We have young-but-not-that young season, with an 18-10 Rangers team, being played in its second month. Many will be tempted to react to the statistics players are putting up, proclaiming players as busts or successes based on the data we've got so far. Many others will be tempted to dismiss the claims of those fans as being irrelevant, since the season is still so young and there's a long way to go.
The truth lies somewhere in between them. The season is still young, but not so young we just dismiss everything we've seen. The question is: when does "small sample size" start being "big enough sample size?"
If you look in the FanGraphs glossary, you'll find a whole lot of spiffy information, including the results of Pizza Cutter's research on when in-season statistics become reliable (no, I do not know PC's real name).
Most Ranger every-day players have hit, or are close to hitting, 100 plate appearances. At 100 PAs, the rate at which players swing at pitches and make contact on those swings can be expected to continue. It is also very close to the point (150 PA) where how often a hitter is striking out or hitting line drives becomes reliable, and is half way to the point that we begin trusting the rate of walks and ground balls we have seen so far.
If we look at the Texas hitters so far through this lens, we actually don't find a whole lot of surprising performances so far, but there are a few signs -- good and bad -- that pop up.
A player's rate of swinging at pitches you'll see is the first thing to stabilize, at around 50 plate appearances. Josh Hamilton is swinging more often than he did a year ago, and Michael Young is swinging less often, but neither is significant.
What could be significant is that both are chasing at pitches out of the strike zone more than they did in 2011. Hamilton has raised his O-Swing% by 6.3 percentage points, while Young has raised his by an incredible 12.6. That is. . . troublesome.
At the same time, Young has taken his ground ball rate up to a (by far) career-high 55.2%. At 116 PAs, he is not yet to the point where that becomes reliable, but he is at the point where this season gets more weight than his career rates. In other words, there is reason for hope, but even more reason for concern. It has been kind of awesome the way Michael Young has avoided aging, but with more hacking and more ground balls, it seems 2012 might be the year he finally does.
The only significant change in swing rate overall has come from Yorvit Torrealba's increased selectivity from a year ago. He has also lowered his strikeout rate, though less significantly, and raised his line drive rate. These improvements have not yet resulted in better overall numbers, but they are a sign that we could be seeing a better season from Torrealba at the plate.
After striking out a career-low 19.7% of the time last season, Mike Napoli has been struck out in a career-high 30.6% of his at bats this year. That alone is not a horrible sign, but coupled with an also-lowered walk rate, it might become an increasingly bad sign over the next month. For whatever reason, Napoli may just not have the eye he had a year ago. He also has dropped his line drive rate by 3.5 percentage points, making it seem like the Rangers may have been smart not to extend Napoli based on a career year.
Also raising his strikeout rate has been David Murphy, going from 13.9% in 2011 to 24.7% in 2012. Murphy is not quite to the 150 plate appearances K% requires to be considered reliable, but at 85 he is past the point where this season gets more consideration than his career. That said, he has also brought his line drive rate up from 16.8 to 26.8%, with a similar drop in ground balls, so he may know what he's doing.
On the topic of line drive rates, Elvis Andrus's rate backs up the perception that he's hitting balls harder, raising an actually-significant 3.6% up to 26.7% this season. We have a way to go to begin trusting his ground ball rate, but that, too, has improved, from a team-leading 55.8% last season to 47.8% this year. He's even improved his walk rate significantly, up to 11.2%, though it is still a tad early to pay much attention to that. Still, this might be the year Andrus makes the jump and we start seeing what he can do in his prime years.
While Andrus's LD% has jumped a bit, and is one of the best rates in baseball, it is nothing compared to the growth of Ian Kinsler. Mr. Pop Up his hitting line drives 28.8% of the time, up from 17.6% last season! You may remember some talk that Kinsler was a good bet to raise his batting average this season thanks to a low Batting Average on Balls In Play last year, but a dramatically improved line drive rate could help him surpass even those lofty expectations. This is by far the best line drive rate in Kinsler's career, and that's a career that has been one of the more valuable baseball players in recent history.
Also improving his rate of line drives has been Mitch Moreland, jumping from 18% to 24.1%. He is at only 74 PAs, but it's a somewhat reliable statistic to back up what has seemed like an improvement in contact from the maligned first baseman.
Three very good signs, two bad signs, one-bad-but-not-surprising sign, and two cautiously good signs. That seems like a net win for Texas so far. Maybe this will help us all get over the current slump a bit.
Stay tuned for pitchers later in the week.