Small Sample Size

There is a reason why Major League Baseball requires a hitter to accumulate a certain number of at bats and a pitcher to throw so many innings or make appearances a fixed amount of games in order to qualify for any individual honors at the end of a season. This is because baseball is inherently a game of streaks, both hot and cold. A batter can go off for a few games or more and be on the top of the world; then without warning he enters a slump that makes you doubt why he is even on your team. Pitchers can be locked in, hitting their marks and embarrassing batters at every turn one week and the next they are getting hit all over the place or giving up free passes to almost everyone they face. The good and especially great players are able to limit these valleys in order to put together more consistent numbers across an entire year.

However, we as fans will always look at theses highs and lows under a microscope and come to conclusions that can be far from the truth. It is the danger of a small sample size that I have seen put into action on many occasions and seemingly more so this year above all others, when each game equates to almost three times fewer than it would in a full 162 game season. At times in this shortened season people have used less than 40 at bats and/or only two or three appearances to make judgements on what type of player some is, which more often than not will come back to bite them in the end. It just isn’t enough time to make an valid argument for or against anyone.

Toward the beginning of the Pirates season there were two hitters that were dubbed as breaking out. Both Colin Moran and Erik Gonzalez had extreme hot streaks in the first few weeks of the year, leading people to question if they had been wrong about the pair and getting them to start talking about their place in the Pirates future. Moran came out of the gate swinging; literally. Through the first seven games of the season he was slashing .333/.385/.875 with 4 home runs in 24 at bats. It was declared that Moran had finally found his stroke and was coming into his own in his age 27 season. Then reality sank in as he proceeded to hit .228 over his next 127 at bats. Some of the power stuck around as he hit another 4 homers and 11 total extra base hit, but he has seen his once astronomical numbers slip to .240/.322/.448.

Gonzalez on the other hand took a few games to get going; accumulating only 2 hits in his first 16 at bats. On August 4th against the Twins a switch flipped and would burn brightly over the next 7 games. During that time Gonzalez saw his average shoot up from .125 to .349 and his OPS reach as high as .907. Pirates fans and media members alike jokingly, but somewhat seriously, proclaimed that we now knew why Neil Huntington’s scouts were “banging the table” to acquire him from Cleveland. However, as we all are aware, this streak did not continue and over the last 30 games and 111 at bats Gonzalez has slashed .225/.270/.351; leaving his yearly numbers sitting right around those for his career at a .252 average and a .679 OPS.

On the pitching side of things there have been several Pirates declared as having career changing or defining seasons. I even saw Dyvodas Neverauskas’ name mentioned after he made his first three appearances of the year; I kid you not. However, there is one that stands out to me above all others because people were holding onto hope in spite of the advanced metrics showing the probability of an on coming downturn. Geoff Hartlieb looked to be unstoppable, or rather a reliever that could be brought in to stop the other team in any situation, especially high leverage ones. In his first 16 games, Hartlieb saw his ERA shrink to 1.86 and his WHIP fall to 1.24, but if you looked a little closer his 4.75 FIP and 6.98 BB/9 would be staring back. Over his next three appearances he would only last one inning, walking 8 batters, hitting a couple others and allowing 5 earned runs on one hit. His once envious ERA has more than doubled to 3.98 and his WHIP now sits at 1.62; the victim of two polar opposite small sample sizes, with the type of pitcher he will become yet to be determined. This will only be accomplished by seeing more of him and not buying into what he does in just a few games.

When following a team or a particular player no one is immune to making a judgment based on just a few innings or a couple of at bats. I, myself, made statements about how well Derek Holland had performed after being transitioned over to the bullpen. In his very next outing he gave up 2 earned on three hits, one of them being a home run. He now sports a 4.40 ERA in the relief role, which I don’t have to tell you is less than optimal.

Now I know that many of you will say that this whole season is a small sample size as the Pirates will only be playing 60 games and I can’t argue with that. I only want to make the points that if this is the case, how can any of us make an argument as to whether or not a player is having a break out season and why are we so quick to jump to judgements based on so few games within the ultimate small sample size?

Published by Craig W. Toth

Former Contributing Author at InsidethePirates.com, Co-Host of the Bucs in the Basement Podcast and life-long/diehard Pittsburgh Pirates Fan!

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