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Behind the Numbers: Small Sample Size, Big Conclusions

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.

You hear a lot about "sample size" this time of year when it comes to player analysis and rest-of-year projection. It makes sense in most cases, as the following players are certainly NOT going to keep up this sort of pace (stats through Monday's action):

Brian Dozier: 5 home runs - projection: 45

Chris Colabello: 20 RBI (with ONE home run) - projection: 180 RBI

Aaron Harang: 0.70 ERA

Charlie Blackmon: .406-2-11, 5 SB - projection: .406-15-85, 39 SB

There are however, a handful of players who are certainly establishing a new baseline level of performance. What does that mean in baseball terms? Let's take an average guy like Andre Ethier. The last three years, Ethier has averaged .283-14-68. If healthy, he should approach that again this year - consider that his "baseline level of performance." At age 32, expecting much more than that is probably unwise. For a guy like Cliff Lee, we're pretty sure his baseline is 220 innings, an ERA in the 2.80 range and 210-220 strikeouts. He's not suddenly going to take a leap to 250 innings of 1.90 ERA ball nor do we expect a drop-off to the tune of a 4.50 ERA and 120 strikeouts.

Here are a few players that, for better or for worse, look to be establishing new baseline levels of performance:

THE GOOD


Alexei Ramirez, SS, CHW

Ramirez is 32 and in his seventh big league season, so we've probably already seen the best he has to offer, right? His best year overall offensively probably came in his 2008 rookie season in which Ramirez batted .290 with 21 homers and 13 stolen bases. Since then, the power has plummeted to last year's six home runs, but he's running more, as evidenced by 2013's career-high 30 stolen bases. So far this year, Ramirez is red hot, as through Monday, he's batting .354/.393/.570 with four homers and four stolen bases. He's never going to post a double-digit walk rate, but the walks are up (6.0 BB%) and strikeouts down (9.5 K%) compared to last year, and most importantly, the power stroke is there. Ramirez's HR/FB rates the last three years indicate that perhaps he's still at 15-20 HR player:

2011 - 8.1 percent
2012 - 5.1
2013 - 3.6

Given that an average rate historically is 11 percent, it shouldn't be a huge surprise to see a bit of a power surge. He's unlikely to maintain his current 17.4 percent, but even at 10 percent the rest of the way, we're probably still looking at 20-homer potential. Ramirez is swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone and making better contact overall, and good things are happening.

Bottom line:
He won't start accumulating walks at a Bondsian rate, but I do think his baseline is more in line with his first three seasons (.280, 18-22 HR, 80 RBI) plus around 20-25 steals.

Leonys Martin, OF, TEX

Martin hit just .260 with eight home runs last year, but provided quite a bit of fantasy value via his 36 stolen bases. I wasn't all that high on him this year given that he's almost useless versus southpaws, and even with a .322 BABIP, the batting average was still quite low. This year, though, through 19 games, Martin is batting .323/.391/.452. He has just the one home run, but he's walked in 8.2 percent of his plate appearances versus last year's 5.5 percent, a trend I like to see. His .396 BABIP is a bit inflated, of course, but he did post a .394 mark in his last Triple-A stint, and with his speed, .340 isn't an unreasonable expectation.

Bottom line:
Martin is not a .260 hitter - figure more in the .280 range the rest of the way. He's also probably not on the verge of a power surge given that of his 11 balls in play this year that have been hit in the air, a reasonable ONE has gone over an outfield wall. This 9.1-percent rate is in line with last year's 8.4 percent.

Matt Wieters, C, BAL

If I predict a Wieters breakout enough times, I'm bound to look like a genius one year, right? In his four-plus years as a big leaguer, it's probably safe to say that Wieters has been a disappointment. He's yet to hit higher than .262 or slug more than 23 home runs. His career high in RBI is just 72 while Wieters' career OPS is just .742. For a guy picked near the top of the draft, we expected far more. As Wieters approaches free agency (after next season), there are some signs that perhaps the breakout is imminent. A few that give me hope:

He's hitting the ball hard - Wieters' line-drive rate sits at 31.9 percent, far and above his career 18.3 percent.

He's hitting the ball in the air more - With his power, it's good to see this year's 44.7 percent fly-ball rate.

He's hitting for (a little) more power - His current .196 ISO would be his career high if it holds.

The strikeouts are down - A 17.5-percent strikeout rate is just fine for a power-hitter and would be his best mark since 2011.

