Fukudome’s Oddly Productive Start

Here’s the full-league wOBA leader board, set to a minimum 50 PA. On this you will see few surprises. We know that Jose Bautista , Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez, and company are off to hot starts. We also have heard plenty about unexpected contributors such as Jed Lowrie and Russell Martin . In fact, only one name really stands out in this top 10.

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Of course, if you read the headline you know which one I’m talking about. Kosuke Fukudome with a .483 wOBA? Well that was unexpected.

That is, Fukudome’s hot start might be unexpected if you just look at his total season numbers. If, however, you have access to the Bonus Blog (or ESPN Insider), you might have caught this article on Fukudome from last year, in which I, with a major assist from Dave Allen, examined Fukudome’s three-year trend of hot starts. Why, then, would this one be a bit more interesting than the others? Because he’s accomplishing it in a much different way.

In Aprils past, Fukudome has been productive largely because he hit the ball in the air. His ground ball rate in March and April from 2008 through 2010 was around 41%, while it was around 50 percent the rest of the year. That split was even more pronounced last year, as he had a 40% ground ball rate in April and then finished the year with a 50% rate — i.e., it was much higher later in the year, as high as 67.4% in June. That made his drops in production easy to understand. Stop hitting the ball int the air, stop hitting for power. Here’s a quick table of his extra base hit percentages (XBH/AB) in April and then the rest of the year.

Year   XBH% April    XBH% Rest of Year
2008    11.2              6.7
2009    14.1              10.3
2010    12.5              8.8 

Why this happens I’m not sure, but that has been the case for Fukudome’s first three seasons in the majors. In that way, it probably shouldn’t strike you as surprising that Fukudome has a .478 wOBA through his first 57 PA. If he’s started hot before, it’s not news, right? Well, since I’ve taken the time to write a post on it, clearly something looks different this year.

It appears Fukudome has gotten a head start on his return to ground ball hitting, as his GB% is already at 51.2. That is higher than his marks from each of his first three seasons, so clearly he is not following his Fly Ball April trend. In fact, he’s hit just 9 fly balls so far this season, and a third of them have been of the infield variety. He is hitting some balls in the air, as he has a 26.8% line drive rate, which ranks him among the league leaders.

What makes Fukudome’s wOBA truly baffling is that he has just one extra base hit on the year, a double that he hit on Sunday. Other than that it has been a barrage of singles: 21 to be exact, five of which he hit in yesterday’s game. How someone singles their way to a .478 wOBA is beyond me. But that’s the reality right now.

You can look at his BABIP, .537, to get a quick and dirty read on why he’s been so successful. Part of that is the high line drive rate. The NL is hitting .725 on line drives, which is right around Fukudome’s .733. Where he stands out is on those 20 ground balls. Ten of them have gone for hits, including that lone double. And so on grounders he’s hitting .500 with a .550 SLG. The league is hitting .238 with a .254 SLG on ground balls.

It doesn’t take a baseball analyst to tell you this won’t last. Maybe his line drive rate doesn’t take a precipitous hit; he did maintain a 24% line drive rate in 2009, after all. But he hit about a hundred points lower than his current pace on line drives that year. (Which is probably in part due to some fly balls being classified as liners, an issue that Colin Wyers explored in 2009.) Most of all, he clearly won’t maintain a .500 BABIP on ground balls. That’s more important than looking at his BABIP as a whole and declaring it unsustainable. Why is it unsustainable?, is the question often left unanswered. In this case, it’s because he’s hitting all those liners, and because his grounders are finding holes more often than can be sustained during an entire season.

On the surface, there might not be much interesting about a player off to a hot start, even if it includes a .500 BABIP on grounders. But considering Fukudome’s past, his .478 wOBA comes as a wholesale shock. He’s had hot starts before, but that’s because he was putting the ball in the air and hitting for extra bases. This year he’s keeping it on the ground and singling opponents to death. The only question left, really, is of whether he does start to hit the ball in the air and for extra bases later in the season, reversing his three-year trend. That would represent quite a contract year for Fukudome.

We hoped you liked reading Fukudome’s Oddly Productive Start by Joe Pawlikowski!

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

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His 17.5% BB% doesn’t hurt either, good for 12th in MLB.