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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Better Know a Red #9 - Austin Kearns

In part 9 of our ongoing series, Better Know a Red, we turn our attention to Reds' 25-year old right fielder, Austin Kearns. Kearns was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the first round (7th overall) of the 1998 amateur draft out of Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. Kearns enjoyed immediate success with the Billings rookie-league team, and moved up the ranks to AA-Chattanooga by the end of the 2001 season. His tenure there was short lived, however. In 2002, Kearns received a combined total of 46 at bats in AA and AAA before being promoted to the Reds' major league team. He was thrilling in his debut, hitting 0.315/0.407/0.500/0.907 in 372 at-bats and making a very strong bid for the rookie of the year.

Since then, unfortunately, Kearns has been beleaguered by a series of (freak) injuries and inconsistent playing time, and has yet to return to his rookie-year dominance...and some have begun to wonder if he ever will. The trades of Sean Casey and Wily Mo Pena guarantee Kearns, who is still a month shy of 26, a full year of playing time. He also has the advantage that Jerry Narron has been among his biggest fans, constantly complementing both his offense and defense in interviews with the press last fall and this spring. That's a stark contrast to the message we heard from Dave Miley about Kearns, who seemed more focused on his weight than anything else last spring. As Baseball Prospectus wrote in their '06 Annual: "Although Kearns earned a spanking by reporting to camp overweight and out-of-shape last year, he should have spent the spring listening to the Reds talk about how their two titans were going to lead the club back to glory. Instead, he spent the spring training hearing trade rumors and competing with Wily Mo Pena for a job..." The difference was palpable this spring. While the trade rumors persist, the Reds are clearly expecting big things from Kearns this year.

For additional biographical information, please see Austin Kearns' profile in Red Hot Mama's Human League.

Historical Statistics
(for explanations of all statistics used here, please refer to the Baseball Statistics Quicksheet):
Year/Team PA K/BB SB/% OBP SLG OPS GPA EqA VORP GB/LD/OF
2003/CIN-AA 8 1.00 0/0% 0.500 0.200 0.700 0.275 --- --- ---
2003/CIN 338 1.66 5/71% 0.364 0.455 0.819 0.278 0.280 12.8 ---
2004/CIN-AAA 104 0.84 3/75% 0.471 0.518 0.989 0.341 0.320 9.5 ---
2004/CIN 246 2.54 2/67% 0.321 0.419 0.740 0.249 0.252 2.5 ---
2005/CIN-AAA 123 2.73 0/0% 0.407 0.685 1.092 0.354 0.313 12.2 ---
2005/CIN 448 2.23 0/0% 0.333 0.452 0.785 0.263 0.269 9.1 31/15/14
Austin's power was down in 2003 compared to his rookie year, but he still had a good season with his 0.364 OBP. His 2004 performance was rather alarming, however. All aspects of his game declined, including an extremely alarming increase in his k/bb ratio. Some of his struggles in '03 and '04 can be attributed to injuries, but it seems overly generous to credit injuries and the consequential lack of playing time for all his problems. Nevertheless, he made he made some progress in 2005, but his overall performance was still well below what we had all hoped for him.

There are some good signs, however. Last year, it was a tale of two seasons for Kearns. His first half struggles were well documented, as was his eventual demotion to AAA...which was justifiable from a performance standpoint, but the club instead focused their blame on Kearns' conditioning (or lack thereof). Kearns erupted in AAA, posting a staggering 0.407 OBP and 0.685 SLG. After returning to the majors in the second half of last season, Kearns approached the numbers we all have hoped he could produce: 0.253/0.353/0.498/0.851. I would be pleased if he continued that production line this year, but there's great reason to think he can do even better. After all, last year was the first time he'd been healthy in quite a while. Hopefully the cobwebs are finally gone and he can become the player we all have hoped he will.

'03-'05 Splits:
Year/Team PA K/BB OBP SLG OPS GPA
vs Left 277 1.33 0.372 0.371 0.743 0.260
vs Right 750 2.61 0.331 0.471 0.801 0.266
Home 522 2.14 0.337 0.428 0.765 0.259
Away 505 2.07 0.347 0.463 0.810 0.272
Kearns' left/right splits are interesting. On one hand, he has had a substantially higher OBP against left-handed pitchers versus right-handed pitchers. Nevertheless, he shows substantially more power against righties. In fact, 35 of his 42 home runs have been hit against right-handed pitchers over the past three years--that's a home run rate of one per 21 plate appearances against righties and one per 40 plate appearances against lefties. The sum effect of these differences is best given in his GPA (defined as (1.8*OBP + SLG)/4, and is a better predictor of runs scored than straight OPS), which shows very little difference in his overall productivity between the two sides. I think, with more consistent playing time over this and coming years, we can expect some improvement in both his power numbers vs. left-handers and his OBP vs. right-handers.

