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July 22, 2010

Changing Speeds

Cold Fusion

by Ken Funck

On Tuesday night in Kansas City, Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista launched his major league-leading 26th home run, continuing one of the most unexpected power surges in recent memory. Long known as a journeyman with decent patience and a modicum of power, few expected Bautista at this stage of his career to suddenly turn into a long-ball machine. It’s always fun to see players suddenly show a propensity for the long ball—perhaps we identify with players who manage the baseball equivalent of the young Marty McFly balling up his fist and decking Biff with an unexpected haymaker. 

With that in mind, I’ve set out to identify this year’s most surprising power sources—those players whose home-run output has most outstripped their pre-season PECOTA forecast—and see if we can decide which of them will continue their slugging ways and which, like cold fusion, shouldn’t be considered as a long-term power source.

Below we see the players whose raw home-run totals so far this season most exceed their forecasted totals for the entire season (minimum of 10 home runs hit so far this year):

Player

Team

HR 2010

HR PECOTA

HR Over

PA 2010

PA PECOTA

Jose Bautista

Blue Jays

26

16

10

391

440

Alex Gonzalez

Braves

17

8

9

368

285

Scott Rolen

Reds

17

11

6

328

444

Josh Hamilton

Rangers

23

17

6

397

456

Corey Hart

Brewers

22

17

5

365

542

Drew Stubbs

Reds

13

8

5

350

476

Vernon Wells

Blue Jays

19

15

4

380

496

Kelly Johnson

Diamondbacks

15

11

4

380

489

Jose Guillen

Royals

15

11

4

378

383

Troy Glaus

Braves

14

10

4

370

311

Not surprisingly, Bautista leads the way, having already gone deep 10 times more than PECOTA thought he would all year. However, some of these players were not forecast to spend the entire season both healthy and employed, so they appear on this list mostly because they’ve stayed in the lineup. It might be better to look at those players whose current home-run totals have most surpassed the number of home runs PECOTA projected them to hit in the number of plate appearances they’ve already amassed. I’ve calculated this by dividing a player’s actual plate appearances by their PECOTA-projected plate appearances, and multiplying the result by the number of PECOTA-projected home runs:

Player

Team

HR 2010

PECOTA HR for Current PA

HR Over Projection

PA 2010

PA PECOTA

PECOTA Full-Season HR

Jose Bautista

Blue Jays

26

14

12

391

440

16

Corey Hart

Brewers

22

11

11

365

542

17

Scott Rolen

Reds

17

8

9

328

444

11

Josh Hamilton

Rangers

23

15

8

397

456

17

Vernon Wells

Blue Jays

19

11

8

380

496

15

Alex Gonzalez

Braves

17

10

7

368

285

8

Drew Stubbs

Reds

13

6

7

350

476

8

Tyler Colvin

Cubs

13

6

7

223

443

11

Kelly Johnson

Diamondbacks

15

9

6

388

489

11

Shane Victorino

Phillies

15

9

6

415

578

12

Carlos Gonzalez

Rockies

17

11

6

363

482

15

Colby Rasmus

Cardinals

16

10

6

322

442

14

This changes our list a little, dropping players like Troy Glaus and Jose Guillen and moving Alex Gonzalez down a bit.  Bautista is still at the top, having clubbed 12 more long flies at this point in the season than PECOTA would have projected, with surprise All-Star Home Run Derby participant Corey Hart right behind. It’s interesting to see seven of the 11 players on the list have spent significant time playing center field this year—no reason for this I can think of, but I love these sorts of odd coincidences.

Let’s take a closer look at these players and some of their batted ball data—specifically their fly ball and ground-ball rates, and their home runs per fly ball percentage—to see if we can tease out why their power numbers are up and whether it’s likely to last. I’m also including an excerpt from the BP2010 annual for each player to see if our analysts had any inkling that these players might break out more fireworks than expected.

Jose Bautista
Age:  29
BP 2010:  “Bautista has some value as a reserve … will take his walks, and has 15-homer power.”

