Here's a Thought: Is Jason Bartlett The New Ben Zobrist?

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Here's a Thought: Is Jason Bartlett The New Ben Zobrist?
(Photo by Pool/Getty Images)

A few weeks back, I wrote about Tampa Bay second baseman Ben Zobrist's unlikely rise from minor league singles hitter to major league slugger.

That article can be found here, for those who are interested.

Today, I was looking at some hitting leaderboards to see who the star performers at the plate were in the majors this year.

Obviously, there were the usual names: Pujols, Mauer, Braun, Hanley Ramirez, etc. There were a few oddballs like Zobrist, Brad Hawpe, and Ibanez, the latter two of which are helped out by homer-friendly home parks.

So none of those were shockers, really.

Then I saw that Jason Bartlett, of all people, is hitting .333/.386/.511.

This is the same Jason Bartlett who hit one home run all of last year. His best offensive year pre-2009 was 2006, when he hit a "robust" .309/.367/.393.

Not only has Bartlett added about 50 points of batting average over what one would expect, but suddenly he has an Isolated Power of .179.

How can this be? First Zobrist, now Bartlett?

It's like any light-hitting infielder can go to Tampa Bay, struggle for awhile, and then all of a sudden triple his power output.

With Zobrist, there is an explanation—hitting expert Jaime Cevallos met with him and completely revamped his swing, and he immediately took off—but there's no similar story with Bartlett (at least, not that I've heard).

So let's examine Bartlett's hitting surge in two parts.

First, how is it happening? Second, is he likely to maintain it?

Here's a quick table of Bartlett's batted-ball splits by season:

Year      GB%      LD%      FB%      PO%
2005     46.5      18.7      34.8      9.2
2006     43.8      22.2      34.0      5.1
2007     43.9      20.1      36.0      10.3
2008     49.0      20.7      30.3      10.3
2009     33.0      26.2      40.8      7.4

Well, that's interesting.

Bartlett was something of a groundball hitter who hit a fair amount of liners and very few fly balls before this year.

Now, all of a sudden, he's got the highest line-drive percentage in baseball and is also hitting more fly balls than ever before.

The dramatic shift in his batted-ball splits explains the turnaround completely. Bartlett's hitting the most liners in the league, giving him a lot of singles and doubles, and he's hitting a good amount of flyballs, giving him more homers.

Naysayers may point to Bartlett's .384 BABIP as reason to expect decline, but his batted-ball splits indicate that the BABIP isn't particularly out of line.

Undoubtedly, Bartlett, like Zobrist, has made some sort of swing change that's causing him to hit the baseball in a completely different manner.

So, now we know what Bartlett's surge is caused by. Can he keep it up?

Anytime a hitter goes from middle-of-the-pack in a certain stat to leading the league in it, it's fair to expect some regression. While it's somewhat possible for Bartlett to keep hitting 26.2 percent liners, it's unreasonable to expect him to keep the liner rate up quite this high.

Bartlett's homer-to-flyball rate is also the highest of his career, although that could be somewhat due to whatever's making him hit the ball harder in the first place. In itself, the HR/FB ratio (8.4%) isn't particularly high.

For now, I'm predicting that Bartlett keeps some of his newfound gains but regresses to the 23 to 24 percent line drive rate range, in between 2009 and his previous 20ish performances.

Such a correction would leave Bartlett as about a .305/.360/.460 hitter, which, when coupled with his average defense at short and good baserunning skills, is certainly valuable.

Bartlett's breakout may not be getting the attention of Zobrist's, but it's yet another positive development in Tampa Bay.

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