His home/away splits have to be staggering to those that think GABP is a hitters' park (it's not, though it does favor home runs). Kearns homer production is fairly similar at home vs. away, but that's about the only place where he matches up well; in general, he has hit substantially better in away games. He does tend to hit a fair number of ground balls (31%; compare to Dunn's 21%...though he does get some elevation; see Hatteberg's 37%), and ground balls turn into outs at a high rate in GABP compared to other parks, so perhaps that helps explain his struggles at home..?

Fielding:

Range Arm
Pos. Year Level DI's Dewan+- (plays) DialZR (runs) Gassko (runs) D*G (runs) Pinto (runs) Davenport (runs) DewanHold (% held) Walsh (runs)
CF 2003 MLB 323 --- --- --- --- --- 0 --- ---
RF 2003 MLB 365 4 --- --- --- --- -4 -0.3 ---
RF 2004 AAA --- --- --- --- --- --- 7 --- ---
RF 2004 MLB 508 13 --- --- --- --- -13 -0.5 ---
RF 2005 AAA --- --- --- --- --- --- 0 --- ---
RF 2005 MLB 890 11 48.1 2 33 0.237 3 5 0.4
Kearns is the only guy among our three starting outfielders that is a plus fielder. In fact, if you look at the two range statistics that John Dewan has had a hand in--his plus/minus system from the fielding bible (Dewan+-) as well as STATS, Inc's Zone Rating (DialZR)--Kearns is a defensive superstar. Other measures of range aren't quite as high on him, but all agreed that he was above average last season. His arm is also slightly above average; DewanHold indicates that he held 5% more runners than average from taking an extra base last year, and Walsh attributes his ability to hold and throw out runners to 0.4 runs saved per year above average. On a team that struggles defensively like the Reds, it's nice to know we have at least a few guys like Kearns that can help our pitchers out with their gloves.

Projections:
Year/Team PA K/BB SB/% OBP SLG OPS GPA EqA VORP
PECOTA75 480 1.79 6/67% 0.377 0.533 0.910 0.303 0.301 30.5
PECOTA 455 1.87 6/75% 0.367 0.510 0.877 0.293 0.292 22.4
PECOTA25 360 2.08 5/71% 0.338 0.448 0.786 0.264 0.265 5.9
ZiPS 486 2.15 5/71% 0.349 0.480 0.829 0.277 --- ---
Both ZIPS and PECOTA project improvements for Kearns this season, with PECOTA being higher on him. It would be huge for Kearns to put up a year like that predicted by the weighted average PECOTA projection--the OBP of his 2003 season coupled with the power of his 2002 rookie season. Nevertheless, if he can stay healthy this year, I think the good-case projections (PECOTA75) is absolutely something that Kearns can achieve. Having his big right-handed bat nestled in between Griffey and Dunn would be a tremendous asset for our offense this year.

It does seem like Kearns has been around and disappointing for a long time now, but the guy will turn just 26 in May. In fact, he's only two months older than rookie Chris Denorfia! Kearns' comparables at Baseball Prospectus and Baseball-Reference include Dale Murphy, Tim Salmon, Dwight Evans, Richie Sexson, Mo Vaughn, Frank Thomas, Larry Walker, and Willie Stargell. Granted, there are a number of less impressive names on those lists, but it's still nice to see those sorts of players associated with a guy one can still call a prospect. Austin has a lot of baseball to play yet, I still expect him to have an excellent career. At the minimum, we can reasonably expect a 0.350ish OBP with 20-25 home runs for years to come, but I think we'll see a great deal more.

References:
Baseball Archive, The
Baseball Cube, The
Baseball Prospectus
Baseball Prospectus '06 Annual
Baseball Reference
Baseball Think Factory
CBS Sportsline
Fan Graphs
Fielding Bible
Hardball Times '06 Annual