Trust the Process: The Early(ish) Bird Gets the Worm

Written by: Andrew Lowe (@ALowe710)

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I just read something about Shohei Ohtani’s pitching debut that really resounded with me. That, along with this tweet from our mothership account, inspired me to write this article.

“The less information you have…the more you have to try to evaluate by process.”

We all feel the itch to make changes early in the season, but most of you know that it’s too early in the season to panic. Pitchers take a while to ramp up their velocity, arm strength and precision. Hitters still need to work on their timing (and the frigid conditions certainly don’t help, either). Players have yet to make adjustments to how they are being attacked. Every sample is small. Give everyone some time. You need more information. In this piece, I’ll go over what you can use as early indicators to give you the edge in determining what moves to make… and when to make them.

Trust The Process is a mantra that can be applied to everything you do in fantasy baseball. You did the preseason research, or you at least gathered the opinions of people who did that research, and then formed your own opinions based on that research. Do you trust your ability to read the numbers, gather recent info, and have an opinion? Yes? Yes. Yes! You do this in other aspects of your life. So trust the work that you already put in.

But when is it time to panic? When should you make big changes? It depends on the player as well as what the concern is, but I usually wait at least a month before really worrying. This could change based on other factors like injury, playing time, or bad “peripherals,” but I trust my analysis. I tend to wait at least one month before dropping anyone who is surprisingly bad. While I still change my lineup throughout that month, after just a couple of weeks, I will consider who is cold/hot or has good/bad matchups. Most of our Prospects 365 readership plays in keeper or dynasty leagues. I make that point because in those leagues, we get to “know” our players through the years, and we tend to have a better understanding on typical peripherals as well as players who are notoriously streaky (looking at you, Justin Upton).

This is not going to sound quite so Process-y, but “knowing” your players is just a gut feeling syncing with your players. You start to understand in which situations your players usually succeed and the longer you keep a player, the quicker you understand this about them. Those of us who have rostered Dan Haren, Adam LaRoche or Kevin Gausman probably know what I am talking about: Each was/is notorious for second half surges. Meanwhile, there are other splits to consider: handedness, ballpark, weather, or home/road. But we can also go deeper. Consider batted-ball types and pitch types. Is your hitter one who bites on low and away sliders facing the weirdly-angled, slider-slinging (but otherwise subpar) Andrew Triggs? What if the matchup is in Coors (or Texas)? Is your hitter left-handed, and does the opposing pitcher struggle against left-handed hitters? You have to weigh these things. In the new age of StatCast, you have new information to use like launch angle and exit velocity. I’m still not quite sure how to use it yet, but there has been some research done that indicates fly ball pitchers succeed against fly ball hitters, groundball pitchers succeed against groundball hitters, and when the matchup criss-crosses, the battle favors the hitter. Keep in mind that these days, with the juiced ball and launch angle craze, fly balls are becoming even more productive balls in play, so adjust accordingly: acquire fly ball hitters and look for early launch angle changers.

What else should you look for? How do you detect a change that will last? All of the terminology and findings are from this article on Fangraphs (if you haven’t realized it already, Trusting the Process means spending a lot of time on Fangraphs. You should be doing that anyways). To drive something home, so early in the season, the numbers are just minimums that a statistic will start to be meaningful and likely result in a change. Larger sample sizes, of course, are better. And remember that while habits are hard to change, players adjust. Just as quickly as something stabilizes, an adjustment can be made to reverse the trend. So be sure to stay up to date on players and articles to read about adjustments being made (Ray’s “high-value player” post did a good job of highlighting hitters who might benefit from a swing tweak). As I’ve said before, use all the sources you can to gather information.

Now, on to the stabilization points.

The earliest statistics to stabilize are plate discipline stats: Strikeout rate (60 PA for hitters, 70 BF for pitchers) and walk rate (120 PA for hitters, 170 BF for pitchers). Swing rates and whiff rate take even less time (based more on number of pitches seen). Things like batting average and even BABIP are not ever really reliable in one season because of how long it takes for them to stabilize (910 AB for average and 820 balls in play for BABIP). These are both much more than a hitter gets in a single season. However, power (in the form of Isolated Power) stabilizes at 160 AB for hitters, so newfound power can be detected quickly. Ground ball and fly ball rates stabilize quickly (70 balls in play for each for pitchers and 80 for each for hitters), showing batted ball trajectory changes early. Line drives, on the other hand, take a whopping 600 balls in play to stabilize. But what if we can’t wait that long? Well, there are a few other things to consider.

For pitchers, the quickest things to stabilize are velocity and new pitches, which are based on total pitches, mainly because pitchers throw dozens per game. If a pitcher is throwing a new pitch, it will be evident quickly. Same with a new velocity level (good or bad). After just 3 starts, you can consider them a new pitcher. A pitch usage of at least 10% is usually meaningful. Any rise in velocity is pretty meaningful, while any drop over 1.0 mile per hour is meaningful. Pitchers still need some time to build up arm strength, so they tend to gain velocity throughout the early portion of the regular season. However, pitch usage and velocity changes are new skills for pitchers and can change a pitcher’s entire season-outlook quickly.

For hitters, the quickest things to stabilize are exit velocity off the bat and average launch angle. Both of these can portend to more power production. But because it still takes some time to stabilize in the form of GB/FB rates and ISO, these only show the beginnings of what could come. And again, the plate discipline stats can indicate a new approach, which can affect how much contact they make and how pitchers attack them. Take a look at George Springer and Joey Gallo over the past few seasons.

In general, you want to acquire players with new skills while, at the same time, avoid players who possess deteriorating skills. Does your player have a dead arm during the regular season? Probably not a good sign, no matter how much time you give them. Their MLB team needs to give them rest. Is your player swinging at everything and missing? Give it some time, but after about 30 plate appearances, check in. Gaining new skills and making adjustments are a part of the process for both you and your players. Using these numbers as a guide will give you a leg up. Just like with your players, changing your approach to Trust The Process can lead to better results.

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Featured image courtesy of AZ Snake Pit

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