30 MLB Players Due for a Regression to the Mean
The experts say a baseball season is a marathon, and if that’s the case, the following players on the list are out of the gates on a fast sprint that is strictly unmaintainable. The season is one-third of the way over, and 54 games isn’t enough to say the following players have turned their careers around.
They’re likely due for a reality check, and as the season goes on, their numbers will almost assuredly regress to the mean.
Bryan LaHair, 1B, Chicago Cubs
Bryan LaHair has seemingly come out of nowhere to post a fabulous season for the Chicago Cubs. He’s hitting .314/.396/.591 with 11 home runs, 23 RBI and a phenomenal 165 adjusted OPS. He’s basically been a career Quad-A player at this point, having spent the last six season at the Triple-A level, and he tore it up last year to the tune of a .331/.405/.664 with 38 home runs and 109 RBI.
LaHair has 159 home runs in over 4,000 minor league plate appearances, but he failed to make much of an impact with the Seattle Mariners in 2008 or with the Cubs last year. His success this year is unprecedented, especially seeing as he’s a 29-year old first baseman with just five major league home runs coming into the season. His fine start to the season has been terrific, but the odds are that he won’t keep it up.
Melky Cabrera, RF, San Francisco Giants
Melky Cabrera has been a good player for his career and he enjoyed a breakout year in 2011, but his success in 2012 is something he won’t maintain. It’s a contract year for Cabrera, and he’s making a strong case for a high-paying multi-year deal.
Cabrera is leading the National League with a .366 batting average, 86 hits and seven triples. He has a .405 on-base percentage, a .536 slugging percentage and a .942 OPS that’s 133 points higher than any other season of his career.
Cabrera did collect over 200 hits last season, which may have been a breakout year, but he’s at an unforeseen level so far this year. He’ll probably end the season with 200 hits again and a .300 batting average, but don’t expect him to be hitting anywhere near .350 come September.
A.J. Ellis, C, Los Angeles Dodgers
A.J. Ellis entered this season as a 31-year-old catcher with a .262 career batting average and two major league home runs to his name. So far in 2012, he’s tearing it up to the tune of .307/.425/.487 with a ridiculous .912 OPS. Ellis has remarkable plate disciple, as he’s leading the National League in pitches per plate appearance, and he’s swung at the first pitch just seven times in 183 plate appearances.
Ellis has always had a terrific walk rate, so he will probably end the season with a high on-base percentage, but his batting average is likely unmaintainable.
Carlos Ruiz, C, Philadelphia Phillies
I love Chooch like no one else, but Carlos Ruiz is due for a major drop in his 2012 numbers. He’s been a serious MVP candidate this year, moving into the cleanup spot and becoming the most feared hitter on the Philadelphia Phillies.
Ruiz is hitting .358 with a .580 slugging percentage. This is a player that hit .219 with a .300 slugging percentage the year the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series. Ruiz has obviously learned how to hit major league pitching much better, but I would be very surprised if he can keep up a pace anywhere near this.
Paul Konerko, 1B, Chicago White Sox
Paul Konerko is 36 years old and in his 16th major league season—which is generally when players start to decline—but don’t tell that to him.
He’s leading the American League with a .366 batting average and a .445 on-base percentage, and his 185 adjusted OPS not only leads the league but would be the highest adjusted OPS by a 36-year-old AL player since Ted Williams in 1957. The only AL players ever to put up an adjusted OPS of that caliber at his age are Williams (twice) and Babe Ruth. That’s pretty good company. Just don’t count on Konerko maintaining his pace.
Allen Craig, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
The St. Louis Cardinals have themselves a terrific fourth outfielder in Allen Craig, as he batted .318/.362/.555 last year while seeing time at every single defensive position except for pitcher and catcher.
Craig has taken his play to a whole new level in 2012, as he’s torching opposing pitchers for a .366 batting average and a ridiculous .746 slugging percentage. Craig has hit seven home runs in 71 at-bats, a pace comparable to Roger Maris’ 61-home run season in 1961.
Craig will probably end the season batting over .300 or even .320 with a very impressive slugging percentage, but I don’t think he can physically maintain this pace.
Edwin Encarnacion, DH, Toronto Blue Jays
I have no idea where Edwin Encarnacion’s career year came from, but he’s really playing for a new contract in 2012.
Encarnacion has been a 15-20 home run guy per season with occasional outbursts of 25 or more dingers. This year though, he’s already hit 17 in just 54 games, putting him on pace for 50 on the season. Encarnacion’s .279 batting average is on par with his career total, but his power numbers are at an extreme high. He’ll likely finish with a little over 30 home runs.
Ernesto Frieri, RP, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Ernesto Frieri has been a highly underrated relief pitcher during his brief major league career, putting up a 2.33 ERA and 11.1 strikeout rate during his first three seasons. After an early-season trade sent him to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim this year, Frieri has been downright unhittable.