Now his .357 BABIP may not hold up over the course of the season, but if he's continuing to make this sort of contact, he's certain to exceed last year's .254 mark. A switch-hitter, Wieters has historically been at his best hitting left-handed, but those splits are reversed in the early going this year - .375 vs. LHP, .188 vs. RHP. That actually makes me even more optimistic, as the .188 is bound to increase as the sample size increases given his past performance from that side of the plate.

Bottom line:
I think Wieters in his prime (starting now perhaps) can be a .280 hitter with 30 homers and 100 RBI.

Anthony Rizzo, 1B, CHC

The 2012 deal involving Rizzo and Andrew Cashner (more on him in a minute) was made to look somewhat lopsided in favor of the Padres once Cashner proved he could throw 175 innings last season. This year, however, both players are off to solid starts, making this more of a win-win for both sides. Rizzo was a bit of a disappointment last year, as although he hit 23 homers and drove in 80 runs, he also batted just .233/.323/.419. Rizzo did slug 40 doubles and draw 76 walks, but he was also hurt by a .259 BABIP.

This year, Rizzo is off to a hot start, batting .333/.430/.485 while riding a .385 BABIP. His ISO is actually down 34 points, but that's of little concern in April. I like that he's improved his BB/K from 0.60 to 0.83, as he's swinging at far fewer pitches outside the strike zone than in previous seasons. The two home runs are a bit lower than we would think to see at this point of the season, but Rizzo hit 38 long balls as recently as 2012 (Triple-A and the Cubs), so he should be a lock for 25-30 this year with the potential to get more in the 35-plus range in coming seasons.

Bottom line:
The .233 BA last year was likely BABIP-driven. The improved plate discipline we're seeing this year is likely for real, so expect something in the range of .280-25-100 by year's end.



Andrew Cashner, SP, SD

With a 93.5 mph average fastball this season, Cashner's velocity is actually down a little from last year, but that's not too surprising given that it's only April and this is the first season in which Cashner has opened the year as a starting pitcher. With his stuff, it's a bit surprising that Cashner's K/9 finished at just 6.6 last year, so it's no surprise to see that rate at 8.1 through five starts this year. Cashner allowed four runs in six innings against the Brewers on Monday, but he still has a 2.10 ERA and the looks of an All-Star. Cashner was a bit erratic (5.0 BB/9 as a reliever in 2010) earlier in his career, but he's settled into a pitcher who can command both his fastball and slider to both sides of the plate. He's throwing his changeup just 5.7 percent of the time this year compared to 16.2 percent for his career, which is a stark change in approach, but it's working for him.

Bottom line:
Assuming 32 starts, Cashner is on pace to throw 220 innings this season, which would top last year's mark by a whopping 45 innings. With his history of injuries, it remains to be seen whether he can maintain that pace, but the 6-foot-6, 220, fireballer certainly has the body type to do it. I think he's probably good for one DL stint, so I'll say 200 innings, 3.10 ERA, 180 strikeouts, 1.10 WHIP and, guessing here, 12 wins.

Nate Eovaldi, SP, MIA

Eovaldi has always been a hard thrower, but no more so than this year, as his 95.9 mph average fastball ties him with Garrett Richards (surprising) for the major league lead in that category. That heat has translated into a 3.55 ERA through 25.1 innings. With an 8.2 K/9 and 1.1 BB/9, Eovaldi probably deserves a lower ERA (xFIP is 3.07). It seems likely his .340 BABIP will dip, and though that will be mitigated by a likely increase in his 3.8-percent HR/FB rate, Eovaldi has also increased his groundball rate by 10 percentage points to 53.9 percent year-over-year. I'd like to see Eovaldi continue to evolve as a pitcher and mix in his changeup more than his current 2.8-percent rate, we can't argue with the results we've seen so far this year.

Bottom line:
At 24, Eovaldi's best days are still ahead of him. I would consider his ceiling to be that of a No. 3 starter unless he can continue to develop his slide and turn his change into a plus pitch. That would make him No. 2 material, but for this year, figure on something like this: 170 innings, 3.40 ERA, 150 strikeouts, 1.24 WHIP, 10 wins.

