Separating flukes from reality
What are we to make of Albert Pujols' slow start and other April surprises?
For a good definition of the word "crazy," one needs to look no further than April statistics in baseball. Usually, unexpected starts are the flukes they appear to be. However, there are cases in which surprising April performances are an indication of a changed man, such as Cliff Lee in 2008. After his terrible 2007 campaign, Lee's 5-0, 0.96 April in 2008 turned out to be the start of bigger things.
This season is unlikely to be much different than most other years in baseball history. While most players will start to perform the way they've been expected to, there will be a few who either can't get out of the hole they dug or have continued their torrid April paces. Getting a lot of useful information out of April performance is difficult, but with more information tracked than ever before, our chances of correctly separating flukes from reality are increased.
We've done that for this season's April surprises, running rest-of-season ZiPS projections and projected season-long totals for each player. The ZiPS projection system, in order to calculate rest-of-season projections, uses a method generally referred to as statistical inference in order to predict statistics going forward. The takeaway here: While we should never get too worked up over a few weeks of games, the new information does have some value in predicting what comes next.
Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals (2011 stats: .239/.288/.433, 4 HR, 10 RBIs)
For pretty much any other player, this would be a mildly disappointing start. For Pujols, the default MVP pick at the start of practically every season he's played, it's quite unusual. When was the last full month Pujols put up an OPS worse than .721? Never. Not counting Pujols' June 2006, when he missed significant time due to a strained muscle, the worst month of his career to this point was his .793 OPS in July of his 2001 rookie campaign.
The Cardinals shouldn't be too worried here, as there's a lot of evidence suggesting that we're just looking at a run of bad luck. Pujols' contact percentage is actually above his career average (91 percent versus 86), and his percentage of strikes swung at and missed (3.8 percent) would tie the best mark of his career, so he's certainly not been helpless at the plate. The most common culprit in flukes is batting average on balls in play (BABIP), and Pujols' slow April appears to be a classic example of this phenomenon. With a more normal BABIP than his current .211, Pujols would be looking at a considerably less ho-hum line in the neighborhood of .310/.370/.500 right now.
The news isn't all good for Pujols. His relatively mediocre performance to date is still going to be part of his seasonal line, and given that we can't just expect him to have an extra hot streak to balance out the numbers (this is known as the Gambler's Fallacy), it's going to slightly depress his end-of-season totals. Pujols' coming off his worst season, albeit what would be a career year for most mortals, could be enough to make teams think twice about offering eight years, $240 million to a 32-year-old Albert.
Pujols' rest-of-season projection: .308/.412/.583, 34 HR, 96 RBIs (Total: .299/.398/.565, 38 HR, 106 RBIs)
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