He’s pitched 14.1 innings and struck out 30 hitters while giving up only one hit. His ERA sits at a sparkling 0.00. What’s remarkable is Frieri has struggled with his control, walking 6.9 batters per nine innings, well up from his career rate of 4.9. Frieri can’t maintain his perfect ERA if he continues to walk batters at this rate. Sooner or later, he’s going to get knocked around.
Aroldis Chapman, RP, Cincinnati Reds
Aroldis Chapman is having the most amazing season by a relief pitcher that I can ever recall—maybe at any level of professional ball. Chapman has pitched 29 innings. He’s 4-0 with a 0.00 ERA. He’s allowed seven hits and struck out 52, giving him an outrageous 16.1 strikeout per nine inning rate, along with a 2.2 hit rate that would totally shatter the single-season record.
Chapman has a near-unhittable fastball that tops out at 102 miles per hour, but don’t expect him to end the year with video game numbers like this.
Brandon Beachy, SP, Atlanta Braves
Last year, Brandon Beachy had a fine year for the Atlanta Braves, going 7-3 with a 3.68 ERA and a 10.7 strikeout rate in 141.2 innings pitched. This year, he’s 5-4 through 11 starts and has seen his strikeout rate dip to just 7.1, but he’s leading the major leagues with a 1.87 ERA. How is that possible?
Well, his superb hit rate (5.7 H/9) is a big indicator. Beachy is leading all major league starters in batting average on balls in play (.204), meaning when opposing hitters put the ball into play, Beachy’s defense is making the plays and getting the guys out.
That won’t last for Beachy, especially with his strikeout total down so significantly. It wouldn’t stun me if his ERA ends up being over 3.00 for the season. Beachy is still a terrific pitcher and the Braves are fortunate to have him, but he’s not this good.
Fernando Rodney, RP, Tampa Bay Rays
Fernando Rodney entered 2012 with a 4.29 career ERA and a 1.69 strikeout to walk ratio. He hadn’t posted an ERA under 4.00 since 2006, posting marks of 4.26, 4.91, 4.40, 4.24 and 4.50.
This year as the closer for the Tampa Bay Rays, Rodney has a 1.03 ERA in 26.1 innings pitched, and he’s struck out 25 hitters against just four walks. His numbers are a major reason why the Rays are keeping pace with the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East, but Rodney just can’t keep this up.
Wade Miley, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks
Wade Miley had a solid minor league career for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and he’s probably going to be a pretty good pitcher for quite some time. But he’s really overachieving in 2012, and he can thank his BABIP rate for that.
Last year, Miley was 4-2 with a 4.50 ERA in seven starts, seeing a .321 batting average on balls in play. This year, he’s 7-2 with a 2.53 ERA in nine starts, despite a nearly identical strikeout rate. Miley has improved his control dramatically, nearly cutting his walk rate in half and reducing his home run rate by three times. But his ERA right now is better than he is.
He’s also hitting .391 at the plate, which likely won’t keep up considering he was a .208 hitter at the minor league level.
Jonathan Lucroy, C, Milwaukee Brewers
The Milwaukee Brewers felt Jonathan Lucroy was a good enough catcher to give him a five-year, $10.28 million contract prior to the season, and so far, they have to be ecstatic with the way he’s played.
Lucroy is hitting.345 with a .583 slugging percentage, taking advantage of an extremely fortunate .381 batting average on balls in play. He’s a good player who should be able to produce well when he returns from his hand injury, but I don’t think his batting average will ever be this high again.
Jonathan Broxton, RP, Kansas City Royals
Once upon a time, Jonathan Broxton was a two-time All-Star closer for the Los Angeles Dodgers who struck out a ton of batters and was incredibly effective (except when he was facing the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS).
Broxton lost his closing job recently and signed with the Kansas City Royals. He moved into the closer role again when Joakim Soria was lost for the season, and Broxton is absolutely thriving. He’s 14-for-16 in save opportunities with a 1.59 ERA despite a strikeout rate that has plummeted to just 5.6 batters per nine innings, about half of what it was back in Los Angeles.
Broxton is leaving over 83 percent of runners that reach against him on base, and while that may be a testament to Broxton’s terrific ability to pitch out of jams this season—hitters are batting just .136 with runners in scoring position—he won’t keep that up.
Jerry Hairston, Jr., IF/OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Jerry Hairston, Jr. is a 36-year-old career major league journeyman who is playing on his ninth team in 15 seasons. He’s a .260 lifetime hitter who is somehow batting .352 with a .427 on-base percentage this season for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Hairston has just 104 plate appearances, which projects him to a part-time player with around 300 trips to the plate. The great start at the plate has to be thrilling for Dodgers fans, especially considering he was expected to just be a backup utility infielder/outfielder. It is a great start, but it’s likely not going to be a good finish.
