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Sunday, July 09, 2006

Is Jason LaRue just the victim of bad luck?

I was looking at some numbers in anticipation of a mid-season review of the Reds and noticed something really interesting about Jason LaRue. Jason's struggles have been well documented, most recently on this blog in my June 2006 Review. Through 114 at-bats, here are LaRue's numbers: 0.184 batting average, 0.293 on-base percentage, and a 0.307 slugging percentage, which makes for an even 0.600 On Base + Slugging Percentage (OPS). Pretty terrible season for him thus far, right?

Well, maybe he hasn't been swinging that badly. First, let's look at some of the graphs over at Compared to last year (and the year before for that matter), his walk rate is up and his strikeout rate is down this year. But even more interesting is this graph of LaRue's balls hit into play:
Compare his ground-ball, line-drive, and fly-ball percentage from this year to last year. There's almost no difference. LaRue's batted-ball types are almost identical to his solid 2005 season. Typically, when a player suffers from a dramatic slump or loss in ability, you'll see a substantial change in these numbers. In this case, nothing about what he does with the bat seems to be different. He's hitting balls the same way, he's walking at the same rate, and he's striking out at the same rate. The difference appears to be the outcome--he's just not "hitting them were they ain't."

Using PrOPS

Another way of looking at these same sorts of data is to use J.C. Bradbury's PrOPS statistic. It's my new favorite stat for offense. It's similar to defense-independent pitching stats in that it attempts to separate what the batter does with the bat itself from the fielding & luck (good and bad) with which he has to contend. What it effectively does is take the raw batting outcomes -- % walks, %strikeouts, %flyballs, %groundballs, and %line drives -- of a hitter and estimate what his OPS should be with an average amount of luck. Bradbury's work has shown that this approach has strong predictive power, and explaining roughly 80% of variation in OPS. Furthermore, individuals that perform well below or above their PrOPS one year tend to perform much closer to it the next year--just what you'd expect if this stat helping you decipher lucky performances from legitimate performances. So what does it say about Jason LaRue?

Right now, PrOPS says that LaRue's OPS should be about 0.846--compare that to his actual OPS of 0.600! That difference (0.846-0.600=0.246) is the largest difference between OPS and PrOPS among all active major league baseball players with at least LaRue's number of plate appearances this season. It's staggering. And it suggests that LaRue has been very solid at the plate despite the bad outcomes of his batted balls (his BABIP is a miserable 0.207).

Now my first thought when I saw this was that perhaps PrOPS, a fairly new statistic, just doesn't work well on Jason LaRue. But this doesn't appear to be the case. His 2005 PrOPS was 0.838, which is pretty close to his actual OPS of 0.805. Similarly, LaRue's 2004 PrOPS was 0.790, which again is pretty close to his actual 2004 OPS of 0.765. Therefore, at least in the past, LaRue has been quite predictable by the PrOPS method. So I think this conclusion--that LaRue has hit the ball far better than his traditional stats say he has this year--is pretty well supported.

The problem I have is that, living in Arizona, I don't get to see very many games. Of those I've seen in which LaRue has played, I don't recall him looking all that lost at the plate--even as he went 0-4. But I'd be very interested to hear if you folks who watch far more games than I do have seen something consistent with this view of LaRue. Has he been hitting a lot of hard hit balls right at infielders and outfielders? My guess is that if someone were to go back through all the games, they'd see that this has happened quite a lot this year compared to last year.

Other quick PrOPS (just 'cause I love this stuff)

If you're curious, other unlucky Reds according to PrOPS include Adam Dunn (0.923 OPS vs. 1.066 PrOPS), Javier Valentin (0.601 OPS vs. 0.731 PrOPS), and Ken Griffey Jr (0.828 OPS vs. 0.908 PrOPS). Happily, the only Reds who appear to have been particularly fortunate in their performance are Chris Denorfia (1.306 OPS vs. 0.651 PrOPS) and Ray Olmedo (0.826 OPS vs. 0.646 PrOPS), and neither has more than a handful of at-bats. Encouragingly, breakout players like Dave Ross (1.065 OPS vs. 1.042 PrOPS) and Brandon Phillips (0.817 OPS vs. 0.814 PrOPS) look to have improved their actual hitting, and haven't just been lucky!

Who's the second hardest-luck guy in baseball behind Jason LaRue? Barry Bonds, who currently has a very good 0.975 OPS and a terrifying 1.215 PrOPS. What happens if he starts to get lucky in the second half? Yikes.

Lucky players on other teams around the majors include Gary Matthews Jr. (0.914 OPS vs. 0.783 PrOPS), Joe Mauer (1.008 OPS vs. 0.879 PrOPS), Matt Holliday (0.973 OPS vs. 0.849 PrOPS), and Freddy Sanchez (0.931 OPS vs. 0.825 PrOPS).

The top seven (qualified) hitters in baseball this season, according to PrOPS: Albert Pujols (1.196 PrOPS), Travis Hafner (1.143 PrOPS), Jason Giambi (1.127 PrOPS), Jim Thome (1.114 PrOPS), Manny Ramirez (1.103 PrOPS), David Ortiz (1.076 PrOPS), and... our man, Adam Dunn (1.066 PrOPS).