old-computerYou can’t argue that Junior Lake hasn’t been a pleasant surprise this year for the Cubs and for Cubs fans. He’s exciting, energetic, athletic, and he’s produced since he was called up in mid-July.

Let nothing in any analysis or scouting report take that away.

But the scouting reports did caution us that Lake’s performance was as likely to be erratic as it was to be encouraging. His gifts and ability are obvious, and the performance thus far is great: .317/.349/.475 line, with a 125 OPS+. His strikeout rate is manageable, even if not where you’d like to see it (22.4%). His line drive percentage (20.5%) is just a touch over league average (20%). But there are a few warts: He’s walking at just 3.7%, a rate you’d like to see increase. And his IsoP of .158 is a little lower than you’d want out of a corner outfielder.

Still, all in all, it’s positive. But … and you know where I’m going with this whenever discussing surprising success and a small sample size (107 PA) … Lake’s BABIP is an unsustainably high .384. Although he’s generally been on the higher end throughout his career, his prior rates suggest something in the .330, .340 range is more reasonable.

As we look ahead to the composition of the Cubs’ roster in 2014, and opine on whether Lake should be locked in as a starter in left field, it’s fair to wonder: if his BABIP were something a little more sustainable right now, what would his line look like? And, after viewing that line, would we be as excited about the prospect of Lake entering 2014 as the presumed starter?

Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is designed to measure the rate at which a player’s batted balls fall in for a hit. That rate, although prone to variations from year to year (based largely on luck), tends to normalize for players over the course of their career, and is helpful in pointing out unsustainable performances (to the upside or downside). There is no magic bullet here, but it’s a tool in the tool belt.

So, let’s take a look at what happens to Lake’s .317/.349/.475 line if his BABIP were, say, .335 rather than .384.

Lake’s .384 BABIP is calculated by subtracting homers from hits, and dividing by at bats minus Ks minus homers plus sacrifice flies. 32-4 / 101-24-4+0 = .384.

To get to a .335 BABIP, we’ll take away some of those hits – think of them as bloops that are caught or tough grounders on which a guy makes a play. The denominator remains 73, but we’ll shrink hits to 28, making the calculation 28-4/73. That gives us a BABIP of .329. It’s not quite .335, but these are very small numbers we’re working with, and we can only get so close.*

*SMALL SAMPLE SIZE ALERT! The small sample size issue extends in both directions. On the one hand, I’m explaining that Lake’s nice line so far is something we shouldn’t read too much into, since he’s going to see regression in his BABIP over time. On the other hand, I’m playing with the numbers to make a point, and I’m talking about four hits. That’s it. Four. Take all of this with a grain of salt.

For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll assume that the four hits that Lake just lost were all singles (although lucky doubles and triples do happen, lucky singles are far more common). With those four singles poofed out of existence, let’s recalculate his numbers …

Batting average is now: 28/101, or .277.

On-base percentage is now: 28+4 (BB) +1 (HBP) / 107 (PA) – 1 (sacrifice), or .311.

Slugging is now: 20 (1B) + 2×4 (2B) +3×0 (3B) +4×4 (HR) / 101 AB , or .436.

So, if Lake’s BABIP were .329 to this point – a more sustainable figure – his line would be just .277/.311/.436. That tells a pretty different story when it comes to a starting left fielder, yes?

But, when considering Lake as a possible quality option in left field for 2014, let’s not stop the analysis there. After all, batting isn’t everything a guy does.

For me, the crux of whether Lake can provide sufficient value going forward to justify holding down the left field starting job will be whether his physical ability translates into an above-average – or better – defensive left fielder. Based on his minor league numbers and the expectations for his offensive regression in the bigs, I still tend to doubt that the bat, alone, can carry left field for Lake. But his base running figures to be a potential plus, and if he emerges as a quality defensive left fielder (he’s just now learning the position, so it is very possible), I could be on board with him taking over as the presumed near-term starter in left field, without feeling like he’s merely the “cost-effective” option out there.

How much value can a player add defensively in left field, though? Players out that way get only so many chances in the field, and most guys just catch the balls that come to them, hit the cut-off man, and generally hold steady. Can an elite defensive left fielder actually make much of a difference in the W/L column?

I don’t have a comprehensive answer to those questions, but I did take a quick look at the “good” defensive left fielders from the last couple of years to get an idea of how much left fielder defense can contribute to a player’s overall WAR.

Arguably the gold standard in left field defense (sorry: you have just been smacked by a lame Gold Glove joke), Alex Gordon has netted a dWAR of 1.3 (2011) and 1.9 (2012) (both per Baseball Reference). Martin Prado was excellent in (mostly) left field for the Braves last year, and he put up a 1.7 dWAR. Desmond Jennings was very good in left field for the Rays last year (again, mostly left field), and added 0.5 dWAR. And then one close to our own hearts, Alfonso Soriano was worth … well, negative dWAR in 2011 and 2012 (I guess BR didn’t agree with FanGraphs on Soriano those years – defensive statistics, man, they’re constantly under evaluation, but this is the best we can do right now).

So, if you are an elite defensive left fielder, it looks like you could plausibly add a win or so to your WAR total. The median WAR for full-time left fielders in 2012 was right around 3.5, meaning that, even if Lake becomes an elite fielder in left field, he’s still going to have to put up 2.5 WAR between his bat and his legs to be a quality option as a starter in left field. What kind of line would that require? Well, this is some real back-of-the-napkin stuff, but, thanks to Wahoo’s on First’s handy WAR calculator, it looks like something in the .275/.345/.450 range (with neutral defense and baserunning) would be right around 2.5 WAR.*

*Keep in mind, although performing at this level would put Lake right around the average mark for full-time left fielders, it would make him something a fair bit better than average – that group of full-time left fielders is necessarily skewed to the upside, because it includes only the guys good enough to grab most of the starts in left field for their team.

Can Lake pull all of that off? Sure. Is it likely? I’m not sure I can say that it is, considering the above BABIP exercise, and the fact that his minor league line is .271/.322/.411 over more than 2400 plate appearances. Guys tend not to dramatically improve upon their minor league numbers in the bigs. Lake looks like he projects a line that would play well in center field, but not in left.

That said, none of this is designed to convince you that Lake cannot be a useful player for the Cubs in 2014, even as the starter in left field. It is only to say that it is unlikely that he will, overall, be a better than average player in left field.

He could, if nothing else, be an exciting and cost-controlled player in left field. The composition of the roster around him will determine whether that’s viewed as a good thing, or an insufficient thing.

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