Are Early-Season Offensive WAR Leaders Breakout Stars or Just Lucky?
USA TODAY Sports
Last week, the case was made for WAR as baseball's best statistic. Now it's time to dig a little deeper to find out if some of the early-season leaders in Wins Above Replacement are for real.
Take a look at the WAR leaders, per FanGraphs, and amid proven studs like Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria and Joey Votto, you'll notice a bunch of hitters who seem like potential new entries for breakout stars.
But given that we're only a month-and-a-half into the 2013 season, it's possible that some of these stars-in-the-making actually are closer to stars-in-the-faking, inflated by luck or unsustainable underlying numbers.
Let's examine a batch of these players to uncover whether each of the following is a Breakout Star, a Legitimate Starter...or Just Lucky.
Before we go sticking these labels on players, though, let's define what they mean:
- A Breakout Star is a player who will soon be a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate
- A Legitimate Starter is an above-average player who is capable of being a first-division starter
- Just Lucky is an average player whose performance is being trumped up by good fortune
Carlos Gomez, OF, Brewers
2.6 WAR (No. 3 among hitters)
Seems the Johan Santana trade actually might have worked out for the Twins—if only they'd hung onto Gomez instead of trading him away for J.J. Hardy.
While it's taken quite a while for the 27-year-old center fielder to figure things out at the plate in the majors, it appears he's done just that, as he's hitting .336 with 20 extra-base hits, including six homers, nine steals and 23 runs.
There's been more than a little good luck here, though, as Gomez's .413 BABIP is third-highest in baseball. Obviously a speedy, in-his-prime player is a prime candidate to sport an above-average BABIP, but his current one is more than 100 points higher than his .311 career number—and insanely unsustainable.
Coupled with Gomez's 4.9 percent walk rate—not to mention, that 22.7 percent strikeout figure—and Gomez could be in for a major regression in the batting average department.
The speed? We've known that's for real for years, and it helps him both on the bases and in center field, so there's less worry over Gomez's ability in those regards. That should help prop up his WAR even if his bat slows.
Speaking of his stick, what about the power? As his batted ball data indicates, Gomez has become much less of a ground-ball hitter and shifted toward lofting more fly balls since 2011. That obviously helps him put more over the wall, and his 13.6 HR/FB rate is actually right in line with what he managed the past two seasons, too.
In other words, the gains in power Gomez showed by smacking 19 homers in 2012—in only 452 plate appearances—are real, and we could be in for a season of 20 to 25 home runs, along with 30-plus steals and stellar defense (you watched the video, right?) at a premium up-the-middle position.
Verdict: To become a true Breakout Star, Gomez will have to show some improvements in plate discipline and prove he can keep his average up when his BABIP inevitably falls. Until then, he is certainly at least a Legitimate Starter.
Projected 2013 WAR: 4.5-5.0
Jean Segura, SS, Brewers
2.4 WAR (No. 5)
After just 41 games at the outset of this season, Segura already looks like the next great shortstop.
The 23-year-old is leading the NL with a .364 batting average, to go along with seven homers, 20 RBI, 25 runs and 14 steals.
The non-surface stats, though, paint the picture of a youngster playing somewhat above his head. You see, Segura owns a .394 BABIP (sixth-highest) and 20.0 HR/FB rate.
The former is very high and will regress, but for such a quick player, it's not unreasonable to expect he'll post above-average BABIPs for years, especially if he continues to hit the ball on the ground 53.3 percent of the time and use his wheels to leg out hits.
The latter, however, is a rate that belongs with only the true sluggers. To wit, this year Pedro Alvarez (25.8), Wilin Rosario (20.5) and Prince Fielder (20.0) all have similar rates, and well, one of these things is not like the other.
In case you were wondering, at 5'10", 200 lbs. and with a career high of 10 homers, the ground-balling middle infielder is that one, even if he does have some opposite field pop, as the video shows.
