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February 10, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Five Disappointments

by Jay Jaffe

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Last season, the National League West played host to the majors' most exciting and most surprising playoff race, with the Giants ending the Dodgers' two-year reign of division supremacy, the Padres rebounding from a last-place finish to chase a playoff spot all the way to the final day of the season, and the Rockies threatening to cause a three-team pileup atop the standings well into mid-September. Yet amid those surprises were disappointing seasons from players expected to star for their teams, involving youngsters as well as more seasoned veterans. What follows is a look at the underwhelming campaigns put together by five key NL West hitters, and what the first release of our PECOTA projections says about their chances of bouncing back.

For the uninitiated, our sophisticated PECOTA system is based on a huge set of data consisting of tens of thousands of historical player-seasons dating back to World War II, incorporating not only major-league statistics but also minor-league data, along with age, position, player height and weight, and other variables. In their full form, BP presents the projections across a range of possibilities—best and worst-case scenarios, select increments between those, and weighted-mean projections—but at this point, all that has been released are the latter. Those numbers, which include a heavy dose of regression to the mean, will undergo minor tweaks over the next several weeks via various refinements of the system, adjustments for playing time, changes of team, multi-season projections and a whole lot more.

Giants: Pablo Sandoval, 3B
Sandoval first endeared himself to Giants fans with a searing .345/.357/.490 performance in late 2008, and followed that by finishing second in the NL in batting average in 2009, hitting .330/.387/.556 and bopping 25 homers. Listed at 5-foot-11, 245 pounds, Sandoval's rotund physique earned him the nickname, "Kung Fu Panda," but during the Giants' championship run, he was more of a sad panda, hitting a thin .268/.323/.409 with 13 homers and losing playing time to Juan Uribe down the stretch and in the playoffs, where he started just five of the Giants' 15 games. Amid his struggles—which also included a divorce—Sandoval's lax conditioning made him the butt of jokes, but he appears to have gotten the message about improving his plate discipline (in both senses), shedding pounds and working with Barry Bonds to shore up his approach at the plate. PECOTA doesn't follow the news, but it does foresee a productive season from the 24-year-old, with a weighted mean projection of .298/.347/.467, good for a .290 True Average, right on target with his career mark to date.

San Diego: Ryan Ludwick, RF
Ludwick took years to break though, passing through the hands of the Rangers and Indians and totaling just 365 major-league plate appearances going into 2007, his age-28 season. When he hit .299/.375/.591 with 37 homers for the Cardinals in 2008, it appeared that he'd finally arrived, but his numbers backslid considerably in 2009 (.265/.329/.447 with 22 homers), and while they rebounded over the first four months of 2010 (.281/.343/.484), he was dealt him to the Padres in a three-way deadline deal that brought Jake Westbrook to St. Louis. Ludwick flopped with the Padres (.211/.301/.330 with six homers in 239 PA), dipping from a .296 True Average in St. Louis to a .246 mark in San Diego; a showing more in line with his .284 career mark could have helped secure the Padres a playoff spot. Now 32 and doomed to play in an extreme pitchers' park, his .251/.325/.433 projection is good for just a .277 True Average.

Rockies: Chris Iannetta, C
By hitting .264/.390/.505 as a 25-year-old in 2008, Iannetta carved a spot in the discussion of the NL's top young catchers, but he has been backsliding ever since. After hitting .228/.344/.460 while sharing the starting job with Yorvit Torrealba in 2009, he lost out last year to Miguel Olivo, and even spent a month back in Triple-A after a 4-for-30 start; he finished the year hitting .197/.318/.383 in just 223 plate appearances. With Olivo departing for Seattle as a free agent, Iannetta tops the Rockies' depth chart once again, this time with nobody looking over his shoulder. "From a management standpoint, there's no louder statement we could make than what we did this offseason: 'It's your job to lose,'" says manager Jim Tracy. PECOTA is particularly bullish about a rebound for Iannetta, projecting a .255/.363/.473 line with 19 homers in 450 PA.

Dodgers: Matt Kemp, CF
In 2009, his fourth major-league season, the 24-year-old Kemp translated his raw athleticism into a star-caliber performance, hitting .297/.352/.490 with 26 homers and 34 steals in 42 attempts. The sudden stardom—and the two-year, $10.95 million contract—apparently went to his head, because Kemp's distracted play in 2010 incited the ire of manager Joe Torre and staff, as he gave up at-bats, failed to hustle out of the batter's box, and blundered on the basepaths and in the field. Growing animosity between player and team led Kemp's agent, Dave Stewart, to suggest trading the center fielder, who finished the year hitting just .249/.310/.450, with a career-high 28 homers but just 19 steals in 34 attempts. The Dodgers hope incoming manager Don Mattingly and first-base coach Davey Lopes will point Kemp back towards the path to stardom, but PECOTA foresees only a slight rebound: .270/.332/.449, for a .280 True Average, three points higher than last year's mark, but hardly All-Star material.

Diamondbacks: Justin Upton, RF
The first overall pick of the 2005 draft, Upton has been burdened by comparisons to older brother B.J. and to Ken Griffey, Jr. Through three-plus seasons in Arizona, he's certainly been productive, but injuries have kept him from playing more than 138 games in any season. He did that in 2009, when he hit .300/.366/.532 with 26 homers and 20 steals in his age-21 season; stardom appeared imminent. Alas, shoulder woes similar to those of his older brother—laxity exacerbated by the force of his long swing—limited him to 47 games after the All-Star break, and just eight plate appearances in September. He finished with a .273/.356/.442 line with 17 homers, including just three in the second half. Considering he's just 23 years old, it rates as sobering that PECOTA's .271/.350/.473 line with 21 homers forecast for him is a ringer for his career numbers, as he should be improving more rapidly.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

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