|Newfound Power: Will it stay or will it go?|
|Theory and Strategy - Platinum|
|Written by Todd Zola|
|Saturday, 04 August 2012 11:21|
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: As much as you've enjoyed owning Andrew McCutchen this season, you could be better off without him.
Why? Because power gains can be precarious. In my last Under the Microscope, we met the possibility of dealing McCutchen and Mike Trout in redraft leagues. It was suggested, along with numbers to back it, that both McCutchen and Trout would be unable to sustain their present level of performance. The premise: Someone in your league might be willing to not only deal you a player who will impact your roster as much as these outfield phenoms, but you possibly could get a bonus due to the sexiness of their name recognition.
The key to that premise, which may have gotten lost in the mere suggestion that you deal these young superstars, is that neither player is likely to maintain his rate of production as the season wears on. And suggesting their high batting averages on balls in play (BABIP) will regress is only part of the story. Today we look at the probability that a first-half power surge will be carried over to the second half.
What we'll do first is put the 2009-2011 campaigns under the microscope in an effort to discern whether the 2012 pre-All Star break leaders in home runs are likely to continue swatting big flies or if their pace will wane. We'll look at each year individually, focusing on players who hit 15 or more homers before the break and had a minimum of 100 plate appearances after the break. The metric used will be plate appearances per home run (PA/HR), so the smaller the number, the greater the power.
Below is the data for everyone fulfilling the above criteria. The "pre-ASB" number shows how many 15-plus-homer sluggers had a better PA/HR before the All-Star break than after it, while the "post-ASB" figure shows how many players had a better PA/HR after it.
Now let's narrow the sample to the top 10 home run hitters at the break:
Even though the above study is quite simplistic, there is ample evidence to suggest that if you assume everyone on the home run leaderboard will slow down their pace, you'll be right at least two-thirds of the time. That's a strong case for McCutchen being placed on the trading block.
However, I fully realize that for many owners, a stronger case is necessary. After all, this is a guy with a strong pedigree, including the reputation of developing power. Who's to say the Pirates' center fielder isn't in the minority and won't continue to flourish?
In order to analyze this, we need to go back to the components of a home run, which involves the number of fly balls a batter hits and the percentage of fly balls that clear the fence (HR/FB). While there is some fluctuation with regard to each batter's hit distribution, most develop a personal baseline. A change in mechanics or approach can alter this baseline, as can an injury (which influences the player to hit more grounders or fly balls), but much like batting average on balls in play (BABIP), each player develops a unique HR/FB. While there is some random fluctuation around this point, a player can also enjoy some good fortune or incur some bad fortune. By the end of the season, a player's HR/FB usually settles in where it's supposed to, or at least heads in that direction after a good or bad first half (i.e. the regression never fully kicks in), but it's plausible that the player realizes an improved skill level or endures a decline.
The trick is delineating whether a HR/FB increase is due to an improved skill level or simply luck. Unfortunately, there's no magic formula. All we can do is understand what generally happens, then take things on a case-by-case basis and make our best guess as to what will ensue for the player in question. However, keep in mind that if you study the top 10-20 home run hitters from the first half, you can conclude that at least 60 percent of them (and probably more) will have worse PA/HR rates in the second half. Sure, that does leave room for optimism, but be careful not to let emotion get in the way of objectivity.
Let's get a feel for HR/FB in global terms so that when we look at specific players, we have something by which to frame their numbers. Last season, the league-average HR/FB was 9.4 percent. Giancarlo Stanton led the way with a 24.8 percent mark, Mark Reynolds was next at 22.7 percent, followed closely by Jose Bautista and his 22.5 percent mark. In 2010, the average was 9.7 percent, with Joey Votto setting the pace at 25.0 percent. With this as a background, it's safe to say the expected HR/FB range for the top power hitters is in the low- to mid-20s.
To get a sense for how rare it is for a player to sport a HR/FB that is improved by more than 50 percent from the previous season, only three times since 2008 has someone gained that much and finished the season with 20-plus percent: Joe Mauer and Raul Ibanez in 2009, and Jose Bautista in 2010. Adam Jones came close in 2009, as his 17.8 percent bested his 2008 mark of 6.9 percent. Also in 2009, veteran Derrek Lee spiked at 17.9 percent after spending the bulk of his career just above league average in terms of HR/FB percentage. Last season, Jacoby Ellsbury jumped from 4.6 percent to 16.7 percent, Asdrubal Cabrera ballooned to 13.3 percent from 4.7 percent and Corey Hart fell just short of 20 percent, finishing at 19.7 percent after posting an 8.8 percent in 2010. Michael Young and Derek Jeter have enjoyed recent moderate spikes, as well. The take-home lesson is that significant seasonal increases in HR/FB are few and far between (and not usually sustainable the following year, which is something we'll revisit when it comes time to evaluate the 2013 player pool).
With that as a backdrop, let's look at some of the more intriguing power sources so far this season to determine if their home run pace will carry over to the final two months:
Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays: With 28 homers, Encarnacion has already set a career high. His 19 percent HR/FB is also a personal best, but he has dabbled in the mid-teens in previous seasons and has a career HR/FB mark of 12.8 percent. His walks are up and strikeouts are about his norm, so there's a good chance Encarnacion ends up as one of those hitters who maintains, if not improves upon, his first-half pace, though it's still reasonable to assume a slight drop-off. However, if Encarnacion's owner is looking to sell high and you need some pop, this is definitely an avenue to consider.
Josh Willingham, Minnesota Twins: Willingham sure must enjoy a challenge, as he has called some of the toughest hitting parks in the majors home. Willingham has tamed spacious Target Field this season, hitting 17 of his 27 bombs there. However, it's going to be tough for him to maintain his current 25.7 percent HR/FB rate. While his walk rate is up (which could be because opposing pitchers don't want to let Willingham beat them), he's actually hitting fewer fly balls than normal. If this persists and the HR/FB does indeed regress, Willingham's pace is bound to slow, perhaps considerably. I believe he'll still hit a goodly amount of homers, but he should fall well short of his present pace of 44. In fact, I'll take the under on 38.
Mark Trumbo, Los Angeles Angels:With a .304 average and 27 homers, Trumbo is doing his best Albert Pujols impersonation. Unfortunately, much like Willingham, Trumbo is sporting an extremely high 25.2 percent HR/FB rate, which is likely to regress toward a mark in the high teens, still good but not quite Pujolsian. As opposed to Willingham, Trumbo rarely takes a free pass, which could be interpreted as a positive since that increases his at-bats, but I still see it as a negative because there's a correlation between plate patience and power.
Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh Pirates:Don't look now, but Alvarez has 21 dingers. The problem is I don't see him even reaching 30. His HR/FB is an astronomical 26.6 percent, which is just not a level he can sustain. Now consider Alvarez is fanning even more than usual while walking less and the stereotypical sell-high moniker is in neon lights.
Andrew McCutchen, Pirates: I feel the same about him as I did before the All-Star break: If you can parlay McCutchen into a more reliable player or perhaps fill multiple holes, you owe it to your team to pursue such an endeavor. Forget the .415 BABIP, it's his 23.4 percent HR/FB rate that is on its way down. I'm sorry, I'm just not buying into league-leading power from him, and since McCutchen's fly balls are way down, when the HR/FB regresses, the homers will slow precipitously.
|Last Updated on Saturday, 04 August 2012 11:31|