The Jaffe Reverse Curse (?)

We’d all like to believe we might have superpowers — if not X-ray vision, otherworldly strength or the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, then at least the capacity to turn the fortunes of our favorite athletes for the better. Via the miracles of selective memory, small sample sizes, arbitrary endpoints and confirmation bias, I’m here to tell you that I have the latter. Allow me to explain.

In the few months since I joined FanGraphs — and particularly since the start of the 2018 regular season — multiple readers have noted, both here and on Twitter, that several of the subjects I’ve covered, particularly (but not exclusively) slumping or underachieving ones, have experienced improved fortunes — or continued good fortunes — almost immediately after I covered them. It’s apparently the flip side of the infamous Jonah Keri Curse; over the years, my friend and occasional colleague has caused many a fan base to tremble in fear after he touts a player or team.

Let us consider the “evidence” of my powers, organized by the order of my coverage:

Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks (Profile)

I swear I’m not obsessed with Goldschmidt, but I’ve already checked in on the Arizona first baseman three times thus far this season, twice in depth and once in passing as part of the Diamondbacks’ offensive struggles as a whole. When I began writing about the five-time All-Star’s slow start for my April 11 piece, he had hit just .118/.333/.206 for a 70 wRC+, but the mere motion of my clickety-clacking fingers coincided with his first home run and multi-hit game of the 2018 season, lifting him all to 101 wRC+ overnight. By the end of April, his line was up to .273/.395/.505 (144 wRC+), and it appeared that the slugger had his mojo back.

Alas, that proved illusory. Though he was still hitting the ball hard through the first half of May, Goldschmidt’s wRC+ was down to 94 by the time I circled back on May 17 in the wake of A.J. Pollock’s fractured left thumb, and he wound up channeling Jeff Mathis for the month (.144/.252/.278). May wasn’t a total loss, however; on May 28, Goldschmidt singled of the Reds’ Tanner Rainey, marking his first hit of the year off a four-seam fastball of at least 95 mph. Eight days later, he collected his second, a double off the Giants’ Reyes Moronta. By that point, he was amid a 15-for-22 binge that included 11 extra-base hits, all at the expense of the Giants and Rockies.

Now Goldschmidt is hitting .264/.376/.529, which is admittedly a bit light in the batting average department by his high standards (.296 career), but his 143 wRC+ is snugly nestled between last year’s 142 and his career 144 mark. Though he’s added just one more hit against a 95+ four-seamer — a double off the Rockies’ German Marquez on June 8 — yes, the very day I examined his struggles with velocity — his wRC+ against all four-seamers has risen from 156 to 197 since that point, and he’s improved against sliders (from 75 to 89) and curves (from 88 to 118) as well.

BRB, setting up a Patreon for Diamondbacks fans to pay me for writing about Goldschmidt at least once a month…

Gary Sanchez, Yankees (Profile)

Through the first 37 plate appearances of his season, the Yankees’ backstop batted just .056/.081/.167 for a -42 wRC+ (“something closer to an ASCII approximation of a smashed fly than it is a comprehensible comparison to league average,” I wrote on April 12) before a two-homer game against the Red Sox pushed him into the black (40 wRC+) in a single night. While his batting average remains below the Mendoza Line (.194/.292/.441), Sanchez had raised his wRC+ to 99 by hitting .210/.321/.452 with 11 homers in the 218 plate appearances between that game and Saturday — not pretty, but good for a 112 wRC+, a mark that would rank fifth among regular catchers by itself.

Unfortunately, Sanchez not only went 0-for-5 in the Yankees’ 12-inning loss to the Rays on Sunday, he suffered a groin strain while grounding into a double play, which will likely force him to the disabled list. Sometimes my superpowers carry only so far.

Joey Votto, Reds (Profile)

On April 20, a day after the Reds axed manager Bryan Price, I examined Votto, whose uncharacteristic .258/.315/.273 line through his first 73 plate appearances contained just one extra-base hit (a double) and five walks (6.8%, a bit over one-third of his previous season’s rate); his wRC+ was a pathetic 59. Though he went hitless in his next two games, he did draw five walks in nine plate appearances over that span, kicking off a .320/.466/.529 (172 wRC+) tear — in other words, Joey Votto hitting like Joey Freakin’ Votto — over a 262 PA span. He’s up to .305/.433/.467 (148 wRC+) overall, and nobody’s crying in their Skyline Chili over his slump. What’s more, the Reds, who were just 3-15 under Price this year, have won seven in a row and are a relatively respectable 29-30 under interim manager Jim Riggleman.

