Has Rafael Furcal Found The Fountain Of Youth?

In his age 34 season, Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal is off to tremendous start. Through Wednesday’s action, Furcal is batting .361/.423/.508 with a .413 wOBA and a 168 wRC+. In 138 plate appearances, he has 44 hits, including ten doubles and two home runs. His walk rate (9.4 percent)  is above his career average (9 percent) and his strikeout rate (10.1 percent) is below his career average (12.6 percent). Only Carlos Beltran has a higher wOBA and wRC+ on the Cardinals, who are 20-11 after the first thirty-one games of the season.

It’s early, of course, so all small sample size caveats apply. But Furcal’s start puts him at the top of the wOBA and wRC+ leader boards among 33 to 36-year old shortstops over the last 10 years. Derek Jeter‘s 2007 and 2009 seasons are close behind, but after that, it’s a pretty sharp drop-off. When you expand the wOBA and wRC+ leader boards to all 33 to 36-year olds who played in the last ten seasons, Furcal finds himself in some pretty good company. Jim Edmonds, Manny Ramirez, Chipper Jones, Magglio Ordonez, Larry Walker, Jim Thome and so on.

What’s fueling Furcal’s early success?

For one, he’s healthy for the first time in a long while. Furcal missed significant time in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011 with a variety of ailments. A sprained ankle and sore back in 2007 cost him twenty games. Back surgery in 2008 cost him 125 games. A strained thigh muscle and back issues cost him 52 games in 2010. And a fractured thumb and abdomen strain cost him 67 games in 2011.

Second, Furcal has seen first-pitch strikes in only 50.7 percent of his plate appearances. His career first-pitch strike percentage is 57.1. In addition, his swinging-strike percentage so far this season (3.4 percent) is down from his career average (4.8 career). As a result, he’s had significantly more plate appearances with hitters’ counts than pitchers’ counts. Out of 138 plate appearances, only 54 have been in either 0-2 or 1-2 counts. And even then, Furcal’s posted a .377 wOBA in those 50 plate appearances.

Third, while Furcal’s swing rate is below 40 percent for the first time in his career, his contact rate is at a career high of 91 percent. And his contact rate on balls outside the strike zone (89.7 percent) is more than ten percentage points higher than in any other season, and fifteen percentage points higher than his career numbers (74.1 percent). What’s happening to all those additional balls in play? Many are turning into hits. Furcal’s BABIP is at .393, significantly above his career .314 average.

Can Furcal sustain this level of production for the rest of the 2012 season? Unlikely, even if he stays healthy for the entire season.

Furcal’s higher BABIP appears to have been fueled more by poor defense by the Cardinals’ opponents and luck than by a change in his approach. Throughout his career, Furcal has hit ground balls on 50 percent of his balls in play, with line drives comprising twenty percent and fly balls thirty percent. This season is no different. Furcal isn’t suddenly hitting more line drives (which tends to drive up BABIP). It’s just that more of his ground balls seem to be finding holes and turning into hits.

Like this:

And this:

And this:

Furcal’s also been fairly consistent throughout his career on the location of his balls in play. Over his career, Furcal’s pulled roughly one third of his balls in play, hit roughly one third to center, and knocked roughly one third to the opposite field. You can see his approach clearly in his spray charts from the last four seasons.

2008

2009

2010

2011

This season, he’s gone the opposite way a bit more than usual, but it hasn’t helped his production. Furcal’s wOBA for balls hit to the opposite field is only .285, while he’s posted a .494 wOBA on pulled balls and a .506 wOBA on balls up the middle.

Given that Furcal’s approach hasn’t changed, we should see a fair bit of regression. But keep in mind that Furcal and the Cardinals will play a majority of their games against the five other National League Central teams, all of which qualify as “defensively-challenged” in some way. The Brewers, Pirates, Cubs, Astros and Reds all rate in the bottom half of the league in Defensive Runs Saved and the Brewers, Pirates and Reds rate in the bottom third in UZR/150. If poor defense is contributing to Furcal’s high BABIP and Furcal’s high BABIP is fueling his .413 wOBA, all those games against National League Central opponents may ultimately lead to career highs.

And that may be better than finding the fountain of youth.



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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.


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davisnc
Member
Member
davisnc
4 years 3 months ago

Good piece. You might want to rephrase or clarify the spray chart section; Furcal’s a switch hitter, so it’s unclear from aggregated spray charts that he pulls a third, oppos a third, and goes up the middle with the rest.

Cardsfan
Guest
Cardsfan
4 years 3 months ago

NL Central teams are more or less fine defensively – don’t let the early returns fool you. The Reds have been elite recently and have returned most of the same players. The Brewers are much improved with Gonzalez/Izturis taking over for Yuni and with Fielder gone. The rest don’t project to be especially bad either.

masonskids
Guest
masonskids
4 years 3 months ago

Are you sure he only has 2 doubles this year???

LegallyMinded
Guest
LegallyMinded
4 years 3 months ago

You might want to avoid references to the “fountain of youth” for players who have hitting coaches named Mark McGwire.

