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February 8, 2011

Changing Speeds

The Next Jose Bautista

by Ken Funck

Last week in this space, among my random wishes for the upcoming season, I mentioned my desire for there to be another Jose Bautista in 2011, i.e., another veteran player who suddenly and unexpectedly puts up a monster year. Virtually no one predicted that the Jose-Bot would suddenly go all George Foster on the American League, but anyone that could have would have had a huge advantage in their fantasy or sim leagues last year.

Yesterday’s release of the PECOTA Weighted Means Spreadsheet, which ended all other sports discussion here in Wisconsin*, made me wonder if I could use our ever-improving forecasting tool to identify just those kinds of players. I wanted to find the older veteran hitters who had never experienced a long run of great success in the past, but who might nevertheless be primed for a surprising breakout, based on past performance and future opportunity.

To identify hitters predicted to greatly improve their performance, I first calculated the difference between the True Average (TAv) listed for players in the PECOTA weighted mean spreadsheet, and each player’s 2010 TAv taken from our Statistics page. For players with at least 100 plate appearances in 2010, here were the ten players forecast for the greatest increase in TAv:

 

Largest PECOTA Projected TAv Increase (Min. 100 PAs in 2010)

Name

Age

Team

Position

2010 TAv

2011 TAv*

Increase

Brandon Wood

26

Angels

3B

.121

.247

.126

Brendan Harris

30

Orioles

SS

.160

.236

.076

Mark DeRosa

36

Giants

3B

.195

.262

.067

Grady Sizemore

28

Indians

CF

.216

.281

.065

Garrett Atkins

31

Pirates

1B

.205

.263

.058

Adam Moore

27

Mariners

C

.186

.242

.056

Matt Tuiasosopo

25

Mariners

3B

.199

.253

.054

Chris Davis

25

Rangers

1B

.214

.267

.053

Chris Dickerson

29

Brewers

CF

.208

.260

.052

Jake Fox

28

Orioles

OF

.229

.281

.051

From PECOTA's Weighted Mean Projection, 02/07/2011

 

This is an interesting list, but the problem is that it doesn’t identify players who will have unexpectedly strong performances in 2011 so much as it identifies the players who sucked on toast in 2010 and are bound to improve. The highest TAv forecast in this chart is .281 for the infrequently-healthy Grady Sizemore and the infrequently-played Jake Fox—not exactly the sort of unexpected breakout candidates we’re looking for.

So, to better isolate potential Jose-Bots I instead sorted the weighted means spreadsheet in descending TAv order—but again, only for players who had logged at least 100 plate appearances last season—and began looking through them for players that (a) had a very good 2011 forecast; (b) were forecast for a significant improvement from 2010; and (c) did not have a long history of success and fame. Part of the charm of Bautista’s season was the number of casual fans who found themselves asking “who is this guy?” Based on those criteria, here are my top six candidates for PECOTA-blessed unexpected veteran breakouts:

 

Dan Johnson, 1B, Rays

Season

Age

PA

TAv

AVG

OBP

SLG

HR

2010

30

140

.286

.198

.343

.414

7

2011

31

531

.297

.244

.368

.465

25

Top Three Comps: Jason Giambi, Nick Johnson, Paul Konerko
Johnson burst onto the baseball scene as a 25-year-old rookie with the A's in 2005, leveraging what was at that time a stereotypically Oakland blend of patience and power to post a solid .275/.355/.451 season. Then it all went wrong in a hurry, and two disappointing seasons with the A’s led to his release, a short stint in the Rays' system, and a non-descript year in Japan before the Rays re-signed him as organizational depth. Something clicked last year, however, as Johnson posted a .303/.430/.624 line with 30 home runs at Triple-A Durham, which earned him a trip to the bigs.
Why him? Like the Jose-Bot himself before last season, Johnson has never really put it all together despite excellent plate discipline and occasional power, and with Carlos Pena gone and Casey Kotchman as his main competition for playing time, he ought to get a fair shot at the Rays’ first-base job. His total of 37 dingers last year shows that his home run stroke is currently on the menu, and while he strikes out in about a quarter of his plate appearances and hits a few more balls in the air than some, odds are that he’ll improve on his career BABIP of .250.
Why not him? Honestly, he fits the profile perfectly, and PECOTA obviously thinks the world of him. The only reservation I have is the nagging reminder that overhyping athletes named Dan, or Johnson, can often backfire; otherwise, he’s a prime candidate.