The early returns on the defensive front are promising, and Segura should be able to stick at shortstop, which will always give him a nice bump in positional value in WAR's eyes.
Verdict: While the surface stats say Breakout Star, Segura is more in the mold of a Legitimate Starter who will be above-average at his position, thanks to his ability to handle the defensive responsibilities, make lots of contact and run enough to add value on the bases.
Projected 2013 WAR: 4.0-4.5
Manny Machado, 3B, Orioles
2.3 WAR (No. 6)
As highly thought of as Machado was as a prospect after being the third overall pick in 2010, it's unlikely anyone expected him to be this good, this quickly.
Although the 20-year-old more than held his own in his first taste of the majors last summer, hitting .262 with seven homers, 24 runs and 26 RBI in 51 games—all while playing a new position, no less—Machado appears to have taken at least two or three steps forward to begin 2013.
At the moment, the righty-hitting Machado has five home runs, 26 RBI and 32 runs through 43 games, numbers that aren't too different from his 2012 performance in about the same amount of time. And yet, Machado is batting .328 with an MLB-high 18 doubles. Speaking of which...
What do we make of this? A quick peek at BABIP shows a .368 rate, which is among the highest, but it's not a crazy number given the routinely hard contact Machado is making on both line drives (21.2 percent) and grounders (49.0 percent).
The plate discipline numbers are intriguing, too, as Machado is walking in only 5.0 percent of his plate appearances, but also whiffing just 14.6 percent of the time. In other words, Machado is putting bat on ball—a lot—and when he does, he's stinging it.
The former shortstop has also made himself into one of the best defensive third basemen around in very short order, which helps pump up his WAR even more.
Verdict: The fact that Machado is striking out so infrequently at such a young age and with such little experience is extremely promising. This shows he's focusing now on making solid contact, with the goal of eventually tapping more into his power to turn into the Breakout Star that his pedigree suggests—and that he's quickly becoming.
Projected 2013 WAR: 5.5-6.0
Josh Donaldson, 3B, Athletics
2.1 WAR (No. 9)
Admit it: Some of you just went, "Uh, who?"
Right, well, Donaldson is a very interesting case for a guy you've either never heard of or never given a second thought to, because it's not often that a 27-year-old with little prior big league experience—let alone success—suddenly morphs into a big-time player.
Hitting .317 with six homers, 27 RBI and 23 runs scored through 44 games has gotten Donaldson noticed, as Dave Cameron wrote for ESPN Insider (subscription required), and may even be enough to make some wonder why they haven't heard of him before now.
In addition to the above numbers, Donaldson also has 15 doubles, as well as a 10.4 walk percentage and a 15.4 strikeout percentage, both of which are above league average.
Try as you might to find a weak link in Donaldson's underlying stats, and nothing jumps out. His HF/FB is fine at 14.3 percent; his .349 BABIP is high but only slightly; and the righty-hitter is even hitting right-handers, as his .287/.354/.443 line reads.
While Donaldson had shown flashes and signs of being a productive hitter in the minors along the way, perhaps the biggest change is that the former catcher has turned into what looks to be a solid third baseman with the glove (check the video), at least in a limited sample to this point. That may be most important for Donaldson going forward.
Verdict: While something in the gut still feels like Donaldson is closer to Just Lucky than Legitimate Starter, it's wrong to ignore the facts as laid out above. If he proves to be a quality defender with this type of offensive profile, Donaldson finally may have solved the A's longstanding third base problem.
Projected 2013 WAR: 3.5-4.0
Gerardo Parra, OF, Diamondbacks
2.0 WAR (No. 12)
When Arizona lost preseason Rookie of the Year candidate Adam Eaton to an elbow sprain at the end of spring training, the D-backs were in the rare position to be able to at least cover themselves at both the leadoff spot and in center field.
Parra, a veteran of four seasons spent primarily as a fourth outfielder with a great glove and usable skills on offense, has not only held down the fort while Eaton recovers, the 26-year-old has thrived at times while playing every day.
