Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 7/20/12

A big part of the Chicago White Sox’ current perch atop the American League Central standings has been “comeback” performances. Jake Peavy is pitching better than he has since at least 2008 in San Diego. Adam Dunn is back from the dead after a 2011 performance during which he simply looked finished.

And, of course, the enigmatic Alex Rios is hitting again in 2012 after a 2011 in which his wOBA matched that of Dunn (both finished the season at .266). Rios currently sports the highest season wRC+ of his career at 132 (.316/.352/.520). As many have commented, he has been on a rollercoaster. He was very good for the Blue Jays from 2006 to 2008, then in the middle of a somewhat down 2009 season, the Jays let Rios and the last four plus years of his contract go to Chicago simply for salary relief. Rios bottomed out over the last two months in Chicago in 2009. However, he got it together in 2010, particularly in the first part of the season. Then things totally collapsed again in 2011. Rios is back (for now, at least), but how is he doing it?

For better or worse, we saber-friendly bloggers tend to look first to BABIP when a hitter is doing much better or worse than expected. Rios’ is .332, which is higher than average, but not unusually high. In any case, that is merely descriptive, and certainly does not tell the whole story. A bigger part of his improvement this season is his .205 isolated power — Rios is obviously getting extra bases at a higher rate. What is particularly interesting, though, is that he seems to be doing this with the same level of plate discipline (or lack thereof) as he did in 2011. His walk rate is about at four percent, about the same as it was in the disastrous 2009 (Chicago) and 2011 campaigns. While he is striking out at a very low rate, that same rate was also present during 2011. Is he simply “hitting the ball harder?” The simple answer seems to be yes.

So far in 2012, Rios has already matched his home run total from 2011 with 13. If we look at his page at the ESPN Hit Tracker, we find that the average standard distance of his home runs in 2012 is 401.7 feet, with an average speed off of the bat of 103.9 miles per hour. Comparing that to his previous good year in 2010, we see that the average standard distance was close to the same at 397.3 feet with an almost identical average speed of the bat of 103.5 miles per hour. However, the miserable 2011 campaign’s home runs are different indeed. They were only slightly slower off of the bat at 102.5 miles per hour, but they were not as long: the average standard distance was 381.9 feet.

While that is helpful information, keep in mind that those measurements were only taken on home runs — for Rios, 13 to 21 contacted pitches over the period we are considering. Compared to the rest of the balls he put into play, that is a really small sample. It is nice to have a (normalized) speed off of the bat, which is why I used Hit Tracker. However, it would be nice to have more data. For this, I’ve turned to our own Jeff Zimmerman’s helpful site, Baseball Heat Maps.

Following a suggestion from Jeff, I restricted myself to Rios’ home runs and fly balls. I just looked at his last three seasons. Rios’ average distance on home runs and fly balls in 2010 was 285 feet. In 2011 it was 259 feet. In 2012 so far it is back up to 281 feet.

Now, this in itself probably seems boringly obvious, and in one sense, it is. However, I think it does tell us something informative beyond the “binomial” approach of “did he hit a home run or not?” or “did that hit go for extra bases?” After all, it is at least conceivable that Rios could be hitting balls (at least those in play) the same distance but that in 2011 they simply went for outs. We do not have velocity numbers on all of the balls in play, but the small sample we have from each season of speed off of bats in home runs at least indicates something about hitting the ball harder. In other words, while there are multiple potential sources of random variation in Rios’ annual performances — and just because he is hitting the ball further this year does not mean that itself is not random variation — we do have reason to believe that something is different about the way he is hitting in 2012 than in 2011.

This is an admittedly simplistic approach to an issue that could be attacked from a variety of angles, and if we had full Hitf/x data (don’t hold your breath), we could learn even more. Coaching information would also be helpful David Laurila talked to White Sox’ hitting coach Jeff Manto recently for an upcoming Q&A, and Manto told him that Rios had been too “spread out” this spring, and they worked on it early this season to make his stance more upright. I am not claiming that this is the “secret” to Rios’ current success, but it is worth noting.

Rios’ lack of walks will probably always be an issue, but despite my own proclivities, we also know that the game of baseball is played in an analog universe, not a digital one. There are many possibilities between zero and one. “Hitting the ball harder and further” is not a simple thing to analyze in the way I usually do it, but that is the next frontier for analysis. Whether it sticks for Rios is something to watch, especially given that he seems “scheduled” for another bad year in 2013. Those sorts of patterns hold, right?

[Note: that last line is obviously a joke. Right?]

My thanks to Jeff Z. and Eno Sarris for help and suggestions about using Jeff’s site. It is not their fault if I screwed something up. Also thanks to Laurila for the sneak preview of his upcoming Q&A with Jeff Manto.

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