So far in 2016, Astros left fielder Colby Rasmus has been one of the best batters in Major League Baseball. After Saturday's game, his season line stands at .301 / .449 / .698.
First the bad news: Rasmus doesn't have the skill set to maintain a .449 OBP and a .698 slugging percentage. But neither does anybody else, not even Bryce Harper or Mike Trout. (Okay, Carlos Correa is capable of maintaining a .400 / .600 / .700 season, but he's not human, so he doesn't count) .
Certain publicly-available stats are good indicators of whether or not a player's performance is an extreme fluke or not. One of them, HR/FB rate (currently 36% for Rasmus), is waaaaaay higher than his career averages. That tells us that Rasmus will not maintain the 54-HR pace that he's currently on. But we knew that already. But given his jump-start, it would now not be surprising to see him break 30 home runs for the first time in his MLB career.
And now the good news. Rasmus hasn't been "lucky" this season except in the power area, so a real possibility exists that we are about to experience the best season of his career.
Rasmus was a first round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals who peaked at #3 on Baseball America's Top 100 prospects list. During his time with the Cardinals, and then with the Blue Jays, he developed a reputation for hard-headedness born of his feud with Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, a notoriously hard-headed man himself. A source of the conflict seemed to come from Rasmus' relationship with his father and erstwhile swing coach, an outspoken man who (according to the St. Louis media) was quite involved in his son's professional career.
Rasmus seemed destined to be a professional outsider, a blunt-spoken country boy and opera lover with the ability to turn a catchy phrase that most professional baseball players lack, who sometimes seemed determined to be out of the ordinary. (Disclaimer: that makes him cool in my book, but it's easy to see how an old-school stick in the mud like LaRussa would be frustrated by him.) Eventually, Rasmus was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays.
But current Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, who was involved with drafting Rasmus in 2005, liked the unorthadox young batter, and so when Rasmus reached Free Agency, the Astros signed him to a one-year $8M deal to play left field for a team expected to maybe reach the .500 mark in 2015. Instead, Rasmus was a key cog in the Astros' first playoff run since 2005, posting his best offensive season since 2013, and one of the better seasons of his career.
But that season, as well as all of the previous seasons, may be topped by Rasmus' 2016. Continuing his un-orthodoxy, Rasmus was the first player ever to accept a qualifying offer under the new rules of the collective bargaining agreement. So (much to the Astros' surprise, most likely) he returned to Houston on a one-year $15.8 million deal, and it looks like the gamble paid off for everybody concerned. Rasmus is setting himself up for a big payday in next season's free agency class, and the Astros have a left fielder in 2016 who has been dynamite, and a team leader to boot.
Another statistic that's good for judging whether a player's performance is affected by luck is Batting Average on Balls in Play, or BABIP. Generally speaking, a player's BABIP can be expected to hover around his career mark, if he has been in the league for a while, and usually that number is around .300. Despite the monster start to his season, Rasmus' BABIP is only .310 - only 11 points higher than his career rate, and a perfectly sustainable number.
Interestingly, Rasmus has achieved his current spike in production in the same way as Jose Altuve has achieved his - by increased selectivity at the plate. This is interesting because research has shown that professional batters rarely improve their plate discipline at the major league level. But when they do manage to change their approach, it is often dramatically effective in improving a batter's output.
Number haters, look away.
In Rasmus' case, his overall contact rate has stayed at the same level as it has been for the last two seasons, right around 70%. But he is making much higher contact (88% compared to 80% last season) on pitches inside the strike zone, at the expense of contact outside. This is okay because he is actually swinging less frequently in general. He is seeing more pitches per plate appearance, obviously looking for the pitch he likes best rather than swinging at something just because it's a strike. As a result, his Z-Swing% (swing rate on pitches inside the zone) is way down, but contact on those pitches are way up.
Selectivity at the plate is something that is fairly reliable in smaller samples than a lot of other stats because it is based on pitches seen - in this case, Rasmus' rates are based on the 283 pitches he has seen so far this year. A mere 10th of the number he saw last season overall, but still almost five times the number of plate appearances he has seen this season. So swing and contact rate stats are going to be a more reliable judge of how he's actually doing this season than his batting average or OBP or whatever.
Number haters, you can start reading again
The upshot of Rasmus' new-found plate discipline is reflected in his walk rate (an absurd 22%) and power numbers (.347 ISO). Neither of those numbers is remotely sustainable, but you can make the statement that he should easily top his career best walk rates and power numbers if he is able to sustain this selectivity at the plate. Another side effect is an improved strikeout rate this season, his best since 2012.
What this all means is that Colby Rasmus is finally playing like the superstar many scouts projected him to be way back in 2008 and 2009. Late bloomer? Perhaps. Mirage? Maybe if he reverts to his old plate discipline habits. But maybe all it took was club Astros. Note that TCB's own clack predicted that Rasmus' power numbers might be under-predicted by the various projection systems this year. The Astros modus operandi is obvious to anybody who follows the team. It can be summed up by: "Find out what a player does best, and then let them do that." The Astros let Collin McHugh throw his curveball. They let Chris Carter hit a ton of home runs. They allowed Jose Altuve to slap hit every first pitch ever. George Springer swings for the fence on every pitch. The Astros make small tweaks in other areas that maximize the player's strengths, but they don't try to change the player the way some organizations do. Colby's strength involves hitting low pitches a very long way.
He is currently maximizing that strength by laying off of pitches aboe the zone . He has swung at only two pitches above the zone this season, out of 34 pitches thrown there. He's looking for the low pitch, and he's crushing it. The upshot is that he's also crushing high pitches that are inside the zone, so pitchers can't just attack him high as a strategy for getting him out. He's now showing he's more than willing to take a walk on high pitches than chase them for a potential pop-out.
We are actually seeing a new Colby Rasmus this season. His new-found plate selectivity is the reason for his dynamic season start. A result is that he is hitting balls harder (50% Hard-hit rate, compared to 35% career), and taking more walks.
Rasmus won't reach 56 homers this year, and he won't collect 133 walks. But with this real adjustment (if it sticks) and continued normal luck on batted balls, he could be one of the best hitters in baseball this season.
2016 season line: .275/.380/.520, 34 home runs, 8 SB.