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May 17, 2009

Prospectus Idol Entry

Byron Lescroart's Initial Submission

by Byron Lescroart

Bio: My name is Byron Lescroart and I am a 26-year old living in New York City. Sparing you too many specifics, I was born and raised a Mets fan in Princeton, New Jersey as the oldest of five children. My four younger siblings are all girls. Yes, I have four sisters. I attended Georgetown University where I graduated as an English major in 2006, and have pretty much been in the NY area ever since. I think I should win the inaugural BP Idol competition because I represent an excellent combination of statistical acumen and literary voice. I believe what separates BP from some of its (dare I say lesser?) rival sites such as THT or even FanGraphs is the quality of its writers. There are numerous sites and publications today with brilliant statistical minds making interesting inroads into the "science of baseball," but as far as I know only BP has been able to combine forward-thinking, sabermetric genius with talented writers who not only make content accessible, but also completely enjoyable to read. Suffice to say, it is no coincidence that we are seeing mainstream sites like ESPN.com pick up BP's work as opposed to other leading statistical sources due to the fact that only BP's writers can stand up to the rigors of mainstream journalistic appeal. I believe I possess the skills necessary to not only understand and explore the incredible amounts of data now available for review in baseball, extricating pertinent information, but also - and perhaps more importantly - impart that knowledge to others in an entertaining and intelligent way.

Entry: To Pronk, or not to Pronk? That is the Fantasy Question

It's hard to put an exact percentage on it, but somewhere between 99.9% and 99.99% of the early season fantasy articles on most good sports websites involve answering the eternal question of April: "is [fill in the blank player off to super hot/cold start] for real?" I don't particularly mind this because I enjoy taking the time to hear out different perspectives on why a given analyst happens to believe that the player in question can or cannot continue to display his current level of play which appears incongruent with past results. It's interesting that I have noticed an alarming number of these articles seem to suggest that the player is actually showing improvement/decline off of all preseason projections considering the one thing as baseball fans we have learned over the years above all else is the statistical more "regression to the mean." The reason for this, one must assume, is that it doesn't make good copy to read about how Emilio Benifacio, for example, literally has zero chance of continuing to be the most valuable player in fantasy baseball, and in fact has a better chance of being DFA by the All-Star break than he does of actually being on either team. Sorry Emilio. Rather, people always want to be on the cutting edge of "the next big thing." They want to hear about "new and awesome," and to hear about it first. It's not so cool to win a league with Manny Ramirez, Jermaine Dye and Carlos Lee, but I'll be damned if it isn't sweet to dominate a league with Matt LaPorta, Justin Upton and Adam Jones. So just to run against the stream a little bit here, just to write an "is this guy for real" article about a guy who's yesterday's (or more appropriately, 2006's) news, I'm going to take a look at one of the sabermetric world's fallen heroes. Let's take a look at Travis Hafner's seemingly impressive start and ask: "is this guy for real?"

From 2004-2006 Travis Hafner was one of the very best hitters in all of baseball. This impressive run culminated with a 1.098 OPS season where Hafner posted an EqA of .354, a number none other than Alex Rodriguez has yet to match in his career. More recently, as a result of injuries and perhaps the much maligned disappearance of so-called "old-man's skills," Hafner has been on a highway to irrelevance. Pronk, as he was affectionately known to his teammates and fantasy owners back in the good old days, had undergone one of the most rapid and ugly declines of the online fantasy era. Using some Pitch-f/x data generated by Josh Kalk's cool tool found here as well as some swing data from the guys over at FanGraphs, let's take a quick look at what might have happened, and more importantly, what might be happening now.

