Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Igniter.

When Michael Cuddyer shot John Danks’ first offering of the sixth inning over the right-center field wall in Chicago -- lifting Minnesota to a 6-to-2 lead -- the home run was the 12th of such leadoff bombs for the Twins right fielder.  Just two innings earlier, the righty had tagged the White Sox’s southpaw for a double past the diving Scott Podsednik in center to open that inning, only to score moments later on Brendan Harris’s double play ball to short. 


While his early season struggles with runners-in-scoring-position have been exhaustively debated, Cuddyer produced well as the first Twin to bat in an inning for the duration of the season.  In 135 leadoff plate appearances, Cuddyer is hitting .328/.378/.720 with 12 HRs, 11 2Bs and 1 3B by far one of the best hitters on the team under this situation.  In addition being on base in 38 percent of those plate appearances and driving himself in 12 times, he has come around to score in 16 other occasions.  Understandably, leading off an inning presents less of an opportunity for scrutiny then folding under an RBI-condition but beginning a scoring drive should be no less celebrated then eventually scoring the run itself. 


What do we make of this in understanding Cuddyer’s contributions?  For the better-half of the season, Cuddyer had floundered when faced with an RBI situation (although he has improved threefold since the beginning of the month) but managed to sustain a rather torrid output when there were no runners on base (.962 OPS).  What’s more is that he did even better starting an inning (1.098 OPS).  Are we to believe that Cuddy folds under pressure?


Baseball happens in a series of vacuum situations that we like to analyze, evaluate and segment.  We do so even with the foreknowledge that these events happen in such a tiny statistical bubble that it is nearly impossible to properly label the results as anything other than a sample-size fluke.  For instance, Delmon Young has hit .268/.292/.385 for the balance of the season.  However, position a runner in scoring position for him (which has happened 97 times in 2009) and Young suddenly has turned into a .310/.333/.437 hitter.  How did that happen?  Does he thrive under pressure?  Did testosterone and endorphins overtake his body and helped him concentrate all that much more in order to plate that all-important ribbie?  Is there an aroma that Young could smell when a runner was on base, as Mike Redmond suggested in 2006, that alerted him to try more?  Or does Delmon Young just enjoy getting his name in the paper and therefore tries just a little bit harder when he can be the hero? 


Some of that could be true, I suppose.  I’ve never taken a whiff from the batter’s box at the Metrodome with Joe Mauer dancing off of third.  The reality is that the outcome of such small sample sizes fluctuates wildly from year-to-year and the element of luck is ever-present.  In The Book, the analysts concluded that it takes 600 plate appearances to appropriately conclude a trend to be true.   These 30-to-150 plate appearances a year with a runner in scoring position or leading off an inning does not provide an accurate depiction of the hitter.  Yes, better hitters might hold a better batting line with RISP but in the same vein, a bad hitter can dink-and-doink a handful of hits and become a .300 hitter in those circumstances as well.  That said it is far more probable that Delmon Young is a .677 OPS hitter overachieving by 100 points with RISP because of his plate appearance totals rather than the other way around.         


Going back to Cuddyer’s explosive performance as a leadoff hitter, his condition is much of the same as Young’s RISP numbers.  The right fielder is hitting a massive 243 OPS points higher when he begins an inning.  His real performance resides between his vacuum numbers – a roughly .900 OPS hitter.