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Reality Check: Stats don't always tell the story

Senior Fantasy Writer
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The highest-scoring hitter in Fantasy Week 4 (April 22-28) wasn't Edwin Encarnacion with his five home runs or David Ortiz with his .478 batting average. It wasn't Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton or Bryce Harper. It was a guy who hit .221 with a .665 OPS from ages 28-30, during what should have been the prime of his career.

So what's gotten into Nate McLouth?

The easy and most logical answer is that he's on an unsustainable hot streak fueled by an abnormally high BABIP and, therefore, destined to return to hitting weak grounders and pop flies the moment you put in a claim for him.

OK, fair enough. But what if logic doesn't win out here?

Perish the thought, right? With all the new metrics at our disposal, we've come so far in explaining the inexplicable and predicting the unpredictable that sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking we actually know what's going to happen.

But of course, baseball doesn't work that way. If it did, we would have seen Carlos Ruiz and A.J. Pierzynski coming. At this time last year, they were basically Nate McLouth, their hot starts dismissed as aberrations as they went untouched on the waiver wire, passed over by all the owners who "knew better."

But you know what? Those simple-minded folk who broke the boycott and added one of those two ended up happier than a pig in slop.

Now, just chill for a minute. This isn't one of those chest-thumping, testosterone-laden, down-with-the-nerds kind of rants. I enjoy Firefly way too much to get away with that. I'll be the first to admit that the Sabermetrics community has improved our understanding of the game by so much that, by now, we take it for granted. Most of what it comes up with is insightful, interesting and dare I say cool.

But the danger is in making the latest metric the end-all, be-all of player evaluation. It's evidence. Most of the time, it's better evidence than anything else at our disposal, but it's not in itself a conclusion. If it was, we'd have cracked the code by now, and everyone would have stopped playing Fantasy Baseball due to its mind-numbing predictability.

Sometimes, players get better in ways the numbers can't measure. They get stronger. They get smarter. They discover what works for them. And though, unlike McLouth, they often do it prior to age 31, I again submit to you Ruiz and Pierzynski.

One advantage McLouth has over those two is that he was actually an All-Star-caliber player earlier in his career, finishing one steal shy of back-to-back 20-20 seasons in 2008 and 2009. Nobody really knows what caused him to drop off thereafter, but it went on long enough that, sooner or later, people just accepted those earlier seasons as the aberration.

Here's a theory. After putting up impressive power numbers in 2008 and 2009, McLouth decided that he must, in fact, be a power hitter and started trying to force the issue instead of just letting the home runs come to him.

I didn't pull that idea out of thin air. Here's what he recently told the Baltimore Sun about his hot start.

Most Added Players (as of 4/30)
Player Name % change
1. Nate McLouth, OF, Orioles 57
2. Josh Donaldson, 3B, A's 37
3. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies 36
4. Kyle Kendrick, SP, Phillies 31
5. Yuniesky Betancourt, 1B, Brewers 30
6. Andrew Cashner, SP, Padres 28
7. Jose Valverde, RP, Tigers 25
8. Ted Lilly, SP, Dodgers 24
9. Kevin Gregg, RP, Cubs 22
10. Russell Martin, C, Pirates 21

"I feel like that's my job, to get on base as many times as I can," he said.

Oh really? And not to hit home runs?

"I think that I see the ball better when I just [swing] nice and easy and not try and do more than I'm capable of, so I think that's a big part of it."

If he's saying that's a big part of his hot start, then you can infer he wasn't doing it before. The batted-ball stats seem to support the idea. So far this year, McLouth's line-drive rate has dramatically cut into his fly-ball rate. He won't hit as many home runs if he keeps it up, but he'll be a much better hitter overall.

And I'd guess the transformation actually began midway through his stint with the Orioles last year. Over his final 42 games, he hit .277 with seven home runs and nine stolen bases in 166 at-bats. Combine those numbers with what he's done in 22 games this year, and he's batting .300 with eight homers and 17 steals in almost half a season's at-bats.

You say that's a hot streak? During those down years in Atlanta, he couldn't put together even a week as good as that.

So basically, you have within your reach a former All-Star performing at a 20-40 pace over the last two-fifths of a season, and you won't give him the time of day simply because he has a high BABIP? Puh-lease.

You know what? His batting average will fall. I can say with complete confidence he won't be hitting .351 at season's end, but as long he keeps hitting the ball hard and drawing walks, you'll like where his numbers end up.

You disagree? Well, even if that's not the most logical end to his 2013, what's the harm in entertaining the possibility? Let's say you have a roster spot to play with. Leonys Martin has been stuck on your bench for a while, so you swap him out for McLouth just to see where it goes. You may look like a dodo head to the rest of the league, but if that move ultimately wins you the title, who cares?

