Anatomy of a hot start: Chipper Jones

It’s no secret across Major League Baseball that Chipper Jones is off to the best start in his future-Hall-of-Fame career.  Most notably, he’s leading the league with a .418 batting average and starting lots of (premature) talk of hitting .400 for a whole season.

The last serious challenger to this mark was Tony Gwynn in the strike-shortened 1994 season (the same season in which we also could have seen Matt Williams challenge Roger Maris’ then-record of 61 home runs), but the odds against Chipper accomplishing it are still astronomical (I think I read it was greater than 1-in-500 at this point).

Still, he’s competing with Lance Berkman right now for the current MVP lead, and he’s been a ton of fun to watch.  He’ll be hitting his 400th career home run in the next few weeks (or maybe days), and perhaps he’ll get even more attention nationally as a result.

Season Stats

The rankings include 94 qualifiers.  The higher the ranking, the better (i.e. strikeouts are ranked from fewest to most).  For some reason, my formula is significantly different for BABIP than what FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference uses (FG has him at .410, B-R at .403), but I’m including his rank in that category anyway.  Everything else should be in line with what you see elsewhere.

The stats for Chipper’s Braves teammates actually include his own stats, but they’re the team totals pro-rated to Chipper’s number of plate appearances (or batted balls, where applicable).  I thought that might be an interesting comparison, so there you have it.

http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=p1yenOyDW3pVICwGZ0B7gXQ&output=html&gid=0&single=true&range=a5:j39

Comments

  • To me, the biggest sign that Chipper won’t be hitting .400 for the season, beyond the tremendous difficulty of doing so in general, is that his batted ball rates don’t quite support the way his hits are falling.  A good rule of thumb is to add .120 to a player’s line drive rate to get his batting average on balls in play (BABIP).  If he’s over-performing compared to that, it’s a sign that he may regress.  Right now, Chipper ranks 17th of 94 in the NL in line drive rate at 23.7%.  That’s good, but not as unbelievable as his .418 average, and even if you use my low BABIP number, he’s been a little hit-lucky.
  • One thing Chipper’s doing that’s not a sign of hit-luck, or whatever you want to call it, is his nearly 23% HR/FB rate.  That’s not totally out of line with his career performance (since 2002 at least), but it does indicate a career high for fly-ball power.  His other batted ball rates are basically in line with what you’d expect…he’s just making better contact than ever before, a sign of a veteran improving his basic skill set with age.
  • These findings are actually evident just from looking at the first line of basic hitting stats: Chipper is hitting more singles and homers than his teammates, while falling pretty much in line with them on other extra-base hits.
  • From a run estimation standpoint, it’s pretty clear that Chipper has been the second most-productive player in the NL behind Berkman, as he ranks #2 in WPA/LI and Runs Created (both in the aggregate and per 27 outs).  The main difference between them is Berkman’s currently otherworldly isolated power, which is over .400 at the moment.
  • Win Probability has been Jones’ downfall this year, as he has fallen into the same anti-clutch performance rut as the rest of the team (even more so, if you look at his rate WPA stats).
  • Taking a look at the splits, Chipper has only been “excellent” batting right-handed (.404/.446/.491) compared to “historically awesome” from the left side (.427/.500/.843), sort of a microcosm of the Braves’ relative struggles against left-handed pitching.
  • Chipper is also hitting better at home, and he’s been playing better in May than he played in April.  He has a .500 or higher average against four of the Braves’ nine opponents this season (Reds, Marlins, Dodgers, Phillies).
  • Six of Chipper’s 61 hits have come against Zach Duke, making for an almost incomprehensible (and virtually meaningless from a statistical perspective) line of 1.000/1.000/1.167 against the Pirates’ starter.

You can probably read a whole lot more into the numbers than what I’ve mentioned.  Like I said, it’s been a lot of fun so far, and I hope he somehow manages to keep it up all year.

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