• Justin Dunbar

Small Sample Analysis: What To Make of 2021's Slow Starters

The Major League Baseball season is underway, which means it's time to undergo an annual tradition: drawing concrete conclusions from small sample sizes! We may only be seven games into the season for most teams, but for fantasy owners trying to maneuver their rosters and get ahead of their opponents, it is reasonable to understand why slow starts to the season would be noteworthy. After all, it's hard to maintain faith in a struggling player for a full season, and moving on from them before they completely lose stock does make sense from a value play.

Believe it or not, if we were in 2020 we'd be over 10% done with the season already! It's very nice to have a normal 162-game season back, which means we can watch as statistics stabilize. It's going to take a lot more than one week of play for us to actually draw conclusions on any player, though by looking at their underlying data and analyzing it as a continuation of 2020, perhaps we can be effective in answering the question everyone is looking to solve: who should I trade before it's too late?

Before we get to the players that should be more closely monitored, let me quickly alleviate concerns for fantasy owners of the following players:

OF Michael Conforto, New York Mets

Per Baseball Savant, Conforto's max exit velocity ranks in the 81st percentile, and his contact numbers are standard. With roughly the same plate discipline statistics as normal, his walk rate will surely not stay cut in half. In other words, he's essentially the same player as always. You could worry about the decline in his sprint speed, but it's not as though the Mets outfielder was every someone you were drafting for points in that category.

1B Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs

Rizzo's 90.1 average exit velocity is higher than normal and he is chasing less. In fact, he's actually been better so far in every category! Owners of the Cubs first baseman can sit back and enjoy positive regression from his current .158 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), though it is ironic after he suffered from similarly poor luck in 2020.

OF Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies

As a 34-year-old outfielder with physically declining skills, Blackmon was certainly a player many stayed away from in fantasy drafts. There isn't any reason to come off of that prior analysis, but for current owners of the Rockies outfielder, they can be encouraged by the fact that he is making more contact and doing so at higher quality (92.2 average exit velocity). His .158 BABIP despite playing in Colorado is absurdly indicative of the dangers of small-sample analysis.

OF Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta Braves

Ozuna is walking the same amount and is pretty much who he is, outside of one statistic: a 18.2% pop-up rate. His extensively high deviation in his current launch angle will obviously shrink throughout the season, and when that happens, his quality of contact numbers will go back to resembling the elite offensive presence that he is.

SP Max Fried, Atlanta Braves

Why would fantasy owners be concerned about a pitcher with a 28.2% strikeout rate? Well, that's what poor variance will do to you. Ironically, Fried benefitted tremendously from positive batted-ball and home run luck in 2020, which always made his 2.25 ERA misleading. Nevertheless, assuming you had the ideal expectations about him you should be encouraged that he is throwing his tremendous off-speed pitches more than ever.

SP Dallas Keuchel, Chicago White Sox

Similar to Fried, Keuchel's 1.99 ERA was a great illustration of the problems with using surface-level metrics, particularly in a shortened season. He's generally a pitcher who can overachieve his peripherals by inducing weak contact and a lot of ground balls, though that starts to go away with his current walk rate spike (11.9%). Luckily his zone rate is actually higher than it was in 2020, so his walk rate will surely regress over time, as will his 41.4% left on base rate; he's still the consistent middle-of-the-rotation presence he was expected to be for the White Sox.

SP Jesus Luzardo, Oakland A's

When you play the Astros and Dodgers, you're in for a tough challenge, and Jesus Luzardo has responded by posting a 28.6% strikeout rate! Since his zone rate (40.8%) is higher than normal, surely his walk rate won't continue to be nearly double what it was last year. I'm actually encouraged by his pitch location so far, which has skewed the middle of the zone and resembles more of who he is- a horizontal pitcher. You'd like for him to not throw a fastball or sinker 66% of the time moving forward, but he'll improve simply by playing worse teams in the future, and I actually am quite encouraged by what we've seen from his first two starts.

SP Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals

Nine strikeouts to zero walks in his only start, which was delayed four days. Moving on.

In all seriousness, Scherzer's velocity continues to move downwards is a slight concern, but when you consider the weird ramp-up period for that start, there is certainly reason to believe he'll get back on track in that regard. From there, simply not facing Ronald Acuna Jr. in every start will certainly help!

SP Chris Bassitt, Oakland A's

Projection systems were generally lower on Chris Bassitt than you'd expect for someone who had strong run prevention success previously, though as someone who benefitted from positive batted-ball variance despite a pedestrian ground ball rate (around 42%), expecting him to post a 2.29 ERA again was always going to be quite suboptimal. However, from my experience, fantasy players realized this- his average draft position put him around the 50th starting pitcher selected, according to Fantasy Pros. The main problem for Bassitt (5.61 FIP) so far has been an inability to induce chases. Well, I wonder who two of the top teams in terms of not swinging outside of the zone would be? May I suggest the Astros and Dodgers? Thus, Bassitt has had to throw many more pitches in the zone, and those two strong offenses capitalized. With his next three starts being against the Diamondbacks, Tigers, and Orioles, I'd look to buy stock in him rebounding to expectations quickly.