Originally posted on Waiting For Next Year  |  Last updated 4/24/12

It’s easy to forget that Jack Hannahan is still a Major League Baseball player—at least in part—because of Gavin Floyd.

Because until Floyd broke Jason Donald’s left hand with a high-and-tight fastball on March 6 of last year, Donald was slated to be the Indians’ bridge to Lonnie Chisenhall.  The best laid plans of Mark and Chris…

Of course, even after Donald’s injury ruled him out, there were still other options to consider, and Hannahan was a far cry from the presumptive favorite.  This snippet, taken from an AP story on the Donald injury, serves to reminds us where the 3B Zeitgeist was at the time:

Although he hasn’t officially been picked as the starter, Donald’s the front-runner to be the Indians’ everyday third baseman. The team has other options in Jayson Nix, Jack Hannahan, Luis Valbuena and highly touted prospect Lonnie Chisenhall, whose [sic] having a solid camp and could make things interesting if he keeps hitting.

It’s one thing to be listed as the second of three options.  It’s quite another to be juxtaposed with Jayson Nix and Luis Valbuena by the Associated Press as viable third basemen for a Major League team.  Sort of a crushing blow to one’s self-esteem, I’d imagine.  In fact, I’m sure if I looked for it I could even find a piece that I wrote that besmirched Jack’s good name.  But I digress.

The point is that Jack Hannahan needed a lot of luck to become the Indians’ opening day starter in 2011.  He needed Gavin Floyd to break Jason Donald’s hand.  He needed a good Spring Training (.860 OPS and no errors).  He needed “competition” like Valbuena and Nix.  And he needed the Indians’ front office to recognize that Lonnie Chisenhall wasn’t ready for the Big Leagues, despite mashing taters all over the Cactus League (1.451 OPS).

So at this point, I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised by anything we see from Jack Hannahan.  Except I am surprised.  By almost everything I’ve seen so far this season.  His patience.  His power.  His batting average.  And yes, his defense too.  So maybe we should have a quick look at where he stands, to see, as always, how much of this we can believe, and how much might be a mirage.

We should remember that this isn’t the first time Hannahan has seemed to be a changed hitter.  Through his first 23 games played in 2011—he’s only played in 12 so far this year—Jack had a .284/.356/.481 (.837 OPS) line with four home runs in 90 plate appearances.   Of course, he finished the season with a .250/.331/.388 (.719 OPS) line along with the reminder that all that glitters isn’t gold, etc.

So for our purposes, let’s look at his career numbers along with his hot start from 2011 and 2012 YTD numbers to see what we see:

  OBP SLG ISO BABiP BB% K% Career 0.321 0.362 0.127 0.300 10.9% 23.8% 2011 Start 0.356 0.481 0.197 0.328 10.0% 21.1% 2012 Start 0.429 0.488 0.146 0.419 14.3% 20.4%

 

If you’re thinking that Hannahan has never looked better than he has so far this season, you’d be right.  Every metric above save his isolated power is up in 2012 over both his career and his hot 2011 start.  And we probably shouldn’t worry too much about the ISO anyway, since his slugging is up so considerably.

Of course some of that improvement might be real and some of it might be the noise associated with 12 game samples.  Our job is to try to separate the two as best we’re able.

Let’s think about the parts that could be real (read: repeatable) improvements first.  You’ll notice that so far this season, Hannahan is doing particularly well in the strikeout and walk departments compared to his career line.  While I’m hesitant to suggest that all of this improvement is real, it’s certainly possible that a decent part of it is.  Plate discipline and swing-strike rates are fairly repeatable skills for hitters, so when we see improvements there we might be more likely to assume an improved approach rather than mere luck.  Sure enough, Hannahan’s career swinging-strike rate is 8.9%, but this season it’s down to only 7.8% after sitting 7.9% in 2011.  (In both 2009 and 2010, his swinging-strike rate was over 9.5%.)  Furthermore, his Z-Contact% (his ability to make contact when he swings at pitches in the strikezone) is nearly 90% this season, despite a career rate of only 86.1%.  All this is supported by a more patient approach at the plate: for the first time in his career Hannahan is swinging at fewer than 40% of the pitches he sees.  It’s no coincidence that this increase in patience has coincided with a jump in his on base percentage.

But that’s probably as far as I’m willing to take the improvement theory.  Because there’s just no way that Hannahan’s going to sustain a batting average on balls in play (BABiP) of .419 for the rest of the season.  While batters do have a bit more control over their BABiPs than do pitchers, we should remember that only 3 players in baseball history have ever sustained a BABiP over .419.  Those players would be: Babe Ruth’s 1923 (.423 BABiP); Roger Hornsby’s 1924 (.422); and George Sisler’s 1922 (.422).*  Only twice since 1967 has a player with more than 500 plate appearances had a BABiP over .400.

*I don’t know enough about 1920′s baseball–perhaps we should ask my wife–to understand why the highest historical BABiPs all seem to centripetally coalesce in the first 25 years of the 20th century (again, click that link in the previous paragraph).  But I’m sure there’s a good reason and that you’ll fill me in on in the comments.  Fat fielders?  Huge ballparks?  Slap hitters with notoriously low K-rates (though this wouldn’t explain Babe Ruth)?  What gives?

Let’s look at last year’s top five BABiPs to figure out what sort of player typically leads in this category:

  BABiP Adrian Gonzalez 0.380 Matt Kemp 0.380 Emilio Bonifacio 0.372 Michael Bourn 0.369 Michael Young 0.367

 

I see two MVP candidates, two serious speedsters, and a guy with a career BABiP of .339 who may have had some balls bounce his way in 2011. Now, we can hope that Jack will have balls bounce his way in 2012 like Michael Young did last year, but even if he got that lucky, he’d still lose more than 50 points off his current figure.  And that’s not even pointing out that Hannahan’s career BABiP rate is already 40 points below Young’s to begin with.

In other words, there’s going to be some regression in Jack’s future: he just can’t continue to poke singles through the infield in the fashion he’s been doing so far in 2012.

And while that’s not exactly what we want to believe, it’s also useful to remember that regression cuts both ways.  Jack Hannahan has typically been a useful enough player not because of his bat, but because of his glove.  From 2008-2011, only Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre had a better UZR/150 among third basemen with more than 2,000 innings played.  Over the same time period, Hannahan was second in errors and third in fielding percentage.  In other words, the Indians entered this season with about as reliable a defensive third baseman as you could find.

So far in 2012 though?  He’s committed four errors.  He is the only third baseman in baseball with a fielding percentage below.900 (.879).  And despite his torrid start with the bat, he is only sixth on the team in fWAR, largely because his defense has already cost the team three runs compared to what an average third baseman could have fielded.  Extrapolated out to an entire season, Hannahan would cost the Indians roughly 47 runs with his glove if his current level of play were to continue.

But we know that won’t happen, right?  Because players are, largely, who they are—especially by the time they are 32 years old.  We look to their past history to make our best guesses about how they’ll play in any given year not because we don’t believe they can change, but because we understand that a career full of history has a lot more meaning than a few games in April.

No, Jack Hannahan won’t end the season with 54 errors.  We know better than to believe something like that based on such a tiny sample.

And for the same reason, we can safely assume that this 12-game offensive onslaught will soon give way to the reality of Jack Hannahan-ness.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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