A Dose of Relaxation: Justin Upton and J.J. Putz

D-backs fans have been seeing far too little of this to start the 2012 season, but can we expect this to change? History weighs in on the matter...

We're over a month into the season, which is just about the time that people begin to take this year's sample of performance and apply meaning to it, for better or for worse. With the sense of panic and general moodiness (Exhibit A; Exhibit B) surrounding the GDTs and recaps these days, I thought I'd try to quell the fears with a little perspective by providing players around MLB from 2011 who got off to comparably-slow starts to a pair of players on the 2012 D-backs who have really scuffled thus far - Justin Upton and J.J. Putz - before subsequently performing up to more acceptable standards after that 30-game sample in 2011.

However, as the saying goes, "Keep(ing) Calm is Really Boring," or something like that. Thus, as a way to make this is as analytically ambiguous as possible - and essentially a tribute to the truth of You Can't Predict Baseball - I've also decided to play a little devil's advocate and look for comps to 2012 D-backs from 2011 that started bad and ended bad. Or, at the very least, I've sought out negative examples as a way of determining whether or not we really have something to be concerned about for the rest of the year. Is making a judgment based on this sample of innings incredibly premature however you slice it, or might we be on to something? To tie things together, I'll offer my two cents on what path I think our player is most likely to head.

Stats up-to-date through games of May 10

First, for Upton, I'll be comparing season numbers thus far from 2012 D-backs to numbers through 30 games played from 2011 players. Since I can't perfectly even up the samples of games played on FanGraphs' sortable stats pages, I'll be looking for players to use as comps based on their through-March/April numbers, then looking for those players' through-30-games numbers, so some good comps might slip through the cracks. Nonetheless, being off by a week and a half won't let any truly obvious choices get left off (or so I hope).

As a further technical note, since I can't sort out through-30-game wRC+ - or even wOBA - figures from 2011's comps through FanGraphs' filters, I'll be using the very rough proxy of OPS for the comps' through-30-game line, as Baseball-Reference allows such aggregation to be done in about 10 seconds. Though it would be better for analytical purposes, it would be very time-consuming to aggregate the data to calculate separate wOBA figures for each comp, and I think that OPS will still get the point across. I'll still be still looking for comps via March/April wRC+ numbers, using wRC+ in comp end-of-year lines, and including wRC+ on the 2012 D-backs players' lines.

RF Justin Upton

2012 Stats: 29 GP, .235/.316/.363, 3 HR, 29:11 K:BB, .679 OPS, 86 wRC+

2011 Stats: 159 GP, .289/.369/.529, 31 HR, 126:59 K:BB, .898 OPS, 140 wRC+

2011 Relaxation Comps: Nick Swisher, Carlos Gonzalez, Nick Markakis

2011 Panic Comps: David DeJesus

Swisher 2011 though 30 GP: .218/.344/.307, 2 HR, 23:20 K:BB, .651 OPS

Swisher 2011 year-end: 150 GP, .260/.374/.449, 23 HR, 125:95 K:BB, 122 wRC+

Swisher 2010 year-end: 150 GP, .288/.359/.511, 29 HR, 139:58 K:BB, 132 wRC+

Swisher's end-of-year 2011 line didn't end up matching his 2010 line, but his performance after his rough first 30 games certainly did. In games played 31-150 in 2011, Swisher hit .271/.381/.482, for an OPS of .863 that nearly mirrored his .870 OPS from the 2010 season. Further, with the under-valuing of OBP in the OPS formula, I imagine it's safe to say that Swisher out-performed his 2010 line in the sample following his 30-game rough patch.

Gonzalez 2011 through 30 GP: .239/.299/.336, 2 HR, 25:11 K:BB, .635 OPS

Gonzalez 2011 year-end: 127 GP, .295/.363/.526, 26 HR, 105:48 K:BB, 134 wRC+

Gonzalez 2010 year-end: 145 GP, .336/.376/.598, 34 HR, 135:40 K:BB, 150 wRC+

How's this for encouraging? After his 30-game catastrophe to begin the season, Cargo hit an absolutely blistering .313/.383/.584 for the next 97 games, his .967 OPS in that span falling just short of his .974 mark from the 2010 campaign. On one hand, part of this could be explained by early-season cold-weather games in Colorado, but on the other hand, the numbers match up so well that there's an obvious element of regression here that we could hope to see with Upton, as well. In other words, Upton's struggles aren't unprecedented or due to some bubblegum jinx (sorry, I had to make this joke), but simply a good player having a rough stretch of hitting.

