Yordan Alvarez and other need-to-have slow starters

Anyone who has played this grand game that we call fantasy baseball for any length of time has heard the dreaded phrase, “small sample size.”

The catch for us is that, while fantasy analysts constantly rail against reading too much into small samples and fantasy managers resist the temptation to trust them, our game, simply put, demands that we put stock into small samples. We make adds and drops based off one week’s worth, one series’ worth or sometimes even one day’s worth of results. We set lineups based upon what happened last scoring period — or even just yesterday.

Additionally, we set out to make trades with only one month’s worth of data in the books if only because, if we didn’t, we’d be taking the chance that our teams’ weaknesses might put us further into an inescapable hole.

This truth creates tremendous opportunity on the trade market, because often, there’s a clear difference between early stats that matter and those that don’t. Slow starters, at this specific time of year, grate on us in a way that they wouldn’t at any other place on the calendar. A .173 batting average looks a lot worse today, when it represents the hitter’s full-season number, than it might if accrued over the month of August, when it might only mean a loss of 15 points off his overall season number.

Some of these complaints are valid; others should be casually shrugged off. However, those who can tell the difference are in an advantageous position. Yes, it is prime time to aggressively seek out trades, especially for players off to a slow start who might have most aggravated their impatient managers. Today, let’s identify some of these seemingly underperforming players you should be trading for right now!

(All statistics are entering play on Tuesday.)

36018 Yordan Alvarez, OF, Houston Astros: He’s actually off to a decent start, on pace for a .275-41-104 season. Digging deeper, he’s potentially capable of much more. Alvarez’s contact quality remains as elite as they come and, among batting title-eligibles, he has the seventh-widest wOBA/Statcast expected wOBA differential in the wrong direction (75 points). That’s probably a byproduct of Houston’s tougher-than-you-realize April schedule, which included seven games against the defending champion Texas Rangers, four against the New York Yankees and three apiece against the Atlanta Braves and Toronto Blue Jays.

The Astros have all 13 games against the Oakland Athletics, all six against the Chicago White Sox, three against the Miami Marlins and two against the Colorado Rockies in Houston remaining. In other words, go get Alvarez now if you can, especially if the ask in return is anything below top-10 overall talent. Now’s your best shot, with his team also struggling mightily.

35124 Luis Castillo, SP, Seattle Mariners: He’s riding an active streak of three consecutive quality starts, steering his sluggish season back onto the tracks, but this pick as much about Castillo’s value relative to the injury-ravaged starting position as it is a slow-starter trade opportunity. Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer and Sandy Alcantara (who rank second, sixth and seventh in fantasy points since the beginning of 2021) are all on the IL. Castillo ranks 11th, and he was fifth in scoring in 2023 alone.

Thus far, Castillo’s true ERA (4.15) is nearly a run higher than his Statcast expected ERA (3.31), he’s sub-three in both xFIP (2.92) and SIERA (2.95), and he’s on pace for more than 200 IP, one of the few pitchers left in the league with a high likelihood of reaching that threshold. We project Castillo for the third-most fantasy points among pitchers the rest of the way (362, trailing only Zack Wheeler’s 383 and Corbin Burnes’ 381). Yep, that sounds about right.

Also, try to take a run at Castillo’s rotation-mate George Kirby. His control is as pinpoint as ever, and his 3.0% walk, 69.4% first-pitch strike and 55.1% zone rates are right in line with his 3.1%, 68.8% and 56.0% career numbers. However, his luck has been outrageously poor. Kirby’s 64.3% LOB rate and .337 BABIP are both bottom-11 among ERA qualifiers. Like Castillo, he’s still one of the position’s truly elite talents.

33712 Kyle Schwarber, OF, Philadelphia Phillies: A historically slow starter, Schwarber has never hit more than seven homers in any April or May in his career. On the flip side, he has hit eight-plus HR in 11 out of the 28 months in which he has played in at least half of his team’s games over the rest of the year. Taking a deeper dive into his April/May vs. rest-of-year splits:

  • 2024 stats, thus far: .386 SLG, 93.0 avgEV, 56.2 HH%, 1 HR per 16.3 AB

  • April-May, career: .416 SLG, 91.5 avgEV, 49.5 HH%, 1 HR per 17.9 AB

  • June-October, career: .524 SLG, 92.8 avgEV, 52.2 HH%, 1 HR per 12.6 AB

Schwarber is the perfect example of the guy you pass on during the draft, but then target via trade come mid-May.

