Mystery Pronk in the Bronx

As of this writing, it sounds like Travis Hafner is going to sign a contract with the Yankees, after (surprise!) Cleveland turned down his $13 million club option for 2013. Pronk Bars are a distant memory, but Hafner still has his uses. For all of criticism he has received because of his play (or lack thereof) relative to his contract in Cleveland, Hafner has actually been a pretty good hitter the last few years. Over the last three seasons, he has had a higher wRC+ than the departed Raul Ibanez. When healthy (a big question), Hafner projects to be a better hitter than Ibanez. With Alex Rodriguez out for who knows how long, Kevin Youkilis will be needed at third, so signing a full-time designated hitter to a low-risk deal is something the Yankees needed to do. One might question the Yankees’ off-season strategy as a whole, but at this point, Hafner makes sense. But what are the Yankees getting with Hafner at this point?

For years, Hafner has served, fairly or not, as something of a cautionary tale. After three absolutely monstrous seasons from 2004-2006, Hafner was in the midst of a down season (relatively speaking) when Cleveland gave him an four-year, $57 million extension for 2009-2012 in July 2007. Given his prior performance, it might have been safe to assume that Hafner would rebound, if not to his former levels, but something between his 2007 season and his prime. Instead, he has never been as good as he was even in 2007 again. Injuries (more on that in a bit) played a very big part, but pinpointing exactly what went wrong with Hafner’s hitting is not all that easy.

With some players, it would be a drop in power, or a sudden inability to make contact or whatever. But for Hafner, it is not that straightforward. In an obvious sense it is — basically, in no area is he as good as he was in 2004-2006. However, if one looks at the years since then, outside of the disastrous 2008, he has not actually been awful when he has been at the plate. From 2009 to 2012 his respective wRC+s have been 115, 126, 125, and 119. That was not what Cleveland expected when the signed him way back when, but helpful when he was able to play.

At his best, of course, Hafner had it all — almost. He did have a worse than average strikeout rate. However, it was easy enough to live with when he had excellent walk rates (peaking at 17.7% in 2006), great power (.272, .290, and .350 from 2004-2006), and even a consistently high BABIP (.350, .344, .305). (That last number was one reason is was difficult to slot Hafner in as having old player skills.) But in the years since then, most of his numbers have been all over the place. His walk rate is lower, but it is still pretty good, being in the double digits every season other than 2011 (9.8%). His strikeout rate was high in 2010 and 2011 (although not really higher than, say, 2005), but better than average in 2009 and 2012. His BABIP has never really been close to .350 again, but while it was a big problem this last season (.233), in 2010 and 2011 it was over .330. The drop in isolated power is also an issue, but in 2010 it was back up to .210, Hafner’s best since 2006. What is going on here?

The easy and true answer is “we don’t really know.” I am not going to go back on that statement, but I am going to be a bit more detailed. A big part of the reason we don’t know much about Pronk is that, relatively speaking, over the last four years he simply has not played that much. Over the last four seasons, he has fewer than 1500 plate appearances, a little more than two full seasons for most players. Roughly speaking, compared to most everyday players, he has about half of the sample. While even full playing time requires a substantial amount of regression when projecting a player’s true talent due to noise and uncertainty, Hafner has considerably less than that (although it would be inaccurate to say that Hafner’s projection has something like “twice the uncertainty,” that’s another can of worms).

The fluctuating performance in various rate statistics we saw from Hafner means that those stats contain more noise than they would for genuinely full-time players. It is problematic to assume too much of a linear statistical trend for any player’s performance, but again, with Hafner, it is even more the case because of the small samples. In other words, looking at Hafner’s 2012 power spike (from .169 ISO in 2011 to .210) or better strikeout rate (from 21.2% to 17.9%) should be taken with plenty of grains of salt — there simply is not that much observed performance to base a projection off of there.

This is not to say that it is impossible to project a player like Hafner. All projections are subject to uncertainty. However, it does mean that Hafner’s projection is going to contain much more regression than if he had played 130 games a year every year. Hafner’s injury history not only makes his playing time uncertain, but makes his projected rates more problematic at well because injuries have also shrunk the recent samples of his performance. (There is also the issue of how particular injuries might cause skill attrition, which is an important area of research, but I am not qualified to discuss it here — not that a lack of qualifications prevents me from writing about anything else).

Despite all the uncertainty, Hafner’s recent performance when on the field has been pretty good. Even when his batting average is low due to balls in play, he still gets on base at a good rate (.228 average in 2012, .233 BABIP, but a .346 on-base percentage). He still probably has above-average power, and Yankee Stadium seems to be substantially easier for left-handed hitters to hit home runs in than Progressive Field. Pronk will likely give the Yankees decent production at DH, especially if he is platooned. He will likely be better than Raul Ibanez in 2012 (although Ibanez has been far more durable). The problem is that it is unlikely to be for more than 100 games. That does not mean this is a bad deal, unless it ends up being for much more money than one would expect. As noted above, given the way the off-season has played out, this move makes sense for the Yankees. Uncertainty cuts both ways, of course, maybe Hafner will hit remarkably well despite his age and injuries. But the potential for upside is limited.




Print This Post



Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


26 Responses to “Mystery Pronk in the Bronx”

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
  1. Smart ass says:

    The article should have started and ended with ” I have no clue what to expect from Hafner this year”

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • pft says:

      He has actually been pretty consistent the last 4 years at the plate with a 125 OPS+. The main uncertainty is how much he can play.

