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Small sample size fun: hitters edition

It’s too early to be drawing conclusions on players’ true talent, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with some of the crazy numbers.

Milwaukee Brewers v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

April is a difficult month for baseball analysts. It’s not until mid-May to June until we can conclude something new about a player’s true talent. Last year on my personal blog, I just took April off. Obviously, the baseball writing industry can’t do the same thing.

While the stats right now have little analytical value to offer, some of them can be really entertaining, and baseball is entertainment above all else. Let’s take a look at some of the crazy numbers that some players have put up so far this season. I’m going to stick to surprise players, too, and not players like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. I also can’t go over everyone, obviously. It is worth mentioning that my BtBS coworker, Joe Clarkin, will be covering Eugenio Suárez later this week, so I will not be covering him here.

We’ll tackle hitters in this article. Pitchers will be next week.

Eric Thames

How could I not start with him? His signing after spending the past three seasons in the KBO certainly raised some eyebrows, even if it was just a three-year, $16 million deal with a player option. Thames was a destroyer of worlds in South Korea, hitting .349/.451/.721 with 124 HR over three seasons there.

The KBO is a hitter-friendly environment, and it doesn’t feature the same level of competition as MLB. Thames hit poorly during his last call-up to the majors, but that was five years ago. Even at 30 years old, it was not unreasonable to expect some surprises out of him. Wow, did he surprise.

Thames is hitting an incomprehensible .371/.482/.929 with 11 HR. He is leading the league in slugging, home runs, total bases, and total offense. Obviously, he is not going to continue to have a .366 BABIP and 55.0 percent HR/FB ratio. However, his 51.9 percent hard-hit rate is something I can’t recall having seen before, even in one-month samples.

It is very hard to believe that Thames truly is one of the best hitters in baseball, but it is extremely difficult to assess his true talent right now. Even the projections might be unreliable, as they rely on historical comparisons and we have never seen anything like this before.

Freddie Freeman

Last year, I wrote about how Freeman was quietly one of the best players in baseball in 2016. He returned to his 2013 self, hitting .302/.400/.569. His 152 wRC+ was tied with Miguel Cabrera for sixth-best in baseball. So far this season, he’s picked up right where he left off, and then some; he has basically been hitting as well as Thames, with a line of .381/.494/.810, and he is walking as much as he is striking out.

Freeman’s hard-hit rate is about 43 percent, so he is clearly making good contact regularly. Of course, there is the .405 BABIP and 38.9 percent HR/FB ratio. For now, Freeman will probably be a bigger draw than any of the former big names currently on the Braves, and with good reason.

Ryan Zimmerman

Has any player ever had a sub-replacement level season followed by a Ruthian April? Zimmerman was one of the worst players in baseball last year, hitting .218/.272/.370. That is a 67 wRC+. Now he is hitting .371/.429/.771. His wOBA is almost triple what it was last year!

Zimmerman’s .422 BABIP is especially ludicrous, and his 33.3 percent HR/FB ratio is also very unsustainable. Still, he is hitting the ball hard and has a nice 23.1 percent line drive rate. It is hard to believe that the 32-year-old veteran has reached another level, but perhaps he was hiding some injuries from the public last year. He was always at least an above-average hitter before 2016.

Steven Souza Jr.

The Rays surprisingly traded away Wil Myers for Souza last year, and if you were to judge a trade by results, it looked like a bad trade after 2016. He was a below-average hitter who did not walk much and struck out in more than a third of his plate appearances.

But right now, Souza is hitting .349/.426/.590. He is walking a lot again and his strikeout rate has improved to 25.3 percent. He has shown more discipline by swinging less at pitches outside the zone. His HR/FB ratio is actually not too much higher than his career rate, but his .455 BABIP is crazy high. He is not going to continue hitting like 2015 Bryce Harper. We’ll see at the end of the season if he has reached that untapped potential that the Rays saw in him.

Mitch Haniger

He might be the new favorite player of Mariners fans. He was a throw-in in the Jean Segura trade, and right now he is the best performing bat on the team, with a line of .338/.442/.600.

Haniger was never seen as too much of a prospect. ESPN’s Keith Law reported that he made some swing changes going into the 2016 season, and it could be that those changes are starting to take effect. He has a .411 BABIP, but his HR/FB ratio is nothing crazy. He is walking a lot, too. He will likely come back down to earth soon, but at least he has been a bright spot during the Mariners’ disappointing start.

Avisail García

Analysts have been predicting his breakout for years, and now García is hitting .380/.429/.577. There is not much to indicate that anything has really changed, though. His strikeout rate and plate discipline numbers are along the lines of his career rate. He seems to just be benefiting from a .471 BABIP and a HR/FB ratio that is over six percentage points higher than his career rate. He is not hitting the ball any harder than he was last year, either, when he was a below-average hitter.

Chase Headley

He had a historically bad start to his season last year, and now he is hitting .339/.431/.565. He is almost 33 years old, yet he is walking more and striking out less than he ever has. His chase rate is way down, too. However, his hard-hit rate is also way down and he has a .391 BABIP. This is a weird combination of stats, so I am particularly interested in seeing Headley’s numbers at the end of the season.

Zack Cozart

He has a career 82 wRC+, yet he is currently hitting .407/.493/.712. Oh, and he is a shortstop, too. He is another player who has improved his plate discipline by quite a lot. Still, his .489 BABIP is absurd. Perhaps he really has gotten better, but it is hard to expect a 31-year-old who has been in the majors since 2011 to be too much better than his track record would indicate.

Khris Davis

Frequently known as “Kay-ris Davis” to avoid confusion with Chris Davis, he has been seen as the prototypical low-OBP, high-power guy. Now he is hitting .273/.359/.621, walking nearly 13 percent of the time, and he is another guy who has substantially lowered his chase rate. Unlike everyone else on this list, his .275 BABIP is quite normal; what is crazy is his 50 percent HR/FB ratio.

Davis had a flukish offensive performance over 153 PA in his 2013 debut, too. Regardless, his improved plate discipline is interesting. If he is hitting anywhere close to this well at the trade deadline, look for GM Billy Beane to trade him away.

Starlin Castro

He has been a below-average hitter for a couple of seasons now, but is currently hitting .357/.400/.571. Even though Castro still is not taking a lot of walks by most players’ standards, he is walking more than he ever has right now. Obligatory mention of his .396 BABIP. His HR/FB ratio is twice his career rate, though Yankee Stadium is likely helping with that. He and Headley have been big contributors to the Yankees’ great start, despite having Gary Sánchez on the DL.

You might be surprised to know that Castro is only 27 years old, because it seems like he has been around forever. It is possible that he has made a real improvement, since he is still relatively young, but a jump to a true talent 178 wRC+ seems highly unlikely.

It should come as no surprise that the common theme among these players was a crazy high BABIP and HR/FB ratio. However, it was interesting to find how many of them benefited from some kind of improvement in strikeouts and/or plate discipline. They are sure to regress very heavily, but for now their fans are really enjoying their performances, and some of them will likely keep a portion of their improvements for the entire year. I am looking forward to seeing where their numbers end up at this season’s end.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.