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Behind the Numbers: Learning From Small Sample Sizes

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.

The usual small sample size caveats certainly apply to a numbers discussion this early in the season, but itís still fun and worthwhile to take a look at some of the early numbers that stand out.

Here are but a fewÖ.

Adrian Gonzalezís five home runs

Gonzalez did not log his fifth home run until May 25 last year, but number five this year came on April 13. Remember, this was a guy who somehow logged 40 home runs in 2009 while playing half his games in pitcher-friendly Petco Park. That was good for a 13.8 AB/HR rate, but in the subsequent four years, heís seen it slide as follows:

2010: 19.1
2011: 23.3
2012: 34.9
2013: 26.5

We see a slight turnaround last year with Gonzalez tallying 22 home runs, but the early power surge has to be an anomaly, right? Sure, Gonzalez isnít going to continue his 60-homer pace for that much longer, but heís doing a good job getting the ball in the air this year with a 46.2 percent fly-ball percentage, a rate that compares favorably with his 37.7 percent career mark. Get the ball in the air and it has a chance to leave the yard, right? 27.8 percent of Gonzalezís flyballs have turned into home runs, a rate that wonít continue, but he does have a higher-than-average (avg = approx. 11 percent) 15.6 percent career mark. Gonzalez is also seeing slight improvements in his plate discipline the last couple years with walk rates of 6.1 percent in 2012, 7.3 percent last season and 8.9 percent this year. If the Dodgers can keep Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez on the field for at least 140 games apiece, that should allow Gonzalez to see plenty of good pitches going forward.

Bottom line: Heíll finish with 30+ home runs.

Pedro Alvarezís 21.4% K% and .097 BABIP

Alvarez has yet to have a big league season in which heís fanned in fewer than 30 percent of his plate appearances, and heís shooting for his third consecutive season with at least 180 strikeouts. With five home runs already, Alvarez should have no trouble hitting 30 for the third straight year, but the strikeout rate is way down in the early going and heís still batting just .167. How do we reconcile the two? Well, so far at least, heís being more patient at the plate. Alvarezís 14.3 percent walk rate would blow away his previous season high of 9.7 percent, while heís swinging at just 26.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone versus a career rate just above 33 percent.


So why the low average? Itís simply bad luck. Prior to Tuesdayís game, Alvarez sat with a .097 BABIP compared to a career mark of .296 and a .280 rate last year. His batted balls are either flying over the outfield wall or they are finding gloves. In fact, of Alvarezís eight total hits, he has five home runs and one double. Due to a lack of footspeed and that power, heís never going to be a consistent .330 BABIP guy, but he should be able to get it up in the .280 range as the season wears on, a mark that could allow him to hit .270, should the early improved contact ability hold up.

Bottom line: I say he hits 40 home runs and finished in the .260 BA range.

Dee Gordonís .457 OBP

If you drafted early this year, itís likely that $28 million Cuban Alex Guerrero was getting more attention in your drafts that the fleet-footed Gordon. I know I wound up with Guerrero on more of my teams than Gordon, a regrettable decision through the first half of April. Not only is Gordon batting .400/.457/.525, but heís leading baseball with nine stolen bases and heís even homered. Essentially, heís what Billy Hamilton owners are hoping for from Billy Hamilton. After batting .228 and .234 during his major league stints the last couple seasons, Gordon was noticeably bigger this spring, having added between 10 and 15 pounds of muscle mass to his 5-11 frame. What the additional strength has allowed is that when pitchers pitch Gordon on the inner half (they do this a lot), heís been able to muscle the ball over the second basemanís head for a base hit.

Gordon is also doing a much better job focusing on hitting the ball on the ground and mixing in the occasional bunt. 70 percent of his batted balls have been on the ground versus 49.2 percent last year. With his lack of HR power, hitting the ball in the air is a huge waste of his legs, clearly his most valuable commodity. Gordon has an elite lineup around him and he has his confidence. Guerrero is certainly capable of hitting his way to the big leagues this summer, but Gordon is making the most of his opportunity as the everyday second baseman.

Bottom line: Gordon hits .300 and steals 65 bases.

Travis Woodís 12.4 K/9 and 51.6 percent ground ball rate

Iíve always hesitated to draft or trade for Wood for a couple reasons:

ē He allows more than his share of fly balls, and in Wrigley Field, thatís less than optimal
ē He doesnít miss a ton of bats.

In his last two seasons with the Cubs, Wood had K/9 rates of 6.9 and 6.5, with ground ball rates of 34.3 percent and 33.2 percent, respectively, in 58 starts. This year heís missing bats -- a lot of them -- through two starts, and when hitters do hit the ball, itís on the ground more often than not.

So is this simply a case of sample size? Two starts does not a trend make, right? Wood has fanned eight Phillies and nine Pirates, and while we know that the Phillies struggle against left-handers, itís still an impressive start. His velocity is the same, as the fastball still sits in the 88-90 mph range. His cutter seems to be improved, but not remarkably so. Woodís BABIPís the last two full years (.252 and .257) have caused some owners to shy away this year, but I really think this is a guy who is going to have a long career as a solid No. 3 starter. I donít know if the improved strikeout and ground ball numbers can hold (certainly not at their current levels), but I think Iíve seen enough to trust him.

