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.