Jose Bautista

HR

PA

GB%

FB%

HR/FB

2010

26

391

31.1%

52.9%

19.1%

2009

13

404

41.3%

42.1%

12.3%

Career

85

2429

40.2%

44.5%

12.1%

Bautista got off to a hot start, going yard 12 times and slugging .766 in May, but a June swoon saw those numbers drop to four home runs and a .369 SLG. Rumors of his demise were premature, however, as he’s bopping again in July, with six home runs and a .639 SLG. As you can see above, Bautista is hitting way more fly balls this year—his drop in ground-ball percentage (10.2) is the seventh-biggest year-to-year drop in the last decade.*  His fly-ball percentage has increased almost as much, but keep in mind that it’s more difficult to score a ball in play as a line drive or a fly ball, so there may be more bias in those numbers—ground-ball percentage is likely more descriptive. Unsurprisingly, Bautista’s HR/FB rate is also well above his normal mark, so that’s not likely to last. Still, hitting so many balls in the air will ensure that he’ll continue to go yard even as his HR/FB% drops, just not at his current league-leading rate.

*The biggest drop in ground-ball percentage this decade is actually Jhonny Peralta dropping 17.6 percent, from 50.2 percent last year to 32.6 percent so far this year—but since his HR/FB rate has dropped down to 5.8 percent; he’s only gone deep seven times.

Corey Hart
Age:  28
BP 2010:  “Many blamed his 2008 collapse on an overly aggressive approach, so at the organization’s behest, Hart made adjustments … wherever he lands, his employer might be best served by letting him hack away in search of his lost power stroke.”

Corey Hart

HR

PA

GB%

FB%

HR/FB

2010

22

365

36.1%

47.1%

18.3%

2009

12

472

40.6%

42.2%

8.8%

Career

89

2380

39.6%

42.6%

12.2%

After disappointing seasons in 2007 and 2008, the Brewers asked Hart to change his approach in 2009, with disappointing results. Hart worked deeper counts, with his pitches per plate appearance increasing from 3.47 in 2008 to 3.86 in 2009. This new approach resulted in increased rates of both strikeouts and walks, but it cost him much of his power. Despite our advice in the annual to go back to his hacktastic ways, Hart stuck with his new, more patient approach, and it seems to be paying off. He’s still seeing more pitches (3.79 per plate appearance), but has apparently learned not just to be patient but to aggressively attack pitches he can handle. He’s hitting more balls in the air and they’re leaving the yard at a likely unsustainable career-high rate, but there’s reason to think that his newfound combination of patience and aggression should make him a good bet to continue his offensive renaissance, whether in Milwaukee or someplace else.

Scott Rolen
Age:  35
BP 2010:  “Rolen isn’t much of a power hitter anymore …. Over the last three seasons Rolen has hit just 30 home runs in 1,443 plate appearances with a below-average ISO of .151.”

Scott Rolen

HR

PA

GB%

FB%

HR/FB

2010

17

328

35.4%

47.7%

14.7%

2009

11

535

36.6%

40.9%

6.4%

Career

300

7710

34.4%

44.3%

11.3%

The one-time slugger has battled chronic injuries for years, but this season Rolen got off to a great start, perhaps because he finally felt good at the plate. However, a paltry .182/.308/.273 July line accompanied reports of his back once again acting up on him, followed by a hamstring problem that may land him on the DL. When Rolen is healthy, it’s not unreasonable to think he can produce the type of power we saw from him early in the year—but who wants to bet on him staying healthy? The Reds’ training staff may turn out to have as much of a say in the NL Central race as anyone.

Josh Hamilton
Age:  29
BP 2010:  “We’re far enough into an unusual career that predicting what comes next is already odd-spot territory….  At this point, Hamilton could be anything from Comeback Player of the Year to latter day Joe Charboneau.”

Josh Hamilton

HR

PA

GB%

FB%

HR/FB

2010

23

397

40.3%

37.3%

20.9%

2009

10

365

36.4%

41.8%

9.2%

Career

84

1803

42.4%

35.7%

18.1%

Seeing Hamilton on this list is a little odd, as there’s little doubt he has as much raw power as anyone in baseball. Last year, however, Hamilton struggled through injuries to his back, abdomen, and groin, and when that’s coupled with the late start to his career and unique career path, it’s not hard to understand why PECOTA was a little suspicious coming into 2010. Maintaining a lofty 20.9 percent HR/FB rate is certainly within his core competency, so long as the Rangers training and support staff can help keep his core competent. Hamilton sat at .357/.399/.638 through Tuesday’s games, and with the increased number of ground balls he’s hitting helping to keep his average and BABIP high, there’s no reason he can’t continue to battle fellow slugging machine Miguel Cabrera for the Triple Crown.

