Bryan LaHair’s offensive production this year has surpassed even the most optimistic projections of even the most optimistic of Chicago Cubs fans.
Through 103 plate appearances, he’s got 8 homers, 9 doubles, 18 RBI, and 16 walks. He’s hitting .384/.476/.767, and his OBP is best in baseball. His 1.243 OPS trails only Josh Hamilton and Matt Kemp. He has already accumulated 1.9 WAR (he’s on pace for a 9.6 WAR, which has been bested in the last 12 years only by Bonds, Pujols, Sosa, Rodriguez, and Beltre). His 2.45 Win Probability Added (a measure of just how valuable a player has been to his team) is the best in baseball.
Bryan LaHair is good.
Then again, through those mere 103 plate appearances, LaHair has struck out 30 times. When he’s hit a fly ball, it’s had a 36.4% chance of leaving the ballpark. And the BABIP. Oh, the BABIP. LaHair’s batting average on balls in play is an unbelievable .510. He’s doing all of this at the age of 29, when he’s not done anything remotely close to it in the big leagues before.
Bryan LaHair is lucky.
But which is it? Is he actually good – elite, even – or is he just enjoying one of the luckiest stretches in recent baseball memory?
I think you already know that the answer is a little bit of both. The more interesting follow-up question, of course, is … can he keep doing this?
No one can tell you for sure, but there are more reasons to believe that he’ll keep hitting well (even if not this well) than reasons to believe he’ll fall flat on his face at any minute. I’ll give you five to chew on.
First: Bryan LaHair’s Career Minor League BABIP is .347
The biggest luck dart thrown at LaHair this year is that absurd .510 BABIP. For those who don’t know, the figure is a reflection of a player’s batting average solely on balls that are put into play for a defender to field. Prevailing wisdom says that BABIPs are generally static for players (and also generally stay within a range of about .290 to .310), so if you see a wild swing in one direction or the other, it’s probably just a matter of some lucky hits (or, in Ian Stewart’s case, “at-em” balls). When that luck evens out, the BABIP comes down, and production regresses (particularly for guys who strike out a lot).
Here’s the thing on LaHair’s BABIP: it’s always been extremely high. Throughout his minor league career – over 4000 plate appearances – his BABIP remained high. In total, it was a lofty .347. So, while it is likely that his current .510 number will come down, it could stay elevated enough to see LaHair sport a .300+ batting average (which, in turn, drives an elevated OBP and SLG). As he cuts down on the strikeouts, which he has been doing over the past two weeks, that drop in the BABIP will be less noticeable, in terms of the overall results.
Second: Bryan LaHair Sees a Whole Lot of Pitches
Presently, LaHair sees 4.18 pitches per plate appearance, 13th best in all of baseball. Seeing a lot of pitches, alone, has value (drives up opposing pitch counts, allows you and teammates to see variety of pitches, etc.), but why is it indicative of LaHair’s success being legit and sustainable? Well, it suggests that he’s become increasingly comfortable hitting deep into counts, including those with two strikes. The more pitches you see, the better adjusted you will be when you get a pitch to drive. But, that’s easier said than done for a number of hitters, who are uncomfortable hitting with two strikes. Even the best hitters aren’t going to set the world on fire in an 0-2 count, but they will be able to battle back, see a few more pitches, and give the opposing pitcher a chance to make a mistake. LaHair’s deep counts suggest he’s comfortable hitting in any situation, and that’s a sign of a hitter whose success is probably a bit more skill than it is sheer luck. He’s not just feasting on first-pitch fastballs.
Third: Bryan LaHair Looks Like a Polished Hitter
I’m no scout, and you probably aren’t either. I imagine I could probably look at two hitters and think I was seeing the same thing twice, only to have a professional scout explain that one guy was about to flop, while the other was a future star. That could be the case with LaHair, so forgive my indulgence.
But the dude just looks like a great hitter. He looks relaxed, he rarely swings at bad pitches, he almost never looks fooled, he covers the plate incredibly well, and he drives mistakes. It’s an incredibly small sample size, but he looks more comfortable and confident up there than guys with five years of big league experience. Maybe the results are retroactively driving my thoughts, but when I watch him bat, I see a very good hitter.
Fourth: Bryan LaHair Works with What He’s Given
A hitter’s ability to “go with a pitch” is the sign of a mature bat, and usually one with considerable staying power. We’ve all seen with our eyes LaHair’s willingness, for example, to take an outside pitch the other way, but does the data back up our eye?
Here’s a spray chart for LaHair this year, courtesy of Texas Leaguers. As you can see, although he grounds out a fair bit to the right side, he hits the ball almost equally to all parts of the park:
Moreover, LaHair has clearly already developed an ability to hit balls on the outer half with authority. Today, Mark Simon at ESPN took a look at what Bryan LaHair is doing with outside pitches lately, and, in short, LaHair is driving them. Perhaps more impressively, that wasn’t the cast in the first few weeks of the season, when LaHair put only 10 of his first 58 pitches (at which he swung) on the outer third in play. That’s not too good. But, of late, in his last 33 such swings, he’s put 16 balls in play (10 for hits). In other words, it appears that LaHair is adjusting.
Five: Bryan LaHair Survives the Mathematical Joojoo of a “Regression” Analysis
FanGraphs today analyzed (today is analyze Bryan LaHair day, apparently) what Bryan LaHair’s production would look like if a number of “regressions” occurred – what if his BABIP falls back to its expected value? What if his HR/PA regresses? What if his BB% regresses?
After analyzing each of those possibilities, and then analyzing the catastrophe that would be all of them regressing at once, LaHair’s projected production is *still* quite a bit better than the league average first baseman (projected .363 wOBA versus .337 league average). In other words, even if the mirage fades, there’s still going to be a pretty good hitter behind the ether.
So, in the end, is Bryan LaHair good, or just lucky? As I said, it’s a little of both. But it’s fair to start thinking it’s probably more of the former.