|Friday, May 9
Baldelli flourishing despite poor plate discipline
By Nate Silver
Special to ESPN.com
Not since Wilford Brimley's turn in the movie Cocoon has there been such a popular matinee idol in Tampa. Rocco Baldelli looks great in a uniform, has a fantastic baseball name, and with his Rhode Island roots, keeps it real for Florida's large community of New England expats. Oh yeah, he's also hitting .355, in spite of making solid contact about as often as a Palm Beach County voter with a punchcard ballot.
We know that Baldelli's season has been unusual -- but it's hard to overstate just how unusual. Here is the complete list of players who posted a batting average of .300 or greater, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.0 or greater (minimum 500 plate appearances). You won't need to scroll down.
Out of thousands and thousands of major-league seasons, just four players have put up numbers like that. Ever.
When you get right down to it, the reason for the scarcity of seasons like this is pretty simple: It's hard to hit for a high batting average when you strike out a ton and don't put the ball in play. During the past couple of years, a lot of well-deserved attention has been paid to research that pitchers have little control over the batting average they allow on balls in play (defined as at-bats less home runs and strikeouts). Instead, variations emerge primarily as a result of defense, ballparks, and luck.
The same result doesn't hold for hitters, not to a large extent. But it does hold to some extent -- batting average on balls in play is somewhat dependent on factors outside of the hitter's control, like the quality of the opposing defense and a favorable bounce or two. Batting average -- or really, singles hitting -- is more subject to luck than the other components of offensive performance.
Watch enough ball games, and you'll see a couple of balls that just barely leave the park because of a favorable breeze, a handful of ball fours that result from a poorly-enforced strike zone. But you'll see a lot of base hits that emerge from the slimmest of margins -- a double play ball that takes a bad hop on the third baseman, a drag bunt that the pitcher doesn't field quite right, a lazy line drive just over the shortstop's head. Just missing on a home run usually means a double; just missing on a base hit usually means an out.
Through Tuesday night, Baldelli's batting average on balls in play was an astounding .453. Where would that figure rank on the all-time list?
First. Numero uno. No hitter has ever maintained a batting average on balls in play that high over a season of 500 plate appearances or more. For reference's sake, the best figure of all time is Hugh Duffy's .433 in 1894. The best figure in the modern era is Babe Ruth's .423 in 1923, and the best since World War II is Rod Carew's .411 in 1977. Baldelli certainly has a lot going for him -- with his blazing speed and line-drive swing, he's a throwback player in a lot of ways -- but his batting average/balls-in-play figure is so far out of line with anything we've seen that we can safely guess that it has emerged at least partially as the result of good luck.
So let's assume that Baldelli loses some points on his batting average from here on out, but doesn't tank entirely in spite of his poor plate discipline; that seems reasonable given what we've seen so far. Relaxing our standards a little bit, let's look at hitters who posted a BA of .280 or better with a K/BB ratio of 4.0 or worse. Lest we forget Baldelli's precociousness, let's also limit the list to players aged 23 or younger.
Roberto Clemente, 1956
That's a pretty exclusive list, in both senses of the word. A development pattern like Baldelli's is highly unusual, but those players who have exhibited it have generally turned out to be pretty good.
Let's look at those players in a little bit more detail. Discarding Soriano, who accomplished the feat only last year, how did their careers progress after the hack-happy season in question?
OPS+ will be familiar to some of you; it's the player's OPS as a percentage of league average, after adjusting for park effects. In any event, the pattern that emerges is pretty clear. The player generally struggles in the near term following his Baldelli Year -- only one was substantially better than league average in the season immediately following -- before recovering and then some in the years following.
Tracking each player's K/BB rate over the same period also helps to tell the story:
In just about every case, marked improvement in a player's plate discipline came almost immediately, but it took some time to translate into improvement in his overall rate of productivity. There's never an instructional manual for these things, but the pattern can be described pretty well as follows:
1. Player achieves early success on the basis of superior natural ability.
Even among this select group, Baldelli is something of an outlier -- his K/BB ratio thus far isn't 4.0 or even 7.0, but an astonishingly bad 8.5. Still, there's ample reason for hope, especially if Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella can keep his criticism on the constructive side when Baldelli goes through his inevitable 2-for-23 stretches.
So long as we're discussing comparable players, I'd be remiss not to mention BP's projection system, PECOTA, which makes a living out of identifying appropriate comparables. In PECOTA's case, not only are batting average and plate discipline taken into account, but also speed, power, fielding position, a player's build, sophisticated adjustments for park and league context -- just about the entire host of factors that we're able to quantify.
The system is too involved to explain in full here, but it's proven amazingly prescient in projecting the 2003 season so far -- predicting a breakout for Jose Cruz Jr., a collapse for Jeremy Giambi, and continued health woes for Ken Griffey Jr. among other things -- so let's give it a spin.
We plugged Baldelli's 2003 numbers to date into the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA system, prorating them over a full season. Keep in mind that we don't expect Baldelli to sustain his current level of performance, so to temper his projection a little bit, we left in his 2001 and 2002 minor-league numbers, adjusted to major-league levels based on Clay Davenport's Translations. The result was an athletic 22-year-old with fine speed, developing power, awful plate discipline, and a batting average around .290. Given that profile, here were the five best comparables that PECOTA was able to identify, along with their OPS+ scores going forward.
You can nitpick about the particular players selected if you like, but the familiar pattern re-emerges here -- short-term decline, followed by longer-term success. Carlos Beltran provides the best and most recent example; he's encountered some bumps along the way, but combine improving baseball skills with prodigious raw talent, and the result is an emerging young star.
The advantage of a system like PECOTA is that it's designed to account for a player's attributes in accordance with their relative importance in driving his development. Certainly, poor plate discipline is detrimental, perhaps the closest thing to a tragic flaw that a hitter can have, but it shouldn't detract too much attention from the positive characteristics that a player possesses.
Rocco Baldelli has a lot going for him, including, most importantly, his age. His development will be limited if his plate discipline doesn't improve -- but he has plenty of time to improve it, and to varying degrees, all of the similar players who preceded him managed to do precisely that. If and when Baldelli follows suit, the Devil Rays might well have a superstar on their hands.
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus at baseballprospectus.com.