Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Some Regression This Way Comes

By The Common Man

Now that we’re at the “half-way” point of 2011 (although most teams have actually played around 90 games), it’s reasonable to look at players having unexpectedly strong seasons and wonder if they may be on to something. Indeed, it’s especially tempting of players whose success has driven their clubs into unexpected contention, and whose performance has been seemingly validated by an All Star berth, and announce that they have arrived, and are on the cusp of stardom. In many cases, that’s absolutely correct. But if you know anything by now, you know The Common Man prefers defeatism whenever possible. As such, here are 11 players who are going to regress in the second half:

Catcher: Alex Avila, Detroit Tigers

Avila has seemingly come out of nowhere to be the best hitting catcher in the American League. He’s hitting .286/.370/.506 with 10 homers and a 145 OPS+. He certainly flew through the minors, and has shown the potential to be a very strong hitting catcher in the past. But he’s not likely to maintain a .349 BABIP as the season wears on, and he’s going to start bumping up against his highest number of innings caught in a season as a professional sometime in August.

First Base: Casey Kotchman, Tampa Bay Rays

Kotchman’s resurgence has helped drive a Rays team that remains in a dogfight in the AL East. In 269 plate appearances, he’s hitting .336/.394/.455, and has a 144 OPS+. While he’s walking a bit more and striking out a bit less, Kotchman’s power has been as absent as ever, and his production is entirely driven by his batting average. That average is supported by a .369 BABIP, which is 90 points higher than his career mark (.278). While the Rays should be happy to ride this hot streak for as long as it lasts, they should definitely be looking into ways to upgrade the position, and should not be shy about replacing Kotchman if he starts to slide.

Second Base: Howie Kendrick, Los Angeles Angels

Howie Kendrick has been a very good, if injury prone, player in the past, using a high batting average to make up for terrible plate discipline. Last year, even though he was healthy, that all fell apart, as he hit .279. This year, Kendrick is back up to .302, thanks to a .362 BABIP (which is not out of character for him), but with a bump in both patience (walking 6.4% of the time, 33% higher than his career average), and hitting with more power (8 homers in 329 PAs, his previous season high is 10). He even made the All Star team for the first time. But Kendrick has never been able to maintain this kind of production across a full season, and TCM is betting that we won’t be able to do it in 2011 either.

Third Base: David Freese, St. Louis Cardinals

Due to injuries, Freese has only played 38 games so far in 2011, but in 144 plate appearances, he’s hit .336/.382/.443. For his short career (just 125 games so far), he’s hit .311/.367/.423 and has solidified his hold on the Cardinals’ hot corner for the near future. That said, those numbers are supported by a .389 BABIP, which has ballooned to a .414 mark this year. He’s a good player, but is almost certainly not this good, and is not the long-term solution he might otherwise appear to be.

Shortstop: Clint Barmes, Houston Astros

The Common Man originally laughed when he found out the Astros were going to pay Barmes $4 million to play short in 2011. Because, come on, this is Clint Barmes we’re talking about. But Barmes has been solid, hitting .250/.324/.379 (98 OPS+) and playing good defense. And his underlying numbers don’t even suggest this is out of sorts for him. He’s got a .292 BABIP, which is not terribly different from his .282 mark (which, admittedly, is probably inflated from hitting at Coors Field), and both his strikeout and walk rates are in line with the rest of his career. So everything about Barmes’ solid 2011 screams that he’s likely to continue to be productive into the near future. But, come one, this is Clint Barmes we’re talking about.

Leftfield: Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals

Gordon, the former 2nd overall pick, has been the feel-good story of 2011 as he’s fulfilled his initial promise and hit .299/.367/.483 for the again moribund Royals franchise. The power, indeed, seems to be real, as its right in line with his HR% across the rest of his career. However, it’s troubling to see that his walk rate has fallen precipitously to 8.6% of his plate appearances, and his K/BB ratio has shot up. He’s also being supported by a .354 BABIP, which is 60 points higher than his career .294 mark coming into this season. Gordon is probably still a productive hitter (especially if he moves back to 3B), but probably not a perennial borderline all star.

Centerfield: Nyjer Morgan, Milwaukee Brewers

Morgan has been a godsend for the Brewers, hitting .327/.355/.497 (131 OPS+) in 175 plate appearances, giving great interviews, and generally being sublimely ridiculous. He’s also got a .392 BABIP. Sorry.

Rightfield: Matthew Joyce, Tampa Bay Rays

The Common Man hates to keep harping on BABIP, but he has to again. Joyce started out incredibly hot in 2011, hitting .364/.423/.642 through June 2, with a .402 BABIP. Since then, we’ve seen him regress as expected, hitting .156/.222/.281 up to the All Star Break, with a .183 BABIP. He still made the All Star team and went into the break with a .290/.351/.513 line, and 12 homers. While he’s not likely to continue his post-June 2 performance, his overall numbers should still continue to slide, as his BABIP (still at .328) slides back toward his career mark coming into this season, .273. Again, the Rays should be looking for ways to maximize the production Joyce offers them, while finding ways to minimize the damage from his weaknesses.

Designated Hitter: Travis Hafner, Cleveland Indians

When he’s been healthy in 2011, Hafner has produced, hitting .325/.406/.528. But if we’ve elarned anything about Hafner since 2006, it’s that he is going to get hurt, and those injuries will take a toll on his performance. He’s already benefitting from a .388 BABIP. Oh well, only one more year and $15.75 million to go, Cleveland fans.

Starting Pitcher: Jeff Karstens, Pittsburgh Pirates

Karstens, and his remarkable performance, has actually been the subject of a great deal of discussion around the Web, with friend of the blog and ESPN guru Keith Law having to fend off angry Pirates fans daily for suggesting that Karstens will come back to Earth. It’s easy to see why people might be excited. Through 98 innings and 15 starts, Karstens has won 7 games and has a 2.55 ERA. He’s walked just 18 batters, and has a 3.22 K/BB ratio. And he’s taking advantage of the Pirates’ good outfield defense.

So what’s the problem? Homeruns. Due to his flyball tendencies, Karstens allows homers at a much higher than average rate. While the rest of the league has homered in 2.6% of their plate appearances, batters are hitting balls out in 4.3% of PAs against him. You would think this would show up in his ERA, but Karstens has been extremely lucky about when he gives up a homer. Of the 17 balls hit out against him, 16 have been solo shots. The only other blast, a pinch-hit homer by Brooks Conrad, came with one guy one. So while 59.4 % of MLB homers have come with no one on, 94.1% of the homers Karstens has allowed have been solo jacks. That kind of luck adds up.

Relief Pitcher: Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians

Perez has blown just 1 save in 2011 in 22 chances and made the All Star team, despite the fact that his strikeouts are way down (16.3% of batters in 2011, compared to 23.8% in his career), and is still walking 11% of the hitters he faces. He’s also allowing more than twice as many fly balls as grounders, but has given up just 2 homers in 33 innings. The law of averages is hot on Perez’s tale, and should overtake him shortly, in a flurry of high drives and blown saves.

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