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By the Numbers: Sell-high, buy-low targets

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With less than a month of the season behind us, for the most part, it's a little early to tell which unexpected performances mean something. In spite of that, many owners -- myself included -- have been getting itchy to deal or even drop slumping players, and the collective plaintive cry of "is it too early to drop him?" can be heard rising above the din on Twitter.

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While most of the statistical oddities we are seeing in the early weeks are nothing more than artifacts of small sample sizes, there are enough owners who are already losing their faith in players they drafted -- or developing a craving for the flavor of the week -- that an opportunity exists to make a killing in the trade market. Going forward, By the Numbers will offer a short list of players who are key buy and sell targets each week, along with a few players who are worth holding onto. I will be identifying players who have been underperforming and overperforming, using some key metrics to ferret them out.

We will start this week with hitters rather than pitchers, as these everyday players have built up a larger sample of games from which to judge them. As the season moves on, we can look at a number of indicators, but right now, the most telling ones are related to hits on balls in play. Eventually, it will make sense to focus more on metrics like home run per flyball ratio, popup rates or stolen base success rate, but not everyone has hit a bunch of flyballs or popups or tried to steal a bundle of bases at this point in the season.

Using BABIP (batting average on balls in play) as our primary indicator, here are this week's top buy and sell candidates. All statistics are current through Tuesday, April 24.

Top buy candidates

Top Buy Candidates
Player BABIP Avg. Flyball Rate (%) HR
Aramis Ramirez 0.220 0.185 42.3 1
Jemile Weeks 0.215 0.203 40.3 2
Matt Holliday 0.224 0.215 35.5 4
Alexei Ramirez 0.264 0.231 32.7 1
Brennan Boesch 0.236 0.211 31.6 2

Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Brewers: Ramirez (22 percent K-rate) is striking out more than usual, but his .220 BABIP is largely to blame for his poor production. Owners probably drafted Ramirez more for his power than for his potential to hit .300, but with just one base hit on 19 ground balls, he has probably been robbed of three or four hits already. The low BABIP doesn't explain his lack of power, but with a flyball rate near his career norm, owners should expect more homers from Ramirez soon.

Jemile Weeks, 2B, Athletics: Weeks has already matched last season's home run total of two, but he has come up short on base hits and stolen bases -- the very things for which he was drafted. As a rookie, Weeks batted .333 on grounders, which is an above-average rate in general, but not necessarily so for a speedster like him. In this young season, his ground ball batting average has been cut down by two-thirds to .111. It's highly improbable that Weeks will continue to make so many ground ball outs, and meanwhile, he is making contact at a respectable 85 percent rate. Now is the perfect time to deal for him, before he regresses upward towards his mean.

Matt Holliday, OF, Cardinals: With four homers, Holliday is already showing his power, but a .215 batting average has some owners wondering what's wrong. Holliday's 21 percent strikeout rate is identical to last year's, when he hit .296, so his slump is entirely BABIP-related. With normal line drive and popup rates, his .224 BABIP can only be classified as a small-sample fluke. Now is your chance to get a legitimate No. 1 Fantasy OF as a potential bargain.

Alexei Ramirez, SS, White Sox: I admit that I was close to cutting ties with Ramirez in one of my leagues this week, but after taking a closer look at his stats, I'm glad I didn't. Ramirez's 11 Ks in 65 at-bats is a little worse than his norm, but not alarmingly so. He has yet to record a base hit on a flyball in play, while typically, he would have three of them by now. Give Ramirez a pair of extra doubles and a single, and he would have a .277 average with a 25-doubles pace. In other words, you'd have something that looked like typical Ramirez-like numbers.

Brennan Boesch, OF, Tigers: Boesch's skill stats from his sophomore season were very similar to those from his rookie year, and aside from a dearth of walks, the same can be said for his third season so far. He has experienced a slight dip in his flyball rate, but that hasn't stopped him from hitting a pair of homers. However, those are his only extra-base hits, and improbably, he is just 4 for 9 on line drives. It's easy to think that he could have three doubles by now, and that small difference would propel Boesch towards his normal numbers. At this early stage of the season, a handful of bad bounces or stellar defensive plays really can make the difference between a normal start and a slump.

Top sell candidates

Top Sell Candidates
Player BABIP Avg. Flyball Rate (%) HR
Adam Dunn 0.367 0.246 47.1 4
Jose Altuve 0.404 0.344 37.0 1
Jordan Schafer 0.400 0.273 34.9 2
Freddie Freeman 0.356 0.275 48.0 3
Edwin Encarnacion 0.302 0.286 51.7 4

Adam Dunn, 1B/DH, White Sox: Is Dunn's renewed home run power for real? Given what he has done over the course of his career, there is little reason to doubt it. It's his other base hits that may be a little misleading. Half of Dunn's career hits have been for extra bases, and typically, he's hitting either homers or singles. Already, Dunn has hit six doubles, including four on liners. Even in good years, Dunn has not been a lock for 30 doubles, so unless he can reverse a three-year trend of a surging strikeout rate, look for fewer doubles and more outs in Dunn's future.

Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros: There is a lot to like about the way Altuve has started this season, including longer plate appearances, more walks and increased power. However, even the speediest hitters would have a hard time replicating Altuve's 13 for 28 (.464) stretch on ground balls. He also has six extra-base hits on flyballs, and considering that he has hit only 20 flies so far, it seems improbable that he will keep up his doubles (4) and triples (2) pace. He is good enough to start in standard mixed leagues, but it still might be worth trading Altuve, if there are owners in your leagues who are willing to pay for the production he has provided up to this point.

Jordan Schafer, OF, Astros: Owners have been rushing to add Schafer over the last two weeks, as he now has six steals and a .368 on-base percentage. Overlooked is his Mark Reynolds-like 36 percent strikeout rate, as he has compensated for it with a .400 BABIP. Schafer could cut back on his Ks, but it's even more likely that he will cease to get so many hits on balls in play. Even though Schafer could use his speed to collect infield hits, he has been a mediocre BABIP hitter over his years in the majors and in Triple-A. As the hits dry up, so will his steals and high OBP.

Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves: Freeman could easily maintain or even improve on his .275 batting average by striking out less often, but I'm suspicious of his early power display. His 48 percent flyball rate is far higher than anything he has produced previously on any level, but without it, he probably wouldn't have a .493 slugging percentage. Something has to give here: either Freeman will sustain his high flyball rate while taking a hit to his BABIP, or he'll hit more grounders and slow down his extra-base hit pace.

Edwin Encarnacion, 1B/3B, Blue Jays: Encarnacion is in the same boat as Freeman. His power has been enhanced by lofting roughly half of his hit balls as flies, but he has yet to pay the price in the form of a lower batting average. At least Freeman has a history of getting hits on balls in play, whereas Encarnacion's current BABIP is his highest for a season since 2007. He is at risk of seeing both his power and batting average erode over the coming weeks, so it's best to deal him now before that happens.

Hold these hitters

Hold These Hitters
Player BABIP Avg. Flyball Rate (%) HR
Alex Gordon 0.205 0.167 34.8 2
Aaron Hill 0.250 0.238 56.9 3
Adam Jones 0.302 0.304 39.7 5
Denard Span 0.387 0.333 14.5 0

Alex Gordon, OF, Royals: With a .205 BABIP, Gordon looks like a classic buy-low candidate, but you just might want to wait a week or two before pursuing him. Bad luck has played some role in his underwhelming start, but so have increases in his strikeout, ground ball and popup rates. With that many warning signs, something looks to be amiss with Gordon, so wait for some sign of a turnaround before taking a chance on acquiring him.

Aaron Hill, 2B, Diamondbacks: Hill's early power surge is legitimate, as it is backed by a 57 percent flyball rate, a mark that he could very well maintain. If he does, though, his .238 average could sink even lower. On the flies that don't leave the park, Hill is batting just .077, and with a popup on nearly one of every four hit balls (23 percent), he may be lucky to be hitting that well. If you're set for batting average and need power, Hill is your guy, but otherwise, he's not a good buy-low candidate right now.

Adam Jones, OF, Orioles: Think Jones can't hit for .300 with power? Before you deal him at what seems like peak value, take a closer look. His current home run per flyball ratio (17 percent) is not far from some of his prior ratios, and with a reduced strikeout rate, he is not relying on a high BABIP to increase his batting average. Even if he does begin to strike out more often, he can make up for it by reversing his current .053 flyball BABIP.

Denard Span, OF, Twins: Span has hit just .264 in each of the last two seasons, but there are reasons to think that his current .333 average won't sink into the mid-.200s. He has bolstered his average by racking up infield hits at a faster pace and hitting .222 on flyballs in play. Span has the speed to achieve the former, while he plays in a home park that is conducive to the latter. He is not the sell-high hitter that he appears to be.

Glossary
xFIP: Also known as Expected Fielding Independent Pitching. It is an estimate of what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based on factors that a pitcher can control, such as strikeouts, walks and flyballs. xFIP is a derivative of FIP, which was developed by Tom Tango.
Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
GO/AO -- Ground out-air out ratio
GB/FB -- Ground ball-fly ball ratio
Batting Average per Balls in Play (BABIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Al Melchior at @almelccbs . You can also e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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