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January 23, 2013

The Lineup Card

Nine Regression Candidates for 2013

by Baseball Prospectus

‚Äč1. Hiroki Kuroda
Hiroki Kuroda took the loss in his final start of 2012 but pitched masterfully for the Yankees against the Tigers in Game Two of the American League Championship Series. Kuroda allowed three runs in 7 2/3 innings but surrendered just five hits, did not walk a batter, and struck out 11. At age 37, Kuroda went 16-11 with a 3.32 ERA in 33 starts and 219 2/3 innings last season. That was an awfully good year for someone who figured he had pitched his last game in the major leagues after spending 2008-11 with the Dodgers and had planned a one-year farewell tour playing in Nippon Professional Baseball in his native Japan. However, Kuroda couldn’t resist when the Yankees showed interest, and he’s coming back for a second season in pinstripes after the Yankees gave him a one-year, $15 million contract.

While Kuroda is in good shape and his statistical markers were all good last season, he will be 38 this year. He has to slow down at some point, doesn’t he? It’s part of the natural aging process, right? Well, at least I think so. —John Perrotto

2. Mike Trout
Yes, I know that the topic is "candidates for decline." Yes, I'm aware of exactly how much time I spent on #TeamTrout during the AL MVP debate. Yes, I am still in possession of all my faculties. And no, I don't expect that he'll go from amazing to Mendoza in the space of a year. But let's take a sober look at Trout's 2012 performance. He got a little bit lucky here and there. His batting average on line drives was .759, which is above the MLB average of .718. Evidence shows that this is likely to regress. Another issue is that Trout has generally had a (2B + 3B) / HR ratio closer to 2 in the minors. He had 35 extra-base hits and 30 homers in the majors last year. Departures from historical norms tend to be random noise as well, so expect more doubles but fewer homers, proportionally.

Additionally, a good amount of Trout's value was wrapped up in his stellar defense. The problem with outfield defense is that the measures of defense vary greatly for outfielders from year to year. The reason seems to be that there are only a relatively small number of balls that the best outfielders get to but that the lousy ones do not. Make no mistake, there are differences between fielders, but low frequency events are subject to a lot of randomness. Trout might not get the chance next year to show his defensive prowess as much as he did this year. It's not an indictment of Trout. It's an indictment of how randomness works.

Then there's the fact that teams have a body of work to study in the offseason. Trout might be really, really good at baseball, but in 2013, he will face teams that have adapted their approach to try to exploit his weaknesses. He very well might be up to the challenge. Maybe not. Even if he is, there's usually a period of counter-adjustment for young players. For those Angels fans (and yes, fantasy league mock drafters) who are out there despairing, fear not. These things might rob Trout of a few runs of value here and there and bring him from the 10-win player he was last year to a seven- or eight- win player. It's an absolute drop of two or three wins, and for most players that would be catastrophic. It's nice when you can say that a player is worth "only" seven wins. —Russell A. Carleton

3. Fernando Rodney
Let's play a game: Which one of these stat lines is unlike the other?

Option I

Games

IP

ERA

FIP

H/9

BB/9

K/9

ERA+

72

68.0

4.24

4.02

9.3

4.6

7.0

94

39

32.0

4.50

4.75

7.3

7.9

7.3

85

Option II

Games

IP

ERA

FIP

H/9

BB/9

K/9

ERA+

76

74.2

0.60

2.08

5.2

1.8

9.2

634

Using your amazing analytical skills, you have probably come to the conclusion that Option II is slightly different than Option I. Option I consists of Fernando Rodney's 2010 and 2011 seasons with the Angels. Option II is Fernando Rodney's 2012 season with the Rays. And that 634 ERA+ is not a typo. What the heck happened? Rodney didn't enter his prime; on the contrary, he turned 35. Did he have Mariano Rivera's cutter, Justin Verlander's fastball, Sergio Romo's slider, and Clayton Kershaw's curveball programmed into an indestructible cyber arm attached by Dr. James Andrews? Possibly, but there might be another answer... Did he add a new pitch to diversify his offerings? Negative. He actually all but eliminated the use of his four-seam fastball and slider in favour of a lethal sinker/change-up combination. And he had a ridiculous .220 BABIP. And he stranded more than 89 percent of his baserunners.

