Unlike former teammate Adam Dunn, who has had disappointing stretches or seasons, Austin Kearns has never really produced over the course of a full season, despite the praised heaped on him before ever earning a spot in the majors. This is not to say that Kearns has never been productive; far from it, as he has put up quality numbers much of the time he has been in the majors, although never what many envisioned, and only for 150 games once in five years. Now 27 years old-and made available to the Washington Nationals for essentially nothing of substance last summer-the question is whether Kearns can lead the Nats’ offense, especially with their most productive hitter, Nick Johnson, on the disabled list to start the season.
Austin Ryan Kearns was the first pick of the 1998 amateur draft for the Cincinnati Reds, going #7 overall. The 18-year old Kearns signed shortly after, and made his way to Billings in the Rookie Pioneer League for his professional debut. The first three years of his career would be spent in the low minors, where he would display an aptitude for plate patience as well as some power potential:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Bil.(Rk) 108 .315/.433/.426 29% .111 9 17.2% 16.4% Roc.(A) 426 .258/.346/.458 49% .200 41 10.5% 25.2% Day.(A) 484 .306/.415/.558 45% .252 39 15.3% 15.8%
During his first year, Kearns showed he knew how to take a walk, but did not display all that much power. Even though his batting average dipped considerably in 1999 at Rockford, his Isolated Power almost doubled. The one worry from that season was his strikeout rate, which ballooned to just over one-quarter of his plate appearances, but those fears were somewhat allayed in 2000 when his walk rate increased and his strikeouts dropped considerably at the same time he increased his power.
Kearns’ career has turned out more to look like his first go-round in Single-A at Rockford than his more productive campaign at Dayton the following year. His time at Rockford may actually be part of the reason Kearns has always seemed somewhat disappointing to those who watched him come up through the minors. He was repeating Single-A, although at a different location, which may have had something to do with the excellent numbers he posted. His BABIP was a tad high both years, but not so much above the league average where they could be labeled the cause of a fluke season. Then again, he was only 20 years old, and it is quite the productive year.
Kearns’ power is in full bloom…Reds officials like Kearns’ ability to distribute that power to all fields. Another of his assets is the ability to make adjustments at the plate. He made impressive strides with his strike-zone judgment in 2000, and the dividends were obvious. Kearns has decent speed, a strong arm and is proficient enough in right field to keep Cincinnati from considering switching him to first base…the Reds want to see him continue to push himself…Some say he’s so good that he occasionally eases up a bit. Developing a gameday routine…would benefit him. That also could help him fine-tune his swing, which gets a little long from time to time.
Amazing how this paragraph, which was written before the 2001 season began, can sum up the trouble Kearns’ career has faced to date. His work ethic and training habits have been questioned repeatedly, with Kearns showing up overweight, out of shape, or getting himself hurt quite often. He has excellent power, but he does struggle from time to time, which could be a case of his swing getting a bit long.
Baseball Prospectus 2001 makes a point of mentioning Kearns’ repeating Single-A, but choose to ignore what that could mean for Kearns’ ability:
Austin Kearns is the Reds’ best prospect, bar none. Scouts love him for his tools while people like us get excited about the power and plate discipline he’s shown at age 20. His 2000 performance is inflated by the level–a real comer doesn’t usually get 900-odd ABs in the Midwest League–so he may look like a relative disappointment this year. Ignore it: Kearns will be a star.
It’s understandable given his age and the press surrounding Kearns to ignore his significant amount of time in the Midwest League, but looking at the rest of his minor league career, it’s tough to find another reason for why everyone was as excited about him as they were. He clearly had the tools and the ability, but, as Baseball America mentioned, if he did not have the routine and the drive in place, turning that raw talent into production becomes a bit difficult.
Kearns lost three months to a thumb injury in 2001, and his numbers suffered a bit after a promotion to Double-A Chattanooga:
Kearns’ BABIP dipped to .314, which was close to the league average for Double-A ball. His power was nowhere near as explosive after moving up a level, though he retained his plate patience for the most part, and did not lose the strike-zone judgment he seemed to improve upon the year before. The fact that he ended the season on a high note after coming back from injury-and then destroyed the Arizona Fall League as a follow-up-made him Baseball America’s top Reds prospect for the second straight year. This also allowed a few Reds officials to exhale, as Kearns worked his way back from injury showing “determination” and that he “could handle the adversity that ultimately strikes even the game’s biggest stars.” Once again, his page in Baseball America talked about the need to apply himself more as he progressed through the minors, and stressed the need for a daily routine.
This looks like the debut you would expect from someone who hit like Kearns did in 2000, but there is an issue with the performance. Even given his high line drive rate of 22.9 percent from 2002, his BABIP was .374, .025 points higher than expected. Subtracting that from his line, you get .290/.382/.475, which is still an impressive debut, although not as aesthetically pleasing as a .300/.400/.500 one. I’m bringing it up mostly because Kearns has never had a .500 slugging percentage in the majors, outside of his initial half-season.
Baseball Prospectus 2003 was impressed with his debut though:
Kearns is solidly above average in all phases of the game, combining outstanding knowledge of the strike zone with a vicious line drive stroke like a modern-day Al Kaline. Bowden took Kearns and Dunn with the club’s top two picks in June 1998, a duo that will be regarded as the best one-two pairing in the history of the amateur draft within a few years. With Dunn, Griffey, and Kearns patrolling the outfield, the Reds will be perennial playoff contenders if the rest of the team is merely average.
This most likely would have been true, if the Reds had been able to keep the three of them in the outfield at once for any significant length of time before the trio was eventually broken up in 2006. Almost all of Wily Mo Pena‘s developmental time in the majors was due to one of either Griffey on the disabled list, or Kearns in the minors recovering from injury. Oh, and if the Cardinals had not put four potential Hall of Famers-three of them posting some of the best years of their careers-in their lineup over the same time span, the odds would have been a bit better too.
