Luck steps up to the plate

ON FANTASY SPORTS

averages aren't whole story

January 04, 2007|By CHILDS WALKER

In the spirit of renewal, I'm ready to leave football behind and start singing to the seamheads.

For many, this might seem a little early in the year to start talking baseball. We're still almost two months from pitchers and catchers reporting and three from the first meaningful pitch of 2007. But January is as good a time as any to lay the groundwork for a great draft. By mid-March, you want to know this stuff so well that it stands ready for instant recall, like your spouse's birthday or your voice-mail pass code.

In my preparations this year, I've been thinking about luck and its role in baseball performance. This is something that a lot of players get intuitively. You hear them say it all the time when explaining an unusually good or bad season: "The balls just seemed to be falling my way," or "Every time I hit it hard, it seems to be right at someone."

Early last season, Jeff Conine was stuck in a rut, and I wanted to write a brief note about it, so I asked him the reason. He half-rolled his eyes. He'd been around long enough, he said, to know the game ebbs and flows in inexplicable ways. You could hit .360 in April and, while swinging just as well, fall to .260 in May.

I used to think this was nonsense, a convenient excuse for players who didn't feel like delving into causality. But I've come to believe they're right. Often, there is no explanation for unusual performance over small samples of games (even 162 isn't that many in the course of a career).

This is an important concept in fantasy baseball because we're always trying to guess whether a career spike indicates real improvement or a fluke season.

A guy named Voros McCracken helped focus the statistical community's thinking on the matter a few years ago when he released a radical study on pitching. McCracken concluded that pitchers had control over their performance to the degree that they could make batters miss or keep them off the bases by throwing strikes. But, he discovered, they had much less control of what happened once a batter made contact.

Pedro Martinez was Pedro Martinez because he piled up strikeouts while allowing very few walks. But once a hitter managed to lay wood on his stuff, Martinez might as well have been Rodrigo Lopez. This struck many as a ludicrous notion and, in fact, subsequent studies have mitigated McCracken's conclusions to some degree.

But the general theory - that seemingly inexplicable swings in ERA might be explained by a pitcher's luck once the ball is in play - has taken a strong hold among many statistical analysts and fantasy players. It's not surprising that this new logic formed around pitching performance, which had seemed so hard to predict for so long. But what of its implications for offense?

Well, if you look at a player's record, he's usually fairly consistent in his ability to make contact and in his distribution of ground balls, fly balls and line drives. But if you look at batting average on balls in play, you'll see some unusual blips. These blips often coincide with surprisingly high or low batting averages. In other words, when a career .280 hitter is batting .330 and he says they're just falling his way, he's probably right.

Think about these concepts when making your draft list for this season. Look for the guys who had unusually high averages on balls in play last season and let others overbid on them. Mine for the players who were unlucky last season and try to accumulate them for bargain prices.

The guys at BaseballHQ.com do a great job at this sort of analysis, and a college student named Marc Normandin has been writing terrific player profiles through a similar lens at Baseballprospectus.com. But here are a few cases that have caught my eye.

Robinson Cano shocked everyone when he hit .342 and contended for a batting title last season. But Cano hit .360 on balls in play, up from .320 the previous season and .280 in the minors the year before that. Cano is a terrific young player, and some of what we've seen from him is real improvement. But he could be the same player this year and, if his luck goes from way above average to slightly below, fall from .342 to .295.

Rocco Baldelli hit .313 between the majors and minors last season but hit .360 on balls in play, up from .310 in 2004. He's a very good all-round player, but don't be surprised if he loses 20 to 30 points of average to sheer luck.

On the other side of the equation, look at recent Orioles pickup Aubrey Huff. In his peak season of 2003, his .311 average was fueled by a .310 average on balls in play. Last year, he hit .270 on balls in play and .267 overall. Huff's abilities to make contact and get the ball in the air are undiminished. So if his luck turns from not so great to good, he could hit .290 or even .300 with power.

Pat Burrell takes the same type of criticism as Huff, because he's a one-dimensional slugger whose numbers look less exciting when he's hitting .250. But Burrell's average always has risen and fallen based on his luck with balls in play. So if his .300 from last season climbs closer to his .340 from 2005, don't be shocked to see him hit .285 and drive in 120.

Eric Chavez hit .260 on balls in play last year, at least 30 points below his rate in any of the previous five seasons. Expect his average to get back to the more palatable .270 range.

Anyway, I could go on and on and probably will as we continue toward April. But for now, study those hit rates and dream of spring.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

For more on fantasy sports, go to www.baltimoresun.com/fantasy.

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