Monday, August 08, 2005

Is J-Rod for Real?

Editor's note: Note one - if I had an editor, I wouldn't be needing to add this note. Note two - someone pointed out to me that I had used XBH:AB as a metric instead of XBH:H. That made zero sense, but totally gave me a false impression on J-Rod. I have re-written several sections of this article, with most of it based around XBH:H and the summary.

I was asked this question the other day. My gut instinct, of course, is to say "no." Any time a player doesn't crack the big leagues until the age of 27 he usually isn't going to sustain a .333 average and a 961 OPS over any extended period of time. But maybe, just maybe....

Minor Leagues (pre-2005)

Rodriguez has always been a fairly solid hitter in the minor leagues. Through last season he spent 8 years in the minors, hitting .270/.353/.461, good for a 814 OPS. Minor league numbers are fairly hard to analyze for us common folk, since information on park effects, level of competition, and other factors are a little harder to dig up than their major league counter parts. For that reason, I have a few metrics that I normally look at when digging through minor league stats. They are by no means the definitive answer to how good a player is, but we'll still walk through them in regard to J-Rod.

BB per AB

In general, I like to see a player drawing walks at a rate of about 10% per at-bat. (Yes, I know a BB doesn't count as an at-bat - it's just a rule of thumb.) During Rodriguez' minor league career, he has exceeded the 10% mark in walk rate every season but one, when he had a 7% rate in 2001. In his 8 seasons before this year, his career walk rate was actually 12%. In other words - he's not afraid to get on base.

BB to K Ratio

This ratio, sometimes referred to as "batter's eye", is another useful tool in seeing how patient a hitter is. I use a 0.5 mark as a baseline when it comes to this ratio. In other words, as long as a hitter is striking out 2 or fewer times for every 1 time he walks, I trust his strike zone judgment. Rodriguez comes in looking good in this measure as well, as he had a ratio of 0.5 or better in 6 out of 8 minor league seasons, with a career mark of 0.5 leading up to this season.

K to AB Ratio

This may seem like a redundant measure, but it's not if you think about it. Sure, a player may only strike out 2 or fewer times for each BB drawn, but what he he walks a lot? Then he's being fooled a lot as well. That's why I also check out the K:AB numbers. I don't like to see a minor leaguer striking out more than 1 time every 5 trips to the plate. If he's being fooled more than that in the minors, life is going to be hard on him in the majors. Rodriguez is borderline in this category. His career mark up to this season had been 0.24, just worse than my preferred 0.20 level.

Extra Base Hits per Hits

The final mark I look at his XBH:H. I like this measure for a couple of reasons. One, park factors can give or take away home runs from players, skewing their slugging percentages. Two, younger power hitters tend to hit a lot of doubles, that eventually turn in to home runs as they gain power as they mature. In general, I like to see hitters getting extra base hits 30% of the time in the minors, regardless as to if they're hitting doubles, triples, or home runs.

When I first wrote this article, I had inadvertently calculated XBH per AB instead of per hit. Thankfully, someone caught my stupid mistake, because believe me - it made a world of difference. Rodriguez has actually shown power in the minors from day one. As a 19 year old rookie in the Gulf Coast League in 1997, extra base hits accounted for 32% of all of his hits over 157 at-bats. In fact, over his 8 seasons leading up to 2005, 30% was the lowest XBH:H ratio Rodriguez put together in a season (1999).

On the high side, J-Rod really started exhibiting some serious power in the 2001 season, having extra base hits account for 48% of all hits (393 at-bats.) He then followed that up with XBH 47% of the time in both 2002 (354 at-bats) and 2004 (378 at-bats). 2004 is especially impressive, as he did it in AAA. The fact that he only had 16 home runs is a bit misleading in regard to his power potential when you look at his total extra base hits, which included 10 triples.

Overall, he ended up having extra base hits account for 39% of all of his hits in the minor leagues leading up to this year. Folks - that is the sign of a power hitter in the making.

Minor Leagues (2005)

Rodriguez began this season in the Cleveland Indians organization, which included a very impressive spring training (.320/.370/.760, 1130 OPS, 25 at-bats.) He was then sent to AAA Buffalo, where he hit .247/.323/.447 over 170 at-bats, giving him an OPS of 770 - very similar to his career mark of 814. Looking at his rates from the above section:

BB:AB - 0.09
BB:K - 0.6
K:AB - 0.24
XBH:H - 0.5

Almost every one of those numbers is right in line with his career minor league marks, other than the power stroke. His XBH:H ratio actually looks more like 3 of his previous 4 seasons, with 2003 being a potential fluke.

