Jimmy Rollins and His Slow Starts - Why the Surprise?

Since when did almost the entire fanbase become the fan since 2009? The amount of hatred and vitriol directed at Jimmy Rollins this season has been ridiculous. Sure, people are taking out the early season troubles of the entire team on one of the most visible players who just signed a large contract, but anyone following Rollins' career has to know that he's often a slow starter. And by "slow starter" I mean "really slow starter."

The evidence is quite clear - in six of his ten previous full seasons, Rollins has had pretty bad starts only to recover and have a strong overall season.

Let's set the parameters first. Rollins has struggled mightily this year, but has shown a recent uptick in his performance. It's not that great, but it's better. His May low for OPS came after play on May 6, when he finished with a .532 OPS (.223/.273/.259). (I'm using May to get past the early noise of the small sample size of just April.) Since then, he's been better, though far from great - a .258/.320/.371 line for a .690 OPS (the answer is "rounding" for those who wonder how .320 and .371 add up to just .690).

So let's look at his past seasons by this measure. Below you'll find a chart of Rollins' past full seasons (2001 through 2011, excluding 2010 which was injury riddled for the first several months). The first column is the date of his lowest May OPS, the second is his OPS on that date, the third is his season ending OPS, and the fourth is the change from the May low to the end of the season (colored from dark red (worst) to dark green (best)).

Date Low OPS End OPS Change
2001 May 1 0.586 0.743 0.157
2002 May 1 0.790 0.686 -0.104
2003 May 30 0.720 0.707 -0.013
2004 May 6 0.503 0.803 0.300
2005 May 11 0.622 0.770 0.148
2006 May 26 0.661 0.811 0.150
2007 May 24 0.800 0.875 0.075
2008 May 13 0.800 0.786 -0.014
2009 May 10 0.499 0.719 0.220
2011 May 30 0.686 0.736 0.050

As you can see, what Rollins is going through this season is not at all unprecedented in his career. In fact, he has many seasons that are quite similar - 2001, 2004, and 2009 are the closest, but even 2005, 2006, and 2011 should qualify as well. In those seasons, Rollins had a May OPS low that ranged from absolutely horrendous (.499 in 2009 or .503 in 2004) to really bad (.586 in 2001) to not good (.622 in 2005, .661 in 2006, or .686 in 2011). However, in all of those seasons in which his May low OPS was well below his career OPS of .761 (entering this season)), Rollins recovered, and in the worst of them (2004 and 2009), did so quite spectacularly.

In fact, in only three seasons did Rollins not improve from his May low. However, in two of them, 2003 and 2008, his change barely registered. Only in 2002 did he suffer a significant decline from his May low to the end of the season. (Of course, in Rollins' MVP season, his May low was very good (.800) and he improved on it over the rest of the year.)

The important take-away here is that Rollins cannot be counted on to be an early season performer. Almost his entire career has shown that he improves from his May low. And, in years when his May performance is the worst, he improves the most. (Astute readers, which is of course the TGP audience, will say, "well, duh, that's what regression to the mean is all about." Exactly.)

Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future success, so we cannot know for sure that Rollins' 2012 is going to follow the same pattern as much of the rest of his career. But, with 10 full seasons under his belt and a pretty clear pattern established in most of them, don't we owe him the benefit of the doubt?

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