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Second Thoughts Game #127: Astros 5, Indians 1

Second Thoughts Game #127: Astros 5, Indians 1
The Astros celebrate a 5-1 win over the Indians on Friday night. (Photo: AP)
August 23, 2014
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Year-to-year correlations rarely hold, and what Cleveland has found in 2014 is that most of the team-versus-team narratives have been flipped on their head. Just as Cleveland has had a 7-5 record to Detroit to date - already with two more wins than in the entire 2013 season series - Friday's contest between Cleveland and Houston highlighted the Clevelands' relative struggle against sub-.500 clubs.

Whereas the Indians had a 66-27 record (.709) against sub-.500 teams in 2013, the margin of victory against the weaker teams has predictably collapsed in 2014 to 33-24 (.578). The 'taking care of business' narrative, when one team unequivocally dominates another, is a useful and engaging way to relate what has occurred, but extreme in-season record splits typically hold little predictive power - regression, usually, has its way.

On Friday, regression came in the form of a dominant Brad Peacock, who has posted a 5.47 ERA to date with process stats (FIP, xFIP) supporting a generally poor outing. His injury-shortened start, however, held Cleveland to two baserunners and one run over five innings. Beyond Peacock peculiarly stifling the Cleveland offense, there were three defining aspects to the game: Carrasco's dominance, the trouble with the defense, baserunning, and Zach Walters.

Since this particular author has spilled far too much ink on both Carlos Carrasco and the defense in previous Second Thoughts (the former being interesting and possibly better than his result stats suggest, the latter being bad), and because this author is insufficiently versed in baserunning statistics to responsibly contextualize Friday's meltdown, Zach Walters is the feature of the hour.

While James Ramsey, the outfield received in exchange for Justin Masterson, remains in AAA, Zach Walters, the piece received in exchange for Asdrubal Cabrera, has contributed seriously to the major league club's effort. With 5 HR, 14 K in his stint with Cleveland and robust full-season triple-slash line of .213/.272/.547, Zach Walters is interesting both because his two solo home runs on Thursday and Friday provided the only runs that Cleveland scored in either game and also because his extreme-strikeout, extreme-power profile from (ostensibly) a middle-infielder makes for an exceedingly intriguing combination.

To date, Walters has appeared to be a caricature. Going forward, he will be a player with pronounced asymmetries in his game, but he is unlikely to have as extreme a profile as he does now. Extremeness in point: Walters has 8 hits with Cleveland. 5 are home runs. This probably isn't going to keep up, for better and for worse.

One might wish to begin with the negatives. Since an 'average' MLB player is, in fact, one of the best baseball players in the world, 'regression' is not a sufficient reason in itself to believe that Walters's extreme strikeout rate will return to the league average. His strikeout rate - 37.0% of all plate appearances - puts him at the second-highest rate in the majors among all players with 80+ plate appearances. Regression alone is not likely.

However, one can say that Walters's minor league numbers suggest that his currently stratospheric strikeout rate is unlikely to remain stratospheric - high, certainly, but not as debilitating as it has been. ZiPS is a projection system developed by Dan Szymborski, and it takes into account the fact that AAA to the majors is by far the biggest jump in talent in any level of American baseball; when projecting minor leaguers, ZiPS categorically, aggressively, and reasonably, projects minor leaguers to do much worse than their track record.

Such was the case with Walters; whereas his highest strikeout percent at AAA was 26.7% over a 105 PA stint in 2012, ZiPS projects Walters's strikeout rate at 30.1% the rest of the year. Walters is unlikely to post better strikeout rates than a Victor Martinez or even a Nick Swisher, but that still leaves substantial room for improvement.

This 50th-percentile projection takes the middle route, and assumes that Walters is like any other high-K minor leaguer. This is a possibly-flawed assumption, since it does not account for the eyesight and mental state of Zach Walters, but even the tale of the tape can lead to ambiguous results. For instance, when Walters swung at a breaking ball that bounced several feet in front of the plate on Friday, this could serve as a sign that either the changes that Walters must make to substantially improve his K rate are simple or, on the other hand, that he is completely hopeless against major league breaking balls. Neither of these two are obviously true, and neither are obviously false. Hence, the 50th-percentile projection, that Walters will have a pronounced, but far less-extreme, strikeout rate going forward is one that is certainly the most likely.

