Can Miami Marlins' Justin Ruggiano Keep Up 2012 Performance?

Will Justin Ruggiano hit himself back down to size in 2013? Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

The Miami Marlins have few storylines going on right now in theri 2012 season, but a critical one remains Justin Ruggiano and his incredible 2012 run. Yes, it is only 188 PA, but it has been an amazing 188 PA, as Ruggiano has hit .339/.398/.625 (.428 wOBA) with 10 homers and 10 steals. He has been an absolute revelation for the Fish, and Marlins fans want to know how likely it is he can continue this pace.

Well, the short answer is not likely. Obviously, he is not going to hit .339/.398/.625. Anyone could have told you that.

But how likely is he to continue to be a good player? Can that power last? The short answer to that is no as well, and Eno Sarris of FanGraphs brought up that concern going into next season. The other important question about Ruggiano is just where his batting average on balls in play will fall. Ruggiano has hit a ridiculous .416 average on balls in play, and while we know that cannot be sustained, it is hard to guess just where that is going to land next season. Is it going to be high enough for Ruggiano to remain a quality major leaguer?

A few weeks ago, I addressed some of the question of Justin Ruggiano and arrived at the conclusion that he was indeed likely to be a major leaguer, and likely a little better than average hitter at that. But just like I did last week with John Buck and his historical season, I wanted to address just how much players like Ruggiano from the past have regressed; instead of regressing with the numbers, I wanted to compare Ruggiano to historical examples.

Methodology

I took a look at all players from 1992 to 2010 who had a breakout season in terms of BABIP in between age 28 and 32 (Ruggiano is 30 years old). These players had to also be in their second through fifth seasons in baseball, in order to represent the out-of-nowhere nature of an older player suddenly throwing up a spectacular season. Of course, there will be a subset of players who entered their fifth year at age 28 and really are not as comparable to Ruggiano, but that is some of the risk that we take when we use historical samples like this.

From those players, I looked at all guys who put up a season with at least 300 PA and a BABIP greater than .360. There were 16 such player seasons identified.

The Results

Here are those players, as determined by Baseball-Reference's Play Index.

Player PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP OPS+
Josh Hamilton 571 .359 .411 .653 .390 170
Chase Utley 613 .332 .410 .566 .362 146
Melvin Mora 413 .317 .418 .503 .362 143
Shane Mack 692 .315 .394 .467 .360 139
Ichiro Suzuki 762 .372 .414 .455 .399 130
Jeff Conine 496 .319 .373 .525 .365 130
Esteban German 331 .326 .422 .459 .388 128
Reed Johnson 517 .319 .390 .479 .366 124
Matt Diaz 384 .338 .368 .497 .378 123
Jayson Werth 304 .298 .404 .459 .389 120
Freddy Sanchez 632 .344 .378 .473 .364 119
Matt Diaz 323 .327 .364 .475 .367 114
David Newhan 412 .311 .361 .453 .365 113
Mark Grudzielanek 534 .326 .376 .436 .363 111
Rajai Davis 432 .305 .360 .423 .361 108
Norris Hopper 335 .329 .371 .388 .367 94
Total --- .331 .390 .485 .372 128

The players listed above as a whole had a .372 BABIP in their so-called "breakout" campaigns and hit a very solid 128 OPS+, 28 percent better than the league average. As you can see, right now Ruggiano is blowing most of these guys out of the water, primarily due to his power. While Ruggiano's batting average and OBP are very similar to this group's, hit .625 slugging and his mammoth BABIP are closer to Josh Hamilton than Freddy Sanchez. Right now, ZiPS projects that Ruggiano will end the season with a .394 BABIP.

So these players were approximately 28 percent better than the league average in their big season. How does that compare to their previous years? I took up to three previous seasons for all players available. I took the three previous calendar seasons, not necessarily the three previous major league years. Here are the same players in the same above listed order.

Player PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP OPS+
Josh Hamilton 1406 .292 .356 .508 .325 122
Chase Utley 1654 .294 .365 .521 .319 122
Melvin Mora 1568 .260 .356 .416 .295 108
Shane Mack 842 .317 .375 .501 .363 137
Ichiro Suzuki 2191 .328 .374 .440 .349 119
Jeff Conine 757 .287 .346 .397 .354 97
Esteban German 73 .279 .319 .338 .358 73
Reed Johnson 1478 .277 .334 .404 .320 91
Matt Diaz 804 .327 .361 .477 .367 116
Jayson Werth 721 .247 .338 .426 .323 101
Freddy Sanchez 546 .283 .323 .383 .302 86
Matt Diaz 131 .252 .308 .395 .298 86
David Newhan 8 .333 .375 .500 .286 127
Mark Grudzielanek 2025 .284 .319 .382 .313 84
Rajai Davis 462 .256 .315 .354 .299 77
Norris Hopper 47 .359 .435 .462 .371 127
Total --- .291 .349 .438 .327 107

On the average, these players were actually better than league average as a whole, with an OPS+ of about 107. They also hit balls in play better than the league average; their .327 mark is pretty good compared to the league average around .290 to .300. So these hitters that had "breakout" BABIP campaigns were typically good players to begin with.