Will Rodney continue to dominate hitters with the sinker and change, or will batters make adjustments, now that they have just two pitches to look for? Probably a little bit of both. It will be almost impossible for Rodney to replicate the kind of success that he had in 2012—especially that BABIP—but if he has truly unlocked the power of a deadly sinker to keep defenders on their toes and an off-speed complement, he should still finish strong in 2013. —Stephani Bee

4. Dexter Fowler
Dexter Fowler has always had the on-base skills of a big-league lead-off hitter, but his hitting ratios took a leap forward in 2012, cracking his career-high batting average by 34 points and more than doubling his best homer total with roughly the same number of plate appearances as the previous three seasons. Batted-ball stats carry extra baggage in Colorado, given the park effects, but there are other red flags on the back of Fowler's baseball card. Simple regression would suggest that Fowler's batting average will drop back into the .260 range, and the ripple effect to both components of his OPS would bring him within career-average levels, but the big question hovering over Fowler's head relates to his power.

Despite the career-high in home runs, Fowler cleared the wall just 13 times in 2012, with 10 of the homers coming in Coors Field. His OPS stood at 984 at home but just 720 on the road. Fowler's other power numbers suffered a decline, as his doubles shrank to a career-low and his combined rate of extra-base hits dropped almost 20 percent from 2011. His slugging skills also cratered in the second half of the season, with an isolated power that dropped from .248 in the first half to .083 after the All-Star break, casting further doubt as to his ability to maintain the perceived power spike.

Entering his magical age-27 season, Fowler might reasonably be expected to improve upon his performance by following the typical aging patterns, yet the outlier hit rate combined with mitigated power gains cast doubt as to his ability to build upon last season's stats. He should be a very productive player in 2013, but it would be wise to temper expectations regarding Fowler's overall stat line. —Doug Thorburn

5. Darwin Barney
I really don't know that I actually think Barney will decline this season, but I do think he'll be one of the more interesting players to watch in 2013. Barney had a remarkable defensive season last year, and that was illustrated in pretty much all the advanced fielding metrics and certainly by the eyeball test of those who watched him on a daily basis. And the Gold Glove. Sorry, Keith Law. You know way more about baseball than me. But I will fight you over the notion that Barney numbers were solely due to the improved positioning of the Cubs' fielders. It did not explain Barney's season. And the guy can be a legit starting shortstop in the majors, with the glove anyway. Seriously. I will fight you about this.

Barney is now considered a core piece by the Cubs' progressive front office, a long-term solution, or at least he is if you believe the things that come out of the mouths of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Last season, just as an example, Barney ranked 15th in the NL with 4.6 WAR, per Baseball Reference. Most of that was entirely doing to the fielding component of that formula—3.6 of the 4.6. The season before, in virtually the same amount of playing time, Barney recorded 0.6 defensive WAR. I'm not sure what to do with that information. I know he was a joy to watch, but I have little faith his defense can have that level of statistical impact ever again. Hoyer has said that the Cubs feel Barney has more offensive upside than he's shown, but saying someone has more upside than a .299 OBP is damning with faint praise. Even while acknowledging the gaps in our knowledge about measuring individual defense and the career patterns related to that, I feel like it's a good bet that Barney will suffer a value hit in 2013. —Bradford Doolittle

6. Josh Hamilton
Josh Hamilton has endured a lot of hardship in his life. He doesn’t need some punk writer depreciating his prospects for the upcoming season, too. But as Hamilton’s formative years disappear in the rearview mirror, it gets harder to overlook some of the deficiencies in his game. It’s a testament to his prodigious natural talent that we’ve been able to, for the most part, ignore them for so long.

Plate discipline has never been Hamilton’s strength, and his tendency to chase pitches became much more pronounced in 2012. Despite posting his highest walk rate since 2008, no player offered at a greater percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone last year than Hamilton. His 25.47 K% in 2012 represents a career high, and a 10 percent bump in his swinging-strike rate could also suggest diminishing bat speed.

