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Colby Rasmus Turns Back the Clock

Even after their big offseason moves, the Blue Jays were not the consensus pick to win the 2013 American League East, as three or even four teams seemed to have a good shot. Very few, however, probably thought the Jays would be the one team left out of the race almost from the start. Yet here we are in the middle of August, and Toronto is the only team in the division under .500, a distant seven and a half games behind the fourth-place Yankees. The litany of problems is well-known: the starting pitching has been terrible, Jose Reyes got hurt, and more. Not every player has been disappointing, however. Colby Rasmus, who came to the Jays in a 2011 trade with the Cardinals, is having his best season since 2010. Indeed, his performance this year resembles that 2010 season in multiple ways.

Rasmus (currently recovering from an injury) was the Cardinals’ first-round draft pick in 2005, and by 2009 was considered to be one of the best five prospects in baseball. Although he struggled with the bat during his 2009 debut, an 89 wRC+ was not bad for a center fielder in his age-22 season. In 2010, Rasmus really took off at the plate, hitting .276/.361/.498 (130 wRC+). If his strikeout rate (nearly 28 percent) was scary and his BABIP (.354) appeared unlikely to continue, they were seemingly outweighed by an excellent walk rate (11.8 percent) and power (.222 ISO).

Things fell apart remarkably quickly for Rasmus in St. Louis in 2011, though. Rumors went back and forth about Rasmus’ disagreements with coaching staff, for example. Looking back, while Rasmus was actually in St. Louis in 2011, it was not as if he was terrible: his power and BABIP regressed, but he retained his 2010 walk rate and cut his strikeouts. Rasmus had a .246/.332/.420 (110 wRC+) line in St. Louis during 2011 — not what was expected after 2010, but not bad for a 24-year-old center fielder (for the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on his hitting). But the situation had soured, and the Cardinals pulled off a four-for-four trade with Toronto that centered around Rasmus.

Toronto seemed like a good landing spot for Rasmus, as the organization was developing a reputation for gathering players with latent power (Jose Bautista being the most prominent example). Those who thought a fresh start would revitalize Rasmus were disappointed though, as Rasmus was absolutely dreadful (.173/.201/316, 33 wRC+) over his 140 plate appearances in 2022 with the Blue Jays. It was a small sample, and the hope was that it was mostly random variation and adjustment to a new environment. It had to be true to a certain extent — it was very unlikely Rasmus was a 33 wRC+ player. His overall line for 2011 ended up .225/.298/.391 (89 wRC+), but given his age, past performance, and simple regression, there was the hope that Rasmus would improve in 2012.

He did not, and over 625 PA, Rasmus had the worst full season of his career — .223/.289/400 (83 wRC+). His strikeout rate was poor, but it was not much worse than his final 2011 rate. However, his walk rate was the lowest (7.5 percent) since his rookie season. His power was still good (.177 ISO), but is was not great, and was hardly enough to make up for his poor walk and strikeout rates. Some of his issues might have been attributable to poor BABIP luck (.259), but that was only slightly lower than 2011. Moreover, it was the third time in four seasons that he had had a low BABIP. It was not as if it was a mystery, either: starting in 2011, Rasmus had begun hitting a high proportion of infield fly balls, which is often the root of a low BABIP. Coming into 2013, Rasmus was no longer thought of as the gifted young hitter still working out the kinks. If “bust” was too strong of a word, 2010 was beginning to look more like an exception than the norm.

Rasmus’ 2013 has put the bust talk to rest for the moment. Still in his age-26 season, he is recalling his 2010 breakout at the plate, hitting .273/.335/.478 (122 wRC+). Although 439 plate appearances is still just a partial-season sample, it has understandably revived the hope that Rasmus’ abilities are those of an above-average player. The question is whether this represents the “real” Rasmus, or if this season and 2010 were exceptional, luck-based breakouts. The easy, and probably best, answer is that Rasmus’ true talent is probably between this year’s performance and his 2011 performance. Let’s take a bit of at specific similarities between 2010 and 2013.

Just as in 2010, Rasmus is succeeding despite a very high strikeout rate. Rasmus’ current 30.1 percent strikeout rate is the highest of his career; the second highest is the 27.7 percent in 2010. His 2013 isolated power is .205, his highest since 2010. His .363 BABIP in 2013 is also the highest of his career, the second-highest being .354 in 2010. In his other three seasons, his BABIP has not risen above .282.

Not everything is the same for Rasmus as in 2010, though. He has always been below average when it comes to making contact, and this season he has the lowest contact rate of his career, thus the high strikeout rate, even for him. Although he is swinging at fewer pitches than in the past, his walk rate is still low at eight percent, just barely better than last season’s career low. A high strikeout rate and low walk rate are difficult to overcome.

Despite those issues, Rasmus has been productive this year because when he does put the ball into play, it has gone for a hit more often than usual. Leaving home runs aside for the moment, most would agree that few players have a true talent .363 BABIP, and Rasmus, given his past history, is not one of them. This reveals a similarity and a dissimilarity with his 2010 performance, neither one very encouraging. The similarity is that in both seasons he had a high strikeout rate and a high BABIP. The dissimilarity is that in 2010 he had a low rate of infield fly balls, while in 2013 he has almost as high a rate of pop-ups as in the previous two (poor) seasons. Rasmus’ high BABIP in 2013 seems even less attributable to BABIP skill than it was in 2010.

With his plate approach being more problematic than ever, and his BABIP being mostly luck-based, Rasmus does have one true strength at the plate: power. The gains here are promising. Although his rates of doubles and triples on hits in play is higher than last year, it is not quite as high as in 2011, which was not a great season. That is not really good or bad news, though, since doubles, in particular, do not correlate very highly from year to year. The reason Rasmus’ power surge this season is promising is that it is mostly based on home runs. His rate of home runs on contact (6.7 percent) is his best since, you guessed it, 2010 (7.2 percent).

One can look at the projections now and after the season to see what those systems think. Again, it seems likely and sensible that they will see his true talent as lying between 2013 and 2012. That is not all that surprising or interesting in itself. There are two specific things worth noting, though.

First, the return of Rasmus’ power this year reminds us that something done at a young age (his age-23 performance) holds promise down the line. Yes, his power went dormant to an extent in 2011 and 2012. Random variation plays a part in every season, but although every player ages differently, it is still fair to expect a young player’s true talent to continue to improve. If Rasmus was a bit “lucky” with respect to his power in 2010, it still reflected his underlying true talent, and we are seeing that again this season — and it is not all luck this year, either. It was fair to expect that Rasmus still had some potential even after his dreadful 2011 and 2012 seasons, and the Jays are being rewarded for their patience.

Second, the Jays still probably need to be cautious in their hopes for Rasmus. Even if the return of Rasmus’ power is mostly for real, he still has other issues. His plate approach still features too few walks and not enough contact. The same approach that enables him to knock the ball out of the park also results in a high number of pop-ups, which typically lead to a poor average on balls in play. Given his walk and strikeout rates, Rasmus’ 2013 hitting performance relies almost completely on his ability to hit for power and his BABIP. The former may represent his true skill, but the latter likely does not.