Jay Bruce and Joey Votto have both spent serious time knocking the cover off the ball recently. One look at their slash lines is enough to make you feel that, if nothing else is right in Reds-land, at least these two are giving us what they’re supposed to. Oh sure, maybe Bruce’s average is a little low, but it’s probably not setting off alarm bells. And Joey Votto, well, come on now, he’s a bad… um… anyway…
But it wasn’t that long ago that fans were in a panic over these two players. Jay Bruce entered May with a .181 batting average. Joey Votto hit only .253 in May, and his power took a holiday. He looked fine, but with knee injuries, everyone started to wonder. We shouldn’t have, and let me tell you why: peripherals matter.
Peripherals are numbers you’ll never see on your local broadcast. At least, you won’t see the useful peripherals. I’ve wrote about batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in this space not that long ago, and it really does tell the whole story with Bruce. BABIP fluctuates wildly, and you really need a couple seasons of data before you get a sense of what a player’s real talent level is there. Bruce, in his career, has generated a BABIP of .291. In April, is was .186. In May, it was .313. So far, in June, it’s .195 (look for that to go up). Yes, Bruce is streaky, but BABIP numbers like he had in April are anomalous. Ignoring last year, when he was hurt, you have to go all the way back to 2009 to find a month with a BABIP like he had in April.
This year, Bruce is walking at the highest rate of his career (13.9% versus a career rate of 9.6%). His strikeouts—which had been trending upward at an alarming pace—are back down to the level he maintained from 2010-12. We even have measurements now that tell us that Bruce is hitting the ball slightly harder at the moment than he has over the course of his career, and at a rate right in line with his best years. In short, Bruce has had a little bad luck that’s pulled his numbers down, but all the peripherals point to sunny times ahead. Given the resurgence he’s had in recent weeks, there’s simply no reason to worry.
I will admit to getting the Joey-Votto-Yips a bit when he went into that slump, but I should have known better. You may remember that Joey Votto won the MVP in 2010. That year, he walked 14.0% of the time and struck out 19.3% of the time. This year? He’s walking 14.3% of the time and striking out 18.7% of the time. The only difference? That slump brought his BABIP down a bit—his career rate is .354. In 2010, he came in with a .361 BABIP. Right now, he’s at .329. His power numbers are good, too. In short, he seems to be the Votto we had before the knee injury, just with a few years of aging tacked on.
This swings both ways, too. I won’t go into too much depth, but there’s reason to believe that Brandon Phillips will probably fall back to earth a bit in the coming months. Before he got hurt, however, the peripherals made it appear that Zack Cozart might be managing something sustainable.
I’m not asking anyone to discount the normal numbers you look at. They’re still the ones I use most of the time and they usually do a good job with the overall picture. However, if you see a player who is doing much worse or much better than he has in the recent past, it’s a good idea to look into numbers that go a bit deeper and see if a little luck (good or bad) might be coloring the water, or if your favorite player really has turned a new corner, or possibly even started the long fall brought by age.