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July 7, 2009

Midseason Review

Hitting Performances

by Jay Jaffe

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In case you hadn't noticed, it's been a roller-coaster season for Alex Rodriguez. Steroid revelations, hip surgery, a .219 batting average on balls in play, an inflated walk rate, a recent eight-game, five-homer tear-he's done plenty to confound expectations, both good and bad. Yet the ever-controversial 33-year-old slugger's .313 Equivalent Average through the first 81 games is just two points off his PECOTA weighted mean projection of .311.*

Rodriguez's is hardly the only on-the-nose projection our system has had halfway into the season. Of the 227 players with at least 200 plate appearances through Sunday (the schedule's official midpoint), 97 are within 15 points of their PECOTA weighted mean Equivalent Averages. The variations are normally distributed, with 154 players within 29 points-or one standard deviation-of their projections, and 213 within two standard deviations. Here's a non-random selection of players within 15 points either way:

Player           Team      PA   Actual Projected Diff.
Justin Upton     D'backs  325   .302    .287     .015
Matt Kemp        Dodgers  336   .302    .290     .012
Robinson Cano    Yankees  347   .271    .264     .007
Jacoby Ellsbury  Red Sox  338   .275    .270     .005
Jason Bay        Red Sox  348   .299    .295     .004
David Wright     Mets     353   .325    .323     .002
Hanley Ramirez   Marlins  336   .326    .324     .002
Alex Rodriguez   Yankees  221   .313    .311     .002
Mark Teixeira    Yankees  356   .309    .308     .001
Miguel Cabrera   Tigers   330   .306    .308    -.002
Ken Griffey Jr.  Mariners 250   .265    .272    -.007
Emilio Bonifacio Marlins  347   .223    .233    -.010
Dustin Pedroia   Red Sox  365   .270    .284    -.014

This list is simply a baker's dozen of players (mostly from the East Coast) who have been surrounded by lofty and in some cases unreasonable expectations. We've got three of the game's six highest-paid hitters (Rodriguez, Teixeira, and Cabrera), the reigning AL MVP (Pedroia), the whipping boy of Queens (Wright), a prodigal son returned (Griffey), a 21-year-old phenom (Upton), arguably the game's best all-around player (Ramirez), a horrible idea for a leadoff man (Bonifacio), and a few others who frequent conversations in the Northeast corridor. Despite the varying shapes of performance hidden by EqA, they're all about as productive as PECOTA-if not the chattering classes-expected.

Turning to the extremes, here are the players exceeding their projections by the widest margin:

Player           Team       PA   Actual Projected Diff.
Jason Bartlett   Rays      248   .334    .243     .091
Ben Zobrist      Rays      270   .331    .259     .072
Joe Mauer        Twins     256   .370    .298     .072
Joey Votto       Reds      205   .355    .298     .057
Ichiro Suzuki    Mariners  342   .312    .258     .054
Adrian Gonzalez  Padres    349   .346    .295     .051
Raul Ibaņez      Phillies  280   .336    .286     .050
Prince Fielder   Brewers   362   .355    .305     .050
Adam Lind        Blue Jays 354   .319    .270     .049
Pablo Sandoval   Giants    307   .318    .269     .049
Kendry Morales   Angels    308   .287    .240     .047
Gary Sheffield   Mets      218   .318    .271     .047

By and large, that's a youngish group, with an average age (weighted by PA) of 28.5. Sandoval, at 22 the baby of the group, is in his first full season, as is the 25-year-old Lind. The latter is one of eight here between the prime ages of 25 and 29, while Ichiro (35), Ibaņez (37), and Sheffield (40) are the only over-30s. Ichiro and Sheffield are the only two here for whom this year's performance wouldn't be a career high (and by a wide margin, at that), and both are particularly confounding age expectations. PECOTA really ought to know better regarding the former; year after year it takes Suzuki's high BABIPs as a fluke, but this year's .383 mark would be his fourth season out of nine above .370. As for Sheff, he's defiantly rebounded from last year's 43-point shortfall (the second-largest among those with 400 PA) and a springtime release by the Tigers to become arguably the second-best player in the decimated Mets' lineup. His EqA is a ringer for his .315 career mark.

