Hairston’s Surge

Sometimes, baseball just leaves us with some inexplicable performances, such as the infamous 50 HR season by Brady Anderson. You can’t explain it – you just realize that baseball is weird sometimes, and strange things happen.

So, in that vein, let’s talk about Jerry Hairston. For his career, he’s a .260/.330/.360 hitter – your garden variety utility infielder. He has okay contact skills and a smidge of power, can play a few different positions, and can run a little bit. He’s had a rather pedestrian career, finding playing time as a role player on some not good teams, and generally just floating around the game as a warm body.

Last year, though, he fell apart. He hit .189/.249/.289 while playing in Texas – racking up 184 terrible plate appearances and generally looking like a guy who couldn’t play baseball anymore. His walks were down, his strikeouts were up, and he posted a pitiful 13.5% line drive percentage, so it’s not like he was scorching the baseball right at people. 52% of his balls in play were flyballs, and when you’re a guy without much power, that’s bad news, because those fly balls aren’t going over the wall, and the outfielders will have plenty of time to track them down. Even worse, 21% of those flyballs were of the infield variety – weak popups that are always outs.

By pretty much any standard, Hairston was one of the worst players in the game in 2007. Texas jettisoned him, and he ended up signing a minor league contract with the Reds. When injuries struck and they needed some help at the big league level, they gave him a call… and he’s had the year of his life.

Hairston is hitting .329/.389/.473. His line drive rate is now 28.2%, as he really is just crushing the baseball every time he swings. He has 25 extra base hits after totaling just 17 in 2006 and 2007 combined. He’s been worth about a win more than an average hitter in just half a season’s worth of playing time, and he’s doing it as an up the middle defender at age 32.

Last year is the type of season that ends a lot of careers – a guy with limited value turning in a terrible performance in a hitters park at age 31. There aren’t many teams that will look at that player and say “hey, he’s due for a rebound”. But Hairston has apparently decided to regress to Barry Larkin‘s mean instead of his own, turning in a season that just makes you scratch your head and wonder what’s going on.

If any Reds fans have any idea why Jerry Hairston has played at an All-Star level for the last few months, I’d love to hear it.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

4 Responses to “Hairston’s Surge”

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  1. Rick says:

    Dave, you can bet us Reds fans having been talking about Hairston at length. For me, it comes down to one simple number: 28.2. That’s Hairston’s LD% for 2008 and it’s 2nd among players with 270+ PA.

    His BB%, K%, and Contact% are all nearly identical to his career averages. It’s pretty clear he’s not doing anything differently – he’s just getting better results for it. He’s managed to turn a good chunk of grounders and a small number of fly balls in to line drives. He’s making higher quality contact and it’s showing up in an inflated BABIP boosting his AVG/OBP/SLG substantially. Normalize that LD% and you’re still looking at a good year for him, but of the 75th percentile variety, not the 99.9th.

    Consider his company at the top of the LD% leaderboard.

    1. Omar Infante
    2. Hariston
    3. Jeremy Carroll
    4. Ramon Vazquez
    5. Mark Loretta (though Loretta, like Michael Young, is perennially up here)

    I think there’s a theme. Every year there are a handful of players in this general mold, relatively light hitting contact oriented guys, who simply hit a lot of line drives. In 2006 it was Freddy Sanchez’s path to the batting title. Maybe it represents a true change in skill. But given that it’s not paired with any other apparent skill development, it looks to me like a healthy dose of random variation. Though it’s always more fun to attach a narrative, I’d put my money on a 2009 Hairston that looks a lot more like the .700 OPS guy he’s been over his career. Though likely a more handsomely paid version.

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  2. Ken says:

    Hairston is a good but fragile athlete who reportedly played the last two years with a broken rib. He’s spent some time on the DL this year for a strained hamstring but his swing hasn’t been affected. This still doesn’t explain why he’s been this good, but it does show why he’s not as bad as he was last year.

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  3. Tom Au says:

    Good analysis by the others. I’d just add that after a year of performance below his true ability, Hairston’s now performing above his ability. It’s the swing from one extreme to the other that makes it so dramatic. Statistically, most go from one extreme to “mediocrity,” not the opposite end. But there is also a “statistical” number of outliers like this one.

    Ian Snell, Pirates’ starting pitcher, is another example. Basically a 4.50 ERA man in my book. But he pitched about 3.00 for half a season in 2007 and 6.00 for half a season in 2008 (and about 4.50 for the other two half seasons).

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  4. chris welsh says:

    I am fairly confident that Hairston played the last two seasons with a bad back and he declared after his early season stint in AAA that he was “finally 100% healthy again.”

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