There’s nothing like a trip to Denver to get a batter out of a slump. Ruben Tejada headed into a three-game set against the Rockies in the midst of a 6-37 slump with 11 strikeouts. But the thin air and the Rockies’ pitching staff helped him to a 10-16 series and now after 21 games, Tejada has a .770 OPS, the 10th-best mark among MLB shortstops.
Many people figured the Mets were doomed when they lost Jose Reyes to free agency. Clearly that’s not been true, as the team is 13-9 and would claim the second Wild Card if the season ended Sunday. Additionally, Tejada has been better than Reyes so far here in the early going. Reyes has a .596 OPS and a -0.4 fWAR while Tejada has a 0.6 fWAR.
A few people even suggested that the Mets should chase Jimmy Rollins if they lost Reyes to free agency. The Phillies shortstop, who signed a 3-year, $33 million contract with a vesting option for a fourth season, has been even worse than Reyes so far in 2012. He has a .524 OPS.
So, Mets fans didn’t get the shortstop they wanted but they have to be thrilled with the production they are getting from their 22 year old, homegrown player. Now the question is if he can keep it up, especially now that there are no more trips to Colorado on the schedule.
Tejada played very well once he assumed a full-time position last year, especially given his age. However, the projection systems coming into the season were not overly impressed. The Bill James forecast, usually the most optimistic one, called for Tejada to have a .665 OPS in 2012. For whatever reason, that was the least optimistic forecast among the five systems on FanGraphs, but even the most bullish projection had Tejada at a .710 OPS.
Why were the forecasters not bigger Tejada backers? While the youngster finished with a .696 OPS last year for the Mets, he was not particularly impressive in his two stints at Triple-A, where he posted just a .670 OPS, including a .667 mark last year in 231 PA. As much as we as fans might not want to take that into consideration, it has to be factored in for the systematic projection models.
So, how has Tejada exceeded the forecaster expectations? We need to look no further than his .382 BABIP. One of the warning signs around Tejada last year was his .331 BABIP, an elevated mark compared to the .296 NL average. Three of the five forecasts for this year had him within a few points of .300 in BABIP, while the other two checked in at .315 and .333 in the category.
If you were going to create a ballplayer to exceed his BABIP, you would create a high-contact hitter with good speed and a high percentage of line drives. Tejada is not a speedster, but he does not strike out often and he is an excellent line drive hitter. Tejada’s 28.8 LD% is tied for the 14th-highest mark in MLB this season.
Still, while we might expect Tejada to exceed a “normal” .300 BABIP, .382 is likely an unsustainable mark. FanGraphs’ xBABIP calculator spits out a .320 mark based on his batted ball profile so far in 2012, an indication of what his numbers support.
It is easy to get carried away looking at splits based on a month’s worth of data, but recognizing that, it should be pointed out that Tejada has some extreme L/R splits here in the early going.
vs RHP – .686 OPS, .300 BABIP in 52 PA
vs LHP – 1.053 OPS, .591 BABIP in 30 PA
Tejada showed no special skills hitting southpaws last year, as he had a .704 OPS and a .309 BABIP versus lefties in 2011.
So, we shouldn’t expect a .770 OPS going forward from Tejada. However ZiPS, which forecasted a .668 OPS from Tejada before the year started, has already updated its projection to a .693 mark based on what he has done so far this year. While that still represents a decline from last year’s .696 mark, we should not dismiss a projected 25-point improvement based on one-month’s worth of data.
Many worried how Tejada would handle taking over for Reyes as the club’s everyday shortstop. Here in April the early conclusion is that he passed with flying colors. While Tejada is unlikely to keep up his current pace, ZiPS projects him to match his rate stats from a year ago over the entire season.
Last September, I wrote about Tejada’s quietly outstanding season. In that piece I compared him to other middle infielders in MLB history to produce strong numbers at such a young age. The list was made up mostly of very good players, with the occasional Mike Caruso and Alfredo Griffin thrown in for good measure.
If Tejada can duplicate his 2011 performance over an entire season in 2012, he will separate himself from the Caruso and Griffin types and position himself to move closer to the Joe Tinker and Alan Trammell portion of the list.