Is Bryan LaHair’s Success Sustainable?


A visual analysis of Bryan LaHair’s swing.

Yes. Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair will sustain his success. The Cubs have indeed caught lightning in a bottle.

LaHair is leading the MLB with a .510 BABIP and is third behind Matt Kemp and Josh Hamilton with a 36.4% HR/FB ratio. Fans of Chicago’s northside and fans of regression to the mean have begun to pay extra close attention to LaHair because he has performed so well in these luck-affected categories. In Mike Axisa’s most recent first baseman rankings, he moved LaHair up to Tier Four, though he was uncertain of what LaHair would look like after the smoke cleared:

LaHair is off to a scorching start but his numbers will come back to Earth a bit once his .545 (!) BABIP returns to normal. That said, the man can definitely hit.

But how much of LaHair’s world-shattering .511 wOBA is white noise, and how much is thunder? Let’s investigate.

Using Fielding Independent wOBA, we can easily and numerically regress LaHair’s numbers to reflect his career rates or his present xBABIP.

Right now, LaHair has:

Walk rate: 15.5%
Strike out rate: 29.1%
Home run rate: 7.8%
Steal rate: 0.0%
BABIP: .510

All for a wOBA of: .511

Despite his 29 looong years of age, LaHair has only 322 PA in his MLB career. And since his last 103 PA have come with an unsustainable .510 BABIP, it has skewed his career BABIP to .390. In the minors, LaHair consistently displayed an ability to keep his BABIP above .330, so we can start there, but just guessing what his true talent BABIP is would be too tough.

Using slash12′s xBABIP calculator, we get a .349 BABIP — still quite high, but in line with what we find in his minor league career (where his career BABIP was .347).

His present home run rate suggests he will finish the season with 46 or more homers. In the last three seasons, that has happened only three times, and the closest to it in 2011 was Jose Bautista with 43. So color me unconvinced of LaHair’s present home run rate. His career home run rate of 4.0%, however, suggests about 24 homers — a much more reasonable proposition.

LaHair also has a career-high — for both major and minor leagues — in walk rate. In the minors, he typically stayed around what his career rate is now, 11.8%. So maybe we are also unconvinced of his present walk rate, and want to see that regressed to normal.

If we apply these regressions, one at a time, to the Fielding Independent wOBA calculator, we still get a first baseman who is well above the league average first baseman:

Even if he regresses to basically the shell of what he is right now, the Cubs’ first baseman will still be 26 points above the league average first baseman.

LaHair is a most interesting case study. In the preseason, he divided analysts. Mike Podhorzer made a bold prediction that LaHair would hit fewer than 10 homers and hand his job to Anthony Rizzo by June. Howard Bender — equally bold — forecast at least 30 home runs for LaHair, while Dan Wade suggested 25 dongers.

LaHair had earned a Quad-A label, but earned a starting job almost on that same merit. Rarely do we see an aging minor league slugger get handed a starting position based on his MiLB statistical merits alone. And despite his Quad-A label, at this point in his career, only cutter and curves have given him any sustained problems.

Was LaHair not really Quad-A? Or is it that “Quad-A” is just an antiquated designation? Honestly, it’s hard to say. But this is for sure:

LaHair is a bit of lightning that will hang around for a while.




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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.


49 Responses to “Is Bryan LaHair’s Success Sustainable?”

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  1. Slartibartfast says:

    ZIPS RoS has him at 270/340/500 and that feels dead on the money, which is awesome considering his age and where he was just a few years ago. Late bloomers – they exist! Great story.

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  2. MustBunique says:

    Um, so is that MegaMan above .550 on your Regression chart? If so, are you sneakily trying to apply that nicko to LaHair? Color me excited and in favor.

    I will be watching LaHair with a lot of interest if he can keep that BABIP near his career highs and sustain his walk rate. Good stuff, will enjoy watching it play out.

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  3. Kyle says:

    Here’s an comp I found the other day that sold me on LaHair.

