After struggling in stints in three seasons with Milwaukee, hitting .248/.300/.298, Tony Gwynn Jr. is dealt to the Padres where he hits .348 in his first 27 games. What are the chances that the son of the best player in Padres’ history manages to not only have enough talent to make the big leagues, but also somehow finds his way onto his father’s old team? And not only that, but he hits like his dad, at least results-wise, in his Padres debut.
You can’t make this stuff up. It’s the kind of story that any sportswriter loves, and let’s face it, as sports fans, it’s the stuff we love too. The story line is set up, but in the Padres front office, there are more important issues regarding Gwynn (though I’m sure they are too enjoying his early success). Namely, how will he perform in the future and what is his future role on this team?
For this season, it appears as if Gwynn has earned himself a starting spot in centerfield. He truly has played excellent baseball, outside of the base running issues (which aren’t a huge deal in the end, anyway). His .348 average hasn’t been empty, as he’s walked in 14% of his plate appearances. The power really isn’t there, but he’s already almost matched his extra base total with the Brewers (he’s one shy in 157 less PAs). His fielding in center has been average, according to UZR. He’s already racked up 1.1 Wins Above Replacement, whereas in his three years with the Brew Crew his performance was right at replacement level.
We have a couple of reasons to doubt that this performance will persist, however; that this, or something close to it, is what we can expect from Gwynn in the future.
It just isn’t many games. Observed performance can really fluctuate over such a small amount of games. Gwynn has only played like 1/5 of an entire season (this year). Even if he played a full season at this level, we’d expect quite a bit less going forward – and he’s not even close to that point yet.
Again from saber-school 101 — If we didn’t know anything about this guy as a player, we’d expect him to come back down to earth as he accumulates playing time. This is basically the idea that all extreme performance, good or bad, will tend to converge back toward average in time. These first two are clearly related. The smaller the sample, the more we “regress” toward the mean.
There are some numbers we can glance at that may explain some of Gwynn’s hot start. For instance, Tony’s Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABiP) sits at .438. Hitters do indeed have some control over their BABiP’s (much more so than pitchers), but not to this degree — no qualifier was above .400 last year, for instance. Gwynn’s line drive percentage has been a remarkably high 31% this year. That combined with solid speed will likely make for a nice BABiP. The issue, however, is the sustainability of that line drive rate ….
Unlike the ‘dummy player’ suggested above, we do know something about Gwynn, as he’s racked up 371 major league PAs and 2686 in the minors. So far, he’s hit .271/.341/.344 in the majors and .275/.348/.345 in the minors. Let’s take a look at how some familiar projection systems viewed Jr. before this season:
Yeah, not great, and they are of course based on his relatively pedestrian track record, both in in the minors and majors (well, except Marcel, who doesn’t consider the minors). An updated ZiPS version, that incorporates this year’s stats, projects Gwynn at .265/.324/.330 the rest of the way. The effect of this season is there, but again, because it’s in such a small amount of games, it does not dramatically change Gwynn’s projected ‘true talent.’
*If* this is the real Gwynn, well, he’s still a decent player. He isn’t a guy you really want to build around, however, or even a guy you want to entrench into a position for a few years. He’s somebody that can start some games, platoon a little, and have some value. But you better look for an improvement if you really want to contend, because a .330/.330 guy really isn’t going to cut it, unless his fielding and base running is spectacular.
The “if” is an issue, though, as these projections aren’t set in stone. Perhaps Gwynn has been rejuvenated by the move to San Diego. Maybe, just maybe, he’s elevated his play due to the high expectations. It’s always tough to detect if there’s truly been a change in talent level, or if unexpected performance is just random fluctuation in the numbers (a hot performance over a few weeks). As numbers geeks, it is easy for us to take the safe route, the often time correct route, and say that Gwynn is who we thought he was – a .600/.700 OPS guy. But if he gets sent somewhere else, and turns into a perennial all-star, that wouldn’t sit well with the San Diego faithful.
It’s up to the Padres, with their scouting, their stats, their video, to determine who Tony Gwynn Jr. is going forward. For now, we can just sit back and watch, and hope that this Hollywood story continues to write itself.