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September 24, 2013

Overthinking It

The Season in Small-Sample Narratives

by Ben Lindbergh

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There’s only one thing as embarrassing as old yearbook photos: narratives from the start of the baseball season, as viewed from September. So much has happened since those first few months that it’s not always easy to remember what we were worried and excited about, even when we’re not actively trying to forget. Some early slumps and hot streaks are signs of things to come, but in retrospect, others seem impossibly quaint, like relics from a more ignorant age. With the regular season in its waning days, let’s look back at some of the flashes in pans that briefly became big stories.

Jarrod Parker needs a trip to Triple-A
Parker was awful in April. More accurately, he was awful in four of his six April starts, but those four were ugly enough to completely kayo his line. At the end of the month, he had a 7.36 ERA, which Bob Melvin called “puzzling” and columnists (after all of three outings) called grounds to propose putting him in the bullpen or sending him to Sacramento. Some of the right-hander’s struggles may have been bad luck—he had a .382 BABIP—but most likely he was suffering from some mechanical issues: Parker walked 16 in 29 1/3 April innings.

Whatever the problem, it went away in time. Since the end of April, Parker has failed to record a quality start only four times in 25 tries, including once in his first start of May and once when his hamstring forced him to leave a scoreless start early. He’s the most obvious “Don’t make too much of April” example on the list.

Undead Overbay, Wells, and Hafner
With half of their highly paid players on the shelf, the Yankees were kept in contention by a trio of surprising early season performances by players who’d been cast off or let go by their previous employers. Vernon Wells, the owner of a .258 on-base percentage in almost 800 plate appearances for the Angels from 2011-12, hit .300/.366/.544 with six homers in April, which looked a lot like one of his peak period lines. Hafner hit .318/.438/.667, which wouldn’t have looked out of place in his late 20s. Overbay had an un-Overbay-ish .214 ISO through May.

Then they all turned into pumpkins. Hafner hit .167/.249/.286 after April and has spent almost the whole second half on the DL. Wells has hit .225/.266/.309 after April and still managed to approach 500 plate appearances. And Overbay, who might still top 500, has a .238/.300/.354 line since May. Despite their hot starts, the three veterans have combined for a grand total of 0.4 WARP.

Jeff Locke, successful starter
Jeff Locke went 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA in 18 first-half starts. The left-hander had to win the Pirates’ fifth-starter job in spring training, so when he said, “I’m not surprised at the success this season” after becoming an All-Star, no one else nodded. That out-of-nowhere half-season made him the majors’ most obvious regression candidate, not only because he hadn’t done it before, but also because of his subpar peripherals. At the break, Locke had a 16.7 percent strikeout rate and a K:BB ratio of 1.55, which put a bright, blinking sign around his .231 BABIP. As efficient as the Pirates have been in the field, no defense known to man could make that BABIP sustainable.

Since then, Locke has recorded a 6.12 ERA in 12 starts sandwiched around a quick trip to Altoona, so the only All-Star on Pittsburgh’s starting staff won’t be in its playoff rotation. Because we all saw Locke’s decline coming, we probably haven’t acknowledged enough that he’s been as unlucky after the All-Star Game as he was lucky before it: his strikeout rate has risen slightly, but he has a .374 post-break BABIP. If anything, Locke’s wild season gives us a textbook example of the impact of extreme batted-ball outcomes, which we can cite the next time a similar campaign occurs. The real Locke is probably a perfectly capable fifth starter who would pitch to a 4-something FIP. Maybe we’ll see him next season.

The Legend of Evan Gattis
In the intro to this piece, I called these small-sample narratives that became big stories. Gattis is the exception: given the path he took to get there, it’s a story that he made the majors at all. Through the end of May, Gattis had a .281/.333/.619 line with 12 home runs in only 139 at-bats. But even at the peak of his performance, scouting sources insisted that his weaknesses would be exposed with continued playing time. Since then: .198/.245/.369 in 200 plate appearances. Clearly, Gattis has power; he hit the season’s longest homer earlier this month. But his plate discipline leaves a lot to be desired: in 353 PA, he has only 20 walks, four of which were intentional. He’s still a good story, but his talent can’t support his former folk hero status.

The disappointing, dysfunctional Dodgers
Through May, the Dodgers were 23-30. The team’s clubhouse chemistry was under scrutiny, and Don Mattingly was a few losses away from being fired. Even at the end of June, they were still five games under .500. Then they got Puig, got healthy, got hot, and reeled off one of the best two-month stretches in history. Even with a September slump, their win total will near the mid-90s. Hey, maybe we’ll know better than to blame the manager the next time a talented team gets off to a slow start! (Nah.)

The Rockies are a surprise team
Coming off a 98-loss 2012, the Rockies went 15-10 in April, finishing the month tied with the Diamondbacks atop the NL West. That was enough to build some “surprise team” buzz. “People outside this clubhouse may be surprised by what’s going on, but it’s not a surprise to any of us,” said Michael Cuddyer. “This isn’t some kind of aberration. We expect to be in there all year.” “These guys aren’t going to go away,” said Justin Upton, who soon went away himself. “55-75,” says Baseball-Reference, if you look up the Rockies’ record since April.

The Rockies have had one of the best pitching staffs in franchise history, but their offense has left a lot to be desired. They’re not the next A’s or Orioles yet.

Justin Upton evolves
Some statheads spent the winter deriding the Diamondbacks for the trade that sent Justin Upton to Atlanta, not to mention the months of preparatory trade talks that seemed designed to depress his value. That made Upton the perfect candidate for confirmation bias when he hit .298/.402/.734 with 12 home runs in April (and when Martin Prado, whom the Diamondbacks got back in the swap, started slowly with a .217/.266/.348 line). Finally free of the organization that had unfairly undervalued him, Upton was flowering, making the D-Backs pay for privileging grit over performance, and so on.

And then there was May, when Upton hit .211/.327/.326 and went deep twice, and June, when he hit .226/.336/.280 with one dinger. In hindsight, the outfielder was on fire in April and August and either mediocre or ice cold in every other month; in fact, since April, Prado has out-OPS’d Upton by 30 points. On the whole, Upton has been a bit better than he was last season—during which he was not at full strength—but worse than he was in 2011 or 2009. The odds are increasing that he’s simply a productive player whose Really Big Breakout isn’t coming.

In other unhappy Upton news, B.J.’s early season stats have proved predictive.

I could continue. For instance, I haven’t mentioned David Price’s pre-DL struggles. Paul Maholm and Nate McLouth sustaining, and then losing, their 2012 mojo. Jake Westbrook’s sub-3.00 ERA through late July. Jean Segura looking like an MVP, then looking like a light-hitting shortstop. All of which is to say that no sample size is utterly safe. If you made any small-sample mistakes this season, resist the urge to rationalize. Instead, live with them and learn from them. And be careful out there on the mean statistical streets.

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

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