Vernon Wells
Age:  31
BP 2010:  “Wells’ performance at the plate last season looked an awful lot like what he did in 2007, which suggests that there was more than just bad luck to blame.”

Vernon Wells

HR

PA

GB%

FB%

HR/FB

2010

19

391

44.7%

39.0%

16.5%

2009

15

404

42.8%

42.4%

6.4%

Career

211

5697

41.6%

39.7%

12.0%

Have you noticed that lately Wells only hits in federal election years?

2006:

.303/.357/.542

2007:

.245/.304/.402

2008:

.300/.343/.496

2009:

.260/.311/.400

2010:

.266/.316/.514

His current power numbers may leave Blue Jays fans feeling all hope-y change-y, but that .316 OBP hints at a walk-less recovery. Wells isn’t drawing bases on balls, his batting average remains low, and while his .268 BABIP is likely to climb closer to his career rate of .288, that’ll only help so much. The only thing different with Wells in 2010 is a spike in HR/FB—that 10.1 percent increase is the highest of any player this year, and the eighth-highest of the decade (Joe Mauer’s 13.9 percent increase last year was the highest). The home runs he’s hitting tend to go a long way—he’s tied with Bautista for the major-league lead in No Doubt HRs with nine—but it’s hard to picture him keeping this up all year. Since Wells is owed something in the neighborhood of the Belgian GNP over the next four years, Alex Anthopolous may be best served by putting Wells on waivers while his value is high and hope that Kenny Williams, in need of a slugging outfielder, bites.

Alex Gonzalez
Age:  33
BP 2010:  “The Blue Jays (signed) him to a one year deal—a move that really should have been blocked by the Commissioner’s office given that Gonzalez’s bat should preclude him from starting.”

Alex Gonzalez

HR

PA

GB%

FB%

HR/FB

2010

17

368

30.9%

48.6%

12.6%

2009

8

429

36.5%

47.2%

5.2%

Career

131

5144

34.5%

46.4%

8.2%

The third player to spend most of the year in Toronto (are the air conditioning fans blowing out his year at the Rogers Centre?), Gonzalez got off to a slugging start, launching seven big flies in April to make this year’s early season Bounceback Players team. He’s cooled somewhat since then, hitting “only” 10 more—quite a nice number for a shortstop, actually. Gonzo is a committed out-maker, however, and the Blue Jays did exactly the right thing in treating him like you’d treat a vase pulled out of storage that the folks on "Antiques Roadshow" claim is worth a mint: sell it while the selling is good. In Atlanta he’s sure to pop a few more taters, just not at his current rate, even in the easier league.

Drew Stubbs
Age:  25
BP 2010:  “Stubbs is an otherworldly defensive center fielder and an excellent baserunner with real power—at least at the Gap, where he hit .337/.380/.616 with seven of eight home runs.”

Drew Stubbs

HR

PA

GB%

FB%

HR/FB

2010

13

350

47.0%

37.7%

17.0%

2009

8

196

42.2%

36.7%

16.0%

Career

21

546

45.2%

37.3%

16.4%

Stubbs always drew walks and showed power potential as a prospect, though he never hit more than 12 home runs in a minor-league season—hence PECOTA’s caution—but the worry was that he’d have to cut down on his swing to reduce his prodigious strikeout rate, thus reducing his power. As it turned out, Stubbs has continued to flail away in the majors (his 30.5 percent strikeout rate is fifth in NL), and his while his walks didn’t accompany him to the majors and his OBP has suffered, at age 25 he’s grown into his power. Combine that with stolen bases and outstanding defense in center field (he’s posted a 16.0 FRAA so far this season, though UZR is less sanguine) and you have a player who looks mighty inclined to try to live up to those Mike Cameron comps that have followed him for years.

Tyler Colvin
Age:  24
BP 2010:  “The former first-round pick finally developed the home-run power his size and swing have long suggested….Colvin’s walk rate and power production remain inversely proportional.”

