Is Colby Rasmus’ Break Out For Real?

Posted: 13th July 2012 by Blake Murphy in Baseball, Blake Murphy
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 As a card-carrying member of #RasmusNation, I really want to believe that the Colby we’ve all witnessed for the past six weeks is the “real” Colby Rasmus, and not just another short-term hot streak. But, as always with Colby, it’s tough to know for sure.

The narrative is certainly there to support his arrival as a star - he’s finally comfortable, he’s made obvious changes to his mechanics and approach, pitchers have yet to find an adjustment to slow him down, and so on. For a player with so many alleged issues in the past, it’s certainly possible Colby has just “figured it out” or has “come into his own” or some other baseball cliché. Then again, it’s also possible that it’s just a hot-streak, and our choice of arbitrary endpoints is misleading us.

As Jays fans, we’ve lived through a very similar player in Alex Rios before, and his hot-and-cold act eventually got him a huge contract…and waived out of town. Now, Rios has once again rebounded as one of the more valuable outfielders in the game, believe it or not, thriving for Robin Ventura’s Chicago White Sox. So, if history has taught us anything with players of this ilk, it’s that we shouldn’t be too quick to react in either direction - I certainly didn’t want to give up on Colby during his cold stretches when #RasmusNation had but a handful of us left, but I’m trying to be cautious with my future expectations as well.

So I spent the morning scouring Fangraphs to see if there are any specific trends in Colby’s career data that might turn a light on for us. The following three charts and graph are actually stunning when you look at them. I charted Colby’s stats on a month-by-month, split-year, and yearly basis in several key statistical categories, and then graphed his OPS over time against the league median (I used median instead of average to weed out things like pitchers, replacement players and September call ups….basically, the “median” data here is a middle-of-the-pack everyday player). The amount of fluctuation on a monthly basis is insane, and it doesn’t get any steadier on a split-year or yearly basis.

According to Fangraphs, we should have expected some stabilization in a few of these stats by this point. Although these years are Colby’s age 22-25 seasons and therefore subject to some additional variability based on the fact that he’s performing on a developmental curve, the trend (or lack thereof) in these stats is still absurd. Colby appears to either be one of the more inconsistent hitters out there, prone to extreme bouts of good and bad luck….or, again, his off-field issues have caused such strong fluctuations in the past, and 2012′s upward swing is a true indicator of growth.

Just for context, while BABIP never actually stabilizes within a season, K%, BB%, and Line Drive Rate (LD%) are all “stabilized” to a correlation of at least 0.7 after 150-200 plate appearances. What this means is that after 150-200 plate appearances (about two months’ worth of baseball), K%, BB%, and LD% can predict at least 70% of future performance in these categories. With Colby, however, they seem to fluctuate a great deal beyond those thresholds (were I more statistically inclined, I’d do some sort of split-half analysis or something to further suss this out, but alas, I am not). Additionally, OPS and ISO (Slugging minus Average, a measure of extra base hitting ability) stabilize at around 500 plate appearances, or just shy of a season. We’d expect, then, his seasonal rates in these categories to be somewhat stable, but this isn’t at all the case.

With all of that said, is it possible that the off-field issues really just caused a tumultuous and disastrous 2011 season? If we were to remove 2010 half-year and season data, we’d see some trends that make more sense in terms of a typical development curve - while his 2010 is technically still a stronger performance than 2012 thus far, they’re relatively close. Additionally - and again I caution that this is random and by no means statistically sound - if we swapped his 2010 and 2011 seasons, the development curve makes even more sense, especially on a monthly basis.

Of course, we can’t just retrofit his career performances to match our narrative or our expectations. Colby is still young at 25, and his four-year career at this point has been extremely up and down. 2010 serves as a warning that he’s been at this level before only to completely fall off, but his 2012 stats certainly show a player who has gone through appreciable growth and development as a player (for example, see this swing analysis from earlier in the year).

Colby’s current hot streak really can’t be explained by a single adjustment in approach (his K% is trending downward, but his BB% is below the norms he established in 2010 and early 2011), and while his LD% is a career best, it’s still right around the league median, explaining why his BABIP is just below the median (I should note that Colby has one of the best Well Hit Averages in baseball, but this stat isn’t really common or reliable yet…it probably has an impact on BABIP, but I believe those formulas are still being worked on as proprietary stats…if someone knows where to find it, please let me know).

On the bright side, there’s nothing in Colby’s profile suggesting his current performance level is a fluke. Fangraph’s DeLucker, which aims to project wOBA based on axBABIP (expected BABIP) and a variety of other factors, indicates Colby’s wOBA should actually be higher at .373.

It’s also encouraging that Rasmus has a positive “pitch value” against every type of pitch, indicating there are no offerings in specific he has struggled with, leaving pitchers few options in terms of exploiting him. Most of his plate discipline statistics are in line with his career norms, with the exception being that he’s making contact on 66.4% of pitches outside of the zone that he swings at. Previously, he was nearly the worst in the league in this area, but this development has pushed him near the league median.

All of this has been a lot of stat-speak and trend analysis to say that, basically, we still don’t know. There are a lot of small positive signs in the profile for Colby, including the fact that he’s reached the league median in just about every statistical category. Basically, Colby isn’t struggling in any particular area right now, which is allowing his strengths to push his surface stats to higher levels. Just as importantly, there are no negative indicators in his profile, no instances of extreme luck (except possibly his HR/FB rate of 16.7%), and no worrisome trends pointing to pitchers being able to make a specific adjustment in the near future.

The statistical profile, combined with the fitting narrative of having worked through the kinks of growing up as a major leaguer and the obvious change in swing mechanics, means we can be guardedly optimistic that 2010 and 2012 Colby, a 25-year old center-fielder with plus defense and an emerging profile as a well above-average hitter, is the Colby that we’ll get to enjoy for a long time.

But hey, if you’re not one for guarded optimism, his Baseball Reference page lists Roger Maris as his #3 comparable for players through Age 24.

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