    LaHair major league peripherals (age 28 and 29):

    28.4% K-rate
    14.8% BB-rate
    18.5% HR-rate
    0.60 GB/FB
    20% LD

    Adam Dunn, age 28-30
    27.5% K-rate
    16.0% BB-rate
    19.0% HR/FB
    0.51 GB/FB
    20% LD

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    • Feeding the Abscess says:

      For OBP leagues that looks absolutely beautiful.

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      • Feeding the Abscess says:

        Though I think Dunn’s numbers are off. Those seem to be from 2009-2011, which would have been Dunn’s 29-31 seasons. Running Dunn’s 2008-2010 seasons would give him the clear advantage. LaHair hits far fewer flyballs, which would probably mean a slightly better average at the expense of fewer HR.

        But hey, peak Adam Dunn-lite for a very late round/waiver pick up is nothing to sneeze at.

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    • Tom B says:

      So you just have to hope that LaHair was sustain a walk rate and HR rate like one of the prodigious power hitters of our era. No pressure, piece of cake.

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  4. Preston says:

    I’m looking at the 2009 Mariner’s and wondering why a talented young hitter wasn’t given another shot to prove himself after only 150 big league PAs, in favor of DHing 36 yo MIke Sweeny and 39 yo Ken Griffey Jr. I have a hard time believing that Griffey returning to hit .214 was any kind of draw for the fans in Seattle.

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    • JamesDaBear says:

      The Mariners didn’t have much of a choice. He didn’t impress at all moving through the Mariners system and then left as a six-year free agent. They would have given him a chance in ’09 if he had looked anything like he does now.

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    • joser says:

      And Griffey was a draw in Seattle, no matter how badly he hit. He’s still a draw, based on the shirts I see around town.

      But LaHair, yeah… didn’t look like much; didn’t look like that would change. There was a log-jam of 1B types at the AAA level — so many that guys like LaHair and Mike Carp were seeing time in the outfield just to get them on the field — and LaHair didn’t stand out among them When he was let go the collective reaction in the blogosphere was somewhere between a shrug and no reaction at all. (And it wasn’t just the blogosphere: PECOTA didn’t think much of him in 2008, when he was outrighted to the minors at the end of 2009 no other team jumped on him, and it’s not like Chicago got in a bidding war for his services after that.)

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      • joser says:

        I should add that last year there were lots of comments to the effect that Mike Morse was “2011′s Jose Bautista” and now we’ve begun hearing that LaHair is this year’s Mike Morse. Given what Jose Bautista is doing at the plate so far and our uncertainty about whether Morse (whenever he returns) will be anything more than a one-season wonder, it’s possible these comments are accurate, though perhaps not in the way the commenters intended.

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  5. Sam Samson says:

    Theo Epstein speaking on WGN Radio on January 5th 2012: “Bryan LaHair is our first baseman. I don’t believe in the concept of 4A players. The guy can hit.”

    Maybe Epstein does know a bit about baseball after all…

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    • Matt says:

      Absolutely. John Lackey, Carl Crawford and Clay Buccholz would agree.

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      • Andrew says:

        So would the guys he drafted. Pedroia, Elsbury, Bard, Papelbon, not to mention the guys he traded to get Adrian Gonzalez. your right, bad GM.

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      • Tom B says:

        How did those trades and drafts work out over the last… 4 seasons? Bad team construction gets inconsistent, streaky results like the RS have year over year.

        Let us know when that A-Gon deal pay’s off, or if Crawford literally steals all of the value from it.

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      • jerbear1985 says:

        It’s a little unfair to criticize Theo. The Lackey/Crawford deals look bad now, but not at the time. He went after proven players, and they didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. Every GM makes mistakes, even the best ones.

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      • MustBunique says:

        Sox fan here, and I can tell you that I do not fault Theo in the least for paying for Carl Crawford. Look at his #’s before his first year with the Sox. Are you telling me you see red flags there? I sure don’t. I will give you Lackey, though. All in all I thought Theo did a good job, far better than Dan Duquette, and he brought us something we had wanted for a long long time. More than once.

