Sunday, July 04, 2004

More On Jack

Jack Wilson homered again today, his eighth jack (heh) of the season. His season line now stands at .339/.358/.517, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that he’s a virtual lock to make the All-Star team.

It’s very clear that Wilson has been the best hitting shortstop in the National League so far this year, and his numbers are remarkable for a player with his profile. As I’ve written before, though, they’re not likely to continue.

Let’s compare Wilson to a player we’ll call Mr. X.

Mr. X
Year Before Big Year (Age 25): .263/.291/.391
April-June of Big Year (Age 26): .304/.340/.511
Post-All Star Break of Big Year: .288/.328/.424
Year After Big Year: .280/.314/.468

Note: The Year After Big Year numbers are deceptive, since Mr. X played most of that year in an extreme hitters’ park.

Jack Wilson
Year Before Big Year (Age 25): .256/.303/.353
Year To Date (Age 26): .340/.359/.517

Mr. X was a slightly better hitter than Wilson before his career year. But he was the same age during is career year that Wilson is now, and he had the same glaring weakness – a serious lack of plate discipline. During the first three months of his breakout year he hit for much better average and power than he had before, but his plate discipline didn’t improve. After those three months he hit only slightly better than before his career year. And again, that superficially decent-looking Year After is due mostly to park effects. According to Baseball Prospectus, Mr. X had a mediocre 14.2 VORP for the Year After, similar to his 12.0 VORP for the Year Before, compared to a 48.9 VORP for the entire middle year.

While it is always dangerous to try to predict future performance by comparing a player to only one other player, what happened to Mr. X should not have surprised anyone. A player’s walk totals from year to year reflect his real level of ability much better than his batting average, which varies wildly from year to year, often without apparent reason. So when a player has a sudden spike in performance (especially if that spike is mostly concentrated in batting average) without a corresponding spike in plate discipline, it’s very likely that the performance spike is at least partially a fluke. All of which is to say that while Jack Wilson has been very valuable to the Pirates this year, the Pirates would be foolish to plan around a Jack Wilson that hits this well. There’s nineteen points of difference between his average and his OBP; only the strangest of players can maintain numbers like that without stinking it up at the plate, and Wilson isn’t that strange a player. The only thing that’s strange is the year he’s having.

Mr. X, by the way, is Shea Hillenbrand circa 2001-2003. Hillenbrand went to the All-Star game as a starter after his freak three months in 2002. Hillenbrand is a mediocrity. In five years when we look back at the 2002 All-Star roster, we’re likely to see Hillenbrand’s name and wonder what we were thinking. If Wilson makes the All-Star team this year, we’ll probably eventually wonder the same thing.

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