Friday, June 15, 2012

Where Small Sample Sizes DO Matter

Any fantasy/Rotisserie analyst worth his salt has probably cautioned his readers about reading too much into small sample sizes. "It's just a bad week/two weeks/month,” we tell the nervous nellies who read our web sites. "Calm down. Albert Pujols will bounce back and have a solid season," we all told our readers with knee-jerk precision back in April.

This old chestnut has been so ingrained in our collective consciousness that almost no one needs to be reminded. I doubt anyone in a serious Rotisserie league ever seriously considered trading Pujols in April for anything less than his sticker price at the auction. Privately, we all might have worried about Pujols having a terrible year, but we weren't going to admit it to our league mates.

There is one specific area of our roster, though, where we should be looking at small sample sizes very carefully: in our closers.

This has nothing to do with how good or bad a relief pitcher actually is. As we all know, the save is one of the worst statistics in baseball in terms of measuring the value of a player; I won't rehash all of the arguments against saves here. But since managers manage to the stat, there is far more emphasis placed on one or two bad outings than on a bad stretch of 8-10 at bats from a slumping hitter or 10-15 bad innings from a slumping starting pitcher. Games aren't always won or lost in the ninth inning, but games that are lost in the ninth inning magnify the loss by about a million.

John Axford is about to lose his job. I don't know this for sure, but I can see it in the numbers.

John Axford Last 14 Days: 4 1/3 IP, 6.23 K/9, 10.38 BB/9, 2.08 HR/9, 12.46 ERA, 7.46 xFIP
Francisco Rodriguez Last 14: 6 IP, 7.5 K/9, 0 BB/9, 1.5 HR/9, 4.50 ERA, 3.31 xFIP

Yes, Axford's ERA over the last two weeks is awful. But the two things that managers absolutely cannot stand from their closers are walking the park and gopheritis. If a closer has zip in the way of command and starts giving up long balls, that's a combination for a trip to the back of the bullpen to work out some kinks in one's delivery, or whatever euphemistic nonsense they're saying these days when a closer loses his job.

I do believe that K/9 is an important metric...particularly for us when it comes to evaluating which closers to add to our teams and which ones to leave for our opponents at our drafts/auctions. But in the short term, it's not relevant to a manager that his closer is only striking out 4.5 batters per nine if the closer is getting the job done. Jim Johnson might be a roller coaster ride every time a hitter makes contact, but he's keeping his ERA low and getting the saves. A closer with a 10-for-10-conversion rate isn't going to lose his job under any circumstances.

So keep an eye on a closer's BB/9 and HR/9 in the short term. If a closer can't keep these metrics under control, he's going to his job at some point...even if his numbers over the full season are otherwise OK.

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