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Why predicting player breakouts is more important than minimizing error.

Last week, the sabermetric community had—well, not an argument, because the participants were generally professional and cordial to one another, but a debate about what we might expect over the rest of the season from a player who is currently enjoying a hot (or cold) streak. It all started with researcher Mitchel Lichtman (better known by his initials, MGL) posting two articles, one on hitters and one on pitchers, that made the case that we should trust the projection systems rather than expect a player’s recent performance to continue. Remember Charlie Blackmon, who was the best player in baseball for three weeks and was smart enough to make those weeks the first three weeks of the 2014 season? He’s a good example. He had never been anything special, nor was he projected for greatness this year. And in retrospect, his hot streak to start the season looks a lot like a small-sample fluke.

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Could studying the way pitchers approach hitters be the key to spotting breakouts before they occur?

In my last article, I looked at the career path of Albert Pujols from the perspective of PITCHf/x. Given the extreme fluctuations in Pujols’ skill over the last five years, I suspected that he would be a good test case to understand how batters are handled differently as their skills change. I found that pitchers approached Prince Albert more and more aggressively as his skills fell off, throwing him pitches closer to the center of the zone.

Even before Pujols’ results began to decline, pitchers were attacking his strike zone ever more audaciously. Consider this graph, which looks at the trend in Pujols’ zone distance in 2009 (left of the blue line) and 2010 (right), years in which he posted TAvs of .373 and .357.

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Examining an oft-cited method of predicting regular-season success from spring training stats.

It’s only natural to seek meaning in spring training statistics. By the time spring games roll around, we’re baseball-starved enough to believe anything. We’re also preparing for fantasy drafts, which means we’re always on the lookout for any info that could give us an edge. And contrary to the popular stathead saying, spring training stats aren’t actually meaningless—they’re just less meaningful, compared to a same-sized sample of big-league performance. Any change in a player’s performance should produce a corresponding (albeit small) change in our projection for that player. The more extreme that change in performance is, and the larger the sample, the more that projection shifts.

The most commonly cited method for assessing spring training statistics was proposed and popularized by John Dewan, the owner of Baseball Info Solutions. Dewan has devoted most of his analytical efforts to quantifying fielding, but he tackles other statistical topics in his “Stat of the Week” series at the website of publisher Acta Sports. Since at least 2005, Dewan has published an annual list of players whom he thinks stand a good chance to break out in the upcoming season, based on their spring training stats.

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Goin' All Hanley Ramirez

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September 11, 2004 12:00 am

Rational Exuberance: The Over-30 Crowd

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Jonah Keri

Two over-30 relative unknowns are putting up huge seasons, seemingly out of the blue. How'd they get here and what can other over-30 breakouts teach us? Jonah Keri takes a look.

Question 1: This player scores a higher VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) than Ichiro Suzuki, Scott Rolen, Vladimir Guerrero, Gary Sheffield or Manny Ramirez, but topped 500 at-bats in a season just once before age 30.

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August 6, 2003 12:00 am

Lies, Damned Lies: Quantum Leap

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Nate Silver

Up until this season, my clearest memory of Jose Guillen is as the object of some very unflattering jeering in the right field bleachers at Wrigley Field. The bleacher bums are never kind to opposing outfielders, but Guillen, being young, bad, and foreign, was a particularly vulnerable target. Guillen reacted to the taunts by alternately appearing hopelessly dejected and demonstratively angry, only making matters worse. Though he got his revenge that day--hitting a home run off crowd-favorite/headcase Turk Wendell--I've always had trouble watching him play without the phrase Jo-se-do-you-suck! running warbled, drunken, Francis Scott Off-Key through my head. However cruel, the taunting had proved prescient. Back in 1997, Guillen had time and an abundance of raw talent on his side. Bouncing between four organizations and failing to demonstrate any development, Guillen had regressed to the level of benchwarmer; his career .239 EqA entering the season was below replacement level for a corner outfielder. If not for his powerful right arm (an impressive tool, but overrated in its importance) and his much-tarnished Topps All-Rookie Team trophy, Guillen might have been riding shuttles between Louisville and Chattanooga or selling real estate instead of holding down a fourth outfielder job in the bigs. This season, of course, Guillen has had the last laugh. Easily the most productive hitter on the Reds this year, Guillen filled in admirably for Ken Griffey Jr. Now traded to the A's, he's been charged with the Herculean task of trying to make up for an entire outfield's worth of mediocrity, salvaging Billy Beane's reputation as a deadline dealer nonpareil in the process. But what if Guillen turns back into a pumpkin?

However cruel, the taunting had proved prescient. Back in 1997, Guillen had time and an abundance of raw talent on his side. Bouncing between four organizations and failing to demonstrate any development, Guillen had regressed to the level of benchwarmer; his career .239 EqA entering the season was below replacement level for a corner outfielder. If not for his powerful right arm (an impressive tool, but overrated in its importance) and his much-tarnished Topps All-Rookie Team trophy, Guillen might have been riding shuttles between Louisville and Chattanooga or selling real estate instead of holding down a fourth outfielder job in the bigs.

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In response to a reader's e-mail questioning whether, as Conventional Wisdom states, left-handed pitchers tend to develop later than right-handers, Neyer wrote:

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Steven Rubio

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