Just-acquired first baseman Russ Canzler is coming off a fantastic season in Triple-A. The 25-year-old right-hander raked to the tune of a .314/.401/.530 triple-slash (157 wRC+) with 18 homers and 83 RBI in 131 games for the Triple-A Durham Bulls and was named the International League MVP for his trouble.
Canzler isn’t exactly a shoo-in for a starting job with the Indians in 2012. Casey Kotchman is pencilled in as the likely Opening Day first baseman, so Canzler’s best shot at making the roster would probably be as a bench guy. But given the offensive prowess he showed last year, he looks like at least a serviceable option at a corner infield spot.
But, as our friends at Seedlings to Stars noted last week, Canzler’s 2012 season might not go as well for him as his 2011 campaign did—and not just because he’s somehow been labeled a Quad-A player despite having played (well) in only three MLB games.
As S2S’s Joseph Werner pointed out, Canzler had an absurd .396 batting average on balls in play at Durham last year. For some perspective, no qualified MLB player posted a hit rate over .380 in 2011. In other words, the biggest reason for Canzler’s success was that an unusually high proportion of balls he hit within the confines of the park fell for hits, suggesting that his monster numbers were largely luck-driven.
"While it’s true the numbers in the minor leagues tend to be inflated by better hitters, it’s still very telling when a player’s BABIP suddenly spikes more than 60 points above his previous career best. Just like Russ Canzler."
It isn’t quite that simple. BABIPs tend to be higher in the minor leagues, where the opposing pitchers and fielders are worse than they are in the majors—some regression on that front is expected for any prospect who gets called up to The Show. Moreover, a batter who tears the cover off the ball is likely to deserve a higher hit rate by virtue of making solid contact. And with a .339 career BABIP in his professional career, Canzler has a track record to suggest that his high hit rate wasn’t all luck.
That being said, there’s a huge difference between a .339 BABIP and a .396 BABIP. Replacing his 2012 BABIP with his career mark and making the generous assumption all the hits he would have lost were singles, his triple-slash would fall to .269/.362/.485, which for a 25-year-old first baseman isn’t that impressive. Even if we meet halfway and say Canzler was a true-talent .368 BABIP guy last year (which would have been good for fifth in the majors), his slashline would then drop to .292/.382/.508—not exactly MVP worthy.
Canzler’s inflated BABIP probably suggests some amount of legitimate growth, and hitters entering their age-26 seasons are wont to get better. But expecting him to match his 2012 performance—whether in the minors again or battling for playing time in the majors—is probably unrealistic.