What, you think you're taking a test or something? You think if every one of your moves is rooted in Sabermetrics, you might actually end up with Kevin Towers' job when all's said and done? It's a game. Have some fun with it. Admit you don't know what's going to happen with any of these guys, and roll the dice once in a while.

Carlos Villanueva is another hot starter who I've made a point to add in some of my leagues for no other reason than because, hey, it's not so far-fetched. Yeah, he was always susceptible to the long ball as a reliever, which could make his time as a starter harrowing, but he had a 3.03 ERA and a strikeout per inning in his first 11 starts for the Blue Jays last year and has already shut down the Braves, Giants, Rangers and Reds this year. Plus, Theo Epstein believed in him enough to sign him. He knows a lot more than I do.

Brandon Crawford is probably the poster child for early-season standouts who require a leap of faith. Neither his major- nor minor-league track record hint of him being capable of these numbers, but he is entering his prime at age 26 and has kept it going for a month now. At a weak position, he could be a game-changer if he's even half of what he's been so far.

Russell Martin hasn't hit for a respectable batting average since 2008, but his best years were in the NL. He's showing similar plate discipline to what he had then, and he's hardly washed up at age 30. Who knows? Maybe he's this year's Ruiz.

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Jose Valverde and Kevin Gregg aren't the kind of relievers you'd expect to hold on to the closer role, but they'll get some slack just because their clubs have already burned through so many other options. As long as they pitch adequately, they could make a big impact in saves.

Travis Wood's hot start is probably too good to be true, but it's not entirely unprecedented. He had a 3.51 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings in 17 starts as a rookie and a 3.56 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings in his final 13 starts last year.

Now, I should probably warn everybody that taking a chance on whatever the cat drags in can be self-defeating if not done correctly. Obviously, I'm not dropping Josh Hamilton for McLouth or Asdrubal Cabrera for Crawford. If you want context for when adding such a player is warranted, you need only look at my rankings.

But generally speaking, I value these players more than most people do. As long as by adding them, I don't put myself in a position where they have to perform to make up for what I've lost, I can only benefit from everyone else's skepticism.

Try arguing that logic.

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

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Player News
Angels' Garrett Richards tosses five scoreless in minor league game
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(10:07 pm ET) Angels pitcher Garrett Richards was able to throw five scoreless innings Saturday in a Triple-A outing as a part of his rehab from left-knee surgery. Richards was happy to get back to normal activities, according to the L.A. Times.

"When you're sidelined for so long, getting back to normalcy is really comforting, it's reassuring mentally for me," Richards said.

He gave up just one hit with five strikeouts in the outing.

"When you get hurt, you initially have these questions running through your head. 'Am I going to be the same? How is this thing going to respond? Where am I going to be in my career?' But everything is really clicking. My leg is getting stronger every week."

Rehab continues to progress slow and hopes to be ready by mid-April.

"This is something we want to do right the first time," Richards said. "We want to make sure this thing is ready to go when they put me in there, when the lights are on and the games mean something. I want to be 100%."


Diamondbacks pitcher Jeremy Hellickson tosses 75 pitches Saturday
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:59 pm ET) Diamondbacks pitcher Jeremy Hellickson tossed 75 pitches Saturday after getting an extra few days of rest for arm fatigue. He feels his arm is ready to go for the start of the season, reports MLB.com.

"I thought his stuff was good," manager Chip Hale said. "Used his offspeed stuff and looked like he confused some hitters, so that's what we're looking for."

Hellickson allowed eight runs in 4 1/3 innings pitched Saturday.

"I'd like to not give up as many hits as I've given up two of the four starts anyway," said Hellickson. "The good thing is I don't think too many of them were hard hit. Curveball still has a ways to go, but I think the fastball and fastball command is pretty much where I want it. The changeup wasn't bad today. It was a little better last time, but for the most part it was down today which is all I can ask for."


Cardinals pitcher Lance Lynn surrenders two runs in outing Saturday
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:51 pm ET) Cardinals pitcher Lance Lynn gave up two runs on six hits, including a home run, in five innings of work Saturday against the Tigers.

Lynn added five strikeouts and lowered his ERA to 4.50.

"It was good to get out there and face hitters and get your pitches in and get your work done and come out of it healthy," Lynn said to MLB.com. "That's all that really matters right now. I've felt good the last two times out with everything. I'm just going to keep going that direction."


Rockies pitching prospect Jon Gray struggles in rout
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:46 pm ET) Rockies top pitching prospect Jon Gray lasted just 2/3 of an inning Saturday against the Cubs, allowing seven runs, six earned, on four hits with two strikeouts.

Gray, who's ERA is now 5.93 this spring, is happy it happened now instead of during the regular season, according to the Denver Post.