Hafner has always been a prototype of the "plate discipline" approach to hitting, swinging at a significantly lower percentage of pitches out of the strike zone, 18.2% for his career according to FanGraphs where the average ran around 22% for the same period, while generally maintaining an around league average swing rate on pitches inside the strike zone. Basically, Hafner excelled at swinging at pitches he could hit, and laying off those he couldn't - a solid concept that Rudy Jaramillo may finally have locked into the young head of Jeff Francoeur. In looking at his peak years of 2004-2006 against his decline phase of the past two seasons, I was surprised to find that Hafner hadn't really changed his approach on balls outside of the strike zone. On the contrary, he posted O-Swing% within 0.1% of his career average during each of those seasons. What, then, had changed? Was it just the injuries affecting his bat speed such that even with Hafner's magnificent pitch selection he simply no longer had the physical tools to keep up? Certainly that would seem to have been a factor, but there was also something more. Take a look at this table of data from FanGraphs showing Hafner's plate discipline data for his career:

Year Team   O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike%
2002 Rangers   16.7%  74.3%   46.3%   54.2%      77.9%       73.7%  51.4%  58.6%
2003 Indians   22.6%  70.1%   47.2%   42.0%      79.7%       71.0%  51.8%  57.1%
2004 Indians   15.5%  74.0%   46.3%   37.7%      78.9%       72.4%  52.6%  55.6%
2005 Indians   16.9%  71.6%   44.0%   34.7%      83.1%       73.7%  49.5%  52.9%
2006 Indians   19.2%  63.8%   39.7%   44.3%      83.0%       72.9%  46.0%  51.1%
2007 Indians   18.3%  60.6%   38.4%   50.0%      86.3%       77.3%  47.6%  54.0%
2008 Indians   18.1%  65.1%   42.1%   50.6%      83.2%       76.4%  51.1%  54.8%
2009 Indians   23.7%  59.5%   38.9%   59.3%      86.0%       76.6%  42.4%  51.0%
Total          18.2%  67.6%   42.5%   43.7%      82.3%       73.9%  49.3%  54.0%

While it is true Hafner was seeing fewer pitches inside the strike zone than he did in 2004-2005, likely as pitchers realized he was crushing most of the strikes they offered, his Z-Swing% declined at a much faster rate than did his Zone%. In short, Hafner was seeing fewer strikes than ever before, as well as swinging at a smaller percentage of the strikes he was seeing. Here is a hitter recognizing pitchers are being more careful with him, but having it subsequently affect his ability to be aggressive in the zone.

Hafner was able to excel with this additional level of patience in 2006 in full health, but in 2007-2008 coming off his first shoulder injury, it became obvious that he had lost major pop in his swing, affecting his ability to drive the ball in the strike zone. He posted the two highest GB/FB ratios of his career in those two seasons, watched his Line Drive% drop to its lowest career rate in 2007, and also experienced a drastic decline in his formerly prodigious HR/FB% down to career-low levels as well.

The pitchers response to these facts this year while facing Hafner has been to throw hard and out of the zone, looking for Hafner to roll over fastballs too far outside that he can no longer catch up with. Almost 82% of the pitches Hafner has faced this season, according to PitchF/X, have been of the hard variety: namely Fastballs and Sliders. Take a look at the pitches Hafner has seen this year to see what I mean - the box in the graph represents an average strike zone, and the view is from the catcher's perspective looking out to the mound:


Everything is trending away, away, away. And how has Hafner responded? See for yourself, courtesy one again of FanGraphs:


I've colored in the different "stages" of his career for ease of reading, but the data says he's hanging in there. He's hitting fewer ground balls, more fly balls, holding line drive rate, and striking out more. The strikeout rate is likely thanks in large part to the fact that he's swinging at too many sliders down and sometimes out of the zone completely, check out this swing and miss graphic:


I also dug a little deeper to see, specifically, how Hafner was handling the real cheese. Based on data gleaned from Josh's tool again, the former slugger has seen 61 pitches this season of 95 MPH or higher. Of those pitches Hafner swung and missed only 3 times, 2 of which came on borderline pitches, illustrated below:


He also has this little feather in his cap.

In conclusion, it looks like at the very least we are looking at a healthy Travis Hafner for the first time in 2-3 years. He's still only 32, so it isn't crazy to believe that there is still some life in that bat yet. Keep an eye on that GB/FB ratio and O-Swing%. If he can cut down on some of his chasing - something his career track record says he can do - and continue to get the ball in the air, he may yet rival fellow "old-man skills" DH David Ortiz's numbers this season.

Related Content:  Travis Hafner

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Premium Article Prospectus Hit List: M... (05/15)
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