Prioritizing Early Season Waiver Claims Using Limited Samples

The start of the fantasy baseball season is the best time of year. With the culmination of months of research and draft preparation and weeks of anticipation after you’ve assembled your team, it’s finally time to enjoy the fruits of your labor (hopefully). However, the champion is not crowned on draft day, and there is still a great deal of work to be done managing your roster during the season, which in turn makes the start of the fantasy baseball season also the most challenging time of year. As you begin scouring the waiver wire to address your team’s weaknesses and needs, it’s impossible to tell the performances that are real from those that are the result of random variance, as the players have yet to accumulate a meaningful sample of at-bats. However, while we can’t rely on early-season statistics to forecast future performance, we can certainly attempt to improve our odds of hitting on a flyer by prioritizing our targets based on the limited information that we have. After all, when given the choice between a player who hasn’t done anything to support his results and one who has, I’ll always choose the player who has, regardless of the sample size. It may not last, but it’s better than taking a shot in the dark since most of us can’t afford to wait a month or two for statistics to stabilize.

When searching for hitters on the waiver wire, I tend to focus on four numbers: line drive, walk, strikeout, and hard contact rates. Each of these values directly correlate to a component of a batter’s triple slash line, which provides us with a solid estimation of fantasy value regardless of the scoring format. Line drives result in the greatest number of hits among all batted ball types, and have a strong correlation to in-season BABIP. A strong BABIP alone does not guarantee a high batting average, as it does not reflect how many balls a batter puts in play, only the percentage of those batted balls that result in hits (see Kris Bryant).  Therefore, we’ll want to identify players who put plenty of balls in play by limiting their strike-outs. Next, we’ll want to find players who demonstrate the ability to get on base when they are not getting hits, which will increase their number of run-scoring and stolen base opportunities. Finally, we’ll want to identify players who hit the ball with authority, as hard contact rate is an excellent measure of a player’s power potential, and has a strong correlation with slugging percentage.

Using the data from the first week of the season, we’ll filter our results for players who meet each of our chosen thresholds for line drive, walk, strikeout, and hard contact rates.  Since we do not yet have a stable baseline for the 2016 season, we’ll use the 2015 league averages for each of these rates as our thresholds. Next, we’ll limit our results to those players who are likely to be available on our waiver wire by eliminating any player who is owned in more than 60 percent of CBS leagues.

At this point you may be wondering why we would use these skill-based metrics that correlate to triple slash components, as opposed to just looking at batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage of free agents. As you’ll see, there are a number of players that we will identify whose early-season outcomes do not match the skills that they have demonstrated over the first week of the season, which will give us an opportunity to acquire them at a discounted price.

Each of the players below has exceeded the 2015 league averages for line drive, walk, and hard contact rates, and struck-out in fewer than 21% of at-bats during the 2016 season.  CBS ownerships percentages are displayed in parenthesis.

Yangervis Solarte (53%)

I wrote the following about Solarte’s increased aggressiveness last year in our third base rankings, and so far this season he’s pulling the ball even more often than he did last season while laying off of pitches outside of the zone.  The result is an impressive combination of quality contact and power. He’s still in his prime, so his improvements in the early-going may be another step forward in his development.

Brock Holt (52%)

Holt is off to a blistering start, batting .412/.444/.812 to open the 2016 season. He has always had strong plate discipline and line drive rates, but he has never posted even league-average hard contact rates, which makes this performance look a little suspect. Still, he’s only 27, so if he can get some more balls in the air, it’s not out of the question that he could see a sustained spike in homerun production. Even if he doesn’t maintain the power skills, he provides solid production in the rest of the hitting categories and has eligibility across the diamond. At a minimum, he’s a solid bench piece and worth a claim.

Domingo Sanatana (41%)

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Domingo Santana, who has stumbled out of the gate. However, his disappointing surface stats provide an opportunity for owners to acquire him at a discounted price. His .200/.304/.250 triple slash line should save you a few FAAB dollars, but his underlying numbers tell a different story. Not only is Santana making above-average hard contact, he has limited his soft contact to 6.3 percent. His flyball rate is well below his career average, so some regression to the mean will improve the power numbers. To top it all off, he’s walking almost as often as he is striking out, and his swinging strike rate is at a career low through 23 plate appearances.