Except that, much like last week in Buck's study, we have some bias to discuss. As you could see, a number of those players did not rack up the sort of PA that made them relevant to this look back. David Newhan, for example, had only eight PA before his good 2004 season. Norris Hopper had only 47 before his 2007 season. Only the players who were previously established as good received significant playing time prior to their breakout campaign, so a large amount of this sample is influenced by the likes of Josh Hamilton, Chase Utley, and Ichiro Suzuki, for example. So I would lean towards the true average of these players at lower than that number, closer to league average than seven percent better than that.

To which group is Justin Ruggiano more similar? You are more likely to think of Ruggiano, the career Quad-A outfielder who toiled in the minors for multiple seasons, to be closer to Jayson Werth (breakout year at age 28. 721 PA to his name before that) and Matt Diaz (breakout at age 29, 804 PA) than Hamilton or even Reed Johnson. Where do Ruggiano's numbers lie in this paradigm? At the bottom of this list, surprisingly. Even if you looked at his entire career before 2012, he had just a 62 OPS+ and hit .288 on balls in play in his 207 PA.

The Next Year

So the average player in this sample went from being around a league average hitter to being 28 percent better than that in their breakout year. Ruggiano, on the other hand, has gone from a 62 OPS+ to a 178 OPS+, an enormous jump. Even after regressing with his rest-of-season projection for the rest of the year, you are still looking at a jump well over 80 percent!

How did the average players fare on their next season after the breakout, though?

Player PA AVG OBP SLG BABIP OPS+
Josh Hamilton 538 .298 .346 .536 .317 130
Chase Utley 707 .292 .380 .535 .301 136
Melvin Mora 636 .340 .419 .562 .371 155
Shane Mack 553 .276 .335 .412 .308 100
Ichiro Suzuki 739 .303 .350 .436 .316 113
Jeff Conine 562 .302 .379 .520 .322 135
Esteban German 405 .264 .351 .376 .307 93
Reed Johnson 307 .236 .305 .320 .290 66
Matt Diaz 140 .244 .264 .304 .304 50
Jayson Werth 482 .273 .363 .498 .324 122
Freddy Sanchez 653 .304 .343 .442 .328 104
Matt Diaz 384 .338 .368 .497 .378 123
David Newhan 249 .202 .279 .312 .229 58
Mark Grudzielanek 676 .279 .335 .389 .310 88
Rajai Davis 561 .284 .320 .377 .322 91
Norris Hopper 58 .200 .286 .200 .227 30
Total --- .289 .351 .449 .319 110

This sample has fewer concerns regarding survival bias, because teams are a little more willing to give players coming off of good seasons plenty of playing time. In fact, only three player seasons would have missed the original 300 PA cutoff.

How did those players do? Collectively, they hit .289/.351/.449, with a .319 BABIP and a 110 OPS+. Recall that, in the previous three seasons, these players collectively had an OPS+ of 107 that I determined to likely be closer to league average. That means that, after the breakout season, the players returned to a level around three to ten percent better then when they entered the season. Their BABIP, on the other hand, actually went down back toprevious levels and indeed a little lower than when they started!

Ruggiano's Level

All of this is to say that it does appear as if the improvement of the hitter once he has a breakout BABIP season is present, but it is not a large improvement from the player of before. Before this season, Justin Ruggiano was not expected to do much; before the season began, ZiPS had him hitting .249/.299/.388 (.306 wOBA) with a .318 BABIP.

So expecting modest gains from that seems to be a safe call for Ruggiano. A .306 wOBA could be worth about five percent below the league average offensively this season, so taking five to ten percent improvement on that would put him at an expected league average or five percent better than average performance. Other players who have hit league average or a bit better this season include Desmond Jennings (.243/.309/.378, 100 wRC+ in Tampa Bay), Bryce Harper (.249/.328/.398, 103 wRC+ in Washington), or Mike Napoli (.223/.343/.429, 105 wRC+ in Texas).

In other words, expect Ruggiano to be around a league average hitter. In the previous article projecting Ruggiano, I expected him to hit about 10 percent better than the league average, so this exercise has yielded results that are a little more skeptical. Call the range for Ruggiano between an OPS+ or wRC+ of 100 to 110; in other words, he should be expected to hit between league average and ten percent better. If Marlins fans are expecting a player close to whom they saw this season, they will be in for disappointment. But if they think he is an acceptable major league hitter, history seems to point to that being the case.

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