June 10, 2013
Fast Starts and Slow Starts
Every year, in both real baseball and the fantasy version, we tell ourselves that certain players are prone to either fast starts or slow starts, as in: “Don’t worry, that player always gets off to a slow start. He’ll come around.” Or, “that guy is always en fuego in April. If you’re counting on a 40 HR, 100 RBI season from him, you’re surely going to be disappointed.”
In deeper leagues, it’s irrelevant whether a player is a hot starter or a cold starter. If you spend $20 on a slow-starting corner infielder and your alternatives in the free agent pool are Eduardo Escobar and Pedro Ciriaco, you’re not going to jettison the slow starter for these bottom-of-the-barrel options.
Mixed leagues are another story entirely. If you own a player who is traditionally a slow starter, it might behoove you to sit him in April. Along these lines, you might try to add a weaker player who is otherwise a fast starter to your roster at the end of your draft (or in the reserve phase) to gain an advantage over your opponents that don’t pay attention to this type of arcane data.
At least, that is what conventional wisdom says. What does recent history tell us?
Table 1: Fast Staring Hitters: 2009-2013
Table 1 lists every player who: a) finished in the top 10 in OPS in April among qualifiers in a single season between 2009 and 2013 and b) qualified in April at least twice. Bryce Harper was the third best hitter by OPS in April 2013, but including him on this chart isn’t instructive.
There is a lot to digest in this table, but the notion of a consistently fast-starting hitter seems to be more of a mirage than anything else. The hitters who are the most consistently strong starters happen to be the best hitters in the game. Ryan Braun, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, and Robinson Cano all are fast starters.
But, so what? The types of hitters we’re looking to find in this type of analysis are players who are middling or at best above average that consistently shine in April. For the most part these hitters are next-to-impossible to find. Paul Konerko pre-2013 is the closest thing we have to that: a very good hitter who is very good in April in some seasons and near-godly in others.
The vast majority of hitters on this table are anything but consistently fast starters; in fact, they’re all over the place. If you think Prince Fielder is a fast starter because of 2011 and 2013, you are selectively ignoring the other years on this table. David Wright is a similar example: three strong starts, one mediocre one, and one poor one. For the most part, hitters fluctuate in April. Strong starts don’t seem to be built into hitters’ DNA.
Table 2: Slow Staring Hitters: 2009-2013
While compiling the research for this article, one of my favorite discoveries of all time is that the idea that Adam LaRoche is a slow starter is a myth on the order of The Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Some years, he’s a slow starter and some years he isn’t. If someone in your mixed league isn’t drafting LaRoche late because he’s a slow starter, pounce. There is a better than 50/50 chance that this gambit will pay off.
On the whole, there are more hitters whose slow starts plague them season after season then there are fast starters who consistently come out of the gate on fire. Some of these players are fringe options like Brendan Ryan whose final offensive numbers aren’t going to be palatable in any format. However, there are a few players toward the top of this chart who aren’t very good at the beginning of the season yet ultimately do offer some value to their fantasy owners. It is fair to characterize J.J. Hardy and Alexei Ramirez as slow starters, but you do want to own them at some point during the season, even in a mixed format.
B.J. Upton might be the best example of this phenomenon. If you have owned Upton year in and year out, while his slow start this year still stung, you’ve probably been patient and have some vague memory of him doing this before. If not, you might have been more likely to ditch him in your 12-team mixer. But Upton is almost always a slow starter, and does improve as the season moves along.
Table 3: Fast Starting Pitchers: 2009-2013
Fewer pitchers qualify in April for multiple seasons, so it is harder to make definitive conclusions from Table 3. Kyle Lohse can be classified as a fast starter based on his April performances, and in the years that he qualifies Doug Fister can be put in this category as well. But because so many pitchers don’t qualify, there are a significant number of two- or three-year pitchers on this list. Is Ross Detwiler going to be a fast starter? Perhaps… but we need to see more than two years of data to be sure.
But, once again, there are a number of one-year outliers on this list. Anibal Sanchez’s 2013 isn’t in line with the previous four years. Trevor Cahill’s 2011 is the outlier, and so is Joe Saunders’ 2012. Jake Westbrook has had two strong Aprils in a row, but my guess is that this means nothing, and the fact that he is at the bottom of this table supports this notion.
Table 4: Slow Starting Pitchers: 2009-2013
If you want “evidence” that fast starts and slow starts aren’t predictable, all you need to do is look at the repeaters on Tables 3 and 4. A few pitchers appear on both lists. Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.
For the most part, the pitchers at the top of the chart haven’t been very good. Rick Porcello certainly has potential, but it’s not as if the memory of his terrible Aprils has been erased by solid numbers the rest of the way. Aaron Cook, Joe Blanton, and J.A. Happ are not pitchers that are subject to poor Aprils followed by excellent bounce-back years. These aren’t pitchers that are merely poor at the beginning of the year but rather poor performers overall. There is no tactical advantage to knowing that these guys don’t pitch well in April.
There are also some pitchers on this list who have been categorized as slow starters even though there isn’t enough data to say this is so. Mat Latos had a slow start in 2012, but didn’t throw enough innings in any prior Aprils for us to say whether this is a trend or not, and his 2013 tells a completely different story. Max Scherzer is another pitcher who is often put into the slow-starts crowd. While he has never come out of the gate strong, only his 2012 can truly be categorized as a bad April; the rest of his Aprils have merely been pedestrian.
The concept of the fast start/slow start is something that isn’t just embraced by the fantasy layperson but by many fantasy experts as well. I have been guilty of doing this also. For years, I assumed that there was something to the idea that there was a significant core of players who were slow starters and fast starters.
However, the data do not support this notion. Only a very small handful of players fall into the category of consistent or perennial fast or slow starters. In the case of the best hitters and the worst pitchers, these players aren’t fast starters who decline or slow starters who improve, but players whose “fast” or “slow” starts are consistent with what they do the rest of the season.
The mythology of slow and fast starters is strong enough that despite the evidence or the lack of evidence, players who are not truly fast or slow starters are lumped into this category. This is truer of slow starters than fast starters, as fantasy owners are always looking to avoid poor performances at any cost.
There are a handful of annual slow starters who improve as the regular season moves forward. In mixed leagues, these players can probably sit on your bench while you wait for the calendar to turn and for these players to improve.
On the whole, the slow start/fast start concept is a canard: a lazy myth embraced to explain away bad performance that is not indicative of a player’s “typical” April but rather a bad month that isn’t predictive of performance in future Aprils. It is best to ignore broad declarative statements that say, “this player is a slow starter” or “this player is a fast starter” unless you have the numbers to back it up.