"I would rather have a bad game the first outing, but it can't always be that way," Gray said. "This was unfortunate, but it's all about how you respond. I've responded well in the past, and I think I will be able to again."

Manager Walt Weiss still doesn't put all the blame on Gray for the struggles.

"We made it tough on him, and I think he made it tough on himself with a couple of bunts back to him," Weiss said. "We didn’t play well behind him. We looked up and he was 40 pitches in, and you don't want that in the first inning. So we got him out of there."


Blue Jays pitcher Marco Estrada open to different role this season
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:35 pm ET) Blue Jays pitcher Marco Estrada knows it's unlikely he will end up with a job in the starting rotation, but he's willing to accept any role this year, reports MLB.com.

"If that's what I'm going to do, that's fine," Estrada said. "I told these guys I just want to be out there to help this team win. That's all I care about. If it's starting, awesome. If it's relieving, that's fine. I just want to help, I want to win, I want to get into the playoffs and that's all that matters."

Estrada gave up one run on five hits with three strikeouts in three innings of work Saturday against the Braves.

"I'll be honest, I felt a little weird out there, being out there again," Estrada said. "I just haven't seen a hitter in a couple of weeks almost. Timing was a little off, rushed a few pitches that I left up, a few changeups that I missed up, but other than that, I felt pretty good other than missing two weeks."

He is also feeling healthier after battling an ankle injury at the beginning of spring training.

"The ankle is much better. It's getting there, I can go out there and pitch, it's not a big deal anymore. Just every day it has been feeling much better. There's not much we can do right now. Need another day or two and it will probably be gone."


Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma allows four runs in start
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:29 pm ET) Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma gave up four earned runs on five hits in five innings of work Saturday against the Giants. Iwakuma added four strikeouts and two walks on 85 pitches.

"I felt pretty good," Iwakuma said to MLB.com. "I feel like I can enter the season right now physically. From here on, it's all mental. I feel like I have a lot of life on my fastball, and that's a good sign."


Mariners catcher Mike Zunino rips pair of home runs Saturday
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:25 pm ET) Mariners catcher Mike Zunino ripped two solo home runs Saturday against the Giants, going 2 for 3 and boasting his average to .310 in 16 spring training games.

"I was just looking for pitches early in the count to drive," said Zunino to MLB.com. "I'm feeling all right. Just continuing to try to make adjustments and seeing a little bit of improvement. It's something to keep building on."


Athletics pitcher Scott Kazmir goes five scoreless Saturday
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:16 pm ET) Athletics pitcher Scott Kazmir posted another dominant performance Saturday, going 5 1/3 scoreless innings with four strikeouts and just two hits allowed against the White Sox.

Kazmir lowered his ERA to 0.75 with just one start left before the season begins.

"Every pitch felt like I had good feel with it," Kazmir said to Bay Area News Group. "I was able to lock everything down. My changeup was the pitch today.I could get it to either corner. And if it started out down the middle it would wind up in the dirt."

Manager Bob Melvin continues to gush over Kazmir's performances.

"Everything was working, side to side," Melvin said. "He had cadence and rhythm. We wanted to get him to 80 pitches, and we did."


Yankees pitcher Dellin Betances continues to struggle on the mound
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:10 pm ET) Yankees relief pitcher Dellin Betances is still not quite right on the mound. Betances gave up another run Saturday, his fifth in seven appearances this spring.

"At the end of the day, you've got to try to prepare yourself," Betances said to MLB.com. "But I guess it's better to happen now in Spring Training where I can fix it before we leave and head up north. I'd rather it happen now than in season, when it's a little tougher there when the games count more."

Betances is working to fix his leg kick on the mound with pitching coach Larry Rothschild.

"It's not like I'm missing as bad as I once was," Betances said. "I'm around the zone. I felt way better even before I came in. I felt like my direction was better, something I'll try to work on more. As that gets better, I think I'll be able to throw more strikes and put guys away."


Braves pitcher Alex Wood surrenders three runs in outing
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:05 pm ET) Braves pitcher Alex Wood went six innings Saturday against the Blue Jays, allowing three runs on seven hits with two strikeouts.

"I thought it was good for the most part. I think I'm getting closer," Wood said to MLB.com. "I think they hit a lot of weak ground balls. Hit a couple hard, but overall I thought it was good. ... Get that next [start] done, and I'll be right where I need to be."

Manager Fredi Gonzalez liked that Wood was able to see some real game scenarios in his appearance.

"You know what was good about it today? He got himself in a couple jams," Gonzalez said. "It was nice to see that he had to get out of those jams, working through those things.

"Because sometimes you go 1-2-3, 1-2-3 every single time, it's a little different. You don't get the adrenaline, the juices flowing. Today he faced a really, really good right-handed dominant lineup and he did great."


 
 
 
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