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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.