Baseball is neat. I know this kinda thing might be too hot for TV, but I feel safe here in this little bloghole saying things that might upset some of the squares. I dunno I guess I’m just edgy like that but I won’t apologize for it.
One thing that I find neat is that the major currents in baseball are largely predictable. At the beginning of the season, the broad consensus was that the Dodgers are great and the Orioles would have been better off signing a celebrity Rock n’ Jock softball team in their stead. But even so, baseball still has the capacity to surprise. For every predicted Yankee pennant there’s a Brady Anderson bonking 50 home runs (from the lead-off spot, even!).
Though this season has proceeded in a more-or-less predictable fashion for the Reds, they’ve certainly offered us a few fun surprises along the way. Derek Dietrich doinked dwelve dongers in May. Aristides Aquino hit just as many in his first few weeks in the big leagues. Yasiel Puig hammered 12 Pirates with one big collective German suplex. And Josh VanMeter showed up this spring and transformed himself from a scrub in the back of the minor-league bus to perhaps a future cornerstone of the organization. But is this fer real?
The thing about breakouts like this is you gotta figure whether or not it is sustainable. Like, is this a dude just having a great month or so? Is he a life-long also-ran who finds himself on the Yankees when the team suffers an injury at a key position (seriously, who the fuck is Mike Tauchman? Gio Urshela?)? Or did this guy take actual steps forward and make himself a much better player than he was before?
Josh VanMeter has accrued 172 PAs in young MLB career thus far and may God bless us with many, many more. That’s really not a lot, in the scheme of things. It’s not quite a third of a season’s worth. The college sophomores among us will dismissively turn the page and condescendingly mutter “small sample size.” Which, I mean, just like college sophomores, it’s only a little bit right because it misses quite a lot of nuance and context and so on.
It is true that 172 big-league PAs is a relatively small sample size. It’s not quite enough to make projections about his line drive rate, his on-base percentage, or his batting average. But rate stats stabilize at different rates! (here’s a cool resource from FanGraphs on this). For example, you can get a more confident read on a player’s strikeout rate after just 60 plate appearances. You can get walk rate in twice that. Home run rate after 170. And ISO at 160. Now, this is not to say that whatever a player’s walk rate is after 120 PAs is what it will be for the rest of his career. What it means is that if you are trying to tune in on a player’s walk rate, 120 PAs is when you start to get more clarity and less static. More information is always better, but the song starts to come in more clearly at different spots for different stats. (How many readers are going to be too young to get this analogy?)
And it turns out that JVM looks pretty promising in these earliest indicators. His strikeout rate is 21.6% while his walk rate is a robust 11%. Both of those numbers are better than the league average, if only a tick or two. His .179 ISO is right around league average. The traditional slash stats (AVG/OBP/SLG) don’t reach this point until (910 ABs / 460 PAs / 320 ABs), so I’m not comfortable saying a whole lot about his .285/.372/.464 so far. But given the early-stabilizing peripheral stats above, I do feel pretty confident in saying that he has the kind of bat that could stick in the majors.
When you add that to the impressive defensive versatility he has displayed so far (he has played at least 50 innings at 1B, 2B, and LF) I feel even better about it. His natural position is at 2B, and if he is to find a permanent home, it’ll most likely be there. And it turns out that a major-league second baseman doesn’t have to OPS .836 to qualify as a ‘good’ major-league second baseman. A league-average hitter who can play league-average defense at second base is actually a solidly above-average player!
Again, I want to be careful not to get out over my skis here. JVM has been fantastic so far and we don’t have enough information yet to say whether or not he’ll continue to be this fantastic. But the error bars are shrinking every day and his projected floor is rising. He has a surprisingly strong chance to turn himself into a quality everyday second baseman, and that’s something I don’t think any one of us saw coming.