A baseball season is a baseball season. 81 games are not necessarily 162 games divided by 2. What I’m getting at here is that just because a guy has one bad half and one great half, to combine for a decent season, you can’t expect him to be great the next year. You can’t expect him to be bad either, you expect him to be nothing other than decent. Some guys hit well later in the season after they have a bunch of ABs behind them, some guys tire halfway through the season and decline. There are other factors, too. If someone wants to trade you a Texas Ranger hitter in a fantasy league because they didn’t play well in April and May, you should seriously consider it. Because in Texas, the ball takes off in the heat of the summer. All kinds of things factor into streakiness, or even several good months of play. Anyway, when you isolate July 14th through September 3rd and say someone has gone 6-0 with a 2.42 ERA or whatever, you have to remember this doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Now that we’ve got all of the caveats out of the way - with young players, there is more of a glimmer of hope than just external factors. As they get older they get better. A full season, or a few full seasons in the majors leads to improvement. That improvement may be visible in March, it may be visible in May, or it may be visible in September. And some of these youngsters may have figured it out, but had tired legs in August and September. So using some arbitrary endpoints (a term I believe I first heard from Keith Law), here are some of them with a few players you may have heard of.
I’ve included the number of plate appearances each player had in each stretch, so you understand they usually aren’t a 6 game profile.
Milledge finished the season hitting .268/.330/.402. This isn’t terrible for a 23 year old centerfielder, playing in his first full season, but it aint that goodt. And we’re still not sure if he can play center full time, so he’s gotta improve significantly if he’s gonna play a corner outfield. As we dissect the season, take a look at the beginning. He had a strong first week, but from April 17 to June 28, when he went on the DL, he hit an atrocious .230/.298/.348 in 275 PAs. This isn’t replacement level. The second half of the season when he came back from injury, July 25 through September 28, he hit .299/.355/.448 in 246 PAs. And if you take away the first week back (getting out the rust) and the last week of the season (tired, dragging, or some other excuse I can’t think of) he hit .319/.387/.500 in 205 PAs from July 31 through Sept 20. This second half surge could be a young man figuring out how to hit in this league. This year, we’ll get a chance to see.
Dukes is the originator of the arbitrary endpoints game here. He started out as a highly touted 5 tool player last season with some serious behavioral issues. He needed to come out of the gate and just play baseball, put his issues behind him, and prove to the fans that he was a worthwhile investment. Maybe the pressure of that was too much for him, because he sucked. Just awful. In his first 38 PAs, he had 2 hits and 5 BBs for a nauseating .063/.184/.094. Yeah that is correct. After that, his season picked up significantly. Immediately following that 2 for 32 start, from May 24 through Sept 27, he hit .291/.412/.529 in 296 PAs. That will play on almost any team, especially from a 24 year old. And he was hurt on and off, but after finally returning from the DL on August 27th, he was even better. While his batting average dropped, we know the other 2 numbers are more important. And from Aug 27 through Sept 27, he hit .268/.425/.564 in 120 PAs.
Imagine a team where 3 hitters get on base 2 out of every 5 ABs. Well, the Nats look to have that this year with Dukes, Johnson and Dunn. Boston didn’t have that in 2008. The Yankees didn’t, Philly didn’t, Chicago didn’t. In fact, NO TEAM IN BASEBALL had 3 starters with an OBP over .400 last season. Now Dunn’s probably not gonna get there, he’s only done it once in his career. But check out this list of guys with high OBP and look where Dukes and Dunn fall on it. Pretty nice. Nick Johnson hasn’t had an OBP below .400 since 2004, hitting the number on the nose would put him 13th on the list.
I want to reiterate this point. It is quite possible that the Nats have 3 of the 25 best players in baseball in terms of getting on base. Or 3 of the 25 worst batters at making an out. That, in a full time capacity, could help to greatly improve this offense.
Zimmerman was being doubted at the beginning of the season. Perhaps he wasn’t the hitter people thought. Maybe he was just a great gloveman but barely hit enough to play third full time. Not that it would be awful, but not the face of a franchise. Through May 25, in 220 PAs, Zim was limited to .257/.291/.427. While there was a little bit of pop, an OBP under .300 is completely unacceptable. Then he got hurt, and wasn’t heard from again until 2 months later, on July 22nd. From that point, until the end of the season, he hit like a future star infielder. From July 22 through Sept 27 he hit .306/.370/.455 in 246 PAs. The OBP is what gets me excited, as many said earlier that he lacked plate discipline. And watching him that first half, I knew why. But in the second half he was much improved. The power is also nice, and I still think that will go up as he matures. Hard to believe, but he’s only going to be 24 this year.
Time Will Tell
These three players are supposed to be the cornerstone of the future franchise. They finished 2008 with promise, and since they are all so young, it is not ridiculous to think that these promising numbers, albeit lifted out of context from the entire season, are a sign of very good things to come.
The fun thing about really young players is that you can be optimistic about great second halves. It shows that they may be progressing, they may be improving, they may be figuring it all out. But you can also be optimistic about strong first halves, because often times young players tire out when dealing with the stresses and strains of a full season. Much like a strong second half, a strong first half could be evidence that full season success is around the corner, in this case once the durability is improve. Next time, we’ll take a look at a couple of guys who started out strong but faltered, and some reasons why this may have been the case.