Baseball's Hottest Starts Won't Last Long
April baseball explains why people like sports so much. Every year, Player X goes off and hits four home runs in the first week and everyone who is a fan of his team or owns him in fantasy thinks to themselves, “Hey now, this is the year he finally puts it all together!” And they rarely do, unless the guy off to a hot start is already an established star.
But that hope that comes with those first few weeks – before Player X’s BABIP plummets to .200 and he stubbornly refuses to make any adjustments so he can hit change ups – that is what being a sports fan is all about.
So let’s take all that hope and optimism and Grinch all over it. Here are some players off to hot starts destined to fade back into the bleak purgatory of baseball mediocrity. Extremely small sample size caveats apply.
Adam Jones actually showed he can produce at a high level last year, when he knocked 32 homers, posted a .287/.334/.505 slash line and was worth 4.4 WAR, seventh best among AL outfielders. (His 2011 was not too shabby either.) So why so down on him this year? It’s not so much a matter of being a hater; it’s a matter of Jones batting .462.
That’s obviously not happening all season, but what is alarming is how he is getting on base. He’s only drawn one walk in 40 plate appearances, and has a .548 BABIP, highest in all of Major League Baseball. Basically he’s getting extremely lucky once he puts the ball in play, to the point over half of his balls in play have resulted in a hit. BABIP tends to regress for all hitters, save the absolutely exceptional, to around .300.
The good news is that he is squaring up the ball: his line drive percentage his spiked from a career rate of 18.8 percent to 34.4 percent. That has resulted in a drop in fly ball rate, from 32.6 percent to 25 percent. If Jones is able to maintain those percentages, or at least come close, it is reasonable to expect a BABIP higher than years past. But .548 is a video game number; a full 200 points lower would still result in a good year.
There is a weird, not-at-all-statistically-sound phenomenon going on with Alex Rios: the curse of the odd-numbered year. In 2009 and 2011 combined, Rios hit .237 and produced a stunningly terrible -1.2 WAR. For those two years, he was less valuable – significantly less valuable – than your average AAA journeyman. In 2010 and 2012 combined, Rios mashed 46 home runs and produced 7.5 WAR, which represents a very good player.
Well, it’s 2013. Rios has bucked his questionable statistical bogeyman and is off to a hot start, hitting .429/.487/.857. In nine games, he has produced more WAR (0.8) than 294 games he played in 2009 and 2011. (I know is not really how to use WAR, and that nine game sample sizes are basically meaningless. But come on, that’s a fun stat.)
Rios also has been the beneficiary of an inflated BABIP (.423) but he’s also seen his walk rate shoot up to 10.3 percent. Given that he hasn’t posted a walk rate above 6.4 percent since 2007, that’s not going to hold up.
He’s also swatted four home runs thanks to a preposterous 36.4 home run/fly ball rate, which is oh, four times his career rate of 9.4 percent. Rios is hitting line drives, ground balls, and fly balls at roughly the same rates he has his whole career – the only difference is that a third of his fly balls are leaving the yard. Not going to continue.
Hishasi Iwamura’s only made two starts, spanning 14 innings, so the small sample size caveats apply here even more than they do with the hitters. But so far Iwamura has looked like a Cy Young candidate, sporting a 2.57 ERA while his true talent level lies somewhere in the 4.00 range.
Iwamura has a 100 percent strand rate, and hasn’t walked a batter, which is, well, perfect. It doesn’t take a genius to forecast that eventually he’s going to allow a runner on base to score, or that he’ll walk a guy or two. It’s his peripherals that are more concerning. He doesn’t strike out that many hitters – last year’s K/9 rate of 7.25 was good, but not 2.57 ERA-good, and that has actually dipped to 6.43 per nine.
Additionally, his infield fly percentage has ballooned to 11.1 percent the year, which is very good, since infield flies don’t typically go for hits. Last year’s rate was six percent, and there’s no real indicator that a pitcher can induce pop ups at such a high rate. Finally, his GB/FB rate has absolutely plummeted, dipping from 1.91 last year (1.91 grounders for every fly ball) to just 0.67 this year.
Pitchers are always better off keeping the ball on the ground. Iwamura’s numbers will even out, so don’t expect him to start the All Star Game for the AL.