April 5, 2008
Doctoring The Numbers
Dodgers and Nationals
Joe Torre has made his decision, and it appears he has chosen wisely-Juan Pierre and his albatross contract will ride the pine, while Matt Kemp (and Andre Ethier) will play every day. This ought to have been a much easier decision than it was. Last season, as a 22-year-old sophomore, Kemp hit .342/.373/.521 for the Dodgers, with 10 homers and 10 steals in barely half of a season's worth of playing time. Kemp has one of the more promising power/speed combinations around, but today I want to focus on that batting average.
Here at Baseball Prospectus we have long warned of the dangers of overrating the importance of batting average. But still, .342 says something. That's an impressive average for any hitter. For a 22-year-old hitter? More impressive still. For a 22-year-old right-handed hitter? It's historic.
Both because they have the platoon advantage more often and because, being closer to first base, they can leg out more infield singles, left-handed hitters historically have a higher batting average than right-handed hitters overall. It's not a huge effect-over the last two years left-handed batters have hit just three points higher than right-handers-but that effect is magnified at the top of the leaderboard. Of the fifty batting titles awarded over the last 25 years, only 18 went to right-handed hitters, even though nearly 60 percent of all at-bats come from the right side. Granted, Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs have a lot to do with that, but that's sort of the point. In the last forty years, the only right-handed hitter to win three batting titles is Bill Madlock (with four). From the left side, along with Gwynn (eight) and Boggs (five) you have Rod Carew with seven, George Brett and Larry Walker with three apiece, and Pete Rose, a switch-hitter, with three.
So for Kemp to hit as well as he did from the right side is most unusual. He became just the tenth right-handed hitter since World War II to hit .320 or better (min: 250 PA) at the age of 22 or less. It's what you might call a pretty impressive list:
Year Player Age AVG 1996 Alex Rodriguez 20 .358 2007 Matt Kemp 22 .342 1955 Al Kaline 20 .340 2001 Albert Pujols 21 .329 1956 Hank Aaron 22 .328 1998 Vladimir Guerrero 22 .324 2005 Miguel Cabrera 22 .323 1979 Paul Molitor 22 .322 1957 Frank Robinson 21 .322 1973 Cesar Cedeno 22 .320 1972 Cesar Cedeno 21 .320
That's four Hall of Famers, three guys who probably would get voted into the Hall of Fame if they retired today, and a guy (Miguel Cabrera) who's absolutely on a Hall of Fame trajectory. At the bottom of the list is Cesar Cedeno, who had one of the great "what if" careers in baseball history. And then there's Kemp.
That's not to say that Kemp is in the neighborhood of these other guys yet. He's the only player on the list who didn't play a full season, and he struck out 66 times against 16 walks, a ratio that no one else on the list approaches. It's possible, even likely, that Kemp's batting average last season was a bit of a fluke. On the other hand, he did hit .329 in Triple-A last season, and .368 in 2006. More importantly, he doesn't need to be in the neighborhood of Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron to be a very useful hitter. If he lives in the same area code, the Dodgers will be just fine.
Juan Pierre qualifies for his own list, though not one he's eager to be seen on. Here's the list of batters who have made the most outs in a season (outs being defined as at-bats minus hits, plus caught stealing and GIDP) over the last 25 years:
Year Player Outs R RBI 1984 Juan Samuel 531 105 69 2005 Jose Reyes 528 99 58 2006 Juan Pierre 521 87 40 2007 Jimmy Rollins 521 139 94 2007 Jose Reyes 517 119 57
We include the runs scored and batted in totals to make the point that the other guys on this list at least have the excuse that all the outs they generated did lead to a significant offensive contribution. Pierre? Just to pick a name at random, Edgar Renteria scored as many runs last season as Pierre did in 2006, and drove in 17 more runners, while using up only 346 outs.
Like we said: wise choice, Mr. Torre. Not to mention obvious as hell.
