May 1, 2013; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez hits a solo home run in the 4th inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Hot Individual Starts Around Baseball: Sustainable or Not?

April is fun — hope springs eternal for all thirty teams and their fans, and the beauty of baseball is on full display as the weather steadily warms. Heck, the Astros even had the same record as the Braves for a day. But the month of April is also cruel; it lies to us. It’s tough for baseball fans to keep in mind that by the end of April, most teams have only played somewhere from 18-25% of their games, depending on how many weather postponements they have had.

Take any three or four-week span out of the middle of the season, and you can manipulate any players’ numbers to make them look better or worse than they really are. April is the most vicious of the small sample size snapshots, as it toys with better judgment. The excitement for spring and a brand new season — the smell of fresh-cut grass, the crack of the bat, and the thought of their team’s Next Big Thing becoming a superstar is overwhelming, and often clouds reasonable analysis.

As a brief guide to help with this syndrome, let’s identify some of the top performers of the first five weeks of the 2013 season and whether or not they will be able to sustain their respective hot starts.

Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee Brewers – Gomez is hitting a ridiculous .368/.417/.642 with six home runs and seven stolen bases in nine attempts through play on Monday. He is finally healthy, after struggling with nagging injuries over his first three years in Milwaukee, and is playing his typically spectacular defense in center field.

Sustainable? Not really, but here’s hoping that the former Mets’ and Twins’ prospect and the centerpiece in the Johan Santana trade is finally putting everything together. Gomez has always been a valuable player because of his defense, speed, base-running, and occasional pop at the plate. His inability to get on base and high number of strikeouts, however, have kept him from becoming a star.

Gomez’ Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) is an astronomical .418, buoyed partially by a 25% line drive rate (Gomez’ career numbers are .309 and 16%). A more accurate barometer for Gomez’ improvement (or lack thereof) at the plate would be his walk rate. Gomez has walked in just 5.2% of his plate appearances this year, barely above his career rate of 5.0%.

Gomez’ impressive on-base percentage of .417 is almost all due to his BABIP-aided batting average. His slugging percentage and early season power, combined with last year’s career-high 19 home runs is certainly encouraging, and if he can figure out how to take a few more walks, stardom is still in reach as Gomez’ navigates through his age-27 season.

Dexter Fowler, Colorado Rockies Fowler’s line of .295/.403/.581 is impressive, and mostly due to the fact that his very high slugging percentage is supported by eight home runs in 125 plate appearances – more than 2.5 times Fowler’s home rate from last year, when he hit 13 home runs in 530 trips to the plate. Fowler’s on-base percentage of .389 in 2012 is probably overlooked league-wide, but if he adds power….everyone will take notice.

Sustainable? Probably. Fowler is growing rapidly as a hitter, and it’s really quite astonishing. Check out Fowler’s home run rates since he became a regular in 2009:

Year PA HR %
2009 518 0.8
2010 505 1.2
2011 563 0.9
2012 530 2.5
2013 125 6.4

Yes, I know. This whole piece is a giant warning about small sample sizes. But Fowler’s 2012 was a full-season’s worth of data, and his home run rate improved significantly from the first three seasons of his career. And to already have eight long-balls in 2013 is certainly eye-opening.

Another factor that works in Fowler’s favor is his relatively low BABIP of .338. His career BABIP is .352 and last year it was a very high .390, contributing to his .300 batting average in 2012. It should ultimately settle somewhere in between where it is now and last year’s number, and if his power numbers remain somewhat steady, Fowler will assuredly receive some of the attention that he deserves on a national level.

Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates – The Pirates’ youngster has improved on his impressive late-season debut in 2012, putting up a .325/.390/.528 line, including five home runs and ten steals in twelve attempts so far in 2013. Before last season, Baseball America had Marte ranked as the #73 prospect in all of baseball, and had him in the #40 slot.

With Marte’s speed and limited pop, he would profile as a very good top-of-the-order batter if he managed to draw a few more walks. Alas, his minor league numbers make it look like he might be stuck in no-man’s land, with not enough power to bat in the middle of the order and not enough on-base ability to stick at the top of the lineup.

Sustainable? Too little data to know for sure, but the for the most part, Marte’s start is probably unsustainable. His career minor league of .303/.361/.462 over six seasons is good, but he’s always struck out a lot and walked at a low-rate for a lead-off man. Marte’s speed will always help him accumulate infield hits, and if he grows into his power as many scouts think he will, he could become a star.

As for 2013, I would not be surprised to see Marte put up a solid line, maybe somewhere along the lines of .300/.360/.475. That would be fantastic for the Pirates, and a great sign in Marte’s development. I simply don’t expect him to keep his current power-hitting pace, and his overall offensive numbers will slide just a bit. If Marte continues to play above average defense in left field, he will be a valuable player for years to come.

Tags: Carlos Gomez Colorado Rockies Dexter Fowler Milwaukee Brewers Pittsburgh Pirates Starling Marte

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