While we’re generally quick to throw out early-season performance as a matter of small sample size, doing so universally risks throwing the baby out with the bath water, to shoehorn an expression into a place it doesn’t really fit.
While small samples generally aren’t very predictive or revealing of true talent – the quickest metric to stabilize is strikeout rate, which requires about 60 plate appearances to cross the 70 percent reliability threshold – they do matter. An 0-for-20 stretch can doom a player, a 12-for-20 stretch earn him a great deal of leash with a manager. Small sample sizes have meaning for many players.
A week into the season, a handful of players are seeing far more playing time than was expected. How they are performing in these small samples could very well determine the fate of the rest of their seasons.
To classify “early playing time surprises,” I took the current leaderboards and extrapolated plate appearances to 162 team games. I then compared it with the most recent pre-season Steamer projections, which are hand-crafted by Fangraphs staff. Obviously, injuries can play a large part, but it’s still possible that one or even some of these players could run with their new roles.
Yangervis Solarte – Yankees, 19 PA, 246 wRC+
Mike Podhorzer tackled Solarte a little earlier in his look at the most added players on the fantasy scene, suggesting Solarte could wind up with 400 plate appearances as a utility man given the geriatric nature of the Yankees’ infield. Solarte doesn’t offer double-digit power or much speed at all, but the Yankees lineup should be good enough that he’ll tally runs and RBI with an above-average batting average, making him a valuable piece in deeper leagues once he’s earned his likely eligibility at two (hopefully three) positions.
Nyjer Morgan – Indians, 22 PA, 151 wRC+
Tony Plush has been gifted additional early run thanks to Michael Bourn being on the shelf, but even with the strong early performance it’s tough to see him carving out a 400-PA role. Morgan would be a fine speed play, but Bourn and Michael Brantley are fairly well-entrenched, David Murphy already has the friendly side of a platoon and Ryan Raburn needs at bats, too.
Juan Lagares – Mets, 24 PA, 213 wRC+
Lagares’ bat doesn’t really matter as much as the bat of Eric Young does. Lagares has a major defensive edge, so if Young – who has a -19 wRC+ in 21 turns up – fails to provide on-base and baserunning value, Lagares will be the man left standing when Chris Young returns from injury. Unfortunately, he profiles as a risky bet to even go 10-15 HR-SB, so the fantasy upside is low.
Charlie Blackmon – Rockies, 25 PA, 284 wRC+
The Rockies have Carlos Gonzalez in one outfield spot and Michael Cuddyer in another, with four other outfielders on the roster fighting for a spot until further notice. Cuddyer playing first when Justin Morneau sits opens up appreciable playing time for a fourth outfielder, but it’s the centerfield job that is the real prize. Blackmon appears the early winner, raking through seven games and limiting Brandon Barnes, Drew Stubbs and Corey Dickerson – each of whom would have value in the role – to settle for scraps. Those optimistic about Blackmon would suggest a 12-15 profile and while I like Dickerson better, I’ve made the Blackmon add.
Emilio Bonifacio – Cubs, 31 PA, 223 wRC+
Don’t fall for this again. Just don’t. I know, a .548 OBP and four steals early, and it looks like he’s set for run at second, short and center as needed, but we’ve been here before. In April of 2009, Bonifacio opened the season with four steals and a home run in the opening week, going 14-of-24 at the dish, people ran to add him, and he finished with a .252 average and 17 steals from that week forward. He has one season with a wRC+ above 79 or an average above .261. If you’re desperate for steals, sure, ride the hot hand, but don’t expect it to keep up for long.
Marcus Semien – White Sox, 30 PA, 31 wRC+
Semien got the opportunity that some of us were hoping for thanks to a Gordon Beckham injury, but he’s stumbled out of the gate. It doesn’t mean he can’t be a quality player or contributor, but it could definitely give Robin Ventura less incentive to make room in the lineup for him once everyone returns to health.
Dee Gordon – Dodgers, 27 PA, 148 wRC+
Go add him, he’s worth it. Similar to Bonifacio but with even greater speed, Gordon finally flashed some plate discipline in 2013 (at Triple-A and in a short Major League stint), leaving room for optimism about him moving forward. He’s the everyday second baseman until he’s not, and he’ll steal 40 bags, easy, if he holds on to the job.
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