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Can Rafael Furcal bounce back at the plate?


The St. Louis Cardinals are banking on Rafael Furcal at the top of the order. Furcal is an interesting piece of the Cardinals puzzle in 2012. He is being paid fairly well to be the leadoff man (two-years/$14 million). I’m not going to get into the fielding issues in this post; his hitting caused more strife than his fielding in 2011. There are some that will argue that Furcal went through a rough season because of the injuries he sustained in 2011 and prior. Others will suggest he suffered from bad luck at the plate. There is the notion that it was a combination of the two which made the season especially gruesome to watch. Let’s investigate whether he can turn some of this around in 2012.

Furcal is 34 years old, so age has an obvious part to play in any decline. This is not to suggest that one bad year makes him a candidate to never play well again, but it does beg the question of how productive he can be going forward. His age, the nagging injuries and the performance when he was “healthy” are real issues the Cardinals may have to contend with. I put together a quick chart with some qualities representative of a leadoff hitter.I used the eight players who hit leadoff for their respective playoff teams in 2011. I did this instead of the 40 or more players who led off during the regular season. Each team made it to the post season using these players as their predominant leadoff hitter. See below, courtesy of FanGraphs.com.

Some background to the numbers is in order before we can go further. The basic premise is that a leadoff hitter possesses the ability to get on base and then has the traits to create runs after he gets on base. The number of plate appearances represent totals from all spots in the lineup, not solely from the leadoff spot. I’m not sure if performance can be directly related to the position in the lineup one hits or not, but for comparison’s sake all plate appearances tell the story. There are some uncommon stats of note so here are their meanings; IFH% = number of infield hits as a percentage of total hits, BUH% = successful bunt hit attempts, C% = contact rate, Bat = runs above average created by player’s batting performance, and Spd = rating of speed and base running ability consisting of SB%, # of SBA, triples %, and runs scored %.

I went ahead and ranked Furcal among the rest of the group. Like I said it was a gruesome year. He ranked last in 4 of the 11 categories and next to last in 4 others. His BABIP  was remarkably low, which I suggested earlier as luck playing a role in his performance last season. The BABIP combined with an amazing contact rate and low walk rate directly hampers Furcal’s OBP. In order to paint a better picture, it is necessary to review some of the stats against some previous seasons. Below is chart using the same metrics for Furcal, Ian Kinsler, Jimmy Rollins and Derek Jeter for 2008 – 2010. Desmond Jennings, Austin Jackson had few too many plate appearances to include. Corey Hart and Willie Bloomquist were not leadoff hitters during the period in question so they were also were removed.

Now, we can see that Furcal from ages 30-32 looked much more like a leadoff hitter. The increase in BABIP and BB% results in a much better OBP and validates the fact that some bad luck and less patience at the plate was involved in Furcal’s performance in 2011. Furcal’s career BABIP sits at .313 including the miserable 2011 season. A drop to .240 is devastating.

There is bad news and it is his speed. Whether it is due to the injuries, age or a combination of the two, Furcal is slowing down. At this point in his career a healthy Furcal is not going to steal more than 20 bases in a season anymore. He may not even have 25 stolen base attempts during the course of the season. With a 64.3% success rate, manager Mike Matheny may not want him running too often anyway.

If we assume that Furcal is moderately healthy, it is more than a good bet that his OBP will increase with an uptick in BABIP. I can’t see his BABIP remaining so low. It will never be in the .340 range again since he has a hard time beating out grounders or reaching on bunts. But, if he raises it back to .300, it will represent many more chances to be on base than he had in 2011.

One thing to consider which alleviates his decreased speed is the rest of the Cardinals lineup. The Cardinals have a very productive group of hitters 2 through 7, no matter which way the lineup is written. I have covered at length my suggestions for who should hit second and who belongs in the middle of the order this past week. The point is that the Cardinals have plenty of hitters who can pick up the slack if Furcal is not exactly the player he was prior to 2011 in the speed department. I would expect him to fall somewhere in between the two depictions above with a healthy season. Here is where I feel Furcal will end up at the end of the season in some key counting stats for a leadoff hitter.

As you can see, I’m not optimistic that he is going to play over 130 games this season. That said, this type of production would prove to be very beneficial to the Cardinals chances of making it back to the postseason. Slightly lower numbers can be overcome by the rest of the lineup. Anything above it is gravy. But, if Furcal’s 2011 season was not an aberration and it is repeated in 2012, then the Cardinals may have a puzzle piece missing.

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