Seven players from this hot-hitting dozen were named to their respective leagues' All-Star teams on Sunday, with Ibaņez, Mauer, and Ichiro voted into the starting lineups, and Bartlett, Fielder, Gonzalez, and Zobrist named as reserves. The two first basemen are proven commodities, good players having great years, while the two Rays infielders are less defensible selections given their short track records; their 2009 performances look fairly fluky. Ibaņez had parlayed a more favorable ballpark, an easier league, and some good luck on fly balls to put together a career-year start before suffering a groin strain three weeks ago; along with Mauer, Votto, and Bartlett, he's helped at least somewhat by the smaller sample size created by his DL stint. Morales, dismissed in this space in February as sub-replacement fodder, has turned out to be a relative asset; perhaps the difficulty of translating Cuban stats and the extremes of Salt Lake City have confounded PECOTA.

To the underperformers:

Player            Team       PA   Actual Projected  Diff.
Brian Giles       Padres    253    .196   .290     -.094
Jimmy Rollins     Phillies  347    .216   .288     -.072
Bill Hall         Brewers   203    .204   .270     -.066
Garrett Atkins    Rockies   255    .222   .286     -.064
Kelly Johnson     Braves    263    .229   .290     -.061
Elijah Dukes      Nationals 211    .242   .302     -.060
Dioner Navarro    Rays      252    .199   .256     -.057
Alfonso Soriano   Cubs      348    .241   .294     -.053
David Ortiz       Red Sox   311    .248   .297     -.049
Kevin Kouzmanoff  Padres    317    .234   .282     -.048
Chris Young       D'backs   270    .229   .277     -.048
Magglio Ordoņez   Tigers    283    .245   .291     -.046
Rick Ankiel       Cardinals 227    .234   .280     -.046
Eric Byrnes       D'backs   210    .214   .260     -.046

As you'd expect, this group is older than the previous one, though at 29.8 years, not by much. Six of these 14 players are over 30, headed by the looking-quite-cooked Ordoņez (35) and Giles (38). The rest are between 25 and 29, with those younger than that likely to have been sent down to the minors. Johnson and Kouzmanoff counter Gonzalez when it comes to the age-27 phenomenon.

These players were expected to be solid contributors, with Navarro and Byrnes the only ones projected for EqAs below .270. It's unclear whether injuries are a factor; several of these players may be at less than 100 percent, but only Ankiel, Byrnes, Dukes, and Giles have served DL stints this year, mostly following poor performances rather than preceding them. It's possible that Byrnes, Dukes, Navarro, Ordoņez, Ortiz, and Soriano-all denizens of the DL last year-may be dealing with extensions of older woes, though Ortiz has notably come around of late. Elsewhere, we've got slumps galore, including the the pull-happy Rollins, the righty-shy Hall, and the sub-Mendozoid Young.

Note that while luck on balls in play contributes to over- or underperformance, it doesn't explain the entirety of these lists. Overachievers Votto, Mauer, Bartlett, Suzuki, and Sandoval accompany the on-target Wright, Kemp, Ramirez, and Upton in the BABIP top 20. Underachievers Giles, Byrnes, Rollins, Navarro, Johnson, Atkins, and Young join Griffey, Rodriguez, and the overachieving Gonzalez in the bottom 20.

In any event, as the sample sizes increase, bank on these extreme performances to regress, and the projections to gain in their accuracy. Last year's standard deviation among players with 400 PA was just 22 points of EqA, with every player within 51 points of his weighted mean projection, and a majority (111 out of 213) within 15 points. It may be a bit much to call PECOTA "deadly accurate," but as hitter projections go, it ain't too shabby.

*: For this article I'm using numbers from our page for 2009 EqAs and the final weighted mean spreadsheet for PECOTA that was dated March 14.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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