Appropriately for the face of the Nationals, Ryan Zimmerman was born in Washington-Washington, North Carolina, population 10,060. Perusing his numbers, however, you could be forgiven for thinking he was born in Ireland, because he's making quite the case to be crowned the new Earl of Doublin'. Zimmerman has been the king of the two-bagger from the moment he turned pro. He whacked 22 doubles in just 67 minor league games before he made his major-league debut on September 1st, 2005. By season's end he had 10 doubles in the majors, in just 58 at-bats. In major league history, no player has racked up double digits in doubles in a season with so few at-bats:
Year Player AB 2B 2005 Ryan Zimmerman 58 10 1994 Mike Kelly 77 10 1955 Harry Agganis 83 10 1922 Lou Giusto 84 10 1948 Cliff Mapes 88 11
Agganis' season and life was tragically cut short by a pulmonary embolism which killed the Golden Greek that June, at age 26.
Zimmerman didn't hit any home runs in that first month, but young hitters with doubles power are likely to translate that into home run power as they get older, as proven by the sixth player on this list, another 20-year-old rookie: Babe Ruth, with 10 doubles in 92 at-bats in 1915. In 2006, with the benefit of a full pro season, Zimmerman smacked 47 doubles for the Nationals; last year he "slumped" to 43. He ranked in the top 10 in the NL both years.
So, entering his third full season in the majors, Zimmerman has precisely 100 career doubles. With the help of Jason Paré, we can say that in terms of at-bats, Zimmerman is not the fastest man to 100. Here is the list of players (since 1957) with the fewest career at-bats when they reached 100 doubles:
Player AB Bill Fullmer 1175 Jose Vidro 1184 Travis Hafner 1221 Jody Reed 1231 John Valentin 1261 Lance Berkman 1291 Lyle Overbay 1306 Jeff Cirillo 1309 Ryan Zimmerman 1320 Albert Pujols 1335Apparently the Home Run Era is also the Doubles Era, because more than half these players are still active, and Reed is the only player on this list who debuted prior to 1992. While Zimmerman ranks ninth on this list, he reached the majors at such a young age that his 100th double the day after he turned 23; every player ahead of him on the list was either in the minors or just getting their first cup of coffee in the majors at that age. Only Pujols, who was 21 as a rookie and had 87 doubles before he turned 23, is anywhere close to Zimmerman's pace.
If we evaluate Zimmerman's pace by age instead of at-bats, we find 14 other players who had 100 or more doubles by their age-22 season. This time, the names are considerably more favorable:
Player Doubles AB Cesar Cedeno 135 2050 Alex Rodriguez 135 2070 Ken Griffey Jr. 132 2165 Mel Ott 129 2221 Vada Pinson 125 2003 Ted Williams 120 1582 Ty Cobb 118 2267 Robin Yount 118 2647 Freddie Lindstrom 112 2186 Buddy Lewis 111 2489 Orlando Cepeda 109 1777 Al Kaline 103 2314 Sherry Magee 103 2033 Johnny Bench 101 1787 Ryan Zimmerman 100 1325
Of the 14 players, ten of them are Hall of Famers or Hall-bound, given that there's no provision that allows us to kick Freddie Lindstrom out. Two are charter members of the Hall of Very Good (Vada Pinson and Sherry Magee), one is the ubiquitous Cesar Cedeno, and the final player is Buddy Lewis, who was a terrific third baseman for the Senators in the late '30s and early '40s, spent three years in the service, played great when he returned in 1945 and 1946, had a bad year in 1947 (though he made the All-Star team for the second time), then missed all of 1948, came back for 93 games in 1949, and then never played again, his career over at 32. I don't know the full story here, but then, that's why we have Steven Goldman.
Notably, every one of these players had far more at-bats than Zimmerman; some of them (most notably Yount) were everyday players in the majors at age 18, which gave them twice as many at-bats to rack up the doubles. So while a number of players have reached 100 doubles faster than Zimmerman, and a number of players have reached 100 doubles younger than Zimmerman, no one can match his combination of youthful start and ferocious pace.
It's still a very long time before we can even consider Zimmerman's odds of joining the all-time doubles leaderboard. Tris Speaker holds the record with 792; Zimmerman would need to average 41 doubles a year until he turns 40 to break it. While he's shown the capability to do just that, it's likely that some of his doubles will turn into homers as he enters his mid-20s, and balls that may have bounced off the wall at RFK might sneak over the fence at Nationals Park. If that means Zimmerman is forced to hit more home runs like the one he belted on Opening Night, I'm sure he and the Nationals will happily accept the tradeoff.