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May 18, 2010

Changing Speeds

The Bounceback Team

by Ken Funck

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It’s mid-May, and now that the clanging stampede at the starting gate has faded, baseball is starting to settle into its normal, quiet rhythms. Division races are beginning to take some shape. Metrics are starting to develop some sample-size heft. The cream is rising to the top, with names like Ethier, Morneau, Cabrera, Cano, and Pujols holding most of the top spots on the VORP leaderboard. And there, wedged between Ryan Braun and Chase Utley, you’ll find Ty Wigginton and his 20.6 VORP.

Wigginton typifies one of the things I love about this time of year: the bounceback player. There are always a handful of veterans coming off sub-par seasons who get off to unexpectedly great starts. Oftentimes they’ll have cumulative value stats like VORP and WARP that are higher than their totals for the entire previous year, as if six weeks of stellar production could wash away a full season of regret. The season is young enough that these performances could easily be small sample-size illusion, but mature enough that it’s worth considering whether these vets have truly recaptured some former glory or are just experiencing a dead cat bounce.

With that in mind, listed below is an All-Bounceback Team, listing the veteran player at each offensive position who so far in 2010 has most exceeded his 2009 VORP—I’ve moved players around a little (e.g., Wigginton from second base to third base) when appropriate to best fill out each position. To make the list, players must have made at least 200 plate appearances last season. Also, for players with a negative VORP last year, I’m comparing their 2010 VORP to zero, not their sub-replacement negative VORP—the idea is to identify players off to a good start, not players who are bad this year but were especially horrific last year. For each player I’ve listed their 2009 and 2010 numbers (through Sunday), as well as their PECOTA forecast and an excerpt from their player comment in the Baseball Prospectus 2010, to see whether any of these bouncebacks were foreseen.

Ty Wigginton, 3B
Age: 32
BP 2010: “… his road stats (.254 TAv) turned out to be far more predictive of what he would do in Baltimore.”


PA VORP TAv
2010 138 20.6 .346
2009 436 0.8 .246
PECOTA 322 2.4 .257

At this point in his career, there was some doubt as to whether Ty should want to play baseball, for money, against people, but the veteran slugger has so far more than filled the Orioles’ Brian Roberts-sized hole at the keystone. Blasting out of the gate at a .320/.387/.680 clip, Wigginton trails only Andre Ethier in slugging percentage, is fifth in the majors in VORP, and  his 12 home runs are only one fewer than major-league leader Paul Konerko. This sudden power surge has helped Wigginton beat his projected VORP by 18 runs before the calendar has turned to June, and contribute almost 20 more runs than last year in fewer than one-third the plate appearances—the largest gains of any hitter in baseball. We’ve seen outbursts like this from him before, as when Wigginton launched 12 long ones in August 2008 as part of a .285/.350/.526 season with Houston—but they don’t often last, at least not long enough to outweigh his indifferent plate discipline and questionable glove. His value is entirely tied up in his home-run power, and the only difference between this Wigginton and the 2009 version is his HR/FB rate: an American League-best 30 percent of his fly balls are reaching the cheap seats, compared to 7.9 percent last year and 13.4 percent for his career. It’s hard to imagine that continuing, so Baltimore’s best hope is for Wigginton’s hot streak to last long enough for the team to leverage him for something of more enduring value before the Regression Fairy makes her inevitable visit.

Alex Rios, CF
Age: 29
BP 2010: “Rios is young enough to figure things out again….”


PA VORP TAv
2010 139 15.7 .320
2009 633 -10.3 .247
PECOTA 630 11.7 .256

It’ll take a lot of mouthwash to overcome the bitter taste of last fall’s .199/.229/.301 performance with the White Sox, but a hot start from Rios has fans thinking the talented outfielder might wind up making good on more of the $60-plus million he’s owed than expected. His execrable 2009 may have been an outlier rather than the start of a major decline, as his 2010 numbers bear considerable resemblance to his 2006-07 peak. Rios’ BABIP is up to a more normal (for him) .321 and he’s striking out at a career-low rate, helping contribute to his current .318/.360/.581 line. While a rate of 14.6 percent on HR/FB is also a career high, it’s not ridiculously high for US Cellular Field. He won’t keep up his current torrid pace, but his 80th-percentile forecast (.293/.351/.489) doesn’t look unreasonable.

Alfonso Soriano, LF
Age: 34
BP 2010: “Unless batting guru Rudy Jaramillo, the club’s new hitting coach, can somehow game the ‘new trick/old dog’ paradigm, the ending is going to be even worse than anyone thought.”


PA VORP TAv
2010 133 17.5 .332
2009 522 2.2 .251
PECOTA 560 12.9 .262

Did Fonsie’s career truly jump the shark last year, or has Jaramillo been able to cure his former pupil? A lot of credit has been handed to the former Ranger hitting coach for Soriano’s .331/.383/.628 start, but like Rios, perhaps 2009 was more of an outlier than a true harbinger of collapse. Last year, Soriano posted career lows in BABIP (.279) and HR/FB (11.5 percent); this year, those numbers are .375 and 14.3 percent. Once some of those extra balls in play stop dropping in, we might just see Soriano settle into a line similar to the .280/.344/.532 he posted in 2008—not worth the swimming pool filled with saffron, pearls, doubloons, and mint copies of Action Comics #1 the Cubs will be giving him each year until he’s 38, but not quite the cataclysm many have feared.

Kelly Johnson, 2B
Age: 28
BP 2010: “He made a canny move to sign with Arizona, where a hitter-friendly park should give him the best possible shot at a comeback campaign.”


