Ryan Raburn is awesome.
Ryan Raburn is terrible.
Both of these statements are true, depending on what season and what month you're talking about. If you're talking about 2013, Raburn has been a dynamic force off the bench for the Cleveland Indians, slugging .544 in about 200 plate appearances. If you're talking about 2012, however, Raburn is a bum who couldn't hit anything en route to a .254 slugging percentage over 222 plate appearances for the Detroit Tigers.
So who is Ryan Raburn? After seeing the 32-year-old slug two home runs in a 6-1 win over the White Sox on Thursday, I did not anticipate how complex the answer to that question would be. Let’s look at a heat map of Raburn in 2013:
Ah, so Raburn is a guy who excels at hitting balls elevated in the middle of the strike zone! That wasn't so ha--
... What now? The above graph is Raburn from 2009-2012, and it profiles a completely different hitter.
Sometimes, in baseball, you will see a hitter having a great year who is having success against pitches he used to struggle against. Raburn, however, has gone from a guy who loved the ball down in the zone to a guy who loves the ball up in the zone. When a drastic shift like this does happen, however, it usually has a dramatic effect that can be seen elsewhere in the stat line: power hitters lose their power, players who took walks are swinging earlier in counts, something has to be different. With Raburn, however, this isn't really the case.
The last time Raburn had a season on par with 2013 was 2009, when he was a 28-year-old in his prime who had a 130 OPS+ in 113 games. This season, he has a 157 OPS+ in 61 games. If you don't quite understand OPS+, just know that an OPS+ of 100 denotes a league-average hitter, so 130 is pretty good and 157 is pretty great.
2009: .291 AVG, .359 OBP, .533 SLG, .891 OPS, .323 BABIP, 20.6% SO, 8.9% BB
2013: .283 AVG, .377 OBP, .584 SLG, .961 OPS, .321 BABIP, 24.1% SO, 11.6 BB
Functionally, Raburn is the same hitter in both seasons. Yes, in 2013 he is swinging and missing more often, but so is everyone else in 2013 compared to 2009. In 2009 the league-average strikeout percentage was 17.9, and in 2013 that number has risen to 19.8. While Raburn's increase is a little higher at 3.5 percent, it's nothing too significant compared to the overall rise in strikeouts.
2013 Raburn is taking more walks than in his 2009 season, but that too could be the product of simple growth and maturity. In other words, he may have simply learned to work the count better. Regardless, the drastic shift in his heat maps is not adequately explained by the statistical differences between these two seasons.
At this point in my research, I was thoroughly perplexed by Raburn. Why was he suddenly able to catch up to high pitches? Why did he suddenly forget how to hit low pitches?
What could possibly be causing Raburn to have more success with high pitches? For him to have more success up in the zone, he would need to be generating more bat speed and he would need to be more consistent with his swing. When I focused on these two variables, I came up with two common threads between 2009 and 2013 that may explain why Raburn had such great seasons these years:
1. Limited playing time kept him fresh and able to maintain the bat speed to hit high pitches.
2. Lack of playing time at second base.
The second point here is really key, as Raburn is often viewed as a player who can play anywhere on the field, a true utility man, if you will. In Detroit, Raburn was often deployed at second base, and the proportion of his starts there increased over the years. Take a look:
2009: 0%, .891 OPS
2010: 16%, .814 OPS
2011: 46%, .729 OPS
2012: 49%, .480 OPS
2013: 3%, .914 OPS
As Raburn aged, maybe the toll of playing second base -- or the mental side effects (he was never very good defensively there) -- affected his offensive game until he reached a tipping point in 2012, and he fell off the face of the earth.
The importance of the first point above cannot be understated: Raburn is simply not an everyday player. In 2013, Terry Francona has carefully managed Raburn's playing time; for the first time since 2009 he has not appeared in more than 20 games in any month, and he hasn't started more than 14 in any month.
I believe that this careful management of playing time, alongside a strict reduction in his playing time at second base, is a primary driving force behind Raburn's resurgence. This has allowed him to catch up to fastballs up in the zone, which has translated into more power and more solid contact. Raburn has not magically become a different hitter, but instead is finally settled into a situation that plays him to his offensive and defensive strengths. This should elicit praise for Francona and his hitting staff, but should also raise questions about how Raburn was handled in Detroit.
Maybe Ryan Raburn is awesome, after all.
Adam Hintz contributes to the It's Pronounced "Lajaway" blog on the Indians.