If you're a Phillies fan, you know at least one thing about this season: Raul Ibanez is mashing the ball. In 36 games, he has 13 home runs and 35 RBI, seemingly all in key moments. He's hitting .357, is getting on base almost 43% of the time he comes to the plate (OBP of .425), and is slugging .714. His OPS of 1.139 leads the majors (yes, it's better than even Albert Pujols, who stands at a measly 1.103).
Is this amazing early-season a sign of a new performance level for our left-fielder? Unlikely. Let me explain.
When Ibanez signed with the Phillies, most commentators, even those who were not so high on the signing, agreed that he was a very good hitter. People questioned lots of things: the length of the contract, the amount of the contract, the Phillies' adding another lefty to their lefty-heavy lineup, his defense. But most everyone acknowledged that he was a quality bat. He wasn't going to win an MVP award with his bat, but he was going to provide a good average, lots of RBI (especially in this lineup), and some good power.
Of course, what he's done so far has exceeded anyone's wildest expectations. No doubt if he were to keep this up over the lifetime of his contract all of the critics of his contract, including me, would happily eat their words.
But the "if" in that sentence is the obvious important point. What Ibanez has done in the early-going here is not likely a sign of any huge change in his performance level. Looking back at his career shows that he has mashed like this before. And fallen back to earth as well. In other words, he's been in this rarified air of MVP-level performance before; and, regrettably but predictably, he'll leave this level again, as he has before.
Based on OPS, Ibanez has had three stretches of 36-games in which he has outperformed the current one. From June 29, 2001, through August 11, 2001, Ibanez had a 1.138 OPS. Besting that, from June 7, 2002, through July 19, 2002, Ibanez had an incredible 1.225 OPS. Finally, from August 3, 2008, through September 12, 2008, he had a 1.161 OPS.
But, as with all hot streaks for players not named Pujols or Bonds, each of Ibanez's streaks was limited in scope. In 2001, he had an overall OPS of .848, meaning his OPS outside his amazing stretch in the middle of the season was a pretty bad .686. In 2002, his best year of his career, his OPS was .883, but his OPS outside his hot 36-game streak was .759. Last year, his overall OPS was .837, placing his non-hot OPS at .743.
History tells us that Raul Ibanez can be a very hot hitter over long stretches of time. He's doing that again for the Phillies, carrying the team on many days. But, history also tells us that, outside of these amazing streaks, Ibanez returns to being a rather pedestrian hitter.
Of course, we'll all hope for Ibanez to set a new standard for himself at age 36 (and 37, 38, and 39). But, his career of 1420 games tells us we're probably in for a pretty huge regression to the mean.