Likewise, Walters's BABIP to date has been extremely low - at .222 on the year, Walters's BABIP is far below average. For established major leaguers, one can typically confidently assert that a player's true talent BABIP lies near .300 - fluctuations of, say, 78 points in one direction or the other indicates either unsustainably good (or bad) performance or that the batter in question is Ichiro (or Mike Moustakas). Walters's .222 BABIP would indicate that his batting average on balls in play should likely increase were Walters an established major league player with a clear baseline level of talent; since Walters is not an MLB vet, he has not proven his true-talent BABIP is .300.

Indeed, ZiPS, being highly skeptical of minor league numbers as it is, projects that, given Walters's minor league BABIP, his major-league true-talent BABIP is .285 - notably below league average, but far better than his current clip. He might be better than that number or he might be worse; for reasons listed above, the projection is merely the most likely outcome, not a guarantee of future performance. So while Walters finds himself mired in an inability to get hits on balls not hit out of the park, ZiPS projects based on Walters's own past performance that it will get better.

In turn, however, if one is going to assume that Walters's flaws are going to be tempered going forward, one should also assume that his positives will likewise be tempered; namely, Walters's extreme power. To date in 2014, Walters has hit 8 home runs in 81 plate appearances. Over 600 plate appearances, that extrapolates to 59 home runs. Walters is not a true-talent 59 home run player. Giancarlo Stanton is not a true-talent 59 HR player. Peak Barry Bonds might have been a true-talent 59 HR player, and even he hit over 50 home runs only once. Because Zach Walters is not the greatest power hitter to have ever graced the earth, by prolonged drought or slow ebb, his home run clip will slow down substantially. More certain than improvements in his anomalous BABIP or K%, Zach Walters will eventually stop hitting home runs once every ten plate appearances.

That said, ZiPS does not expect his power to disappear; to the contrary, it expects, Walters to receive 81 plate appearances the rest of the year and hit 4 home runs in each. While the PA number will depend both on the health of the roster and Walters's own ability, four home runs over 81 plate appearances is a fairly aggressive take on Walters's power - approximately 25-30 HR/600 PA, depending on the rounding used.

What this yields is a ZiPS-projected .229/.262/.434 triple-slash line, which would yield a marginally below-average performance. If Walters lives up to his projections, his limiting factor would be his on-base percentage, fueled by a tremendously-low projected walk rate of 3.9%. To date, Walters's walk rate has been a roughly-average 7.7%, sufficient in sustaining an OBP over .270 despite a floundering batting average. Were his BA to return to projected levels and he retain his walks, then Walters becomes a serious, sustainable offensive threat.

However, Walters's minor league track record has been largely walk-free, though recency favors his future success in walking - while he has only eclipsed a 6% BB% in three different level-years, the most recent was his 2014 stint in AAA - the same year that he posted a BB% over 7% in the majors. If one were to argue against the projected walk rate, one would argue that a developing player's most recent data is by far the most relevant and should be categorically preferred, and all of Walters's recent information suggests an increased capacity for walks; the validity of this argument is rather ambiguous without formally running data, and it's possible that this is merely the bias inherent in 'recency bias,' but it's nevertheless the sort of argument that could pass intuitive muster.

Zach Walters's game right now is a caricature of a one-tool, no-discipline power hitter. If his offensive game changes the way the projections expect it to, Walters's bat will become far less valuable than it is now. Under any circumstances, this torrid streak can't keep up in the long-scale; still, Walters's recent stretch brings up memories from Yan Gomes's 2013 breakout, as well as those of Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, and Corey Kluber, all of which build to the question that have defined the last seven years of this franchise: Why does anyone ever trade minor prospects to Cleveland?

John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimmHe can also be reached by e-mail at john.h.grimm@hotmail.com.

User Comments

Walter
August 23, 2014 - 9:18 AM EDT
Indians such a big tease. As soon as they get momentum going in the right direction the bad defense and lack of hitting shows up. They could have picked up 2 games on the Tigers if they have any sort of hitting the last 2 games. Wasted opportunities!!!!

GSon
August 23, 2014 - 9:11 AM EDT
Perhaps it's time to start transitioning Lonnie to 1B.. and Carlos to DH..

Base path screw ups for this team are ruinous..

Nice efforts by Zach Walters and Carlos Carrasco... Have to get the middle game today...

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