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May 2, 2001
The Daily Prospectus
The early season can be a dangerous time for analysts and fans trying to make sense of player performance. There are sample-size issues, quality of opponent problems (especially this season), and a host of other reasons to look at April numbers with a skeptical eye.
Compounding these problems is the natural tendency of batting averages--often the first information you see about a player--to fluctuate wildly over 100 at-bats. Put simply, if judging a player (or for that matter, a team) by his average is a bad idea in October, it's a ridiculous one in April.
I was guilty of this myself on Monday, when I made the point that the Mariners had an offense built on hitting for average, based solely on the averages I saw in their box score. I didn't look any deeper, and was rightly called on the carpet by readers pointing out that the Ms actually were among the league leaders in walks drawn and on-base percentage.
So I thought it might be fun to take a look at some players whose performance so far isn't as good or as bad as a quick glance at BA, or even the other two Triple Crown stats, might make it seem.
At the top of the list of players whose BA makes them look better than they are--and I don't mean to pick on the Mariners again--is Ichiro Suzuki. Suzuki's brand of slap hitting has enabled him to post a .333 batting average so far. He hasn't hit for much power (six extra-base hits in 120 at-bats) or drawn many walks (four), so his OBP and SLG of .355/.425 are really nothing special. Ichiro's excellent defense is a point in his favor, but the Ms really need better than a 780 OPS from their third-best hitter.
Alfonso Soriano is right there with Suzuki in early-season Rookie of the Year discussions, thanks to an everyday job and a .300 batting average. A single walk and nine extra-base hits leave him with a .304 OBP and a .418 SLG, making him a drag on the Yankee offense. Soriano has shown good speed and acceptable defense, but that lack of plate discipline makes him a great candidate to be one of the most overrated players in baseball this season.
Of course, the Yankees could trade Soriano for Pokey Reese, who is much the same player, just with a better glove and bigger paycheck. Reese is batting .284, but with just three walks, six doubles and a home run. His 717 OPS is unimpressive, even given his Gold Glove defense.
I'll mention Shea Hillenbrand here, even though he's hit for some power (a .502 slugging percentage). His .340 BA comes with just one walk, though, for a .352 OBP. There's not much in Hillenbrand's record to suggest he can sustain a .300 batting average, and if he doesn't do that, he's not going to help this team.
It's more fun to talk about the players who aren't getting credit for their seasons to date because their averages are so low. Atop this list is Barry Bonds, who is doing everything right but hitting singles. His 1122 OPS is ninth in the National League, despite his .237 batting average. Seventeen walks and an extra-base hit every five at-bats will do that.
Another NL superstar is hiding a good season behind a subpar BA. Sammy Sosa has already walked 26 times, allowing him to post a .432 OBP with just a .244 batting average. He's also hitting for typical Sammy power, with seven home runs and a .549 slugging average.
(As an aside, has any player so dramatically improved his plate discipline over the course of his career than Sosa? Team looking to educate their young hitters on the value of controlling the strike zone should hold Sosa--productive and popular--up as the shining example of what being more selective can do for them.)
The Twins' Matt Lawton has been a big part of that team's good start, despite a BA in the .240s. He's ranked among the league leaders in walks and OBP all season.
Jim Thome is batting just .188, but his OBP and OPS are higher than all the players we listed in the first group, save Ichiro. Because he's a first baseman, though, it's hard to argue that Thome's .349/.377 is helping the Tribe. Nevertheless, he's not as far off his usual performance as you might think, and can be expected to bounce back.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.