Will the Real Jason Bartlett Please Stand Up?

Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett entered the 2009 season with a reputation as a good defender with plus speed and little to no home run power. He had the ability to hit for an above average batting average and could leg out some triples due to his plus speed. WAR had always treated him well due to his plus glove over the years but in his first year with the Rays his UZR declined to 2.1 runs above average. His WAR suffered to a below average 1.8 rating for the shortstop position and his .286/.329/.361 line (and well below average .311 wOBA) didn’t help his WAR prospects. He was entering the 2009 season as a 29 year old and people had a good idea what to expect from him.

And then Bartlett manages to hit an insane .320/.389/.490 with 14 home runs in 500 at-bats. Ironically, Bartlett’s glove (-5.5 UZR) hurt his value for the first time in his career but his hitting more than made up for it as he ranked fourth in WAR for MLB shortstops with a 4.8 number. Bartlett hit one home run during all of 2008 and he more than doubled his career home run total with his 2009 showing.

It’s fair to say that no one expected this kind of production from Bartlett entering 2009 just like many were blinded sided by the Ben Zobrist power surge. There’s been some work done to crack the Zobrist code and Bartlett has drawn some comparisons to the Zobrist surge. It’s extremely puzzling that Bartlett went from light hitting shortstop to a .490 slugging shortstop in one season.

Typically the media over speculates players that show up in “good” or “bad” shape during spring training but for what it’s worth Bartlett arrived at Rays sporting a bulkier frame that had 15 pounds added to it over the off season. Perhaps this could have negatively affected his defense as attributed to his -5.5 UZR but he still stole a career high 30 bases in 37 tries (81% success rate).

Upon further examination Bartlett whacked 11 of his 14 home runs away from Tropicana Field in 2009. And he hit much better on the road (.333/.405/.547) than he did at home (.305/.371/.425) but it should be noted that these splits show zero correlation to his 2008 home/road splits where he hit better at home. Bartlett seemed to enjoy the friendly confines of the new Yankee Stadium in 2009 where he slammed three of his fourteen homers.

The nifty Hit Tracker classifies each players home runs into certain bins. Eight of Bartlett’s home runs were labeled as “plenty home run” where the baseball comfortably left the ballpark. Six of his homers were classified as “Just Enoughers” which the Hit Tracker’s website defines as: “The ball cleared the fence by less than 10 vertical feet, OR that it landed less than one fence height past the fence. These are the ones that barely made it over the fence.” Perhaps the baseball gods helped a few extra homers clear the fence for Bartlett but he did still hit eight long balls comfortably over the fence.

This could be a classic case of good player development at the big league level where Bartlett made some adjustments and truly did become a new player with an improved skill set. But we will not accept nor should you be expected to accept that for an answer here at Fangraphs!

Enter our favorite toy: The Hardball Times BABIP estimator. This calculator finds an estimated BABIP based upon a players rate of HR’s, K’s, SB’s, line drives, fly balls, pop ups and groundballs. Bartlett had a flukey looking .368 BABIP in 2009 that easily trumps his .330 career mark.

Bartlett’s 2009 line drive percentage was an astounding 26% which would have screamed that his 2009 BABIP wasn’t too out of line as recently as a few years ago before we had the calculator and used the now defunct .120 + LD% formula for expected BABIP. This line drive percentage increase indicates that Bartlett did indeed hit the ball harder in 2009 and the more line drives the better but we still have to consider the margin for error in the data. Defining a line drive can be subjective to different scorers and me and you.

After plugging the proper values into the calculator it gives us an expected BABIP of .337 for Bartlett. This changes a lot and based off of this we would expect Bartlett to have hit .279/.348/.449 which is a bit more normal than his .320/.389/.490 triple-slash in 2009.

I do believe in the human element in baseball and do believe in strong player development and that players do make adjustments as they advance in their careers just like we become better at our professions as we spend more years in a particular field of concentration. If you’ve spent ten years in a certain career I bet you feel that you’re a much better and more knowledgeable worker than you were five years ago. People make adjustments and do improve and Jason Bartlett can too. We must not forget that he is a human being.

In summary the numbers do suggest that Bartlett made some notable improvements to his game. His strong line drive percentage suggests that he’s hitting the ball harder. The Hit Tracker says he popped eight “plenty” home runs that easily sailed over the fence. Just those eight homers spike his slugging percentage much more than the one homer did just one year ago in 2008. And he also set a career high in stolen bases at 30. While Bartlett mashed much better away from home the sample size (200+ at-bats on the road and at home) is not enough to draw a convicting conclusion. Tom Tango would have harsh some words for me if I tried using splits of that size to indicate a change in skill.

Bartlett’s six “just enough” homers as defined by the Hit Tracker suggest that he may have hit a few lucky homers last season. The trusty BABIP calculator believes Bartlett should have hit for a collective .279/.348/.449 in 2009 and I believe that’s a much closer indication of his true skill level even if it isn’t the perfect forecast. And I’m mighty excited to see how you all project Bartlett in our 2010 Fan Projections.

