What follows is an analysis of Jason Bartlett’s first 56 plate appearances of 2007 divided into “bad” and “good” periods. I recognize that the season is young and it’s a small sample size, but the idea is to catalyze some thought and possibly some debate. Enjoy! and thanks for reading.
Jason Bartlett’s first real playing time in the Majors began in 2005 when he came out of spring training as the starting shortstop. He started 23 of the Twins first 34 games, and posted a .242/.310/.374 line in 100 plate appearances with a 16:8 SO:BB ratio. He was sent down for the majority of the summer and recalled on August 1 and finished out the year starting 32 of the final 52 games. Again he posted a similar line of .241/.320/.308 in 152 plate appearances while improving his SO:BB to 21:13.
2006 began with Juan Castro as the Twins starting shortstop and Bartlett in AAA. Finally, on June 14, Castro was traded and the Jason Bartlett era began in earnest. He responded by posting an impressive .309/.367/.393 line while playing every inning save 3 of the final 98 games of the 2006 season. His SO:BB ratio stayed fairly constant at 46:22.
Given Bartlett’s success in ’06, fans looked toward ’07 as the year Jason would not have to worry about any challengers to his everyday shortstop job, and, barring injury would have the whole season to contribute. Unfortunately, Bartlett got off to an extremely slow start, going 1-20 with 5 SO in the first 7 games of the season, before a groin injury caused him to sit out two games. Upon his return, he has reminded fans of the Bartlett of ’06, going 11-31, with hits in 7 of 9 games. If JB doesn’t put up numbers of the same caliber as last year, some may point to his .354 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) last year which placed him in the top 10 in the majors in that category. As most statisticians consider BABIP to be mostly random, it wouldn’t be surprising to see that number come down and his offensive production with it. So far this season his BABIP sits at .267 (.067 for the first 7 gms., .367 for the last 9).
Despite his lackluster start, Bartlett has been very effective in the clutch. He is 4 of 11 with runners in scoring position (3 of 6 since his return) and 3 of his 4 RBI were either go-ahead or game-tying runs. So, when he’s been given a chance, he has come through at an encouraging rate.
One of the biggest differences betwixt the first 21 plate appearances and the 34 since then is the percentage of ground balls. During the first few games, 27% (4 of 15) of the balls Bartlett put in play were ground balls with only one instance that was described as a line drive by MLB GameCast. Since then, 43% (13 of 30) of balls in play were ground balls and 8 of the 17 non-ground balls were described as line drives. Bartlett has always been a good contact hitter, he has never finished a season with a strikeout percentage higher than the MLB average (~19%). In the early part of the season, Bartlett was striking out 25% of the time, since then he has returned to his contact-hitting self only striking out only once in 31 at bats (3%). All this is just statistics showing that JB is indeed hitting better recently than in the beginning of the season. Not surprisingly, more line drives and less strikeouts correspond to more hits, but the question remains, what has he done differently now as opposed to then?
Swing the Bat!
The thing that jumped out at me, looking at each of Bartlett’s at bats is the difference in his aggressiveness early in the count. In the first seven games Bartlett saw 3.7 pitches per plate appearance, 32% of the strikes he saw were called strikes. In the last 9 games, he has averaged 3.1 pitches per plate appearance and 27% of strikes were called. (That percentage has come up a bit in the KC and Cleveland series, previously it was around 20%). Most telling is the difference when a first pitch strike is delivered. In those cases Bartlett has hit a robust .368 (7-19) in the last 10 games, compared to .333 (4 of 12) when the first pitch is a ball. Looking further into these numbers, Bartlett is hitting .500 (6 for 12) when he swings at the first pitch! When he has a called strike 1 on the first pitch he is only 1 for 7. Notice that nearly two-thirds of the time, he is swinging at the pitch if it’s strike one. In the first few games of the season, he encountered a first pitch strike 12 times. This time the trend was reversed; 8 of 12 times, it was a called first strike (needless to say his average in all cases was miniscule). It seems that when Bartlett is approaching his plate appearances with an aggressive mentality, he has had more success putting the ball in play and reaching base.
On a related note, his walk rate last year (.309 BA) was a much lower 5.9% (as compared to 8.3% previously in his career [.233 BA]), which could lend some more weight (as a larger sample) to the argument for aggressiveness. When Bartlett is aggressive at the plate early in the count, it’s an indication that he’s seeing the ball better, and he’s more likely to put it in play (hopefully for a hit). Since his turnaround his BABIP and GB% have been at about 2006 levels. If he continues to hit more ground balls, with his speed, I think he can keep his BABIP well above the league average for the remainder of the season. Bartlett only has 2 extra base hits so far this season (both doubles). Last year about 1 in 5 of his hits went for extra bases, so far this year, 1 in 6. Power isn’t a large part of Bartlett’s game, but if he can pick up those numbers slightly, it looks like a repeat of last year’s breakout performance is not out of the realm of possibility.