THE BAD

R.A. Dickey, SP, TOR

It will shock no one that 2012 will go down as Dickey's career season, but the fall from that career pinnacle has been swifter and more pronounced than anyone anticipated. Dickey's metrics are all trending in the wrong direction:

YEARK/9BB/9GB%
20128.92.146.1
20137.12.840.3
20147.05.935.7

Fewer missed bats, a spike in his walk rate and more balls hit in the air. None are trends you want to see in a pitcher's stat line. Dickey, of course, was never a hard thrower, but his fastball is down nearly 2 mph from 2012, making it less effective as an offset to the knuckleball. Besides all the extra men on base, Dickey's trouble finding the strike zone has meant that hitters can wait for a knuckleball that doesn't knuckle, and the results haven't been pretty.

Bottom line:
Dickey is 39, and while knuckleballs have pitched well into their 40s, he might not have much left in the tank. I think we're looking at a finish this year of: 180 innings, 4.75 ERA, 150 strikeouts, 8 wins and a 1.50 WHIP.

Ubaldo Jimenez, SP, CLE

If you thought last year's 13 wins, 3.30 ERA and 9.6 K/9 were a sign of things to come this year, you've been sorely disappointed in Jimenez. Last year Jimenez was able to whether a third consecutive year of declining velocity by doing the following: improving his control, missing more bats with his slider and generating more ground balls. As the following chart illustrates, he's gone backward in all areas this year:

YEARK/9BB/9GB%FBv
20118.63.747.293.5
20127.34.838.492.5
20139.63.943.991.7
20147.65.532.490.4

Perhaps part of the problem is the move to the AL East, but I just don't think Jimenez was as good as the ERA suggested last year. His 77.5-percent strand rate in 2013 was far and away his career high, and that his dipped to a more reasonable 68.6 percent in 2014. In addition, when you lose velocity, command and control become that much more vital to success, and that hasn't exactly worked out for Jimenez this year. I don't think he's quite THIS bad, but he'll be lucky if he finishes with 2011 numbers (4.68 ERA, 10 wins, 180 strikeouts, 1.40 WHIP).

Bottom line:
I own Jimenez in zero leagues and plan on keeping it that way. Figure on these numbers by year's end: 180 innings, 4.80 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 10 wins, 160 strikeouts.

Eric Hosmer, 1B, KC

Hosmer has been a bit of a disappointment like most, if not all, untraded (Wil Myers) former top Royals hitting prospects. In his nearly three full seasons of 2011-2013, Hosmer has hit as high as .302 (2013), and he's shown enough to be hopeful that 25 homers and 100 RBI are around the corner, but this year so far has been a step back. Hosmer is batting .275/.333/.333 with no home runs and four XBH (all doubles). Hosmer walked in 10 percent of his plate appearances in his final full minor league season (2010) and peaked at his MLB-high 9.4 percent in 2012, but that rate is down to 6.7 percent this year. He's striking out less, but Hosmer just doesn't appear to be getting good wood on the ball. I've watched a handful of at-bats this year and I'm just not seeing it. His 12.7-percent line drive rate would be by far a career-low if it holds, and a 57.1-percent groundball rate for a corner infielder is just far too low. It's easy to say he needs to hit the ball harder and in the air more often, but that's actually the case. For comparison purposes, Freddie Freeman is carrying a 34.4-percent line drive rate and a 23.4-percent groundball rate.

Bottom line:
I just don't think Hosmer is ever going to be the player the Royals hoped he'd be when they drafted him No. 3 overall, two spots ahead of Buster Posey. He's not the .232 hitter he was in 2012, but he's also not going to be a consistent .300 bat with anything more than average power. Figure he ends the season .280-15-75. At least he'll run a bit, having posted double-digit steals in each of his first three seasons.

Chase Headley, 3B, SD

Headley may already be regretting turning down whatever multi-year contract offers the Padres have thrown his way since his breakout 2012 season. He's gone from garnering MVP votes after that .286-31-115 performance to batting .250 with 13 homer last year and now this year, .186/.242/.279 through 17 games. His walks are down and strikeouts up in each of the past two seasons, but most alarming is the drop in power as measured by ISO:

2012 - .212
2013 - .150
2014 - .098

With just one home run in 66 at-bats, Headley looks like the third base version of James Loney. Excellent glove, can probably hit for average once he heats up, but the power just isn't there. Headley is sporting a 52.3-percent groundball rate, which would easily be a career high, and his 9.1-percent HR/FB rate is actually fairly reasonable. We've had Headley on the injury report twice already this year for knee and biceps injuries, so that could be part of the issue, but it's becoming all too clear that he peaked in 2012.

Bottom line:
Headley isn't this bad, but I'd figure his baseline is maybe .265-15-70.