By the Numbers: Don't trust the outliers
Many upstarts have become permanent fixtures in most Fantasy lineups, but our Al Melchior sees some warning signs. He's got four hitters and four pitchers in his sights.
We're far enough along into the 2013 season that many Fantasy owners feel comfortable in trusting the stats that their players have compiiled up to this point. Maybe back in March or early April, we didn't expect Chris Davis to be one of the top hitters in all of Fantasy or for Hisashi Iwakuma to be leading all pitchers in both Rotisserie and Head-to-Head value, but we've had time to get used to the idea.
Even if Davis and Iwakuma cool off somewhat over the rest of the season, and it would be surprising if they didn't, they have done enough over this season and last to earn the trust of owners in all formats. Then there are other players who have suddenly become fixtures in a large percentage of leagues, yet they're in danger of becoming less relevant in the weeks and months to come. Jean Segura and Travis Wood headline a group of players who have won the trust of owners with their play through the season's first 10 weeks, but despite their strong stats to date, each may not be as trustworthy as they appear to be.
Over the course of a season, ERAs, WHIPs, batting averages and run and RBI totals can all fluctuate greatly, but the underlying skill indicators are usually a good predictor of where a player will wind up by season's end. The eight players featured here have parlayed fast starts into a secure place in their owners' starting lineups, but they are outliers among the top producers, given that they are succeeding at a high level despite some supporting stats that don't normally bode well.
Going by season-to-date stats, each of these hitters is worth starting in the vast majority of leagues, but their outlier status makes them sell-high candidates. At the very least, it's reasonable to expect their production to tail off over the rest of the season.
Jean Segura , SS, Brewers: Ground ball rates in excess of 55 percent rarely translate into seasons with 20-plus homers, but Segura is on pace to pull off that feat. Could the 23-year-old hit above .300 with 50 steals? Sure, and that alone makes Segura one of the six best shortstops in Fantasy. However, Segura's nine home runs have helped to make him one of the six top hitters in all of Rotisserie, regardless of position. According to ESPN's Home Run Tracker, seven of those dingers had "just enough" distance to clear the fence. Hitters can typically expect about a third of their homers to be "cheapies," so it looks like Segura's home run power is a mirage. Segura doesn't have a history of big power numbers or moderate ground ball rates, so it's still too early to buy into the Brewers' shortstop as a true speed/power threat and Fantasy elite.
Howie Kendrick , 2B, Angels: Kendrick appears to be on his way to a career high in RBI, and a .321 batting average is a major reason why. Nearly across the board, Kendrick's secondary stats, such as his strikeout, walk and ground ball rates and Isolated Power, are close to his typical levels, but there is a legitimate reason for Kendrick's high batting average. He's turning 27 percent of his hit balls into line drives, but while Kendrick has mustered high liner rates before, over his career he has settled in close to the major league norm of approximately 20 percent. While there is an underlying stat that supports Kendrick's fast start, it just happens to be one of the stats that is most vulnerable to random change. If not for that fortunate bounce, Kendrick would not and should not be starting in 93 percent of the leagues on CBSSports.com.
Jhonny Peralta , SS, Tigers: Because Peralta has been so inconsistent over his career, it would be easy to buy into what he's doing this season by assuming that he was due for one of his good years. In Peralta's better seasons, he has hit for power, clubbing at least 20 homers. He's not on that kind of pace this year, and with a nine percentage point dip in his flyball rate, Peralta's not looking poised for a 20-homer season. It's Peralta's .333 batting average that has catapulted him into the upper echelons of the shortstop rankings, but with a 24 percent strikeout rate, he's a poor bet to sustain his value. Normally an average hitter on balls in play, Peralta has enhanced his value with an unsustainable .416 BABIP. A mark even 50 points lower would make Peralta's season an outlier among his career numbers.
