Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Holy Small Sample Size, Batman!

Every year, fans and sportswriters annoint and villify certain players for their performances in the post-season. While post-season memories are certainly an important part of being a baseball fan, it is a bit odd to characterize someone for their ability to perform in a small sample size. Sometimes post-season heroics can have million-dollar consequences: Carlos Beltran parlayed his 2005 post-season into a giant contract with the Mets; for some reason the Seattle Mariners looked only at Jeff Weaver in October 2006 and not all the previous mediocrity (2003 postseason included), and handed him a fat contract last off season.

Yet, when the beginning of the next season rolls around, some outstanding performances are always turned in during the month of April. And invariably, fans and sportswriters will mention a "hot start" only to clarify that eventually that .650 batting average is going to come down. Why can fans understand the concept of sample size in April but not in October? For fun, here are some April Heroes and Goats:

Akinori Iwamura: 20 AB, .500/.600/.700
Alex Rodriguez: 25 AB, 5 HR, 13 RBI, .360/.448/1.080
Vladamir Guererro: 25 AB, 10 RBI, .440/.483/.880
Miguel Cabrera: 24 AB, 3 HR, 11 RBI, .500/.594/1.042

Adam LaRoche: 27 AB, 13 K, .111/.226/.259
Alex Gordon: 22 AB, 9 K, 1 H .045/.145/.045
Brandon Inge: 20 AB, 8 K, 0 H
Manny Ramirez: 22 AB, .217/.308/.261

I do have a new-found fondness for statistics that better capture a players' worth than the familiar triplet of AVG/HR/RBI. Still, I find myself every season watching the batting average leaderboard. It is true that a batting average fluctuates from season to season because of multiple factors: as Crash Davis points out in Bull Durham, the difference between .250 and .300 is 25 hits- one more dying quail a week and you're an All-Star. However, there is still something to be said for the mythical numbers of baseball tradition, and a .400 batting average is one of them. In sixty-five years, no one has come close to Ted Williams' .406 in 1941. In fact, of the top 100 batting averages of all time, only two have occured since 1941: Larry Walker's .379 in 1999 and Tony Gwynn's .394 in strike-shortened 1994.

Every year there is one last player above .400 that eventually falls below. It is fairly tough to get back over the .400 mark once it's breached, and so that point, usually sometime in late April or early May, marks the final hope that Ted Williams could be equaled this year. Obviously someone hitting .300 after 7 games could have a hot week and be over .400, but right now there are only six players above .400:

Cabrera (.500)
Iwamura (.500)
Guererro (.440)
Aramis Ramirez (.429)
Placido Polanco (.423)
Derek Lee (.414)

It will be fun to follow these players and see who can remain above the Ted Williams mark the longest.

Finally, another thing I'd like to see this season is for the AL Home Run record to fall. Surprisingly, Roger Maris still holds the AL single-season record, with his 61 in '61. The power surge of the late 1990s was well-distributed, but after McGwire's trade to the Cardinals (how are Eric Ludwick, TJ Matthews, and Blake Stein doing, anyway?), all of the 60+ HR seasons occured in the national league. In the forty-six seasons since Maris cracked Ruth's 34 year old mark, there have only been three seasons of even 55 homers in the AL: A-Rod's 57 in Texas in 2002, and Junior Griffey hitting 56 in both 1996 and 1997 for Seattle. I can't think of any explanation for this other than luck, given that the AL features 12% more hitters than the NL, and the Senior Circuit is generally credited for having better pitching.

Anyway, in a season where there are very few established "aces" in the AL (Santana, Halladay.... and... um... coughcoughcough), and coming off a season with a bunch of stellar rookie pitchers who are due for some hot regressive action, I think the stage is set for an AL slugger to get over the 60 hump. Alex Rodriguez is well on his way with 5 homers in the first 6 games, but the season is long and the boos at home are loud. After The Third Baseman, there aren't many names in the AL that jump out as SLUGGER!!!! Frank Thomas and Jim Thome are getting older and still could crank out in the 40s, but more than that is unlikely. Other budding sluggers like Carl Crawford and Grady Sizemore may be a few years away from 60 HR potential. That leaves us with three hopefulls, in my estimation: A-Rod, Vlad, and David Americo Ortiz Arias. Let's see if one of them can't top the asterisk.

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