PA VORP TAv
2010 151 15.5 .313
2009 346 1.0 .253
PECOTA 529 21.6 .270

Amen. The former Braves second baseman has posted a stellar .300/.400/.783 line at home, while hitting .250/.313/.472 in less arid climes. Johnson is a better player than he showed at the tail end of his Atlanta career, as PECOTA expected, but it would be too much to expect him to continue to go all Brady Anderson on the National League for the entire season—Johnson’s .341 ISO is nearly double his career mark, and nearly 30 percent of his fly balls have left the park this year, compared to 10 percent for his career. After his power numbers begin their inevitable decline back to more appropriate levels, the Diamondbacks will still have a valuable, relatively inexpensive lefty bat at their disposal to keep or trade as the need arises.

Alex Gonzalez, SS
Age: 33
BP 2010: “Gonzalez returned … to turn in one of the worst hitting seasons in the career of a bad hitter.”


PA VORP TAv
2010 164 13.0 .289
2009 429 -4.6 .220
PECOTA 450 1.6 .228

Newsflash: Alex Gonzalez likes to swing the bat, and swing it hard. Sometimes he makes contact, more frequently he doesn’t, but every once in a while he’ll go on one of those Vlad-type runs where he swings at everything and drives the ball. Like now. A-Gonz is striking out more than he has in years, and has taken a hack at a career-high 43.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone—second only to Guerrero—while still managing to post a .295 ISO and launch 10 home runs so far on the year. In this day and age, any offensive contribution from the shortstop position is gravy, and since Gonzalez continues to hold his own in the field, his $2.75 million contract (with a $2.5 million club option) looks to be a bargain. His hacktastic ways mean he’s bound to go into an out-making frenzy sooner rather than later, and even now his OBP is below .300, but when that happens his double-digit home runs will already be in the books and the Blue Jays will have been well-rewarded for their small investment.

Austin Kearns, RF
Age: 30
BP 2010: “…corner outfielders that can’t outhit corner shopkeepers aren’t in high demand. PECOTA is mildly optimistic that he could hit well enough to stick as a reserve, and he might, but there have been few extended stretches when Kearns has been healthy.”


PA VORP TAv
2010 107 11.9 .341
2009 211 -5.9 .241
PECOTA 139 2.5 .260

The good news is that Kearns does, indeed, appear to be healthy, and is raking at a .330/.402/.532 pace for the Indians. The bad news is that it probably can’t last, at least not at that level. Kearns is putting up an unsustainable .438 BABIP, second only to that of Tigers rookie Austin Jackson, and since correlation doesn’t equal causation, it’s unlikely that being named Austin will keep either of them from seeing that number drop precipitously. Some might point to Kearns’ high rate of line drives (29.9 percent) and low fly-ball rate (22.4 percent), well out of line with his career numbers, to explain his high BABIP—but given the skepticism of sharp knives like Colin Wyers as to the validity of batted-ball scoring, particularly line drives, I’m hesitant to put too much force behind that argument. Kearns is also swinging at a career-high 48 percent of pitches thrown to him, way above his numbers from recent years, which poses the chicken/egg question of whether more hits are dropping in because he’s swinging more or whether he’s swinging more because more hits are dropping in. Again, this isn’t going to last, but it’s nice to see Kearns get another lick of that shiny brass ring after all he’s been through.

Ivan Rodriguez, C
Age: 38
BP 2010: “Of course, Pudge isn’t the same player. How could he be?”


PA VORP TAv
2010 114 7.7 .296
2009 448 -1.3 .232
PECOTA 364 2.5 .227

It’s also nice to see Pudge have some success, above and beyond his purported purpose of mentoring a young Nationals staff. Take one look at his .349/.372/.462 line and you’ll see he’s the same guy he’s always been, with a temporarily inflated batting average due to a few less strikeouts and a high .387 BABIP. Rodriguez is hitting more ground balls than ever, which tends to increase batting average but also leads to more double plays—his 6.29 NETDP in just a little over 100 plate appearances leads the majors by far. This season may be the dead cat bounce of Pudge’s Hall of Fame career, but even so, we should enjoy it while it lasts.

Jose Guillen, DH
Age: 34
BP 2010: “Now that he’s 34 with obviously diminished skills, fans should not expect a rebound…”


PA VORP TAv
2010 158 7.4 .275
2009 312 -4.1 .240
PECOTA 467 4.9 .250

When it comes to Guillen, what can I tell you that you don’t already know? A .304/.337/.609 April has given way to a .170/.267/.245 May, meaning Guillen and the Royals are both slowly hacking their way toward their customary places at the back of the line. Though he’s already out-performed his projection by 2.5 runs, there’s still plenty of time for some sub-replacement-level play to bring those numbers closer together.

Aubrey Huff, 1B
Age: 33
BP 2010: “There’s a good chance he’ll return to being a .260-.270 TAv guy, but when you’re limited to DH, that’s worth essentially nothing.”


PA VORP TAv
2010 146 6.7 .280
2009 597 -13.4 .238
PECOTA 588 12.8 .271

True, but to the Giants, putting that guy at first base might be worth a lot. Here’s what San Francisco first baseman have hit collectively the last five seasons:

2009: .271/.328/.405
2008: .248/.313/.371
2007: .262/.324/.410
2006: .257/.307/.410
2005: .257/.316/.399

He isn’t a star, but Huff might seem like one compared to the parade of Aurilias, Kleskos, Hillenbrands, and Ishikawas that came before him. Last season, Huff played through injuries and saw his slugging dip below .425 for the first time in his nine-year career, but he looks to be on track for another standard, nondescript season. For the Giants, that will be a godsend.

Next time, I’ll take a look at the All-Bounceback Team’s pitching staff.

Ken Funck is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ken's other articles. You can contact Ken by clicking here

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