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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.