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      • Tom B says:

        I’ll give you the Lackey deal being a surprise… but the Crawford deal was going to turn south at some point anyway. A speed guy coming off turf getting paid like a power hitter, sticking a strong defender in the smallest left field in baseball… no way that player deserves $20mil/year.

        That it already gone bad is catastrophic.

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  6. JoeBaseballFan says:

    Shouldn’t the arrow for “Average 1B .337 wOBA” go on the other side of the .363 regression?

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  7. Calvin says:

    Where did you find the minor league batted ball stats to get his career HR/FB of 4.0% (his ML career is higher even before this year, so I assume this is from a gazillion MiLB ABs)?

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  8. Chicago Mark says:

    CHICAGO Mark and waiting all my life for next season. And because of that the other shoe to fall. Will there be a regression the second time through the league? Will he start seein more cutters and curves? I hope he’s for real but the ghoast (spelling and brain freese all at once) of 2003 and 1969 and…. is still clear in my head.

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  9. peregrintook69 says:

    Currently trying to get someone to bite on Mark Teixeira because I have Bryan LaHair. It’s not working -_-

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    • Tom B says:

      This would be a classic fantasy blunder.

      LaHair is the guy you should be selling HIGH, not selling LOW on Teixeira.

      The conclusion this article should have come up with is NO, he CAN NOT sustain this production. His 30% K rate will ultimately doom him to batting like .250 and trying to make any grand gesture to discover otherwise is only fooling yourself.

      LaHair reminds me exactly of Reynolds. Showed a quick flash of “maybe he’ll get it this time” and then… look where he is now.

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      • taprat says:

        Yeah, selling high on Lahair makes sense. But how high? What’s a reasonable target? This is where opinions seem to wildly diverge. And every day that he continues to get on base makes it that much harder to let him go.

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      • Mitch says:

        His k% will not be 30% the whole year. It’s been steadily dropping.

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      • Tom B says:

        Teixeira would be a reasonable target, the exact type of slumping but proven player you want to try to acquire for an unproven hot hitting rookie…

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      • Tom B says:

        @Mitch – Dropping to what, 26%? where it has been his whole career? No bueno…

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  10. Table says:

    I’m assuming the Cubs will trade him at some point right? I kind of assume they will trade him before this year’s deadline as well. I mean if they think he is the new Jose Bautista they might hold on to him, but what are the chances of that? Anyways what in the world would he be worth in a trade? I’m very much hoping the Dodgers could go after him with some pitching prospects. Would a top 100 pitching prospect (Allen Webster) and then some be enough to fetch him? It’s so hard to say since he had basically no trade value at all a few months ago.

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    • I’ve begun to suspect they will keep LaHair, play him in LF, and trade Soriano for whutevz, eating 90% of Sori’s contract.

      From the looks of it, LaHair will be good for some time — and he will be cheap for just as long.

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      • Table says:

        BOOOOOOO who are my Dodgers going to trade for now??? ………this new wildcard is really going to hurt the number of options at the trade deadline :(

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  11. prospectslol says:

    Why does everything I read about LaHair fail to mention he’s being platooned with Jeff Baker and is horrendous vs LHP. In his major league career (SSS warning) he’s hitting .156/.321/.267 with a 71 wRC+; but that trend is supported by his minor league splits where he barely hit .200 vs LHP (seriously, look up the minorleaguesplits.com spreadsheets for yourselves). The Cubs are putting him in the best situation for him to succeed & hiding him from LHP to keep his value as high as possible for a trade… they know he’s not an everyday player.

    I guess I should shut up, the more hype, maybe the better deal the Cubs get come the deadline…

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    • First of all: Bryan LaHair has started 14 straight games, all hitting in the No. 4 spot. Yes, he was getting platooned immediately after returning from his injury. No, he is not getting platooned now.

      And he can’t hit left-handed pitching, you say?! GASP! That mean’s he will slump into this crew of can’t-hit-lefties:

      Adam Dunn
      Carlos Pena
      Jim Thome
      Justin Morneau
      Lance Berkman
      Carlos Delgado
      Aubrey Huff
      Rafael Palmeiro
      and John Olerud.

      Oh well. At least LaHair is still good against 67% of the league.

