2013 fluke or future – Colby Rasmus

Would you believe me if I told you that Colby Rasmus‘ slugging percentage was only seven points lower than McCutchen in 2013? Would you believe me if I told you that he had a more valuable season than Adam Jones? How about if I told you that he had a better defensive season than Span, Ellsbury, Blanco and McCutchen? I would not blame you if you would not have believed any of those. Neither did I until I saw them. Was this 2013 season by Colby Rasmus a fluke or what his future will look like?
What do the experts think? I like to look at projections, especially this time of year. The first thing I did was look at last year’s ZiPS projection for Rasmus. While ZiPS was dead on for his total doubles and homers, that projection was for a full 588 plate appearances. Due to a couple of bouts with injury, Rasmus only played 118 games and compiled only 458 plate appearances. So Rasmus easily beat his power projections and his batting average and on-base percentage projections too.
But it is hard to blame ZiPS for what it came up with. After a breakout season in 2010, Rasmus ran afoul of Tony LaRussa in one of the most famous doghouse incidents in recent times and then got lost for a couple of years. All Rasmus could muster was a .688 OPS in 2011 and a .689 OPS in 2012. Therefore, ZiPS projection of a .749 OPS for Rasmus in 2013 seemed overly bullish. But Rasmus blew that away and finished with an OPS of .840, 91 points higher.
So the projections would be more optimistic for 2014, right? Wrong. ZiPS has not gotten to the Blue Jays yet (from what I could find). But Steamer and Oliver have put theirs out and they predict Rasmus to fall back to .771 and .770 respectively. Oliver goes further and gives a five year projection. That system never expects him to be as good as he was in 2013.
There must be obvious reasons for the lack of faith in what Rasmus did in 2013. For one thing, Rasmus had a BABIP of .356. That had to be lucky right? His last two seasons before that featured him not being able to achieve a BABIP over .270. But Rasmus once had a season with that high a BABIP–2010.
Obviously, the projections are not buying it. But perhaps you can consider that Rasmus had his best ever line drive percentage in 2013. He had never gone over 20% in that category before and his line drive percentage was 22% in 2013. You hit that many ropes and your BABIP will get a boost. You could say it was a fluke. But what if it wasn’t?
Rasmus also had his lowest ground ball rate since (yeah, there is a theme here) 2010. And a higher percentage of those fly balls went over the fence than ever before in his career (17.3%). So more of his fly balls left the yard and his line drive percentage spiked. That will help your BABIP.
There is another thing the projections might be seeing and that is the strikeout and walk rates. Rasmus did compile his highest strikeout rate in 2013 and his lowest walk rate. His swing and miss rate was also the highest of his career. His strikeout rate in 2013 was just a bit higher than (oh my) 2010 and then went down in 2011 and 2012. The interesting thing here is that his percentage of swings at pitches out of the strike zone dipped under 30% for the first time in his career. So he is a bit more selective but is swinging and missing a lot.
Wasn’t it the strikeouts that first put him in LaRussa’s doghouse?
I can see where the projections might be skeptical of Rasmus. The BABIP, strikeouts and walks would put a analytic damper on things. But the projections also knock down his defense. And, again, it is a bit understandable. His defense was worth 11.5 runs above average in 2009 but then fell into the negative in 2010 and 2011. He bounced back with 2.1 runs in the positive in 2012 and then seemed to explode to 12.9 runs in 2013.
So it is easy to see what the “machine” is looking at. Oliver gives him a projection of 3.8 runs above average and Steamer, six. So Steamer is a bit more optimistic.
I get where the math comes from. The algorithms look at the cold hard data and that is the purpose. But what if there were circumstances involved the algorithms cannot see? Maybe the LaRussa thing really messed him up for a couple of years. Maybe he was immature and did not handle things well. The mental part of the game is something that cannot be measured.
Maybe he is in a better place in his life and in a more supportive atmosphere, the same one that made stars of Bautista and Encarnacion. Colby Rasmus is only 27 years old. I am being bullish here and thinking that 2013 might not have been a fluke. Maybe it is a case of a former #1 draft pick finding himself. Perhaps the future only gets brighter from here. I will feel a little more confident in that pronouncement if he can repeat or better his 2013 season in the year or two to come.
I will leave you with this last bit of mind wandering. Think of the defense up the middle of two guys LaRussa chased out of St. Louis. Think of how crazy good Brendan Ryan is at short and Rasmus is in center. Imagine how scary good the Cardinals could have been in 2013 with those two instead of Kozma and Jay!
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