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May 31, 2009

Prospectus Idol Entry

Breakouts, Breakdowns, or Just Outliers?

by Brian Cartwright

Goin' All Hanley Ramirez

Marlins' shortstop Hanley Ramirez is probably the most famous example of a breakout in recent history. Considered a great hitting prospect while in the Red Sox minor leagues, Ramirez consistently underperformed expectations, and before the 2006 season the frustrated Sox traded him to Florida. After posting Major League Equivalent wOBAs (Tom Tango's weighted on-base average) of .311, .329 and .295 the three seasons prior to the trade, (MLB average for shortstop is .318) the 22 year old Ramirez won the NL Rookie of the Year Award for the Marlins, putting up an 292/353/480 BA/OB/SA line, good for a .360 wOBA. If making draft list in 2007, I had to ask "Who is the real Hanley Ramirez?" Someone who hits like Jack Wilson (without the glove), or the best offense shortstop in the league? Two and a half years later, we know that Ramirez has become even better, posting wOBAs since his rookie season of .404, .401 and .409 so far in 2009. He has clearly established a new level as one of the premier offensive players at any position. But after only one breakout season, can we tell if the improvement is real, or will the player fall back to his old level of performance?

Don't Trust Anyone Over 29

Even a single season is not a large enough sample size to get an accurate profile of a player, so projection systems such as PECOTA take several years of a player's past performance, weighting the most recent seasons more heavily than older ones, to get an estimate of what his true talent level is at that point in time. But like everyone tells you when you are playing the stock market, the past is not a guarantee of future performance. Roughly 15% of the time a single season hitting line exceeds the players projection by more than 35 points of wOBA, and likewise 15% of the time will under perform the projection by more than 35 points. I made a list of 175 recent seasons where the batter had a 'breakout' performance based on his increase in wOBA over what was projected and what his wOBA was in the season following the breakout. The second season was classified three ways, 1) the batter meets or exceeds the production of the breakout season 2) the production is below the breakout season, but still more than 35 points above the prior projection or 3) the batter produces at or below the level of the prior projection, losing his entire breakout. In cases 1 and 2, the player has shown a real improvement, which in geek speak is two consecutive seasons more than one standard error above the original projection.

The following tables show by age how many players kept all or some or lost their breakout in the following season. SDT (BABIP), XBH (extra base hits), HR, BB and SO are the improvements in those components during the breakout season.


Breakouts
Age      Kept    Some    Lost   SDT   XBH    HR    BB    SO 
35+     6 .40   0 .00   9 .60  .016  .019  .019  .015  .011
30-34   9 .21  10 .23  24 .56  .023  .006  .016  .013  .005
25-29  30 .35  25 .29  30 .35  .020  .022  .020  .013  .003
20-24  11 .33  10 .31  12 .36  .025  .018  .019  .008  .004

30s    15 .26  10 .17  33 .57  .021  .010  .017  .013  .007
20s    41 .35  35 .30  42 .36  .021  .021  .020  .012  .003

64% of the players in their 20's continued their improvement into the second season, to 43% of the players in their 30's. The older players relied more on increased walks and lowers strikeouts for their breakouts, while the younger players showed more reliance on power numbers and BABIP. Breakdowns, where the batter produces a wOBA more than 35 points less than his projection, show the same age patterns.


Breakdowns
Age      Down  Middle Back Up   SDT   XBH    HR    BB    SO 
35+     5 .63   2 .25   1 .12 -.040 -.007 -.016 -.014 -.001
30-34  19 .56   8 .24   7 .20 -.036 -.019 -.015 -.011 -.006
25-29  23 .53   7 .16  13 .31 -.033 -.017 -.015 -.016  .008
20-24  11 .50   2 .09   9 .41 -.029 -.016 -.015 -.013 -.005

30s    24 .57  10 .24   8 .19 -.037 -.017 -.015 -.012  .005
20s    34 .52   9 .14  22 .34 -.031 -.016 -.015 -.015  .004

41% of players under 25 and 34% of those under 30 gain back all their lost productivity in the second season. When older players breakdown they show more of a loss of base hits and extra base hits compared to the breakdowns of younger players.

Players in their 20's, especially when the breakdown was the result of an injury and they are now healthy, are a good bet to return to their previous levels. These include Jason Bay, Carlos Beltran, Paul Konerko, Pat Burrell, and Adrian Beltre.

Matt Wieters for MVP

In order to minimize the error for all players, projections will normally appear to split the difference between the previous year's projection and the actual production that year. Players with true breakouts will be under projected in the following season. Matt Wieters was the Orioles 1st round pick (5th overall) in the 2007 amateur draft. He did not play professionally until 2008, when he hit a combined .355 with 27 home runs and 91 RBI in High-A and Double-A. PECOTA liked what it saw, giving a most likely 'weighted mean' projection of 311/395/546, with it's 90th percentile projection a Pujols-esque 344/437/635. This week the Orioles announced they were calling Wieters up for his major league debut, but after hitting 305/387/504 in 39 games at Triple-A Norfolk, some are asking "What happened to him?".

Based on Wieter's stats at Georgia Tech, I projected him at 266/346/431 for a 341 wOBA, which is very good compared to the MLB average of 312 for catchers. I translated his 2008 minor league stats at 331/411/561 for a 416 wOBA, which generated a 294/373/487 projection for 2009. This year at Norfolk, one of the best pitcher's parks in Triple-A, Wieters' MLE is 295/364/504, splitting the difference and nailing my projection.

The Jay Bell Syndrome

Sometimes the breakdowns occur the moment the player steps onto a major league field. Jay Bell made his major league debut in 1986 at age 20 for the Cleveland Indians. In his third professional season, Bell had hit .298 and .277 in parts of two seasons at Double-A. Promoted to Buffalo of the Triple-A American Association in 1987, Bell hit .260 with 17 HRs and 60 RBI in 110 games, very good production at shortstop. In 38 games with Cleveland, he hit .216. Back a second time to Triple-A in 1988, Bell hit .276 with 7 HRs in 49 games. Promoted again to the Indians, Bell 'hit' .218 in 73 games. In his third trip to Triple-A in 1989, Bell was hitting .285 with 10 HRs in 86 games. Instead of recalling him, the Indians shipped him off to Pittsburgh where he would become the regular shortstop for the next 7 years, plus another five years as a starter in Kansas City and Phoenix, finishing his career with a 265/343/416 line.

The modern poster boy for not performing up to expectations in half a season is Nelson Cruz. After being traded twice in three years, and into his third season in the big leagues, something finally clicked. In 76 games since his August 2008 recall by the Rangers, Cruz has hammered major league pitching for 19 HRs at a 308/385/588 clip.

Minor league statistics can give an accurate profile of a player. For whatever reason, some players do not immediately adjust to the majors. Try to have patience that some team will have the same faith as you and reward them with enough playing time to prove their value.

Recap

Honestly, other than age, I have yet to spot any statistical indicators of which player will go one to a second season at a new level of performance, and those who will go back to their previous level. Younger players will rebound from breakdowns much better than those in their 30's. Try to be patient with the young studs who struggle in their first attempt or two at the majors, but stay away from those veterans who sign minor league contracts.

47 comments have been left for this article.

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