The Rajah
Guest
The Rajah
4 years 3 months ago

Furcal found the Fountain of Youth once, why can’t he find it a second time (he was a 19 year old rookie in 2000, remember)? If anyone can help him find his way through the lies, Big Mac is the man.

AA
Guest
AA
4 years 3 months ago

Uh. Furcal had a youthful indiscretion with a DUI and was very diligent in getting over that.

Frankie
Guest
Frankie
4 years 3 months ago

The Cubs are definitely terrible defensively, but the Astros, Brewers, and Pirates, should all be OK, and the Reds have been one of the better defensive teams in the NL for the past couple years.

That citing of DRS and UZR/150 is example A of why you shouldn’t ever cite those stats with any seriousness after just 31 games.

Bob
Guest
Bob
4 years 3 months ago

The Brewers only have two above average defenders on their roster. They are not a good defensive team.

Mark Reynolds
Guest
4 years 3 months ago

If only the Giants had traded for Furcal instead of Orlando Cabrera.

y
Guest
y
4 years 3 months ago

What guarantee is there that he would be hitting like this for the Giants?

Baltar
Guest
Baltar
4 years 3 months ago

I so wanted the Giants to sign Furcal this offseason.
Why won’t they ever listen to me?

Chris
Guest
Chris
4 years 3 months ago

While he’s on the 33-36 year old leader board, I’d don’t think you’ll find him on the 21-22 year old board.

BTU
Guest
BTU
4 years 3 months ago

If you expand it to 20-23 the only person to beat his wRC+ is Pujol’s in 2003 and he’d be tied with Miguel Cabrera’s 2006 for 5th in wOBA.

Hunter fan
Guest
Hunter fan
4 years 3 months ago

Rafael Furcal is just an early bird special…

One of those more senior players who looks like he’s having a renaissance early in the season…until he inevitably breaks down due to injury or the daily grind.

But enjoy it while it lasts!

Feeding the Abscess
Guest
Feeding the Abscess
4 years 3 months ago

Razzball glossary

Hunter fan
Guest
Hunter fan
4 years 3 months ago

Definitely! Didn’t know if I could link to another site here, but that’s hands down the best definition I’ve read for older players with fast starts.

KlausChadman
Guest
KlausChadman
4 years 3 months ago

Well thanks for bursting my bubble there. I was hoping Furcal would continue to rake as well as he has been. Curse you regression!

Cliff
Guest
Cliff
4 years 3 months ago

No mention of 2012 Jeter at all? Is there a dedicated article in the pipeline or do we have to wait for his 40th HR this year?

chuckb
Member
chuckb
4 years 3 months ago

Sheesh, we’ve already played a month and no fangraph writer has fellated Jeter yet? Oh, the humanity!

Cliff
Guest
Cliff
4 years 3 months ago

I don’t think Jeter fellatio is common in these parts, but there has been quite a dramatic turnaround since 2010 and the first half of 2011. You do not think there is any merit to a sabermetric analysis of this change for a 38 year old shortstop? But there is for Furcal?

TheBirds
Guest
TheBirds
4 years 3 months ago

Does Jeter even count as a shortstop anymore? I know he likes to frequent the same places as a shortstop, but he certainly doesn’t field like one.

Butters
Guest
Butters
4 years 3 months ago

Thanks for all the fine research, Wendy!

I wouldn’t be shocked if Furcal ends up at around .315/.390/.440, with solid D and 15-20 steals.

What’s that, about a 5-WAR shortstop? Furcal is like so much of this St. Louis team: old and/or brittle…but also immensely talented.

On a somewhat related note, I believe the Central division has the best run differential in the Senior Circuit. I wonder if the National League isn’t more balanced than we all assumed pre-season.

vivaelpujols
Guest
vivaelpujols
4 years 3 months ago

Good article. It should be noted that for all of the plate discipline stats (anything that differentiates between “in zone” and “out of zone”) you have to adjust for changing league averages before you can compare single season to a career.

BrianU
Guest
BrianU
4 years 3 months ago

I seriously think his triple slash has gone up since his dad got kicked by that horse.

Matthew Cornwell
Guest
Matthew Cornwell
4 years 3 months ago

Of course Furcal is going to regress and his BABIP is partially lucky. Duh. But Furcal was a 4.2 WAR guy in 2010 and was 3.5 in 2009. I see no reason why he can’t be a near 4 WAR player this year, which is close to ASG worthy. A large regression does not have to equal crashing and burning.

Dan in Philly
Guest
Dan in Philly
4 years 3 months ago

Good grief this article makes me feel old. Furcal is finding the fountain of youth is he?

I knew the major effect of the steriod era was to get us to forget that, to a baseball player, 35 is really old.

Seth Beno
Guest
Seth Beno
4 years 3 months ago

Yes, Furcal has found the Fountain of Youth — it’s called St. Louis. For whatever reason the magic wasn’t working last year but as a general rule of thumb, anything that touches St. Louis is golden.

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