Markakis 2011 through 30 GP: .225/.288/.325, 3 HR, 15:9 K:BB, .613 OPS

Markakis 2011 year-end: 160 GP, .284/.351/.406, 15 HR, 75:62 K:BB, 107 wRC+

Markakis 2010 year-end: 160 GP, .294/.370/.436, 12 HR, 93:73 K:BB, 117 wRC+

After starting off 2011 on a sour note, Markakis produced to the tune of a .298/.365/.424 line after the 30th game of the season, just barely under-performing his end-of-year 2010 line. While Markakis has been a disappointment since his 2008 career peak, he remains a quality player and is yet another example of 30-game samples at the start of the year being relatively poor indicators of rest-of-season performance.

DeJesus 2011 through 30 GP: .232/.310/.330, 2 HR, 14:11 K:BB, .640 OPS

DeJesus 2011 year-end: 131 GP, .240/.323/.376, 10 HR, 86:45 K:BB, 95 wRC+

DeJesus 2010 year-end: 91 GP, .318/.384/.43, 5 HR, 47:34 K:BB, 125 wRC+

After a stellar 2010 campaign with Kansas City that was cut short by injury, DeJesus thoroughly underwhelmed in his year with Oakland. Part of this may have been due to the lingering effects of the torn thumb ligament DeJesus had suffered, but we can't know for sure. What we do know is that even after his slow start for the A's, things didn't get much better, with DeJesus hitting just .242/.327/.391 in games 31-131, consistent with the struggles of the first 30 games rather than the successes of the previous year.

Upton - Personal Outlook:

With all due respect to DeJesus, Justin Upton is simply more physically talented than the panic comp used here. The best comp in raw talent listed here is probably Gonzalez, and while Upton has never matched the 150 wRC+ that Cargo had in 2010, I would expect the respective ebbs and flows of regression to go similarly for those two, given their respective raw physical skills and youth. While he hasn't looked very good thus far in 2012, history tells us that D-backs fans should basically expect to see 2011 Justin Upton from this point in the season on. This is especially good news for D-backs fans, as Upton is the driving force of this offense, and the team desperately needs him to produce.

***

For the pitchers, it'll be a bit different. If innings-pitched samples match up for our guys and 2011 pitchers simply through the March/April sample, I'll try to use those comps, because this gives us the opportunity to use FanGraphs' FIP and xFIP tools to our advantage. Even if the samples are a start or a couple of relief appearances off, the value provided by the availability of FIP and xFIP out-weighs trying to work from the inputs of K:BB and HR-Rates.

RHP J.J. Putz

2012 Stats: 11 G, 10 IP, 9.00 ERA, 12 K, 0 BB, 4 HR, 6.05 FIP, 2.74 xFIP

2011 Stats: 60 G, 58 IP, 2.17 ERA, 61 K, 12 BB, 4 HR, 2.54 FIP, 3.10 xFIP

2011 Relaxation Comps: Kenley Jansen, Brian Wilson

2011 Panic Comps: Bobby Jenks, Tony Pena

Before I get to the comps, I'd like to begin by expressing how difficult it was to find proper comps here in the first place. Sure, there are plenty of relievers who stink through the first month of the season in terms of ERA, but how many of them also have a 2.74 xFIP? The balance of poor ERA and amazing peripherals was what I was looking for, which really limited the pool I had to work with.

Jansen 2011 through April: 11 G, 13.1 IP, 7.43 ERA, 22 K, 8 BB, 3 HR, 4.45 FIP, 2.84 xFIP

Jansen 2011 year-end: 51 G, 53.2 IP, 2.85 ERA, 96 K, 26 BB, 3 HR, 1.74 FIP, 2.09 xFIP

Jansen 2010 year-end: 25 G, 27 IP, 0.67 ERA, 41 K, 15 BB, 0 HR, 1.82 FIP, 2.95 xFIP

There's a reason that the Dodgers have come full-circle on Jansen as their closer. Jansen had one of the worst stretches of his career at one of the worst times to have it: the start of the season, when it is most magnified. However, this spike in home runs and hits on balls in play belied the fact that his underlying rates of strikeouts, walks, and home runs were awfully close to his 2010 end-of-year numbers. Jansen was just fine, and he went on to utterly dominate for the rest of the year, bringing his ERA below 3 and actually ending with a staggeringly-low 2.09 xFIP on the year. After the end of April, Jansen threw 40.1 innings with a 1.34 ERA and 74:18 K:BB for Los Angeles, allowing no home runs.

