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September 24, 2013

Overthinking It

The Season in Small-Sample Narratives

by Ben Lindbergh


There’s only one thing as embarrassing as old yearbook photos: narratives from the start of the baseball season, as viewed from September. So much has happened since those first few months that it’s not always easy to remember what we were worried and excited about, even when we’re not actively trying to forget. Some early slumps and hot streaks are signs of things to come, but in retrospect, others seem impossibly quaint, like relics from a more ignorant age. With the regular season in its waning days, let’s look back at some of the flashes in pans that briefly became big stories.

Jarrod Parker needs a trip to Triple-A
Parker was awful in April. More accurately, he was awful in four of his six April starts, but those four were ugly enough to completely kayo his line. At the end of the month, he had a 7.36 ERA, which Bob Melvin called “puzzling” and columnists (after all of three outings) called grounds to propose putting him in the bullpen or sending him to Sacramento. Some of the right-hander’s struggles may have been bad luck—he had a .382 BABIP—but most likely he was suffering from some mechanical issues: Parker walked 16 in 29 1/3 April innings.

Whatever the problem, it went away in time. Since the end of April, Parker has failed to record a quality start only four times in 25 tries, including once in his first start of May and once when his hamstring forced him to leave a scoreless start early. He’s the most obvious “Don’t make too much of April” example on the list.

Undead Overbay, Wells, and Hafner
With half of their highly paid players on the shelf, the Yankees were kept in contention by a trio of surprising early season performances by players who’d been cast off or let go by their previous employers. Vernon Wells, the owner of a .258 on-base percentage in almost 800 plate appearances for the Angels from 2011-12, hit .300/.366/.544 with six homers in April, which looked a lot like one of his peak period lines. Hafner hit .318/.438/.667, which wouldn’t have looked out of place in his late 20s. Overbay had an un-Overbay-ish .214 ISO through May.

Then they all turned into pumpkins. Hafner hit .167/.249/.286 after April and has spent almost the whole second half on the DL. Wells has hit .225/.266/.309 after April and still managed to approach 500 plate appearances. And Overbay, who might still top 500, has a .238/.300/.354 line since May. Despite their hot starts, the three veterans have combined for a grand total of 0.4 WARP.

Jeff Locke, successful starter
Jeff Locke went 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA in 18 first-half starts. The left-hander had to win the Pirates’ fifth-starter job in spring training, so when he said, “I’m not surprised at the success this season” after becoming an All-Star, no one else nodded. That out-of-nowhere half-season made him the majors’ most obvious regression candidate, not only because he hadn’t done it before, but also because of his subpar peripherals. At the break, Locke had a 16.7 percent strikeout rate and a K:BB ratio of 1.55, which put a bright, blinking sign around his .231 BABIP. As efficient as the Pirates have been in the field, no defense known to man could make that BABIP sustainable.

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Related Content:  Small Sample Size,  Narratives

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