The early season can be a dangerous time for analysts and fans trying to
make sense of player performance. There are sample-size issues, quality of
opponent problems (especially this season), and a host of other reasons to
look at April numbers with a skeptical eye.
Compounding these problems is the natural tendency of batting
averages–often the first information you see about a player–to fluctuate
wildly over 100 at-bats. Put simply, if judging a player (or for that
matter, a team) by his average is a bad idea in October, it’s a ridiculous
one in April.
I was guilty of this myself on Monday,
when I made the point that the
Mariners had an offense built on hitting for average,
based solely on the
averages I saw in their box score. I didn’t look any deeper, and was
rightly called on the carpet by readers pointing out that the Ms actually
were among the league leaders in walks drawn and on-base percentage.
So I thought it might be fun to take a look at some players whose
performance so far isn’t as good or as bad as a quick glance at BA, or even
the other two Triple Crown stats, might make it seem.
At the top of the list of players whose BA makes them look better than they
are–and I don’t mean to pick on the Mariners again–is Ichiro
Suzuki. Suzuki’s brand of slap hitting has enabled him to post a .333
batting average so far. He hasn’t hit for much power (six extra-base hits
in 120 at-bats) or drawn many walks (four), so his OBP and SLG of .355/.425
are really nothing special. Ichiro’s excellent defense is a point in his
favor, but the Ms really need better than a 780 OPS from their third-best
Alfonso Soriano is right there with Suzuki in early-season Rookie of
the Year discussions, thanks to an everyday job and a .300 batting average.
A single walk and nine extra-base hits leave him with a .304 OBP and a .418
SLG, making him a drag on the Yankee offense. Soriano has shown good
speed and acceptable defense, but that lack of plate discipline makes him a
great candidate to be one of the most overrated players in baseball this
Of course, the Yankees could trade Soriano for Pokey Reese, who is
much the same player, just with a better glove and bigger paycheck. Reese
is batting .284, but with just three walks, six doubles and a home run. His
717 OPS is unimpressive, even given his Gold Glove defense.
I’ll mention Shea Hillenbrand here, even though he’s hit for some
power (a .502 slugging percentage). His .340 BA comes with just one walk,
though, for a .352 OBP. There’s not much in Hillenbrand’s record to suggest
he can sustain a .300 batting average, and if he doesn’t do that, he’s not
going to help this team.
It’s more fun to talk about the players who aren’t getting credit for their
seasons to date because their averages are so low. Atop this list is
Barry Bonds, who is doing everything right but hitting singles. His
1122 OPS is ninth in the National League, despite his .237 batting average.
Seventeen walks and an extra-base hit every five at-bats will do that.
Another NL superstar is hiding a good season behind a subpar BA. Sammy
Sosa has already walked 26 times, allowing him to post a .432 OBP with
just a .244 batting average. He’s also hitting for typical Sammy power,
with seven home runs and a .549 slugging average.
(As an aside, has any player so dramatically improved his plate discipline
over the course of his career than Sosa? Team looking to educate their
young hitters on the value of controlling the strike zone should hold
Sosa–productive and popular–up as the shining example of what being more
selective can do for them.)
The Twins’ Matt Lawton has been a big part of that team’s good
start, despite a BA in the .240s. He’s ranked among the league leaders in
walks and OBP all season.
Jim Thome is batting just .188, but his OBP and OPS are higher than
all the players we listed in the first group, save Ichiro. Because he’s a
first baseman, though, it’s hard to argue that Thome’s .349/.377 is helping
the Tribe. Nevertheless, he’s not as far off his usual performance as you
might think, and can be expected to bounce back.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by
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