Friday Forum: Small Samples We’re Not Ignoring

It’s been a while (since early December, a network change and a few writer changes ago) since we’d done one of these, but I’m going to try to do them almost every Friday this season — a “Friday Forum,” where all the TPA writers get together, internetically speaking, and give a shorter take on one timely topic.

Chris was busy with real-life stuff this week, but the remaining four of us all had something to say on this topic: “pick one bit of small-sample-size craziness that you think is likely to end up looking like it means something.”

That is: we all know that the actual numbers hitters are putting up right now don’t really mean much of anything going forward. There’s basically no reason to believe right now that Austin Jackson (.435/.536/.739) is going to keep hitting better than Alex Gordon (.091/.200/.227). Every good player has terrible stretches of 5-6 games, and vice-versa.

But it’s the most natural thing in the world to look for meaning in these first few games, and at the end of the year, several of these small-sample freakshows end up looking as though they really meant something, the jumping-off point to something really good (or bad, should anyone decide to take it in that direction). And maybe they actually are such a jumping-off point; we just can’t pretend to actually know that now.

So here are our answers, presented in randomized order (seriously, I used the random list generator on random.org, because I’m kind of neurotic that way):

Cee: Chris Sale
There is always trepidation about transitioning a pitcher from the reliever to a starter, but Chris Sale could prove unique for the White Sox if his career in the bullpen and his first start are any indication. Since the departure of Mark Buehrle to the Miami Marlins, the White Sox were tasked with choosing a new starter to fill his spot and decided to take a gamble on an internal candidate: 23 year-old Sale.  It’s rare for the White Sox to keep a prospect long enough for him to materialize as major league talent, but Sale’s ability was immediately recognized and has been utilized at the major league level since he was drafted in 2010.

Undeniably, one start is a small sample size, but Sale has proven himself as a talented pitcher over the past two seasons and has experience as a starter in college. Sale has had tremendous success in the bullpen the past two seasons (a 2.50 ERA) and was one of the greatest assets to the White Sox bullpen because of his ability to get strikeouts (10.3 per nine) and limit the number of walks (3.5 per nine) and home runs (.7 per nine) with his fastball and changeup.

In his first start, Sale threw 100 pitches, more than double what he had thrown at the major league level before (60 for strikes).  Sale allowed just one run on three hits and two walks in 6.2 innings, striking out five. While there is some concern about Sale because of his lack of experience as a starter, his thin frame, and his unconventional low three-quarter arm slot, Sale has been healthy and successful for the White Sox thus far in his career—and if his first start of 2012 is any indication, the White Sox made an excellent decision in transitioning Sale to a starter’s role as he could prove a valuable for this season and the future with Gavin Floyd and Jake Peavy approaching free agency in 2013.

TCM: Michael Cuddyer
Despite the fact that he’s nowhere near as good as the vast majority of Twins fans thought he was, and TCM wouldn’t pay him $10 million a season if he was the last right fielder on Earth, The Common Man still has a special place in his heart for Michael Cuddyer.  And while nobody should expect him to .400 over the course of the full season, his fast start (.400/.429/.800 in 21 plate appearances) is likely the sign of a big year for Cuddyer.  As a line drive hitter with decent power, Cuddyer will benefit from what has once again become a historically awesome offensive environment in Colorado, humidor be damned.  Home runs are less prevalent at Coors Field than they used to be (batters hit 195 homers there in 2011, 6th most in baseball), but the multi-year park factor of 117 is the highest it’s been in Denver since 2001.  Look for Cuddyer to hit a ton of doubles and top 20 homers again, while probably setting career highs in both batting average and slugging percentage, and perhaps even topping his career high .362 OBP.  This will undoubtedly make legions of Twins fans livid, but it will, in large part, be a Coors mirage (beer goggles?).

Jason: Adam Dunn
Adam Dunn isn’t your typical small-sample hero, as he’s hit .222/.364/.389 in twenty-two plate appearances so far this season. Thing is, he hit .159/.292/.277 last season, which still boggles my mind. Per Baseball Prospectus, he was worth about two-and-a-half wins *below* replacement level. Wins, not runs. He’s already doing better in VORP this season, with the above slash line being worth 0.1 VORP on the year compared to -22.6 in 2011. The .269 True Average he’s hit for in that tiny number of trips to the plate would be his second-worst season of his big-league career, behind only, obviously, his 2011.

Does the fact that Dunn is getting on base like it’s 2006 all over again mean anything? Of course not. It’s 22 PAs. Dunn’s line might could still represent things to come, though. Maybe his power is shot and he’ll never slug over .500 again, but he’s also not going to hit .159 again, not in this lifetime. So as much as Dunn’s stats so far aren’t predictive of anything, I think they’re a nice visual of what a disappointing but still moderately successful (when you take the atrocious 20011 into account) Adam Dunn season could look like for Chicago.

Bill: Josh Willingham
Back when the Willingham signing was a brand-new thing, Twins blogger Parker Hageman convincingly argued, a bit counterintuitively, that Willingham was a perfect fit for Target Field, based on the fact that Willingham is a dead-pull power hitter, and to the extent that anyone ever hit homers at Target Field, they tended to be hit by right-handed hitters to straightaway left field. Parker throws in some analysis of his swing and why he’s such a good pull hitter, for good measure. It’s a good piece.

Well, Willingham has now played three games at Target Field, and has hit three home runs there (and four in his six games overall). You can see them all through the magical power of the internet: one, two, three, four. To my flawed human eye, they seem to come on all kinds of pitches — couple fastballs, couple offspeed, one very low, a couple belt high, one or two on or even a bit off the outside corner — yet all four end up in the leftmost quadrant or so of the outfield. Three were straight-up bombs, and one (number four) was the kind of towering fly ball that doesn’t really feel like a homer off the bat, and just sneaks over the wall — that’s the first of that kind that I’ve ever seen at Target Field. When Cuddyer or Morneau has hit one like that, it’s been an out. (He also came very close to hitting a fifth homer, on Wednesday night, but pulled it a bit too much, banging it hard off the wall in foul territory down the left-field line).

I don’t expect him to win the HR title this year or anything, but watching Willingham for these first few games (and the way the ball jumps off his bat to left at home, even in the 40 degree or so weather) has been enough to convince me that Parker was right, and Willingham is in just the right place. I think there’s an excellent chance that we’ll look back at these four quick homers as a jump-start to what was very clearly the best offensive season of his career to date.

Bill

About Bill

Bill is an employment lawyer and baseball geek. Also a comedy geek, and just a geek generally.

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