The Most Volatile Hitter in Baseball History

Allow me to share with you an unremarkable batting line: .235/.308/.412. It doesn’t belong to Logan Morrison, but it might as well. This line belongs to another veteran, and it covers the last four years, and it’s worked out to a 98 wRC+. You can tell there’s seemingly nothing too special about the bat. To that, I’ll add that the player isn’t a particularly strong base-runner, nor is he a particularly strong defender. Some time ago, he had a $3-million club option declined, and that might just tell you enough. This is a player with some legitimate uses. This is a player with a fairly low value.

As far as 2016 is concerned, we’re talking about a role player. Currently a free agent, he’ll get a shot with someone in the coming month or two. He should be a weapon off somebody’s bench. But what’s most interesting about Ryan Raburn isn’t what he projects to be for the immediate future. What’s most interesting about Ryan Raburn is exactly how he’s arrived at such an uninteresting overall four-year performance.

I was talking with August about this a little bit in Nashville, when we were around for the winter meetings. August got to watch Raburn in Cleveland, and his career trajectory didn’t escape August’s attention, either. We’re both naturally drawn to this stuff, and while there was no good reason to write about Raburn with so much else going on back then, there’s hardly anything going on now, so a Raburn post can be rationalized. You might beg to differ, but you’re still reading this post. You knew it was about Ryan Raburn two paragraphs ago.

This is the thing about him — this plot of career season-to-season wRC+:

ryan-raburn-wRC+

The whole thing is fun, but this post is mostly going to focus on the red box, spanning Raburn’s 2012 – 2015. In each of those years, Raburn’s managed to bat more than 200 times. In each of those years, he’s been a wildly different hitter.

You can look at the wRC+ right there on the plot. You know how the statistic works. You know what the league average is. Setting a minimum of 200 plate appearances: In 2012, Raburn out-hit only Wilson Valdez. Then he signed a minor-league contract, and he was a top-15 bat on a rate basis, hitting as well as Josh Donaldson. So he signed a two-year big-league contract, and then he was a bottom-10 bat, hitting worse than Andrew Romine. Then he bounced back and was a top-10 bat on a rate basis, again hitting as well as Donaldson. In short, we’ve got four years. In two of them, Raburn was one of baseball’s worst hitters. In two of them, Raburn was one of baseball’s best hitters. For maximum confusion, he alternated.

Throughout baseball history, there have been more than 14,000 stretches of four consecutive seasons with at least 200 trips to the plate. Where does Raburn’s volatility rank? I decided to look at this two ways. First, I looked at all the players’ four years, and then I calculated the wRC+ standard deviations. Here are the top 10:

Hitter Volatility, wRC+
Player First Year Last Year Y1 Y2 Y3 Y4 Standard Deviation
Ryan Raburn 2012 2015 28 149 52 155 65.4
Ryan Raburn 2011 2014 94 28 149 52 53.0
Ryan Raburn 2010 2013 120 94 28 149 51.6
Travis Hafner 2005 2008 166 176 121 64 51.1
Fred Dunlap 1884 1887 214 118 117 106 50.5
Clyde Barnhart 1923 1926 151 91 114 31 50.3
Justin Morneau 2010 2013 183 68 107 101 48.6
Jermaine Dye 2003 2006 36 103 119 151 48.5
Justin Morneau 2009 2012 126 183 68 107 47.9
Justin Morneau 2008 2011 128 126 183 68 47.0

There’s overlap, which makes sense — this table basically includes Raburn’s most recent six seasons. By this measure, two years ago, Raburn would’ve rated as the most volatile hitter in baseball history. The next year, he would’ve broken his own mark. And then he re-broke it again, in 2015. He actually destroyed every other mark. That most recent standard deviation begins with a six, whereas the next-closest all begin with fives.

That’s one look. Here’s another. With standard deviations, you don’t care as much about sequencing. Here, I calculated the absolute values of the year-to-year changes in wRC+, and added them up. So if a player went from 50 to 100 to 50 to 100, he’d have a total change of 50 + 50 + 50 = 150. The top 10:

Hitter Volatility, wRC+
Player First Year Last Year Y1 Y2 Y3 Y4 Total Change
Ryan Raburn 2012 2015 28 149 52 155 321
Ryan Raburn 2011 2014 94 28 149 52 284
Roy Campanella 1953 1956 154 75 150 89 215
Ryan Raburn 2010 2013 120 94 28 149 213
Justin Morneau 2009 2012 126 183 68 107 211
Jose Hernandez 2002 2005 119 58 133 63 206
Gary Sheffield 1990 1993 118 67 172 123 205
Leroy Stanton 1975 1978 121 66 129 46 201
Clyde Barnhart 1925 1928 114 31 116 89 195
Scott Brosius 1996 1999 131 50 123 82 195

