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The Demise of Travis Hafner Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Travis Hafner will probably never again be the incredible hitter he was from 2004-2006. However, he is still far better than his current numbers would indicate. Hafner is hitting .215/.312/.347 so far this year. But when we adjust for the bad luck he has endured, his line should look more like .281/.369/.413 – at worst.

We can find a hitter’s “expected” batting average on balls in play (BABIP) by taking his line-drive percentage and adding .120. For the vast majority of hitters, any difference between expected BABIP and actual BABIP can be attributed to luck. Throughout his career, Travis Hafner’s expected BABIP has more or less aligned with his actual BABIP, as it should. Take a look:

Year Expected BABIP Actual BABIP
2004 0.306 0.35
2005 0.322 0.344
2006 0.332 0.323
2007 0.295 0.294
2008 0.356 0.267

This year, however, Hafner’s expected BABIP is far lower than his actual BABIP. If we adjust Hafner’s hits so that his actual BABIP aligns with his expected BABIP, his season line jumps from .215/.312/.347 to .281/.369/.413 – and that’s assuming all of his “lost” hits were singles, when in reality at least a couple of them would likely be extra base hits (thus raising his slugging percentage).

The tribulations of Hafner have been well-documented across the internet. Craig Brown at Baseball Digest Daily wrote a fantastic article about Hafner’s struggles. I completely agree with everything Brown says – Hafner does appear to be aging and may never regain his power stroke. While Hafner appears to be in the decline, once we adjust for luck we can see that Hafner’s “expected” batting line is very similar to his overall line from last year (.266/.385/.451). If we examine the numbers even more deeply, we can see precisely where Hafner is struggling this year.

First of all, Hafner is striking out looking far more often this year than ever before. This could be part of his decline, but it could also simply be a small sample size fluke. As hitters age, their bat speed often declines, as does their ability to make contact. However, Hafner is not having problems making contact when he swings: he’s made contact in 76% of his swings this year, as compared to 77%, 73%, and 74% over his last three seasons. This year, however, Hafner has already struck out looking 16 times – 47% of his strikeouts have been called third strikes. Last season he was called out on strikes only 35 times during the entire season, and he’s never been called out on strikes more than 37 times in any season.

Thus, it’s possible that Hafner has simply been unlucky to be called out on strikes as often as he has been this season. It’s also possible that he’s not swinging at strikes because he cannot make contact with them, but this is unlikely for a couple of reasons: first of all, Hafner is making contact when he does swing at the same rate as he has throughout his career; and Hafner’s line-drive percentage is actually higher this year than ever before. Thus, Hafner does not appear to have problems making contact (and often hard contact) with pitches. Therefore, a rise in called third strikes against him could be attributed more to bad luck and/or bad calls, rather than Hafner’s inability to make contact with the pitch.

As the amount of called third strikes against Hafner regresses to the mean, so should Hafner’s strikeout rate (currently, Hafner is striking out in 28.1% of his at bats) come down to be more in line with his career strikeout rate of 24.2% (last season, despite Hafner’s relatively poor performance, he only struck out in 21.1% of his at bats – a career low).  

Throughout his career, Hafner has crushed opposing pitchers when the count was in his favor. Even last year, despite hitting .266 with a .451 SLG, Hafner still hit very well in hitters’ counts: he hit .370 with a .604 SLG after a 2-0 count (in other words, in all at bats in which the count was 2-0, but not necessarily only at bats in which he put the 2-0 pitch in play). In at bats in which there was a 3-1 count, Hafner hit .406 with a .688 SLG. These numbers aren’t surprising, as even decent hitters should do well if they are able to work the count in their favor 2-0 and/or 3-1.

What is surprising is that, this year, Hafner is hitting very poorly when the count is in his favor. In at bats where he has seen a 2-0 count, Hafner is 2-for-17 (.118) with a double. In at bats where he has seen a 3-1 count, Hafner is 1-for-9 with a double. He’s 0-for-4 when he puts a 3-1 pitch in play (as opposed to 7-for-17 last year). As the season progresses, Hafner will likely improve upon these numbers with the count in his favor.

Because Hafner’s line-drive percentage is high (23.6%), yet his BABIP is low and he’s had poor results with the count in his favor, I think we can assume that Hafner has had a string of bad luck. That’s not to say all of his struggles can be attributed to luck – as Brown aptly showed, Hafner is clearly in the decline and may never regain his power stroke. However, it is very likely that, this year, his actual BABIP will regress towards his expected BABIP, and it is very likely that Hafner will hit better when the count is in his favor. Therefore, while Hafner’s power stroke may never return to its 2004-2006 levels, Hafner’s batting average and on-base percentage should rise significantly. If they do, Hafner will still be an important, albeit overpaid, part of a championship-caliber Cleveland Indians team.