 

Kila Ka'aihue, 1B/DH Royals

Season

Age

PA

TAv

AVG

OBP

SLG

HR

2010

26

206

.254

.217

.307

.394

8

2011

27

567

.302

.262

.387

.473

25

Top Three Comps: Nick Johnson, Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez
Last year the Kila Monster finally was able to parlay his .285/.424/.521 (!) career line at Triple-A into some significant big-league playing time, but he was unable to establish himself as a key part of the Royals’ future. Just as Dan Johnson was often viewed as a placeholder for future superstar Daric Barton (!), Ka’aihue will soon be crowded by the likes of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, so this season is his last and best chance to avoid being marked with the dreaded “Quadruple-A Player” brand.
Why him? Look at those comps! Johnson, of course, never developed much power and has become a one-man Medical Mystery Tour, but when PECOTA looks you up and down and pictures Votto and A-Gonz, it’s clear that there’s something to be said about the cut of your jib. Moreover, while BP readers already know all about Ka’aihue, his Kansas City address, Hawaiian background, and glottal stop will make his breakout seem even more mysterious and unexpected to the general baseball public.
Why not him? “Aloha” means both hello and goodbye, and the Royals haven’t shown that they’re much willing to let Ka’aihue play through any struggles before shipping him out to Omaha. A slow start may mean he’ll join Roberto Petagine, Erubiel Durazo, Calvin Pickering, et al., as sabermetric darlings that either never got enough chances or never made the most of them.

 

Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Giants

Season

Age

PA

TAv

AVG

OBP

SLG

HR

2010

23

616

.263

.268

.323

.409

13

2011

24

628

.290

.298

.347

.467

18

Top Three Comps: Billy Butler, Russell Martin, James Loney
Sandoval may be a little young for a list of veteran rebound candidates, but last season was such a disappointment that I’m willing to place him among his elders on this list. Panda won MVP votes with his .330/.387/.556 line in 2009, but by the end of last season his hacktastic ways and sudden loss of power made him a part-time player during the Giants’ title run.
Why him? Sandoval is still young enough to improve, an off-season conditioning program [Editor's note: Make that another off-season conditioning program, since he was enlisted in one before 2010 as well.] has seemingly made him the odds-on favorite to win baseball’s unofficial “Biggest Loser” competition, and Barry Bonds has been working with the young third sacker to improve his selectivity at the plate. While PECOTA doesn’t know anything about some of those things (unless Colin has been even busier in his lab than expected), it does know that most of his batting peripherals were similar in each of the last two years, and that his true talent level probably lies somewhere between the highs of 2009 and the lows of 2010. Most importantly, while he’s not an unknown quantity to many casual fans, his former fame means a return to excellence by the Panda will be one of the biggest storylines in baseball.
Why not him? He’s not Kirby Puckett, and if he doesn’t learn to lay off pitches out of the zone, he’s going to get himself out far too often to put up big numbers. Also, in an odd bit of serendipity, former Olympic decathlete Dan O’Brien is one of Sandoval’s trainers, so the same admonishment made above about overhyping Dan Johnson applies here as well.

 

Seth Smith, OF, Rockies

Season

Age

PA

TAv

AVG

OBP

SLG

HR

2010

27

398

.267

.246

.314

.469

17

2011

28

450

.286

.283

.359

.493

17

Top Three Comps: Andre Ethier, Brad Hawpe, John Rodriguez (72)
It’s hard for me to think of Seth Smith without picturing Brad Hawpe. They are (or were) both Colorado outfielders with solid lefty bats, and in BP2010 the wise and abnormally prescient author of Smith’s player comment noted both Smith’s resemblance to Hawpe and the likelihood that Smith would soon make the older, more expensive Hawpe expendable. Hawpe subsequently appeared as Smith’s third-best comp in the annual, was released by the Rockies last August, and now Hawpe can be found even higher up Smith’s comp list this year. The takeaway here is that Smith’s disappointing 2009 season just plain wasn’t Hawpe-like, and both PECOTA and I expect him to get back on the beam.
Why him? Smith is entering his age-28 season, a year in which Hawpe set career highs in most offensive categories and earned his first MVP votes. He plays in Coors, which will make his raw offensive numbers look even more impressive, and he’s not a household name, so if Smith hits his 90th percentile forecast, the “who is that guy?” factor will be in play.
Why not him? There are a lot of outfielders in Colorado, and Smith will have to fight for playing time, as well as for press coverage against the more visibly exciting talents of Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler. Also, names (like beer) have a “mouthfeel,” and “Seth Smith” is unsatisfyingly monosyllabic and prone to making the speaker sound like they have a lisp, putting it at a disadvantage in the public relations realm versus rounder, more velvety names like “Pablo Sandoval” and “Kila Ka’aihue.“

