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April 23, 2012

Pebble Hunting

Cautiously Sizing Up April Stats

by Sam Miller

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April 19, 2011: "Somehow, someway, Carlos Lee is second with a 53.2 UZR/150. I will literally eat broken glass if he finishes with a positive number this season. (Someone hold me to it.)" —This guy, who is now dead, from eating glass :(

We have such a weird relationship with April stats. I’m trying to think of anything else where we consider a 10-percent sample almost totally useless. On election night, when they show the vote totals, I start to take them seriously once 10 percent of precincts are in. If you could see only 10 percent of a human, you could still probably figure out whether he was tall, fat, into rockabilly, etc. But the first 10 percent of a baseball season is like the first 10 percent of the sausage race in Milwaukee: filled with narrative, almost entirely misleading, and a place where Randall Simon doesn’t belong.

But April stats are also the most fun. Great player has a bad two weeks, terrible player has a great two weeks, and voila, your VORP leaderboard:

If God didn’t want us to look at leaderboards two weeks into the season, He wouldn’t have put so many funny players near the top of them. So let’s look, and let's laugh. But don’t laugh too hard. Laugh heartily, but with that anxious tickle in your chest that comes from knowing some of these things are going to stay true.

Isolated Power
Oh, sure, Matt Kemp is having a great season. He has faced 28 pitchers, and his OPS is better than 1.000 against 16 of them. He’s also only second in the majors in isolated power, behind George Kottaras, and just a little bit ahead of Omar Infante, and hoping to hold off A.J. Pierzynski, and really just holding his breath until Jeff Mathis has reached the 20-plate-appearance threshold I set for this leaderboard. This is just a very funny list, as evidenced by the fact that if you simply write “A.J. Pierzynski, Jeff Mathis and Omar Infante walked into a bar...” on a piece of paper, Jay Leno will hire you to join his writing staff.
Extremely half-hearted defense of this leaderboard: Remember when Omar Infante was 22 and had power? In 2004, he had 52 extra-base hits and a .185 isolated power. The list of second basemen who have put up an isolated power higher than .180 at age 22 or younger: Infante, Tony Lazzeri, Bobby Doerr. The other two are in the Hall of Fame, soooooooo

True Average
Here, Kemp is in the lead, which isn’t notable, except that if you remove all plate-appearance requirements, Kemp is still in the lead. Bobby Wilson, 3-for-5, two walks? Lower than Matt Kemp. Tyler Chatwood, 0-for-0, one walk? Lower than Matt Kemp. Jose Canseco, 0-for-0 with 5,000 imaginary home runs in his own mind? Lower than Matt Kemp.
Extremely half-hearted defense of these leaderboards: Matt Kemp is better than Bobby Wilson, so what exactly is the problem, here?

All defensive stats
It surprises us when Omar Infante hits a bunch of home runs, but also it’s really easy to imagine Omar Infante hitting a home run. Non-power hitters hit home runs all the time, so our brain can handle the physics of an Omar Infante hot streak. Defensive stats, though, are the best because a human brain can almost literally not imagine a clumsy defender making a great play. It’s like trying to read something in a dream that your brain doesn’t actually know: focus focus focus nothing. So how does Alfonso Soriano get to 55.9 UZR/150 in any sample? How does Miguel Cabrera, in two weeks, one week, one day, one play, manage to build up a 70-run UZR/150 lead over Evan Longoria?  The first few weeks of defensive stats are like the first few seconds of standing on a scale.
Extremely half-hearted defense of these leaderboards: Of the 607 players who have played defense this year, Derek Jeter ranks 582nd by FRAA.

On-base percentage
OBP leaderboards are great because they combine small samples, uneven competition, extreme BABIP spikes, and the puffed-up walk rates of guys batting in front of the pitcher. Here is your top 10:

1. George Kottaras
2. Steve Lombardozzi
3. Kelly Shoppach
4. Matt Kemp
5. David Wright
6. Chris Young
7. Eduardo Nunez
8. Lance Berkman
9. Travis Hafner
10. Josh Thole

Steve Lombardozzi has faced 14 pitchers this season. The best pitcher he has faced is probably Kerry Wood. The second-best is probably Bud Norris. The third-best is probably … Dillon Gee? Maybe it’s Dillon Gee. It is not a good list. It is a list that is probably the answer to an Aflac Trivia Question, like “Name the 14 active pitchers who have allowed three home runs in an inning.”
Extremely half-hearted defense of this leaderboard: Jack Hannahan is not on it.

Like I said, we have a weird relationship with these stats. The strangest thing about them is not any weird fluky performance that I’ve pointed out, but that one or two of these things might actually persist all the way to the end of the year. You know that quote about Carlos Lee that I started with? Here’s the rest of what that post highlighted a year ago:

Ichiro Suzuki, one of the greatest leathermen on the planet, is on pace for a -66.9 UZR/150. [Ichiro ended up with, by a large margin, the worst FRAA among right fielders in 2011.]

Jack Hannahan leads the league with a 63.6 UZR/150. [Jack Hannahan ended up leading all third basemen in FRAA in 2011.]

Somehow, Derek Jeter and Yuniesky Betancourt, two of the most vilified shortstops in baseball, are right in the middle of the pack. [Betancourt finished 10th in baseball in FRAA among shortstops. Jeter finished 55th, out of 57.]

It’s a fool who takes April stats too seriously. But baseball is only moderately less surprising over the course of a full season than over the course of two weeks.

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

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