Analyzing Slow Fantasy Baseball Starters
Going into 2018, Paul Goldschmidt was a consensus top-10 fantasy draft pick, boasting cross-category upside and consistency for fantasy managers looking to hit on a sure thing in the first round. He returned managers’ investments with an uninspiring start that saw him batting .208 with only seven home runs, two steals, and 19 RBIs through the end of that May.
Questions about Chase Field’s newly installed humidor were silenced as Goldschmidt destroyed opposing pitching in June, belting 10 homers to go along with 23 RBIs and a .364 batting average. His end-of-season stats were in line with most of his career averages, which was good for roto managers who escaped his early-season slump mostly unscathed (provided they didn’t sell low). The potential of facing must-win matchups early in the season led many head-to-head managers to sell low on Goldschmidt out of desperation, unwilling to rely on a positive regression to the mean for the perennial All-Star.
This case study underscores the idea that fantasy managers should want to pad their records/stats early and capitalize on the desperation of struggling teams – which may sell off top players near the trade deadline – not the other way around. By shedding light on players who historically start the season cold, we can identify hitters and pitchers fantasy managers may want to avoid relying on before June and hopefully provide insight when it comes to establishing early-season expectations.
Jorge Soler (OF/DH – KC)
Soler hit seven homers through March and April of 2019, but he also led baseball with a 37.5 K% to go along with a paltry .227 batting average and a league-average .758 OPS. He made hard contact only 33.3 percent of the time during that span, which was well below his season average of 46.7 percent. Although injuries and demotions have limited Soler’s statistical sample size, his career first- and second-half splits paint the picture of a young player who struggles to identify pitches early in the season, but tends to heat up with the weather. Despite having a whopping 431 more plate appearances during the first half of seasons throughout his career, Soler has hit 43 home runs in each half and has only five more career RBIs before the All-Star break than he does after it. These numbers are undoubtedly bolstered by a lopsided second-half surge in 2019, but still, unless you’re convinced Soler made a sustainable mechanical change at the plate last season, he’s a player I’d be wary of relying on early in the 2020 campaign.
Matt Carpenter (1B/2B/3B – STL)
Look no further than Carpenter’s career March/April splits to see he’s earned his reputation as one of baseball’s most notorious slow starters. Over the course of 193 games he’s played during baseball’s first month (March/April) of the season, Carpenter sports a .249 average and .768 OPS, which are well below his career marks of .269 and .835, respectively. In 2018, Carpenter rebounded from a terrible April and finished the season with career-highs in home runs (36) and OPS (.897), but had no such luck in 2019, which saw him post his fewest home runs (15) in a season since 2014 and the highest K% of his career. Carpenter has acknowledged his difficulty adjusting to how pitchers attack him early in the season and a steady decline in fastballs from pitchers over the years (he saw a career-low 52.6 percent of fastballs in 2019) could be a major reason for his struggles. The veteran Cardinal is still a solid player with positional versatility to boot, but I’m worried about his underwhelming output in 2019, especially given it was the year of the juiced ball.
Brian Dozier (2B – FA)
Dozier, like Carpenter and Soler, has struggled during the first month of the baseball season throughout his career. His March/April OPS over the course of his seven seasons sits at .680, well below his career mark of .768. In 2019, he batted .184 before the start of May and struck out 28.7 percent of the time, the fourth-worst rate among qualified second basemen during that span. The power/speed profile that made Dozier one of the most coveted keystones in the majors and fantasy drafts alike from 2013-2017 has seemingly disappeared over the past two seasons, which have seen him average 20 home runs and eight stolen bases while batting .225. His lack of a defined role (or team) heading into next season combined with declining overall performance and a tendency to start the year slow make Dozier a late-round flier in 2020, at best.
Chris Sale (SP – BOS)
Well-known for his September struggles, Sale has also underperformed at times, by his standards, early in the season. He boasts a career 3.22 ERA through April, which, again, would be considered excellent if not for his 2.90 cumulative career ERA. Sale strikes outs fewer batters per nine innings in March and April (9.6) than in any other month (11.1 K/9 career average) and had the worst first month (March/April) of his career in 2019, pitching a 6.30 ERA over 30 innings while allowing 2.1 HR/9. Despite his career “struggles” in March and April, it should be noted that the lefty generally settles down by May as Sale’s career first-half numbers – 2.82 ERA, 10.9 K/9 – more closely resemble the dominance we’ve come to expect from him since he entered the league in 2010.
Corey Kluber (SP – TEX)
Another ace potentially exiting his prime, Kluber has more convincingly poor early-season statistics than Sale. Through 34 career starts made in March and April, the two-time AL Cy Young Award winner holds a 3.91 ERA, his worst of any month-long stretch and well above his career 3.16 mark. Like Sale, Kluber had a horrid start to the 2019 season and carried a 5.81 ERA into May before fracturing his pitching arm on a line drive, which turned out to be a season-ending injury.
Zack Wheeler (SP – PHI)
Several teams bid highly for Wheeler’s services in free agency, accentuating the pervasive notion that executives around the league think the flame-throwing righty can reach a potential he never lived up to during his time with the Mets. Wheeler owns a 3.77 ERA in 126 career starts, but has pitched a 4.39 ERA in the first halves of seasons. The Phillies — and fantasy managers who draft him — will be looking for a hot start to the 2020 campaign, hoping that the guy who has pitched to a career 2.90 second-half ERA finds his stride in April.