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July 27, 2010

Expanded Horizons

If July Were April

by Tommy Bennett

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Step Inside the Patented Yearearranger

After a month of play this baseball season, we have already witnessed some remarkable early-season heroics. Rookie catcher Buster Posey, aggressively promoted to the majors to open the season, is batting .469 and may become the first catcher ever to bat .400 in a single season. Slugging sensation Aramis Ramirez is quickly erasing memories of his injury-shortened 2009, and with nine homers so far may eclipse his career high in home runs (he hit 36 in 2004). Pitchers, not to be outshined, have already achieved some remarkable feats. Adam Wainwright has allowed just one run so far, which translates to a nifty 0.31 ERA, which is more than twice as good as the marks set by Josh Johnson (0.68), Johan Santana (0.71), Mat Latos (0.86), and Vicente Padilla (0.98). It’s hard to remember a season in which so many pitchers had kept their ERA below one for so long. This certainly must be the Year of the Pitcher.

Individual players haven’t been the only ones to surprise. The Indians (11-9 so far) have surprised many and currently stand in second place, behind the similarly hot White Sox (13-7). It appears as though the shrewd hiring of Manny Acta to lead the Indians has paid early dividends, as he has coerced useful performances from Fausto Carmona (2-2, 2.83), Matt LaPorta (.308/.375/.477), and Jason Donald (.298/.385/.439). Look for the Indians to make a strong challenge in the AL Central this year and potentially overtake the White Sox by the All-Star break.

Wait a Minute…

Let’s take a step back to confirm that, no, you did not just suffer a stroke. I’m having a bit of fun at the mid-season point’s expense. In fact, all of the numbers reported above are true, except that they don’t reflect the first month of the season but rather the month of July through the end of Sunday. Most teams had played 20 or 21 games in that span, and a few players were really hitting it on the screws. A few pitchers, too, were experiencing an impressive run of success. Of course, there’s no way Posey could bat .400 in a single season, or that Ramirez will hit even 40 home runs in a season. But this is exactly the kind of thinking that gets people into trouble in April.

Think back a few years to when Chipper Jones finished the month of April batting .410, and there was a wave of people questioning whether he might hit .400 on the season (of course, Chipper batted .417 in May and kept the hope alive). In 2006, Chris Shelton hit 10 home runs in April to become, however briefly, a “SportsCenter” mainstay. This year, of course, Ubaldo Jimenez started off brilliantly but has subsequently cooled off. Similarly, many Mets watchers believed long-suffering ground-baller Mike Pelfrey had discovered a new performance level after refining his off-speed offerings and posting a 0.69 ERA at the end of April (not to mention a 4-0 record, which always helps to fuel the early-season fire). Since the end of April, however, Pelfrey has a 53/33 K/BB ratio and a 4.92 ERA in 93 1/3 IP.

So what is it about the month of April, but not the month of July or any other month, that causes it to take on such outsized significance? Its most obvious feature, the thing that gives April a special role in the baseball season, is that it’s first. Not only are the stat lines from the previous year wiped totally clean, but so are fans’ memories. To a certain degree, it can be hard to hold on to the mountains of data from years past, but it’s easy to remember last night’s 3-for-4 effort and an eight-game hitting streak. When impressions created by recent play are confirmed by the relatively limited scope of the common stat lines, it is downright difficult to maintain proper weighting of historical performance.

Perhaps this is obvious, so I’ll only rehearse it briefly, but it’s important to remember what a 3-for-4 (all singles) performance does for a batting average at various points in the season. Say a player is batting .300 in 80 at-bats. If he goes 3-for-4 the next night, his average is up to .321. By contrast, if he has 350 AB and is hitting .300, a 3-for-4 night just brings his average to .305. It’s not as if the 3-for-4 night is any more or less valuable whether it happens in April or July, but the perceived impact it has is enormous.

Consider, just for the moment, the amount of hype that would have surrounded Posey if he had opened the season with the Giants and posted a .371/.407/.579 line with eight homers in his first 194 plate appearances. Of course, that’s exactly what he’s done, but it’s happened later in the season, and so his remarkable success has been somewhat overlooked. Here, what hurts the perception of Posey’s season is that his counting stats are behind those of his peers who played the whole season. What’s more, because he does not have the requisite plate appearances, his averages do not appear on the league leaderboards (for good reason). Nevertheless, the same performance would have qualified if it had started in April. 

Ramirez is another fine example. He came out of the box about as brutally as a hitter can, batting an execrable .158/.222/.263 with more GIDP (5) than homers (4) in his first 189 PA. That more or less sealed the fate of his season as a disappointment. But after spending a few weeks on the disabled list with a thumb injury, Ramirez has done nothing but hit. In the 108 PA since his return on June 25, Ramirez is hitting .333/.380/.717 and has 10 home runs. What would the narrative surrounding Ramirez’s season have been if he had the good half first? I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to say that the perception would have been much rosier in that case.

Question of the Day

 It strikes me that it is important to mine stat sheets constantly to update perceptions of players. Only through sustained study can a baseball fan discern the true performances from the short-term blips. Even more important is the ability to update upward expectations about players that may be masked by initial misleading (and oftentimes negative) perceptions. What other players’ turnarounds have been masked by their overall stat lines this season?  

Related Content:  First Month

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