MASTER NOTES: Elite early OPSers

I like talking about early-season numbers because they’re essentially meaningless but insanely popular. They’re fantasy baseball’s equivalent of the Kardashians.

First, a disclaimer: I know that it takes time for stats to accumulate large enough samples for us to draw inferences—to be “real,” for want of a better term. It takes about 60 PA to set a reasonably reliable batter Strikeout Rate, for instance. HR Rate is OK after about 175 PA. And so on.

You can look these up, and you probably should, if only for the fun of chortling knowingly when the color commentator on the game you’re watching makes some comment about a batter having a .360 BA over his last six games.

But I digress. Way out at the long end of the stabilization table, it takes roughly two-thirds of a season to reach reliable OBP and Slg, and, by extension, OPS. So naturally, I wanted to look at the early-season OPS numbers, likely the least reliable we have.

From past research in this area, and from just following the game, I know that .950 is a pretty high OPS for a season. Gamewide, average OPS is in the low 700s these last six or so years. And in the last 20 full seasons (1996-2015), which includes a time when players might have been “enhanced” (cough, cough), a .950 OPS put a hitter in the top 10% of all hitters in that season. Similarly, about 10% of qualifying hitters, 20 of 201 this season, as of Tuesday’s games, are at or above .950 OPS. Bryce Harper of the Nationals is atop the leaderboard at 1.295 and Jean Segura sneaks in at the bottom with a .957.

Jean Segura!?

Here’s the full list of the .950 OPS hitters as of Tuesday:

 1. Bryce Harper       1.295    11. David Ortiz        1.033
 2. Daniel Murphy      1.233    12. Michael Conforto   1.027
 3. Manny Machado      1.221    13. Jose Altuve        1.024
 4. Dexter Fowler      1.217    14. J.D. Martinez      1.010
 5. Mark Trumbo        1.143    15. Colby Rasmus       1.006
 6. Trevor Story       1.114    16. Jeremy Hazelbaker  1.006
 7. Tyler White        1.111    17. Christian Yelich   1.000
 8. Jose Bautista      1.073    18. Yoenis Cespedes     .987
 9. Carlos Gonzalez    1.043    19. Nolan Arenado       .977
10. Josh Donaldson     1.034    20. Jean Segura         .957

It’s seeing names like Segura, Daniel Murphy, Colby Rasmus and Christian Yelich on the list that made me start thinking, and by now I imagine you’re glad something did. You see, one of the best predictors of an elite OPS season is a previous elite OPS season. Segura, Murphy, and most of the guys on the current elite list have not logged any such elite seasons. Hitter OPS in any season correlates at about a 70% clip with next-season OPS, and more than half of hitters with a .950 season to their credit have multiple such seasons.

So I went and checked how many of Tuesday’s .950 OPS hitters had managed that level before. If you want to guess how many, go ahead. I’ll wait…

OK, time’s up. The answer is four: Harper (1.109 last year), Jose Bautista (four times, peak 1.056 in 2011), Carlos Gonzalez (.974 in 2010) and David Ortiz, (eight times, peak 1.066 in 2007). A fifth, Josh Donaldson, was close enough for me, with a .939 in his MVP season last year. I think any or all of these guys could maintain an OPS above .950 for the full season. Emphasis on “could.” I’d also put Nolan Arenado (19th, .977) in the “could” group.

But if I were challenged to bet on any of these hitters to finish the season still above .950, I’d put my money on Harper, and maybe Donaldson and Arenado.

Here’s how I categorize the current elite 20 as far as their odds to finish the season over .950 OPS, from the bottom up:

20. Jean Segura (.957): Sure—all he needs to do is get a little bump in his career OPS. Like 288 points. Odds: 1,000,000:1

19. Nolan Arenado (.977): Steady increase in Slg .405-.500-.575 makes current YTD Slg over .600 look feasible. The issue will be that his OBP has stayed stuck in the .320s, thanks to a low 5% walk rate the last three seasons. Absent a sudden increase in selectiveness, Arenado would need to boost the Slg up to .625 or so. The thing is, this hitter in that park could make a run at that. Odds: 25:1

18. Yoenis Cespedes (.987): Close last year at .942, in a season when he bumped his Slg by 100 points from the year before. Assuming he can hold a 600-ish Slg, that means he needs a .350 OBP. He did it in his first big-league year, but that was 10 years ago. Came close least year, though, at .337. Odds: 50:1

17. Christian Yelich (1.000): Increased his Slg over his first three years—from .396 all the way up to … .416. So he’ll need to notch a .500+ OBP. He’s there at the moment (.517), but that’s with a 45% H%. He’s a legit 37% guy, but that’s not close to enough unless he starts piling up XBH at a rate 170 points higher than ever before. Odds: 1,000,000:1

16. Colby Rasmus (1.006): An .840 and an .859 in his past, but also hundreds of strikeouts and very few walks. A hot streak to open a year always gets more notice than the same hot streak in late July. Odds: 250,000:1

15. Jeremy Hazelbaker (1.006): Hazelbaker had just a .775 OPS in eight minor-league seasons, peaking with a .998 at Triple-A Memphis last year. Hazelbaker had a gaudy 1.574 OPS in his first seven games in the majors, including two doubles, a triple and two swats, with just five whiffs. His next seven continued the torrid hitting—13-for-41 (.317) with seven XBH including three more HR. But he fanned 13 times in 47 PA (28%), and walked three (6%). Odds: 1,000,000:1