Bottom line: Expect a K/9 rate more in the 7.0-7.2 range going forward, but heís good enough to keep his ERA in the mid-3ís, if not slightly better.

Ervin Santanaís 16.9 percent swinging strike rate

As a Santana owner in a long-term Strat-o-Matic keeper league, I was ecstatic to see him not only actually sign a contract despite the draft pick compensation attached, but to see him land in Atlanta. Sure, it was a signing born out of injury-related desperation, but the Braves will take him. Santana has promptly come in and allowed just one run in 14 innings over two starts, to go with a 17:2 K:BB ratio. Batters are hitting just .146 against him and heís struck out over a third (34 percent) of all hitters heís faced this year.

Among all big league starters, Santanaís swinging strike rate (16.9 percent) ranks third behind Masahiro Tanaka and Francisco Liriano, and he ranks sixth in the league by inducing hitters to swing at 38.1 percent of the pitches heís thrown outside of the strike zone. Santanaís velocity has remained constant, and pitch-mix wise, heís throwing more changeups and fastballs, and fewer sliders, and so far his changeup has been much more effective than in the past. Putting on a Braves uniform has even turned Aaron Harang into an ace (temporary ace) pitcher, but Santana has been just as good and is a guy Iím far more confident in going forward.

Bottom line: Expect a typical Santana stat line at yearís end: close to 200 innings, ERA in the low 3ís, 170 strikeouts.

Alfredo Simonís 94.3 mph average fastball

Typically when a reliever transitions to a starting role, weíll see a velocity drop in the 1-2 mph range. In a bullpen assignment, one is typically tasked with throwing 15-20 pitches, rather than 100 as a starter, so maintaining maximum effort in shorter stints is obviously easier. This is why the following velocity chart for Simon is a surprise:

2012 (reliever): 94.4 mph
2013 (reliever): 94.5 mph
2014 (starter): 94.3 mph

Simon probably pitches to contact more than he should, as his K/9 this year sits at just 6.0, with a career mark of 6.6. He generates a fair number of ground balls (51.2 percent ground ball rate) and Simon has walked just one batter in 15 innings, all of which has allowed him to surrender just two runs so far this season. He turns 33 next month, so there isnít much room for projection here, but the fact that his velocity is holding up and his control is improving (so far) are both very encouraging.

Bottom line: Simon has really blossomed since coming to the Reds, and as long as he can stay healthy, we can probably expect 180 innings, 140 strikeouts, and an ERA just south of 4.00. With his age and lack of a solid starter track record, itís foolish to expect much more.

Andrelton Simmonsí 0.0 percent strikeout rate

We know Simmonsí glove is elite -- heís a lock each year to achieve a ď1Ē fielding rating for Strat-o-Matic leagues. What we have had to question however, is whether he can even be average offensively. He was far from it last year, batting .248/.296/.396, though there certainly was some value in his 17 home runs. He doesnít walk much (4.4 percent walk rate this year, 6.1 percent career), but Simmons makes excellent contact (8.6 percent career strikeout rate), and after posting a .247 BABIP last year, we hoped that would turn around and perhaps allow him to hit in the .270s or better this season.

Through 11 games though, Simmons is exceeding expectations, batting .341/.356/.610 with a couple home runs. Including Monday's game, he has been to the plate 45 times, walking twice, hitting a pair of sacrifice flies, and putting the ball in play in each of his other 41 PAs. Yes, zero strikeouts. Heís swung at just 24.6 percent of pitches outside the zone (29.1 percent last year) and when he does swing at balls, he has made contact 80 percent of the time. Iíd love to see a walk rate more in the 10 percent range, as that would make him a top-of-the-order caliber hitter, but itís hard to fault a shortstop who is a defensive whiz carrying a .966 OPS.

Bottom line: Simmons will be 24 for most of this year, his power has developed, and he batted .311 in his last full minor league season in 2011. There may very well be a big leap in his development this year. Iíd expect 15-20 homers and an average in the .275 range. With his glove, thatís an All-Star.

Scott Feldmanís 0.44 ERA

Feldman is early Exhibit A as to why you need to look at numbers other than ERA when assessing a pitcherís rest-of-year prospects. We may never again see a bigger spread between a pitcherís actual performance as measured by his ERA (0.44), and expected performance as noted by xFIP (5.66). The high xFIP is driven by a mediocre 3.1 K/9, a so-so 3.5 BB/9, and the fact that none of his flyballs have left the yard (luck). The fact that heís allowed just one run in 20.2 innings pitching at home against the Yankees and Angles means Feldman is living a charmed life; but we all know the correction is coming.

Want more evidence?

ē .120 BABIP Ė Career mark is .292, so guessing the low rate is not sustainable.
ē 87.7 mph average fastball Ė This will be the fourth straight year that mark has dropped, including a full 2.2 mph decline from last year.

Bottom line: Miscast as the teamís Opening Day starter, Feldman is a serviceable bottom-of-the-rotation type guy who is taking advantage of some serious luck on balls in play. Sell if you can.