MASTER NOTES: Notes From Week 1

Dontcha just love the first week of a fantasy baseball season?

I know all the fantasy experts and analysts out there will warn you not to read too much into the first seven days of action—or, this year, the first four days of action. Heck, I write and talk about fantasy baseball all the time (if you don’t believe me, ask Mrs. MasterNotes) and I’ll add my voice to those offering that advice: Don't overreact to Week One!

But like many of those same analysts and experts, I found myself following the first bit of action very closely. Part of it was sound fantasy practice—trying to see if there are any players who might not be getting expected playing time, or who are getting playing time that wasn’t expected, or whose roles are shifting.

But another part of the interest for me is the dizzying roller-coaster action in the fantasy standings. For example, I started Sunday languishing in 10th spot in Tout-AL, and bobbed back and forth between 10th and eighth. I was back in tenth with 60.5 points when Justin Smoak, in a game I was watching on TV, hit a grand slam, his second homer of the day. I was curious-slash-excited, so I went and checked my trusty tablet to see what the effect was of that one swing of the bat.

I had gained 10 points! I was now in third!

All right, it’s not that important when there are 176 more days in the season. A lot is going to happen between now and then. I was trying hard to remain sober and realistic. And besides, not too long after, as other guys' hitters hit and their pitchers pitched, I had sagged into sixth.

Then Gerrit Cole got a win and 11 strikeouts! Where’s my tablet?

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One of the pre-season “I wonders” in the analytics community this season was how pitchers would attack the new lofted swing being adopted by many hitters. One idea was that pitchers throw more high heat. The theory, of course, was that it’s harder to make solid contact on high pitches if the batter is swinging with a pronounced upward arc. This idea is supported by the fact that golfers don’t use chest-high tees.

One upshot of this high-pitching plan, if it is a plan, is that we should see upticks in hitter-negative outcomes in our PRO (Positive Relative Outcomes) metric—and we are. Infield flies (IFFB), soft-hit flies (FBSft) and medium-hit flies (FBMed) were the result in 21.9% of PAs last season, but are up to 23.9% of PAs already this season, a 10% increase. IFFB% alone is 3% of PAs this season, up almost 50% from 2% in 2017. Strikeouts continue to climb, up to 22% this year after 17% last season.

Since I was looking anyway, I checked the hitter-positive metrics. Hard-hit FB (FBHrd) are just under 9% so far, about the same as last year, when they were just over 8%. Line Drives are up to 14% from 12%. Walks are up to 10%, from 8% last season. HBP are still around 1%.

It appears that something is going on to stem the growth of HR. (And while we don’t have a full season yet, the sample size is approaching 7,000 PAs, so it ain’t small.) So far this season, the HR rate has dropped under 3% after being at or over 3% the last two years, including a record-high 3.3% last season. Of course, there are other potential factors, especially changes to the baseball itself. Some analysts have also mentioned the unusually cold weather in several cities for opening week, which affects the baseballs and the players, and possibly also the air. (Cold air is denser, which makes it either harder for the ball to slice through, or easier for the ball to float on. Science is hard.)

But more than anything, baseball is famously a “game of adjustments,” and after hitters adjusted to all the sinkers, sliders and splits by changing to a golf-like swing, it should be no surprise that the pitchers have countered by raising the tee. We could or should see some countering changes by hitters trying level their swings to take advantage of high pitches, but for now, think about notching up the successful high-ball/flyball pitchers in your leagues’ trading blocks.

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Other stuff from Week One:

Didi Gregorius had eight RBI in one game, which is more than all but five other players in MLB for the season.

Only 14 players have more than one SB, and one of them is Rhys Hoskins. His two (in 20 PA) equals his thefts for last year in more than 200 PA.

41 hitters have already played at least one game at multiple positions, and seven have played at least three positions:

Gonzalez,Marwin   1B, 2B, SS, OF
Hernandez,Kike    1B, 2B, SS, OF
Kingery,Scott     2B, 3B, OF
Spangenberg,Corey 2B, 3B, OF
Kendrick,Howie    1B, 2B, OF
Baez,Javier       1B, 2B, OF
Profar,Jurickson  2B, 3B, SS

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Did you see the Astros’ defensive alignment against Joey Gallo on Opening Day? Everyone but the pitcher, catcher and 1B was in the outfield! LF Josh Reddick was well into the left-center power alley, CF Jake Marisnick was in the right-center alley, and RF George Springer was standing with his back against the right-field fence, about 20 feet from the foul pole. Meanwhile, nominal 3B Alex Bregman was playing where the left fielder usually stands.

Rounding out the flex defense were SS Carlos Correa, on the first-base side of second and maybe five feet into the outfield, and 2B Jose Altuve, who was playing where the “Rover” plays in slow-pitch softball—midway between first and second but a good 40 feet into the outfield.

Traditionalists will no doubt start thumping the tub for some constraint in these increasingly radical defensive sets. I’m old enough to remember when the traditionalists said the 3-4 football defense was going to kill the game. It didn’t, because offensive planners wised up and developed ways to exploit the weaknesses in the new design.

Playing the percentages this way is just smart. If Joey Gallo doesn’t like it, he could go all Wee Willie Keeler on their asses and hit it where they ain’t, instead of trying to pound the ball through a tailor-made “D” and going 0-for-4. In the frenzied commentary that followed the game, someone said Gallo could have bunted for a double. That would bring an end to the highjinks.

There is a fantasy angle to all of this: If Bregman plays five games in left in this formation, shouldn’t he get eligibility as an OF?

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And finally, in an opening week dominated by HRs and newfangled defenses, how about a tip of the Master Notes cap to MIN starter Jose Berrios, who did something remarkable on opening Sunday by throwing a complete game shutout against BAL. He tossed a beautiful three-hitter with six strikeouts and one walk, and one of the hits was the infamous Chance Sisco bunt against yet another defensive shift.

Let’s debut a Master Notes Player of the Week, which will go by the proud acronym of MNPOTW, and give the first one of the 2018 season to Jose Berrios!

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.