Byrning Up in the Desert
This title really does not bear a lot of truth here but I could not resist the double-entendre. When I went to take a look at how Eric Byrnes had gotten off to such a hot start, I thought it would be a simple "inflated numbers at Chase Field" and I would be done with it. But have a look at these 2007 home/road splits for Byrnes:
AVG OBP SLG Home .276 .336 .433 Road .363 .423 .605
Hmmm. Everyone knows the D-Backs play in a tremendously favorable hitter's park. And yet, Byrnes has been nothing short of mediocre there. It's been on the road where Byrnes has gotten it done. So why has he spiked this season?
Byrnes sports a career 102 OPS+ by virtue of being farther above average as a slugger (.456 career number) than he has been below average as an on-base man (.328). His good advanced defensive metrics and hustling style of on-field play give him a boost to a point where he has probably been about a dead-average player over the course of his career. There's considerable value in that, but the former UCLA Bruin has been so much more thus far in 2007.
Byrnes is crushing first pitches this year, faring well when getting up 1-0 in the count, and just mashing after being down a strike:
AVG OBP SLG Count 0-0 .481 .491 .889 Count 1-0 .391 .391 .478 Count 0-1 .615 .643 .686
All of these figures are up considerably from past campaigns for Byrnes. His aggressiveness has suited him well. Inflated batting averages in partial seasons tend to be screaming foreshadowers of impending regression and Byrnes may not be an exception. He is a career .267 hitter (including this season) who has posted a .319 AVG thus far in 2007 (including a ridiculous .352 BABIP). The smart money says that will come down, but in all likelihood not too far. Eric's ability to elevate the ball (he consistently ranks among the league leaders in FB%) combined with his early-count aggressiveness may mean he maintains the uptick in average and slugging while enjoying a slight upgrade this season in his walk rate.
This would not be without precedent and, in fact, some of Byrnes's closest Baseball-Reference comps have full seasons of batting average inflation to thank for their best campaigns. Glenallen Hill and Leon Roberts each enjoyed their best years when they were able to muster batting averages over and above their previous highs. Isolated power and walk rate don't tend to fluctuate all that greatly but, in a given season, batting average sure can. Basically, Byrnes is hitting singles more frequently than he has in the past. In other words, balls that once found mitts are finding holes.
Will it continue? There is no way to know. I am inclined to guess "no" but then a look at Byrnes's comps shows that he is bound to have at least one all-star caliber year predicated upon an inflated batting average. And as I mentioned before, it just may be his aggressive early-count approach that keeps him hanging around National League leaderboards. I don't think it is far-fetched to chalk the 31-year-old outfielder's early-count mashing to a stylistic approach change and not simply dumb luck. If pitchers do not come around to the fact that Byrnes will try to get on them early and often, he will continue to make square contact early in counts and his batting average will in all likelihood stay north of .300. If pitchers wise up, it's back to the average ballplayer he always has been.
In my fantasy league, now in its 6th season of existence with more or less the same cast of characters, the trading dynamics have worked like this; at the outset, smart GMs fleeced dumb GMs by getting them to undervalue a slow starter or overvalue a mediocrity that blows out of the gates. Now, GMs are so protective of their slow starters for fear of not getting fair value and so panic-stricken by the prospect of giving up real value for a surprisingly hot early-season player that nobody trades with one another anymore for fear of embarassingly losing the deal. Maybe the next frontier will be to idenitfy those players who just may sustain surprisingly over-achieving performance over the duration of a full season and target them. Eric Byrnes may fit that category in 2007.