The Miami Marlins have gotten a pleasant surprise from Emilio Bonfiacio's bat so far in 2012. (Photo by Sarah Glenn/Getty Images)
Emilio Bonifacio was a major question mark heading into the 2012 season. Prior to this year, he had just one successful season, and that successful year hinged on both positive, repeatable elements and unsustainable elements as well. In the offseason, we postulated that, while his improvement in drawing walks and being patient at the plate would continue, his likely regression in terms of balls in play would drag his season down from the one he had in 2011
Well, we are two weeks into the 2012 season and surprisingly, nothing has changed from Bonifacio since 2011.
Even in the microcosm of the 2012 season thus far, Bonifacio has shown the exact same repeatable and unsustainable elements he showed last season. He is still improving on his plate discipline while at the same time being extremely fortunate on balls in play.Not Swinging
Only one parameter has change in Bonifacio's plate discipline numbers in 2012: he has swung even less than he did last season.
Bonifacio has taken the bat off his shoulders even less than last season, but this has not resulted in any difference in any of his other parameters. In the all-important contact rate, he remains at around the league average, and that is a problem for a player whose lack of power requires that he strike out less to gain a better batting average. On the other hand, taking more pitches is helping him to see pitchers deeper into the count; he is averaging 4.3 pitches per plate appearance this season versus 4.03 pitches last season.
However, even on balls that he is watching, his approach has not actually improved in terms of selectivity. Bonifacio is watching more pitches inside the zone this season (45 percent swing rate on in-zone pitches) versus last season (53 percent). As a result, he is getting more called strike calls this year than last year. Overall, Bonifacio ranks at the thirteenth-lowest swing rate in baseball, tied with Ian Kinsler of the Texas Rangers. When you take a look at the list of players below him, however, you see that they all possess superior selectivity compared to Bonifacio. Of the 12 players ahead of him on the list, only two (Jason Bay and Shelley Duncan) have swung at 20 or more percent of their out-of-zone pitches. In addition, only three (Bay, Russell Martin, and Carlos Santana) have swung at fewer than 50 percent of their in-zone pitches. This means that these players are conceding fewer called strikes than Bonifacio and gathering more balls on out-of-zone pitches. Even with Bonifacio's much improved work at the plate, he has to continue to strive to be as good as other patient, no-swing types.
BABIP and the Luck Dragon
This season, Bonifacio is sporting an absurd .436 BABIP right now. That is tied for tenth among qualified players. Of course, we simply cannot expect Bonifacio to continue hitting at such an absurd pace, but we do suspect that much of the rest of his game is somewhat repeatable. Sure, he is not likely to walk at a 13.0 percent clip, but I would much rather show what a regression in BABIP would do to Bonifacio's line than a regression from 13.0 percent to the ZiPS-projected 9.1 percent walk rate that he should have through the rest of the year. Let us rebuild Bonifacio's current line using his ZiPS-projected .340 BABIP (in comparison, he has a career ,342 BABIP) rather than the .436 one he has now.
He would have only suffered a loss of three singles, but obviously that has a huge effect on his batting line this early in the season. The line is still pretty good, but it is not nearly as impressive and probably would have a wOBA closer to .356 than the .391 that he currently boasts.
Morphing Into Michael Bourn
Now, the above .356 wOBA would not be all that bad, though more regression needs to be accounted for. Nevertheless, seeing his continued improvement makes me think that he can indeed become the model player of his type: Michael Bourn.
Bourn did it for longer, but the two players have highly similar skillsets, right down to their similarly high strikeout rates for slap hitters and their subsequent mediocre contact rates. Even if Bonifacio cannot improve on those supposed problem areas, he can play well enough to become Michael Bourn without the benefit of his absurd defensive prowess. Even Michael Bourn without defense can be a three-win player, and this would be very valuable for the Marlins.
After 2009, it was difficult to imagine Bonifacio becoming a player as useful as Michael Bourn. This season still has a long way to go, and it would be highly beneficial to Bonifacio and the Marlins if he can repeat a decent amount of his 2011 season in 2012. But if he can, that would be two straight seasons of solid offensive performance from a player we never expected to be worth much. For the Marlins, they would be happy with that. For me, it would make me eat crow about the likelihood of Bonifacio being an above-average contributor.