Rany’s posts are so long. – Will McDonald, Royals Review.
Guilty. As I’ve said before, I write long posts because I don’t have time to make them shorter.
But I’ll try to squeeze in a quick one today, by writing about two very specific players – our two redemption projects in the outfield, Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur – and one very specific question – whether their hot starts are meaningful or not.
Specifically, I want to look at whether their performance in the month of April has precedence in their careers or not. If it has, well, then they may have simply had the good fortune to time their annual hot streak to the start of the season. If it hasn’t, well, maybe it means something more.
First up, Gordon, who in the month of April* hit .339/.395/.541 in 119 plate appearances, albeit with 21 strikeouts against just eight walks.
*: As per standard baseball convention, “April” includes the stray regular season game played in March. Take out Gordon’s 0-for-5 on Opening Day, and his April line was actually .356/.412/.567.
Thanks to injuries and demotions to Triple-A, in his four previous seasons in the majors, Gordon had batted 70 or more times in a month on just 13 different occasions. Here are the five best months (min: 70 PA) of Gordon’s career:
Apr 2011: .339/.395/.541, 936 OPS
Jun 2007: .327/.383/.500, 883 OPS
Sep 2009: .279/.359/.471, 830 OPS
Aug 2007: .271/.320/.490, 810 OPS
Apr 2008: .301/.363/.447, 809 OPS
This past month was pretty clearly the best month of Gordon’s career. He not only had an OPS more than 50 points higher than in any previous month, but he set career highs in batting average, OBP, and slugging average. And for all the talk about how Gordon is sacrificing power for average, it’s notable that in only one of the other four months listed above did Gordon have more isolated power (slugging average minus batting average) than he did this April.
However, this is not the best stretch of Gordon’s career. He finished the 2008 season on fire, but he missed three weeks from August 21st to September 14th that season with a mild injury (an oblique pull, if I remember correctly.) So he only batted 69 times in August, and 49 times in September. But he hit .268/.377/.500 in August, and .311/.367/.556 in September.
If you go back to July 27th, from that date until the end of the season, Gordon played 33 games and batted 133 times – a little more than a full month’s worth of action. Compare his numbers then with his numbers this April.
2011: 12 doubles, 2 triples, 2 HRs
2008: 11 doubles, 1 triple, 5 HRs
2011: 8 walks, 21 Ks
2008: 20 walks (3 intentional), 25 Ks
Gordon is rapidly approaching the point at which we can say that he’s never played so well for so long. But he’s not quite there. For the better part of two months in 2008 – his best season – Gordon had a better performance, and a performance that was not nearly as reliant on a high batting average. He hit for more power, and drew a lot more walks. It’s worth noting that Gordon was rarely healthy in 2009 and 2010, and in some ways he may be picking up in 2011 where he left off the 2008 season.
Verdict: I don’t think what Gordon’s doing is sustainable, in the sense that he’s going to hit .339 all year. But I think that, if he stays healthy, the odds that he regresses back to the Gordon of the last two years is remote. He might only be as good as he was in 2008, but the Gordon of 2008 was a pretty good player. If he starts walking more as pitchers realize they have to pitch him more carefully – and I think he will, as patience has always been a signature skill of his – I think he could be even better than that.
And now Francoeur, who in April hit .314/.357/.569, and perhaps more impressively given his reputation, drew 7 walks (one intentional) against 18 strikeouts.
Unlike Gordon, Francoeur has been a very durable player throughout his career, and after debuting in July, 2005, batted at least 70 times in every calendar month from August 2005 until last September, when he batted only 56 times as a bench player for the Rangers. Here are the best months of Francoeur’s career:
Apr 2011: .314/.357/.569, 926 OPS
Apr 2007: .306/.367/.541, 908 OPS
July 2007: .330/.371/.519, 890 OPS
Apr 2010: .284/.355/.531, 886 OPS
Aug 2005: .312/.364/.514, 878 OPS
As streaky a hitter as Francoeur has been in his career, I’ll admit: I expected to find at least one calendar month in his career where he better than he did this April. I did not find one. He has certainly played at close to his April level in the past; it’s not hard to find a month where Francoeur hit over .300 and slugged over .500. But his performance this year is at the top of the list, and when you consider the historically low offensive levels (as Joe and I discuss in this week’s podcast – go to iTunes now and download “The Baseball Show With Rany And Joe”!) so far this season, his numbers are even more impressive.
Like Gordon, though, this is not the hottest stretch of Francoeur’s career. That remains – and probably will always remain – the first six weeks of his career, the six weeks that put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In July 2005, he hit .413/.413/.913 in 46 plate appearances. He debuted on July 7th; from that day until August 20th, he hit .379 and slugged .734 in 33 games. He hit 10 homers and 12 doubles in 124 at-bats.
He also did not walk a single time.
Naturally, pitchers adjusted. Obviously, given his track record, Francoeur could not adjust back.
What I think is fascinating about Francoeur’s track record is that he always starts hot. You’ll notice that three of his five best months listed above are Aprils, and one of the remaining two was his first full month in the majors. He hit well in his first two months with the Mets, and in his only month with the Rangers. Francoeur’s career line in April is .278/.321/.483, easily his best line of any month. It’s almost as if, every winter, pitchers forget that Francoeur can’t hit any pitch with a bend in it, and it takes them a few weeks of getting their fastballs crushed to remember.
Whether Francoeur can make the adjustment this year depends on whether he can maintain some semblance of plate discipline. His 6 unintentional walks in April were encouraging, but relative to his history, not unprecedented. He has drawn more than six unintentional walks in a calendar month five times in his career. (He has never drawn more than eight walks of his own accord in a month, however.)
Verdict: It’s been a nice month for Frenchy. But if you don’t mind, let’s hold off on offering him a long-term contract a little while longer.
Programming note: “Rany on the Radio” makes its triumphant return this Thursday at 6 PM. Here’s the setup, basically: unless the Royals are playing at 6 PM (which happens only twice the rest of the season, I think), I will always be on 810 WHB at 6 PM. If the Royals are playing at 7 PM, then I will be on with Danny Clinkscale as part of WHB’s standard pre-game show. If the Royals are off that day, or playing an afternoon game, then I will host “Rany on the Radio” – alone. (My partner in crime the last two seasons, Jason Anderson, now hosts an afternoon show in Louisville, where presumably he’s forced to discuss horse racing or college basketball all the time. The poor thing.)
Rob Neyer has graciously agreed to be my first guest this Thursday, and we’ll – I’ll – probably take callers in the final segment. So those of you who complained that there wasn’t enough Rany on “Rany on the Radio” – well, be careful what you wish for.