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.
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.
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.