You’re welcome, Reds fans.

Mike Trout, Angels (Profile)

Trout wasn’t in any kind of slump when I checked in to note that, despite being two-and-a-half months shy of his 27th birthday, he had reached the JAWS standard for center fielders, the average of each Hall of Fame center fielder’s career and seven-year peak WAR (both Baseball-Reference flavored). On the contrary, he had posted 4.0 bWAR to that point and was hitting 294/.440/.632 (188 wRC+).

No doubt relieved by knowing that the hard part of carving out a path to Cooperstown was done, Trout has gone hog-wild since then, hitting .390/.512/.750 (238 wRC+) with nine homers in a 29-game span entering Sunday. He added another 2.6 bWAR in the process, raising his JAWS from 57.9 to 60.5, not only surpassing seventh-ranked Duke Snider (58.1) but leaving him in the dust.

Sometimes, even I don’t know my own strength.

Ian Kinsler, Angels (Profile)

When I took Kinsler’s temperature nearly three weeks ago to see if he was indeed fully cooked, the Angels’ second-sacker was hitting a meager .212/.279/.348. Among 85 batting-title qualifiers in the American League, his OBP ranked 80th, his slugging percentage 78th, his 74 wRC+ 77th. In his 46 starts, he’d put together just nine multi-hit games and hit five homers. Over his next 13 games, he matched that homer total and collected five multi-hit games, batting .268/.339/.607. The 0-for-10 skid he carried into Sunday took some of the shine off that, but he’s raised his wRC+ to 86 (.216/.281/.388), rising from the sixth-lowest (out of 85) AL batting title qualifiers to the 18th-lowest (still out of 85). Also worth noting: his 67 wRC+ against four-seam fastballs at the point when I wrote has risen to 89.

Progress is progress, even if that surge isn’t going to carry Kinsler over the JAWS threshold.

Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (Profile)

Having noted that the Tigers’ slugger was done for the year due to a ruptured left biceps tendon, I am saddened to report that while he underwent successful surgery on June 14, he is still done for the year. It’s this rare kind of failure in changing a player’s season for the better that gives me a necessary dose of humility, but I know that I am a better man for it.

Chris Davis, Orioles (Profile)

Davis was hitting a gruesome .150/.227/.227 for a 24 wRC+ when I suggested he might be having the worst season ever. With his -1.9 WAR through the Orioles’ 67 games (of which he had played 57), he was on pace for about -4.6 WAR, in danger of “surpassing” the 1933 Browns’ hapless shortstop Jim Levey (-4.0) for the lowest single-season showing since 1901.

Hours after my article was published (and after my week-long vacation started), the Orioles announced that Davis, who had sat out the Orioles’ June 13 game heading into an off day, would be benched indefinitely. He didn’t play again until June 22, instead focusing on “get[ting] back to who I was,” and in the first two plate appearances of his return against the Braves’ Sean Newcomb, walked and then homered, something he had only done four times prior to the benching. He walked again and hit a sacrifice fly in what turned out to be a 15-inning game, then went 1-for-4 with a three-run double on Saturday. The two-day surge raised his wRC+ to 29 (.153/.233/.247), but more importantly, his time on the pine has helped to slow the pace of his descent below replacement level to -4.3 over a full season.

That should be enough evidence to convince you, right? Sure, I could continue gloating about José Ramírez remaining on pace for the highest single-season WAR for a third baseman, concede that my look into Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria has yielded at best one thumbs up and one thumb in a splint, and zip right past any updates of the hot-starting Gregory Polanco and the Pirates, or the high-wire act of the Mariners because we’re all busy people. Trust me on this superpower, ladies and gents, and please, feel free to send cash along with suggestions as to the next players I should cover.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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Charlie Hustlemember
4 years ago

I think Anthony Rizzo is overdue for a write up….