Scott Atchison, RP, Boston Red Sox
In two seasons thus far with the Boston Red Sox, Scott Atchison has just been an average member of the bullpen. He’s posted a 3-3 record, a 4.08 ERA, 1.262 WHIP and 2.32 strikeout to walk ratio.
This season, he’s 1-0 with a 1.42 ERA, a 1.011 WHIP and a 3.71 strikeout to walk ratio. Maybe he’s turned it around, but most of his peripheral statistics—.267 BABIP, 88.2% LOB, and 3.17 xFIP—suggest he is getting incredibly fortunate right now.
James McDonald, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates
In two abbreviated seasons thus far with the Pittsburgh Pirates, James McDonald has shown flashes of brilliance, but for the most part, he’s just been an average major league starter.
Not this year. McDonald has been a shining star in 2012, posting a 5-2 record, a 2.14 ERA and a terrific 3.71 strikeout to walk ratio to go with a WHIP of under one. He’s been remarkably consistent, giving up three or fewer earned runs in all 11 of his starts and one or fewer in seven of them. Look for McDonald to drop off his pace though and finish with an ERA of around 3.00.
Barry Zito, SP, San Francisco Giants
Barry Zito has been an utter disaster since the San Francisco Giants foolishly signed him to a seven-year, $126 million contract prior to the 2007 season, going 43-61 with a 4.55 ERA and a 1.57 strikeout to walk ratio from ’07 to ’11. He really wasn’t even that good before his deal, as he was 41-34 with a 4.05 ERA from ’04 through ’06.
This year, Zito has been a blessing for the Giants, as he is 5-2 with a 2.98 ERA, his best ERA since his Cy Young award season of a decade ago. Zito’s strikeout rate this year (5.3 K/9) is the lowest of his career, and his 1.39 strikeout to walk ratio is substantially lower than his career average, so there’s really no reason to believe he can keep up this pace.
Chris Capuano, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Last year, Chris Capuano was 11-12 with a 4.55 ERA for the New York Mets, posting a 8.1 strikeout rate and a 2.6 walk rate. This year, his strikeout rate is the same and his walk rate has climbed to 3.2 per nine innings, but he is 8-2 with a 2.82 ERA and is leading the league in both wins and games started.
Capuano wasn’t even close to this good when he made the All-Star team back in 2006 or when he won 18 games in 2005, and I doubt he’s having anything but a fluke year at nearly 34 years of age.
Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Tampa Bay Rays
Jeremy Hellickson will likely be a very good major league pitcher one day for the Tampa Bay Rays, but I would be wary about calling him one right now. Hellickson was a fabulous prospect and won the American League Rookie of the Year last year, going 13-10 with a 2.95 ERA.
He’s 4-2 so far in 11 starts in 2012 with a 2.69 ERA, although Hellickson rates near the lucky side of most of FanGraphs’ peripheral statistics: His .242 batting average on balls in play is one of the best of any regular starter, his 82.8 percent LOB rate is the fifth-highest mark in the game and he has a FIP of 4.61.
Since 2000, there have been just four starting pitchers with an ERA of under 2.69 and a strikeout rate of under 6.3 per nine innings, which indicates how difficult it is to maintain that kind of an earned run average without striking any batters out.
Derek Lowe, SP, Cleveland Indians
Derek Lowe has made a living out of throwing the sinker, pitching to contact and getting ground-ball outs. He’s never struck out a lot of batters, with a career rate of just 5.8 and never reaching higher than 6.6 in all his years as a starter.
This year, Lowe is at just 2.7, an almost unbelievably low total. He’s pitched a complete game shutout with no strikeouts. It’s been nearly 40 years since a major league starting pitcher that qualified for the ERA title had a strikeout rate as low as Lowe (no pun intended). Brad Penny had the lowest strikeout rate in the league last year (3.7 K/9), and his ERA was 5.05. The lowest strikeout rate in 2009 was Kyle Kendrick, who fashioned a 4.81 ERA. Traditionally, low strikeout rates mean high ERAs, and Lowe's numbers this year have been inexplicable..
Henderson Alvarez, SP, Toronto Blue Jays
Believe it or not, but Henderson Alvarez actually has a lower strikeout rate than Derek Lowe—Alvarez is at just 2.3 per nine innings this season. The fact that the 22-year-old Alvarez is in a major league rotation is phenomenal, but he’s due for a rude awakening.
Alvarez is 3-5 with a 3.75 ERA in 11 starts despite a 2.6 K/9 rate, a 1.24 strikeout to walk ratio and a ridiculous 5.45 FIP. Alvarez has been getting fortunate and that will likely even out soon.