Once more, there’s no one close to Raburn’s last four years, except for Raburn himself. He very nearly pulled off three consecutive wRC+ changes of 100 or more points. After Raburn, Campanella trails by 106. Then there’s Raburn again, just because. You can bring up Raburn’s limited sample sizes, and that’s fine, because it’s a valid point. Raburn hasn’t been anything like an everyday player, so it’s been comparatively easy for his numbers to bounce around like this. But don’t get too bogged down in that. When seasons end, season numbers become official. Raburn’s official season numbers have bounced around like nobody else’s. That was already true before last year, when he kicked it up a notch.

As noted before, Raburn’s four-year wRC+ is a frighteningly average 98. For his career, he’s at 103. What on Earth has been going on? For the most part, I can’t tell you — this is just one of those handy reminders that baseball statistics are capable of going insane. But it’s worth saying Raburn’s whole 2014 might’ve just been lost to injuries sustained in spring training. That doesn’t explain why he was even worse in 2012. Nor does it explain why he spent the other two years as a part-time Josh Donaldson. We don’t have to be talking about true-talent changes. Ryan Raburn has always been Ryan Raburn. Over 200 or 300 trips to the plate, Ryan Raburn is capable of occupying opposite ends of a broad spectrum. Many players are, but Raburn has actually done it.

It’s already this much fun to examine Raburn’s 2012 – 2015 window. In each of those years, he exceeded 200 plate appearances, but he fell short of 300. In both 2011 and 2010, Raburn exceeded 400 plate appearances. Look what happens when you check out his splits from those years:

Raburn, 2011

  • First half: 59 wRC+
  • Second half: 162

Raburn, 2010

  • First half: 72 wRC+
  • Second half: 144

Ryan Raburn hasn’t made a lot of sense in ages. That doesn’t make him any more or less valuable. It just gives him one of the weirder careers the game has ever seen. I’m sure he’s known for a good while he wasn’t on track to be a Hall-of-Famer. I’m sure he’s come to terms with that. This isn’t the worst kind of fallback, if all you want is to make yourself memorable. In April 2011, I watched Miguel Olivo get credit for a home run because Raburn couldn’t make an awkward catch, and the ball bounced off his glove and over the fence. I thought that was the weirdest thing Raburn might ever do. Turns out he’d barely even gotten started.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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trenkes
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trenkes
4 months 11 days ago

Also something like a quarter of Raburn’s career RBIs have come against the White Sox. He lights up Chris Sale. Bizarre player.

SteveM
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SteveM
4 months 11 days ago

It might be interesting to know Raburn’s contract status in each of these up/down years. Maybe he’s that much better when he’s playing for a contract.

Joser
Member
Joser
4 months 11 days ago

in 2012 he as at the end of a two-year contract in Detroit, and thus was in a “contract year” and was terrible. In 2013, he was on a one-year contract and thus was in a “contract year” and was good. In 2014 he was at the beginning of a two year deal and thus not in a contract year, and was terrible. In 2015 he was facing a team option for 2016 and thus was effectively in a “contract year” and was good. You might conclude something from that limited evidence, but it seems pretty random to me.

GoodEnoughForMe
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GoodEnoughForMe
4 months 11 days ago

This is bizarre, although a little research shows:

Ryan Raburn’s BABIP:
2012: .224
2013: .311
2014: .245
2015: .361

That said, it’s not all BABIP. His walk rates in 2013 and 2015 are over 10%, while in 2012 and 2014, they’re just about 6%. His .iso fluctuates from sub .100 to mid .200s. Weird thing is, his batted balls don’t change all that much year to year, other than super elevated HR/FB rates on good years.

In short; wtf.

dl80
Member
dl80
4 months 11 days ago

It is really weird. The one thing I found is that he’s almost always been a lefty masher, but was terrible against them in 2012 and 2014.

He’s only been better than average against righties once since 2007 (2013) and his career average wRC+ against righties is 85.

So all of his damage basically comes against lefties (and about half his at bats).

His wRC+ against lefties since 2009:
150
148
116
27
182
66
173
with a career against them of 122.

So almost always phenomenal against lefties except for 2012 and 2014. His BB/K ratio against lefties those years wasn’t dramatically different than his career but his ISO was way down and the BABIP was waaay down (.205 and .225 against lefties in 2012 and 2014 vs career average of .302).

