Terrible Months in Good Seasons

Even good hitters go through a cold streaks at some point. If they want to avoid fan panic, though, they need to make sure and save those week or month-long slumps for later in the season. When slumps happen at the beginning of the season, they sandbag the player’s line, and it takes a while for even a good hitter’s line to return to “normal.” Most FanGraphs readers are familiar with the notion of small sample, and thus are, at least on an intellectual level, hopefully immunized against overreaction to early season struggles of good players.

Nonetheless, at this time of the year it is often good to have some existential reassurance. Intellectually, we know that just because a cold streak happens over the first two weeks or month of a season it is not any different than happening in the middle of the year. Slumps at the beginning of the year simply stand out more because they are the whole of the player’s line. One terrible month (and we are not even at the one month point in this season) does not doom a season. Rather than repeat the same old stuff about regression and sample size, this post will offer to anecdotal help. Here are five seasons from hitters, each of which contain (at least) one terrible month at some point, but each of which turned out to be excellent overall.

[A quick note about the query parameters: I searched for seasons in which a hitter had at least 500 plate appearances on the year and at least 80 plate appearances in the month. The minimum seasonal wRC+ was set at 140. Thus, these are the five worst months (of at least 80 plate appearances) by any hitter with 500 or more seasonal plate appearances and a final wRC+ of at least 140 since 2002.]

Chase Utley is off to an amazingly hot start this season, which carries its own warnings. Now in his mid-30s, Utley has still been a good player the last few years. It simply pales in comparison to his prime. From 2005 to 2009, Utley was one of the best players in baseball, combining tremendous defense at second base, outsanding base running, and bat that would have played on a star level even if he had been a defensively-challenged first baseman.

In September 2009, Utley had a terrible month at the plate in just about every respect, hitting just 64 wRC+ (.193/.290/.325) in 131 plate appearances. Yet 2009 turned out to be a great season for Utley overall, perhaps his last truly great year. He finished the regular season with a 141 wRC+ (.282/.397/.508) in 687 plate appearances. Perhaps a foot contusion was giving him problems, but that problem was reported already in May (when he had a 138 wRC+), so it may have been an issue all year. Saying he was simply out of gas by September does not really work, either, as Utley went on to destroy opposing pitching during the Phillies’ playoff run to the World Series, hitting .296/.424/.648 (178 wRC+) in 64 post-season plate appearances.

Alex Avila was a very pleasant surprise for the Tigers in 2011. Even for those who expected regression, he looked like he was on his way to be something more than just a stopgap. Although has bat has still been good enough for a catcher the last two seasons, it has been a bit of a comedown for Tigers fans, especially last year. In 2011, though, Avila pretty much tore the cover off of the ball. Sure, some of that was his .366 BABIP, but he hit for power (.211 ISO, 19 home runs in just 551 plate appearances) and took a plenty of walks. He finished the year with a 140 wRC+ (.295.389/.506).

If Utley was a star who had a bad month in a great year, Avila was a player one might think of as having a “lucky” season out of whack with is true talent. Whatever the case, it is not as if Avila was luck the whole season. In July, Avila had just a 63 wRC+ (.197/.345/.239) in 87 plate appearances. His walk rate stayed high, but his BABIP and power just disappeared. It happens, which is sort of the theme here. Still, a month of bad plate appearances did not ruin his season. Avila was back at it in August (213 wRC+) and September (126 wRC+), though a knee problem is likely at least partly responsible for his poor performance in the playoffs.

Vladimir Guerrero won the American League MVP in 2004, his first year with the Angels, and in 2005 he was almost as good. His final line for the 2005 season was .317/.394/.565 (148 wrc+), including 32 home runs. Guerrero was in his age 30 season, and although his decline would start to show the next season, even that was gradual. Guerrero had been a bit better (and healthier) the season before, and had had better seasons with the Expos, but this was close to be right of there with them.