For his career, Hamilton has consistently performed better at home—his lifetime OPS at home trumps his road mark by more than 100 points—a notion that’s not overly encouraging considering he’ll no longer play half of his games in hitter-friendly Arlington. His batted-ball tendencies aren’t so promising, either. Hamilton’s lofty 2012 HR/FB rate is likely to regress in a stadium that’s far more forgiving to pitchers and, in a less generous environment, his BABIP could more closely approximate that of someone who hits the ball in the air as frequently as he does.

Durability issues have also plagued Hamilton throughout his career. Since 2008, he’s played more than 133 games in just one season, with a litany of ailments keeping him out of the lineup. Sure, Hamilton was able to secure an MVP award in 2010 despite missing nearly 20 percent of his team’s games, but injury history and a well-documented battle with substance abuse inspire a fair degree of skepticism when projecting his future.

Josh Hamilton has made a living defying expectations, overcoming tremendous personal demons to become one of baseball’s elite players. But on the verge of his age-32 season, considering the confluence of factors mentioned above, Hamilton might not be able to defy decline in 2013. —Jonah Birenbaum

7. A.J. Pierzynski
Last year, at the age of 35, A.J. Pierzynski set career highs with 27 home runs and a .501 slugging percentage. Never before in his colorful career had the longtime catcher managed as many as 20 knocks, and the only other time he had slugged over .450 in a full season was in 2003, when he posted a .464 mark in his last year in Minnesota. Can he do it again? Well, since no other player in baseball’s long history had ever before reached both the 25-home-run plateau and slugged .500 for the first time that late in their career, I’m going to say no.

One other player did reach 20 home runs and slug .500 for the first time at such an advanced age, but since we’re talking about Julio Franco at age 35, free-stylin’ on the South Side before his first Japanese tour, it doesn’t really count. Nothing about Julio Franco can confidently be compared to any other player’s career.

Including Franco and A.J.—which sounds like a lead-in for “The Rockford Files”—in the post-war era, only six players have even slugged .500 in a full season for the first time that late in their career. The chart below lists them and explains why none of them are really valid comps for a veteran non-slugging catcher like Pierzynski:

Name

Year

Age

Pos

SLG

Prior Career SLG

Why This Is Not A Good Pierzynski Comp

A.J. Pierzynski

2012

35

C

.501

.422

 

Julio Franco

1994

35

DH

.510

.412

Not a good comp for anyone

Cliff Johnson

1984

36

DH

.507

.463

Held record for career pinch-homers

Al Oliver

1982

35

1B

.514

.458

Slugger and great hitter

George Crowe

1957

36

1B

.504

.458

Slugger who played professional basketball before taking up baseball

Luke Easter

1952

36

1B

.513

.476

Legendary slugger who spent much of his career in the Negro Leagues

So, yeah, it’s not happening again. Pierzynski is about as likely to duplicate last year’s numbers as he is to receive a standing ovation in Anaheim. —Ken Funck

8. Kyle Lohse
Value Lohse on his 2012 season and he’s worth one figure—presumably a high one. Value him on his body of work, whether three years, five years or whatever, and he’s worth something altogether different. Value him on what you think a luck-neutral reproduction of his 2012 season would be worth and you get a third number. And so right now, Lohse has nothing.

Assuming he plays in 2013, the first clue toward a regression from a career-best 2.86 ERA comes with the simple fact that it was a career-best, though after a 6.55 figure amid forearm issues in 2010, he’s had a very nice turnaround. His peripherals improved last year, turning middling walk rates into an outstanding 1.6 per 9 and frighteningly low strikeout rates into a slightly more palatable 6.1. Still, he got by with a BABIP of .262, and with a return to even league-average figures, he’s due to suffer some regression in 2013. —Zachary Levine

9. David Ortiz
No truly justifiable reason, except that A) the Red Sox originally signed Ortiz 10 years ago yesterday, so it’s an Ortiz-in-the-news moment; and B) it’s just impossible to believe that this 37-year-old who has seemed just about washed up more than once in the past, who missed nearly half the 2012 season with Achilles injuries, and who doesn’t exactly look like a guy who strives to stay in the best of all possible shapes, can possibly keep up a level of production as high as he has. Injuries notwithstanding, Ortiz’s TAv last season (.343) was the highest of his career, and fourth in all of baseball. No way he keeps that up, even he stays healthy. —Adam Sobsey

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