14. J.D. Martinez (1.010): A .912 in 2014 with a Slg comparable to the last few years. The big factor here is OBP, which is currently 70 points ahead of those last two fine OPS years. A lot of strikeouts for a .430 OBP. Odds: 1,000:1

13. Jose Altuve (1.024): Adding power every year til now, but still topped out last year at a .459 Slg. The lowest Slg by a .950 OPS guy in the last 20 years is .517. But Altuve's current OBP is also 70 points ahead of his previous career average. His K rate is up slightly this year, so he could be swapping contact for power, which figures to generate not enough power while costing OBP. Odds: 25,000: 1

12. Michael Conforto (1.027): Conforto started slowly, going 5-for-20 and a pedestrian .773 OPS in his first seven games. But he smoked in his next five, OPSing 1.310 with a couple of dongs, and three doubles in 19 PA. It’s also somewhat of a positive sign that Conforto logged a 1.027 OPS last year in an exciting debut with the Mets. But that was in just 45 PA, hundreds short of a definable sample. Conforto never had an OPS above .900 in three minor-league seasons, peaking at .899 in Double-A Binghampton last year. Odds: 100:1

11. David Ortiz (1.033): Three in a row (2011-13) over .950, and a .913 last year. He has to cope with the shift and being 40, but if his creaking bones hold out for 145 more games… Odds: 100:1 and I'll put a double sawbuck on it.

10. Josh Donaldson (1.034): Donaldson is at peak age 30, and his 10% walk rate and reasonable 30%-ish hit rate the last couple of years indicate his .370-ish OBP is safe. So he needs a .580 Slg to reach .950 OPS, and that seems reasonable to expect given his .667 start to the season (he needs to Slg about .570 the rest of the way to be at .580 Slg the for the whole season). Hitter’s park, too. Odds: 8:1

9. Carlos Gonzalez (1.043): CarGo is three years removed from his last .950 and has an aggregate .819 the last two years. Add in some injury risk, and while he’s still a decent fantasy asset, I’ll pass on .950 for the year. Odds: 300:1

8. Jose Bautista (1.073): Bautista is getting a little long in the tooth, and his peak OPS was five years ago. His aggregate OPS the last four years is under .900. It’s hard to bet a rebound from a 35-year-old, especially when his current lofty OPS is mostly based on a .450 OBP, which in turn is the result of a 20% walk rate and a 35% hit rate, both well over his levels of the past few years. Odds: 30:1

7. Tyler White (1.111): After ringing up a 1.668 OPS in his first seven games, including a .577 OBP and 1.091 Slg, his second seven have been sobering—for him and his fantasy owners. He hit .167, striking out 11 times in 27 PA en route to a .593 OPS. Owners in weekly-moves leagues must be biting it. On the plus side, White had a .911 career OPS in the minors, with a peak 1.026 in 57 games at Triple-A Fresno at age 24. Odds: 975,000:1, a top sell-high, especially in keeper leagues.

6. Trevor Story (1.114): The Story story has had a decent second chapter. After a 1.280 OPS and 7 HR his first seven games, his next seven were a .930 OPS with another swat, a double and two triples. It’s hard to see this going on, considering Story had an .817 career OPS in the minors, with a peak 1.017 when he was repeating High-A at age 21. It’s certainly a favorable park, but those first 14 games also had 24 Ks against three walks in 63 PA. Not surprisingly, his elevated OPS rests entirely on a near-.800 Slg, a full-season mark achieved only four times: twice by Babe Ruth and twice by Barry Bonds. Odds: 1,000,000:1 and I still wouldn’t bet a dollar.

5. Mark Trumbo (1.143): His career OPS is in the mid-700s, and his peak is a sniff over .800 in 2012. He has cut his strikeouts way down from his usual 25% so far in this early season, but he is also walking way less than his already OBP-suppressing career 6.5% rate. His .407 OBP is the result of a .380-ish BA, in turn the result of a totally unsustainable 39% Hit Rate. Odds: 500,000:1

4. Dexter Fowler (1.217): Like Trumbo, Fowler has had an OPS over .800 only once, and is typically in the mid- to high 700s. Also like Trumbo, his OPS is the result of a .508 OBP, which has a strong 18% walk rate but also a very high 48% H%. Good player, but not .950 material. Odds: 500,000:1

3. Manny Machado (1.221): Like Trumbo and Fowler, with a slightly higher (.861) previous OBP peak. A too-high H% supporting a too-high BA supporting a too-high OBP. His past Slg record shows three straight seasons in the .400s. Remember that lowest Slg for a .950 OPS? Odds: 500,000:1

2. Daniel Murphy (1.233): C’mon. Odds: 1,000,000:1

1. Bryce Harper (1.295): Harper was over 1.100 last year and is still in his growth phase at age 23. A .950 OPS looks more like a floor than a ceiling. Odds: 1:5

So that’s it. Bet on Harper, speculate on Donaldson and Arenado, fade the rest. If you’re wondering where the other elite OPS guys will come from, look at last year’s elite, and bet on Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, Mike Trout, and Miguel Cabrera.

By the unwritten rules of Master Notes, which I just made up, if you bet any of these props and win, you are morally obliged to send me a bottle of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. If you’re sending it from the U.S., on the customs label, please call it “glassware gift.” If you bet any of these props and lose, well, consider it a lesson on the foolishness of gambling!

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.