When to Cut Bait on Early Underperformers (Fantasy Baseball)
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It’s mid-May. The sun is shining, spring is here, and things are good. Well, except for your 2018 and 2019 Matt Carpenter shares. He is struggling out of the gate, hitting .202/.328/.356 and .155/.305/.274 in March/April of 2019 and 2018, respectively. We know that he ended up being an MVP candidate in 2018, but then essentially halved his counting stats from that season in 2019. Of course, the public consensus was to cut Carpenter in 2018 but hold him in 2019 — both the wrong answers.
How do we avoid holding players for too long? And how do we avoid dropping someone who has underperformed to date before a turnaround?
Let’s get this out of the way now: You shouldn’t drop anyone that you drafted in the first 20 rounds until May, at the earliest. I do my best to wait until Memorial Day weekend to do a full reassessment of my roster. Players underperform for a variety of reasons — playing through injuries, slumps, or a change in a team’s strategy. Oftentimes, the reason is luck, and we can expect at least some regression to the mean. It would be foolish to drop someone when most stats have not yet stabilized.
Hidden Injuries and Slumps
Start identifying potential reasons for hidden injuries and slumps through looking at hitters’ exit velocities and pitchers’ fastball velocities. For example, Carlos Correa’s injury back in 2016 could have been foreseen by looking at his downward exit velocity trend. We can also group barrel rates in this category. Derek Carty of THE BAT has a great piece on determining when sabermetrics stabilize. Exit velocity stabilizes 20% into the season, and with barrel rates being more predictive, we can also use them to look at early-season trends.
Carpenter’s average April exit velocities in both 2019 and 2018 were similar to his prior trends, so this likely wouldn’t have indicated a bad year ahead. However, his barrel rates reflect how the rest of his year went:
|Through April||Barrel %|
This three-year low in barrels through April would have been a clear red flag that he was in for a bad 2019. Waiting for the metrics to stabilize, his lower 2019 May exit velocity and continued lower barrel rates relative to May 2018 gave additional confidence in dropping or trading him.
Strikeout rate is also a good measure to use, and it stabilizes even quicker than exit velocity. However, Carpenter’s strikeout rate bounced around between 2017 and 2019, so that would have led me to look at the metrics mentioned above. Other plate-discipline metrics to dive deep into include O-Swing%, swinging-strike rate, and contact percentage, all of which can be found on FanGraphs. While these metrics do not stabilize as quickly as exit velocity, you’ll know there may be an issue if they take a drastic change for the worse compared to that player’s typical rates.
Main pitcher trends to look at include fastball velocity, including max velocity. If a pitcher’s velocity is down, this indicates the possibility of an injury. If they’re not injured, this player will likely be ineffective going forward. Data, and general intuition, shows that the lower the velocity, the less effective a pitcher is. Other key indicators are strikeout rate, walk rate, and change in pitch repertoire. A pitcher may be changing his pitch usage based on organizational strategy or a personal approach, and it may not be working for him (like Trevor Bauer in 2019).
FanGraphs also has a great piece on understanding when certain stats stabilize. Pair this with THE BAT’s article to understand when to expect a player’s underperformance to sustain in the long run. You don’t want to cut someone prematurely based on a couple of key metrics that take a long time to stabilize, like home run rate for batters or HR/FB rate for pitchers. Here is just a sample of well, the sample sizes:
|Type||Metric||Time to Stabilize|
|Hitter||Strikeout rate||60 plate appearances|
|Hitter||Walk rate||120 PAs|
|Hitter||Isolated Slugging||160 at-bats|
|Pitcher||Strikeout rate||60 batters faced|
|Pitcher||Walk rate||170 BF|
|Pitcher||GB/FB rates||70 balls in play|
As much as you try to be risk-averse in your draft, some of your players will no doubt get injured. Some will go on the shelf for two weeks, and others will be injured for months. Most fantasy leagues have just one or two IL spots (you should make a case to have more in your league, if you haven’t already), so you’ll have to pick and choose which players to keep on the IL. If you can clearly link a decrease in performance from said injury (such as diminished velocity from a pitcher with arm trouble), it makes sense to drop that player if no IL spots are available. That injury will likely be severe or have long-lasting effects on the pitcher once he comes off the IL, if the injury is not taken care of properly. The general approach I take is to add a week or two onto all injuries (especially early in the season), and I generally hang on to the guys I drafted earlier if forced to make that decision.
Reduced playing time is likely to be more of a factor with players drafted in the late rounds. The earlier you drafted that player, the longer the leash. You don’t want to give up crucial draft capital too early. For example, if your fifth outfielder — whom you were counting on to play in a full-time role — is now getting platooned against lefties, you probably want to drop that player. If that’s your third outfielder, who has more upside than the fifth outfielder, you want to hold him a bit longer. Similarly, if your SP6 is heading to the bullpen or minors, you should obviously drop him.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach, as every player and situation is unique. However, knowing which metrics to spend time on will help you understand who to keep versus who to drop. In terms of reduced playing time and other situational changes, FantasyPros has you covered with its News Desk.