Austin Kearns’s Career Revival

If anybody’s career looked over after the 2009 season, it was Austin Kearns. The right fielder was coming off two seasons with wRC+ numbers of 72 and 79 respectively. He only appeared in 166 games due to injury. His HR/FB rate and BABIP plummeted. His fielding fell from excellent to merely average in the corners. All in all, Kearns went from a nearly 4 win player to a replacement level player all in the span of two years.

Kearns is seeing a complete career revival in Cleveland this year. No, he’s not going to come anywhere near maintaining the ridiculous 205 wRC+ he’s posted in 51 plate appearances. Still, the .340 wOBA projected by the ZiPS rest of season projection is a far cry above the sub-.300 wOBAs he posted in his final two years in Washington.

The key to Kearns’s year so far is power – mostly in the form of seven doubles, but also in two home runs. Kearns’s seven doubles already surpasses his total from 2009 and is only three behind his total from 2008. His walk rate is down, but that’s partly because of a higher Zone% and Contact% than any we’ve seen in his career. As pitchers realize that Kearns is once again a major league quality and even possibly an above average hitter, they will likely nibble more, and Kearns’s walk rate will regress towards his career mean of 11.5%. His power will decline, as the doubles will likely turn into singles, but Kearns still, as the ZiPS projection suggests, has a chance at being an average hitter even after a good amount of regression.

Kearns suffered from multiple injuries in 2008 and 2009, including loose bodies in his elbow, a stress fracture in his left foot, and a right thumb injury. Prior to these injuries, Kearns had been playing at an all star level. Thanks to a 10+% walk rate and solid power, Kearns was able to post above average wOBAs in both 2006 and 2007. Combining that with star-level defense in right field – +14 UZRs for two years in a row, Kearns was worth 3.8 wins a year in 2006 and 2007. With the injuries left in the past and with Kearns still only 29 years old – he turns 30 in May – there was still a chance for a career revival. The roll of the dice only cost Cleveland a minor league contract. Kearns has rewarded them well so far in 2010.

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11 Responses to “Austin Kearns’s Career Revival”

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  1. BobLoblaw says:

    As a Matt LaPorta owner for two year running, I’m still waiting for a vival over here.

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  2. PhD Brian says:

    I often wonder why baseball fans and especially sabermatricians do not factor injury into individual player analysis more. Particullary nagging injuries that affect players that still play.

    Kearns was an obvious example the last few seasons. We are now seeing him at his best again. Another Nat, Willingham has been an obvious player as well. He played most of his career in Florida with serious back pain that now seems to be a thing of the past. Look at him now. This is probably his true healthy talent level.

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    • Andrew says:

      I don’t disagree, but suspect it won’t be long before Kearns suffers another such (or more serious) injury. Staying healthy has been a major problem for him going back to his days in the minors.

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      • PhD Brian says:

        I am not a Cleveland fan, but I cross my fingers he stays healthy for once cause I like the guy as a person and i am biased in favor of outstanding corner outfield defense.

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  3. pm says:

    Hardly a career revival. Kearns had a .978 OPS last year through 53 PA. Guess what, he regressed back to his mean (sucking). He finished the season by batting under .200. Don’t be surprised if he is hovering around the mendoza line by the end of the season.

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  4. Will says:

    There’s several glaring flaws in this article.

    Kearns’ BABIP: .457 (!!!)
    Kearns’ plate appearances: 51

    Expect a lot of regression because his BABIP is inordinately high. Also, for god’s sake, please at least preface the article with a small sample size warning. The guy has 51 plate appearances.

    As PM rightly points out, Kearns had a .954 OPS on May 4th last year, and that was after 76 PA.

    This is nothing more than a hot streak, which just so happens to occur at the beginning of the season, so his numbers look better. I’m confident he cannot sustain this level of play, and I have 8 seasons of data to back this up.

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    • BS says:

      I wouldn’t think people need to be told that any analysis based on the current season, at this point….holds a small sample size.

      If Kearns can stay healthy, he’ll probably be average or above. But as we’ve seen, if something nags him….his hot start will turn into another poor season. The point stands, this was a small risk for Cleveland that is working out so far…and may continue to do so.

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    • Murgatroid says:

      The ZiPS projections take BABIP into account, so that point isn’t ignored in the article. And as other people in this thread have pointed out, you need to consider injury history along with those 8 seasons of data (although only 3 of the 8 really agree with what you’re suggesting). If you do that, it seems reasonable to think that Kearns could be an average or above average player for the rest of the season.

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      • Will says:

        -In eight seasons, Kearns has managed to miss less than 50 games due to injury twice.

        -In eight seasons, Kearns has been above average (using .335 wOBA as a baseline) three times.

        -In eight seasons, Kearns has managed to play a full above average season once.

        I wish Kearns the best of luck, but it’s hardly reasonable to think he could be remain healthy AND be an above average player.

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  5. Shamir says:

    Austin Kearns or Connor Jackson, rest of the season?

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