Guerrero managed this impressive performance despite not just one, but two lousy months at the plate. After getting off to an incredibly hot start in April (165 wRC+), he put up only a 87 wRC+ in May. Guerrero went on the DL for a shoulder problem (which may have been part of the problem) at the end of that month, but came back even stronger in June, putting up a 238 wRC+ in 66 plate appearances. But things fell apart again in July. It was not a short month (relative to other months) of plate appearances for Guerrero, either. In 110 trips to the plate, Guerrero managed to make his May look like an offensive showcase, sporting a July line of .208/.264/.376 (61 wRC+). Guerrero was struggling with health issues during the season, and maybe those were worse at some times than others, but the reports are from through the year, and he put up monster months in both August (163 wRC+) and September (171 wRC+). I doubt many Angels fans complained in the aftermath.

Josh Hamilton was smoking the ball this year before he hurt his thumb sliding into first base. It was just the first couple of weeks (which is sort of the point of this post). Who knows how he will perform when he is back in the summer? Hamilton was last good over a full season in 2012, his final year with the Rangers. Of all the players discussed in the post, Hamilton probably has the greatest reputation for being streaky, and his 2012 illustrates it well. He ended the season with an excellent overall line: 141 wRC+ (.285/.354/.577). It was enough to reassure the Angels that he was worth a five-year commitment despite a questionable plate approach.

The season was not without bumps, though. After murdering numerous baseballs in April (209 wRC+) and May (204 wRC+), Hamilton began to flail in June, as his strikeout rate went over 30 percent, and his BABIP was only average. But it was in July that Hamilton seemingly hit rock bottom. In 91 plate appearances, he hit just .177/.253/.354 (50 wRC+). The power was down, but not terrible (.177 ISO). His strikeout rate was a bit high, but the main problem was that the hits were not dropping: just a .175 BABIP. Hitter BABIP varies more than that for pitchers, but it is still subject to far more randomness than, say, home run rate or strikeouts. These issues need not be rehearsed here; anything can happen over a month, especially with BABIP. Of course, pretty much everything went poorly for Hamilton in July. It drew a fair bit of attention then, can you imagine what would have happened if he had opened the season with that performance? As we have seen, though, his overall line for the turned out to be very good.

All of the previous examples are germane to the point about one bad month not dooming a season, but none of them are April. That is not really a problem, although it may appear to be since a player starting the season with a really bad line is usually more noticeable as it more visibly sandbags his line as people follow it from game to game. Just to round things out, our last and most extreme example does come from April.

Leading up to 2009, Derrek Lee’s previous five years with the Cubs had been varied. He had played on a superstar level in 2005, hitting .335/.418/.662 (170 wRC+) and having a career-best 6.8 WAR. On the other end of the spectrum, although he hit decently in 2006 when he was on the field, he missed most of the season due to a broken arm. The other pre-2009 seasons he displayed a mix of good hitting and good fielding to be a solidly above-average palyer. Most years he was a decent, above-average player. He had not been bad in 2008, but his overall offense appeared to be declining, particularly his power. His 111 wRC+ was his worst performance in years.

Thus, in 2009, in his age 33 season, one might reasonably expected Lee to play on a somewhat average or just above-average level. Perhaps another couple of years of full-time play before becoming a bench player or even retiring. During the first month of the 2009 season, though, Lee looked absolutely done. In 93 April 2009 plate appearances, Lee had just a 35 wRC+ (.189/.253/.284). If you have gotten this far in this post, you know how things turned out. Lee was not done. He absolutely demolished opposing pitching the rest of the season. Lee’s lowest monthly wRC+ after April was a 150 in June. He finished with the second-best season of his career, hitting for a 150 wRC+ (.306/.393/.579) in 615 plate appearances. A number of factors might have been involved in Lee’s problematic April, for example, there were reports of neck spasms. But reports of Lee’s neck problems also came up later in the season when he was absolutely aflame at the plate.

All of these cases are germane to the point, but if you need just one example to get you through a bad first month by your team’s star hitter, Derrek Lee’s 35 wRC+ in April of 2009 is the one to assuage your fears through the rough times. Naturally, there are no guarantees, so go ahead and squirm a bit.

If this post offers some reassurance, an upcoming post will do the opposite: dashing hopes by looking at great months in otherwise poor seasons.

Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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bad months are one thing, but 12 bad games to start a season will just doom someone, I hear