As you awake on the third full Sunday of the 2015 baseball season, Jose Iglesias has a .399 wOBA. To give you a sense of what that means, last year among batters who qualified, only McCutchen, VMart, Abreu, Stanton, Trout, and Bautista had wOBAs of .399 or better. We can park adjust, and call it a 155 wRC+, which reorders that list and adds Michael Brantley. Put it any way you like, and Iglesias so far looks amazing.
Sample size is crucial here. We’re 62 PA deep into a season that should feature about ten times as many trips to the plate, so there’s virtually nothing meaningful about the overall results. Everyone knows that. Even the people who don’t know anything don’t expect a .927 OPS from the diminutive Cuban highlight reel. We get that he’s not this good because you don’t become one of the five best hitters in baseball overnight and you don’t do it without power.
But while we know the glove will be there and we think the base running is perfectly legitimate, the bat remains an open question. When the season started, the ZiPS/Steamer blend projected a .281 wOBA for Iglesias. After watching him play for three weeks, his rest of season projection (i.e. his wOBA from Sunday through the last day) is .291. There are two ways of looking at this, and let’s take the sunny outlook. After just 60 PA, the projections already think he’s improved his true talent ability by 10 points of wOBA. Ten points of wOBA is half a win over a full season of baseball.
That’s pretty huge! After just 10% of the season, Iglesias has improved his stock by half a win going forward on top of the value he’s already banked based on his hot start.
If you look across his stat line, he’s hitting for the amount of power everyone expected, around .070 ISO. The two keys are 1) a super high BABIP and 2) a great looking strikeout/walk mix. The first is going away. Iglesias might have the kind of swing that allows for an above average BABIP, but a .426 BABIP isn’t just unlikely for Iglesias, it’s borderline impossible for anyone. So let’s call it a .320 BABIP going forward? Steamer and ZiPS say about .305, so we’re taking the over pretty nicely because we’re being optimists.
But the second aspect, that great strikeout and walk mix, could be somewhat real. He’s walked in 9.7% of his PA to date and walk rate is something that settles in pretty quickly, so after a career walk rate in the 5% range, an early season walk rate close to 10% definitely has your attention. Walks are a boon to Iglesias because for a singles hitter, they’re not just better than a ball in play, they’re as good as most of his hits. If the walk rate is real, obviously, the projection goes up and walk rate in a small sample is more meaningful than most stats in small samples.
And the strikeout rate falling to 8.1% so far is also nice because it’s taking outs off the board and shifting them to balls in play, and balls in play become hits 30-32% of the time, which increases his value to the same degree. In other words, not only is he getting great BABIP voodoo, he’s getting on base without luck (walks) more and he’s putting more balls in play, period. A .300 BABIP is fine for 400 balls in play, but it’s even better for 420 balls in play (assuming the same total PA).
So the question we have to ask ourselves is if Iglesias is really going to keep up the walks and limit the punchouts? That’s basically the whole game. He’s not flashing more power than we thought and while he’s run a nice BABIP, it’s not like he can realistically put together a .350 BABIP or something. Even if we buy him in the .320 BABIP range with .080 ISO power, he still needs a quality approach at the plate to really sell himself as a valuable piece in the box.
So what’s the skinny on his discipline? His contact rate is way up. Before Saturday’s game, his contact rate was 93.5%, which about 8% higher than his career mark (and he didn’t swing and miss on Saturday). The jump is evident both in and out of the zone and he actually hasn’t swung and missed at a pitch in the PITCHf/x strike zone all year.
It’s early. We all know that and none of us are thinking Iglesias is a good hitter. But when you’re an amazing defensive shortstop, you’re not shooting for good. You’re aiming for acceptable. But Iglesias has succeeded in part because of more balls in play via fewer strikeouts and an increase in his walk rate. The BABIP is there, but even as that comes down to normal levels, it’s not taking away all of his hits.
And while it’s early, he’s seen over 225 pitches this year and he’s only swung and missed a handful of times. That’s a really promising sign because that’s generally not the kind of thing you can fake for very long. I’m not going to sit here and tell you Iglesias is a great hitter or that he’s going to be a real contributor, but Iglesias with this kind of contact ability is more interesting than the Iglesias we saw in 2013.
To sum it up, if we say he’s a +10 SS and assume he gets 600 PA, the difference between a .280 wOBA and a .300 wOBA is the difference between a 2 win player and a 3 win player. Push him to .320 and he’s a 4 WAR player, putting him in the All-Star conversation. What would it take to get him to a .320 wOBA?
Over 600 PA and assuming something like an 8% walk rate, it would be a slash line of about .290/.350/.360. That figures a strikeout rate of 10% and a BABIP of .320.
Am I predicting it? I’ll probably bet the under, but it’s reasonable if the contact rate is real. A league average hitting Jose Iglesias would be amazing and so far this year we’ve seen glimpses of a player who might be able to make that work. It’s too early to say that he’s truly different, but in the early goings, we’ve seen some promising signs.
“He’s not flashing more power than we thought..” Not yet, anyway. Lou Whitaker averaged three home runs a year in his first four full seasons. Later in his career he hit over 20 on four occasions, as many as 28 one year. Of course he was a lefty who had the advantage of the nice Tiger Stadium right field overhang, but it is not out of the question that Iggy could develop some pop as he fills out. Let’s hope that it doesn’t cost him that astonishing range in the field if he does.