Keaton It Real: Fun With Small Sample Sizes
You hear it over and over again, especially this time of year: Be wary of small sample sizes. Unfortunately, two weeks into the season, small sample sizes are literally all we have to look at and as analysts of the game, fat chance of waiting until we have statistically weighted data to start our commentary on the start to the season for players and teams. So, is there anything we can actually take from small sample sizes that are of any use? Yes, looking deeper into the tertiary stat line you can gain some insight into whether a player’s performance is actually sustainable, so let’s take a look.
Marcus Stroman, TOR, SP
Stroman is off to a hot start so far this year: through three starts he’s posting a 2.41 ERA and a career-best in K/9 at 8.68. So that raises the obvious question: will it continue? Besides the obvious–he’s healthy–what is different so far this year from last? Well, there’s actually a glaring difference. Stroman is relying on his slider at a much higher rate. Through his 18.2 innings pitched in 2019, he’s throwing his slider a whopping 40% of the time, making it his majority pitch. For the first time in his career, he is throwing a pitch more often than his sinking fastball. That’s a major difference. Along with throwing it more often, it’s also a remarkably effective pitch for him posting a 46% strikeout rate and a 40% whiff rate. Mixing up his sequencing and keeping hitters off balance with a devastating out pitch, mixed with his leg twitches messing with timing has lead to some interesting early success. Looking deeper beyond the surface stats, based on a significant change in his pitching it would seem this small sample size is an indication of sustained success.
Travis Shaw, MIL, 3B/1B
Suffice to say our good man Shaw is off to a rather slow start, currently posting a slash line of .154/.313/.231 and a career-worst K% of 33.3. Since landing in Milwaukee Shaw has been a force at the plate, limiting strikeouts and hitting for power to all fields. It’s understandable that many fantasy owners made a solid investment in the slugger coming into the season, so is there hope of a turnaround in sight? In short: yes, to me it looks that way. Shaw is posting a career-best walk rate of 16.7% and his chase percentage is 7% below his career average, showing that despite the struggles he does have a command of the strike zone… to an extent. The piece that jumps out, contributing to his high strikeout rate, is his zone contact. His zone percentage and zone swing percentage are just about lockstep with his career numbers, but he’s making less contact on pitches in the zone than he has ever before. The fact that he’s not chasing pitches and getting fooled on pitches outside the zone is a very positive sign for a turnaround, as it shows there isn’t a gap in his pitch recognition. He just needs to start hitting strikes again. Seems like something he can handle.
It’s easy to get lost in the surface numbers of small sample sizes because I have yet to see tertiary stats used in fantasy, but the point I wanted to convey with this piece is that there are other ways to go about analyzing players beside the wait-and-see approach. Not that there’s anything wrong wait-and-see; if you feel strongly about a player, then hell, back your guy. With fantasy though, we tend to form long term decisions and opinions based on small sample sizes and if you’re looking solely at the high-level fantasy stat line then, then that is what can really skew your vision on a player’s future. And reader, I think you’re better than that.