May 19, 2011
Bounceback, Breakthrough, or Balderdash?
Last year around this time, I wrote a series of articles about the “All-Bounceback Team,” highlighting aging players who were off to such great starts that they had already provided more value than they had during the whole previous season, and predicting whether they could continue on at that level. In trying to put together a similar list this week, I noticed there are far more young veterans surpassing their recent performances than there were older veterans reclaiming their mojo. Thus, I’ve decided to use this year’s columns to identify whether these players’ performance so far points to a “Bounceback” for a veteran player, a “Breakthrough” for a young player who has never experienced much success, or is merely the “Balderdash” of small-sample success that’s doomed to erode.
The players below have all earned at least 5.0 VORP so far this year, and have already exceeded last year’s VORP total (posted in a minimum of 250 plate appearances). I’ve listed each player’s 2010 and 2011 numbers (through Sunday), their PECOTA forecast, and an excerpt from their player comment in Baseball Prospectus 2011 to see whether their success this season was foreseen.
There were 20 position players that fit these criteria this year. I’ll cover the 10 who have most exceeded last year’s production below, and the other 10 in a future installment—yes, that one will include Lance Berkman, this season’s living embodiment of the bounce-back year.
Justin Smoak, 1B
One of the most frequent questions we’re asked after the release of each BP annual is why the player comments don’t always agree with the PECOTA projections. The answer, of course, is that the exceptionally witty and attractive people who write the comments use tools like PECOTA to inform their opinions, not to create them. PECOTA may have given Smoak’s power potential the same look given to teenagers who promise to take the garbage out when they’re done playing Black Ops, but our man on the Mariners beat rightly pegged Smoak’s 2010 struggles as those of a very good hitter learning to face the best pitchers in the world. Of course, .343 TAv is too much to ask, but Smoak should hit 25 home runs and maintain a solid OBP.
As Craig Brown pointed out last month, Gordon started the season armed with an uncharacteristically hacktastic approach that bore short-term fruit. Since then, with the predictability of summer leading to autumn or a trip to Denny’s leading to regret,
Gordon’s .356/.412/.567 April has given way to a .179/.240/.289 May, and he has hit only three home runs all year. While Gordon is sure to be better this year than last, he’ll never have enough bat to be an asset in an outfield corner.
Adam Lind, DH
Lind was a Supertrain-level flop last year as his season-long inability to make contact led to a huge jump in his strikeout rate, something his pedestrian walk rate couldn’t make up for. So far this year, his contact and strikeout rates are back to their 2009 levels, and he’s hitting home runs again. However, he’s walking less than ever, and probably won’t be able to maintain an above-average on-base percentage throughout the season. A significant drop in his batting average would still leave him at his PECOTA forecast, which itself would be a bounceback from his disastrous 2010. If you put a gun to my head, I’d (a) peg him to finish at .280/.330/.480, and (b) ask you why you’re threatening violence just to find out what I think of Adam Lind.
Jeff Francoeur, OF
The book on Francoeur this season may not yet be Bible-length, but it’s definitely Revelations-inscrutable. Frenchy is seeing more pitches and swinging at far fewer of them than usual, yet he’s still harder to walk than a pet rhinoceros. This newfound patience seems to instead be manifesting itself in a higher batting average and more power, as Francoeur waits for and then attacks his pitch. Is it sustainable? Color me skeptical. More than 17 percent of fly balls he hits are leaving the park this year, compared to 10 percent over his career. Once those fly balls start finding mitts his OBP will become a liability, making him a stronger “sell” stock than $11 Pets.com.
Casey Kotchman, 1B
Next up in our parade of disappointing top prospects we have Casey Kotchman, still taking his walks and keeping the ball down. Only about 18 percent of balls he puts in play are classified as fly balls—a ridiculously low number—which has helped him achieve a .356 BABIP, compared to .271 for his career. That’s almost certain to fall, and when it does Kotchman’s solid glove, lack of power, and ability to avoid outs makes him at best a Mientkiewicz-class player. Does that classify as a breakthrough? Compared to his career so far, sure; compared to the offensive expectations of an American League first baseman, no.
Matt Treanor, C
What can we make of Matt Treanor’s newfound ability to draw walks? One idea is that he has suddenly learned to be patient at the plate, as he’s swinging at five percent fewer pitches than he did last year. On the other hand, it could be that he has just faced a random group of pitchers that have had trouble finding the strike zone, as evidenced by a five percent drop in the percentage of strikes he’s being thrown. If asked to choose between a sudden change in approach for a 35-year-old catcher and a small-sample statistical fluke, I’ll bet on the latter every time.
Alex Avila, C
Avila’s six home runs are only one less than he hit all last year, but his power surge isn’t unprecedented—he launched 17 long ones between Erie and Detroit in 2009. He’s hitting lots of fly balls, so there’s no reason he can’t park somewhere between 15 and 20 in the seats this season. With the offensive bar for catchers set lower than Richard Sterban’s solo on Elvira, Avila’s power will make him an asset even with a subpar OBP.The Verdict: Breakthrough
Unlike Avila, Cabrera has never shown much power before, at least not over a sustained period. As Marc Normandin patiently explained last week, with someone like Melky you have to place a lot more weight on the thousands of punchless plate appearances that preceded his current surge. Look back in a month, and Melky will be Melky again, slugging below .400 and struggling to keep his TAv above .250.
Michael Brantley, OF
Cleveland fans have seemingly waited for this kind of production from Brantley longer than Beach Boys fans had to wait for SMiLE, and it looks like they may wind up equally satisfied with the final product. Brantley has hit a few homers, but that’s really just window dressing as he’s not likely to develop double-digit home-run power. The real news is that his walk rate has climbed above 10 percent while hitting more ground balls and posting a higher batting average, which means all the ingredients are there for Brantley to become the solid table-setter everyone expected him to be.
Cameron Maybin, OF
Maybin isn’t exactly a free-swinger; it’s just that he doesn’t make a lot of contact when he does swing. There’s so much swing-and-miss in his game that striking out in 26.5 percent of his at-bats, like he has done this year, can be considered major progress. Combine that with a bump in his walk rate and a little more power, and perhaps we’re about to see Maybin finally turn his tools into production—not the star-level production we were once promised, but enough production to have a career.