Lucas Luetge, RP, Seattle Mariners
Lucas Luetge’s season has been perplexing. He’s pitched 13.1 innings and registered an ERA of 0.00 despite walking 10 batters—a rate of 6.8 per nine innings. Luetge has stranded 94.4 percent of the runners that have reached against him and he still hasn’t given up an earned run at the major league level.
Luetge is your classic LOOGY in that he’s extremely effective against lefties (.080 SLG), but also very wild (.303 OBP). He’s probably going to have a good career, assuming he can cut down his walk rate, but he won’t continue his 0.00 ERA.
Felipe Paulino, SP, Kansas City Royals
I really have no idea where Felipe Paulino’s season has come from. Entering this season, he was 10-31 with a 5.28 ERA and an awful 1.536 WHIP. He had bounced around the league before finding success with the Kansas City Royals this year.
Paulino is 3-1 with a 1.67 ERA in seven starts, which is completely shocking considering how awful he’s been. Paulino won’t be able to maintain his success, but maybe he’s turned his career around and will be a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter from now on.
Ryan Vogelsong, SP, San Francisco Giants
Ryan Vogelsong’s 2011 season was absolutely inexplicable, as he went from not throwing a pitch in the major leagues for five years to winning 13 games, making the All-Star team and earning Cy Young votes. I figured he absolutely had to drop off in 2012 because how could he possibly maintain that kind of production?
Instead, he’s been even better this year, showcasing a pristine 2.38 ERA that rates fifth best in the National League. I don’t know how he could possibly keep up his pace, simply because I’m not totally convinced he’s not a one-year wonder. If he finishes this season strong though, I’ll say I’m a believer.
Ryan Cook, RP, Oakland Athletics
Ryan Cook’s 2012 season has been one of the more shocking MLB stories of the year. He went from posting a 7.04 ERA in 7.2 innings for the Arizona Diamondbacks last year to being one of the top relievers in the league for the Oakland Athletics this season.
Cook has a 0.72 ERA through 25 innings and he’s given up just six hits. That’s half the hits he gave up last year in over three times the innings. Cook is still walking too many batters—5.4 per nine this year after being at 9.4 per nine last year. But he has yet to give up a major league home run, which won't last forever. He’s probably going to be a good major league reliever, but not at this kind of a pace.
Kirk Nieuwenhuis, OF, New York Mets
Kirk Nieuwenhuis had a quietly productive minor league career for the New York Mets, and he’s a viable option at all three outfield positions as a rookie, especially with highly-paid former superstar Jason Bay struggling.
Nieuwenhuis is hitting .295 this year in 183 at-bats, but he’s playing vastly better than he really is. Nieuwenhuis is batting .415 when he puts the ball in play. That’s the top mark of any hitter so far this season, and actually 35 points higher than last year’s best.
Nieuwenhuis—besides having one of the most difficult last names to spell in all of professional sports—has a terrible walk to strikeout ratio at the plate. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him finish the season hitting much closer to .250 instead of .300.
Dexter Fowler, LF, Colorado Rockies
Until this season, Dexter Fowler was a leadoff type of hitter that batted .260 with five home runs and 25 stolen bases. His steals are on track, but he’s hitting .288 this year and has an incredible eight long balls already, giving him a .562 slugging percentage.
Fowler has nothing in his past to suggest this surprising power display; he hit 27 minor league home runs in 1,765 plate appearances and 15 major league home runs in his first 1,613 major league plate appearances. Now he’s gone yard eight times in 181 trips to the plate. He can’t possibly keep that up can he?
Joe Nathan, RP, Texas Rangers
Joe Nathan was an extremely underrated closer for the Minnesota Twins back in the day before missing all of 2010 with Tommy John surgery. He wasn’t the same pitcher in ’11, fashioning a 4.84 ERA for the Twins in 44.2 innings pitched and seeing declines in his strikeout and hit rates.
Nathan is back to being his stellar self in 2012, although he’s exceeding expectations at a rate that he just won’t be able to maintain. At 37 years of age, Nathan has a 1.90 ERA, a 0.887 WHIP and an absolutely absurd strikeout to walk ratio of 14.00. Nathan may have regained enough on his pitches to be an effective closer for several more seasons, but he’s not this good.
Kevin Correia, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates
Kevin Correia should be extremely fortunate that his 4.19 ERA isn’t much higher than it is, especially considering how bad some of his other numbers have been: Correia is striking out just over three batters per nine innings, which puts him in Derek Lowe territory. He’s averaging just 5.8 innings per start and giving up 1.4 home runs per nine innings, giving him a FIP (projected ERA) of 5.44.
Correia has also received the third-luckiest BABIP so far this season (.223), and when that starts to straighten itself out, his numbers are going to be downright ugly.