Kevin Kiermaier (37%)

Kiermaier is almost a carbon copy of Santana in both underlying skills and surface stats through the first week of the season, except he’s making soft contact on a greater percentage of balls in play. Mostly known for his exceptional defense, he has shown some glimpses of offensive prowess in the past, and at 25, he could post another double-digit home run and steal season again in 2016. 

Jake Lamb (36%)

Lamb is one of my personal sleepers, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the amount of playing time he’s received over the first week of the season.  The inclusion of Brandon Drury on the Diamondbacks bench made me skeptical that we would get a fair shot to be an everyday player, but so far he’s helped his cause, even if he is only batting .222 through 21 plate appearances.  His excellent line-drive and hard-contact rates have carried over from last season, and he has improved his plate discipline in the early going by cutting his strikeout rate to 14 percent. As long as he doesn’t end up in a straight platoon, he could prove to be a valuable piece even in shallower mixed leagues. 

Joe Mauer (28%)

We won’t know if this mini-resurgence is the product of finally shaking the concussion issues that have plagued him for the past few seasons, or just the result of only having 22 plate appearances on his odometer so far this year. Either way, he’s looked like the old Mauer, and all of the underlying numbers support the .294/.409/.471 triple slash line. Health will always be the question, and on the verge of his 33rd birthday it will likely remain a concern moving forward, but it looks like there is some profit potential here in the interim. 

Nick Markakis (26%)

A lot of analysts blamed the 2015 power outage on a neck injury that required surgery prior to the start of that season, and the early rebound in his underlying skills this year certainly lends credence to the narrative. He has always demonstrated excellent plate discipline, but the line-drive and hard-contact rates are more in line with his Baltimore days, when he regularly contributed a useful average and double-digit home runs. He’s 32, so there may be something left in the tank.

Jose Iglesias (17%)

His groundball-heavy tilt and all-fields approach has always made Iglesias a threat to bat .300, but through 18 plate appearances this year he has turned all of those ground balls into line drives while hitting the ball with greater authority. He has also taken a couple walks to help boost his on-base percentage. While he got off to a similarly quick start last season, he has never sustained these skills in the past, largely due to injury, so it’s unclear if this is a sign of actual growth for the 26-year-old.

Angel Pagan (15%)

Pagan’s inability to stay on the field has limited his value throughout his major league career, and at 34, I don’t expect 2016 to be any different. His hard contact rate currently sits at an astounding 50 percent, and considering his career rate is half of that, this looks like a total fluke. He has demonstrated solid plate skills and line drive rates in the past, so he could still provide a useful batting average and on-base percentage.  Just don’t expect too much in the power department.

Nick Ahmed (9%)

Before writing off Nick Ahmed’s early season performance as a fluke, we should note that he has exhibited some changes in his approach.  His swinging-strike and hard-contact rates have spiked, while his overall contact rate continues to tumble. Is this an indication that he is making an effort to hit the ball with greater authority while sacrificing some of the contact skills? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, it shouldn’t cost you much to take a flyer on him. 

Adeiny Hechavarria (8%)

Hechavarria is another shortstop off to a quick start, except he hasn’t sacrificed any contact in order to mash the ball. In fact, he has cut his strikeout rate in half over the first week of the season. He hit a career-high five homeruns last season while batting .281, so there is nothing in his past that points to an impending breakout.  Still, if you need some middle infield depth, he may be worth a flyer.

As members of the fantasy baseball community, we are regularly warned of the dangers of drawing conclusions based on small sample sizes. While it may feel counterintuitive to use a week’s worth of data to prioritize your waiver wire claims, the goal of this exercise is not to validate early season performances, but instead to identify the players who have demonstrated the skills needed to sustain their production or reverse their poor fortune. When approaching the data in this context, it can be incredibly useful for sorting through a sea of free agent options. At the end of the month, we’ll revisit this list to evaluate the effectiveness of our method for prioritizing waiver wire claims.

The Author

Eric Erhardt

Eric Erhardt

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