 

Chris Iannetta, C, Rockies

Season

Age

PA

TAv

AVG

OBP

SLG

HR

2010

27

223

.250

.197

.318

.383

9

2011

28

450

.284

.255

.363

.473

19

Top Three Comps: Gary Sheffield, Brian Giles, Ryan Doumit
Iannetta has long suffered from the curse of being more productive than meets the eye due to his low batting average, and in successive seasons has lost playing time to lesser players like Yorvit Torrealba and Miguel Olivo. That’s not to say that Olivo wasn’t more productive than Iannetta last year, only that noting Olivo’s career-best year was superior to Iannetta’s worst does not make Olivo the better player. PECOTA foresees a significant bounceback, projecting a higher TAv for Iannetta this year than for Victor Martinez, Mike Napoli, or Jorge Posada.
Why him? With Olivo moving to Seattle, Iannetta is once again firmly ensconced as the Rockies' starter. His BABIP almost certainly has to improve from its recent depths (.245 in 2009, .212 last year), and like Smith, playing at altitude will help make his already impressive power seem even more prodigious.
Why not him? As a catcher, he likely won’t get enough plate appearances to put up truly eye-popping counting stats, leaving him (as usual) more valuable than he may appear at first glance.

 

John Bowker, OF/1B, Pirates

Season

Age

PA

TAv

AVG

OBP

SLG

HR

2010

26

167

.236

.219

.281

.371

5

2011

27

483

.282

.268

.342

.457

18

Top Three Comps: Ryan Spilborghs, Billy Williams, Scott Hairston
One of the questions I sometimes get when folks ask me about writing for BP is how I can remember so much about every player. My answer is usually that it grows harder as I grow older, and in any case there are certainly players that I know nothing about. Like, f’rinstance, John Bowker, who I either had never gained any knowledge of, or had forgotten all knowledge of prior to opening and sorting this year’s PECOTA spreadsheet. Yet there he is, forecast for an impressive .282 TAv, with good power and a decent OBP as a first base/corner outfield option in Pittsburgh. I feel bad that I can’t remember Bowker, a professional baseball player who can claim Billy Williams as a comp, while at the same time I can easily remember the names of the seven sons of Fëanor and much of the poem Charles Guiteau read prior to being hanged, but such are the mysteries of human memory. This is a failing on my part, not Bowker’s.
Why him? It would obviously be disingenuous of me to give you some sort of statistical or scouting explanation for why I think Bowker will have a breakout season, since it would be based solely on a few minutes of research, and you expect and deserve better than that. Therefore, the best reason I can give for why he is a terrific breakout candidate is that his breakout would be terrific. I’m going to go out on a limb and say he’s the least well-known of the players on this list—an opinion based on the fact that there are far more search engine “news” hits for the John Bowker that pens stories about Russia for Reuters—so if he were to put together a monster season, it would be the best story of all.
Why not him? I would think Bowker is not likely to get much playing time, what with Lyle Overbay taking over at first and Garrett Jones, Matt Diaz, and Jose Tabata manning the outfield corners, so he may not have the opportunity to go full Bautista.

There you have it, six candidates for this year’s veteran breakout mantle. If I had to choose the one I think most likely to put together a big year, I would go with the Kila Monster, while John Bowker is the one I most hope does well. Almost certainly, though, it will be someone else we’ll be smiling and scratching our heads about come July—that’s baseball.

*This is not true, but as a Chicago Bears fan, I certainly wish that it was.

Ken Funck is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ken's other articles. You can contact Ken by clicking here

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