A Closer Look: Austin Kearns

20 05 2010

One of the few points of optimism for the Cleveland Indians this year has been the play of Austin Kearns. Signed to a minor league contract, Kearns is making Shapiro look like a professional for the low risk/high reward signing. But, are we seeing Austin Kearns; or, is this just a flash in the pan? Let’s take a closer look.

If you combine Kearns’s 2003 and 2004 platoon abbreviated seasons as a young player in the bigs, his numbers from 2003-2007 give us four 450+ AB seasons of remarkably good data to compare his 2010 season to.

03-04: 146 GP, 24 HR, .247 AVG, .50 BB/K, 102 wRC+, .298 BABIP

05: 112 GP, 18 HR, .240 AVG, .45 BB/K, 107 wRC+, .281 BABIP

06: 150 GP, 24 HR, .264 AVG, .56 BB/K, 118 wRC+. .308 BABIP

07: 161 GP, 16 HR, .266 AVG, .67 BB/K, 107 wRC+, .299 BABIP

Making his average year something like:

142 GP, 20 HR, .258 AVG, .54 BB/K, 108 wRC+, .296 BABIP

The similarity of the sample data and sensationally average .296 BABIP tells us that this is a very accurate indicator of what could be expected of Austin Kearns in his prime. He wasn’t lucky, he wasn’t sporadic, and he wasn’t under-performing.

So far in 2010, Kearns’s stats are spectacular:

27 GP, 3 HR, .327 AVG, .43 BB/K, 161 wRC+, .439 BABIP

The .327 AVG is the most striking number in his line and frankly, is bound to come down. The .439 AVG on Balls in Play indicates that Kearns is getting a lot of ‘lucky’ hits- those ‘dying quails’ and ‘seeing eye grounders’ that Crash Davis so romantically waxes poetic about in Bull Durham.

So what should we be expecting? Well, as young man with no good or bad luck, Kearns averaged .258. But, maybe Kearns has learned a little something in his old age. His strike-out rate is actually up and his walk rate hasn’t budged. Typically, this would indicate that Kearns hasn’t developed a more refined eye and I would be warning against a return to the .206 AVG Kearns produced in the 08 and 09 injury plagued years in Washington.

But, Kearns has made strides elsewhere. His batting eye might not be more selective, but it looks like he is seeing the ball better. Yes, he is swinging at 8% more pitches out of the strike-zone but he is hitting them. His contact rate on pitches out of the zone is up 12%. Common knowledge says swinging at bad pitches leads to bad stats, but what about Vlad Guerrero? He made a living on junk pitches.

Kearns isn’t making contact with bad pitches that results in weak outs, like Grady Sizemore. Kearns’s contact is actually improving. His line drive rate is up 10%, his ground ball rate has stayed constant, and this has resulted in a dip of 10% in his fly ball rate. Since his home run to fly ball ratio (18.8%) is consistent with his career average, we see that the fly balls Kearns is losing, were the easy fly balls to outfielders. So, while Kearns is going out of the zone a bit more, he is seeing these pitches and drilling them.

Even the anemic .206 AVG Kearns posted over the last two seasons is misleading. His BABIP was an unlucky .254, meaning that if it was closer to the average .300, he would have been right around an expected .245 AVG.

What this suggests to me, is that Kearns has taken the last couple of years to work on his hitting. He hasn’t become a more patient hitter in his old age, but it looks like he is identifying and hitting pitches better. I love the increase in line drives. Line drives are not necessarily the hardest hit balls, but they do fall for a hit around 75% of the time. Think frozen rope over the 2nd Baseman’s head.

Kearns is lucky, but we could definitely be looking at a rejuvenated, productive, and lasting bat for the rest of the season from him.

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