FLUKE OR NOT?
Yesterday, I posted about Myers and Eaton and guessed that Myers would fully recover his form and that Eaton would land somewhere in between last year and this year's perfromances. Today, I'm going to talk about four hitters-- Ruiz, Howard, Utley, and Burrell. The good news is that Utley's and Burrell's abnormally good performances seem more likely to persist than Howard's and Ruiz's abnormally bad performances.
Projected (ZIPS): .273/.341/.425
Ruiz is clearly performing at a different level. He is walking less (10.1% to 7.1%), striking out less (13.1% to 12.2%), and his BABIP is down (.285 to .246). This would all suggest that he is being less selective at the plate, but his pitches/plate appearances are virtually stagnant (3.56 to 3.62). In fact, due to the fun newfangled statistics on fangraphs.com, I can see that he is actually swinging at fewer pitches than before (from 42.46% last year to 40.49% this year), and is being thrown more pitches in the strike zone (53.28% last year and 57.29% this year). He is swinging at fewer pitches in and out of the strike zone. The big difference seems to be that he is making more contact with pitches out of the strike zone—78.79% instead of 60.50% last year. His groundball rate is up from 46.2% to 53.1%. All of these are noticeable differences. My best assessment is that the main difference is that he’s hitting more pitches out of the zone, probably for outs on the ground. Pitchers are adjusting to him, and I’m guessing he’ll adjust back over the course of the year.
My guess: FLUKE. He should recover and put up a .700+ OPS.
Projected (ZIPS): .294/.406/.622
His walk rate is down (16.8 to 13.9%) and his strikeout rate is up slightly (37.6 to 38.4%). The key difference in the newer looking stats is that pitches are throwing a lot more pitches in the zone: 48.63% from 44.38% last year. He is making less contact overall too—both with pitches in the strike zone and out of it. He’s seeing a lot fewer pitches per plate appearance: 4.20 to 4.02. His strike zone judgment, despite popular opinion, seems to be improving though. He is swinging at 3.94% more pitches in the strike zone than before and swinging at 3.84% less pitches out of the strike zone than before. I think the biggest difference is that he’s being pitched differently. His homeruns per flyball percentage is now at 28.8%-- just below last year’s 31.5%. His groundball rate is more in line with 2005 and 2006, hanging around 42.8% now instead of last year’s flukishly low 31.5% now. I think ultimately Howard is now playing as well as last year, but I’m not convinced that it is a matter of permanent changes. I suspect he is probably turning around already (his groundball rate was much higher earlier in the year), and his walk rate is starting to improve too.
My guess: FLUKE. I think he turns it around, ticks his average back up to .250 or .260 and hits 45-50 homeruns.
Projected (ZIPS): .299/.381/.515
Utley is walking more, but most of that is a change in intentional walks. He is seeing about the same number of pitches per plate appearance. However, he is striking out less. What seems to be the larger difference is that he’s swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone (2.65% less) and at more pitches in the strike zone (2.41% more). He is making more contact as a result, despite seeing the same number of pitches in the strike zone, and having similar success on pitches in and out of the strike zone than last year. His flyball rate has gone way up as a result, and his homeruns per flyball have gone up too. I think the flyball rate increase is probably the cause for his drop in BABIP from .346 two years ago and .368 last year all the way to .305 this year. It’s also partly why his homerun total is way up—but not the whole reason. Utley typically had hit about 40% of his extra base hits out of the park—then last year he hit more extra base hits than before but only 30% of his extra base hits out of the park. I predicted over the off-season that he would hit more homeruns this year. He’s one shy of last year’s total, so I’m just about ready to call victory on that one. I’m not sure his flyball rate is going to stay up. I’m not sure how quickly that rate stabilizes for hitters (I know it stabilizes pretty quickly for pitches), but I’m guessing it stays up since it seems to be correlated with improved strike zone judgment. I don’t think his HR/FB rate will stay at 22.1% instead of 11.6% last year (it was 14.0% in 2006 and 15.2% in 2005). After all, Charlie Manuel said something the other day to the effect of “A homerun is just a flyball that lands on the other side of the fence.” I think some of chases flyballs landed just shy last year and quite a few more have this year.
My guess: PARTIAL FLUKE. He’s going to keep hitting flyballs, but fewer will leave the yard. As a result, I think he’s going to continue to rattle off extra base hits, and may end up staying around a .320 average and a .400 on-base percentage, but his slugging percentage falls to about .600 and his homerun totals end up around 45 or so. I think that’s probably good enough to win an MVP in a normal year, especially a second basemen, but Pujols, Berkman, and Chipper Jones are all viable candidates now too.
Projected (ZIPS): .249/.377/.479
Pat Burrell is striking out less and walking more. That was true of 2007 and is that improvement has continued in 2008. Burrell’s career has been a story of improved strike zone judgment, and the last couple of years have helped that cause. His production in “clutch” close-and-late situations is an anomaly, of course, as he has a 1.438 OPS, way above his 1.015 overall OPS this year. He also is behind only Lance Berkman in WPA this year. That clearly won’t stick any longer than the famous .222 average with RISP from 2006 stuck. But his overall performance clearly seems to be different. He’s swinging at about the same 15% of pitches out of the strike zone as always, but his swings at pitches in the strike zone have gone up nearly 5% in the last year, and his contact rate with pitches out of the strike zone is way up—from 47.46% in 2006 to 55.29% in 2007 to 65.33% in 2008. He’s making less contact with pitches in the strike zone, but more contact overall as a result of his improvement at hitting pitches out of the strike zone. His BABIP is a solid, maintainable .303, right around his career .308 BABIP. His homeruns/flyball rate is pretty high at 21.9%, slightly higher than his career 16.9%, but I’m actually surprised to see such an increase in his doubles rate—he has 16 doubles this year despite hitting between 24 and 27 each year from 2005-2007. Ultimately, I’m not sure I expect to see much of a change at all from Burrell. He seems to improving perpetually as a hitter, continuing his strike zone judgment improvement from last year and now learning which pitches out of the zone he can hit without lowering his BABIP as a result, like Ruiz has done.
My guess: NOT A FLUKE. Look for Burrell to maintain his season, perhaps slightly dropping off in homeruns slightly but with a solid improvement in doubles and a steady high on-base percentage.
Tomorrow I'll talk about three relief pitchers who have surprised me-- Lidge, Romero, and Chad Durbin. Spoiler alert: relief pitchers' surprise two-month long performances are almost always flukes. Stay tuned. For now, let me know your thoughts on these hitters.