Early Season Trends Worth Keeping Track Of, Part 1

June 3, 2012; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays center fielder BJ Upton (2) hits a 2-RBI double against the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Griffith-US PRESSWIRE

For the first month of the season, the refrain "Small Sample Size" is repeated until everyone is sick of hearing it. Meaningful conclusions are few and far between, and crazy things are guaranteed to happen. The baseball starved fan devours the information coming at him, but tends to intuitively know to take it with a grain of salt. With another month firmly in the rear view mirror, however, there is a tendency to take what a player has done as what he will do. Still, it's a tad premature to make decisive statements.

As a result, this article will look at a few developments from the season thus far that are worth keeping track of going forward.

  • Minor League Honorable Mention: Josh Sale's breakout

You're all most likely familiar with Josh Sale's story but here's a brief recap. After being the Rays first round pick in 2010, Sale struggled mightily in 2011. His performance was awful and some scouts claimed his swing looked ugly. This season, Sale is absolutely annihilating the ball. He's getting on base half the time, is walking more than he's striking out, and has hit 7 home runs in 20 games, producing an eye-popping triple slash of .368/.500/.807 thus far. Yes it's only A-ball, and yes it's only been 76 PA, but Sale hasn't just been putting up Joey Votto caliber numbers, he's been putting up 01-04 Barry Bonds caliber numbers. He probably isn't actually this good, but it also seems safe to say he isn't as bad as last season. Only time will tell how good he actually is.

Among the numerous BJ Upton debates over the years, one aspect that appears to have gone largely ignored is his befuddling BABIP. A hitter's BABIP is roughly his rate of hits on balls in play, and it's widely accepted that although BABIP is acutely volatile, in the long-run, it is extremely stable, and a function of speed, batted ball profile, and how hard the hitter hits the ball. Generally speaking, a player's BABIP after thousands of plate appearances is static, barring decline with age/injury or opposing teams employing shifts (the main reason Pena's batting average has plummeted from his early career levels), and the recent exceptions to this can be counted on one hand.

BJ Upton is among these exceptions. From 2004-2008, he put up a BABIP of .355 over 1500+ plate appearances. Although this is an extremely high level, BJ profiled as the type of player who could maintain a BABIP in this vicinity by virtue of his speed and high ground ball rate. He then followed this up with a head-scratching BABIP of .304 in 2009-2011, over an even larger sample size. Such a dramatic change in true talent level is unheard of. The only obvious underlying change is a drop in ground ball rate, but even when players change their approaches, their BABIPs generally don't shift so significantly.

This season thus far, BJ has put together a BABIP of .343, closer to his career mark of .328 than either of the two extremes above. As a result he's offensively producing at his highest level since 2008. If BJ maintains this, and brings his walk rates back to his career mark, he has the potential to be an star center fielder this season. Sadly, I'm more inclined to believe his true talent BABIP is closer to the .304 of the last few seasons than his career mark, since I don't think his performance in 04 is indicative of his ability today. Still, it's worth keeping an eye on.

Coming into this season, the general consensus on Elliot Johnson was that he was roughly a replacement level player, perhaps marginally better. With injuries forcing the Rays hand, EJ has been playing nearly every game in the last few weeks. In that time, he's opened many eyes. It's fair to say that no one was expecting a .255/.333/.364 triple slash (104 wRC+). Even more encouraging is a look at his offensive peripherals--his walk rate (9.5%), strikeout rate (24.6%), ISO (.109) and BABIP (.329) all appear to be slightly better than what we expected. Better yet, none of them seem ridiculously unsustainable, although his walk rate will almost certainly decrease.

ZiPS ROS projects EJ to regress across the board (other than power) and put up a .288 wOBA going forward. Even this would leave him a useful bench player at shortstop, albeit not an every day player. Still, considering that walk and strikeout rates gain significance rapidly, it also seems as though there's a very decent chance he performs above this mark going forward. It's worth taking note of, certainly.

In the follow up installment: The Rays starting staff has learned a new trick, and we look at recent developments for the team's Matts.

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