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3 Small-Sample Size Statistical Trends To Monitor

small-sample size
Photo Credit: Keith Allison

Its been a weird start to the 2018 season. The snow has been deeper than some pitchers are working into games; the Dodgers can’t seem to score a run, and Torey Lovuello wants to fight Yadier Molina in the parking lot after school.

Still, regardless of how strange things might get, we always have cold, hard facts to soothe us into normalcy. Well, at least we would if this were June. Small-sample-size season is upon us, so, instead of accepting these oddities at face value, let’s unpack a few of the more important crazy stats the first two weeks have presented the Fantasy Baseball community.

3 Small-Sample Size Statistical Trends

J.A. Happ’s 32.9% Strikeout Rate

Apparently, Happ is Chris Sale now. Who knew? The veteran southpaw has racked up 23 strikeouts in his first 16 innings of 2018 – dictated by a huge 15.0% swinging strike rate. Now, the first thing we have to establish with each of these statistics is whether or not these events are truly outlandish, and, in the specific case of Happ, it might not be that out of line.

Happ has a great fastball. Not a good fastball – a great one. Its why he’s consistently thrown the pitch around 70% of the time in his recent successful seasons. In his last start against Baltimore, who, to be fair, led the league in strikeout rate entering play Tuesday, Happ garnered 15 swings and misses on his fourseam – more than he’d had in a single game with the pitch in all of 2017.

A lot of this is matchup based. The Orioles not only have baseball’s lowest overall contact rate but its second-lowest zone contact rate at 81.6%. Zone contact is crucial to Happ as a pitcher who relies on fastball deception to finish off batters instead of more traditional two-strike offerings like a splitter or slider. Pitches that generally end up in or near the dirt. So, the fact that Happ’s opponent zone contact rate currently stands at 78.4%, when he’s never finished a season with a figure below 85%, makes it the most concerning outlier.

Obviously, no one is expecting J.A. Happ to strike out 12-plus guys per nine innings for the rest of the year, yet, again, this might be more about accepting Happ is at least an above-average strikeout guy. I mentioned in a sleeper SP article I wrote back in February that Happ was phenomenal over his final 120 innings of 2017. He had 115 strikeouts in those frames. It’s not hard to believe someone who struck out 8.63 batters per nine just last year could all of a sudden jump above one per inning. I’m buying in.

Didi Gregorius’ 3.00 BB/K Ratio

From the start of 2016 to the end of 2017, only four qualified players (out of a total of 131) had a lower walk rate than Gregorius. Even Rougned Odor, so often maligned for his approach at the plate, usually by me, had a better figure than the Yankee shortstop’s 3.8% rate. Well, all that has been thrown out the window to begin our current campaign.

Along with a .400 batting average, .581 wOBA, and three home runs – Gregorius has drawn a walk nine times in his 46 plate appearances. Nine times. So much for the narrative of lineup protection, right? Never one to strike out a great deal anyway – his high swing rates usually mean a ball in play prior to two strikes – Gregorius, through 11 games, has three walks for every strikeout. Joey Votto eat your heart out. So what’s different?

The simplest explanation is Gregorius is just swinging less, which, considering his 58.2% swing rate was the third-highest mark in baseball last season, isn’t that hard to do. Entering Tuesday night’s game against Boston, Gregorius was sitting at a more league-average 48.3% number and, as you would expect, that change in profile also translated into his chase rate, now down at 32.1% after sitting above 40% the last two seasons. However, the deeper you dig, the less it looks like much has changed.

On average, Gregorius saw 3.63 pitches per plate appearance in 2017. Even with those nine walks, so far in 2018, he’s seeing only 3.18 per PA. That regression clearly disrupts the other data. It suggests Gregorius is not someone who works deep into counts – and he’s not. Nine walks in 46 plate appearances, but just nine three-ball counts of the 46. He’s walked 100% of the time a pitcher gets to 3-0, 3-1, or 3-2. This is the definition of small-sample-size madness.

It’s not like this is necessarily a negative from a fantasy perspective, though. Considering the lineup, the ballpark, and Gregorius’ recent form, I don’t mind him being a little swing happy. There’s a time and a place for walks and that place is most certainly not Yankee Stadium.

Francisco Lindor’s .023 Isolated Power

To be fair to Lindor, it’s really not as if any Cleveland batter has been tearing the cover off the ball to begin 2018. The Indians have only 31 runs to their credit through 11 low-scoring games. Still, Lindor’s struggles have been a little more high profile than the rest coming off a season that saw then 23-year-old hit a by far career-high 33 home runs. This season, through 49 plate appearances, Lindor has a single extra-base hit – a double off Ian Kennedy. That’s pretty rough.

The first place your mind began to wander when told of Lindor’s power outage is the exact right place to start looking: his fly ball rate. You’ll remember that much of the young shortstop’s first-half storyline in 2017 revolved around his sudden reliance on the fly ball and the home run uptick that came with it. In 109 April plate appearances, Lindor had a 45.0% fly ball rate. He also had seven home runs, 16 extra-base hits, and a .330 ISO. This year, his fly ball rate is sitting at 32.3%. His groundball rate is at 41.9% – not quite hovering around 50% as it had prior to 2017, but a whole lot closer to that version of himself than you’d want him to be.

Granted, as is the thesis of this article, it’s too early to already call Lindor’s batted ball profile from last season an aberration. However, you’ll also remember that unlike your Donaldsons, Alonsos, and Carpenters – Lindor denied trying to hit more fly balls last season despite the seemingly league-wide subscription to the theory of launch angle. Maybe his early trouble this season will make him feel differently. Maybe he’s not seeing the ball well. Maybe its just really freakin’ cold in Cleveland.

Whatever the case, this has been far from the ideal start to Francisco Lindor’s year.


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