With Opening Day getting underway, I wanted to have some fun and look back at the last four full seasons (2016-2019) to see who are some guys that historically get out to hot starts. To define hot starts, I looked at data from April-May in 2016-2019 and compared that to the players’ overall averages from the entire 2016-2019 seasons, all data pulled from Fangraphs. I applied a minimum of 300 plate appearances across the April-May 2016-2019 data to avoid getting someone who had one hot spring in 2019. Then I compared players’ OPS, wOBA, and wRC+ in just those April & May months to their overall total averages in those years to get a sense of who performs noticeably better than average early on. Even though these three statistics can generally overlap, I wanted to use all three to be sure that these guys were noticeably above average when it comes to on-base and run creation skills, which generally matter for fantasy baseball. What I was left with were 11 fantasy-relevant hitters for the 2021 season who tend to perform better earlier in the season.
I don’t know exactly why these guys are better spring than summer performers. Maybe they like the brisk air and hate the heat, maybe they have better offseason training regiments that have them feeling mid-season form from Day One, I don’t know. All I wanted to know is the who. Now, this doesn’t mean drop everything and go trade for Miguel Sano now, nor does it mean you have to sell Aaron Judge on 1 June, but if you have one of these guys on your teams and you’re debating who to start, maybe consider this guy for the first few matchup periods.
For ease of viewing, I’ve just displayed their OPS numbers below, but just know they also over-perform when it comes to wOBA and wRC+. But here you have it, the 11 early bloomers:
The three largest outperformers in terms of OPS are Avisail Garcia, Aaron Judge, and Eduardo Escobar, who have an OPS of 100 points or more in April and May versus their total season averages. Garcia is probably a deeper leagues only guy, projecting to play in about half the games this year for the Brewers, per Roster Resource and Depth Charts on Fangraphs, so let’s focus on Judge and Escobar for a deeper dive.
2019 Aaron Judge was not even in the dataset, as his 89 plate appearances through 5/31/19 didn’t qualify. However, if that Judge was included, his .925 OPS through 5/31 also outpaces his entire 2019 OPS of .921. Since 2017, Judge has hit 35% of his home runs in April and May, despite these months generally only making up 29% of the total regular season. A lot of this could also be attributed to the fact the early-season schedule is generally games against teams in the division before interleague play starts, so this April and May Judge will see a lot of the Orioles, Rays, and Blue Jays. I think most baseball fans know the Orioles aren’t exactly the best team especially when it comes to pitching. People think good pitching when they think of the Rays, but after losing Snell and Morton, their rotation after Glasnow might not be that strong. The Blue Jays have Ryu at the top and Robbie Ray after that, but their back-end rotation might not be that strong either. Plus playing games in Yankee Stadium, Camden Yards, and in South Florida humidity early on bode well for Judge. Judge is also an injury-plagued guy, only playing in 73% of games since 2017. It stands to reason that earlier in the season when he’s fully healthy Judge is just feeling good, then later in the year as injuries start to nag him his production slows down a bit.
It’s almost clockwork, look for the Yankees to tweet out about Judge’s hot start come mid to late May of this year.
When you look at Eduardo Escobar’s total OPS from 2016-2019, 0.775 isn’t really all that great. But, if you isolate just the April & May months’ OPS of .891, that becomes pretty attractive. 2019 was an especially hard drop-off for Escobar, where he started off with a 0.955 OPS through May, then the rest of the year from June on had an OPS of .784.
In fantasy baseball, you don’t want to make generalizations based on small samples, but I think here there is a large enough sample size to at least keep your eye on it. It’s harder to try to analyze why this trend happens for Escobar than it was for Judge, but I’m not dismissing it. Escobar has missed some time, but not nearly as much as Judge since 2017 and he’s not labeled as injury-prone like Judge is. I do think this is a much more important trend than Judge’s drop-off, as Aaron Judge is a no-brainer must-start guy for almost every league type, so long as he’s healthy. Escobar tends to be a fringe starter depending on how deep your league is. If we see Eduardo Escobar get off to another hot start this year for the Diamondbacks, I might try to sell high on him, especially as this is his age 32 season and we mostly know who he is at this point, which is around a .260/.310/.430 slash line.
Doing the same Twitter exercise for Escobar, looking back at people’s sentiment of him during his hot starts:
Sounds like Mike Petriello was at least aware of an impending drop-off.
Make sure you don’t miss the excellent podcast with John in conversation with the legendary Jeff Passan.