Debunking A Hot Start

Everytime I go into ESPN.com's statistics pages, I notice Casey Blake's name on top of the batting average leaderboards for the American League. I laughed, I won't lie, but then I realized he was also getting on base and hitting for a great deal of power. I had to know why of course, so I did a little digging to see what I could find. Characteristically, the Indians are criticized for continuing to play Blake -- as well as Broussard, but that's an article for another day, and he currently is in an effective platoon -- so the fact that he seems to be tearing the cover off the ball is extremely intriguing. Let's take a look at Blake's rank according to positional Net Runs Above Average, numbers current through May 23.

Right Field NRAA min. 200 defensive innings
Player OUT EQA G EQRAA ZRate pEQRAA pEqA NRAA NRAA/G pNRAA pNRAA/GP
Casey Blake 102 .338 43 16.29 1.35 14.38 .271 58.19 0.39 51.50 14.76
Bobby Abreu 104 .326 42 13.63 1.96 11.67 .271 50.64 0.34 43.65 12.22
Jermaine Dye 85 .323 35 10.55 0.6 8.95 .271 45.82 0.31 38.96 9.09
Alexis Rios 108 .316 41 11.70 0.73 9.67 .271 43.53 0.29 36.10 9.87
Brad Hawpe 109 .315 45 11.57 1.58 9.51 .271 40.13 0.27 33.30 9.99
J.D. Drew 112 .306 41 9.70 0.59 7.60 .271 36.09 0.24 28.38 7.76
Michael Cuddyer 76 .320 34 8.91 -5.27 7.48 .271 34.05 0.23 27.75 6.29
Vladimir Guerrero 121 .303 45 9.72 1.27 7.44 .271 33.67 0.22 26.09 7.83
Magglio Ordonez 116 .303 43 9.32 -1.67 7.14 .271 30.84 0.21 23.23 6.66
Austin Kearns 124 .298 45 8.69 0.64 6.35 .271 29.59 0.20 21.81 6.54

For those who don't know, or simply don't remember, pNRAA is positionally adjusted Net Runs Above Average, which is explained in this link. For those who don't want to click the link, it measures above average offensive and defensive run value together in one figure. You can see the breakdown above in the table; ZRate is the defensive portion, calculated using Zone Rating, while Equivalent Average is the source statistic for the offensive portion.

As you can see, Casey Blake leads the pack due to his excellent offensive numbers, as well as his slightly above average defensive play thus far (zero is average for ZRate). Just seeing that isn't necessarily the purpose of this piece though; how and why did Blake get there, especially after posting a -9.60 pNRAA in 2005, and a PECOTA projected pNRAA of -6.17 pNRAA? [Note: I calculated the pNRAA using figures contained within PECOTA; alas, you will not find pNRAA on PECOTA cards.]

I started simple; I took a look at Blake's Projected OPS for 2006 in order to see if he was maybe performing better than he should be, based off ball-in-play data. Blake's current OPS is 1.004, while his PrOPS is .901; a difference of .104 according to the THT statistics page. That looks like a difference of .103 to me, but I don't have the inputs or decimals, so I don't know. On Edit: Studes reminds me about rounding, which for some reason my brain initially thought of and then dismissed; much more troubling than simply forgetting about it.

Using PrOPS we can see that yes, Blake is playing above his expected level of performance based off of his ball-in-play data. How is he doing this though? Let's take a look at some more Hardball Times statistics to find out.

Casey Blake 2004-2006 Batted Ball Data
Year Tm LD% BA/BIP GB% IF/F HR/F
2004 CLE 17.3% 0.312 42.9% 0.0% 17.0%
2005 CLE 20.4% 0.268 37.2% 15.5% 14.4%
2006 CLE 25.6% 0.412 40.5% 4.9% 17.3%

In 2005, Blake's BABIP was below average, coming in at .268; in 2006, it is well above the average, at the completely unsustainable .412 mark. He is hitting more line drives, has cut down on his infield flies, and his homerun rate has returned to his 2004 levels. I'd say that most of this is just due to small sample size noise, and that it will smooth out over the course of the season. If Blake matched his 2004 production though, I would not be terribly surprised, even if I did advocate to have him replaced midseason during this winter.

PECOTA expected Blake to hit .254/.322/.432, while ZiPS projected a .253/.328/.439 line. He's outpacing that by a smidge at the moment, slapping the ball around to the tune of .351/.426/.578 -- and showing no signs of immediately slowing down -- but I don't expect this to last. His 2004 season line -- .271/.354/.486 -- certainly seems like a potential ending point though, maybe even a little bit better, depending on how long BABIP wants to befriend him. On Edit: I should make it clear that I mean that Blake will perform closer to his 2004 level for the rest of the season, rather than his 05' or 06' performance. Finshing at .271 after hitting at this level for 150+ at-bats is difficult to do, although it is entirely plausible.

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