Kearns spent 2003 through 2005 bouncing back and forth between the major leagues and the minor leagues, trying to earn himself a permanent starting job, but instead earned himself an injury-prone tag, as well as mentions from all over about his lack of diligence in maintaining his natural talents. During his time in the majors, he put up these somewhat consistent lines:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2003 292 .264/.364/.455 34% .192 11 12.3% 23.3% 2004 217 .230/.321/.419 42% .189 12 11.4% 32.7% 2005 387 .240/.333/.452 48% .212 27 11.0% 27.6%
Kearns’ power was greatest in 2005, but his strikeout rate really jumped during this time frame. Strikeouts are just another form of out in the major leagues, but it’s something that jumps out two minutes after reading that his swing occasionally “gets a little long.” The power grew throughout these three seasons, even if his playing time was somewhat down, as displayed by his extra-base hit percentage and Isolated Power.
AB AVG/OBP/SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Reds 325 .274/.351/.492 43% .218 22 9.5% 23.1% Nats 212 .250/.381/.429 40% .179 13 15.7% 19.2% Total 537 .264/.363/.467 42% .203 35 12.4% 21.5%
To be fair, in 2006 Kearns had the most productive season of his career. The Nats are hoping this is the player they now have, and the one they inked to a 3-year, $17.5 million contract with a fourth-year option. Chances are good Kearns won’t win the MVP awards many expected him to collect, but if he is able to hit like he did in 2006, then the Nationals have themselves a bargain in right field for the next few years.
To compensate for his dip in power-which was just as much a dip in overall batting average, as seen by the change in his ISO and the lack of significant difference in his XBH%-Kearns began to walk a bit more, earning a free pass in almost 16 percent of his plate appearances during his time in Washington. PECOTA sees Kearns putting up a .266/.362/.476 line with the Nats, which comes out to a .290 EqA after compensating for RFK. The Beta on this projection is 0.85, so it is not a risky proposition at all, and I have to agree with it. Any significant increase in his slugging percentage will come from a jump in his batting average, rather than an increase in his actual power output. The percentiles of his forecast show this for the most part.
Year P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Dif. 2002 4.1 30.7% 22.9% 46.4% 13.3% 14.4% .374 .349 -0.25 2003 4.0 29.0% 19.6% 51.3% 18.5% 23.1% .297 .316 +0.19 2004 4.1 38.4% 13.7% 47.9% 7.1% 16.1% .299 .257 -0.42 2005 4.0 29.5% 23.5% 47.0% 13.1% 21.4% .286 .355 +0.69 2006 4.1 38.7% 19.2% 42.1% 4.5% 15.3% .312 .312 0.00
His BABIP and expected BABIP have been all over the place during his time in the majors, mostly due to a fluctuating line drive rate. He should have been better than he was in 2005, and even though his 2004 was well below expectations as far as BABIP is concerned, his 13.7 percent line drive rate is abnormally low, and clearly the outlier amongst the group, meaning he most likely should have been better. Let’s say that Kearns’ line drive rate in 2007 should be 20.4, the average of his five years in the majors; given that, his BABIP should be around .324, which isn’t unrealistic considering his past.
It’s not hard to see why his 2006 was most in line with his eBABIP; his groundball rate was at its lowest, and he did not pop out weakly all that much either. His high rate of grounders and pop-ups is part of the reason he underperformed his 2005 BABIP so much. There is a slight difference in his Cincinnati and Washington batted-ball data, although nothing drastic:
Team P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Dif. Reds 4.1 36.2% 20.6% 43.2% 4.5% 17.7% .326 .326 0.00 Nats 4.1 42.3% 17.2% 40.5% 4.3% 12.3% .292 .292 0.00
The home runs per flyball dropped, but that was most likely because there were more flyballs in general, and they were not flying out of the park the same way they do in Cincinnati. If Kearns can drop his flyball rate back to where it was for the Reds while bringing up his line drive rate a few percentage points, there’s no reason why he couldn’t meet his PECOTA forecast. He still hits the ball to all fields fairly evenly, as Baseball America mentioned all the way back before the 2001 season, and did so even when he was struggling a bit more:
Kearns has started going the other way more often on flyballs since 2005, which isn’t a case for worry like it is in aging players, whose bats may be slowing down. His liners are still somewhat evenly distributed, and have shifted direction since 2004 as Kearns has become a little more pull conscious. He still basically hits them all over the place though, which does make him tougher to defend; that’s important in a park like RKF, where there are tons of open space and little hope of clearing the wall as often as Kearns may like.
Kearns is average-to-above defensively, as you can see in these charts from David Pinto’s Probabilistic Model of Range:
He’s above-average defensively on flyballs, but not quite as good on line drives that are directly to him. He does have a solid arm though, and shouldn’t hurt the Nats on that side of the ball as long as he stays in shape. PECOTA has him forecasted for a few runs above average in right field, and that’s certainly probable.
I like the comparison of Kearns to Dwight Evans from this year’s Baseball Prospectus 2007; Kearns will be an underappreciated asset from this point forward as long as he can stay healthy, and he’s helpful in the outfield, even without the highlight reels of someone like Evans. His bat comps pretty well to him, and although I don’t think Kearns will finish his career with Hall of Fame credentials like Evans has (Dewey has a much better case than Jim Rice, yet lacks any of the support) he should be the third best hitter on the Nats once Nick Johnson returns to the lineup. Much like Ken Griffey Jr. and Kearns in Cincinnati, having both in the lineup may be a rare occurrence.