If it weren’t for the ISO changes, I’d say he just got really unlucky against lefties those two years and since that’s where his offense mostly comes from, that is it. But the ISO being so far down makes it seem like he had some weird problems against lefties those years for some reason.

I wonder if high K/low BB lefty mashers are especially prone to swings when they suddenly can’t hit lefties.

Chris Young comes to mind. Despite usually killing lefties, he was bad against them in 2007, 2013, and 2014, and it killed his whole line.

With these guys, it almost doesn’t matter what they do against righties from year to year, since all their damage comes against lefties.

Hurtlocker
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Hurtlocker
4 months 11 days ago

The Giants should never, ever sign this guy.

Eminor3rd
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Eminor3rd
4 months 11 days ago

Check out his career line vs. the White Sox. He may have the most extreme “team split” in history.

R.Dwyer
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Member
R.Dwyer
4 months 11 days ago

Now I need to know the least volatile hitters!

dfives
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dfives
4 months 11 days ago
Ivan_Grushenko
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Ivan_Grushenko
4 months 11 days ago
AaronC
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AaronC
4 months 11 days ago

*Reads title* Duh, Milton Bradley.
*Reads article* Oh, not that kind of “volatile.”

outliarbaseball.com
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outliarbaseball.com
4 months 11 days ago

I’ve been at the ballpark and seen Raburn do something super-weird. July 2014, it was a Corey Kluber perfect game bid (7th or 8th inning) in Kansas City. Moustakas broke up the perfect game with a double into the corner. Raburn fished it out and promptly threw the ball into no-man’s-land in CF, allowing Moustakas to score from second.

I’ll find footage of this Raburn-caused not-an-inside-the-park-home-run to break up a late-inning perfect game bid. Two seconds.

outliarbaseball.com
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outliarbaseball.com
4 months 11 days ago
isavage
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isavage
4 months 11 days ago

The infamous Raburn spike. Almost made Klubot explode. At the same time, prior to Chisenhall moving to the outfield, Raburn was also responsible for the best plays in right field of any Cleveland defender.

Sam
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Sam
4 months 11 days ago

That play pretty aptly sums up the respective fortunes of the Royals and Indians over the last year or so.

jIyajbe
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jIyajbe
4 months 11 days ago

Hi Jeff,

Brand new user, so sorry if this is the wrong way to ask…What’s the best way to send you a topic suggestion for an article?

Joser
Member
Joser
4 months 11 days ago

Well, if you can write it yourself you can use the “Submit Article” link in the header on the site. If you can’t… I think I’d still use that link to outline the article you imagine. Just don’t assume anybody will do anything with it. That said, this is the slow part of the year and some authors are looking for a fresh take on anything.

The other way to get a particular author’s attention is to participate in one of their chats.

jIyajbe
Member
jIyajbe
4 months 11 days ago

Thanks, Joser! Dunno if I have the chops to write it (or the time)…If not, I’ll follow your suggestions.

Dan Farnsworth
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Member
4 months 11 days ago

Twitter is probably best. Most of the handles are at the bottom of the articles in the bio blurb. Jeff’s is @based_ball

LMOTFOTE
Member
LMOTFOTE
4 months 11 days ago

Ah, Ryan Raburn. I’ve followed the Tigers my entire life so there was no doubt in my mind. One of the most thoroughly entertaining players that I can recall. The wide swings in performance were not limited to batting. In the field he had a strong if erratic arm and played aggressively. There can easily be a highlight reel of Raburn’s almost great plays and plays gone horribly awry. My favorite being the time he tripped through the bullpen door in deep RC in Cleveland (I think), falling into the bullpen and out of view while the batter circled the bases–it was such good entertainment the TV barely cut to the baserunner at all.

filihok
Member
4 months 11 days ago

Jeff, or anyone, any ideas what a “normal” amount of year-to-year variation for a player is?

We hear a lot about consistency, but what IS consistent?

Mean Mr. Mustard
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Mean Mr. Mustard
4 months 11 days ago

Joe Morgan.

rjbiii
Member
rjbiii
4 months 11 days ago

Someone please buy Eno Sarris a plane ticket to wherever Rayburn is; this one is crying out for one of his brilliant player interviews. Truly bizarre.

rbemont
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rbemont
4 months 11 days ago

Don’t be this Ryan Rayburn.

RMD4
Member
RMD4
4 months 11 days ago

Yeah but he’s about the least volatile pitcher in Major League history — career ERA of 0.00. His career xFIP of 4.57 may come back to haunt him though.

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