38303 David Bednar, RP, Pittsburgh Pirates: To put his slow start into perspective, he has surrendered an earned run in six out of 12 total appearances so far in 2024. Last season, he allowed an earned run in only 10 games all year. Those kinds of struggles often cast doubt upon a reliever’s ability to retain the closer role — and in Bednar’s case, what he also has working against him is the perception that the Pirates (a noncontender) are unlikely to win much and therefore offer him only sporadic save chances.

In fairness to Bednar, the lat injury that cost him much of spring training perhaps set him back on his preseason ramp-up program, not to mention that he has been done in by some extreme bad luck (29.0% LOB rate and 21.4 HR/FB%, both bottom-three among qualified relievers) despite his raw stuff grading at roughly its usual levels. His Pirates, too, aren’t as bad a team as you might think, with a near-even run differential that should remain close to that level all season. That would represent a noticeable improvement upon either of Bednar’s prior two years as Pirates closer — and it should mean a competitive number of save chances.

33804 Gleyber Torres, 2B, Yankees: After seven big league seasons and now in his age-27 campaign, Torres can fairly be termed a disappointment, at least relative to the lofty expectations that surrounded him when he debuted in 2018. That said, people have a way of being exceedingly critical of struggling players on extreme-spotlight teams (the Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, etc.). In Torres’ case, the fact that he entered play on April 30 batting .228 with nary a home run and with just .035 ISO will surely bring out his critics in droves.

I am not one of them. The plate-discipline improvements Torres has shown over the past four seasons have solidly remained. His 21.4% chase rate ranks in the 86th percentile among batting title-eligibles and he has an absurdly low .208 BABIP against fastballs. This reeks of a guy who just hasn’t yet perfected his timing, and when it comes — which it will, soon — he’ll probably rattle off a lengthy, top-eight 2B hot streak.

4721302 Brandon Pfaadt, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks: When it comes to young pitchers with limited MLB experience, we tend to assume that any lengthy slump presents the danger of a demotion to the minors. In Pfaadt’s case, however, it’s more of a signal of poor fortune than skills erosion, as he has shown similarly promising signs through one month that he did over the second half (plus postseason) of 2023.

He has 4.1% walk and 76.6% first-pitch strike rates, both rating among the best in the league, his fastball/sweeper/sinker repertoire has remained plenty productive against right-handed hitters, and his changeup has taken small steps forward to provide hope of improvement in his performance against lefties over the coming weeks. What most stands out with Pfaadt is his ERA/xERA differential of more than a run and a half (4.63, 3.10). There’s correction due to his numbers in the near future.

42927 Christopher Morel, OF/3B, Chicago Cubs: Although he’s off to a forgettable start — 81 hitters have scored more than his 58 fantasy points to date — he’s still flashing well-above-average underlying metrics that continue to offer the promise of better days ahead. Per Statcast, Morel’s Barrel rate is in the 69th percentile, with his hard-hit rate in the 64th and sprint speed in the 67th, which alleviates some of the worry that he has only four home runs and one stolen base thus far.

Morel remains one of the more underrated power/speed types in the game, and continues to get regular starts in the Cubs’ cleanup spot. That said, fantasy managers are likely to be showcasing declining patience with him and that provides an opportunity for eager trade partners.

32159 Brandon Nimmo, OF, New York Mets: Nimmo is one of the unluckiest players around. Among his 75 batted balls, he had six barrels (among nine total) that wound up being harmless fly outs and another six line-drive strokes of 100-plus mph that also resulted in outs. That takes some doing! It’s no wonder, then, that Nimmo has a 91-point differential between his wOBA and expected wOBA, as well as a 93-point gap between his batting average and xBA. All of his underlying metrics remain outstanding, and remember that he was both a top-20 outfielder and top-75 overall player in terms of fantasy points in each of the past two seasons.

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