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Who's hot? Who's for real (2013)
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What can we learn from the first four weeks of the season?

Who’s surprising start is the likeliest to be a real hitting improvement and who is just simply hot (or just cold) in the American League?

Batting Average on Balls in Play is the primary stat used to see how much of a player’s improvement or downturn is based on luck. It must be compared to their career norms. If their current BABiP is higher, then it is likely they have inflated hitting stats due to balls dropping between the fielders. “I hit ‘em where they aint” Wee Willie Keeler once famously said. Modern sabermaticians say that whatever control hitters have over their BABiP, there is a strong pull towards the norm – for most players at around .300. However line drive hitters with speed will likely do better than that, while slow running fly ball hitters will do worse. It is also helpful to look at a batter’s walk rates, strikeout rates, and isolated power. These are good indicators of a change in approach or abilities in hitting. To be considered for this list, the batter must have 50 plate appearances as of April 24.

Possible Real Improvements:

Coco Crisp – At 33 has managed to improve all the key areas of hitting. His walk rate has doubled. His strike out rate has nearly halved. His Isolated Power has nearly tripled – he has 5 home runs already, but hasn’t hit more than 11 since 2005. His batting average is up, but his BABiP is down, so there is no indication of luck. With excellent conditioning and coaching, I suppose it is possible for a hitter to still improve at 33, but without PEDs, it is extremely rare, if not impossible.

Mark Reynolds – He’s up to 7 homers already. His batting average is at a career high, while his BABiP is around the low end. His strikeout rate has improved for the third year in a row. He is 29 – within the realm of possible best seasons – this could be it.

Francisco Cervelli – not much to go on as a Major Leaguer, but hitting much better with a significantly lower BABiP than his minor league record would indicate. He just turned 27 in March – and don’t forget: catchers are more often than anyone else late bloomers.

Chris Davis – is officially leading the league in OPS (1.258). Of course, he’s nowhere near that good and his .413 BABiP agrees. However, his career BABiP is an impressive .338. His walk rate is way up and his strikeout rate is way down. We may have a legitimate new star here – or maybe not. Last year on May 1, Davis was hitting 1.005 OPS with a .377 BABiP. His strikeout percentage was also well down from his norm – a point lower than it is now. The difference is that Davis’s walk rate was still a pedestrian 7.3% compared to the more respectable 11.5% that it is now. He just turned 27 in March.

Carlos Santana – his OPS is even higher than Davis’s, albeit in fewer AB. He may well be having a nicely maturing power increase. Santana turned 27 even more recently (April). His .375 BABiP should moderate your enthusiasm to some degree, but his Isolated Power, so far, is more than double what it was last year, while his strikeout rate is stable. And, he is a catcher.

Marwin Gonzalez – His development is a small shock. It has come with a modicum of luck, perhaps, but I wouldn’t completely dismiss it. His BABiP isn’t all that high (.323) and his Isolated Power has exploded – something 24 year olds sometimes experience from getting older and stronger. As the only player on this list of good starts who is younger than 27, his improvement might have the greatest chance of sticking (though not at the level he has enjoyed so far).

 

Just Hot: (sell high candidates?)

Torii Hunter – Sure, he’s off to a great start, but he will be 38 in July! He leads the league in BABiP.

Lorenzo Cain – a .455 BABiP is not sustainable.

Seth Smith – also enjoying a .450 BABiP.

Jed Lowrie – Not only is he not this good, but he’s not going to stay off the D.L. the entire season.

Lance Berkman – this 37 year old is not really turning the clock back 5 years.

Colby Rasmus – is trying to become a power hitter like the way his teammates Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion did late in their careers. It’s not going to work as well. He is striking out a whopping 44%.

Joe Mauer, Adam Jones, Alex Gordon, Jose Altuve – all above average BABiP guys with even higher BABiPs so far this year. They’ll be good, but not this good.

Franklin Gutierrez – I’m skeptical about his improvement – and now a hamstring injury has given him, at least, a two week sick leave. His walks are down, his Ks are up. He has benefitted from having hit four dingers already – one in Chicago and two in his newly reconfigured home in Seattle.

 

Just Cold: (buy low candidates)

Adam Dunn – appears to be “Dunn”, but he hasn’t had any breaks this year: .103 is the league’s lowest BABiP.

Aaron Hicks – might come around, his .118 BABiP is second lowest among regulars.

Maicer Izturis – should keep his job. He’s been hampered by a .148 BABiP.

Chris Young – If Oakland doesn’t give up, you shouldn’t either.

Yunel Escobar – If Tampa doesn’t tire of him, you shouldn’t either.

Kelly Johnson – He’s not doing much, now, but his .200 BABiP tells me he might turn into a surprisingly good second-base eligible hitter.

J.J. Hardy – You know he will keep his job and be fine. That’s a key when gambling on these guys. No matter what a player’s BABiP is, if his standard hitting stats are bad enough and the player can be optioned to the minors without consequences or released without the general manager losing face, then that could happen. Hardy will keep playing unless he is hurt.

Billy Butler, Joey Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion are just starting slowly. They will have impact.

 

Comebacks?:

Alex Rios – breaking his good year / bad year pattern after disastrous seasons in 2009 and 2011. Rios is 32, so he must be nearing the end of his plateau.

Vernon Wells – the other ex-Jay does have a slightly inflated BABiP, but nothing in proportion to the season he’s having so far with the Yankees. He was a star when he was 24-27. He had a couple more good years at 29 and 31. He is 34 now.

Travis Hafner – His comeback is looking legitimate, although, he will be 36 in June.

Peter Bourjos – has been a little lucky, but I think it’s safe to say we are seeing the highly useful 2011 Bourjos, not the 2012 Bourjos who couldn’t hold his starting job.

Mike Napoli – obviously not going to be as bad as he was in 2012 nor as good as he was in 2011.

James Looney – I don’t know, the Rays have turned around some careers. Looney has never had a full season of .350 BABiP. It is .305 for his career and .269 last year. Your guess is as good as mine.

 

Comedowns?

Mark Trumbo – It looks like his power numbers will decline from the previous two seasons. He is just 27, though, so this is just a red flag not casket.

Dustin Pedroia – I’d be worried that he has lost his power: .038 ISO, yet a .369 BABiP. However, he is only 29 – even that is generally too young to go into a steep decline even for a second-baseman, but it has happened.

Eric Hosmer – is not living up to his hype. His power has completely vanished. In real life, he’s too young to be called a bust, but I wouldn’t hang onto him, if he were on my Scoresheet team.

Justin Smoak – was never the prospect Eric Hosmer is/was and may be very soon out of chances. His .279 BABiP is actually better than his career BABiP, while his OPS this year is only .600.

Jhonny Peralta – Leading indicators (BABiP, BB%, K%, ISO) are all pointing in the wrong direction. He is 31 – also the wrong side of a player’s peak.

Andy Dirks – His downturn is not promising, but it may be too soon to give up yet: .235 BABiP.

Jeff Francoeur – There is no statistical evidence this man still belongs in the Major Leagues.

John Carter