Saturday, February 26, 2011

Using the past to inform the future

I'm a big fan of just poking around a data set and looking for interesting things, and the folks at really oblige me by having a massive MLB player statistics database, chock full of all the WAR, UZR, and xFIP you could need.  With Spring Training getting into full swing (pun totally intended, duh), I thought it would be good to look at some of last season's top performers and see if I could find any evidence of a repeat performance this year or a fall back to reality.

This post is going to highlight three hitters who had particularly good seasons that came out of nowhere.  I'll give player statistics in a quick-and-dirty format.  A player's stat line will consist of:
(That's batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, on-base-plus-slugging percentage, batting average on balls-in-play, home runs, runs-batted-in, and wins-above-replacement)
For those not so savvy on the numbers, here's a quick primer:

BA: hits / at-bats

OBP: (hits + walks + HBP) / (at-bats + walks + HBP + sac-flies)

SLG: (singles + 2*doubles + 3*triples + 4*HR) / at-bats   (a measure of a player's power output)

OPS: OBP + SLG  (a measure of a player's overall hitting ability, combining power and contact)

BABIP: (hits - HR) / (AB - K - HR + SF)   (batting average when the ball is in play, aka excluding home runs and strikeouts)

HR:  come on, seriously

RBI: again, you probably shouldn't read this if you don't know what an RBI is

WAR: a complex formula that gives an estimate of how many wins a player is worth as compared to an average "replacement" player at that position who faces the same situations

Don't worry, I'll explain stuff as I go.

So let's take a look at our contestants...

Jose Bautista, OF, Blue Jays
2010: .260/.378/.617/.995, .233, 54, 124, 6.9

Bautista came out of absolutely nowhere last year, hitting almost as many home runs (54) as he had in the past 4 years combined (59).  He signed a 5-year, $64 million contract as a result, but will he keep it up?
Obviously no one expects Bautista to repeat what he did last year.  However, there is some indication that he won't just regress back to his average WAR of 0.3 per year.  First of all, his power surge does extend into late 2009, as he hit 10 home runs in September that season, so it's at least not just a one-year deal.  Secondly, his absurdly low BABIP (third lowest in the league among qualifiers, and 40 points below his career average) indicates that he got pretty unlucky with the balls he hit that didn't land in the stands, so he should see an improved batting average that might balance out an inevitable power reduction in terms of runs produced.

Verdict?  Slight regression, but not as much as you might think.  I'm thinking a .270, 40 HR, 120 RBI year.

Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies
2010: .336/.376/.598/.974, .384, 34, 117, 6.0

CarGo had a monster year in his first full year as a starter, finishing towards the top of the National League in homers, RBI, and batting average.  Like one-year-wonder Bautista, Gonzalez was rewarded with a 7-year, $80 million contract.
Gonzalez' impressive performance in 2010 seems to be a bit risky to bet on in 2011, mostly because of his absurdly high BABIP, which is the opposite of Bautista as the third highest among qualifiers and 30 points above his career average.  This should predict a regression in his particularly high batting average to the same degree that Bautista's should rise.  Additionally, not that this is really an indictment of Gonzalez, but while one of the more memorable moments of the 2010 Rockies season was his walk-off grand slam, he was actually in the bottom 20 in the league in terms of his performance in high-leverage/clutch situations as compared to his performance in average scenarios (which, admittedly, was solid).

Verdict?  Again, the small previous sample size should worry people as well, so I'm seeing a regression at least in the batting average department to more of a .325, 30, 115 type deal.

Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
2010: .324/.424/.600/1.024, .361, 37, 113, 7.4

Votto won the NL MVP in 2010 thanks to leading the league in home runs and coming close in batting average and RBI.  He too was rewarded for his performance, receiving a 3-year, $38 million extension.
Votto's case for a repeat performance is much more convincing than those of the above two players.  He was in his third year of everyday play, and had averaged .310, 24 HR, 84 RBI in the previous two years.  In 2010, he added a good deal of power without sacrificing average.  His BABIP, while high at .361, is under 10 points above his career average, so we shouldn't expect a vastly different year this season.  However, his 25% home-run-to-fly-ball ratio in 2010 was so high that it's pretty expected that he lose a little bit of power.  Just not much.  Besides, the Cardinals' loss of Adam Wainwright should net him a couple extra hits, right?

Verdict?  This time around, I'm seeing a repeat performance that will have Votto competing with the likes of Pujols and CarGo again this year.  Right in the same area, like .320, 34, 115.

Next time, I'll look at some pitchers who should be expecting a fall from grace.  And maybe I'll dole out some good news for a change.  We'll see.

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