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Deep Digging: Rally Robes and Jonny Gomes*

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Early season analysis is always a slippery slope for fantasy players. Read too much into a small sample size and you could cut a useful asset in exchange for a flash in the pan. Arrive too late to the party, though, and you face the same consequence: the awful stench of fantasy failure.

While small sample size caveats always apply at this stage of the game, it's still possible to look for trends. Everyone is searching for the next breakout star, the next Ben Zobrist or Jose Bautista. Jonny Gomes' early season pace of 54 home runs has skyrocketed his ownership among fantasy teams. He's now owned in 82 percent of CBS leagues, a full 45% jump from this time a week ago. Is his early season success for real? What he's doing and how he's doing it is very interesting (as if Jonny Gomes knew any other way). Let's jump in.

Jonny Gomes has had an interesting career, if just from the standpoint of rally robes or unusual drinking practices. For a kid who grew up semi-homeless, his life is a smashing success story. On the field his career has been solid but unspectacular. His best season came as a rookie in 2005, when he triple slashed .282/.372/.534 and finished third in American League Rookie of the Year voting to Huston Street. He looked like a star in the making, but his 21 home runs in 407 plate appearances that season would be (and still is) a career high. In 2009 he signed a minor league deal with Cincinnati, and was able to latch on as the team's regular left fielder in 2010, triple slashing .266/.327/.431 with average power (.164 ISO), and putting up respectable counting stats: 18 home runs, 77 runs, 86 RBI. For a waiver wire pickup, he had value as a guy who played every day.

This season he's started off by homering six times in the first three weeks, which set off waiver hounds everywhere. Is he worth being owned in 82% of leagues? Is he, at 30, capable of putting up a career year?

There are a lot of interesting things going on with Jonny Gomes, but the most fascinating (and the most worth reading into) has to be the fact that he is walking. A lot. In just 17 games, Gomes has walked 15 times, something he did just 39 times all of last season. Here's what he had to say about it Sunday in the Cincinnati Enquirer:

"When you’re a platoon player, you live for today," he explained. "If you work the count to 3-2 and he throws a ball three inches outside, you’re swinging, because a walk isn’t going to get you in the lineup the following day. A homer? Good chance."

People say stuff like this all the time, and you have to take it with a grain of salt. But in Gomes' case, I think he's being upfront. The data is remarkable in backing up this abrupt change. Last year Gomes was among the most free-swinging players in all of baseball, swinging at 37.7% of pitches outside the strike zone according to Fangraphs. So far this year? Just 16%. Yes, a full 21.7% drop. Pitches in the strike zone? Last year he hacked at 70.7%. This year he's at 48.3%. He's not making contact at a higher rate, really (a 4% decrease from 2010, in fact) but this is resulting in him drawing more walks. Which is resulting in him having a .408 OBP at the moment. In points leagues, or roto leagues that reward walks, this makes Gomes' more valuable. It's unlikely his walk rate will remain this high over the course of the season, as a 14% increase from one season to the next is pretty drastic, but it is very possible Gomes' new approach results in more bases and more runs. As a full-time player in a pretty good lineup, he has definite back-end fantasy value.

How about the power? Realistically, none of the people who picked up Gomes last week did so because they were hoping for a bunch of walks. Six homers in a little over two weeks is bound to make people pay attention. So can he keep thatup? First things first: Gomes has shown average or better power almost everywhere he's been. During his 2005 campaign his ISO of .253 was ninth among AL players with at least 400 plate appearances. In 2010 he posted a career low ISO of .164 that was still better than league average. It's tough to say how his new approach will affect his power: he's not hitting any line drives right now (10%), and he's hitting a bunch of infield pop ups (22.2%), which are both major concerns. His six home runs are basically the result of him hitting a ton of flyballs (67.5%) and having a high percentage of them leave the yard (22.2%). Logic implies that his line drive rate will return closer to his career norm of 19.3%, and his HR/FB rate will also fall closer to his career rate of 14.2%. Although logic rarely applies to Jonny Gomes, and Logic's head would explode at Gomes' current swing and walk rates. My best guess from an admittedly early and small sample? Let's say 25 home runs, 85 RBI, and 90 runs. It's not off-the-charts-good, but there's definite value there. And one thing is virtually guaranteed: rooting for Jonny Gomes will be one of the easiest things you ever do.

* Rally robes have nothing to do with anything here, it just sounded cool and gave me an excuse to link that photo. So deal with it.