Daniel Nava , OF, Red Sox: For the most part, the RBI leaderboard is littered with sluggers whose Isolated Power is on the north side of .200. Of the current top 20, only Freddie Freeman , Adrian Gonzalez and Allen Craig have an Iso lower than Nava's .169, and unlike with Nava, there is reason to expect that each of those three will experience a power rebound over the course of the season. A .280 hitter over three seasons at Triple-A Pawtucket, Nava is probably playing over his head in general with a .300 batting average, and his .333 average with runners in scoring position is further boosting his RBI total. Nava is starting in more than four-fifths of our leagues, but unless he continues to be an outlier among RBI leaders, he won't be worth starting in many of his shallower leagues going forward.
The four starting pitchers listed below have stood out as outliers, too, providing owners with high value even though they possess strikeout and walk rates more befitting of a deep-league option. To be more specific, if a pitcher has a K/9 ratio of 6.5 or lower and a BB/9 ratio of 2.5 or higher, he doesn't have a good chance at finishing with a low ERA or WHIP. Between 2010 and 2012, there were 50 seasons from qualifying starting pitchers that failed to clear both of these benchmarks, and only five of them managed to post an ERA below 3.50 and a WHIP under 1.25. So while it's possible to have above-average Fantasy stats with mediocre peripherals, it's not very common.
Here's how each of these pitchers has managed to help owners despite mediocre strikeout and walk rates, and how each could be a disappointment as the season forges on.
Travis Wood , SP, Cubs: In his fourth season, Wood has all the outward signs of a breakout, as he boasts a 2.65 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and a 5-4 record through 12 starts. The lefty's 6.5 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 ratios are close to his career norms, but he's getting better results by keeping the ball in the park. Though Wood is no less flyball prone than before, he's allowed only five home runs over 78 innings. Part of Wood's formula for success is his flyball tendencies, which he has translated into a 13 percent popup rate and a .225 BABIP. Even if those marks don't worsen much, it seems unlikely that Wood will continue to avoid the long ball (especially in Wrigley as the weather heats up), so owners should expect his ERA and WHIP to climb.
Kyle Kendrick , SP/RP, Phillies: Two seasons ago, Kendrick showed that it's possible to have a low ERA (3.22) and WHIP (1.22) with mediocre supporting stats, but he did it over just 114 2/3 innings. He has nearly identical marks so far this year (3.22 ERA, 1.21 WHIP), and he's improved since then, becoming a better strikeout and ground ball pitcher. Still, Kendrick is well below the major league average for strikeout rate, and he appears to have benefited from good luck on balls in play that were hit in the air (.080 flyball BABIP, .679 line drive BABIP). That latter trend has helped Kendrick to limit hitters to a .380 slugging percentage that could rise over his future starts. Kendrick isn't a bad pitcher for mixed league owners; he's not just owned-in-88-percent-of-leagues good.
Jeff Locke , SP, Pirates: With 23 strikeouts over his last 22 2/3 innings, Locke has just nudged himself over the 6.5 K/9 threshold, but in his minor league career, he was never a standout as a strikeout pitcher. Meanwhile, Locke has been extremely wild, throwing 58 percent of his pitches for strikes and posting a 4.2 BB/9. A 1.21 WHIP is difficult to manage with so many free passes, but by holding opponents to a .155 batting average on ground balls, Locke has done just that. The Pirates' staff ranks second in the majors with a .211 opponents' ground ball batting average, so even though Locke might be aided by his infield, he is still likely to have a lot more hits and runs coming his way.
Paul Maholm , SP, Braves: If you're going to succeed with middling strikeout and walk rates, you have to make up for them in some other way. Maholm more so than any of the preceding three pitchers does that, as he has compiled low home run rates on a consistent basis. Even so, Maholm has needed a little help in recent years to keep his ERA and WHIP low. Two seasons ago, he posted an unusually-low home run-to-flyball ratio (6.8 percent). Last year it was a low line drive rate, and this season, he's relied on a .167 ground ball batting average. Maholm keeps finding new ways to remain relevant in a large portion of mixed leagues, but sooner or later, some of his many owners will realize that he can be dropped for a higher-ceiling player.
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