Using the Chewbacca Defense: Some Players Who Won't Keep It Up

It’s always important to distinguish amazing early season stats that will continue from those that won’t. Remember Chris Shelton? In 2006 his March/April numbers were the things dreams are made of, as he hit .326 with 10 homers and 20 RBI. He finished the year with 16 homers and 47 RBI. His is the epitome of a fluke month. Some players enjoy great success early on in the year, only to fall off significantly shortly thereafter. It’s easy to find these guys, if you look at the deeper statistics. Chris Shelton had a BABIP of .377 that March/April, with an ISO of .467, more than double what he had the rest of that season. So he was lucky with his average and fluky with his power. Knowing these stats is half the battle. It can be the difference between a great pickup and this year’s Chris Shelton. Here are four guys with weird numbers early on, and the deeper stats that disprove them.

Austin Jackson (OF) – Detroit Tigers
Weird Stat: .376 Batting Average
Stat that Disproves it: BABIP

This is perhaps the easiest weird stat to disprove this season. Austin Jackson, a player the Yankees traded away for all-around great guy Curtis Granderson, couldn’t hit big league off-speed stuff. That was his M.O. He was like Pedro Cerano with less fried chicken (maybe Jackson will be the next black president on 24?). Now? He’s amazingly hitting .376 and leads the league in hits. That BABIP tells me one thing, he’s been incredibly lucky. He’s at almost double the league average (which is .300), and even that is high for a speed guy (who tend to have higher BABIPs from beating out ground balls and such). Looking at his pitch type values, his runs above average (essentially, how well does he hit these pitches) is 6.7 for fastballs, and 2.3 for curveballs. Translation: he’s hitting fastballs and not much else. Eventually the AL Central, and the rest of baseball for that manner, will stop throwing him straight heat.

Back to the BABIP, though. Throughout his minor league career, the number averaged about .340. So even giving him the benefit of the doubt, he’s about .180 over his career mark. He’s struck out on 29.1% of his at bats this season, an astoundingly high number. That means that he’s hitting the ball in 70.9% of his AB’s and they’re falling in about 40% of the time in his overall AB’s (including the times he K’s). Assuming he never struck out at all this season his BABIP would still be around .400. Absurd. Expect his average to fall to about .290 or .300.

Vernon Wells (OF) – Toronto Blue Jays
Weird Stat: All of Them
Stats that Disprove them: BABIP, ISO, HR/FB Ratio

Yup, all of them. He’s hitting .321 with 8 homers and 21 RBI, numbers that translate to 46 home runs and 121 RBI by the end of the year. Granted, that’s what the Blue Jays were hoping for when they gave him a massive contract, but it’s not at all what they’ve gotten. His career high in home runs and RBI is 33 and 117, in 2003. His career high in average was also that year, at .317. Let’s start with the average. That .321 mark seems high, and it is, but it seems even higher when juxtaposed (ya, I tutor SAT when I’m not giving you great fantasy analysis on Venuing Voices, what of it?) to his career number of .281. It seems even higher when we look at his BABIP, .321 this season compared to a .290 career mark. This isn’t as bad as Action Jackson, but it certainly is not good.

The ISO meanwhile is an astounding .340 this year, compared to a .190 career mark. Players don’t just have career years after being the laughingstock of baseball for the previous 3 (at least not anymore. Thanks a lot Mitchell Report.). Combine that with his HR/FB ratio, an astounding 21.1%, and we can tell this is a fluke. For his career, 11.9% of his fly balls have gone out of the park, this year that number has almost doubled. Unless he’s been hanging out with Brady Anderson, this won’t continue.

Livan Hernandez (SP) – Washington Nationals
Weird Stat: 0.99 ERA
Stats that Disprove it: FIP and BABIP

The BABIP police are here again, and this time it’s on the pitcher’s end. For his career, Livan has posted a .310 BABIP against, very close to the league average. This year? .187. He has been capital I capital N capital CREDIBLY lucky this season, and that will soon change. Moving on to his FIP, or Fielder Independent Pitching, and we can see even more why he’s a fluke. That stat is set up to tell us, on the ERA scale, what a pitcher’s ERA may be if he played in the same ballpark and with the same fielders behind him as every other pitcher in baseball. More succinctly, what his ERA should be. For Hernandez, its a 4.63. Compare that to Zach Greinke, last year’s AL Cy Young winner, who had an FIP of 2.33. Once that ERA goes up (and believe me, it will), he is useless. He’s only struck out 11 guys in 36.1 innings. Don’t even waste your time with him.

Jonathan Sanchez (SP) – San Francisco Giants
Weird Stat: 2.48 ERA
Stats that Disprove them: Strand Rate, BB/9

Granted, I like Jonathan Sanchez. I like him for what he is, a number three or four starter on your team. He simply is not this good, though. That 2.48 ERA is pretty incredible for a guy with a career 4.02 mark, especially one with control problems like Sanchez. These types of pitchers usually tend to have higher than usual ERA’s considering there are extra men on base, unless they have an unusually low strand rate (the plot thickens). He has left runners on base at a rate 78.4% this year, 8.5% higher than his career total. That means that he’s allowing men on, they’re just not advancing.

Standing alone, that stat doesn’t do much for us. When we combine it with his unusually high (even for hm) BB/9, it tells us he’s getting even luckier than we thought before. He’s walking 5.59 batters per 9 innings, compared to his 4.72 career mark. Pitchers don’t just walk more hitters than they ever have before and decrease their ERA by 2 full runs. It does not make sense (if Chewbacca lives on Endor YOU MUST ACQUIT). If you want Sanchez as a number four starter, fine. Just don’t count on him to be a number two, likes he’s performed.

Do not chase these guys. End of story. If you do, you’ll be left longing for the days where you had a good team full of consistent performers while Chris Shelton laughs at you in between asking if you want fries with your Big Mac. It’s not worth it. There’s almost always some stat that disproves early success of guys that won’t keep it up. The trick is finding the right one.

‘Til next time, keep the bat on your shoulders.
-Backwards K

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