Then, he was traded to Memphis, where he proceeded to thump the league over the head. Over 120 at-bats, Rodriguez hit .342/.419/.808, giving him a 1227 OPS. He also hit 5 doubles, and 17 home runs. (His minor league stats for this year are here.) Take a look at his ratios at Memphis:

BB:AB - 0.11
BB:K - 0.6
K:AB - 0.23
XBH:AB - 0.54

What you see is - essentially - his walks and strikeouts stayed about the same. His extra base hits rate did in fact increase, but only from 50% to 54% - it just happened that his doubles had turned into home runs. The fact that Rodriguez was hitting an inordinate amount of home runs but only a few doubles suggests something fluky - be it weather, the new home park, or just plain old luck, I can't tell you. Whatever the case, his previous career high in home runs was 22 over 393 at-bats - but he had always shown power potential in the minors in the form of doubles and triples. His short season in Memphis was likely a fluke in the total number of home runs, but not really out of line with his career mark in extra base hits!

Major Leagues

Now let's take a look at the ratios he's putting up in the bigs.

BB:AB - 0.10 (0.12)
BB:K - 0.35 (.50)
K:AB - 0.27 (.24)
XBH:AB - 0.39 (.40)

The set of numbers in the parentheses are his career minor league numbers, including 2005. As you can see, his walk rate is slightly lower, his K rate is slightly higher, and he's hitting for a little less power than he did in the minor leagues - all expected, as he's facing tougher competition. With that being said, he doesn't appear to be performing at a level that suggests he's completely out of his head right now.


John Rodriguez appears to me to be the type of player that may be able to contribute for more than just a few weeks. He isn't afraid to take a walk from time to time, giving him solid OBP numbers over his career (.353 lifetime minor league OBP.) What's more, he has always displayed power in the minors, usually in the form of doubles and triples up until his crazy visit to Memphis earlier this year.

Is Rodriguez going to be a .300 hitter in the majors? Probably not, at least on a consistent basis. Is he going to be a 30 home run guy? The first time I wrote this article, I said no. Now, I'm not so sure. The fact that he never reached that mark in the minor leagues cannot be used as an argument against him, since he never had more than 408 at-bats in a season. With the power he's displayed starting in 2001, I think he in fact could surpass 30 home runs if given 500 or more at-bats.

All in all, now that I've re-looked at the numbers, I think the Cardinals may have stumbled onto something here. Rodriguez isn't likely to become the next Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, or Scott Rolen. However, he in fact could be an 850 to 900 OPS guy in the corner outfield who could be signed relatively cheaply. And considering his young age (27), he could help out the Cardinals for the next few years.


At 4:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you mean 20% on extra base hits per at-bat? 30% would seem awfully high, he'd have to be a .300 hitter before adding in singles unless I'm not understanding you correctly. Otherwise I agree with your conclusion here. He'd be a great 4th OF but I tend to think he was in a weird groove prior to his call-up. The ball does seem to jump off his bat though.

At 6:21 PM, Blogger Robb said...

You're right - I didn't explain myself properly. I meant 30% of all hits need to be extra base hits. Otherwise, the guy would be hitting .600.

I'll have to re-check my math and update the language. Thanks!

At 11:13 PM, Anonymous Zubin said...

Thanks Rob.

Nice bit o' analysis... Like a lot of Cards fans out there I have been impressed by the way the ball comes off his bat. You're article brought me back down to earth, but I still dare to dream.

I think he he keeps up his hitting this season, he will have a fair shot at 'playing everyday' next year. Walker will be gone and it wouldn't surprise me if the Cards will want someone yunger than Sanders patroling the OF.

At 11:14 PM, Anonymous zubin said...

Sorry... that should be:

Thanks Robb.

At 10:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sold. I think he really is the real deal, and given his 'story' with his final hitting coach in AAA of NYY, I think he's going to be a good player for at least 3-5 years. I say sign him on the cheap for 2-3 years, with club options for 4 and 5 (nothing too extravagant, but decent).

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