Is Bryan LaHair’s Success Sustainable?

A visual analysis of Bryan LaHair’s swing.

Yes. Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair will sustain his success. The Cubs have indeed caught lightning in a bottle.

LaHair is leading the MLB with a .510 BABIP and is third behind Matt Kemp and Josh Hamilton with a 36.4% HR/FB ratio. Fans of Chicago’s northside and fans of regression to the mean have begun to pay extra close attention to LaHair because he has performed so well in these luck-affected categories. In Mike Axisa’s most recent first baseman rankings, he moved LaHair up to Tier Four, though he was uncertain of what LaHair would look like after the smoke cleared:

LaHair is off to a scorching start but his numbers will come back to Earth a bit once his .545 (!) BABIP returns to normal. That said, the man can definitely hit.

But how much of LaHair’s world-shattering .511 wOBA is white noise, and how much is thunder? Let’s investigate.

Using Fielding Independent wOBA, we can easily and numerically regress LaHair’s numbers to reflect his career rates or his present xBABIP.

Right now, LaHair has:

Walk rate: 15.5%
Strike out rate: 29.1%
Home run rate: 7.8%
Steal rate: 0.0%
BABIP: .510

All for a wOBA of: .511

Despite his 29 looong years of age, LaHair has only 322 PA in his MLB career. And since his last 103 PA have come with an unsustainable .510 BABIP, it has skewed his career BABIP to .390. In the minors, LaHair consistently displayed an ability to keep his BABIP above .330, so we can start there, but just guessing what his true talent BABIP is would be too tough.

Using slash12’s xBABIP calculator, we get a .349 BABIP — still quite high, but in line with what we find in his minor league career (where his career BABIP was .347).

His present home run rate suggests he will finish the season with 46 or more homers. In the last three seasons, that has happened only three times, and the closest to it in 2011 was Jose Bautista with 43. So color me unconvinced of LaHair’s present home run rate. His career home run rate of 4.0%, however, suggests about 24 homers — a much more reasonable proposition.

LaHair also has a career-high — for both major and minor leagues — in walk rate. In the minors, he typically stayed around what his career rate is now, 11.8%. So maybe we are also unconvinced of his present walk rate, and want to see that regressed to normal.

If we apply these regressions, one at a time, to the Fielding Independent wOBA calculator, we still get a first baseman who is well above the league average first baseman:

Even if he regresses to basically the shell of what he is right now, the Cubs’ first baseman will still be 26 points above the league average first baseman.

LaHair is a most interesting case study. In the preseason, he divided analysts. Mike Podhorzer made a bold prediction that LaHair would hit fewer than 10 homers and hand his job to Anthony Rizzo by June. Howard Bender — equally bold — forecast at least 30 home runs for LaHair, while Dan Wade suggested 25 dongers.

LaHair had earned a Quad-A label, but earned a starting job almost on that same merit. Rarely do we see an aging minor league slugger get handed a starting position based on his MiLB statistical merits alone. And despite his Quad-A label, at this point in his career, only cutter and curves have given him any sustained problems.

Was LaHair not really Quad-A? Or is it that “Quad-A” is just an antiquated designation? Honestly, it’s hard to say. But this is for sure:

LaHair is a bit of lightning that will hang around for a while.

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10 years ago

ZIPS RoS has him at 270/340/500 and that feels dead on the money, which is awesome considering his age and where he was just a few years ago. Late bloomers – they exist! Great story.