has been in the range of 6.1 (last year) to 6.7 the past four seasons. This year he has that up to 8.7 in the early going, which is, of course, encouraging. That said, digging deeper causes us to be less encouraged:

Velocity: Down from prior years at an average fastball of 91.6 mph - third straight year-over-year decline.

Walk Rate: BB/9 is up to 3.3 this year after some prior year declines.

Strand Rate: 94.4 percent is unsustainable.

BABIP: .243 versus a .280 career mark.

Swing strike rate: A SwStr% of 8.1 is below league average and below his 9 percent career mark.

Add it all up, and Buchholz looks like a prime sell-high candidate. Of course, some of these metrics are not exactly surprising, as did we really expect a sub-1.00 to be attainable over the long season? What we're seeing is a great start from a good pitcher, but not something that by any means represents a new baseline level of performance.

APRIL ZEROES

Mike Moustakas (3B-KC) -
I've seen Moustakas cut in many shallower non-keeper formats, and considering his .158/.226/.193 start, I can't really argue. Moustakas did manage 55 extra-base hits a year ago, and though he finished at just .242/.296/.412, at least his 20 homers did provide some deeper league value. That said, since hitting .315/.375/.534 last April, Moustakas has failed to hit above .250 in any month, and now he's resembling a player who may need a stint in Triple-A to jumpstart his bat. Of course, it took Alex Gordon a bit to get established, so it just might be 2014 before we see the bat that put up 36 homers and a .999 minor league OPS in 2010. I'm just not seeing that bat coming to K.C. this year.

Matt Kemp (OF-LAD) -
Should we treat Kemp as a top-six fantasy player? We know given his .235/.270/.294 batting line that he has not performed like one, but there are some encouraging signs. First, Kemp's legs appear to be healthy. He's running the bases well from first to third and has stolen three bases in three attempts. Second, he did have a pair of three-hit games, and in his last six games Kemp is batting .364 with those three steals. On the flip side, he's yet to hit a homer run (four doubles), and his K:BB is an ugly 20:4. The last three seasons, Kemp has been at his best in April, batting a combined .350/.415/.671, with his 25 homers, easily the highest of any month. So, he's not a slow starter. The obvious question here is: is it the shoulder? Kemp, of course, had invasive shoulder surgery in the offseason, and it could very well be that the muscles are not quite at 100 percent healthy, thus resulting in a noticeable lack of power. I am not qualified to review MRI results or opine on a player's possible physical ailments, but it wouldn't surprise me if the power outage continued for a while as the shoulder completely heals.

Jason Kipnis (2B-CLE) -
I was recently offered Kipnis for Drew Smyly in one league (dynasty, unlimited keepers, no salaries), and though 2B/MI wasn't a glaring need, I jumped on the Kipnis' owner's overreaction to the second baseman's poor start. Kipnis is batting just .163/.236/.224 after being drafted as a top-five second baseman, if not higher. A .239 BABIP is partly to blame, but when looking into Kipnis' plate habits, the numbers there also tell a story. He's simply having trouble making contact:

Swinging strike rate: 10.7 vs. 7.3 percent career.

Contact rate (pitches outside the zone): 41.7 vs. 61.3 percent career.

Contact rate (strikes) - 84.1 vs. 89.5 percent career.

Kipnis' walk rate of 8.6 percent is still reasonable, and perhaps a recent minor elbow injury is at least partly to blame, but keep Kipnis' second half last year in mind as well - .233/.322/.328. We may have overrated him a bit this spring, so if you have a viable backup and get a decent offer to improve your squad elsewhere, go for it.

Matt Cain (SP-SF) -
I've seen Cain sold for far less than an ace-level return based of off four starts of a 7.15 ERA. In two of Cain's starts, he's allowed a total of two runs in 13 innings, but in the other two, 16 runs in 9.2 innings. Overall, Cain's 7.9 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9 are right in line with his career totals, but he's just been bit by the long ball at a 15.6-percent HR/FB rate, and he's allowing too many flyballs in general (31.0 GB% versus 37.4 a year ago). Cain's xFIP sits at 4.16 versus a career rate of 4.19, so it seems we can expect a performance level in line with recent years. Interestingly, he's always been a pitcher who has significantly outperformed his xFIP, and this year it's flipped. But really, it's only four starts. I'm not concerned a bit.

Yovani Gallardo (SP-MIL) -
So when I saw Gallardo dropped outright in a 12-team mixed league, I was admittedly shocked. After all, this is a pitcher with four consecutive seasons of 30-plus starts, a sub-4.00 ERA and 200-plus strikeouts. Gallardo hasn't quite turned into an elite start along the lines of a Cliff Lee or Clayton Kershaw, but he's pretty close. This year, however, through four starts, Gallardo sports a 5.24 ERA and 1.57 WHIP with a 6.0 K/9. That last number compares quite unfavorably to his 9.1 career mark, though his 1.6 BB/9 stacks up nicely against his 3.4 career rate in that area. Gallardo notched his best start of the season last time out, posting a 6-5-1-1-1-6 line against the Giants. Gallardo has been hurt by a fastball that is off 1.2 mph over last year, but given his 3.98 xFIP, he should turn things around in short order.