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      • prospectslol says:

        First, Baker had the flu and was scratched last start vs a lefty… last I heard Cubs plans are still straight platooning them. They just haven’t faced a lefty starter since Baker returned.

        Second, let’s say you’re right and he’s a full time starter for the rest of the year. You only extrapolated 14% of PAs against LHP.

        So not only should his BABIP, BB%, HR/PA all regress, your numbers are facing 86% RHP. Add in 20% PAs versus LHP, which like I mentioned he’s below the Mendoza line, and his regression is far greater than you’re predicting.

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    • chris says:

      Yes, small sample size. SO instead of using that to feed your confirmation bias, why not look at the things he does well? Getting on base, extra base power, ya know, the run creating stuff?

      he’s certainly not as good as he’s playing right now, and don’t thnk anyone would say otherwise, but to say hes nothig but a flukey trade chip is pretty lolprospects.

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      • prospectslol says:

        All I said is he’s trade bait and being hidden from LHP to keep his value as high as possible. Rizzo is the future at 1B everyone knows that, and LaHair is horrible defensively in the OF and there’s no room there anyway (good luck trading Soriano when he’s missing games with leg issues, and has a wRC+ of 48). There’s no room for LaHair on this team past this year.

        Plus the Cubs won’t be contenders for at least 2 more seasons. Why hold on to a guy who will be 32 and declining when you can flip him for pieces that will be useful when you’re actually contending? Sell high.

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      • ticohans says:

        Prospectslol, you couldn’t be further from the truth. At the beginning of the year, LaHair was in a platoon. Not the case any longer. Not only is he in the lineup vs lefty starters, he’s also being left in when opposing teams bring in their best lefty from the pen in late inning situations to shut him down. That’s not going too well for them, as evidenced by his .855 OPS vs lefties this year.

        Also, check out his K-rate trends:

        April – 25 K’s in 69 PA’s
        May – 5 K’s in 33 PA’s

        He’s not going to continue to BABIP > .500, and his HR/FB ratio will come waaaay down. But there’s TONS of room to come down from a 1.243 OPS. Based on actually watching him in many games, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up at around .900 OPS.

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  12. chris says:

    Well, I’m glad you are backing off a bit. What you said about rizzo and lahairs future on the team may be arguable but i must remind you of your first post in this exchange in which you said:

    “they know he’s not an everyday player”

    That is just concentrated crazy.

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  13. CJ in Austin, TX says:

    The regression projections seem overly optimistic to me. The BABIP and HR/Fly rates for his minor league experience should be adjusted downward based on some kind of major league equivalent translation. And I have my doubts that the formula for x-BABIP is reliable for this kind of sample size.

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  14. Billy says:

    Regression to the mean. Man, now THIS is analysis. Cutting edge stuff.

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  15. Vermont says:

    I would have to think that his K% is going to come down as well. His plate discipline % are all lower than his career numbers this year. I don’t know where to find or if there is a stat for how many pitches a player sees per AB, but I bet he is up there with the leaders in that category.

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  16. Antonio Bananas says:

    With Rizzo raking in AAA, what do the Cubs do? If they can get a decent prospect haul for him, I’d say go for it. Not like they are in “win now” and a 29 year old 1B playing ridiculously well but who still has very real power doesn’t really do the Cubs a lot of good. A different team with an injured/struggling 1B might though. Say Howard has another setback, do you think Philly would trade for him?

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  17. Old Soul says:

    Well sure you might be able to flip the guy for a decent spec this year, that’s what everyone expects. But his age will lower the value they get back. They need some arms so I wouldn’t be surprised if they pulled the trigger on the right deal. But let’s just entertain the idea that this is a 900 OPS player and he actually can field left in a platoon with Sori – then you’re getting a guy at league minimum thru his prime years where he might give 5 or 6 WAR.

    I personally hope they hold onto him and find a RH power bat to clean up between him and Rizzo in front of Castro. The offense could actually be very, very good.

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  18. Old Soul says:

    Also, he had a 14 pitch AB today, it was friggin amazing.

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