Wilson 2011 through April: 11 G, 10.1 IP, 6.97 ERA, 12 K, 9 BB, 0 HR, 3.90 FIP, 5.36 xFIP

Wilson 2011 year-end: 57 G, 55 IP, 3.11 ERA, 54 K, 31 BB, 2 HR, 3.33 FIP, 3.91 xFIP

Wilson 2010 year-end: 70 G, 74.2 IP, 1.81 ERA, 93 K, 26 BB, 3 HR, 2.19 FIP, 2.85 xFIP

After his rough start to the 2011 campaign through 11 appearances, the following 46 outings went much more smoothly for Wilson: 44.2 innings, 2.22 ERA, 42 K, and 22 BB. To be sure, Wilson has had some happy fortunes in pitching below is FIP, with his FIP already well below his xFIP due to the home park's ability to suppress home run totals. However, the bottom line is that Wilson produced after his rocky start, turning things around and continuing to effectively work around his lofty walk totals. Wilson has always been a pitcher for whom FIP is a better indicator than xFIP, so his 3.90 mark in that category through April a year ago was much more indicative of how he had pitched than his 6.97 ERA was.

Jenks 2011 through April: 10 G, 8.1 IP, 8.64 ERA, 10 K, 6 BB, 0 HR, 2.79 FIP, 4.14 xFIP

Jenks 2011 year-end: 19 G, 15.2 IP, 6.32 ERA, 17 K, 13 BB, 1 HR, 4.17 FIP, 4.79 xFIP

Jenks 2010 year-end: 55 G, 52.2 IP, 4.44 ERA, 61 K, 18 BB, 3 HR, 2.59 FIP, 2.54 xFIP

Jenks' 2011 season was absolutely tanked by injuries, with a right bicep strain first landing him on the 15-day DL, then back stiffness landing him on the 60-day DL and ending his season after just 19 games. Jenks underwent back surgery in the off-season before being charged with a DUI after reportedly running his car into a building while on muscle relaxers. I can't make that train wreck, up, folks. All in all, Jenks' 7.1 innings after his miserable start went decently - though not from a peripherals perspective - but Jenks simply got hurt and didn't have the time for his peripherals to regress. As for his 2010 numbers, well, we'll never really know if it was poor luck or a flaw of Jenks'.

Pena 2011 through April: 9 G, 9.1 IP, 9.64 ERA, 7 K, 4 BB, 1 HR, 4.20 FIP, 4.29 xFIP

Pena 2011 year-end: 17 G, 20.1 IP, 6.20 ERA, 17 K, 10 BB, 2 HR, 4.11 FIP, 4.50 xFIP

Pena 2010 year-end: 52 G (3 GS), 100.2 IP, 5.10 ERA, 56 K, 45 BB, 10 HR, 4.63 FIP, 4.68 xFIP

As D-backs fans are well-aware, Pena was never really elite in the first place. His BABIP was .232 in his solid 2007 campaign, and once that regressed to the expected mean, Pena was more okay than excellent. In Chicago, Pena worked as a swingman, a role that I wouldn't have imagined for Pena back in his D-backs days. Pena got off to a rough start for Chicago in 2011 before his elbow popped, and not wanting to pay for his Tommy John rehab, the White Sox released Pena before he had the procedure (granted, he was released over a month after he was initially recommended to have the surgery, but simply hadn't had it yet). Further, to be fair to Pena, he did post a 3.27 ERA in 11 innings after his poor April.

Putz - Personal Outlook:

Seems to me like unless Arizona decides to haphazardly DFA Putz (won't happen) or there's an injury lurking here (possible), I think Putz is going to be just fine. His numbers certainly won't be as shiny as they were a year ago, but he's throwing strikes, showing more velocity in recent outings, and still getting movement on his splitter. There's a lot of sentiment that Arizona should start looking to replace their struggling closer, but I think it's too soon to pull the plug on J.J. right now. If he has another month of this level of performance, I'd say maybe then the idea should be revisited.

***

With Arizona off to a bumpy 14-18 start to the season, I can certainly understand the mounting frustrations - I'm right there with you, and I imagine that Upton and Putz are as well. The bullpen is already approaching 2011's season-long totals of late-game collapses, while the lineup has been stagnant in recent weeks with its key contributor floundering. However, there is plenty of good news, as I hope this post has laid out. In spite of an honest attempt (I swear) to bring negative comps in for a 30-game sample of struggles, all signs around the league from 2011 (granted, not the largest sample of possibilities) point to us seeing performance more in line with what we've come to expect from these two players, barring any sort of major injury that we don't know of at this time. For a D-backs team that clearly needs something to change, this is great news.

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