Tyler Colvin

HR

PA

GB%

FB%

HR/FB

2010

13

223

44.5%

36.3%

24.5%

2009

0

20

53.8%

15.4%

0.0%

Career

13

243

45.3%

34.6%

23.6%

Just as described, the Cubs rookie has posted a low (6.3 percent) walk rate, a high (28.9 percent) strikeout rate, a low OBP, and has gone deep 13 times in part-time play. But can that home-run power last? See if you can spot which one of the players below doesn’t really belong:

2010 Highest HR/PA

Player

HR/FB

Joey Votto

24.7%

Tyler Colvin

24.5%

Carlos Pena

23.0%

Mike Napoli

23.0%

Kendry Morales

21.6%

Prince Fielder

21.5%

Josh Hamilton

20.9%

Adam Dunn

20.6%

Miguel Cabrera

20.3%

Ryan Howard

20.2%

Is it reasonable to expect Colvin to continue to hang with that company? With a lefty bat, an ability to play a passable center field, and decent power, Colvin can be a usable, inexpensive player—but don’t expect much more.

Kelly Johnson
Age:  28
BP 2010:  “Johnson got a bit too power-happy, and last year, the wheels came off.”

Kelly Johnson

HR

PA

GB%

FB%

HR/FB

2010

15

388

42.2%

39.1%

14.9%

2009

8

346

39.0%

43.1%

7.5%

Career

60

2290

41.2%

37.6%

10.2%

Another Bounceback Team member, Johnson hit nine of his home runs in April but has slacked off considerably in the power department since then. No matter—he’s not a slugger, just a good hitter with occasional power, and his .372 OBP is a handy feature. Johnson’s batting peripherals currently look much more like his early career than his disastrous 2009, so as those fly balls die more frequently on the warning track, he’ll still be a valuable offensive contributor.

Shane Victorino
Age:  29
BP 2010:  “His modus operandi will probably go unchanged: be patient, hit the ball hard, drive opposing pitchers batty.”

Shane Victorino

HR

PA

GB%

FB%

HR/FB

2010

15

415

43,8%

41.0%

11.3%

2009

10

694

45.1%

33.2%

5.5%

Career

59

2810

45.6%

35.4%

7.7%

Notice how Victorino’s ground-ball percentage has stayed about the same, but his fly-ball percentage has increased almost 8 percent? Many more of his non-grounders are being scored as fly balls this year rather than line drives—there might be some scorer bias in that number, but with his BABIP currently at .259 (vs. a career rate of .301) it’s reasonable to think that Victorino has spent the early season swinging for the fences. He started the season batting seventh, though the Phillies’ cavalcade of injuries have put him back at the top of the order—perhaps that’s put him in more of a slugging mindset. In any case, Victorino’s optimal role is to set the table, and as he’s only drawn one walk in July and his OBP is currently a career-low .316, he may be best served by getting back to his old self.

Carlos Gonzalez
Age:  24
BP 2010:  “CarGo has always had light-tower power but now exhibits an improved approach, working deeper counts and upping his walk rate to league average.”

Carlos Gonzalez

HR

PA

GB%

FB%

HR/FB

2010

17

363

43.3%

36.8%

16.7%

2009

13

317

37.8%

38.8%

17.7%

Career

34

996

43.6%

36.1%

13.9%

Actually, CarGo’s walk rate didn’t survive the winter—it’s down to 4.4 percent--while his strikeout rate (24.3 percent) is still high, giving him the lowest BB/K ratio (0.19) in the NL. That’s a concern, obviously, but CarGo has managed to keep a high BABIP (.359 this year, .338 for his career) by hitting enough balls on the ground and using his speed, in addition to driving the ball out of the park. With his raw power he’s a cinch to keep driving the ball out of the park, but improving his contact and walk rates may be the difference between a future as a solid outfielder or a perennial All-Star.

Colby Rasmus
Age:  23
BP 2010:  “Considering that his walk rates were stronger in the minors, that the power did show up, and that he played through the second half with a painful heel injury that sapped his production, it’s easy to anticipate his fulfilling his higher-end PECOTA projection.”

Colby Rasmus

HR

PA

GB%

FB%

HR/FB

2010

16

322

31.4%

49.2%

17.0%

2009

16

520

34.7%

45.7%

9.4%

Career

32

842

33.6%

46.9%

12.1%

Since his 90th percentile projection was a .287 TAv, and he’s currently sitting at .301, so far his higher-end PECOTA projection has been more than fulfilled. Rasmus has posted a .354 BABIP, which is likely to go down given such a low ground-ball percentage, and if he doesn’t lower his 32.4 percent strikeout rate (up from 20 percent last year) his batting average will suffer. A former top prospect who has yet to turn 24, the jump in home-run rate isn’t surprising, and Rasmus should be set to put up big power numbers for the foreseeable future.

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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