Through 43 games, the lefty-hitting Parra is batting .320 with 14 doubles and 28 runs as the club's primary leadoff hitter. The other numbers don't knock your socks off, but Parra doesn't have any real weaknesses either.
He doesn't strike out much (15.5 percent), walks some (9.3 percent) and his .367 BABIP, while high, isn't much north of his .337 career rate.
The biggest knock on Parra is that he struggles to hit for almost any power against southpaws with a so-so .730 OPS in 2013 and a less-good .654 mark for his career.
Of course, Parra's bread and butter is really his D, including his arm (video evidence to the right), and that's unchanged this year. Plus, he's getting to work more often in center than his usual left field, which makes his contributions that much more valuable.
All of this raises the question of how the D-backs will fit in Eaton, once he's ready to return, which could be by the end of May or early June.
Verdict: Within the Legitimate Starter realm, Parra is more of a fringe fit, as he's the type who could be exposed over an extended period. He is, however, in his prime and proving he can handle a prominent position on the field and in the lineup. There's not much more ceiling but still a safe floor.
Projected 2013 WAR: 3.0-3.5
Matt Carpenter, 2B/3B, Cardinals
1.9 WAR (No. 16)
While Donaldson may have fixed the recent broken history of hot cornermen in Oakland, Carpenter is on track to do the same at the keystone in St. Louis.
The surprise here, though, isn't that the 27-year-old has been a plus with the bat—he's slashing .290/.375/.432 with 14 doubles, 14 RBI and 33 runs—but that he's been a positive with the glove so far.
Carpenter, who transitioned from a utility role to second base over the winter, has posted a 13.9 UZR/150 despite the fact that he'd never even sniffed the position prior to a few experimental outings there last season. While it's unwise to read too much into defensive statistics at such an early stage, it's at least a promising development.
As for Carpenter's offense, well, that's been similar to what he showed in 2012: a high-average, good-contact batter from the left side with a strong walk rate who also raps plenty of doubles because of a line-drive stroke (24.3 percent liners).
Carpenter is never going to be a star—he lacks the power to be more than a 12- to 18-homer guy—but he does almost all of the little things extremely well. His offensive approach and plate discipline, combined with what seems to be a legitimate ability to capably play wherever he's put on the diamond make him something like the NL's version of Ben Zobrist.
Verdict: There's a lot to like here, so Carpenter shouldn't have any trouble being a Legitimate Starter for a handful of seasons. Of course, he may instead be used as more of a Swiss Army knife type who can fill in across the board, but that wouldn't take away from his value. If anything, it might add to it.
Projected 2013 WAR: 4.0-4.5
Starling Marte, OF, Pirates
1.9 WAR (No. 18)
To say Marte has been impressive this year would be understating things just a bit.
The 24-year-old is hitting .305 with five homers, 17 RBI, 10 steals and 33 runs scored in what is his first full season in the majors.
There are a few warning signs, though, that Marte may not maintain quite this level of success. Like his .386 BABIP, which is rather high, even for a speedster who hits the ball on the ground a ton (55.5 percent grounders). Or his 4.6 percent walk rate, especially when he's striking out almost 23 percent of the time.
Plate discipline was the big concern with Marte in the minors, so the fact that there hasn't been any real improvement or adjustment yet means there's a good chance the best pitchers on the planet will eventually be able to exploit his aggressiveness from the right side.
Marte, who came up through the ranks as a good center fielder, also draws a lot of his WAR value from the fact that he's currently playing left field while Andrew McCutchen mans center. This may wind up being similar to when Brett Gardner, a natural center fielder, became arguably the best left fielder going for a few years in New York while handling a less demanding position.
Verdict: Look, Marte is a Legitimate Starter in that he's a good, young player with offensive upside and strong defensive ability. But unless he starts addressing some of the flaws in his approach, Marte won't be quite as great as he appears to be right now.
Projected 2013 WAR: 3.0-3.5
Statistics come from FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.
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