Dissecting Mike Cameron’s Hot Start

Taking a look at FanGraph’s Value Rankings, we see Mike Cameron currently leads the NL, tied with Albert Pujols. With 1.3 value wins so far, Cameron has already been worth 6 million dollars to the Brewers this season. So what’s behind this great start for Cameron?

First, let’s take a look at Cameron’s basic line. Through 72 plate appearances, he has 9 1B, 7 2B, 4 HR, and 11 BB, leading to a .328/.431/.639 line. His 1.070 OPS places him 4th in the NL, behind Albert Pujols, Kosuke Fukudome, and Adrian Gonzalez. His high power numbers combined with the ability to get on base has resulted in a .462 wOBA for Cameron, worth 7.6 runs above average.

Quite often, when we see hot starts like this, it is due to abnormally high BABIPs, or Batting Average on Balls In Play. A ball in play is any result that isn’t a strikeout, walk, or homerun. League average BABIP is .300, and there is usually heavy regression towards the mean. Occasionally, players will hit for higher BABIPs for their career if they’re very fast and can beat out bunts and ground balls (Ichiro has a .356 career BABIP, a top 10 career mark), as well as those who hit a very high amount of line drives (Matt Kemp’s .363 BABIP in 2008 was driven by a 23% LD%, 3% higher than average).

An example of a hot start fueled by a high BABIP in 2009 is Freddy Sanchez. So far, Sanchez is hitting .351/ .377/.608 to start the season, with slugging numbers powered by 13 extra base hits in 74 ABs. With his 2 HRs and 15 Ks, that means that Sanchez is 26/57 (.421) on balls hit in play. If Sanchez’s BABIP was consistent with his career mark of .328, we’d assume Sanchez would have 19 hits on these 57 balls in play. So Sanchez would have 7 fewer hits, and based on his rates so far, that would be 3 fewer 1Bs, 2 fewer 2Bs, and 2 fewer 3Bs. Judging by this, we would expect to see Sanchez have a line of 19/74 with 7 2Bs, 0 3B, 2 HR, and 2 BB. This performance would be good for a .257/.276/.432 line. Simply put, Freddy Sanchez will not continue this performance throughout 2009, and we can expect a slump from Sanchez sooner rather than later.

Let’s take a look at Mike Cameron’s performance on balls in play. In 61 ABs, Cameron has hit 4 home runs out of his 20 hits and has struck out 12 times. So Cameron has 16 hits on 45 balls in play, good for a .356 BABIP. If he had a BABIP of .300 to this point, we’d expect 14 hits on 45 balls in play, taking away 1 single and 1 double. So his total line would be 18/61 with 6 2Bs, 4 HRs, and 11 BBs, reducing his slash line to .295/.402/.590, for a .992 OPS. So yes, Cameron has been a little bit lucky, but for the most part his performance looks real, at least based on BABIP.

Still, I’m not convinced that Cameron will put up a .992 OPS, especially considering that Cameron’s highest career OPS was a .837 mark in 2006. So what else can we look at to see if his performance is real? Taking a look at Cameron’s batted ball data, we see that Cameron has an abnormally high 28.6% line drive rate (career average: 20%) coupled with an abnormally low 20.4% ground ball rate (career average 34.9%). We should expect to see Cameron to hit more ground balls as the season progresses, and as a result hit fewer line drives and slightly fewer fly balls. This will reduce his HR rate and likely his double rate as well.

Looking at this data, we see that some of Cameron’s production is real. Although the Brewers shouldn’t expect Cam to continue putting up a 1.000 OPS, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that Cameron improves upon last year’s .809 OPS. Combine that with the best CF UZR in the NL at +3.5 runs above average, and the Brewers can be very happy with their decision to keep Mike Cameron around.

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