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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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