(Still) The Most Volatile Hitter in Baseball History

Last week, on Twitter, Mike Petriello reminded me that, in January of 2016, I wrote a post entitled The Most Volatile Hitter in Baseball History. The headline was sexy and interesting, because I didn’t know any other way to convince you to read a post about Ryan Raburn. The gist: I looked at all four-year season stretches dating back to 1900, with at least 200 plate appearances in each season. Raburn, over his four-year span beginning in 2012, had seen his wRC+ bounce around the most. He went from being one of the worst hitters to being one of the best hitters to being one of the worst hitters to being one of the best hitters. I don’t know what it meant. It just instantly became the most interesting thing about Ryan Raburn.

Okay! So, since 1900, there have been more than 8,300 cases where a player was a “qualified” hitter in consecutive years. Who had the biggest year-to-year drop in wRC+? You might be able to guess this one — it’s Bryce Harper, who just saw his wRC+ drop by 85 points. Though he wasn’t bad by any means in the most recent year, he wasn’t the destroyer of worlds he’d been the summer before. Rumors continue to swirl that Harper was playing through significant pain.

Bryce Harper’s wRC+ just lost 85 points. A massive, historic drop. If you look at the last two years and reduce the playing-time minimum, the guy with the second-biggest drop, at 81 points, is Ryan Raburn.

The pattern, therefore, continues.

The first time around, I looked at four-year stretches, with a minimum of 200 plate appearances in each. Raburn has batted at least that many times every year since 2009, but since he’s often been close to 200, I opted to lower the minimum to 150 plate appearances. Now to look at five-year stretches. I had a pool of 12,044 five-year stretches to consider. Here are the stretches with the biggest wRC+ standard deviations:

Hitter Volatility, wRC+
Player First Year Last Year Y1 Y2 Y3 Y4 Y5 Standard Deviation
Ryan Raburn 2012 2016 28 149 50 154 73 57.7
Ryan Raburn 2011 2015 94 28 149 50 154 56.8
Ryan Raburn 2010 2014 120 94 28 149 50 49.6
Dusty Rhodes 1953 1957 89 181 125 83 55 48.5
Danny Valencia 2012 2016 26 140 85 136 118 47.2
Ryan Raburn 2009 2013 129 120 94 28 149 46.9
Danny Valencia 2011 2015 83 26 140 85 136 46.7
Travis Hafner 2004 2008 158 166 176 121 64 45.8
Travis Hafner 2005 2009 166 176 121 64 115 44.9
Bernard Gilkey 1996 2000 152 102 74 117 34 44.6

It’s Ryan Raburn! In second place, overlapping Ryan Raburn. In third place, overlapping Ryan Raburn. And then a somewhat distant Dusty Rhodes. But one thing about standard deviations is that they don’t really consider sequencing. Going 100 – 100 – 50 would look the same as going 100 – 50 – 100. The second example looks more volatile, so to capture that, I’ve looked at the total wRC+ change. I took the absolute values of the changes between each year and then added them together. The leaders:

Hitter Volatility, wRC+
Player First Year Last Year Y1 Y2 Y3 Y4 Y5 Total Change
Ryan Raburn 2012 2016 28 149 50 154 73 405
Ryan Raburn 2011 2015 94 28 149 50 154 390
Ryan Raburn 2010 2014 120 94 28 149 50 312
Danny Valencia 2011 2015 83 26 140 85 136 277
Danny Valencia 2010 2014 117 83 26 140 85 260
Clyde Barnhart 1923 1927 151 91 114 31 116 251
Joel Youngblood 1980 1984 102 164 75 138 101 251
Roy Campanella 1952 1956 120 154 75 150 89 249
Rafael Furcal 2007 2011 82 171 93 126 83 243
Lou Piniella 1972 1976 136 76 114 38 106 242

It’s not even close. Over the last five years, Raburn’s wRC+ has changed by an average of about 101 points a season. The nearest non-Raburn name is 2011 – 2015 Danny Valencia, at an average of about 69 points a season. Raburn established a historic pattern, and then continued it. I wasn’t expecting that, even though, you know.

Basic pattern recognition would suggest Raburn is now due for another offensive breakout. He happens to be a free agent, and the last time he was linked on MLB Trade Rumors was last March 29. Every team in baseball would tell you, no, that conclusion is stupid, that’s not how this works. But I think we can all agree that baseball probably doesn’t quite understand how Ryan Raburn works. How could it?

We hoped you liked reading (Still) The Most Volatile Hitter in Baseball History by Jeff Sullivan!

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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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File under: what are the Rockies doing? After in 2014-2015 facing almost entirely left-handed pitchers, Raburn comes to Colorado and faces more righties than lefties. Obviously he was bad in 2014 so it’s not like that is the whole reason he was bad. But they didn’t even play him more. He just played the same amount, but less optimally.