      At most he would get 110 starts in a platoon role. If he plays 1/2 that much he will have earned his salary.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. Steve says:

    Better buy: Hafner for $2M or Berkman for $10M?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Preston says:

      Different situations. Berkman wouldn’t have played for less, and Hafner can’t play 1B, so he wasn’t a fit for the Rangers.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • hk says:

      I’m not sure if this answers the question, but if I was a fan of the Texas Rangers and Texas’s only two choices were spending $10M for Berkman or spending $2M for Hafner, I would prefer that they choose to spend more on Berkman.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. Tim says:

    This article encouraged me to look up Hafner’s stats, and holy crap. I forgot how much of an offensive beast he used to be. .308/439/659 with a .450 WOBA in 2006!!!! Plus he had a .418 WOBA in 04′ and .423 in ’05.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. fjtorres says:

    Berkman.
    Less injury risk and he used to be able to field.
    Pronk’s best defensive position has always been DH. ;)

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Brian says:

      After having spent most of last season on the DL and the fact that he hasn’t played in 150 games since 2008, I’m not sure everyone would agree with the statement that Berkman is less of an injury risk.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Steve says:

      I think Berkman is the better player, but both are so risky, is the $2M bet better than the $10M bet? That was more what I was asking.

      last 3 seasons:
      Puma – 299 Games (32 in 2012), 1165 PA’s, .275/.391/.483
      Pronk – 278 games (66 in 2012), 1093 PA’s, .267/.363/.447

      Closer than I would have guessed at least.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • fjtorres says:

        It’s close but Berkman can play the field. And there’s all those interleague games…
        Injury or not those are games Pronk isn’t playing in.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Steve says:

        I concede this was not something I had considered, but still, I only count 10 games on the Yankees’ schedule in NL parks.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. Cruiser Manning says:

    I think the point is that Berkman isn’t 5x the player Hafner is to justify 5x the salary.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • hk says:

      The way to compare these contracts is by using subtraction, not division. If we assume that Texas had the option to sign Berkman for $10M or Hafner for $2M for the same roster spot, Berkman will have to produce $8M more value, not 5x as much value, for the Berkman signing to be the better one. At $5M/WAR, if Berkman produces 1.6 WAR more than Hafner produces, he’ll be worth the extra $8M.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • jswede says:

        that makes little sense.

        using your logic, signing Puma for $8,000,001 makes sense vs signing Haf for $1, as long as he out-WARs by 1.6…

        looked at differently, with the $10mil vs $2mil contracts in place, would Puma still be the best deal if he produced a 6.6 WAR vs Haf’s 5.0? How about if Puma produced a -0.4 vs Haf’s -2.0 ?

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • hk says:

        MLB rosters are finite in that you can only have 25 players on them at one time. Therefore, if a team is considering 2 players for the same role and the difference in their contracts neither prevents the team from making any other transactions that they otherwise would have made by saving the money nor forces the team to pay the luxury tax, then the value they get from the player is more a function of the production that they get from the player than how much they pay him. In this case, if Texas spends $10M on Berkman instead of $2M on Hafner to fill the same role and the extra $8M does not prevent them from upgrading at any other position and it does not put them over the luxury tax, 6.6 WAR for $10M is better than 5.0 WAR for $2M. This is especially so for a team like Texas where the value of 1 win is expected to be huge as they fight for a playoff spot in the AL.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

      • jcxy says:

        well said, hk.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. B N says:

    I have to say, I didn’t realize Hafner was still getting on base at that kind of clip. While his slugging percentage seems to be on a steady decline, the guy is definitely still useful. Decent grab for the Yankees, probably. If he doesn’t work out, they can always trade him for a Pronk Bar.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. Hafner's dealer says:

    I think he is a steroid guy. Look at his physique. The Yankees are a joke if the same week they deal with A Rod’s PEDs they sign this probable cheat.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Helen Lovejoy says:

      The Yankees are a joke if they sign a guy who has never failed a PED test or has been linked to PEDs by anyone outside of a random commenter on the internet!!

      And the same week as AROD??!! Who is thinking of the children?!

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. Kevin says:

    hafner’s Dealer I have to agree with you about the steroids. I’m a die hard Indians fan but if there has ever been a guy on this team who has used steroids it has got to be him. He had all those good seasons early on especially in 06 or 07 when he had those 6 or 7 Grand Slams then starting the very next season and from then on out he hasn’t been even half that good with homers and the contact. When he was good he was a doubles and homers guy and after he stopped take them (which was around the time when steroids came back into the spotlight really hot and heavy for the second or third time) he has been a walks a singles guy averaging 10-15 homers a year. He had to have been using steroids for as good as he was then and for as bad as he sucks now. He may put up a decent number of homers (assuming he can stay in the lineup) in NY because of their short porch in right but we’ll see.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • YanksFanInBeantown says:

      Bro, averaging 10-15 HRs a year means that his power is still mostly there considering how much time he has been missing. The only evidence of steroids is the serious health problems the he’s had the last few years, not the mild power decline through his 30s

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. Natman says:

    Jim Thome is probably the steroid guy.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. camfrommaine41 says:

    Jim thome was and is clean

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  11. camfrommaine41 says:

    Jim Thome is your typical power slugger hall of famer. He has a high avg of home run per at bat? Other than that he was never a speedy type. Always the same size ,and his numbers went down normally with age swithed from 3b to first and dh. Yeah he is spring chicken. Have respect for a clean player!!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. olethros says:

    Manny Ramirez was an Indian.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  13. Shmuli says:

    A CJ Wilson fastball broke his hand and he was never the same. Not that hard to figure out what happened.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>