Bartlett will be a good bet for around 25 steals next year and a solid source of batting average (.290-.300) and some power. It’d be safe to project ten home runs from him in 2009. Luckily for fantasy owners they are not responsible for projecting Bartlett’s defense which has slowly declined over the past three seasons according to UZR. UZR no longer sees him in the elite fielding category for shortstops like he was during his Minnesota days.

Jason Bartlett stunned a lot of people in 2009 but while it appears that he made some real adjustments to his game don’t think he’s the .389 wOBA hitter that he was in 2009. Fantasy players may be antsy to pop Bartlett early in your draft next year but don’t be the one to do so. You’ll be better off to select another safer shortstop option.




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Dan is a Sports Marketing major at Duquesne University and most recently interned with Baseball America. He also spent parts of two seasons as an intern with the Washington Nationals. He aspires to work in a baseball operations department and can be reached at danbudreika@gmail.com.


9 Responses to “Will the Real Jason Bartlett Please Stand Up?”

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  1. jeffrey says:

    Editing note: Jason bartlett hit 1 HR in 2008, not 2009

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  2. Dan Budreika says:

    Just took care of this. Thanks for pointing it out.

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  3. lincolndude says:

    Bartlett’s 2009 definitely looks like an anomaly, but I don’t buy the linked article’s take on Zobrist.

    Zobrist raked at every stop in the minors. While it’s true he was a little old and he didn’t show much HR power, he always had plenty of gap power and tremendous plate discipline (.429 OBP in 1600 PA!). I think just as likely an explanation as the “revamped swing” mumbo-jumbo is that he was always a good hitter whose power simply developed late. It’s typical to see good, disciplined prospects hit few home runs in their early 20s and then suddenly develop power around 24 or 25. Maybe for Zobrist, who didn’t get his pro start until 23, it just came a couple of years late.

    How about this theory: he got unfairly hit with the fluke tag based on 1) being a middle infielder, and 2) a terrible start in the Majors. This is evident when the author of the linked article goes out of his way to mention that Zobrist improved his plate discipline in ’08-’09. He always had great discipline! He simply hadn’t put it together in his tiny (300 PA) Major League sample.

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  4. MDS says:

    bartlett showed some power in the second half of 2008 when his SLG went up to .464. a hamstring injury stopped his running (18 SB in the first half). anyone who did their homework would have seen a power uptick and potential for 30 SB.

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  5. R M says:

    1st/2nd half splits don’t mean much with established players…. eg. Ryan Howard has consistently hot 2nd halves, but this means little when projecting his next season.

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  6. Dan Budreika says:

    lincolndude,

    The Zobrist articles that I linked were not necessarily placed in my article to sternly compare Bartlett to Zobrist. I felt that it was fascinating that some people were comparing the two in such a manner.

    They are two different players but they do share one thing in common and that is that they really have surprised people with their recent performance spike. I personally found the article about how he changed his swing to be very interesting. Zobrist could be a miracle case of fantastic coaching and/or amazing player development.

    Yes, Zobrist did hit well in the minor leagues but he really “peaked” during his age 28 season. I don’t know how to really explain his power surge. He made a drastic change to his game starting in 2008. The numbers show that he became a different player with the ability to slug north of the .500 mark. Something happened. His 2009 performance proved that 2008 was no joke.

    While I agree with you that player’s tend to develop more player later in their careers (and that Zobrist has always had great plate discipline) it is rare for player’s to develop as much as as Zobrist has recently. We are talking about a guy that hit 23 career minor league home runs and then all of a sudden hits 39 over his last 826 MAJOR LEAGUE at-bats. That just doesn’t usually happen. I’m sure the Rays front office didn’t expect Zobrist to hit for power like he is now when they acquired him in the Aubrey Huff deal nor did former Astros GM Tim Purpura think he had this kind of potential.

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    • lincolndude says:

      Dan, I liked your article and wasn’t taking exception to it. I just strongly disagree with what the linked author wrote (so maybe I should have commented on that website).

      For an interesting comparison, take a look at Hanley Ramirez’s stats in the minors and majors. Add 5 years to his age and you basically have a less disciplined Zobrist (ignoring baserunning, of course). Aaron Hill and J.J. Hardy are other MIs who flashed little power in the minors, then suddenly put it together around age 25.

      I agree, the Zobrist example is more extreme than any of these others, and it’s compounded by the fact that for him the power came even later, at 27.

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      • Dan Budreika says:

        Lincolndude,

        No hard feelings. It’s interesting that you mention Hanley Ramirez. He’s an interesting case and absolutely exploded when he arrived in the bigs. His last year with Boston (spent mostly in AA) was a bit lackluster. Scouts always raved about his tools and I remember some scouts thinking that he, “just looked bored out there (in the minors)”.

        Perhaps that’s where makeup steps in and plays a big role. But defining “what makeup is” to different teams is an entire different story within itself.

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