Friday, August 8, 2008

Man on Fire

Cleveland shortstop Jhonny Peralta has been swinging a pretty hot bat lately. As if to punctuate this post, Peralta went 5-5 (second time this season) on Thursday with 2 2B, 1 HR, 2 RBI, and 2 R against Tampa Bay with much of the damage coming at the expense of Scott Kazmir. So yeah, Peralta’s hot right now.

Amazingly, Peralta is in one of the more consistent offensive stretches of his career. He has not had an OPS of at least .800 over consecutive months since 2005. In 2005, Peralta posted consecutive OPS’ of .971 (July), .926 (August), and .852 (Sept/Oct) over 82 games (357 PA) to close out the season. While he has not accomplished such a feat in 2008 just yet, he is on pace to do so over July and August.

Peralta’s surge neatly coincides with the time he started batting fourth in the order on June 22. Over those 37 games, Jhonny has tacked on 134 points to his season OPS and launched 8 of his 19 taters. He has also stepped up as a leading run producer in the middle of the order with 64 RBI, second only to Sizemore for the team lead. It seems like every time Cleveland comes up with a rally, Peralta has played a part in it.

Is there really a correlation between Peralta’s performance and where he bats in the lineup though? I decided to take a look at Peralta’s stats in various situations and see if there were any unusual trends present. I didn’t want to focus so much on whether or not Peralta is “clutch,” but was curious if the increase in responsibility (i.e. moving up in the order) may have had any influence on Peralta.

Below are Peralta’s career numbers batting in different parts of the order. I only included the top three spots in terms of plate appearances, plus his career line regardless of the batting order.

Year Batting Order PA BA PA/HR OBP SLG OPS BAbip
Career All 2595 .269 32.03 .334 .441 .774 .323

3rd 650 .255 29.54 .340 .435 .775 .308

5th 435 .251 33.46 .313 .401 .714 .304

6th 518 .292 37.00 .356 .438 .794 .360

It’s worth noting that the majority of Peralta’s starts 3rd in the order came during his breakout rookie season, with the 2006-2007 seasons accounting for most of his time in the 5th and 6th spots. There doesn’t seem to be much of a preference for batting in any particular spot. Jhonny has performed about the same over his career at both the 3rd and 6th spots in the order, while his worst line with at least 300 PAs (5th) is still comparable to the others. There are a number of factors that could contribute to the drop in production from the 5th spot such as a lack of protection lower in the order, coincidental slumps, or bad luck, but I doubt there’s a substantial trend there.

Peralta’s career numbers provide a good baseline for comparing his performance in the 5th and 6th spots in 2008, but there is no precedent for his batting 4th. This season is the first time Peralta has spent any time in the cleanup role.

Year Batting Order PA BA PA/HR OBP SLG OPS BAbip
2008 4th 163 .346 20.37 .380 .654 1.034 .375

5th 166 .221 41.50 .267 .344 .611 .256

6th 69 .317 17.25 .368 .603 .971 .356

The first thing that stands out to me when looking at Peralta’s production batting fourth is his batting average on balls in play (BAbip). All BAbip shows is what percentage of the balls that land in play end up as a hit. Jhonny is currently outperforming his career BAbip (.323) by .052 points, so he is playing a little over his head right now (in case this wasn’t obvious already). However, Jhonny’s season BAbip is currently .311, which is below his career average.

I’m a fan of regression to the mean, as strange as it may seem that a player can play below his potential for half a season and then suddenly turn it on in the second half. It’s not that the player just “flips a switch” though. If you look at Peralta’s splits his performance tends to fluctuate from month to month anyway (usually one hot, one cold). As 2005 showed though, Peralta is capable of catching fire for a sustained period, historically in the second half. It all comes out the same in the wash though, since his first half wasn’t quite up to his career standards.

So Peralta isn’t doing anything revolutionary or new on offense the past month and a half, at least not for him.

Peralta’s time batting fourth is still an outstanding variable in his career though. Has Peralta become more motivated now that he’s batting cleanup at the heart of the order? Does he become more focused when there are men on base?

Here are Jhonny’s splits with the bases empty and men on for 2008 and his career:


Empty: 1400 PA; .765 OPS; 97 tOPS+

Men On: 1195 PA; .785 OPS; 103 tOPS+


Empty: 242 PA; .842 OPS; 106 tOPS+

Men On: 206 PA; .824 OPS; 98 tOPS+

The overall values are irrelevant here, but you can see that there is not much of a difference in how often Peralta reaches base between the two scenarios. Historically, Peralta has done only slightly better with men on base, but has never been a lights out, “clutch” hitter for the Tribe when compared to his teammates (the higher his tOPS+ is over 100, the more he outperforms his teammates on average in that situation). The same can be said for 2008, except in reverse. Peralta has performed slightly better with the bases empty, but again, is fairly average in these situations compared to the rest of the team.

There was a significant difference between Peralta’s numbers with the bases empty (8 HR, .758 OPS) and men on (16 HR, .998 OPS) in 2005 though. So if anything, you could argue that Jhonny has become more comfortable with hitting in higher leverage situations (with runners on) than he was during his rookie season (makes sense). I wouldn’t start calling Jhonny “clutch” if you happen to be a fan of that moniker though.

Shifting back to Peralta’s long term outlook, has anything in his approach changed that suggests he may be evolving as a hitter this season?

Year BB/K LD% ISO^ HR/FB Contact Rate*
2005 0.45 19.7 .228 18.0% 0.75
2006 0.37 19.0 .128 9.2% 0.73
2007 0.42 18.7 .160 14.0% 0.75
2008 0.31 18.8 .230 15.3% 0.80
Career 0.39 19.5 .172 13.5% 0.75


*(AB - K) / AB

At first glance, Peralta’s declining BB/K ratio suggests he may not be seeing the ball as well as he used to. The ratio has actually been thrown out of whack by the number of hits he is racking up instead. Jhonny has managed to decrease his strikeout rate (19.9% for 2008, 24.9% career) at the same time his overall walk rate decreased (5.9% for 2008, 8.8% career).

It’s unclear exactly what this means, since batters who tend to rely mostly on hits to reach base tend to be more streaky, yet Peralta has managed to increase his hit rate without an increase in strikeouts. I have a feeling his BB/K rate will even out eventually, since these two outcomes are still occurring at roughly the same combined difference (-14.0%) as his career numbers (-16.1%).

The fact that Peralta’s line drive percentage has held steady at around 19% the past three seasons is a good indicator that his periods of elevated BAbip do not have an overbearing influence on his overall numbers. Jhonny is consistently striking the ball well, even if the number of hits he collects tends to fluctuate. A consistent contact rate over his career reinforces this idea.

One definite improvement Peralta has made this season is his isolated power. Peralta has brought his power numbers back up to their 2005 levels after seeing a significant decline from 2006 to 2007. This trend makes sense given where Peralta is in his development as a hitter. Peralta may be getting better at making counter adjustments to pitchers who may have developed a game plan against him. Also, the 26 year old shortstop has likely become stronger overall as he enters his prime as a hitter.

In conclusion, Peralta seems to be coming out of a two-year developmental plateau and has a strong chance of putting up numbers comparable to his breakout season for the first time in a while. Peralta is on pace to break his career highs in doubles (35) and HR (24) this year. Seeing Jhonny start to rack up extra base hits again in this manner is a very good sign and will likely be sustained beyond 2008. Look for Peralta to finish the season strong on his way to setting a few more career highs.

All splits and stats were taken from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs and are current as of August 7, 2008.

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