By the Numbers: Don't give up on the Kid

In last week's column on slow starters in the National League, I made the claim that Ken Griffey was on the verge of becoming unrosterable in mixed leagues. To be sure, Junior is having a rough 2008 so far, batting .245 and slugging .368 with only 11 extra-base hits in 155 at-bats. But, hey, anyone can have an early season slump. Ryan Howard and Carlos Pena are not doing significantly better, and I am not about to suggest to anyone that they should waive either of them. Griffey’s slow start had me jittery for sure, but the difference in my view of him as opposed to Howard or Pena had something to do with his age and something to do with his statistical trends. I can tolerate a .718 OPS from Pena because he just hit the Big Three-O last weekend, whereas Griffey crossed that frontier just around the time he started preparing for his Y2K party. The final straw for me was the three-year trend of declining Isolated Power for Griffey, which has fallen from .275 in 2005 to .123 this season.

This logic did not sit too well with one e-mailer. Eddie from Chicago, a longtime Reds fan, wrote this:

Just from reading your article, one would walk away with the impression that Griffey had a worse/less productive year in 2007 than he did in 2006 ... especially with your reference to "a third straight year of steady decline." I would say that the fact that Griffey having 100 less ABs (20 percent) in 2006 than 2007 had more of an impact on his ratios than the decreasing ability you are trying to prove. Especially considering he played hurt for several weeks at the end of the year last year before they shut him down.

After looking back at Griffey's numbers, I realized Eddie has a couple of points. While Griffey's Isolated Power has dropped in each of the last three years, the drop from '06 to '07 was tiny -- just .014. Eddie correctly points out that Griffey was a much more productive player in '07, despite the slight power decrease. His OPS shot up from.802 to .868 and his RC/27 went from a mediocre 5.0 to an above-average 6.6.

So maybe the second year in the downward trend wasn't so down after all, but two off years out of three isn't such a good trend, right? Not so fast. Griffey was not only hurt at the end of 2006, he also missed a month early in the year due to a knee injury. In reviewing Junior's '06 numbers, I noticed a strange combination. He had a 25 percent H/BIP, which we might expect from Omar Vizquel or Nick Punto -- in a bad year -- but yet he clouted 27 homers and was still maintaining a robust .234 Isolated Power. Such a freakishly low H/BIP has to be at least partially bad luck, but could it be that Griffey's bad knee prevented him from legging out singles, even as he was still belting out dingers?

The key to solving this mystery is to find out what kind of player combines an extremely low H/BIP rate with exceptional power. The first thing I discovered is that this type of player is rare. In 2006, there were only nine full-time players, including Griffey, who registered an Isolated Power average of at least .200 while getting base hits on no more than 27 percent of their balls hit in play. Griffey failed to master the feat in 2007, as his H/BIP rose to back to 29 percent, but five other players did.

Player Year Walk Rate Whiff Rate SB H/BIP Iso Power
Juan Uribe 2006 3% 18% 1 24% 0.205
Jason Giambi 2006 20% 24% 2 25% 0.305
Frank Thomas 2006 15% 17% 0 25% 0.275
Ken Griffey 2006 8% 18% 0 25% 0.234
Barry Bonds 2006 24% 14% 3 25% 0.275
Jonny Gomes 2006 14% 30% 1 25% 0.216
Morgan Ensberg 2006 21% 25% 1 25% 0.227
Troy Glaus 2006 14% 25% 3 27% 0.261
Carlos Beltran 2006 16% 19% 18 27% 0.320
Player Year Walk Rate Whiff Rate SB H/BIP Iso Power
John Buck 2007 9% 27% 0 25% 0.207
Barry Bonds 2007 28% 16% 5 26% 0.288
Chris Young 2007 7% 25% 27 26% 0.230
Paul Konerko 2007 12% 19% 0 27% 0.231
Eric Chavez 2007 9% 22% 4 27% 0.205

The common denominators among the few members of this group are a propensity for drawing walks, a moderate-to-high whiff rate and a lack of speed. Juan Uribe , Carlos Beltran and Chris Young stick out as exceptions to the rule, and Beltran is clearly a fluke on this list, as he normally posts a H/BIP rate in the low 30s. On the whole, this list consists largely of guys who are slow, old, hurt or some combination thereof.

While Griffey hasn't been much of a speed threat since coming to the National League, it's possible that he did lose a step in his "off" '06 due to his knee injury. In '07, we saw what a healthier Griffey could do, as he compiled his highest at-bat (528) and stolen base (6) totals of the decade. If we view 2006 as a product of his knee problems and 2007 as a return to his "normal" levels, then suddenly Griffey's three-year decline looks more like a seven-week slump.

This analysis leaves us with two lessons. The conclusion we can draw regarding Griffey is that, at least without further information about his health, we may want to give him a little extra time to come out of his funk. If we can put up with a substandard month-and-a-half from a younger player, we can also show a little patience for an older player who has recently shown a high skill level, even if he happens to be in his late 30s.

The other lesson learned is that a low H/BIP rate for a power hitter is not necessarily an indication of bad luck. It could indicate a player's normal level due to a lack of speed (see Giambi, Konerko or Uribe, for example), which means he is not likely to rebound for a higher average. It could also mean a player is hurt, in which case, his batting average and maybe home runs could continue to decline.

Glossary
Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
Base Hits per Balls in Play (H/BIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats

Al Melchior was recently a Fantasy columnist and data analyst for Baseball HQ and will be providing advice columns for CBSSports.com. Click here to send him a question. Please put "Melchior" in the subject field.

Data Analyst

Al Melchior has been playing Fantasy Baseball since 1994, getting his start in the Southern Maryland Anthropomorphic Baseball League (SMABL). He has been writing about Fantasy Baseball since 2000, getting... Full Bio

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