The Most Volatile Hitter in Baseball History

Allow me to share with you an unremarkable batting line: .235/.308/.412. It doesn’t belong to Logan Morrison, but it might as well. This line belongs to another veteran, and it covers the last four years, and it’s worked out to a 98 wRC+. You can tell there’s seemingly nothing too special about the bat. To that, I’ll add that the player isn’t a particularly strong base-runner, nor is he a particularly strong defender. Some time ago, he had a $3-million club option declined, and that might just tell you enough. This is a player with some legitimate uses. This is a player with a fairly low value.

As far as 2016 is concerned, we’re talking about a role player. Currently a free agent, he’ll get a shot with someone in the coming month or two. He should be a weapon off somebody’s bench. But what’s most interesting about Ryan Raburn isn’t what he projects to be for the immediate future. What’s most interesting about Ryan Raburn is exactly how he’s arrived at such an uninteresting overall four-year performance.

I was talking with August about this a little bit in Nashville, when we were around for the winter meetings. August got to watch Raburn in Cleveland, and his career trajectory didn’t escape August’s attention, either. We’re both naturally drawn to this stuff, and while there was no good reason to write about Raburn with so much else going on back then, there’s hardly anything going on now, so a Raburn post can be rationalized. You might beg to differ, but you’re still reading this post. You knew it was about Ryan Raburn two paragraphs ago.

This is the thing about him — this plot of career season-to-season wRC+:


The whole thing is fun, but this post is mostly going to focus on the red box, spanning Raburn’s 2012 – 2015. In each of those years, Raburn’s managed to bat more than 200 times. In each of those years, he’s been a wildly different hitter.

You can look at the wRC+ right there on the plot. You know how the statistic works. You know what the league average is. Setting a minimum of 200 plate appearances: In 2012, Raburn out-hit only Wilson Valdez. Then he signed a minor-league contract, and he was a top-15 bat on a rate basis, hitting as well as Josh Donaldson. So he signed a two-year big-league contract, and then he was a bottom-10 bat, hitting worse than Andrew Romine. Then he bounced back and was a top-10 bat on a rate basis, again hitting as well as Donaldson. In short, we’ve got four years. In two of them, Raburn was one of baseball’s worst hitters. In two of them, Raburn was one of baseball’s best hitters. For maximum confusion, he alternated.

Throughout baseball history, there have been more than 14,000 stretches of four consecutive seasons with at least 200 trips to the plate. Where does Raburn’s volatility rank? I decided to look at this two ways. First, I looked at all the players’ four years, and then I calculated the wRC+ standard deviations. Here are the top 10:

Hitter Volatility, wRC+
Player First Year Last Year Y1 Y2 Y3 Y4 Standard Deviation
Ryan Raburn 2012 2015 28 149 52 155 65.4
Ryan Raburn 2011 2014 94 28 149 52 53.0
Ryan Raburn 2010 2013 120 94 28 149 51.6
Travis Hafner 2005 2008 166 176 121 64 51.1
Fred Dunlap 1884 1887 214 118 117 106 50.5
Clyde Barnhart 1923 1926 151 91 114 31 50.3
Justin Morneau 2010 2013 183 68 107 101 48.6
Jermaine Dye 2003 2006 36 103 119 151 48.5
Justin Morneau 2009 2012 126 183 68 107 47.9
Justin Morneau 2008 2011 128 126 183 68 47.0

There’s overlap, which makes sense — this table basically includes Raburn’s most recent six seasons. By this measure, two years ago, Raburn would’ve rated as the most volatile hitter in baseball history. The next year, he would’ve broken his own mark. And then he re-broke it again, in 2015. He actually destroyed every other mark. That most recent standard deviation begins with a six, whereas the next-closest all begin with fives.

That’s one look. Here’s another. With standard deviations, you don’t care as much about sequencing. Here, I calculated the absolute values of the year-to-year changes in wRC+, and added them up. So if a player went from 50 to 100 to 50 to 100, he’d have a total change of 50 + 50 + 50 = 150. The top 10:

Hitter Volatility, wRC+
Player First Year Last Year Y1 Y2 Y3 Y4 Total Change
Ryan Raburn 2012 2015 28 149 52 155 321
Ryan Raburn 2011 2014 94 28 149 52 284
Roy Campanella 1953 1956 154 75 150 89 215
Ryan Raburn 2010 2013 120 94 28 149 213
Justin Morneau 2009 2012 126 183 68 107 211
Jose Hernandez 2002 2005 119 58 133 63 206
Gary Sheffield 1990 1993 118 67 172 123 205
Leroy Stanton 1975 1978 121 66 129 46 201
Clyde Barnhart 1925 1928 114 31 116 89 195
Scott Brosius 1996 1999 131 50 123 82 195

Once more, there’s no one close to Raburn’s last four years, except for Raburn himself. He very nearly pulled off three consecutive wRC+ changes of 100 or more points. After Raburn, Campanella trails by 106. Then there’s Raburn again, just because. You can bring up Raburn’s limited sample sizes, and that’s fine, because it’s a valid point. Raburn hasn’t been anything like an everyday player, so it’s been comparatively easy for his numbers to bounce around like this. But don’t get too bogged down in that. When seasons end, season numbers become official. Raburn’s official season numbers have bounced around like nobody else’s. That was already true before last year, when he kicked it up a notch.

As noted before, Raburn’s four-year wRC+ is a frighteningly average 98. For his career, he’s at 103. What on Earth has been going on? For the most part, I can’t tell you — this is just one of those handy reminders that baseball statistics are capable of going insane. But it’s worth saying Raburn’s whole 2014 might’ve just been lost to injuries sustained in spring training. That doesn’t explain why he was even worse in 2012. Nor does it explain why he spent the other two years as a part-time Josh Donaldson. We don’t have to be talking about true-talent changes. Ryan Raburn has always been Ryan Raburn. Over 200 or 300 trips to the plate, Ryan Raburn is capable of occupying opposite ends of a broad spectrum. Many players are, but Raburn has actually done it.

It’s already this much fun to examine Raburn’s 2012 – 2015 window. In each of those years, he exceeded 200 plate appearances, but he fell short of 300. In both 2011 and 2010, Raburn exceeded 400 plate appearances. Look what happens when you check out his splits from those years:

Raburn, 2011

  • First half: 59 wRC+
  • Second half: 162

Raburn, 2010

  • First half: 72 wRC+
  • Second half: 144

Ryan Raburn hasn’t made a lot of sense in ages. That doesn’t make him any more or less valuable. It just gives him one of the weirder careers the game has ever seen. I’m sure he’s known for a good while he wasn’t on track to be a Hall-of-Famer. I’m sure he’s come to terms with that. This isn’t the worst kind of fallback, if all you want is to make yourself memorable. In April 2011, I watched Miguel Olivo get credit for a home run because Raburn couldn’t make an awkward catch, and the ball bounced off his glove and over the fence. I thought that was the weirdest thing Raburn might ever do. Turns out he’d barely even gotten started.

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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Also something like a quarter of Raburn’s career RBIs have come against the White Sox. He lights up Chris Sale. Bizarre player.